Saturday, September 22, 2007

Over the Hedge (Fund)!

In my last post, Kat Evans commented

My goodness Keith, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you’re becoming an economist on the side.

You don’t know the half of it, sister! Heheh. Here’s even more “economist-speak” from me.

Hollywood relies on an ever revolving door of suckers to finance a lot of their films. Hollywood studios are no dummies. They only put their own money into films they have reasonable confidence will return that money. But they also have a slate of films that they’re not so sure about but still think might turn out OK. Films like The Ant Bully (seemed like a good idea at the time). So a studio like WB looks for somebody to to help pay for it. When we were working on The Ant Bully at DNA we all noticed a tag at the front of the trailers for “Legendary Pictures”. A lot of folks in the studio were like “Who are they? We’ve never heard of them before. Why do they get their name and logo on the front of the film and DNA doesn’t?”. Well, “they” are a large source of financing to a portion of WB’s film slate. (here’s a slew of links for your own investigation). Investment wise for the financiers sometimes the gamble works (Batman Begins, 300), sometimes not so much (Superman Returns, Ant Bully, Lady in the Water). Legendary Pictures is the invention of a Wall Street hedge fund (MC Venture Partners). Hedge funds are the investment playground of the rich and anonymous. Hedges are always seeking out higher returns than you can get by just sticking to the S&P Index.

Hedge funds are an intriguing beast. They’re exclusive, usually only allow in high dollar investors and promise amazing returns. They’re like uber-investments. Most of them use a bunch of super sophisticated MIT built math models to play market volatility and risk to their advantage, so as a result they seek out risk rather than avoiding it (no wonder why they’re involved in making films!). They place offsetting bets on things doing well and things not doing well according to the statistical “norm”. So far sounds good, but they do even more. They amplify this earning power by using investor’s deposits as collateral to borrow money from other places (banks, securities firms, pension funds, foreign governments, etc.) and invest that loaned money as well. Then they use the investments from that borrowed money as further collateral to borrow ever more money and invest that as well. It’s like a rising spiral of loans- all using the previous investments (bought on credit) as collateral for getting a new loan. For every $1 that an investor has deposited into a hedge fund a typical hedge will borrow another $10 and invest that as well.
Anyhow, because they have all this borrowed money to invest these hedges have been looking for places - anyplace!- to put it to use. One place they have rolled their dice is with Hollywood (where the math models seem to have figured out how to parlay the winners and losers). Legendary is just one example of many of these kinds of investment vehicles financing films. Hedge fund money is helping to get a lot of films made. (Google “hedge fund investment in Hollywood” for interesting reading)

Sounds like a wonderful game! Indeed it all works like Christmas when the world plays along with your ‘normative’ math models. When things don’t ‘follow the norm’…. well, let’s just say it can get messy.

And right now things are getting a little messy. Hedge funds are taking a beating these days. Seems there was a problem in their math models. This little problem called “sub prime mortgages” aren’t playing by the “norm”- they’re defaulting at much higher rates than the math genius experts thought they would. And if that weren’t enough, now alt-A and ARM mortgage defaults are going off the norm, too. Hedges have a boatload of borrowed money tied up in these mortgage backed securities (to be honest everybody in global finance does. I could fill three full posts on this mess). Several hedges (and a UK bank) have gone belly up already and economists expect more to do the same as the housing bust in the US goes deeper and these exotic interest only, teaser rate, adjustable rate, reverse amortization, ninja (no income, no job) loans go flop.

End result? Lotso’ these hedges gots’ no money to repay the loans, repay their depositors or to do anything else (like invest in films). This is amusingly referred to as ‘bankruptcy’. And there are a bunch of these hedge funds that could unwind in a very messy manner in the next 12-18 months.

What does this mean for Hollywood? Well, the money might dry up a little bit. Not totally of course- there will always be another sucker. But when you add in the looming WGA and SAG labor tensions we might find that in 2008 and 2009 things may be a wee bit tight in Hollywood. As for animation, players like Disney/Pixar, DW and SPA are all in with their own cash. But the secondary markets for VFX work and lower budget second tier animated films might get squeezed. Or maybe not. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if things slowed down some beginning next year. It’s not like any of this is especially new. The film biz has always been up and down- animation even moreso. Folks who’ve been around for a while understand this. But there’s a lot of younger folks in the game now who have never seen a down cycle yet. Perhaps they believe such a down cycle will never come. Ah, the innocence of youth. Heh. At any rate, regardless of your age if you’re in the animation biz and you’re not regularly saving a chunk of money each month to get you through the inevitable rough patches then you are playing with fire.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Whither Canadian Outsourcing?

On a completely different track than I normally take here…

As many folks in the business know a lot of production has been outsourced to Canada in the last 20 years or so. This is true not just for animation, but for live action films and TV as well. Vancouver and Toronto have healthy animation industries, much of it built to service outsourced TV and DVD work coming from the US. Andecently we have even seen the production of two feature films being done in Vancouver. The normal attraction for this has been (as always) cost savings. The Canadian dollar has historically been rather heavily discounted against the US Dollar. Additionally the Canadian government isn’t shy about offering tax incentives and subsidies to studios to attract the business from the south. When the US Dollar has been strong this has been a win-win for US and Canadian studios (though not necessarily for US based animation artists. Folks who used to work at Big Idea know what I’m talking about).

But what happens when the US Dollar isn’t strong? This week the Canadian dollar has been living at about 95-97 cents against the US dollar. For most of the time since the mid 90’s the Canadian dollar has averaged between 65 and 75 cents against the US dollar. (now you see why production went north- a 25-30% savings on exchange rates, plus the tax incentives). This year alone the Canadian dollar has gained over 10% against the US Dollar. In other words- the Canadian dollar has almost the same value as the US Dollar. Suddenly that outsourcing isn’t quite as profitable as it used to be. There are still the helpful Canadian tax incentives, but still. That 25% currency savings has pretty much evaporated.
So what will this mean for the outsource dependent animation industry in Canada? Will they lose more and more production to India? Hard to say for sure, but if this weak US dollar position persists (and many economist believe it will for some time) animation folks in Canada might be seeing some work dry up.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Doodles with Bryan Ballinger

Back when we worked together at Big Idea, my good friend and collaborator Bryan Ballinger and I would pass the time by drawing funny characters on post-it notes - usually with a sharpie pen. While we engaged in this activity almost non-stop, the primary place for this activity was staff meetings. For reasons that I don’t recall, we had lots of staff meetings back then. So, naturally, Bryan and I had lots of post-it note doodles. “Lots” as in, oh, say… thousands. A small subset of which made a fine wallpaper for my desk at the studio. Bryan has an enormous gallery of his many drawings - most of these made since he left Big Idea. Me? I still make the drawings- I just don’t keep many of them. I’ve never really valued my doodles much.

Bryan and I are, by admission, “not good” at drawing. Neither of us will have our work mistaken for that of another good friend of mine, Mark Behm. I think he’s just more comfy with that reality than I am.

Well, it’s been nearly 7 years since I sat in a staff meeting with Bryan and doodled. Bryan lives in Huntington, Indiana now, working as a professor. Me, I’m here 8,000 miles way in western Brazil. Doing… other stuff. We were on MSN the other night and for some reason I felt like sending him a doodle or two. Soon he responded and, well… just like old times. Here -in order- are the results…

I fire the first salvo- a rusty impersonation of a Bryan Ballinger styled doodle (I used Photoshop and my Cintiq- my scanner’s busted so I had to forgo the Post-It note sharpie combo)…


I try another imitation, this time trying to work in the infamous Ballinger tongue technique. Not so successful…


Bryan reminds me that his tongues are rarely angled. I take note. I try one that I know I can hit out of the park- a striped shirt quasi animal looking thing— wearing a tie. A true Ballingerism is that in his universe only pigs or total dorks wear ties- and they’re always big fat, thick ties from the 70’s. No slim, stylish numbers.

Now I’m cooking with gas. Bryan fires back….


Nice- a monobrow! Note the tie. Striped, of course. See? I told ya! And another from him…


Aww, she’s cute! We settle on the following equation: No nose = Cute. Flowers help. Encephaly apparently offers no draw backs.
But he says he’s been trying more sketchbook portraitures lately…

What’s this? It’s like… almost real artsy looking. Feeling the need to reign things back in I respond with another goofy one, but one that is a little less of an imitation of the Ballinger look


All agree, the fuzz-stache is the piece de’ resistance.

Another portrait from Bryan and a self portrait as well. I’m not sold on the big upper lip thing in the self portrait. He argues that indeed he has a “delicate underbite”. That’s…. creepy.



OK, time to bust out my own riffs.

Bryan’s turn…


He has a thing for dogs. Next up from me…


Another Bryan salvo..


Sweet! My turn…


To which Bryan replies “Oh… now this is something else completely!” I toss out a few more quickies. First up, a portrait of our pastor here..


Then I something else.

Bryan wraps things up with a classic…


Always end on an up-note.

Looking over the sheer enormity of Bryan’s gallery has inspired me to keep my silly doodles. I do a bajillion of them. I just never scan or keep them. I’ll try and change this.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Tyer Debate

One animator who seems to be gaining favor long after he hung up his pencil is Terrytoons’ Jim Tyer. Some folks absolutely love him. Others think he’s a total hack. Thad K. - a big Jim Tyer fan- put up another Tyer clip on his Animation ID blog yesterday. Here’s the clip (in case you haven’t already seen it)

Cartoon Brew picked up the conversation today. The comments in the Brew post show the gulf between the lovers and haters of Tyer’s approach to animation.

Those who don’t like his work…

I ‘d argue(based on that example) that he’s terribly inept as an animator. The animation is so off model it’s like he did it with his eyes closed. The lip sync is also pretty bad, as well as the comic timing.

I agree with the first half of the article: the animation is wrong, sloppy, and way off model.

And those who do…

Tyer proves there’s much more to animation than being on model and in sync.
That walk near the end of the clip is insanely great.

The vaults are full of neat and on-model cartoons, and they are boring. Literal minds may accuse Tyer of many things but not boredom, that cardinal sin of filmmaking.

My take?

I think Jim Tyer should be celebrated, if for no other reason than he provided an striking, engaging and successful counter-point to the over tight Disney style hegemony. It’s as if he was trained by a witch-doctor on some tropical island and was dropped into the world of animation with a way of animating that was completely foreign to other animators (and against the “rules”)- yet so much fun for audiences. You never get the impression that Tyer wanted to show off his fine art skills. Many detractors say he didn’t have any. Even so his inbetweens show a masterful grasp of the power of shapes changing over time to represent more than just motion, but energy and a thriving sense of life. He could see things working out in motion that apparently nobody else could. Looking at his drawings by themselves you’d never think they’d work- but they not only work, they excel! He was the pure antithesis of the overly polished smoothness seen in much of western commercial animation. He seemed to thrive on the idea of showing something underneath the motion. His motion wasn’t motion- it was an explosion of a whole mix of things. He entertains with no apology for form. A slap-dash factory like Terrytoons was actually the perfect place for a guy like Tyer. He was a huge footage producer, which means he did all this crazy stuff without too much suffering and angst- he pounded it out like pancakes. He’s living proof that one doesn’t need to work at “Insert Big Name Feature Film Studio Here” to be validated as a great animator. Some guys would be utterly wasted in those environments. The Jim Tyer mold of animator works best not as a cog safe in the womb of the larger collective, but out in the wild and woolly world of low budget where one animates on a wire without a net- a place where most celebrated cogs seize up and wither.

Those who don’t like Tyer generally fall into what I call the “serious animation” camp. In this school of animation, animation is a high art calling. It demands great dedication to craft. Suffering, if you will. A kind of omnipresent angst over the acceptability of one’s efforts. Fine tuned technical mastery of motion, drawing, accuracy of form, polish, attention to detail, etc. is the fullest expression of this high artistic calling. Even if pressed into the service of inane, sappy and dimwitted shows, the high art of animation is serious business. Thanks to some popular books and well structured marketing this dogma of animation has been preached as gospel to all the animated world ever since.

In the serious school of animation, entertainment often takes a back seat to gaining respect. I never get the impression that Tyer was gunning for much respect- either from the audience or other animators. It appears that he avoided falling into the trap of animating to other animators (something for us to think about). He was too busy having fun and trying to get the audience to have fun as well. General audiences don’t watch animation to respect the animators. Animators do that. General audiences watch animation to be entertained. In this regard, despite his serious technical ‘oddities’, Tyer delivered in buckets.

Obviously I care about doing animation well. I write about it here often enough. But I see the Tyer debate as a reminder that this goal of excellence in animation needs to be put into proper perspective. Technical excellence is not the bus driver- entertainment and connecting with your audience is. Only in service to these goals is technically excellent animation of any value. Devoid of these defining guides technical excellence in animation is mere ego stroking and hype.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Getting warmer (more cookin’)


Here’s a little something I’ve been messing with. The background painting is a screen grab from the film The Triplettes of Belleville (you can see the biker on the left and the old woman just down the hill). It doesn’t bear any meaning here other than I like the look of it and it has a nice little hill that lets me test integration, etc. This is a simple ‘proof of concept’ test rendered straight out of Maya, no post at all- I wanted to see if I could find a relatively straightforward method to achieving this look. Aside from solving technical issues and cementing a production methodology, one of the things that I am testing is my theory for the necessity of a non-realistic motion style when employing a non-realistic rendering style. Non-photorealistic rendering (NPR) has been an area of exploration and research in CG for the last 8 years or more. A lot of focus has been on what are commonly called “toon shaders”, but natural media representation of all manner has also been explored. While the rendering style has often been fairly convincing the examples of NPR I’ve seen in the past haven’t been entirely successful. This is because the animators have usually used ’standard’ CG motion style of polished smooth motion all animated on 1’s while rendering in NPR. Add to the mix the free camera movement available in CG, combined with the almost too perfect volume and shape accuracy of the models in turning and the result is a kind of visual dissonance where visual artifacts and attributes from seemingly disparate visual techniques don’t mesh well. (you can see what I mean in this video from Siggraph 2007. The technology looks intriguing, but the dissonance is clear in the motion examples) One may say that this impossible combination of disparate visual attributes represents a breakthrough, the ‘collage-like new ground’ that is only possible in CG. By strict interpretation this would be correct, however the question remains- Is it any good to look at? It’s like pouring great beef gravy on delicious strawberry ice cream. Both are great in their proper context. Put them together and you certainly have created a new type of food, but one that is likely nauseating. The result then has been that without proper thought given to the style of motion employed NPR often ends up looking like a gimmick.
So I’m of the mind that if the goal is to use a more visceral style of rendering (presumably because that visual rendering style speaks to us on a different emotional wave length than literalism does) then in order to be consistent a more non-literal style of motion is also necessary. It just helps everything tie together with greater cohesion. To my point of view it’s important that the visual style and the motion style are saying the same thing in the same way. Nobody can listen to two songs at the same time and perfectly follow both. So this is my little test to see if I can get all the visual elements singing the same tune in harmony. It’s not important that the visual rendering result be absolutely 100% convincing in emulating non-digital technique (pastels in this instance). In other words, I don’t care if somebody says “I can tell that’s a CG render”. Communicative cohesion while using a non-literal visual aesthetic is the goal.
Why am I heading down this particular path right now? Let’s just say I have some unfinished business that I’d like to take care of.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Blast from my past… Thoughts about the impact of venues

This note from Scott Kirsner’s CinemaTech blog caught my eye. It links to this NY Times story about the closing of the Buffalo Drive In Theater in Cheektowaga, NY. I remember going to this drive-in as a kid- I grew up not too far from there in Hamburg, NY. I have distinct memories of wearing my pajamas, lying in the family station wagon at dusk watching Bugs Bunny cartoons on the giant outdoor screen before falling to sleep. Meanwhile my parents got to enjoy a movie date with me and the brother konked out in the back seat. It’s almost Rockwellian when I think about it.

Keeping this related to animation, to the best of my recollection that was the only time I’ve ever seen old WB classic cartoon shorts on a big screen before a film, just the way they were designed to be seen when they were made 30 years earlier (at that time. Now 60+ years earlier). I have only one other time where I recall seeing the old WB films up on a big screen, also as a child. The local ABC affiliate TV station occasionally held neighborhood screenings of the “Bugs Bunny & Roadrunner Show”. Tom Jolls, the WKBW weatherman was also the host of the after school and Saturday morning cartoon programs. Capt. Tom was his moniker and he’d wear a red bellboy outfit of some sort as his ‘captain’ costume. Anyhow, Capt. Tom came to the local high school theater when I was probably 8 or 9 and had a mid-summer screening of a bunch of WB shorts on 16mm. So for a glorious 90 minutes about 500 kids sat in the darkness and got to blissfully revel in a wide array of classic WB cartoons up on the big screen- the way they were meant to be enjoyed. To this day that stuff sticks with me.

Later as an adult when we lived in Lockport, NY (about 20 miles north of Buffalo in Niagara County) we used to take our kids to the Transit Drive-In theater. This was the late 90’s. My kids still remember those trips and the films they saw. Something about being a kid and seeing a film outside of the local cineplex- someplace with character and soul- makes an indelible mark on the mind. My two oldest kids still remember watching A Bug’s Life in the Lockport Palace Theater, an old deco era, victorian style local main street cinema with the balconies, the ceiling murals, the stage, the curtains, etc. At the time it wasn’t in the best shape, maybe they’ve spruced up a bit since. Still, even experiencing the film in such a declining, yet character filled venue as an adult I found it profoundly different than seeing it at the mall. There’s something meaningful about where you see a film. The venue of viewership can contribute value to the experience. To this day A Bug’s Life remains probably my favorite Pixar film and I do attribute some of that sentiment to the whole viewing experience. Friend, colleague, animator, director (and frequent commenter here on ye olde’ blogge’) Tim Hodge expressed to me that his experience viewing Cars in a local main street theater in Franklin, TN (combined with the subsequent evening enjoying a small town main street summer evening) impacted his appreciation and fondness for that film. Meanwhile I saw Cars at a mall cineplex and I can’t stand that movie. Yet we both agree on the flaws of the film. Maybe if I saw more movies at drive-ins or in old 1920’s era, main street, one screen theaters I’d like more films. Sadly the only places to see a film here in Cuiaba’ Brazil is in two mall cineplexes. I have no idea where they used to show movies here before they built the malls. Sounds like a homework project for me.

Like the old WB classic cartoons that no longer are shown in front of films (today we get endless trailers and “Hollywood Trivia” Powerpoint slides- sure signs of the “progress” of western civilization) Drive-In’s and main street theaters remind me of a time in my own life where I got great enjoyment from much simpler things. They say you can never go back (and to be sure you can’t), but I’m not so sure going forward means we need to keep moving in the direction we’ve been going as a society. Homogenization, efficiency, franchisement. Sand off all the edges, make it slick, make it clean, smooth, highly processed, refined. Make it the exact same thing in Atlanta, Chicago, Des Moines, Phoenix, Little Rock, Syracuse, Denver, Tampa. Just change the color of the paint and maybe the theme of the knick knack decorations. It’d sure be nice if we would slow down, quiet down and settle down and we’d be comfortable once again with tastes, flavors, sights and sounds that aren’t comfortingly, numbingly polished to look the same except for the ‘themeing’. And yeah, I’m talking on two levels here- a societal one and an animated one, which is merely reflective of the former.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Housekeeping: VTS Price Changes (stupid weak dollar, grumble, rumble, etc.)


Beginning September 15th I will be switching my online store’s currency from U.S. Dollars to Euros. This is an administrative move spurred on by a few factors, not the least of which are…

  • Living in a foreign country where I need to convert my US currency into local Brazilian currency for daily living
  • Seeing my purchasing power eroded at an alarming pace due to the overall weakness of the dollar in the last few years (The dollar has lost of over 20% of value against the Brazilian Real in the last 18 months alone, not a minor rate of value erosion)
  • The likelihood that this weakening trend will continue for a while.
  • Most of my customers are already in non-dollar economies (Europe, Asia, etc.)

So with those factors in mind I’ve decided it’s time for me to make the switch to a broader currency that is not as exposed to such volatile value erosions. After September 15, 2007, the new prices in Euros for these services will be…

  • VTS Subscriptions will cost €13.50 per month (vs. $14.95 currently). This will only apply to new subscribers who sign up after September 15th. Current subscribers (or those who subscribe before Sept. 15th) will still pay only $14.95 per month as long as their subscription is active. Pre-paid subscribers are well, pre-paid. So they will see no change either.
  • VTS back issue videos for subscribers will also be €13.50 (vs. $14.95 currently)
  • VTS back issues for the general public will be €16.25 (vs. $17.95 currently)
  • The new APT price is not yet determined. I will know more as we draw closer to a decision about exactly when the next session will be. (hint: it most likely won’t be until after January 2008).

I realize that these prices in Euros represent a price increase over the dollar amounts. This is really just an adjustment for the inflationary pressures that have weakened the dollar (and thus the value of the training in the VTS) since the start of the VTS program over two and a half years ago. Still, even with these changes the VTS is one of the best animation training values available today.What does this mean for you? If you’re already a subscriber- not much. You’re still going to be paying $14.95 per month like you always have. But if you’re not a subscriber and you’ve been thinking about joining the VTS (or getting back into it after being out a while) then now is the time to lock in the older, lower dollar based prices. After September 15th the currency will switch and the price will go up a bit.

Thanks for your support, patience and understanding. I don’t like to call attention to it (because I don’t think it’s the right way to go about things) but the VTS is the vital resource that allows my wife and I to continue doing the ministry work we’re doing with regard to bringing clean drinking water to the rural poor here in Brazil. Thanks to your support and the good Lord’s blessing hand we have been able to make a real, vital impact in the lives of hundreds of families in the past year - and we are in position to expand this work to help literally thousands of families in the next two years. Suffice to say I am humbled and deeply appreciative of every one of my VTS subscribers. You guys are “paying it forward” by helping us help others.