November 15, 2019

No Man's Land

I think my cartoons fall in a tricky no man's land between being
- mainstream accessible/TV-friendly
- silly internet trash
- artsy festival shorts

So when I pitch them, they seem too niche and rough. Online they're too conventional to get much traction, and at festivals they feel vapid and crass next to the beautiful artsy stuff. I think it might be better if I leaned into one of those directions more, but my tastes bounce between all three... Anyway, I just try to make stuff I'd like to watch. It's all you can really do as a creator, at least when you're not getting paid!

As a general update, I've done a bunch of talks and interviews and panels lately that have been fun for my ego but not good for productivity! I'm also just drawing again for fun (for the first time in a long while) and slowly working on stuff. More Sublo and Tangy Mustard is in progress! also maaaaaybe others too.


November 14, 2019

DMX Sings Pingu

Requested by my friend Kevin to use as a phone ringtone.

October 23, 2019

I'm coming to TAAFI 2019!

I'm going to be at the TAAFI (Toronto Animation Arts Festival International) Industry Conference 2019 in a couple of weeks doing a special talk and some panels! Details below!

Saturday Nov. 2 2019
11:00AM - 12:00PM
A Conversation With Aaron Long
@The Spin Master Atrium Stage
Join Sam Chou for an in-depth conversation with Aaron Long about his career starting as an intern for the Chuck Grammage studio with little experience and a ton of passion, through to his current work as a director for Bojack Horseman and Tuca & Bertie with Netflix.

With Aaron Long Director - Bojack Horseman, Netflix & Shadow Machine
 Moderator: Sam Chou Creative Director of Development, Kickstart Entertainment

2:30PM - 3:30PM
Animation: Not Just For Kids
@The Spin Master Atrium Stage
We know that animation isn’t just for cartoons, but recently it seems like the rest of the world is starting to wake up to that notion, as new streaming services start to take animation seriously. Join us for a discussion on the ins and outs on crafting your ideas for a primetime world.

With Aaron Long Director - Bojack Horseman, Netflix & Shadow Machine
 Liliana Reyes Senior Vice President, Content, Portfolio Entertainment
Moderator: Jason Martinsen Lead Animator, Reel FX

5:30PM - 6:30PM
The Big Pitch
@The Spin Master Atrium Stage
It’s time for our annual Big Pitch contest! Most competitions usually only offer critiques by industry execs. The Big Pitch will feature a panel of judges representing departments throughout the animation pipeline. You’ll learn not only what makes a pitch sell but how to make it work from every angle!
With Aaron Long Director - Bojack Horseman, Netflix & Shadow Machine
Moderator: Barry A Sanders 3D Animation Supervisor, Animatic T.O

October 07, 2019

DMX Meets David Bowie

Here's a cartoon I made in ten days using photos and audio of DMX and David Bowie, to make a silly little story about them hanging out and becoming friends.

I'm a big fan of David Bowie and DMX. I find them both endlessly compelling, in different ways. I had found some DMX a capella tracks on youtube and started using them to make mashups, most of which you can find on my Soundcloud. I thought the brutality and dark humour of his lyrics would contrast well with stuff like ABBA's glossy 70s productions or the cutesy J-pop group Perfume. The mashup I did with Bowie's "Heroes" was probably my favourite because of the poignancy of the production and Bowie's passionate performance juxtaposed with some of DMX's sleaziest rhymes about laying pipe for the hos.
After attending one of Sam Gurry's Animation Brut screenings at the Echo Park Film Centre in LA, I was being excited by the idea of making something that didn't have to be 'good' or polished, using different techniques from  my usual stuff and focusing on a fun, loose process.

Creatively it was a nice 'vacation' project in that most aspects were at least partially determined by outside factors. The plot was dictated by the available audio I could find, and came together organically as I found more clips and edited the audio (like finding a clip of Bowie talking about monopolies, or DMX using kool-aid as a euphemism in a lyric). There were a lot of potential story options I had to cut or abandon to keep the cartoon somewhat focused.
The visuals were also limited by what angles and poses I could find photos of. I ended up 'cheating,' as I suspect is inevitable in this kind of project-- a lot of the hands are not actually theirs, nor the bodies in the over-the-shoulder angle of them playing Sonic 2.

In some ways it was liberating to not actually have to draw anything, but it also gave me a new appreciation for the flexibility and freedom I usually have creating everything from scratch and being able to draw exactly the poses you need to tell the story, rather than trying to fudge some existing janky assets into place.
I'm not sure if anybody else will enjoy watching this as much as I enjoyed making it, but that's okay.

Also here are some GIFs from it!




September 12, 2019

Sublo and Tangy Mustard #13 Convention soundtrack

I've uploaded all the music from Sublo and Tangy Mustard #13 Convention to Soundcloud, with notes on the influences for each track. You can find it here!

September 11, 2019

Sublo and Tangy Mustard Convention stills

A few images from my recent Convention episode of Sublo and Tangy Mustard.



Extra notes from Suzuki book

Here are a few miscellaneous tidbits from Toshio Suzuki's book that didn't fit into larger paragraphs.

* Each Ghibli film is broken into 20-minute chunks for the sake of production. I haven't checked but I wonder if these start/end points are purely technical or if they sync up to anything story-wise, like "episodes"? Ghibli films do often feel episodic although not in a bad way.

* On a related note, when Miyazaki struggled with the story on Princess Mononoke, the solution he took was to think of it as an open-ended serialized manga as he worked on it.

*Above, a quote from Isao Takahata about his "objective" style of filmmaking. I love this concept, although I also love the hyper-subjective style of Masaaki Yuasa's older work. Polar opposites, but both good.

*On p.158 Suzuki explains that Ghibli's 4th building is a rented house on the literal "wrong side of the tracks" where they send the problem employees who are chronically late for work. Isolating them where you can't supervise them seems like a weird solution, but whatever!

 *Suzuki claims that the above photo, from when Miyazaki announced his retirement following The Wind Rises, is the first time they ever shook hands.

"Mixing Work With Pleasure" by Toshio Suzuki

As I wrote the other day, it seems like pretty much any huge artist you can think of has a pragmatic business-minded figure at their side. In Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata's case, it's Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki. I just read his autobiography Mixing Work with Pleasure. Here are some notes on things I found interesting...

Obviously Ghibli makes great films, but that alone doesn't explain their longevity. Most studios, even the best ones, falter in half of Ghibli's lifespan--creatively, financially or due to personality conflicts. Their track record is amazing & I think Suzuki deserves a lot of credit. In the book, he demystifies both his role and the studio itself, sharing stories of having to beg for funding, dealing with Miyazaki's moodiness, labour problems and other unglamourous aspects of running a successful studio for 30 years.

I've been told Suzuki is a bit of a glory hog. I didn't pick up on that reading the book because he does share some of his mistakes too, but it's always hard to tell with autobiographies. A few things do feel a bit glossed over-- for instance, Studio 4C's Eiko Tanaka was a producer on a few early Ghibli films but gets no mention here.

One of my favourite sections covers Suzuki's relationship with Yasuyoshi Tokuma, the head of Tokuma Shoten Publishing. In the mid-80's Suzuki approached him about setting up Ghibli as a sub-company. Tokuma agreed to the idea quickly, and is described as an eccentric, mercurial man less interested in how much money he had than in what it could be used for. He was a powerful ally early on when Ghibli was financially rocky, willing to go to bat for them many times.

It's funny how Totoro became Ghibli's mascot, because that film flopped in its initial release-- a questionable double-feature alongside Grave of the Fireflies that was only allowed to happen because of Tokuma's unquestioning support. He told distributors they would only get his prestigious live-action drama Tonko if they also took the Ghibli double-feature. The studio did well critically but struggled financially for a few years until the one-two punch of Kiki's Delivery Service becoming a hit, and Totoro doing very well in TV repeats. At that point they created a new office building from scratch, put their staff on salary & started a training program... Still using borrowed money, again largely thanks to Tokuma's commitment.

Suzuki and Tokuma's relationship seems to have gotten rocky later on, after Tokuma grew resentful of Ghibli's movies stealing the spotlight from his own pet projects. Their relationship reached a nadir around 1999 with the failure of My Neighbours the Yamadas. Suzuki blames Tokuma, which doesn't seem totally fair given that it's one of Ghibli's most oddball films. Tokuma was fighting with their usual distributor, so they went with another one who couldn't book as many screenings and the movie made much less than Ghibli had hoped for. I'm sure this distribution drama didn't help, but even in ideal circumstances I can't see Yamadas doing as well as their other films. It seems like the kind of film Japanese audiences love at times, but not what they expect from Ghibli.

One of Suzuki's big jobs is in advertising the films. He helps decide on titles and considers the potential for marketing (ie compelling ad copy, promos and trailers) early in production as the story is being figured out... but those considerations are not allowed to dictate the content.

After Spirited Away was a hit, Miyazaki became worried that it was only because of aggressive advertising. Suzuki responded by suggesting a minimal ad campaign for their next film Howl's Moving Castle, based around the simple phrase "Howl is coming."

Suzuki's day-to-day role seems to vary-- he does whatever is needed to keep things going smoothly. He runs the studio and its productions holistically, balancing out the directors' necessarily myopic visions as they focus on making their individual films. I like that Suzuki, Miyazaki and Takahata all seemed to regularly write essays as internal documents for Ghibli staff, to share ideas for advertising campaigns, production progress and just general musings. I haven't really heard of other studios doing that with their crews, except to address major problems.

The studio's goal is simply to be able to keep making good films, rather than infinite growth/ profits or Disney-style domination-- a few times in the book, Suzuki explicitly states that they don't want to expand past a certain size, because it can become a hindrance to creativity and risk-taking. I really like this.

Miyazaki & Suzuki agree that the key to their strong working relationship is the fact that they don't 'respect' each other:
"It is the freedom to criticize unreservedly that produces good work."
"Respect means to hold back, to be reserved in expressing one's opinion."
"There must be trust, but not necessarily respect."
I would add that this freedom to criticize each other only works because both truly share the same goals. If Miyazaki only wanted to make great art & Suzuki only wanted profits, they'd be arguing about much bigger things and reaching no consensus. They both care about making a good AND profitable film.

Suzuki's history as a magazine editor informs his work as a producer. He has even referred to himself as an "editorial-type producer." His approach with Miyazaki is similar to how a manga editor might engage with an author-- casual conversations leading to decisions in an organic, indirect way, rather than discussing production in concrete terms. He says this is the "archetypical Japanese approach."

Miyazaki is more blunt:
"He keeps your nose to the grindstone while pretending not to.”

September 09, 2019

Paying More Attention to Promo

I've been thinking more about distribution and promotion lately. For a long time I just kept my head down and was solely focused on actually making my cartoons, but now I'm realizing that's just one part of the process. I've never had a proper release strategy-- whenever I finish a short I just dump it online, tweet about it and maybe post some GIFs. But it seems like minimal releases only work if you're already big or very prolific. Obviously I need a better plan, so I've been looking at how other people do it, hoping to find an approach that makes sense to me. I don't believe good work will just naturally find its audience. That may have been more true in the past, in the early days of the internet, when people were actively seeking out weird new stuff... But I think the social media 'feed' format has dulled that curiosity. Now people just wait for cool stuff to show up in front of them.

As an independent artist, without any mechanisms around you for promotion, you have to be proactive in making people aware of your stuff. Some artists are good at the business side, but many aren't, and that's often romanticized or seen as more artistically pure-- to feign ignorance or disinterest in how people find your stuff. Promo work is mundane and it's not sexy to talk about it, but it is important.

We're often fed this notion of a 'pure' artist who churns out brilliant, successful work while scorning the commercial world. It's a romantic idea, but in reality with most of the art we enjoy, the story also involves a pragmatic, business-minded support figure-- a manager, producer, promoter, etc. Someone who sees the artist and goes "yeah, I can sell that." And that's not a bad thing, it's a necessary part of the equation. Sure, the Beatles were musical geniuses but they wouldn't have gotten nearly as far without their manager Brian Epstein, who got their record deals, booked their tours, and told them to dress nice and bow together. Audiences seem to want some kind of cohesive narrative or brand, something to hold on to when they discover a new artist. Whether good or bad, that's human nature.

I'm kind of rambling here, but anyway I've been researching what that promo work might entail, and also realizing that as an independent artist, nobody will fill that role other than me. I have to accept the importance of that stuff rather than ignoring it. It seems daunting, but I'm hoping to do it in a way that doesn't feel dirty or cynical. Studio Ghibli may be a model to follow in that sense-- I just finished reading Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki's autobiography and I'll be sharing some details I thought were interesting.

Pixelatl 2019

I was invited to attend the Pixelatl animation festival this year in Cuernavaca, Mexico to be part of a Bojack Horseman panel. It was my first time in Mexico and I had a wonderful time! The festival was amazing, and the city was beautiful. Everyone was really welcoming, and I made a lot of cool new friends. The food was delicious everywhere we went and I even managed to squeeze in a few screenings including Masaaki Yuasa's new film Ride Your Wave.

Along with our Bojack panel, we did a signing. Above you can see us trying to practice drawing the characters minutes before we started.
Hard at work signing, for three hours straight! It really flew by though. We had a great time meeting so many fans of the show, and although it was supposed to rain, it never did. Phew!

 I drew a lot of Tuca and Bertie along with Bojack characters. So many fans told me how upset they were about the cancellation. It was nice.
I was even asked to draw Sublo and Tangy Mustard, which was the biggest thrill of the whole festival!

August 31, 2019

Sublo and Tangy Mustard #13 - Convention

Here's the biggest episode yet of Sublo and Tangy Mustard! Fresh out of the oven this morning, it's "Convention" in which Mr. Wubhamer takes the boys to a Subpar corporate convention for performance evaluation. Sublo is freaked out by seeing the other Sublos, while Tangy Mustard is excited at the chance to meet the mythical Subpar Sirens.

The first version of this episode was written and recorded back in 2015 as part of the first batch of episodes -- it was going to be the sixth and final episode of the first set. But after I got through production of the others (and abandoned the original third episode) I wasn't happy with this one, so I set it aside and eventually re-wrote it with the second batch in 2017. We recorded the new patches and I finally got to work animating it back in March of this year. It's been a slow but fun production! There were a bunch of aspects that were challenging including the technical componenents of the train scene, the Sirens' dance and light show, the water effects in the pool, some of the lighting, and just the larger scale of the story.

The story was inspired by a lot of things-- the way travelling to a new place can be exciting but also scary. The alienation and unease I feel at conventions, where I seem to be exactly the same as everybody else (I usually like to feel like I'm doing my own thing).  My friend Kevin, who plays Tangy Mustard, going crazy when we saw his favourite J-pop group Perfume perform live. The lameness of corporate branding and fake excitement. The terror of job evaluations. And probably a bunch of other stuff I can't think of right now. Anyway I hope you enjoy it!

July 27, 2019

Storyboards vs Animation

There's been a lot of talk on animation twitter lately about storyboarders putting in extra work to create cool animated sequences. It hasn't directly affected me, but I have friends on other shows who have dealt with this pressure so here are my thoughts (the short version is that it's a systemic problem rather than the individual boarder's fault).

Without getting into specific examples because I don't mean to negate anybody's hard work --It’s frustrating how TV cartoon pipelines treat the actual animation as an afterthought, rather than using it as an additional creative stage. Outsourcing & budget ‘streamlining' have removed creative freedom from the animation process, reducing it to ‘filling in the blanks’ of storyboards which then include the roles of writing, boarding, layout & rough animation. This either leads to boarders overworking or bad animation. Animation itself is often seen as one of the least creative parts of making a cartoon. That's unfortunate because good animation will always make a funny scene funnier, a scary scene scarier etc! It's a powerful expressive tool that's rarely used to its full potential.

Many animators I know in Canada who work on outsourced service work are totally capable of creating great performances and high-quality animation that tells the story properly, while following simple boards. But they don't get the chance, because from the US studio's perspective it's easier to just do something yourself than to communicate with the outsourcing studio. And to be fair it can be  difficult to communicate with an overseas studio that doesn't speak the same language... So that creative part of the animation is just dumped onto the storyboarders' shoulders. They don't have the time or bandwidth to do it, and it's taking a vital part of animating away from the actual animators, who become glorified in-betweeners.

That creative input could come from the outsourcing studio if they have the ability, or if they're considered not to, then from an in-house anim supervisor adding extra poses to the boards for shipping-- it really shouldn't be the boarder's job (but as things are now, it often IS).

It shouldn't have to be up to individual storyboarders, like "if you want this scene to have good animation you better do it yourself in the boards." But that's what the industry has mostly evolved to. I don’t want to single out any shows here or blame any individuals for wanting to do the best work possible within the system.. My frustration is with the system itself! 

Sonic designs

While animating this morning, I got distracted drawing various Sonic designs from memory.

May 03, 2019

Tuca and Bertie is online!

Tuca and Bertie, a new show I worked on last year, is out on Netflix now! It's a rare adult cartoon that's actually a cartoon, rather than an animated sitcom-- it's surreal, spontaneous, and full of stretch and squash animation. Lisa Hanawalt is the hilarious cartoonist who created the show, and while she had a strong vision for the show herself, she allowed for a wonderful atmosphere in which everyone involved in the production felt free to pitch ideas in. We were adding gags at every stage, and got to experiment with lots of different storytelling and animation techniques. The result is that the show, which had funny scripts to begin with, got better and better at every stage of production (which is unusual in my experience)! I was struck at the premiere party last night that even episodes I directed were full of pleasant surprises in the animation, comp, music and sound mixes.

I directed episodes 2, 6 and 10. My assistant director Meg Waldow was a vital part of those episodes too, contributing many really funny and original gags and ideas. I also directed the show's intro, and animated it with help from Alex Salyer and the show's art director Alison Dubois. They are two of the countless 'secret ingredients' that made the show so special. I also got to animate a bunch of retakes and interstitials for the show, which was really fun for me.

Anyway yeah check it out!

March 08, 2019

Jimmy Stewart Gets Comfortable

I watched The Man Who Knew Too Much and noticed Jimmy Stewart making a weird motion in his seat.

March 02, 2019

Sublo and Tangy Mustard #12 - Sublo's Sandwich

Here's a new episode in which Sublo attempts to try a new sandwich... But it goes terribly wrong. This is another fairly short episode, set in one of my favourite Toronto spots, the St Lawrence Market. I try to go there every time I'm back home and usually get a sandwich from this place!

The next episode will be a big one, but in planning this batch I initially planned to do a few long ones, and a bunch of little bumpers/shorts to fill the gaps. As I wrote all the episodes, some of the lines became blurred so I just called them all regular episodes.

February 16, 2019

True Stories (1986)

Finally saw David Byrne's True Stories thanks to the new Criterion release. I'd been wanting to see it for years. It's definitely now one of my favourite movies. It's bizarre and hilarious, just packed with insane ideas. It's also a sincere love letter to small-town weirdness and individuality. David Byrne and John Goodman (in his first major film role) stand out the most, but the whole cast of actors and non-actors is really good. The cinematography is beautiful, with lots of bold colour and lighting choices.

The excellent special features on the disc show how the film started as a series of drawings, and then they created a structure that allowed for all the disparate images to be featured, if not exactly 'connect' in a traditional plot sense. The structure is similar to another favourite of mine which came out around the same time, Tampopo, which also features a main story with lots of semi-related detours as part of a general theme.

February 04, 2019

Backgrounds from the next Sublo and Tangy Mustard episode

In the next episode, Sublo and Tangy Mustard visit the St Lawrence Market in Toronto. It's a cool place with a ton of delicious food. I always want to go there when I visit home.

The episode is almost done but not sure when it'll be online yet.