“Geo-Me!” and the Independent Animator.

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As you may have seen, yesterday I announced the official release of a project I’ve been collaborating on with some good friends over the last year.  The group calls itself Crackerbox, and our first title is “Geo-Me!”, an animated, musical iPad app that helps introduce kids to world geography.

But how in the world (ahem) did I go from working on blockbuster films at arguably one of the largest animation studios in the world to animating kiddie cartoons for education?  Answer: because it’s exactly what I’ve always wanted to do.

I’ll explain.

Like most of you, I grew up glued to Saturday morning and after-school cartoons.  I laughed at them, drew pictures of them, and re-enacted every funny gag word for word. Most of all, the songs and characters of “Schoolhouse Rock”, and the short animated clips of “Sesame Street” and other educational shows that stuck with me my whole life. I had seen enough “behind the scenes” mini-documentaries from Disney and the like to know how they were made, and that maybe it was something I’d like to do some day.  But, there were lots of things I wanted to do, so I’d have to make room for them all – and make room I did.  That room, in fact, was my parents’ (and later my own) basement, which became my mad scientist’s laboratory for various art projects over the years (as well as some fantastic D&D adventures.) It would be easy to say that I’ve always been a devout disciple of the independent project.

This desire to just “get out there and do it” led me to decide not to go to college, but instead pursue an acting career, and to promote the 4-piece rock band I had joined. While the theater life fell by the wayside, the rock life was cooking along at full steam. I loved everything about turning this creative collective in to a well oiled machine: writing music, booking shows, designing promotional materials, all-nighters in the recording studio, hauling gear, endless hours in the beat-up van, greasy meals at 5pm soundchecks, packed shows, shitty shows, after-shows…all of it. Even tedious tasks like putting mailing list labels on promotional flyers was satisfying.  It was all self-made, and that brings a certain special satisfaction. And the new fans and friends were pretty nice too.

I spent a good 20 years in this life, and I wouldn’t trade a day of it. In fact, it was because of this life that I rediscovered animation.

During this time, and as a result of creating so much promotional work for myself and for other bands and niteclubs, I found myself partnered in a modestly successful design studio.  My digital skills were growing pretty quickly (I had a lot of time to read software manuals while driving long highways to new shows), and I had just the right amount of creative space to try new things if I needed to.  When another bandmate, saxophonist and friend, Josh Bell, proposed an animated short film idea, I jumped.  While we never finished the film, I did manage to have the epiphany I needed to realize what some might call a “calling.”  I knew, without a doubt, that I wanted to be an animator, and I was going to do whatever it took to do it.  I wanted to push everything else aside, and focus on “one” thing and one thing only.  And I wasn’t going to stop until I was making feature films.

And so, having all of the right resources (and some I had to build) I spent years self-teaching, creating tests, and getting informational interviews with local studios trying to learn what it was that I needed to have to be valuable to them.  I worked locally (Chicago) animating in the advertising market, while still doing work for the local music scene (and still playing music.)  And when Animation Mentor came along, I again jumped. It was the perfect place to put that polish on my work, and, most importantly, to be seen.

When I got the call from a DreamWorks recruiter I knew all those years of work had paid off.  Here was my chance to do “one” thing, learn to do it really really well, and have that work seen all over the world. So, before even finishing AM, I packed up and moved to LA. Couldn’t have been happier.

That happiness was warranted. DreamWorks is indeed a “dream” place to work. The people, the environment, the work – all amazing.  And for a long while I enjoyed nothing more than simply being responsible for my performances.  No project management. No client relations. No chasing invoices. Just show up, eat free food, animate and go home. Bliss.

But after a few years, by the time my contract was ending, I had started to become restless.  I realized I missed the involvement in the full breadth of a project.  I was losing that “self-made” feeling that had been so satisfying my whole life.  I missed being the mad scientist in the basement.  So without a second thought, I made the decision to step away from features at the end of my term and get back some of that feeling, by pointing myself at just the type of animation that had inspired me in the first place, at the youngest age.  I wanted to add to the world of education by animating for it, just like the “Schoolhouse Rock” songs and Sesame Street shorts had done in my childhood.  So, I called my good friend Brian Doherty and asked if he wanted to help. He said yes, and Crackerbox began.

By the fall of 2011, I was living in Charlottesville VA (pulled there by love, but that’s a whole other story.)  Brian flew down for the first “Crackerbox Summit” and we began to brainstorm (and drink a lot of coffee.)  All I wanted was to write educational songs and animate to them, but Brian saw something bigger.  He saw that merging current technologies to it all would really be what would make this the “Schoolhouse Rock” of the 21st Century.  We recruited our friend, a brilliant coder named Bill Hayes to join our efforts. Both he and music producer Scott Tallarida got enthusiastically on board, and our first title “Geo-Me!” was under way.

So what has that meant for me over the last year and a half working on “Geo-Me!”?  It’s brought me full circle back to the world of the fully self-made, boot-strap style creativity.  In fact, this is more than I have ever bitten off in my whole creative life.  The layers of management are really deep, but incredibly fun.  I not only needed to schedule my own animation production (which consisted of one animator – me,) but I also needed to help create schedules, project outlines, spreadsheets, animatics, mockups, and wireframes for everyone else involved too. Trips up to Chicago were required to spend more of those late-night hours in the recording studio (no complaints there), as well as having some valuable face-time planning and bonding sessions with my partners.  Writing the song “Where I Am”, which drives the experience, required hours of generously given interviews from my international cadre of friends, and many hours of solitude and strumming to write the stories and melodies that made up each character verse. And that’s all just pre-production!

Then, when the starting gun fired, I spent my days producing 6 60-second musical shorts (of the 12 total), wrangling geographical data resources, and designing and producing all of the graphic elements for the app interface. All the while, Bill was finding time to build this incredibly challenging machine in code, and Scott was chipping away at the individual “character mixes” for the music tracks.  Phew! And that’s only the big stuff.  Somewhere in there we attempted a Kickstarter campaign, and have been wooing potential partnerships and funding for the future. Oh, and building a website. Oh, and… well, the tedious list goes on and on.

And while this is not the same as freelancing (of which I have done my fair share while in the throes of this project), there are certainly similar creative benefits.  What I have enjoyed the most is what I have been able to learn. As an independent artist of any sort, you have little to no support persons to help out when a creative problem arises – so “trail by fire” becomes your most important teacher.

Over the course of the “Geo-Me!” project I have:  become more comfortable in a traditional 2D animation environment; first purchased and learned (and upgraded twice) my Toon Boom Animate software; learned more about myself as a lyricist, singer and songwriter; got up to speed on more recent music recording technologies; gained an understanding of object oriented coding; learned WordPress, HTML5 and CSS; mastered Final Cut Pro X; used my sketchbook more than I have in years; re-kindled my love for Adobe Illustrator; learned how to better write a business plan, a press-release, and a basic spreadsheet; and much, much, much more.

I love feature animation – the time and detail and emotion and design put in to every moment of every shot. There is nothing like it, and I hope to have the chance to go back to it again and again. But there is also something so satisfying in taking all of that detailed knowledge of mechanics and behavior and distilling it down to a simple little cartoon. Limited animation. It is just as satisfying an art, and I feel privileged to be able to create in both.

Even if this all crumbles to the ground (which it will not!) I am already better for it.  As an independent artist or gun-for-hire you are always better off and more valuable to a client or producer if you are self-motivated and organized with your time. What you are essentially doing is learning to “lead” yourself.  That is a mere step away from learning to lead others, which is a skill I am still trying to get better at.  Success comes from self-motivation alone. The “get out there and just do it” approach takes a long time, sometimes, to bear any fruit. But considering most people give up early, your chances get better the longer you stay in the game (and so do your skills).

I have never been quite so proud of anything I’ve done in my life than this little endeavor called Crackerbox, and our first baby “Geo-Me!”.  Our plan is to make many more, and to grow the collective of artists as we do so. Maybe some of you reading this right now will get to participate someday. Or maybe you’ll make your own.  Either way, there is a good world out there for independent artist if you are willing and able to persist.  And taking the time to learn from the people who have done it (successful artists, or big studios like DreamWorks) is for sure a worthwhile trip along the way. I’m not anywhere near the end of this journey, but you can bet I’ll keep you posted as we head forward.

Good luck!

 

/ken

 

 

 

 

 

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