Monday, July 20, 2009

A Writer's Story Of The Pain Of Modern Jargon

A well known and respected cartoon writer (with enough emmys to fill a bowling alley) saw my post about Writer-executive jargon and sent me an email relating one of his own experiences with modern buzzwords. I cut out his name to protect his identity so he can continue to work. Here's his story:

Hi John,

I saw your latest blog post about insane animation executive blather. It reminded me of a pitch meeting I had last year at Disney.

I was meeting with some artists I like in their TV division to pitch a new idea to their boss, a cookie cutter idle dandy who had, predictably, failed in all other areas of entertainment then drifted, also predictably, into animation. This Disney ass-ecutive arrived ten minutes late, no doubt to instill the proper aura of fear and respect in his underlings. He was also loudly cracking and popping gum, his way of telling us that nothing important was going on in this room, certainly nothing that required his full attention.

I never actually got to say anything for the ass-ec quickly launched into a full flurry of buzz words to describe the series he was looking for: "fresh," "hip," "hot," "out of the box," and the ever popular "cutting edge," which I happened to be fantasizing about applying to his jugular at that moment. As an added bonus, he became intensely involved in examining his right shoe, to the point he removed his Bass weejun and traced his finger over the stitching while continuing to blather on about "narrative arcs," "the heroes' journey," "Joseph Campbell," and other expressions gleaned from a STAR WARS "Making Of" bonus feature.

After several minutes of this, ass-ec's cell phone rang and he stepped into the hallway to confirm his dinner reservation. I looked to the dazed artists on either side of me and remarked, "Don't like cartoons much, do he?" A few pained grins were my only confirmations. A second later ass-ec popped his head back in to announce "We're done," then fluttered away to spread joy elsewhere. Later he called my agent to complain that for a pitch, I didn't put on much of a show for him. "**** just sat there saying nothing." Ass-ec whined. "What was wrong with him, anyway?"

****ing awesome.

Give me a shout if you still want to grab lunch. I see you have a booth at San Diego and will drop by. Hopefully you will have a few of those Donald Bastard shirts in mega-size.


Mattieshoe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
nktoons said...

Heh, sad but true? That is really a shame. The one that made me groan the most with disgust was "We need a scooby beat here" from a few posts back, I've been randomly dropping it into conversations for a few days now.

Rodrigo said...

As a long time reader, and a newbie to the industry, having already witnessed some of this executive deviltry, I can't help but wonder if there are any bastions of animation left today.

I see a lot of horror stories about the modern day creative process, but I'd like to hear people's stories that are instead positive. There's must be some creative folks out there who've had dealings with a sensible suit or at least one who respected their creative space. From what I understand, Pixar safeguards their creatives by making sure the producer is solely in charge of budget/money and leaves the creative decisions to the creatives. Can anyone confirm this?

I just feel like I'm getting prematurely weathered with all this doom and gloom.

Tristan Sregor said...

Wow. Not really giving me too much incentive with wanting to become a cartoonist.

That's just horrible.

Niki said...

I'm imagining a Russian accent cause I'm trying to think I know who he/she is, but I'm also confident that he/she would never work for the hip Disney. Although I'd like to add I don't know him/her personally, but I really want to!

I hate that word hip, because considering my age group me and my friends would be idle to explain what it is, yet a majority of us are tried of hearing it.

Whit said...

Guess again, Mattieshoe. The writer should remain nameless so he or she can still work, as John said. But that Disney asshole suit created the "High School Musical" franchise.

J C Roberts said...

For all you younger budding animators, don't let this kind of thing deter you from trying. These types have always been around stepping on creative toes. If there's one place I can give professional advice, it's about being deterred from trying. I've made a career of it doesn't pay well, though).

If you've got a foot in the door, especially, keep it there. If I hadn't worried so much about these types and the bleak state of animation when I should have gotten started (1980-ish)I may have reaped something by the early 90s. Instead I work in a mail center.

Just get used to the fact that these guys come with the territory if you're trying to get real work in the business. And anyone who wants to be "the next John K" should try to do what he did. I don't mean rip him off, either, I mean work your way through it and get one past them. Then those same execs will be telling their creative teams to rip off YOUR stuff.

Matt said...

Nothing like an arrogant, clueless air-head exec to truly highlight everything that's wrong with the animation industry, let alone the corporate system at large. What I can't understand though, is how people who have been successful in animation don't become execs themselves and do things right. I'm lookin' at you, John. :-)

Pixar seems to be the closest thing to that, and Ed Catmull seems to be the best that the animation industry execs have to offer.

Stone said...

enough! let's take back the goddamn industry already! we ought to make our own 'toons even if we gotta stand out on the sidewalk with flipbooks and a tin can with 25cents scribbled on it with a sharpie!

I'm also an industry newbie and... frankly... this is bullshit. I'm disgusted that so many older guys have put up with this kind of (un)professional disrespect for DECADES and haven't the balls to say, "you know what? this ain't right!"

considering our industry is so specialized and really, despite popular belief, not just anyone can do this, we should be up there with the likes of doctors and lawyers. You learn the basics, meet a standard and THEN get paid a fair wage for your time (in theory). instead, the goddamn fry cook at McDonalds gets more respect that any "lazy useless artist that works unpaid overtime and makes assholes millions of dollar at their own expense."


*sigh* back to work I guess.

Kaiser Fate said...

"The hero's journey" alone deserves the award for the biggest sh*t-slinger in the entertainment industry.
I have had it explained to me so many times that if it ever meant anything to anyone, it would no longer mean anything to me now. Whether they open up Final Draft and write a script or sit down and do the whole story by drawing a story board, it boggles my mind that anyone who would call themselves a "writer" (or occasionally a funnier and more elitist term like "worldsmith") would have to look to the single most overused formula of all time as a 'starting point'.

If a good story follows 'the hero's journey', it just happens. They did not sit down and say, "I'd better start with the Hero's Journey as my launch pad".

yoghansoth said...

I would love to see an animation revolution. Where all the animators and 'respected animation writers' jump ship and leave some of those tired, sour, repugnant animation companies high and dry. I would enjoy watching one of those really unimaginative cynical companies bankrupt (like one would assume they would if it weren't for all the child targeted marketing). The freed animators then set up their own animation world where they can drive the content and enjoy a few golden years before becoming an dominating, conservative and cynical company of their own.

I mean, surely that's due about now?
(Maybe I'm just mad because I watched the ALIENS IN THE ATTIC trailer).


Zorrilla said...

I thought the story would end with something like "...and that man was Walt Disney!"

Jack G. said...

Here's food for thought from the late Al Hirschfeld:

In my time, artists, writers and poets were treated with reverence and their opinions were highly valued... people took artists' thoughts seriously. But today, unless you make money, you're not respected. Now the quotes you read are from businessmen, and artists are thought of as untrustworthy freaks and lunatics.

David B. Levy said...

I'd file this writer's story under, "worst case scenario." Does it represent every such meeting or every such executive? Of course not. And, it should only talk you out of your dreams if you were looking for a way out in the first place.

The point of these meetings is two fold. It's not just for the suits staring at you to decide your fate. You (the artist) are supposed to make a judgement too. You should be asking yourself, "Do I want to be in business with these people?" And, if so, at what cost or on what terms?

dancing platypuss said...

hahah... this stuff sounds familiar to me..My first work was ona terrible movie with such a poor story... the main cahracters were a girl and his little brother.... when more than half the movie was already animated producers thought the kid needed to connect better w the audience... so ( and here is the funny thing) the decided to make him LAME!!! they wanted to reanimate all sequences on wich the boy was and put him a wooden leg...0-0...
oh also they run out of money andthey they asked the score guy if he wanted to coproduce the movie... the guy agreed... and one day he came with a piece of music that according to him was" set on the moon" so... we had to create a sequence in the moon cause the guy wanted to ....god god... didnt anyone tohught of making a sitcom about animators and their world?
btw ..GREAT BLOG!!!

HemlockMan said...

I think Harlan Ellison once jumped one of those guys and shattered his hip. You might want to consider doing that.

CplEthane said...

The suit behind the desk in that situation sounds exactly like the corporate stereotype you see in movies -- the one who's an obstacle to the protagonist, but whenever the protagonist or whatever he's doing proves to be a smashing success, he acts like he saw this coming all along.

david gemmill said...

i pitched to a CN executive last year, months later homeboy was fired. No surprise the way that studio is going. He used similar terms mentioned in this post.

also "family guy-light" was one of my favorites.

Taber said...

These are good stories, and I believe you when you describe the idiocy that goes on in commercial animation at the executive levels.

My real question is, what the heck can we do about it?

Produce independently until our stuff is popular? Refuse to work for shitty execs who force crap into the mainstream? Just shut up and get paid? Work for you? What?

Dingleberry said...

Ya know what they say.
Low budget means freedom and no lunch.
Big budget means working from a cage and eating eye fillet steaks.
Okay, they don't say that, I say that.
I don't think these tales are deterrents because all artists have heard the stereotypical horror stories for years before they endeavoured to enter their field of interest. It's like in my screenwriting course when a speaker says, "you won't make any money". We don't wanna hear it 'cos we've already heard it. (Then the next week a speaker will say there's big money in screenwriting...)
I have a huge problem with ART and BUSINESS climbing into the same sentence together. They contradict one another and fight like cats in a bag.
Do you think there ever really will be a revolution? And the revolution would in truth have to be larger than just animation, or film and TV, but a whole societal change. Let's hope this predicted death and rebirth of 2012 is for real. This whole world could do with an extreme make-over.
The next generation are being shaped by dross like High School Musical, Miley Cyrus-face and so forth. My friends and I have warped and wonderful dreaming brains thanks to Henson films we watched when very young. Digging up Jim Henson and bringing him back to life with some voodoo could work, or great ideas people could somehow get the power to let the good ideas slip through and create a new pattern.

"Take away the price-tag, it'll be worth more than ever."

Yowp said...

Alas, management buzzwords and phrases that are laughable clich├ęs aren't restricted to the animation industry.

What's sad is when young people coming in buy into them.


Mansilla said...

those stories teach me that animation is a business. Not art.

J C Roberts said...

"a sitcom about animators and their world?"

They did back in '83. It was called "The Duck Factory" and starred Jim Carrey before his career took off. Don Messick played the main voice guy as well.

It didn't last long.

Whit said...

Digging up and bringing back Jim Henson would bring one swift, welcome result: the firing of everyone running what passes for his former company, including his own kids. Maybe that will also come to pass in 2012.

ther1 said...

Nice Jim Henson comment. Do you hate Dinosaurs? The last episode had a horrible ending, and the Simpsons got it right when they joked about the show ripping their concept off. "I'm-the-baby" is best left undiscussed. I like the Flintstones better...

Since everyone here is in such a grim mood, I present to you this cartoon about clueless executives and beleaugered employees. Maybe it will help cheer you up.

Cool Cal said...

I'm not in animation, but attend many insufferable entertainment industry ass-kiss barbecues and the like. The thing that made me want to pounce like a jungle creature on the "creative executive" who said it at the party was "Yeah, just saw Wall-E ... it's actually a really subversive movie." In the context, "subversive" was intended with the same milquetoast cultural significance as "edgy" and "outside-the-box".

spaz said...

some other inane phrases were;

"through it against the wall and see if it sticks" which is a weird poo term


"punch holes in this for me" referring to underlings tasked with looking for problems with the idea.

regardless, i found myself like Steve Martin in "The Jerk" where he was attempting to maintain rhythm with his black family. i just couldn't get it. i tried to find another subject to switch the writing process to, like cars, engine parts and weapons. something i'm more familiar with. this makes writers even madder. i think it reminded them of Ross Perot too much. i explained, that at least Perot looked like a bloody cartoon.
any good or worthy cartoon has to be written by cartoonists. it's all bloody backwards. as an example visual effects companies are now run by ex-real estate secretaries. this is the reason there is no more innovation, just effects pornography.

Trevor Thompson said...

"also "family guy-light" was one of my favorites."

Oh God, this is worse than the time I pitched a show to Cartoon Network!

Isn't it sad that there are people out there for whom Family Guy is too weighty a program? Makes you wonder how ANYthing gets sold these days.

In England during the 60s and 70s the BBC had the best attitude for deciding whether or not a show was a good idea: they gave you thirteen episodes and if people liked it, they'd give you thirteen more. They seemed to understand that it was impossible to tell, before broadcasting, if the show would be successful.

Seems obvious when you disdain buzz words and market research for logic, dunnit?

- trevor.

dancing platypuss said...

h there was already a sitcom about animators?? didn´t know that...
i thonk the problem is that the head guys in this industry have no idea waht they are working for... during my days in a HUGE animation channell que the guy ho was above us all had no idea who was that "wierd yellow bird"... not that im saying its entirely his fault... but man.. at least check waht your channel is showing!!
and about business and art cant work together.. not sure i totally agree.... an animated movie can be good and comercial at the same time

Rick Roberts said...

"Yeah, just saw Wall-E ... it's actually a really subversive movie."

Wall-E is about as suberversive as Seasame Street, jesus.

Jonathon said...

I wonder if it's never occurred to Disney as a company to step back an examine their strategies. I can't think of a single animated cartoon from them I've like since they hired someone from Nickelodeon as the head of the department in '97 and canceled the shows I watched as a kid.

Which is unfortunate. Up until that point I really wanted to be part of the industry 'when I grew up', but after that they've produced nothing I'd want to be a part of.

Martin Juneau said...

"Yeah, just saw Wall-E ... it's actually a really subversive movie."

Not only that. They also contained subliminal messages over all of the movie. It's why it's sucks.

"In my time, artists, writers and poets were treated with reverence and their opinions were highly valued... people took artists' thoughts seriously. But today, unless you make money, you're not respected. Now the quotes you read are from businessmen, and artists are thought of as untrustworthy freaks and lunatics."

Totally true! That's happen too much also in music with songs without real rythms, in humor with comics without actual talent and comics with Italians who copied the Manga style without find their own style.

pappy d said...

I'd like to hear speculation on who the EXEC is. We need to know so we can fight back by drawing insulting caricatures of him, sorry wimps that we are.

David B. Levy brings some needed moderation to the discussion.

If he's the High School Musical guy, it is the worst case scenario: a successful animation exec. You might expect such a person to assume that the writer & artists were there to soak up the radiation of his own creative genius, which is just what happened. Maybe they would have had more self-confidence if they'd brought along a pitch that was more hip, cutting-edge, etc. I know you think it was. But was it? Was it really?

Whit said...

It was. And this individual indeed loathes cartoons.

RobochaoXX said...

John's blog makes the cartoonist/animator industry sound bleak and sad.

Don't follow your dreams is what he's trying to tell me? Executives will stop your ideas to death until the Earth spins twice?


Re Yoghansoth: Greatest thing ever said about anything. Letting the artists and writers take control of everything is like a wet dream to me.

pappy d said...

I believe you.

Various said...

"People, we need to facilitate a paradigm shift in blue sky thinking that will push the envelope of key content distribution solutions, while maximising long-tail micropayments for Web 2.0 social networking services in emerging markets. Yah?"

... There, that's all I can think of.