Business first: In response to requests for a copy of my short "The Indescribable Nth", I have finally gotten my act together and have made a DVD, just in time for its tenth anniversary.
It's $10.99, including shipping in the U.S......
The Story of The Nth
"The Indescribable Nth" - or "The Nth" for short - is a ten minute animated short about a boy who is born with his heart inside of a snow globe. It's an emotional story told using the most stripped-down, simplistic design, and no color except for the heart itself.
The genesis of "The Nth" goes back to 1991. I wanted to do a picture book with animator Al Holter, who owned an old German printing press. In 1989, He had done a book called "Horsy Tales" featuring drawings by nine-year old Sarah Bates, daughter of producer Carolyn Bates. After seeing this book, I immediately wanted to create my own.
The story sprung from my own inept attempts at love as a twenty-something living in L.A. With each writing pass, the story strayed more and more from me my own experience, into a more abstract, whimsical place. Why a love story? I don't know. I guess that was what was on my mind.
For the next two years, Al worked on the book, hand-setting type, rolling sheet after sheet manually, cutting, hand sewing, gluing, until at last 300 copies were made. In September of '93, the books were completed and we threw a party in Burbank, Most of out friends being industry people, I got a lot of comments along the lines of "You have to make a short of this."
I really wanted to do a short, but whenever I thought about the logistics of it, inertia set in. I stalled and stalled, and then one day, probably out of boredom, I just started storyboarding it. Once I got into a groove, it just flowed. I probably did the entire first pass in a weekend. Then nothing. The amount of work I now faced stopped me dead. Months went by, then a year. I ended up unpinning it and putting it away.
I spent the next two years working for Disney TV Animation in Australia ("A Goofy Movie" and "Timon and Pumbaa in Stand By Me") and in New Zealand ("Redux Riding Hood"). By the summer of '96, I was looking for another project to do. Producer Dan Rounds introduced me to a new development in computer animation called "motion capture". We took a tour of a facility called Mr. Big in Venice, California. I thought it was very cool technology and wanted very much to play with it.
I talked to Tom Ruzicka, vice president of WDTVA and pitched this new technology as something we should experiment with as a potential production tool for future programs. I pulled out "The Nth" as an experimental short we could do - I already had it boarded out. Tom agreed to let me create a story reel for "The Nth", and also agreed to let me keep the property if it was ultimately turned down.
Colleen Halsey edited together a reel, but when I played the reel for people, it just didn't get the strong response the way the book did. People politely told me it was great - not helpful!
Then I played it for a temp named Alison Mitchell. Alison was a tall English beauty who had been one of the vixens in those famous Robert Palmer videos from the '80's. She was exceptionally sharp, too. She took one look at the reel and told me frankly exactly what was wrong with it. It was a kick in the pants, but it put me back on the right track. I re-boarded the last third of the short, cut a couple of characters, and zeroed in on the emotional story at the expense of gags.
The last key element to making the reels work was finding the right music. I had been using blues for temp music, thinking it worked with the subject matter. While the blues worked logically, it did not pull you in emotionally. One night I watched a silent film, one of Charlie Chaplin's. It had a string quartet for score, which pulled me into the emotional thread immediately. I needed a shortcut like this in telling my story.
With the new improved reel, I was all fired up by the prospect of creating a short using motion capture. Unfortunately, Dean Valentine, then president of Disney TV, was not so fired up. He explained that Disney let other little companies do research and development, then they buy the ones that succeed. The deal was off.
I told my tale of woe to producer Leslie Hough, a friend and colleague who was working for Character Builders Studio in Ohio. Without my asking, she said, "We'll do it." They were just wrapping up work on "Space Jam" and were looking for something for the crew to fill down time. This was in the fall of '96.
I flew out to Columbus for a couple of weeks to meet everyone and to get things going. This was an exciting time, because up until now, the film was mostly mine. Now it would have a whole crew adding things that I would have never thought of. As the film progressed in this stage, it became more and more of its own unique being, like a baby growing up.
Even with a crew behind it, progress was not as fast as expected. After a few months, Character Builders became busy on another feature, then another, then another, so that work on "The Nth" came to a crawl after its initial surge. Three more years went by before it was completed.
Meanwhile, I had been talking to Bennie Wallace about the music. He had done the fabulous score for my short "Redux Riding Hood", and knows more about music than anyone I know. The idea of composing for string quartet intrigued him, though it was something he had never done before. His background was old school jazz. But as I said, Bennie has a vast knowledge of ALL music. He told me he'd like to scratch his head over it a bit.
Several months later, Bennie called excited about a string quartet in New York City he had discovered called "Hazardous Materials" (later renamed "Ethel"). He said, "They make The Kronos Quartet look like amateurs." About a year later, in August of '99, I flew to New York to attend the recording session. I rode with Bennie to a beautiful recording studio hidden in a very seedy part of Brooklyn. I met the musicians and heard the music for the first time as they recorded. There final cue was a about a minute and a half long. It was so breath-takingly beautiful that I found myself tearing up. When they finished the take, the engineers all said "Wow." Even the musicians were wiping their eyes. I felt so honored to have had such a great score created for me - by a man who had never composed for string quartet before.
The final, tearjerking track rom Bennie Wallace's score.
Nicole Ankowski at Character Builders then had the dubious job of putting the film in festivals. Anyone who has ever done this knows what a pain in the ass it is to fill out all those entry forms and to ship tapes all cover kingdom come. "The Nth" screened all over the world, won a bunch of awards, made the short list for the Academy Awards, but didn't make the final cut - though it should have. It played for many years on the web at Atom Films, which was a great company before MTV took it over.
The Character Builders Studio split up about five years ago. I had moved back to my hometown in New Jersey when I got a call from Marty Fuller. He had the Nth prints and negative stored in his basement and wanted to know if I'd like to have them. Then he personally drove them to New Jersey from Ohio - that's how cool Marty is.
I've been working on a new short called "Chief, Your Butt's on Fire". - about my life in the big studios. I animated it all myself, full on, traditional style. I rediscovered how much I enjoy doing character animation. It is a wonderful, unique art form I find very satisfying when there's not some asshole beating the joy out of it with pointless retakes. I'm heading into year number nine - hopefully the year of completion. Is it worth it? HELL YEAH!
As we spin toward 2010, we not only get a new year, we get a new decade; a demarcation waiting to be filled with what's next. So what 's next for you? Got a creative resolution in mind?
From the start, FLIP has been about what industry people do beyond the job. For me, what people do by their own volition is far more interesting than listening to people pining for an animation Godot, or dissecting the latest feature.
God knows I've done my share of axe grinding. If only the powers that be would just let artists do whatever they wanted, with no boundaries, no deadlines and no restrictions…and residuals, don't forget the residuals....The studio would just be a big creative orgy with no rules and we could make the films WE want to make, breaking boundary after boundary and take the medium places it has never been nor wanted to go until we rupture the space-time continuum and land in the world of Looney Tunes.
Oh wait, I've digressed into "Space Jam".
At the end of the day, all this talk is just stale beer breath stinking up a pub. Nothing creative is accomnplished. There's a point where you have to stop gnashing your teeth at the indifferent headless beast that is our industry, do somehing satisfying. In short, puddup or shaddup.
In my twenty-five years in animation, I have met a lot of really talented people from all over the world. The ones I truly have found inspiring are the ones who do their own personal work. Making time for such a thing is not always easy. Most artists, after a full day of plying their skills for a studio all day, don't want to come home and do the same - creative freedom or not. They may have a head full of ideas, but they have no drive - victims of inertia. Hey inert artists! Puddup or shaddup!
Storyboard artist Dan Scanlon, in FLIP #12 :
"I find a lot of professionals artist are afraid to make something on their own because they fear it won't live up to the standard of the projects they contribute to at work. They're afraid when people see what they create without the company behind them. Afraid it will appear that they're the one who's been pretending to help lift the couch. But remember, the projects you work on professionally are made by many, many, extremely talented people, but that doesn't mean each one of them should be able to take the reins and knock it out of the park on their own. Give it a shot, and if you fail - so what? Revel in it, and most importantly, learn from it and do it again. Besides, even if your peers say your project sucks, take comfort in knowing they're still secretly jealous that you made something."
Some industry artists may be great craftsmen, but have nothing of their own to offer, fair enough. Some turn to blogging. the most collosal waste of time since CB radio. Bloggers can be the nastiest bunch of self-appointed standard guardians you'll ever know by codename. Here, people with no comparable body of work feel entitled to pass harsh judgement on artists they've never met, on projects they have not yet seen, on studios they've never worked for. Who knew cartoons could be such a hot-button issue? Hey bloggers! Puddup or shaddup!
And a special note to those guys who are always blogging about the need to break new ground - go do it! Show the world what it is you mean by groundbreaking animation. Or shaddup.
The hardest part about starting your own project is starting. No one wants to start something that they're not sure they can complete. One thing to remember is, once the project is complete, your idea exists as a creative piece that can be shared with others and cannot be taken away. "The Indescribable Nth" (see column left) took me six years to complete. My latest short, "Chief, Your Butt's on Fire" is nearing completion in its ninth year. My feeling is, the time would have gone by regardlessly, so I may as well make as many films as I can.
FLIP has celebrated those artists who create. They may not make cartoons, but they create something that comes from their heart and represents their unique artistic vision. The artists FLIP has featured take the initiative to stick their necks out and do their own thing. I urge anyone who feels creatively stifled at the studio to find his or her own outlet. Whatever it is, as long as you find creative satisfaction, do it. It doesn't have to be a commercial venture. It’s the process of reaching that creative laughing spot in your head that is important.
I asked some past FLIP artists about their creative resolutions for 2010 in hopes it may inspire.
c.2009 Moore Studios, Inc