Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Pitch from a World Class God Gifted Movie Story Invention Whiz Kid

The following is an actual e-mail I received, bad syntax and all.  Enjoy!

I wish to approach you with a request that would be of immense benefit to both of us, I am john Oliver a world class God gifted animation movie story invention wiz Kid From  East London  Republic of south Africa with specialty in animation movie story concepts and cartoon character inventions at pencil drawing stage,

Below are the titles of (Four) world class Hollywood grade animation movie stories alongside treatment and synopsis invented by me which are of high Entertaining USA and European Market viewing quality,

 (1) Millennium Goliath

(2) Phones at war

(3) Mystic cat

(4) Crazy tourist

In search of a reputable publication production funding partner, who will help out financially as an Executive production partner?

in order to transform animation movie story ideas files invented by me as a freelancing animation artist, into comic books Aimed at young children international market age of 12 to 14 with reputable 
 production investors,

 Who understands the importance's of a strong cartoon concept as to make revenues out of my creations
Upon your responds, I shall then provide you with more details and relevant information that will help you understand this transaction,

Be rest assured that this transaction would be most profitable for both of us

Awaiting your urgent reply

Thanks and regards’

John Oliver

Animation movie story inventor

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Chuck and Aaron fight to save "The Legend of Tembo"

Chuck Williams and Aaron Blaise, fresh from the recent closure of Digital Domain, are fighting to save the feature film "The Legend of Tembo" which they spent two years developing. According to yesterday's Wall Street Journal, they still have a fighting chance to save their picture.

The Beijing company Galloping Horse has bought out the remains of Digital Domain for $32m at a bankruptcy auction. Chuck and Aaron are now hoping that the Chinese investors will also have the stomach to finish "Tembo", the story of an African elephant taken from his home and forced to go to war.

All power to Chuck and Aaron - and what a triumph if they can pull it off.


Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Creating a Web Series for Fun & (ahem) Profit

This is a cautionary tale about selling a web series.  It has been fictionalized to protect the guilty. 

Last spring, I got a call from Jenifer “Toddy” Totsworthy, producer from my glory days at Usher House Pictures in the ‘90’s.  She was now involved in a capital venture, producing original web content for a dot-com called “Phfirt!”.   She wanted to know if I would be interested in  creating a web series from soup to nuts.

She responded to my stunned silence  by giving me the back-story.  Phfirt! is a website of things amusing to teenage boys and underclassmen, with a message board for snarky teens rants, a page for cool and uncool products, videos of music mash-ups, college high-jinx, and cartoons where characters are mutilated.  It is the brainchild of Dylan Wankler, the 20 year-old son of Jerry Wankler, Toddy’s old boss at Usher House.   Usher had tossed  Toddy and Jerry to the curb in 2009 after shutting down the studio’s 82 year-old animation department in favor of a motion capture studio in Vancouver.  Ironically, it was Jerry’s idea.

Dylan started the site as a high school sophomore. Now a college sophomore, his site is worth $4.5 million.  For his out-of-work pappy to muscle in on the fun was a no-brainer.  Jerry aimed to take Phfirt! to the next level by posting professionally made original web series .   Knowing he is universally despised by artists. Jerry hired his old whipping girl Toddy (using  Dylan’s money) to lure professionals to the site.    I was on the call list. 

“Good money, for the internet.”  she said.  Good wine, for a box.

Then she dangled the BIG CARROT.  “If the web series is a hit, it could evolve into a TV series or feature film.”  Toddy knew me well enough to stop herself mid-pitch. “Yeah, yeah,, I know it sounds like horseshit.  But I’d like to work with you again and I think you could have a lot of fun with it. “

Fun?  Well sign me up!

A few days later, I was on a conference call with Toddy, Jerry, and Dylan, pitching my idea for a web series, Son of a Bitch.  It’s about a wolf-boy with a chip on his shoulder.  Dylan laughed, and I sold the show. 

Enter Phfirt! attorney Adam Pickelhauben – a good attorney, for the internet.  He e-mailed a contract – their standard form with my numbers plugged into it.  It seemed friendly enough, just standard legalese.  Toddy underscored this point, “It’s the same deal all the artists get, but your numbers are better.”  I was getting a special deal with the money – lousy pay,  but great for the internet - so why sweat the legal mumbo jumbo?   Plus the  BIG CARROT. It’s all good!

I called my lawyer, Brent Wood.  As soon as I said the words “web series” he groaned.   “I could do a lot of work and spend a lot of your money, but it would still, ultimately, be a shit deal.”  He said.  “With the internet, there are just too many unknowns.  I wouldn’t get involved with it. “  I thanked Brent for his frankness, and for not spending a lot of my money on a shit deal.   I also thanked him for warning me of the imminent screw job.

I gave the contract a real read, and gave it some real thought.  Everything seemed on the up and up, there was nothing objectionable in the deal.  I thought about what could become of the project vis-à-vis the BIG CARROT.  TV and/or movie deals! Money! Cartoon fame!  I thought about what I wanted, in terms of rights and guarantees, and discovered the problem was not what was IN the deal, but rather what was NOT in the deal. 

I e-mailed Adam Pickelhauben with a list of demands:

1. I want a guaranteed attachment to Son of a Bitch in any future form, TV, feature film, whatever. 

2. I want right of first refusal to write and/or direct future web episodes, as well as any future forms of the project.

3. If the project goes nowhere and is terminated, I want the rights to, at some point, revert back to me.

4. I want right of first refusal to produce the series, in all forms, through my company, Moore Studios.

Adam promptly replied “No.” to all of the above.

I replied,  “So even though this deal calls for me to create an original web series to be written, directed, and produced by me, at my studio, hiring my own people, your company, Phfirt!, who stands to profit greatly from my creative efforts, won’t get my back.”

To which Adam replied,  “The other artists are happy with this deal.”

If there were an app for strangling lawyers…..

 “I’m out.”  I said. 

I really didn’t want to be out.  I had already done design work, story outlines,  wrote two episodes, and Toddy had created a budget and schedule for me. I could see the series so clearly, but it was like a hologram. Adam called my bluffs in such dick-ish fashion, I had to call it off. 

Three and a half minutes later, the phone rang.  It was Jerry Wankler.  He had on his “smooth executive” voice.  He dismissed Adam’s jerk tone as just a web-lawyer thing.  “He’s really a good guy, for a web lawyer. ” After hashing things out, Jerry agreed to everything I wanted.  “I’ll have Adam write it up.” 

“Wow!”  I thought, “I’m a baddass negotiator!”

A few days later, Adam e-mailed the new, improved deal, with a very pleasant note, saying this is the deal as per my conversation with Jerry, and politely urged me to sign and FedEx three copies to him forthwith.  Toddy called to likewise usher me along, “We’re losing production time.”.  We had already spent three weeks volleying over this deal.  By my own schedule, I was to start recording in a week. 

I was very eager to get started on Son of a Bitch now that the deal was all straightened out. I was tempted to just sign and send, but a little voice, the one I ignore after a third beer, was saying, “You’d better slow down and read the contract again, doofus.”  

I sat down and went through the whole contract again.  Bla bla bla, yadda yadda yadda……where are the changes? The language was slightly different, but the content was unchanged from before.  I called Wankler.  “Adam didn’t change shit!”  I said. 

I expected Jerry to be surprised; he wasn’t.  He said the company couldn’t give me what I wanted.

“Well who the fuck is the company, Jerry? “  I snapped,  “YOU’RE the fucking company!”

Jerry had to admit that he, indeed, was the fucking company.  He was Phfirt!.  He tried to soft sell, saying this was all standard, and hey, the other artists are okay with it. 

“I’m out.”  I said.  This time, I really wanted out. 

So Phfirt went on without me, launching original animated shorts four months later.  I'm glad for the guys who were happy with their deals, but also glad I didn't get sucked in.  It would have been four very intense months of work, and after paying hired help, I would  have ended up with next to no money and absolutely NO attachment to the project.  Maybe Adam Pickelhauben wasn’t a jerk after all.  Maybe his deal-making was a subtle warning as to what disasters lay ahead - a web-lawyer's wink that the deck was marked.  

Thanks Adam.  You're a swell lawyer, for the internet.  


Saturday, September 22, 2012

John Coates 1927-2012

John Coates, the animator best known for his work on the TV special The Snowman, has died aged 85. He was not just a great animator but also well liked by everyone who knew him. I only met him once - last year at the Annecy animation festival, when we were briefly introduced. He seemed an exceptionally genial and kind individual.

Below is a clip from The Snowman, the famous "Walking in the Air" sequence, for which he is perhaps best known and remembered by a whole generation of children in Britain, including me.
--- Alex

Friday, September 21, 2012

Mark Kalesniko's "Tarantula"

Mark Kalesniko is back with an all new, 40 page graphic adventure of his alter-ego Alex - a character last seen in Mark's brilliant graphic novel Freeway.  When asked for comment, Mark told FLIP. "Alex's worst fear just crawled in."
I'm not much for comic books, but Mark's work takes such a strange twist on simple, daily living, like an autobiography told on hallucinogenics.  He may well be the Hunter S. Thompson of graphic novelists (I say this about his creative work, not his lifestyle).   

And read more about his graphic novel Freeway in FLIP.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

How I Pissed Off June Foray

I love June Foray.  With her versatile voice work on so many legendary cartoon characters - Rocky the Squirrel, Natasha Fatale, Witch Hazel, Tweety's Granny - she is one of the last of my childhood idols still around.  I've been lucky enough to work with her twice.  The second time, I really pissed her off.

I was directing a Fractured Fairy Tales short for Universal called The Phox, the Box, & the Lox, from a lost script by the late Bill Scott, writer for the original series (and voice actor!).  It would run before the Dudley Do-Right live action feature.  June was the last survivor of the original cast, and I was thrilled to get to work with her again, having had such a great time recording her on my short Redux Riding Hood.  I even padded her part a bit.

Just as Jay Ward had done in his day, we recorded the voices in an ensemble.  The voice actors sat in the recording room together and ran through the script like a radio show. Keith Scott was amazing.  He's a Jay Ward expert who can do many of the voices spot-on.  When I asked for a Phil Silvers-type of voice for the Phox, Keith asked, "Do you want Bill Scott's Silvers or Daws Butler's Silvers?"  He then proceeded to give me a sample of both men's versions of Phil Silvers - as astounding as it is geeky.  June was set to do the Milk Maiden character in her Brooklyn voice.  She told me she did that voice for all the damsels and princesses in the Fractured Fairy Tales back in the '60's.  She got no argument from me.  She's June!

We all had a great deal of fun, though I immediately noticed a big problem:  June's Brooklyn voice had a lot of gravel in it.  The truth of the matter was, she sounded old when doing this voice. She was 79 at the time and could not be expected to sound like a 16 year old milk maiden from Brooklyn.  So here was my dilemna: how do I tell her to do a different voice in front of the ensemble cast without embarrassing one of my idols?  She would surely want to know why.  What could I say - you sound too old?  I couldn't do it.  So I stuck my head in the sand and hoped we could fix it in editorial.

Sound editor Mike Gollum tried every trick available in 1999 technology to make the Milk Maid sound young.  He knocked off about forty years, but she still sounded too old for the character.  I thought maybe it would grown on me, maybe I was just too close to it and the track would work.  Then my boss, Tom Ruzicka, told me I had to dump June.

"NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!" I shouted, inexplicably in slo-motion, "June is the only surviving member of the original cast!  We CAN"T dump her!"  I pounded my head on Tom's desk until he relented.

"Okay, okay!" Tom said, "But you'll have to re-record her immediately.  If we (the mucky-mucks) don't like it, we recast."

The next morning, June was back at the recording studio.  She was professional, but NOT happy.  "Who sets up a recording session for 9AM?"  She said, like that was an ungodly hour.

""Uhhh, that's my fault."  I told June, sheepishly. I was surprisingly intimidated by this tiny woman.  I hemmed and hawed about our tight schedule and apologized like an amateur.  Keith Scott had returned to do some pick-up lines and explained to me the whole "being in good voice" thing, and how hard it was to be in good voice first thing in the morning.

Then June said, "Why am I here? I thought you liked what I did last time."  She may as well have stabbed me in the heart.  I felt sick.

I felt even sicker as I heard this bullshit come out of my mouth,  "Well, I did like it.  But one of the executives doesn't like the Brooklyn accent."

June looked hurt, "But I did that voice for ALL the Fractured Fairy Tales.  ALL of them."

"I know.  But these executives.....they don't care."  Now THAT"S the truth!

June shook her head, got in the booth and gave us her 'sweet' voice.  She was done in minutes.  I gave her almost no direction, and I think she was happy about that.  She came out of the booth in a much more jovial mood.  I thanked her, apologized again, and groveled like Boris Badenov to Fearless Leader.

Her 'sweet' voice, though not as funny as the Brooklyn voice, sounded young enough to satisfy the mucky-mucks.  In hindsight, I wish I had redesigned the Milk Maid to look older, more worldly; like she'd already had a few husbands and was looking for a new sugar daddy.  Then I could have used the Brooklyn voice.  That would have been much funnier.  Damn!  Why didn't I think of that in 1999?  I was too busy freaking out, I guess.

I've seen and spoken to June a few times times then, and she's always been super kind, never mentioning that early morning session.  Her 95th birthday was this week.  It's great to still have a childhood hero around.  And I'm still sorry I pissed her off.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Mr. Magoo Shorts Screening Almost in Sight

One of the truly great things about Los Angeles is the unique film screenings geared toward industry people.  On Saturday, September 15, Animazing Spotlight will host a tribute to U.P.A. Studios at the Alex Theater in Glendale.

From 3 to 5 PM, Tom Sito will host the panel of Bob Kurtz, John Andrews, and Fred Crippen as they discuss U.P.A.'s influence with clips from various shorts.  Tom told FLIP,  "Friz Freleng once said, 'When I die, I don't want to go to Heaven. I want to go to UPA.' Join us as we hear about why this studio had such a big impact on the art of animation in the mid-twentieth century."

At 7:00, twenty U.P.A. shorts will be screened on the big screen, with fresh, restored prints.  Along with five Mr. Magoo's, will be all fifteen Oscar nominated shorts.  Here's a complete list:  
Robin Hoodlum, 1949
Ragtime Bear, 1949
Magic Fluke, 1950
Barefaced Flatfoot, 1951
Fuddy Duddy Buddy, 1951
Trouble Indemnity, 1951
Gerald McBoing-Boing, 1951
Hotsy Footsy, 1952
Rooty Toot Toot, 1952
Man Alive, 1952
Madeline, 1953
Pink and Blue Blues, 1953
Christopher Crumpet, 1954
The Tell Tale Heart, 1954
Magoo's Express, 1955
When Magoo Flew, 1955
Magoo's Puddle Jumper, 1957
Jaywalker, 1957
McBoing on Planet Moo, 1957
Trees & Jamaica Daddy, 1958

Check their website for tickets, 
Sounds like a fun Saturday night to me!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Digital Domain in Florida closes its doors after 3 years

Digital Domain at Port St. Lucie in Florida, founded in 2009, has closed its doors after a three year effort to produce a 3D animated film to compete with the likes of Disney and DreamWorks.

Here is the text from today's Facebook post by Chuck Williams, who was co-directing, and who I worked with many years ago on "RollerCoaster Rabbit" at Disney-MGM Studios, another Florida Studio which would eventually be closed down, despite many great successes and a wealthy sponsor.

Chuck wrote as follows:

"Digital Domain - Florida, my employer, shut down today. Ran out of money. Aaron [Blaise] and I knew this start up was a risk, but we has such great momentum -- a big, emotional, funny story, appealing characters, a really unique world and mind blowing, beautiful artwork. And maybe best of all -- a super-talented crew 110% committed to bring it on screening. We were on our 3rd screening, 1 month from production. This closure was a total shot in gut, complete surprise. 

To over 300 employees, 120 on our film. I thank you all for the great effort. I hope we can work together in the future. Lots of dreams were dashed today. Lets all find new ones."

I can well imagine how they must be feeling, having poured their hearts into the project for so long. It is little consolation to know that this sort of thing is almost commonplace in our business, where the stakes are so high and the price of failure so huge.

---- Alex

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Introducing Animation Apprentice

I've been fascinated for some time now by the tremendous power of online instruction to improve the way that we learn. Especially impressive is the work of education entrepreneur Salman Khan, who has set up a free online academy, and whose work you can see here at YouTube.

Khan's philosophy - in brief - is that traditional classrooms have it all backwards. Students go in to a school room and listen to a lecture, then go home and do their home work, by which time they have forgotten half of what they learned, if they understood it in the first place. Much better, he argues, to watch the lecture at home, online, and then do the homework in the classroom. That way the teacher spends their time doing what is really important - helping students individually to solve problems.

A year or so ago I took a course in visual effects at Escape Studios in London, which offers a mix of classroom teaching and online pre-recorded content. Right away, I found that the online content was much more helpful. Missed what the instructor just said? just re-wind. Have to go and collect the dry cleaning? Just press pause. Late for class? Doesn't matter. With online tutorials, you learn at your own pace, at your own convenience. It was a revelation, not unlike the moment in 1996 when I first bought a book at

The problem I find with teaching animation is that, in a classroom, it is almost impossible to keep the whole class with you. Someone is always late, others will fall behind, and as a teacher you end up spending precious minutes repeating yourself and trying to help each student who missed the main bit of the lecture or didn't understand. But what if the students had already watched the lecture before class? That way you could sit down with each one and go over their work, help them individually to get the best results.
A new way to learn animation
So, this year, I have built a new animation school online,, teaching character animation and creature animation, and incorporating all the lessons I have learned in the classroom over the years. Animation Apprentice relies almost entirely on pre-recorded content, broken down into theory lectures (general theory), technical lectures (how to use the software) and tutorials (how to complete the weekly exercise).

It was a lot of work to build the site, but the beauty of it is that I never have to give the same lecture twice - a huge saving in time and effort. Instead, I get to spend my time going over the student's tests individually, and delivering back to each student a bespoke critique showing step by step how to improve the shot. We don't do Skype calls - there is no need. Much better to watch the process by which the shot gets improved. And the irony is, I get to spend way more time with each student than I would in a classroom. Plus it's more fun too, because I don't have to spend my time on the boring stuff - repeating myself giving the same lecture I gave last week, or last month.

So far, I love the results. A small group of students have been testing the course for me and their work is better even than I had hoped for. I think that online learning isn't a substitute for a classroom, it's better than a classroom. And I believe that this is the future of education. Just as revolutionized the book trade (and shopping in general), so online learning will change the way we learn, for the better.


Friday, September 7, 2012

CalArts & the Cleveland Browns

In the fall of 1981, I was a freshman at CalArts.  I lived in the dorms, room 251.  I had a small, black and white Regal television in my room, a luxury item back then.  Most students watched the big TV in the lounge at the end of the hall.  On Sundays, I liked to watch football, which put me at odds with most of my fellow students in Character Animation, and Cal Arts in general.  I can still hear my roommate, Dan Jeup, mocking me. "Foootball, yu bet!"

I would watch a game while doing my laundry.  It was usually the Rams, the Los Angeles team of thirty one years ago.  They were playing the Cleveland Browns one afternoon, the original Cleveland Browns, when there came a knock. A guy at the door asked "Do you have the Browns on?  Could I watch with you? They're watching a movie down the hall and won't change it."

I invited him in, he pulled up a chair, and proceeded to watch the game intently.  He introduced himself as John, a guitar major.  He watched for a few minutes, then asked, "You're not a Rams fan, are you?"  I assured him my allegiance was to the Eagles, making it safe for him to openly cheer for his team, which ultimately lost the game.  He thanked me for sharing, then left.

Days later, I was walking on campus with my friend  Dave Coste, a music major.  We passed John on his way to the dorms carrying a guitar case.  John waved, and Dave and I both said, "Hey John."

"I didn't know you knew John." Dave said.  I told him the story of the past Sunday.  Dave shook his head and laughed.  "That's John Modell." He said.

"Yeah?" I said cluelessly.

"His father is Art Modell."


"The owner of the Cleveland Browns."

"Oh."  I said, ""No wonder he liked the Browns so much."

Art Modell died yesterday at age 86.  I read that John and his brother were at his side when he passed.  R.I.P.