Tuesday, March 27, 2007

How To Do A Shorts Program Using Logic and Experience

Fred Seibert and his team of crack executives peer in on the latest short being focus tested

Looney Tunes The Most Successful Shorts in History
When Fred Seibert hired me to consult for him as he took control at Hanna Barbera 12 years ago or so, he asked me why old cartoons were so great and new ones sucked. He wanted to make new ones that didn't suck. So I gave him a history lesson.

I used Looney Tunes as my main example because they did everything right and succeeded because of it.

Looney Tunes created more popular characters than any other studio in history. Their cartoons have lasted 60 years.

Their key Directors are all famous and looked up to decades later.

How did they do all this? They had a logical studio production system that developed and encouraged talent:

Short Cartoons
First, like every other studio, they made short cartoons and constantly created new characters to see what characters clicked with the audience.
They didn't put all their eggs in one basket, like when a Saturday Morning Studio green lights a whole series at once and then when it fails, a lot of money is lost in one shot.

Director System
The producer-Leon Schlesinger was a very smart business man. He was risking his own money-unlike today's executives who don't care how much they spend.

Leon knew that his success depended on the talent. He was always on the lookout for the stars within the studio.

He would promote his experienced animators to director then let him sink or swim. If the director made cartoons that made the audience laugh, they got to keep their jobs.

Directors and Units Got To Practice Their Craft
If the director made yawners, then they didn't keep their jobs for long. But Leon wouldn't fire you if your first cartoon was a flop. He gave you enough time to learn how to direct and get used to your crew. Chuck Jones actually made 4 years of yawners with Leon threatening to fire him the whole time unless he started to make funny cartoons. The other directors kept telling Leon that Chuck was a real talent and Leon believed them. Eventually Chuck became the most famous director at WB. Leon trusted his talent. He didn't have sub executives telling him what cartoons worked or who was good.

Directors had their own units
The director had his own team of animators, story people, BG painters. These people would get used to each other's styles and working methods and with each cartoon, they would naturally get better-especially under a strong director.

Sometimes certain artists would migrate to other directors whose sensibilities were more in tune with their own.

I explained that there were no scripts in old cartoons, that the artists drew the stories on storyboards. Fred said "Of course! That explains why we can't find any Flintstones scripts at the studio!"

You Had To Work Your Way Up Through The System
You didn't start at the top like many of the young guys the Execs dig out of a cornfield in Idaho today. You had to learn from the ground floor up and as you started to prove yourself you could be up for promotions.

They Got Experience First
Bob Clampett started at Schlesinger's when he was 16-as an inbetweener - not as a director. He then became an animator after a couple years, and the whole time he was learning his craft, he was always pitching story ideas to the directors and to Leon. He begged Leon for years to direct and finally got his chance when he was 23 - 7 years after he started. He turned out to be the star director really fast and created many characters and classic funny films and influenced everyone else in the industry.

Partly because of his awesome talent, but also because he knew how animation worked in every sense, from working with experienced folks for years and working in various departments himself. He paid his dues first.

A good director has to understand how all the parts fit together in a cartoon, because he has to manage them and coordinate them for the most entertaining effect. He also needs the respect of the artists working for him, and an inexperienced director is not going to be respected by experienced artists.

No one today gets the opportunity to learn what it takes to be a director, because the execs split up all the director's duties and don't start people at the bottom anymore.


Everything evolved -characters, styles, artists
Nothing was ever set in stone. People believed in progress then. The characters changed design in a steady flow, the studio style, the personalities constantly grew and progressed. There were no story bibles, no predetermined catch phrases. Everyone expected next year's cartoons to be better than this year's. You can tell an early 30s cartoon from a late 30s cartoon because of the steady progress in skill.
Look back at the last 15 years of cartoons at any studio today. Anyone see any progress? It all seems to be slipping backwards to me.

The Audience Decided What Was Successful
This is so logical and obvious, it baffles me why execs can't grasp this today.

The directors knew when they had a hit cartoon and they would get inspired and run off and say "Let's do more of that!" If no one laughed, they would be ashamed, and go back and try to figure out what they did wrong and not repeat it. They didn't go into the audience and ask people what to change, as we do now with "focus testing". Imagine an architect asking a house owner why the house caved in and how to fix it.

OK, so I explained all this to Mr. Seibert and he got real excited and decided on the spot that he was going to institute a shorts program at Hanna Barbera, and I wholeheartedly supported him.

He only remembered part of what I said though. He remembered that shorts are there to discover new talent and new star characters, but the rest he kinda discarded.

I helped him find some potential new director talent and he found some of his own, but in my opinion he jumped the gun.

He started too many units at once. Too many chiefs, not enough Indians.

Then on top of that, he hired a pile of sub-executives out of nowhere, people who didn't know the first thing about cartoons and didn't like cartoons and didn't like cartoonists.

The artists would overhear these lieutenants in the hallways talking about how stupid this whole shorts idea was. It was ridiculous to write cartoons on storyboards and give cartoonists any say in the making of cartoons. "We should go back to using scripts, like we did at Ruby Spears." Yeah, that was successful! How many people can even name a Ruby Spears character today?

Of course when they were in meetings with Fred, they were all gung-ho about what a great experiment this was.

Many of these bottom feeders have now migrated to other studios and hired more of their kind and the creative process has become more complicated and illogical than it ever was.

Fred is the most logical and sincere of the modern execs for sure, but he combined some purely logical elements of cartoon making with modern crazy witch doctor management theories that undermined the cartoonists-even though he didn't mean to. It's just his hippie executive management background.

Even so, just doing something right was enough to revolutionize Hanna Barbera and put the Cartoon Network on the map. They made some pretty successful series based on the shorts created by Dave Feiss, Genndy Tartakovsky and Craig McCracken.

Since then, every studio has started up their own shorts program. Why? Because they want to discover real talent and new characters the logical efficient way?

No. They all have them because it's the thing to do. No self respecting network can have a studio now without having a shorts program. It just isn't done.

Executives don't do things for logical reasons. They do them because everyone else is doing them. Slaves to trends.

The whole reasoning behind shorts programs has now been undermined and they are managed crazily.

It would be so easy to do it right and then beat the crap out of all the other studios, just by setting up a program with pure common sense and lessons from experience and history. The first studio to follow my advice would be the top dog within a couple years. If you know what your goal is, you oughtta take the shortest most direct route to achieving it. So, let's review the goals of a shorts program.

...In the next post of free advice for execs