Build America

chalkboard animation

This spot went live last week.

We did it with the good folks at Fly Communications.

Build America Mutual “Blackboard” from Ace & Son MPC, LLC on Vimeo.

We animated the chalkboard stuff IRL (in real life, if you don’t know) capturing into Dragonframe and ultimately having it composited with the kids in AfterEffects.

Kelsey Stark drew everything. We figured the timing out first and had the help of a projector to make some of the trickier scenes less trick. Just like The Sistine Chapel.

The Long Silence

We get (hopefully) frequent calls about prospective work.

Often these potential clients will want something for nothing before committing to the contract.  This might simply be a detailed budget and creative treatment or it could be as much as a bit of animation.

We’re always happy to prepare creative briefs and business plans, very seldom will we do “test” animation.  It happens, I guess, maybe every couple of years if the stars are properly aligned.  We’ve done pre-contract tests for a fee.  This makes sense for both parties.   After all, a “test” under compromised budget conditions won’t give an accurate representation of what the ultimate product will be.  Even a token amount can be sufficient to demonstrate greater ideas for a production.

There’s a middle ground of free development which we regularly walk before a job is awarded: the design.

Creating original artwork before an award can be difficult to avoid.  Sometimes you’re trying to make a sale, and it’s a minimal investment.  Sometimes the potential client pressures for it (I’ve found that roughly 90% of the people who pressure you for original artwork before a contract are questionably trustworthy).   Point to style references, past work, verbal descriptions -sometimes these come up short.

These are a couple drawings that Liesje Kraai did a few months back on a potential project.   Not only were these asked for, but we were even asked to make some revisions when they revised their prospectus.



Let it be noted that I think “whiteboard animation” is largely, uh, questionable from both a visual and narrative point of view.  “Whiteboard animation” was something they (for some reason) found interesting.  So we did our best to oblige.


Surprisingly, after barely acknowledging receipt of our 6 drawings, we never heard from the prospective client again.

Master Brewer – Maurice Sendak

Death is about the living, since the dead no longer care.

The living’s relationship to the departed, the newfound lack in the universe of the remaining.

Celebrity deaths touch many because of their surface intrusions into our lives, they’re “known” like a distant relation but one who’s offered hours of entertainment.   Sometimes they affect us deeply, or at a particular moment in our development and leave an indelible thumbprint on our psyches.

I can’t say that Maurice Sendak was such a figure for me -though I did like “Really Rosie” a great deal as a child I’m certain that had more to do with Carol King.  I didn’t even encounter “Where the Wild Things Are” until a visit to my pal Tasca Shadix’ Austin home during my third year of college.  As an “adult” I came to appreciate his work as any sensible person should.

Getting back to the personal (and it’s all about me! -isn’t that what Max would want?), I wanted to share one story of a Sendak encounter.

Around 1999 or so, an agent for a Japanese ad agency contacted The Ink Tank about a campaign for a “Master Brew” beer.  They wanted a mascot of the brew master, they were triple bidding -as was the custom -and giving a stipend for some development art -as was the custom.

R. O. Blechman, the studio’s director, was on a rare vacation (as much as a visit to his mother in Florida could be considered a vacation) and was intent on landing the contract.    He suggested we ask Sendak to design the character.

Apart from the stunt of having a celebrity illustrator -along with Hirschfeld the only household name illustrator alive at the time -design a beer mascot, R. O. was absolutely right in his casting.  Sendak’s hatched, watercolor style was perfect for the mood of the spots.

So I spun the rolodex and called his Connecticut number.  I introduced myself.  Not really, I just said I was Blechman’s producer at The Ink Tank, no need to say anything more.  I told him about the project, emphasizing that it was a Japanese.   He was reluctant to do advertising in the States.  (The next year, by the way, he licensed his characters to Verizon for a very well done series of spots.)

His reluctance became refusal, so I promised that Ed Smith would be the lead animator.  Ed had done a beautiful job with is Sendak’s illustration 20 years earlier on a segment for “Simple Gifts”.  I told him he could be as little involved as he was on that project and be guaranteed great results.  I told him he could be as deeply involved as he liked, too.

He said he was too busy with an opera at Julliard. “Oh, really, what opera?” -sensing my opportunity to ingratiate myself.  “Hansel and Gretl”.  “The Humperdinck?  That should be great!  Your stuff is a great choice…”  (And they say a Liberal Arts education is useless).

Still, no avail, he wouldn’t do it.

After hanging up, I took a breath and called Blechman.  “Sendak won’t do it.”  “What do you mean?  Give me his number.”

Two minutes later the phone rings again.  “Maurice will FedEx drawings in the morning.  He’ll do what he can and they won’t be in color.”

It’s good to have a hammer.

Next morning, FedEx delivers a package of a dozen or so beautiful drawings.  In color.  Absolutely perfect.   Tight, precise, astounding little water colors.  We were actually smelling them -smelling them as our eyes and hands were not enough to take them all in.

There are multiple solutions to most problems, but sometimes there’s a perfect solution. Sendak’s art was the perfect fit for this job.

I’m now remembering that we had to email them.   AOL had special system for larger files.  Larger, like 5 MB large.  There was plenty of angst sending them out.

Then, no response.

More angst.

No response.

Then, the news.  The agent for the agency informed us that they were going with another studio (either Duck Soup or Kurtz, I can’t recall) he said -exactly quote -“The agency had never heard of Maurice Sendak, and frankly, they thought the drawings were weird”.


You Get What You Pay For

I don’t like to spread negativity with this blog, but these subway ads embarrass me.  Every time I see them, I sort of cringe and hide my face lest something recognize me as someone remotely associated with drawing and hold me somehow responsible.

You may have seen EZ Pawn’s cringeworthy  commercials featuring a thrift store Uncle Sam if you’ve got TV insomnia.

Usually when I see these low end, direct spots I think -use some simple illustration you can make a nice spot with this same small budget.

There’s no accounting for taste.

Cartoons of Glory

This is an article from the November 3, 1986 New York Magazine that was in The Ink Tank pressbook.  I won’t repost all the copy, click the images to read everything.

The photo on page one is from an MTV ID designed by Mark Marek. The actress is R. O. Blechman’s mother-in-law.

Cartoonist R. O. Blechman, known for his squiggly line, was frustrated.  The head of The Ink Tank, an eight year old studio that makes animated films and television commercials, Blechman had spent the whole day trying to bring to life a storyboard for Serenity, a new product for incontinent women.  But the resolution and dissolves “weren’t working -the whole thing looked banal,” so he decided to scrap the agency suggestion and start fresh.  The revised spot opens with animation, segues into a live action sequence, and closes with animation.  Ordinarily, Blechman rejects the conventional ad-industry wisdom that live action is credible and animation is not, but in this case, he agreed the patch of reality worked.

The article then discusses some of the studio’s spots before getting to “a computer system recently installed at the Tape House Editorial Company… The new computer, nicknamed the Harry system, ‘lets you juggle and edit out anything -an offending pole, say -in live action or animation.'”  That’s the Paintbox system which would open a new chapter in special effects history.


Pan Productions has begun to specialize in “color xerography”.  The studio takes live action footage, Xeroxes it frame by frame, and colors the copy to produce an animated effect.  Los Angeles based Kurtz & Friends has created a futuristic spot for Toyota in which an illustrated sports car becomes a real Supra…

Perpetual Animation created a combination spot for Home Box Office that shows an animated family in a three-dimensional set, watching live-action movie clips on their cartoon TV.  Jerry Lieberman productions put real script erasable pens into the hands of animated people…

…Buzzco Associates has created a series of ads combining  live action and animation: a cartoon vacuum cleaner hosing around real-life cans of Love My Carpet; real babies crying animated tears for WMET radio; an animated viewer watching live-action TV for Lifetime Cable; and a drawing of a made-up eye becoming a real eye for Aziza eye shadow…

Then Candy Kugel points out this sort of thing has been around forever but technology makes it easier.

 …Nine years ago, Mark Zander Productions dropped comedian Bob Hope onto a remote oil rig operated by animated Texaco workers.  More recently Zander cast an animated basset hound in a chorus line of live dancers stomping and kicking for Hush Puppies shoes, and in a spot for Shick Plus  razors, planted a fuzzy white cartoon beard on the face of a real-life man. (The sudden appearance of the animated facial hair terrifies a crowd.)

Then there’s some pretty banal history which tries to elevate itself by calling Walt “Walter Elias Disney”.

The resurgence in commercial animation has been stimulated by advances in technology and by the work of artist like Blechman, who formed The Ink Tank in 1978 after producing an animated TV special. The Ink Tank’s next project is an allegorical film The Golden Ass, which tells the story of a young man who, having been magically transformed into a donkey, struggles to regain his human form. The story recalls Blechman’s award-winning TV film, The Soldier’s Tale, in which a peasant soldier trades his fiddle to the Devil in return for great wealth, and find happiness only when the trade is reversed.

With big dollar advertising, Blechman feels he has made a personal Mephistophelian swap. In the sixties, he refused to advertise cigarettes, promote Muzak, or sell illustrations to Playboy. “But between these black and white poles lay a vast gray (and green!) world of commissions, and I did not know how to chart my course,” he writes in his book, Behind the Lines.

Blechman has since learned. The Ink Tank is accepting more project than ever before -45 so far in 1986 -and many, like the Serenity ad, are animation-live action mixes. “Advertising is dead if it doesn’t attract attention,” says Blechman. “Mixing live action and animation does just that.”

Commercial Break

Here’s an ad we just finished for

Turns out we’re already a client (they purchased a little while back and they’re our web registry).

Fly Communications was the agency.  They were great to work with.  Very open to our ideas and responsive with their own.  Terrific agency.

At Asterisk, Doug Compton was the animator with additional animation and assistant work by Christina Capozzi Riley and some additional inbetweening by Liesje Kraai.

Robbie Ledoux and JZ Barrell of Hudson Sound Lab did the music.

Lucky Elephant

Here’s a nice piece of packaging I brought back from the Great White North for Christina.

I should point out that it is actually a full color print job (“Sandy Lion” logo) but they had the restraint of design o limit themselves to 2 colors plus a strong black.

Even as a silhouette the shape and mass of the elephant are well defined with judicious use of white.

Fluff Daddy contemplates life as a big creature, like the Lucky Elephant, and wonders what it would be like to be on a box of his own.

Something disheartening in the proposition, perhaps.  Maybe just another dream.

The Job Binder

This is something I rarely do, but should probably do all the time.

The job binder.  A three ring binder that contains all the information for a production.

print art in an agency paste up which inspired the spot in question

I rarely use job binders because 1) I’m lazy -no explanation needed and 2) I’m arrogant -I tend to think I can produce a half dozen projects simultaneously while never lettin’ em see me sweat.

I’d like to hear incidents when I’ve spotted with a bead of perspiration.  Unlikely to be anyone to step up (there’s that arrogance for you).

Bidding Guideline
The agency producer was amazingly awesome.  She put together the “bidding guideline” which I could then use throughout the production as a reference for what we were supposed to be doing.
In yesterday’s post on the bidding process, I neglected to mention that all of those steps will ultimately make producing the film significantly easier.  Here’s a perfect example.
For this project I was less than certain.  We were shooting live action (35 mm, high speed), creating original CG animation,  doing special effects and editing pre-shot footage of the vehicle provided by the client.  Plus 2 different legal versions (different supers/tags/etc) in two different lengths (:30 and a :27/:03), in 6 languages.   That’s 24 versions of the spot.
And it was a pretty meager budget to boot.
So I reverted to the Job Binder.  I first used them on jobs I produced with Santiago Cohen and Maciek Albrecht for HBO.  Back when I was terrified of screwing up (before I learned that no one ever  died because they didn’t have perfect animation).
So what should this binder contain?
1) CONTACT INFORMATION.  Who is doing what and how can they be reached.  Important to have at your quick disposal -especially when live action is involved.
The storyboard is the blueprint and lexicon for an animated film.  Most commercials, in general.
3) SHOT LIST.  The breakdown of each scene.  This is most important in animation.  You track where a shot is in production and can calculate how long it will take to finish.
Every film is shaped by money.   If you need another compositing artist, check the numbers -maybe you’ve accounted for it (hopefully you have).
5) SCHEDULE (obviously)
6) SPECS.  Specifications of what the job delivery entails.  A list of all versions and formats required.
7) CORRESPONDENCE.  Important letters to and from clients and vendors.   You may need to refer to these in the future.
8) RESALE CERTIFICATES.  If you’re buying/renting stuff you don’t have to pay sales tax on those items if you’re reselling them.  If you buy tape, you’re reselling it as part of your delivery, no sales tax.  The state issues “resale certificates” for the vendor to keep on file.
Conversely, you are responsible to pay sales tax on your the sale of your film unless you have a resale from your client.  If they’re an ad agency, that’s no problem -they resell to their client.  So make sure you get one, otherwise the state is due a big percentage of your budget.
There are other things you can keep in here as well.
You’ll notice that the only “creative” information I’ve kept is the storyboard.  This binder is for the business end of production, if things such as model approvals and character turnarounds are an integral part of the process, you might want to include them.  Generally, I prefer to keep that stuff separate.


We’ve worked up several bids in the last week or so.  Clearly this is a positive for any studio.  It means the opportunity for work is there and it’s (somewhat) in your power to land it.

Brian once told me that for every 10 sample reels sent out, you’d get one bid and for every ten bid you’d land one job.  It’s much harder to do the math on the first part of the equation these days when an actual “reel request” is rare -most samples are screened anonymously off of the web.  The 1 out of every 10 bids might be a bit long on the odds these days as well, since potential clients have learned to narrow down their prospective contractors before running through the bid process.

Back in the 10% days (when all the budgets had that additional zero on the end), there was also a form to bidding that seems to have disappeared.   Clients don’t seem to know about this protocol and busier ones may not even be all that receptive but this procedure -like everything in animation, is about making the job easier, like everything in budgeting, is about making the numbers more transparent.

It’s up to production companies to stick with this process (or something close) even when the client is unaware -after all its our job to make films, its their job to sell product.  This is the filmmaking procedure more than a sales/advertising one.

STEP ONE: The Initial Conversation

Here’s where you get a lot of the generalities out of the way.  What’s the timeframe?  How long is the piece?  What media/style?  And most importantly: “Is there a number you want the budget to hit?”

Sometimes they play coy (hate that), sometimes they genuinely don’t know, sometimes they come right out and say it.

Remember, a budget is just a component of a bid.  It’s a fixed number -just like a household budget -a figure you work towards and on which you base all of your expenses.

STEP TWO: Follow Up

Very often the initial conversation takes place before you get the script, client storyboards or prospectus brief.

Usually when you get this material in, you’ll see something that you hadn’t thought about previously.  “Is the product live action?”  “Do we need to do multiple versions for (800) numbers?”  “Is it a 25/05 or a straight 30?” (Many commercials -especially ones for franchises like fast food places or automobiles will have an unchanging 25 second body with a 5 second tag that changes per market or offer).

It’s best to get on the phone with these questions.  One answer can often lead to another question.  As much as people resort to email these days it’s a terribly inefficient way to do it.

Even if you don’t have any questions the follow up is important for one big question. Here’s how I like to phrase it:  “Everything looks pretty clear, but I may have some questions as we dig into the budget and schedule.  In the meantime, we have some thoughts we love to share with you and your team on a creative call.”

STEP THREE: The Creative Call

I’m told there was a day when you’d actually meet prospective clients face to face before bidding a project.  I even vaguely recall attending some of these meetings in the hallows of Madison Avenue.

Those days are passed, we now rely on the wonders of telecommunication and the marvel that is the “conference call” to discuss ideas that could be the ground work for a million dollar project.

For the sake of discussion, we’ll pretend that everyone successfully gets on the phone at the appointed hour, that everyone knows how to operate their speaker phone, that the audio fidelity is loud and clear, every participant has an easily distinguished, clear voice and that no one is working on an experimental aircraft while on their “hands free” nor eating food that sounds like one.

Here’s how the call should proceed.

1) Good natured banter.

2) A display of common interest.  “Oh my pal so-and-so worked with blahblahblah, they had a great time!”

3) Get that out of the way quickly and say “So we’ve got your boards in.  Maybe you should walk us through them so we’re on the same page.”

4) Agency/client goes through their board/concept.

5) At this point you’ve got to gauge how much they want to hear from you.  If they don’t want much feedback (you can usually tell if they talk about how hard it was to sell the idea to their higher ups) you tailor your pitch accordingly.

5a) Your creative pitch.  Maybe you don’t have much to add.  Maybe you envision everything big and red.  Either way, this is your chance to impress them with your thought process.  Optimally, it’s a conversation: “We think this could go a few ways, here’s one idea…”,  “We don’t have it all figured out but we were thinking something like…”.  It’s not exactly “brainstorming”, but its along those lines.  Have an idea of what you want to say, what your approach to the project will be and present it.

6) Any questions?  This is a two way street.  You may have creative questions for them.  “Does the pony have to be polka dotted?”  “Have you considered other techniques?”  Et cetera.

7) Wrap up.  This can take shape in a number of ways.  Sometimes we’ll do a quick walk through of our process if we haven’t done that already.  Often it’s just “Any more questions?”  Thanks.  Goodbye.

As always, its best to follow this up with your contact and thank them.  An email will suffice here, or just a phone message.

STEP FOUR: Tell Them What You’re Going To Tell Them

I can do a commercial bid (meaning budget, schedule and creative treatment) in about four hours depending on the treatment.  A very complex one can take up to a week, especially if it involves talent, casting, music, filmic live action or other outside-the-studio costs.  Sometimes you may need to get bids from subcontractors to complete your bid.  Likewise, a simple spot in a familiar style can have a bid package prepared in an hour or less.

If you haven’t done a lot, it should take you longer -bidding is a skill like any other.  Still, no matter how quickly you can do it, let it rest overnight before sending it.

Before sending, call the client and say: “I’ve got the bid ready.  We’re covering X, Y and Z and we’re coming in at $XXXXXX.  Does this make sense?”  This gives one last chance to make sure everyone is getting everything they need from the bid.

It has happened where a client has told us to lower the number at this point, and believe it or not, we’ve also been told on a few occasions to raise the number.


I once talked to a director at another studio.  We had bid against him on a project.  Neither of us got it, I think it went West Coast.  Anyway, he claimed his producer didn’t send the bid in on time -an act he felt cost them the job.

Like they say, 90% is just showing up.

STEP SIX: Follow Up

At this point the client probably doesn’t want to hear from you.

Tough.  They need to hear from you.

Call.  Leave a voice mail if that’s all you get.  “Hi. Making sure you got the bid, sent it at X:XX.  Lemme know if anything is unclear.”  (Here’s a rare time I use negative phrasing.  Instead of “Lemme know that everything is clear”, use of the negative invites a question/contact.)

Obviously, this process is no guarantee to get the job.   In my mind, these steps put the client in the best position to make the right decision and give the production company the opportunity to make their best presentation.

ASIFA Magazine – Fred Mogubgub, part two.

Other big commissions followed including animated sequences for Jerome Robbins’ Broadway staging of Arthur Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad. Following the graphic breakthroughs of UPA, FMS reached beyond the traditional confines of the animation studio for inspiration. Chas. B. Slackman, for instance, was recruited as designer and staff artist Irene Trivas made major stylistic contributions.

Famous Sally, illustrated by Chas. B. Slackman

In business, popularity can breed conflict  Within a year Mogubgub left FMS.  Irene Trivas and Ed Smith joined him in his new office on Sixth Avenue at Mogubgub LTD.  The “M” in FMS was replaced by a fictitious “Mohammed”.  Schwartz and Ferro would go on for another two years producing commercials as well as titles for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.

Clients followed Mogubgub.  His first major commission was a recruitment film for J. Walter Thompson.  The ad firm wanted to lure young talent,  Mogubgub was hired to attract them.  The result was a romp around Manhattan set to the Beatles first album.

Quick cutting wasn’t Mogubgub’s only approach.  And ad for Ford titled “Ford Has Changed” was reminiscent of Saul Steinberg.  American icons parade across the screen led by a cowboy, Abraham Lincoln, and a strong man.  The visuals support, yet continuously undermine the sales pitch.  “Ford has changed”: A man barks at a dog.  “…until you get inside”: Jonah inside the whale.  “Take the wheel and see”: a cop chasing a robber.  Comic images, but sinister.  After the stream of icons passes, the same gang who started the parade bring up the rear.  As they move to center they remove their heads as though tipping their hats.  Lincoln becomes a priest, the cowboy -an Indian, the body builder -a scrawny ectomorph.  This last transformation is more than a comic twist.  Instead of rejoicing at the new face of Ford, the finale questions the legitimacy and the necessity of “change”.   An early salvo in the upcoming cultural revolution.

The marching band soundtrack, the artwork, and the immediate comedy in the animation disguise the complexity of the Ford commercial.  Music and visuals take issue with one another and offer opposing points of view.  The Great Society is a further example of this technique.  A series of product shots are cut to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, it satirizes advertising and American culture.  The send up is made palatable by the filmmaker’s clear affection for his target.  Commercialism isn’t evil, just ridiculous.

Mogubgub wasn’t educated in cinematic theory (or practice) or literature. His filmmaking skills were largely self-taught. Waiting in an agency lobby he saw, for the first time, The Battleship Potemkin running on a Moviola. Having never heard of Sergei Eisenstein (much like today young animators) he recut “The Odessa Steps” on the spot. His academic credentials began and ended with Godard’s line “Film is the truth 24 times a second”. Mogubgub’s main complaint with traditional film was that it was too slow, that filmmakers underestimated the audience. People can process information much quicker than the movies present it.

The success of artists like John Hubley, Ernie Pintoff, and Norman McLaren encouraged a generation to experiment. Technological innovations offered further possibilities. In 1963, a new film splicer from Italy developed by Leo Catozzo, Fellini’s editor, allowed for cuts to be made in a single frame. Previously, an editor would lose surrounding frames and wasn’t unable to make another cut for around a foot. This opened Mogubgub’s world in much the same way non-linear editing and desktop compositing has influenced animators today.

An image was an image, whether a starlet photo from the silent era, animated drawings, or stock footage from a gangster picture. He practiced a dodecaphonics of film in which each frame is given equal value without regard for traditional consonance.

continues tomorrow