The Path of an Independent Animator: A Collection of Creative Approaches

This blog post is geared towards students of animation who are interested in developing their own independent projects. I’ll be giving a free talk on this topic at San Francisco State’s downtown campus on Saturday July 9, at 11am. This talk is part of an excellent free animation lecture series at SF State this summer – CLICK HERE to read more about the lecture series.

This is a very broad topic, and in this post I’d like to simply give a sense of the spectrum of approaches and look at case studies of actual independent animators’ work. Needless to say, each independent animator and indie project is completely unique! I’m looking forward to discussing these examples in more detail with an audience, so if you’re in the SF area, please feel free to join us on July 9 in downtown San Francisco for the talk.

There are two general definitions of an INDIE animator:
- An animator who works on self-directed and personally-motivated projects, either alone or with a small team.
- An animator who runs their own small production company, creating work for clients as well as their own original projects.
Both of these roles are in contrast to the commercial animation industry, which is made up of medium-to-large corporate companies where artists work as part of a large team in a production line.

Of course, independent animators can work BOTH in the commercial industry AND on their own projects – it’s not an either/or situation. Career paths naturally change and adapt over time – for example, at times I’ll be working for a larger company, other times I’ll be working on my own projects, and sometimes I’ll be doing both at once. Obviously, working for a larger company provides both valuable hands-on training as well as a source of much-needed income ☺. Looking at it as a BOTH/AND scenario instead of EITHER/OR gives one a lot of options. Most of the animators listed in this blog have worked in this flexible, multi-faceted way.

An independent animation project may be self-funded (out of one’s own volunteer time and financial resources), or it may be funded from other sources. Often, it’s a combination of the two. In many cases, a project will start off self-funded or as “hobby/play”, and then gradually morph into a bigger project.

First, I’d like to cover some traditional funding sources with which I have personal experience. Two of my short films, “Paper Peace” and “Harmonize” were produced with funds from these sources.

“Harmonize” is an animated short, based on a college screenwriting assignment, about two girls learning to play musical instruments. It was animated by myself and fellow indie animators Christina Richard, Ricardo Barahona and Victor Gascon.

“Paper Peace” started out as a simple personal project in the form of a visual poem/mini-comic that I xeroxed and gave to friends. It is based on the writings of Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Once I started exploring turning it into an animation project for public viewing, I contacted Thich Nhat Hanh’s U.S. publishing company and worked out a license for use of his text.

I applied for funding from two traditional PBS-related independent funding sources:
The Independent Television Service (offers various funding categories)
The Center for Asian American Media

The application process involved submitting a detailed written proposal, storyboards and work samples fulfilling their specific requirements – at that time, they were commissioning short 30-60 second interstitials for PBS (actually not a common occurrence – typical programs for PBS are 30-60 minutes in length). I submitted five ideas, and two were approved.

In the past, I’ve also participated in the PBS/CPB Producer’s Academy, a week-long all-expense-paid training workshop at flagship PBS station WGBH/Boston (producers of “Frontline,” “Nova,” “American Experience” and “Arthur”). It’s a chance to learn the ins-and-outs of producing for PBS:
2011 PBS/CPB Producer’s Academy Info & Application

There are several other PBS-related organizations that fund projects, with an eye towards supporting diversity in public television program. They are:

Native American Public Telecommunications
National Black Programming Consortium
Latino Public Broadcasting
Pacific Islanders in Communications
The ITVS International Call (open only to non-U.S. citizens and non-U.S. residents; not currently accepting submissions until new funding cycle begins)

In addition, many cities have nonprofit film societies and arts councils with missions to support independent filmmaking and artists. For example:

San Francisco Film Society
Silicon Valley Arts Council

One issue with these traditional funding sources is that they are usually highly competitive and require detailed proposals which take quite a bit of time to put together. A lot of work can go into applying for funding, but only a small percentage (say, 1-15%, depending on the organization) of proposals will actually get funded.

Now, with the advent of the Internet, there are several new options for independent animators that allow them to seek direct support from their existing and potential audience. This is a more grassroots approach, and still requires a lot of work, but the artist can often more directly influence the outcome.

Here’s some examples:


Example: “Cicada Princess,” directed by Mauricio Baiocchi
Kickstarter provides a platform for any project to seek out funding from the public. Mauricio Baiocchi sought $40,000 in finishing funds for his stop-motion animated film. His project caught the attention of many animation/art lovers (including myself – I’m a funder!) and so far nearly $70,000 has been raised. The extra funds will allow him to add scenes that had been cut due to budgetary restrictions.

Example: “Sita Sings the Blues” by Nina Paley
Before Kickstarter existed, Nina Paley sought out direct funding from the community for her feature film “Sita Sings the Blues,” which she single-handedly animated over several years. She also gave away her film for free, and released it under a Creative Commons license that allows others to remix it and shape it in their own creative ways. This helped to dramatically increase the viewership of the film – and many viewers purchased the DVD or merchandise to support the artist’s work, which ended up paying for the cost of the film.

Example: “Simon’s Cat” by Simon Tofield
Now with the advent of Youtube and Vimeo, it’s also possible for animators to put their work on-line for free and, in some cases, develop a huge viewing audience. “Simon’s Cat” is a perfect example. As a cat-owner myself, I love this series of animated shorts. Apparently, the first “Simon’s Cat” short was simply a demo reel project for Simon Tofield, used to show skills with Flash animation. Then someone uploaded it to Youtube without his knowledge. It got a lot of views and finally Simon Tofiled heard about it and claimed ownership of his work. He turned it into a series of animations, and with each new short his audience grew. Now with an audience of millions, “Simon’s Cat” has spun off into books and merchandise.

Independent animators are also branching out and developing their own businesses in other creative fields, including hand-made crafts and illustrated prints. Often these endeavors started out as hobbies that took on a life of their own.

Example: Michelle Meeker’s What’s In the Box Design: Sculptural hand-crafted, whimsical keepsake invitations and announcements

Example: Jackie Huang’s Wool Buddy: Adorable soft creatures hand-made out of felted wool

Example: Pascal Campion’s Illustrations & Books: Beautiful art prints and books

On the topic of branching out in one’s career, I’ve found that childhood and early adult interests sometimes come back to the fore later in life. I grew up playing a lot of music (classical and jazz piano) as a kid and teenager, but then set it aside to go to college and animation school. After working as an animator for a few years, the desire to play music came back in a strong way; I rented a piano and began attending informal jazz jam sessions at night. After a few years of gradual musical growth, I started gigging with the Eddie Gale Band and released CDs and DVDs of original compositions, solo and with a trio. Now I’m integrating my musical creativity with animation by creating music for interactive children’s books.
This end result would not have occurred if I hadn’t started reviving a past creative pursuit on a “hobby” level. Often, following your natural interests and passions will organically develop and grow into something that can be shared with others, on either a personal or professional level. So I say GO FOR IT and do what you love, and see what happens! And most of all, enjoy the journey. :)

I’d like to close this blog post with some examples of independent animators who have formed their own small production companies. They are creating world-class animation with an artisanal, personalized and hands-on approach:

Example: Charlie Canfield’s Animation Oddment & Sundries
Charlie has won several animation and documentary Emmy’s for his independent work.

Example: Nathan Dillow’s Fuzz Animation
Recently, we’ve had the pleasure of working with Nathan for Super Simple Learning’s storybook app, “Twinkle Twinkle,” based on the animated video by Fuzz Animation and Super Simple Learning. The video Twinkle Twinkle Little Star now has over 22 million views on Youtube and is loved by children all over the world. Here’s a sneak peek from the app:

To learn more about the making of this animated video, see: The Making of Super Simple Learning’s “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”: An Interview with Nathan Dillow of Fuzz Animation.

Do you have other ideas? Projects of your own? Share them in the comments!

- Valerie Mih, Creative Director

3 Comments

  1. Rob Cimitile says:

    Valerie,

    I am trying to find an animator interested in collaborating on a music video for a song of mine. My band is called Builder of the House and the song is called Fire Dawn Breaking. The song can be heard at this link.

    http://builderofthehouse.com

    I have very specific ideas for the video and would love to find someone that is sensitive to those ideas. With regard to my concept of the video, two influences are Peter Chung and his work on Aeon Flux and the sculptor Alberto Giacometti.

    I live in Portland, ME

    Best,

    Rob Cimitile

  2. Michael Everitt says:

    This is such an informative post! Thank you for sharing in such detail.

    I am just finding this in January of 2013. Will San Francisco State be organizing an animation lecture series this year also?

Leave a Comment

Newsletter