Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Mark Simon Part 1: Producing Animated Shorts

This is the first of a series of articles that I plan to write about topics inspired by my recent attendance at Dragon-Con in Atlanta. I’ve been attending Dragon-Con regularly for over 12 years and it has certainly mirrored emerging trends in media and entertainment. But one aspect of Dragon-Con that has remained unchanged is the opportunity to meet with old friends as well as to make new contacts with people who share similar interests. I also have the chance to stimulate creative ideas and learn new things or at least to refresh existing perspectives.

This year brought the chance for me to meet with Mark Simon. I was previously very familiar with Mark and his work but never had the opportunity to meet him in person. Mark Simon is a very experienced and knowledgeable person in the entertainment industry having been active for over nineteen years. He has significant works in live action production as well as animation and has written two of the best resource books on both animation production and storyboarding. Mark is the owner of an animation company A&S Animation as well as a large successful storyboarding company Animatics and Storyboards Inc. both located in Florida. Mark’s experience is considerable but equally important is his enthusiasm for sharing his knowledge and teaching. His book, Producing Independent 2D Character Animation is perhaps the most complete and best written text on the subject of making and selling a short film. I highly recommend it as a reference resource for anyone wanting to produce a successful animated short particularly for exhibition in film festivals, more on that later. Mark also has written a great book on storyboarding, Storyboards Motion in Art. Again, this book is a highly recommended resource for all film makers. Mark also just recently released a new reference book, Facial Expressions: A Visual Reference for Artists which originated as a product created for internal use in Mark’s own studio and then it dawned on him, "if we need this type of reference then so do a lot of other people" so he published it.

It is hard to describe Mark Simon without starting out saying that he exhibits much of the same energetic qualities as some of his most notable animated shorts. Yet it is obvious that Mark tempers his almost boundless enthusiasm for his work with a smart business sense. Most of our interaction and discussion revolved around the ins and outs of producing animated shorts so I’ll do my best to recreate parts of the conversation here, with apologies to Mark for some of my own interpretations and recollections and any inaccuracies in translation.

JK: How do you view the current situation in animation and do you think that 3D CGI is overwhelming the more traditional 2D?

MS: 3D is certainly leading in the production of features but in the world of Television production 2D is strong and alive and well. 3D has its place and so does 2D.

JK: Can you tell me some things about your own production experience, particularly short animated films?

MS: Yes, short animated films are a very exciting and creative outlet for independent film makers and the opportunities for recognition are very good if you take advantage of displaying your work in film festivals. There are lots of tips that I have written about in my books pertaining to how to produce these shorts.

JK: Why are film festivals an important outlet for presenting short films?

MS: They provide a great platform for getting your work seen. According to Linda Simensky, formally of Cartoon Network and now senior director of programming for PBS Kids, who is constantly out looking to discover new sources of content, it is typical that at least one or more significant contacts that lead to production opportunities happen at every film festival. So the networking opportunities are really very good.

JK: That’s quite an endorsement for festivals as a way to get “discovered”. Can you tell me more about your own experience and success in producing shorts?

MS: Most shorts that are presented in festivals are self financed, at least in my experience. So it is very important to find ways to produce these shorts in the most economical way possible. You would be surprised at how many people are willing to contribute their time and skill toward the production of a project that interests them. They are looking for the opportunity to participate and for the recognition too, but they also need to feel that their “investment” their “contribution” will be rewarded if the film is a success.

JK: Assuming that a would be producer has a vision and they can convince other artists to participate, how do you go about compensating them so as to attract these “investors”?

MS: First of all you need to recognize that anyone who invests expects to receive a return on their investment. So one method, which I have utilized successfully, is to establish a percentage sharing arrangement that begins with creating a detailed production budget. You must produce a line by line cost of production estimate. Then you can assign a percentage value to each contributor’s contribution based on that budget. Then you can write a contract that provides the “investor” with the opportunity to share in the gross revenue success of the production with the potential to receive up to twice the value of their original contribution. Just remember that all agreements need to be in writing. The last thing you want to do is just have verbal understandings. Those are a recipe for major problems in the future. When things are in writing up front there are proper expectations set and everyone is protected.

JK: So you are sharing the gross revenue and not the net?

MS: In the entertainment industry you never want to have an agreement that is based on the net returns because there never seems to be any. It’s a taxes kind of thing.

JK: So by sharing the recognition and a percentage of your gross with those people who invest their time and skills in the production you are able to produce a high quality film for a very small up front cost?

MS: Exactly.

JK: I’m just curious, but can you give me a ballpark of what you have experienced as a realistic cost for producing a short?

MS: Yes, a good typical cost is about thirty-eight thousand dollars per completed minute of production. But remember that you can create a very entertaining short in not much over a minute. Our “Timmy’s Lessons in Nature” series, which recently won Grand Prize in the Nicktoons Film Festival, consists of short episodes of just over a minute each.

Author's Note: I just received an e-mail from Mark Simon where he was kind enough to point out one of those places where my recall of our conversations was slightly in error. And as kind as Mark has been in sharing his knowledge, I certainly don't want to be misquoting him. So here is a very important correction, sorry Mark, it was a hectic weekend.

MS: When I talked about the cost of producing an animated short, the 38K I mentioned was in regards to the cost of producing my Timmy shorts. Range in costs for animation can vary a great deal. Someone may be able to produce a Flash animation for a few hundred bucks if they work alone. Some pieces may cost a few grand. It depends on how may people work on it and what the script calls for. Some pieces are easier than others. The cost can go much higher than my Timmy budget too. High-end commercials and features can cost over $1,000,000 per minute to produce. I don't want to scare people who read this and think that any animation could cost 38K per minute.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Hurricane Katrina

Everyone at TallGrassRadio Studios wants to urge all our fans and readers of this blog to contribute generously to the organization of your choice to aid the victims of Hurricane Katrina. We all need to roll up our sleeves and help.