July 10, 2008

Hot damn! Looks like we might be in for the keynote equivalent of a stop-motion pie in the face at this year's beloved Ottawa International Animation Festival. Seth Green and Matt Senreich, co-executive producers, writers, and directors of Cartoon Network’s Emmy award-winning Robot Chicken will be taking the stage to show us how to have a good time while delivering a speech. Hilarity will no doubt ensue.

On the corporate-but-cool side of things and providing this year's opening keynote speech is the President of Animation for Nickelodeon, MTVN Kids and Family Group, Brown Johnson. Ms. Johnson is responsible for some of my niece's favourite programs, from the Dora and Diego series all the way to the mighty Squarepanted one himself!

From the press release,

“Johnson, Green and Senreich are leaders in the industry,” says TAC Director Azarin Sohrabkhani, “We are excited and honoured to have them offering the keynote speeches this year, which will set the tone of the conference, giving insight and inspiration on how to create a quality product and achieve great commercial success.”

All three guest speakers will give their keynote speeches at the Television Animation Conference, complement to the OIAF on September 17th & 18th, 2008 in Ottawa, Ontario.

Previously on fps:
OIAF 2006: The Television Animation Conference, Part 1

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October 9, 2006
It's Thanksgiving in Canada, which means spending lots of time in the yard raking and doing the things you should have been doing on the "real" weekend. While getting my fingers into the dirt, leaves and grass I listened to my audio recording of the "Not Just for Kids: The Animation Audience" panel from the Television Animation Conference. I was struck by the amount of interesting tidbits that were brought up during the discussion, aside from some that I had mentioned earlier. I was also struck by how these points all merited further questions and exploration that never really materialized.

As I mentioned earlier, Cartoon Network's Michael Ouweleen placed part of the onus on advertisers, who only see things in terms of outdated demographic categories; his opinion was that there has to be some way to force a change in how advertisers work, especially with the advent of new technologies like digital video recorders (DVRs). Rather than try to make a show for a predetermined demographic, he suggested, why not make the show you want to make and advertise directly to whoever watches it? The technology already exists to keep track of the viewing habits of individual audience members, so why not use it?

As sort of another take on this, PBS's Linda Simensky mentioned that PBS had largely become the domain of children and older audiences, or so they thought. She spoke of one kids' show that turned out to have a sizeable teen audience, and case where she was looking at audience breakdowns for the kids' programming and discovered that 40% of the viewers were outside of the expected demographics. (She also stepped in to correct the horrible misuse of the word "genre" when speaking about animation.)

At one point Kids WB's David Wiebe said that in the realm of North American adult animation there have been more misses than hits, and wondered if it would ever reach the same level as anime. A bit later Michael sort of countered this by comparing how many live-action shows fail, which went back to an earlier statement of his where he said that kids generally don't differentiate between live action and animation—they're all just "shows." He also suggested that it might be time to stop creating barriers between live action and animation unnecessarily. Had I been able to stick around longer for the panel (I had to leave early) I would have suggested to David that the majority of the adult animated shows that failed were too self-conscious in trying to be hip. Two of televised anime's secrets are that (a) it fully embraces its story, regarding animation as the chosen medium, not a set of storytelling parameters, and (b) on TV, most truly adult animation (e.g., Cowboy Bebop) airs late at night, while the daytime stuff is created by people smart enough to take kids seriously.

Teletoon's Caroline Tyre noted that their adult viewership has only been increasing over time, with a lineup that's a mix of American programming and homegrown (or at least co-produced).

What all this says to me is that just about all of the elements are in place for a significant amount of adult animated programming on TV—heck, I'd go so far as to say there's already a significant amount. There are also people in place willing to capitalize on it or nurture it. I would suggest, however, that what's missing is the desire to expand the notion of adult animated programming beyond edgy humour, anime (insofar as it's aired on North American TV) and superhero shows. I love shows within each of these genres, but it's only a slice of what's possible.

Anime gets mentioned a lot when people talk about adult animation, but I don't think they stop to think about what anime really offers: a wide range of stories and storytelling styles. When we get to the point that we have a few good character-driven animated comedies or dramas on the air, then I'll believe we've progressed.

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September 27, 2006
In 2004, the Ottawa International Animation Festival introduced the Television Animation Conference (TAC)—a more business-oriented subsection of the festival that mostly attracts producers, broadcasters and distributors of televised animation. It can be a good antidote to the popular image of executive types—the "suits"—as clueless, non-creative obstacles to good animation. It can also make you want to scream with frustration.

This year, one of those suits was Michael Ouweleen, senior vice president of programming and development for Cartoon Network and co-creator of Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law. In his keynote address—one of the best I've ever sat through—he took a critical look at the forces that are on the lips of everyone who works anywhere near the entertainment industry these days: mobile devices, the Internet, niche marketing and the Long Tail—all things that can and do prompt people to wild enthusiasm or trembling fear. In the case of television, the two thoughts are that these four things will ultimately kill television, or that their effects are negligible.

Ouweleeen's take mirrors mine, that the truth probably lies somewhere in between. In the end, his conclusion was that these forces have started an evolution in television, one that will ultimately benefit us by providing more choices in terms of animation styles and subject matter on the tube. His message to the audience was that TV is far from dead, but if the people in the room wanted to be part of TV's future, they'd have to expand their notions of what they produce and how.

During a later panel discussion called "Not Just for Kids: The Animation Audience," he made an important but rarely stated observation that the broadcast market is driven by advertising not just in terms of finances, but in terms of content. This doesn't mean that advertisers explicitly tell broadcasters which shows to air or what should be in them, but that the advertising model by its very nature constrains what can be made. Advertisers break things down to demographics by sex, purchasing power, and especially age. The thing is, as Ouweleen pointed out, the age breakdowns (like 18-34, 6-11, etc.) were devised by Neilsen in the 1930s, and are utterly meaningless now. He made an example of the 18-34 demo; how much does your average 18-year-old have in commong with your average 34-year-old, really? The upshot is that when you try to make a show to appeal to a certain age range as opposed to for a certain interest or theme, you end up with TV that's bland and scattershot most of the time. Again: it's past time to expand notions of what shows can be made and how.

Also on hand was Fred Seibert of Frederator Studios, who I'd have a hard time calling a suit (I'd say the same about Ouweleen, who looked most at ease in his t-shirt and green-and-black beanie, but he actually wore a suit during the keynote). During the "Cartoons on the Go: Tomorrow’s Media Landscape" panel, he also dispensed funny, easygoing, seemingly common-sense advice that has worked well for him. In a nutshell: Give people what they want, and the money will eventually follow. You may lose money while still searching for a business model or by making mistakes, but when you give people what they want, it pays off in the end. Both Seibert and Ouweleen's perspectives, which are both truly viewer-centric, complement each other nicely, and the fact that both have been successful lends them some weight. And expressing those views in a room full of suits is both encouraging and welcome.

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September 24, 2004
This year, the Television Animation Conference made its Ottawa debut—a conference-within-a-festival that puts together production companies, broadcasters, and the people who are trying to get their productions seen and heard.

The focus yesterday morning was on the American market—certainly not the only market in the world, but easily the most significant right now. There were, of course, plenty of clips: the most interesting being those for Cat Scratch (welcome back, Doug TenNapel; we've missed you since Earthworm Jim and the Neverhood computer game) and Avatar, both from Nickelodeon, and Spike TV's Afro Samurai. I love these kinds of confabs because they're tremendously encouraging for those of us trying to break into the TV animation business—not the least because they help you focus your story and your pitch.

The most interesting overall trend I saw was the ongoing broadening of the market. Spike TV, in aiming at animation for men, is increasing the sex and violence quotient, which helps to reinforce the notion that animation doesn't stop being acceptable after you're a teenager. (Though admittedly the content is still more or less adolescent.) Meanwhile, KidsWB is not only looking at creating more cartoons for girls, but creating more cartoons with "dual-gender" characters—that is, boys and girls who exhibit some characteristics we usually assign to each other's gender.

Avatar, by the way, looks awesome. The teaser and the preproduction art point to a show that's full of action and comedy, and some great design and animation work. One interesting thing I didn't notice until after the clips is that no characters actually hit anyone; all the action is through spells and evasive martial arts. But it's done so well you don't notice or care.

Later on I caught the screening of Nausicaa, which was truly a joy to watch on the big screen. I've seen the movie many times on video, but never as it was originally meant to be seen. It's amazing that a twenty-year-old film can still be fresher than the stuff that came out last year.

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