Wednesday, July 26, 2006

48 hr Beta Testing My Online Store

** Update: We have our 5 guinea pigs! Thanks for playing along. The rest of us will need to wait a couple of days for the official public launch of the online store.

Groovy! I’m 95% finished in implementing my online store/shopping cart system. It’s got a few minor cosmetic things to get wrapped up, but I’m really liking how it works so far. I’ve tested it and it’s processing credit card orders just dandy. However before I go wide with a public release I’d like to have a few folks (like 5 people for now) try it out first. So if you’ve ever wanted to get my VTS videos a la carte or wanted to subscribe but couldn’t do it before because of PayPal problems or whatever, send me an email. The first 5 people who email me will get access to the in-progress store and will get to buy stuff. Plus I’ll give the beta testers a nice discount for helping me out. This way we can run the store through it’s paces before it goes fully public in the next day or so. So email me if you have money burning a hole in your pocket and the only cure is the heretofore ever so elusive VTS. :)

I’ll update this post when the beta testing roster is full. Thanks!

The Slow Road to Success

I have recently had a nice email exhange with a student who’s facing graduation from an animation/art school. Naturally the young fellow is looking out at the world and wondering where he fits in relative to his dreams and his current abilities. So he asked me

How long did it take you to land into the feature film business after schooling and where did you find yourself directly after college?

After I replied to him it struck me that his question is not unique. I’ve answered it many times in different ways. So it must be something on the minds of many students about to embark upon the big wide world of reality. So I figured I’d take my reply and turn it into a post here. Here’s my response…

Well, I never had any schooling in animation. No official schooling anyhow. Just learned it the hard way. I only have 1 semester of college to my name and that was 18 years ago. Heh. It’s not like I was some talented golden child my first day in animating. My early stuff sucked so bad you could actually feel the pull from the monitor like a giant vaccuum. From the time I decided that character animation would be my thing until my first feature film job offer was about 4 or 5 years (I say ‘offer’ because I turned it down for another opportunity that was not in feature film, but just as much fun). And those were 4 or 5 years of hammering hard on getting better- I was very focused. I didn’t do a lot of tinkering around. Any spare moment I had was spent animating something. The standards back then weren’t as high as they are now, either. My reel that got me my first film offer back then most likely wouldn’t get me much of an offer today. At least I don’t think it would. I haven’t seen it in a while. Heh. In the meantime I worked many different jobs in the CG field, mainly as a generalist for many years. It’s not a bad thing. Paid the bills, helped me grow as an animator, gave me motivation to keep pushing through, broadened my understanding of the entire pipeline, etc. There’s no crime in the slower road to success. Not many of us can be Cameron Miyasaki and land the Pixar gig right out of school. (and his road wasn’t as easy as some would think). The rest of us mere mortals need to work out way up through the minor leagues first. And there are far worse ways to make a living. So don’t lose heart. Just keep working, keep learning, keep growing, keep pushing to be better and know more. Natural, latent talent is an overrated myth. The consistent effort of hard work yields results. I’m living proof of that if anybody is.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Bryan Ballinger Rocks My World!

I present to you Breadwig: The Blog!

One of my most favoritest human beings on the planet and one of my best friends to boot, Bryan Ballinger is just awesome! We first met when working together at Big Idea. Bryan is the fella that I teamed up with to write our children’s book, The Great Cheese Squeeze.


Buy it. We won’t get anything from it anymore I’m sure, but you’ll dig it. We’d just be happy to know that you to read it out loud to your kids, dog, cat, goldfish, old neighbor, mechanic, parole officer- Whoever. We’re easy like that. Anyhow, in meetings we’d fill pad after pad of Post-It-Notes with insane drawings of highly questionable quality and repute (the original Pictures for Patrick). And we’d have a blast doing it. Long before the whole Diet Coke/Mentos craze we managed to create a food bomb out of a half consumed bottle of Yoo-hoo chocolate drink, half a cream filled donut, 3 twizzlers and an old piece of candy apple bubblegum. Let it cook for 7 days behind a hot monitor and watch it blow. The sound was so loud that people from all over the studio thought something bad had happened and came for a look. Little did they expect to see fermented brown foam dripping from the ceiling tiles 14 feet overhead. That’s how far up the Yoo-hoo geyser went. It was AWESOME!!!! The smell, ehh… not so much. When we moved our desks some 6 months later we found half a twizzler fragment all dried like jerky behind a bookshelf. How can that NOT be the coolest thing? Heh. Even lo these many years after we were both gone from Big Idea it’s manifestly evident that Bryan’s fascination with odd food, his eclectic taste in music, his ever present fanny pack and his taste for plaid flannel shorts all combine to kick a serious groove in the artistic world. Don’t believe me? Check out his new blog Breadwig. It’s filled with some of his doodles and stuff, as well as some t-shirt designs he’s been doing for Pantelope (groovy t-shirt designs and stuff you can buy. So buy some.)
Breadwig was a name Bryan and I came up with one day while riding the METRA train to work in Chicago. It came from some odd thing we had read (whether true or not was not of major concern) about the way that colonial men had for making those swank powdered wigs they kicked with back then. Seems (allegedly) that you’d take human or horse hair, put it into the shape you wanted with curlers, stick it in a lump of bread dough and bake that sucker to get it all set and shaped. Think of it as an edible curling iron that’s great with jam. Anyhow, funny name, silly logo and groovilicious funny drawings blog. Bryan’s regular portfolio site is Check out his 3d and 2d illos there, all with his torqued twist on life. And for some real insight into the dark mind of a master, check out his love child It is humor so dry that you need a glass of water to survive it. However it’s so on the mark in its commentry about the corporate speak of the 21st century that you just have to admit that it’s pure genious. I bought this shirt and wear it proudly….


Yeah, I’m a fan. Bryan rocks.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Questions & Answers

As noted in my previous post, this week I’m in the hot seat over on the Cg-Char forum’s Ask The Pro. Here are some really good questions asked of me by forum member Virgil Mihailescu- along with my answers. I felt they’d make a really good blog post, so here they are.

What makes a great pose? It’s vibrant, alive, it feels like it’s moving even when it’s by itself, it has great kinetic energy, even if the character isn’t moving much in the scene. It communicates immediately, clearly, precisely and with such a sense of life. A great pose just jumps out at you. It breathes just in how it feels. Everything feels right, nothing feels forced or awkward.

How much time do you spend on your poses? As much as I need. If it takes me more than an hour to get something right, then I take that time. I’ve spent hours on a single pose before. And then the next day I’ll come back and tweak and improve and plus it for another hour. And why not? If I find it then it’s done, I’ll never have to touch it again. So why not take the time? And sometimes the pose just jumps out and it’s there in 5 minutes. I take as long as I need until the things that I describe above about great poses apply to what I have just made on screen.

How much detail is in your thumbnails? Not much. Just the basics, really. Body, head angle, eyes, basic facial expression, maybe fingers now and then. But my thumbs are literally fleshed out stick figures. I save the detail work for the Cg puppet, since that’s where the detail will eventually be rendered for production. In thumbnail stage it’s about capturing the larger strokes and ideas.

What parts do you spend more time on? I spend a lot of time working facial expressions and hand positions that sell the emotion. That and head angles. Again, if I find it and communicate it I am able to move on and have great confidence with the thing. Another thing I like to work on a lot is the internal weight of a character- the sense that their body parts have meat and muscle and substance- that things are settled and lying where they like to lie down, that a character feels comfortable in their own skin when they move, stand, talk, gesture. It’s hard to describe, but it’s something I take a lot of time trying to capture.

What’s the hardest for you to nail down? All of it. Heh. I tend to spend a lot time trying to get the face to feel right. So much emotion can be expressed so powerfully there that it’s super important for me to nail that and communicate the thought immediately and clearly- but without going cliche’.

Swing on by Cg-Char for more if you like.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Odds & Ends…

Here’s some miscellaneous stuff that I’d like to pass along…

Today is VTS delivery day! Namely today is the day that I need to deliver VTS17 for July. It should be ready for you faithful subscribers late tonight or first thing in the morning. As in my night and morning here. If you’re in India then it’s already night and morning will be night again… or something like that. Anyhow, within 24 hrs.

Secondly I am finalizing the construction of my online store/shopping cart. This will allow non-PayPal using folks to get involved with the VTS and other goodies as time goes by. That should be done by the end of this week if all goes as planned. Keep an eye here for more info later this week or this weekend on that.
Thirdly, I found this neat post on some skyscraper rating website with tons of very nice pictures of Cuiaba’, the town I’m currently living in Brazil. Check it out for lots of cool photos and such to get an idea of the place.

Lastly, this week I am enjoying the honor of being featured on Cg-Char in their Ask a Pro section. I’ve been involved with Cg-Char since pretty much it’s inception over 11 years ago, so it’s fun and nice to be able to keep giving back to the community in that way. Plus Rick May (founder of Cg-Char) is a super swell guy and I’m always glad to lend him any support I can. So go on over and ask me a question and I’ll answer it. I hope.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

VTS Freebie!


I’m almost done with my fourth installment of the Great White Hope of Indy Animators. While I’m mulling over and tightening down those few logical loops I wanted to take a moment and drop a note here letting folks know what’s happening with my Video Tutorial Service (VTS) this month.

July is customer appreciation month! Or something like it. :) In addition to the normal video tutorial I will be making an extra free VTS video this month for my subscribers. So anyone who is a subscriber to the VTS in July 2006 (even if you join anytime in July) will get two videos this month instead of just the usual one. So that will be like, what- An hour and a half of animation training for $14.95? What’s not to like? What will the videos be about this month, you ask? The topics for July are a continuation of the acting/scene blocking process (using a production scene as practice), as well as an indepth discussion of open vs. closed facial posing for emotional impact and then moving into second phase blocking with breakdowns and such. The extra video will be a comprehensive primer on how to easily pose-test and time your scenes (even CG scenes) in a fast, flexible and practical way that should speed up your workflow a lot. This extra free video won’t be free in the future. If folks want to get it after July they’ll need to pay for it. So if you’ve been thinking about checking out my VTS but have been waiting for a decent reason to subscribe, well, in July you’ll have two of them.

OK, that’s enough shameless plugging for now. I hope you’ll forgive me for trying to make a living. :) Next post: Part 4 of TGWHFIA.

The Great White Hope for Indy Animators: Part 4b

cont'd from part 4a...

All creative folks have this dualism going on:

The Desire to Do My Own Stuff vs. Needing to Do What Others Want

This battle is absolutely unavoidable. Nobody gets to just do their own thing all the time and nothing else. Ever. To expect that is to be childish. So why should we think that such a business model is even reasonable? I’ve known exactly one guy who was able to succeed at doing only his own thing, make a living from it and it only. Yet by the 6th year of doing that the fanbase was so large the very thing that was his was no longer his- it belonged to the fans. And whenever he tried to veer from formula the sales dropped, the letters came in asking ‘Where’s the Silly Song?” In the end even he couldn’t do what he really wanted all the time- and this was his own stuff! This is a universal condition. You cannot escape it. You will always have this battle. You try to have one side winning, but no side ever really defeats the other. To ignore this is peril. Or at the very least massive frustration and probably the consumption of huge quantities of tequila.

So we need to be able to expand the horizons of our ideas, to look for different ways to make a living while still being able to devote a goodly portion of our time doing “our own thing” and hopefully that “thing” can be another feeder stream into our revenue flow. That’s the primary force behind my discussion: let’s get the compensation systems at least to a point where making our own films is a revenue generating business activity. Sure, making a short film may not be the most profitable aspect of my business, but the very least it ought to have the ability to break even or make me a little money to justify me spending my time on it. That way if I take 4 months out of my year and spend it making a film I won’t go absolutely bankrupt from it in the end. It may not be super profitable, but I have to expect that the investment will at least not lose me a ton of money (allowing that I’m any good at this stuff. The “good” factor is an unspoken assumption in all of this.). If I can be assured that making my film is at least not a total wash then I can make up for lost ground the other 8 months of the year with the other pieces of my income mosaic. As it is right now if I make a short film I pretty much have to relegate it to an “extra hours” status- there’s no reasonable revenue stream for it. Meaning it’s not a viable business activity, except as a promotional or advertising piece. Sure, that advertising aspect is valid, but if that’s all I can hope to get from a short film then it still falls in the “left over time” bin. After all I can make a perfectly good advertising reel using my client work. In other words, from a business sense there’s a better, cheaper, faster, easier solution than the short film to meet the marketing need. To not go that path would be irresponsible. That’s why I think it’s important that we be able to at last make some money in real, measurable and direct terms from the actual short film content itself. Elsewise I have to put it on the back burner out a sense of being a responsible businessman if nothing else. Then I need to spend all my time working on “stuff other folks want” to pay the bills. And that is too similar to sitting in a big studio somewhere, one of hundreds of worker drones slogging through the latest Hollywood executive fart product to be worth the bother of trying to be indy in the first place. At least for me it is.

So yes, I’ve said it. The Great White Hope for Indy Animators is not in a single magic bullet income or distribution solution that will allow us to pour all of our energies soley into our animation and nothing else. Instead it’s in a pragmatic understanding of the realities of the business world and being willing to “nut up” and deal with them head on, without apologies and with vigor. Sooner or later we have to poke our heads up and realize this is a business and we’d better well be ready to get serious about that. There are no easy rides here. Nobody will give us a free pass out of charity. If we want to survive as independent animators then we must come to peace with the idea of being independent businessmen, first and last. It is possible to be a decent person and be a businessman. We don’t have to play like Hollywood executives to succeed. It can be done.

Does this admission make me a dirty, unartistic bourgousie sellout? Heck if I know, I was never from the french beret/black turtleneck/art school crowd. But I do know that my kids like to eat and I like not having to sit in a car for 90 minutes each day driving to and from a job that doesn’t exactly thrill me. And I like having the freedom to take myself anywhere in the world I can and live and do and be and have an opportunity to do something to help another person. So if I gotta do some boring, uncreative, unchallenging and cheesy commercial work now and then to have that freedom, why not? It’s a small price to pay for a very fun adventure.

Before I wrap up this discussion, go ahead and check out this essay on being creative over on the GapingVoid blog. It’s a couple years old, but on re-reading it I found it just as inspiring, sobering and liberating as the first time.

Thanks once again to everybody for jumping in and participating. And thanks for your patience as I ramble and think out loud on the world wide stage of the internet. Hopefully I haven’t made a total fool of myself here. But if I have I’d be very glad to hear you all telling me how full of it I am.

The Great White Hope for Indy Animators: Part 4a

I’ve been blah, blah, blah… part 1, part 2, part 3. Read, sing, laugh, make a burrito- Enjoy! Now for part 4! The burning question that brought us here is: How can an indy animator make a living from their animation?

Regardless of distribution paradigms, we’ve shown in previous installments of this conversation that the numbers game is pretty well stacked against the indy from the start. The end user value, while it exists, doesn’t give a lot of room for low volume content- which typifies the independent product. When the value is pennies per minute you need a LOT of minutes, or a LOT of buyers (preferably both) in order to survive. Either one is typically very expensive to produce and has a fine way of killing an independent whose typical cash reserves wouldn’t buy a decent used car. Some distribution models have very difficult ports of entry but substantial compensation (TV, feature film, etc.). Yet others have very easy ports of entry but with laughingly crappy compensation (YouTube, GoogleVideo, AtomFilms, etc.). And we have proposed a possible distribution model that has less difficult - yet still existant- port of entry with compensation patterns that, while not terribly substantial, are not total crap, either. So whether it’s the big compensation lottery or the death of a thousand cuts freebie system or something in between, either way there are challenges and difficulties. Yet we have hope that if we can find the right paradigm, the right business model, the right combination of luck, talent, skill and content- we can carve out a living here just animating our own thing and appealing to our audience with nothing else. Is this a reasonable hope?

Personally, no, I don’t believe it is. It’s an idealistic hope, a naive’ hope, a hope of youth- but I don’t think it’s terribly realistic. Sure you hear stories of the lucky few who stumble upon fame and fortune when the gatekeepers “discover” them. But if that’s your tack just buy a lottery ticket. They’re cheaper.

Remember that word I ended the last post with? Mosaic.

What is a mosaic? Well you artsy fartsy types know that a mosaic is a picture made up of many small pieces of stone or glass that are different colors. None of the pieces in themselves constitutes a major part of the whole, but when properly arranged a larger picture emerges, best viewed from a distance. And that’s really what I think it will take to succeed as an independent animator. Not even the guys who have somehow managed to have notable success as independents have had the luxury of doing nothing but their own content and nothing else. It’s just not feasible. Indy luminaries like Don Hertzfeld, Bill Plympton and Michael Sporn have all made a go by mixing in many different business pursuits. Their income patterns are a mosaic of different pieces. A film here, a teaching gig there, a book, a speaking engagement, a commercial, another commercial, some merchandise, a film festival, some DVD sales. Each piece is not enough to live off of on it’s own. But if you arrange them all together you have a nice picture of sustainable income for a clever, hardworking and pragmatic independent animator. There is really so little chance of being able to “just do my own content” and make a go of it just from the content. Yes, the content has value, yes we should try and maximize that value, but for all but the most extaraordinary of circumstances that value isn’t going to be enough to pay all our bills. In the right distribution model it can pay some, but not all. You need more. And this isn’t such a bad thing, really.

cont'd in part 4b...

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Great White Hope of Indy Animators: Part 3b

picked up from 3a...

Do you think Warner Brothers releases those Looney Tunes DVD collections as a service to mankind? Or that Disney’s Treasure series is a humanitarian effort spearheaded by a revered and kindly old Roy Disney? Please. They do it because there are people out there who LOVE this stuff and who gladly buy it by the truckload. Some may say “Well those are time worn classics. That’s different.” OK, so what about Pixar’s shorts on iTunes? Who here grew up blowing out their eyesight as they sat perched 10 inches from the TV screen, munching on hyper-sugared cereal every Saturday morning watching “Red’s Dream” or “Tin Toy“? Nobody. Yet those things are still selling. Additionally, you can get a 44 minute episode of ABC’s hottest TV show LOST on iTunes for $1.99, but Disney’s seven minute film from 1938, The Brave Little Tailor, sells for the same $1.99. What? People will gladly pay more per minute for animation? Why? Because there a lot of people who highly value top quality animated content. Thus I propose that there is a definable, sizeable and eager audience market for animated content. I just think that market is under-targeted and underserved. Yes, iTunes is serving and has targeted that market, but within a very narrow band of content. What if a smart online gatekeeper took the time to learn and understand a given audience sector and aimed directly at them with skill and precision? What would their thought equation look like? How about this:

Content does have value to end user audience members. There are definable, quantifiable and existing ‘taste niches’ that do exist. The best way to maximize the harvesting of the inherent value is to focus on a high-percentage target with content suited to that niche’s proven tastes.

Who is thinking like this? What gatekeeper has their business model built on this thought equation? Is it an invalid equation? Is this all just fairy dust in Trebuchet 10 point? I don’t think so. So far we’ve proven that yes, end users do value content. And we have given good reason to presume that a definable market for animated content exists. The thing that remains is to meet the needs of that market. Instead of trying to make an online content delivery system that appeals to all tastes in order to make a profit and subsidize the sizeable infrastructure of such a system, why not niche target an audience, focus in on their tastes, find a way to advertise to them, draw them to your site and see if you can’t get a higher percentage of paid downloads as a result? The server load per dollar spent is far more profitable on a 7-minute short film than a 44-minute TV show. For the same dollar revenue you can cut your infrastructure costs by 80%! True it’s not as simple as all this, but it does make some sense, no? It is possible to think smaller and end up getting higher margins in the process. Thus my statement above that a big part of the problem is the tendency toward a global approach. It’s a kind of disease and it’s seeped into every area of our commercial lives it seems.
Why is a business today not valid or viable if it doesn’t try to conquer the world? Why is it a bad thing to serve a target niche of customers and meet their needs in a highly pro-active and meaningful way? It’s a much kinder, less ‘corporate’ way to do things. There’s no need to have every gatekeeper try and be some Genghis Kahn of the media business landscape. Why not have a few smaller sovereigns? What’s so bad with being a Luxembourg in this whole thing? There’s an old saw that says “All politics is local.” I think the same is true here. “All taste is personal”. But there are people who share these tastes. So meet them in a more personal way and let them know you’re here and give them something they’re highly inclined to buy. In a metaphorical sense, let’s do away with the ‘hair salon’ in the cold, faceless cinder-block hell we call Walmart. Bring back the corner barber shop where all the guys know each other and watch baseball together. So to speak.
So now I’ve laid out a possible business plan for a kinder, gentler, more targeted gatekeeper (there still remains a number of side issues with this, but I can get into them later). But that still doesn’t address the initial problem- how does an independent animator hope to make a living from their work?

One word: Mosaic. Huh? You guessed it, part 4 coming right up!

Til then all feedback, death threats, attacks on my sanity and words of glowing support are all welcome in the comments section of the bar & grill.

The Great White Hope of Indy Animators: Part 3a


First off I want to take moment to thank everybody for their great, insightful comments so far. It’s great to see a dialog like this going on in our little corner of the media/entertainment universe. And I also want to thank Mark Mayerson of Mayerson on Animation and Amid Amidi at the Cartoon Brew for plugging this discussion on their blogs. As a result of their mentioning me I imagine I have some new visitors to my humble site, so feel free to make yourself at home while you’re here. Chime in with a comment, watch some of my crappy animation, read a tutorial, click on a link, have some fried cheese. Whatever makes you smile, we’re cool with it. We’re cool. ;)

Now with all those pleasantries taken care of, let’s get back to our topic. :) In part one of this little series I made (or should I say re-iterated) the case that putting your hope in ad-revenue sharing sites as a viable means of earning decent money for your short films was a fool’s dream (I think the same is true of mobile phone content, but that’s another post). In part 2 I talk about the value that end user audiences put on visual media, making a case that even though the numbers may not be big, there is a track record for individual viewers assigning some kind of monetary value to this stuff we make. The problem has come around to gatekeepers and what to do with them. Let’s discuss…

First up, in the comments on my last post Gary made a very good point…

Getting around the current gatekeepers means starting your own direct sales web site. Yes? To make that viable, you’d have to draw together a stable of short producers to create a line of shorts that would attract and maintain a sufficient audience. And you’d need quality control. Otherwise, you’d get a flood of newbie crap. Thus, you’d need a content submissions procedure, and that means that you would become a new gatekeeper.

We avoid the gatekeeper only to become a gatekeeper.

Indeed. The problem isn’t so much with all gatekeepers as a species. They are a somewhat necessary evil in this game for reasons Gary notes. However, the way they go about it has some problems. The problem I see in gatekeepers is in their overtly global approach. Their actions are a product of basic equations that are based upon some faulty assumptions. Here’s the most common equation:

Content has no value except to draw eyeballs to advertise to. Thus, the more eyeballs the better because I can charge higher ad rates for a bigger crowd. The best way to get as many eyeballs as possible is to offer something that everybody can like. Thus anything that anybody could find issue with is out the door. Controversy is a money loser. Additionally, anything that has no track record of prior success is out. Innovation is for adventurers.

This equation-think has brought us to the current landscape. Nothing new there. However the faulty assumption that underpins this whole think is that content has no value except to draw a crowd to advertise to. But we just saw in Part 2 that in some way content does have value- to end consumers. A few gatekeepers out there are indeed thinking along these lines. Their thought equation looks a bit like this:

Content does hold value for individual end users. So the way to make money is to get these end users to express this value monetarily. Since tastes vary so widely the best way to harvest the greatest potential inherent end user value is to offer as many content choices as possible and let the customer decide.

This is the Amazon/iTunes/”long-tail” equation. Not many others are thinking along these lines yet, but they will. The longer iTunes chugs along and makes cash for Apple the more others will want to play in this new thought equation. Yet I think there is still yet a flaw in the ‘long-tail’ mentality. Namely the sheer size of the infrastructure needed to reach such a vast audience demands a wide, global approach to gather in a critical mass of profitability. As stated above- Since tastes vary so widely the best way to harvest the greatest potential inherent end user value is to offer as many content choices as possible. This assumes that you can’t possibly target any potential audience profitably (and thus deliver value content with less infrastructure overhead), so don’t target any audience at all- which I believe is a kind of intellectual laziness. It requires less forethought and patience (but a lot of money and technology) to construct a machine to throw a hundred-thousand darts at the board in the hope that you score a few bulls-eyes by caprice. But what if you could find that there are markets for distinct types of media? And if so, can these people can be reached with an economically feasible delivery strategy while still remaining profitable? Does such an easily targeted audience exist?

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Great White Hope of Indy Animators: Part 2b

picked up from part 2b....

OK, so those numbers don’t seem like much to write home about. Still, there is value there. The iTunes numbers seem to be the most encouraging. And guess what? People are buying video content off of iTunes- and lots of it, too. And mind you- this is all content they could have for free if they knew how to run a VCR. But they’re willing to pay for it to have it on their time, their iPod, their computer- to make it “theirs”.

So let’s go back to my online viewings and apply the numbers. One thing that I think would be wise to do is to offer two versions of my films. The first would be a low quality compressed streaming version that would be free in order to win fans. I don’t have the ability to slap a name like Pixar or Disney on things, so the viewership would have to be earned. Then I could offer a high quality version that people could purchase to keep for their own collection. Let’s assume that of the 80,000 or so online viewings I’ve had for Lunch that I do a very good job of entertaining my audience and that maybe 10,000 of those viewers would end up paying for a keeper version. Apple charges about a 28% distribution fee for stuff they sell on iTunes. So with a selling price of $1.99 per film, that would leave a decent $1.43 passed on to the content creator/producer- in this hypothetical case, me. Quick math type stuff shows that if I could get 10,000 people to buy a higher quality version of a short film that I’d stand to make a little over $14,000. Not enough to live off of, but dang, that’s not too bad for a part time effort. What if I made 3 or 4 shorts per year, instead of one every 3 or 4 years? While not a full living in itself, it might be a viable portion of a collage of money earning activities.

My buddy Tim Hodge opines in the comments on the previous post…

After all, even if you could find a way to market it effectively, what’s to keep one person from paying a buck for your film then emailing it around the world? …. Even if there was a secure way to sell your work on the web, you’ve got a lot of stiff competition, like Strongbad podcasts…. for FREE… and really funny! If you want to sell something, you have to make sure it’s even better than that, or else have lots of merchandise to sell.

Good questions. But I think it might be overlooking something innate in human nature, namely the desire to be involved in an exchange of value. For reasons that are not entirely machiavellian people actually do want to buy things, even if they could have the same thing for free. We find this in the very poor river people here in Brazil. We roll up on a big medical boat and if we give them the medicines for their health, they have a laid back attitude about actually taking the medicines. But if we make them buy the medicine- even if the value exchanged is massively out of alignment with their true value (trade a strip of beef jerky in exchange for a full course of anti-parasitic medicines worth $100) - then we find they take the pills religiously. For some reason we’re wired to want to be involved in this value exchange.

The basic question here is: Does what I have to offer have enough latent value to cause people to download and have their own copy for $1.99, even if they could watch it for free? Well, I don’t know. But people do pay that kind of money for video online. So while copies of these things can easily be had for free- and in my own imaginary business model a copy of my own stuff would be free in streamed format- if the stuff is any good it’s not unreasonable to assume that somebody would pay to have a copy of their own in higher quality. Piracy does take a dent out of all media businesses, but record companies and movies studios aren’t exactly starving for sales, either. People still want to buy things- it’s the transaction, the exchange of value for value that they want. It’s a social thing. So maybe the question isn’t “If Homestar Runner is free, then shouldn’t yours be free, too?” Rather maybe the question should be “If people are willing to pay to have a copy of free things they really like, shouldn’t Homestar Runner be offering people the chance to own their own copy?“. Maybe the looking glass is pointed the wrong way?
But all this is rather moot at the moment. The problem is I’m not on iTunes. And the liklihood that I could get my own little spot on their Short Films page is next to nil. I’m just not worth their trouble, not at a measley 10,000 total paid downloads per title. And while it is true that in cyberspace there is no limiting physical shelf space like Walmart or Virgin Megastore, there is still limited screen space. Why take up precious promotion pixels with a product that doesn’t promise to move hundreds of thousands of downloads? This is another flaw in a lot of “long-tail” talk- the argument that digital distribution has no shelf space battles. Hogwash. Those 1280×1024 pixels are darn precious! Nobody wants to waste them. Sure you can search for the content you want, but you can do that with Google already. Most of the long-tail discussion centers around how distributors can cash in on the diffusion of media tastes. Next to none of it really applies to the little guy actually making the content- at least not if he wants to make a living from it. So really, instead of doing away with the gatekeeper system, iTunes has just made Apple the new gatekeeper. Always with these gatekeepers! So in my next post I address what I think is needed to get around this.

In the meantime you guys tell me if I’m smoking crack here. Heh.

The Great White Hope of Indy Animators: Part 2a

In my first post on this topic I covered why the ad-revenue sharing system online isn’t much to put your hopes in as an indy animator. The reason being that in they eyes of businessmen content has no direct value- thus the need to share any revenues with content creators is next to none. So the conversational logic drifted to the idea of having direct consumers of the media pay for it since they must value it if they watch it.

I’ve been a person who has made some animated shorts and has been blessed to have them seen by tens of thousands of people over the years. My latest short “Lunch” has been viewed online about 80,000 times when you combine all the various places it’s been hosted, with who knows how many viral viewings. Not great by Hollywood numbers, but not shabby for some schmuck in a spare bedroom. Imagine if there was a system whereby I could expect some money for each of those online viewings? Or maybe even just a portion of them? Maybe it’s not enough to make a decent living from, but it’d be enough to get me seriously thinking about making more films to show, not less. The question that remains is: Will end customers pay? They obviously value the content- they watch it. Can we measure this value in dollars and cents?
When thinking of these things we mustn’t ignore a fundamental aspect of the world of business: ultimately it is the buyer who sets the price. The same holds true for media content. Suppliers can try to elevate prices, but sooner or later things settle into a price point where people feel there is real value. There are several major areas of content, so let’s try to find some end user value trends for each of the following: TV live action, TV animation, feature film (live action & animated) and music.

Ever since its inception as a medium TV content has been 100% free- if you’re willing to watch it on the network’s schedule that is. TV content has had no end audience defined monetary value. Cable TV has a cost, but when you’re paying your cable bill you’re paying for open gateways to choices, not specific shows usually. However recently there has been a measurable revenue stream for TV content- DVD sales. Let’s get some numbers:
The Simpsons is arguably the most successful animated TV franchise in all of history. It’s content is widely available (for free) to end user audiences via vast syndication all across the world. Yet it still sells like hotcakes in DVD format. A typical season of The Simpsons on DVD has a street price of about $35.00. That’s $35.00 (3500 cents) for 550 minutes of content. That comes out to an end user audience value of roughly $0.06 per minute of content. (3500 cents divided by 550 minutes equals 6.36 cents per minute).
In the U.S. right now there isn’t a hotter TV show than LOST. The DVD cost for the first season of LOST is about $60.00. Let’s assume we’re paying for just the show content (not counting extras, commentary and other ‘value adds’). That would be 26 episodes at 44 minutes each. (A season of shows in the U.S. is 26 weeks, an hour long program is 44 minutes with 16 minutes for commercial breaks). That’s 1144 minutes for 6000 cents, or roughly $0.05 per minute of content. So the average market value to end user consumers of top rated TV content (ie: what they’re willing to pay to own it and watch it at their leisure) is about 5.5 cents per minute of content.
Now let’s look at feature films. A feature film has a typical in-theater cost of $9.00 per ticket. An average runtime for a film is 110 minutes (more or less). So for the big surround sound, big screen, buttered popcorn version of the experience the end consumer audience member is willing to pay about $0.08 per minute of content, but it’s fleeting- you can’t take a copy of it with you out of the theater.
That same film in DVD sells for $17.00, resulting in an end user value of $0.15 per minute, the highest value given so far for content. That is until we get to online short films. A short film bought on iTunes for $1.99 that is 6 minutes long yields a nice consumer value of about 33 cents per minute. Many of these shorts are available in other venues in higher resolution, yet they still sell well. Pixar had sold 250,000 copies of their shorts within the first month or two of putting them on iTunes.

cont'd in part 2b....

Thursday, July 06, 2006

The Great White Hope of Indy Animators: Part 1


Ad Revenue Sharing and You(Tube)
Over on Cartoon Brew Amid has some great incisive comments about the growing buzz over and other potential online revenue sharing models being touted as the great hope for independent content creators. You can get a whiff of some of that buzz here on AWN. As much as I wish it could be true, like Amid I just don’t see how it could be. At least not now.

Much of this ad revenue sharing schpiel is merely a redux if the same old saw that we heard from the dot-com boom 6 years ago. The core value of any content in an ad revenue sharing system is the number of eyeballs that watch a given item of content. The more eyeballs watching the content, the more value it has to an advertiser in drawing a crowd to market to. On the large scale of corporate Hollywood this still makes sense, but even there most folks can see the writing on the wall. With the widening of media choices and the diffusion of viewing tastes and habits in end consumer audiences the ability to draw enough viewers to pay for the content is generally on a downward trend. So what does that mean for indies? Some say it’s a good thing, a sign of the end of the age of the dinosaur. Which may be true, but will the indy rise up in this void?
The primary problem for independent producers of animation with online ad revenue sharing is essentially the same one they have had with the mainstream gatekeeper system: individual pieces of content just don’t draw enough eyeballs to be of much worth to an advertiser. The only difference is in how it plays out. The gatekeeper mainstream system won’t even show indy content that doesn’t have some assurance of drawing tens of millions of eyes. While online systems like YouTube are more polite in that they have no gatekeeper to keep your content off the bandwidth, generally nobody is willing to pay you to put it there, either. The end result is no money (or next to no money) for your content. The only difference is that in the online world at least you got the chance to show your stuff- which I suppose is a bit of a moral victory if nothing else. But it’s hard to pay the mortgage with moral victories. This, in my eyes, is the achilles heel of the ‘long tail’. Great for distributors, sucks for indy content producers. So tell me again how this is different from the current gatekeeper system? Heh.
Some may say “Well, the online video sites should pay more per viewing, then!” That’d be nice in utopia, but it doesn’t play well on Wall Street. could charge 10 times their current ad rates and then generously share that revenue with content creators. The only problem is no advertiser would buy an ad on YouTube if they upped their rates. I could charge $17,000 for a mixed breed puppy when I sell it on the street corner, but would you buy that puppy? So ad revenue sharing for online indy content is a zero-sum game. There’s only so much cash that can be earned from a given site (YouTube). And there are vast numbers of ways to spread that cash around (hundreds of thousands of content creators). In the end it comes out to next to nothing per viewing- just as proven by the numbers and succinctly pointed out by Amid. And YouTube won’t aribitraily raise their rates just to make content creators happy, especially not when they’ve found that they already have had hundreds of thousands of entries that have been put up with absolutely no promise of any kind of financial reward to start with. YouTube does not currently share any ad revenue. Folks think they may do so soon, but so far they haven’t. Yet they’re not starving for contributors of content, are they? So what does that tell YouTube about the value of the content they have on their servers if the creators of that content give it to YouTube for free? And by extension, what signal does that send to the advertisers about the value of that content? To YouTube and advertisers, the end goal is the cumulative effect of a million little matchsticks to boil their kettle. Whether the flames burn blur or orange is of no meaning to them- content in and of itself has no value. Only those who come to look at it have any value. And that is the sum of it all, regardless of distribution model: In the world of business, ultimately content has little or no value- only the crowd that watches content has value. Content is the worm, not the fish.

The next logical step in some minds is to skip the suits and advertisers and distributors altogether and go straight to John Q. Public with the content and let them pay for the content. After all, if they come to watch the content that must mean they value the content. So let’s go right to the end user audience- the people who value the content. Some have argued that. Basically we’d be talking about pay-per-view micro-payments directly from end user audiences. Assuming that an infrastructure exists to reliably collect such fees (it really doesn’t), and assuming that getting the news out to the public about your content is free and easy and effective (and it isn’t) would this be feasible? In other words, if some clever Jack or Jill came up with a system where getting the word out wasn’t a major hurdle and collecting payments wasn’t a hassle, could the indy content creator make a living from direct audience payments? I explore that in my next post.