Friday, March 13, 2009

A Conversation With Mark Cappello


I had a chance to chat this morning with Mark Cappello, of Nova Scotia’s Invisible Entertainment. Mark is known for being a straight shooter, and some of you may remember him from his open letter to Nova Scotia Animators. Here’s what followed:

Michael: Hey Mark.
Mark: Hi Michael, how are you?
Michael: Busy, which is good. You?
Mark: Only a little busy, but I'm okay. What are you working on these days?
Michael: Mainly the blogsite. It's becoming my full-time job and I got some short-term money from the province for a bit to get it up and running.
Mark: Well that's awesome. It's funny I had tried to jumpstart a professional association a few years back. Basically a central online place with all the features you want to build, plus some more standard benefits as well. People were not terribly interested, of course times were better then...
Michael: Yeah, there is still a hesitation from people in the industry when it comes to committing to anything. ASIFA Cananda, for example, currently has no members.
Mark: I know, it's nuts. Especially when you consider the amount of people in this industry across the country AND the amount of graduates colleges pump out across the country every year.
We've really devalued our professional status, and no one seems to care or want to communicate.
Michael: It's getting a little better, but you have to practically trick people into it. I think the way to go, and I've been talking to a few people about this, is smaller, loosely-organized groups. Once they're up and running, tie them together for some actual industry representation.
Mark: What's funny to me is that every other profession that touches animation is represented. Writers with the guild, producers with the CFTPA, Directors with the guild, Voice actors with Actra, post and sound guys with their association... right down to the janitors that come in and clean the studio. But the artists are not represented. Is it any wonder that only our work gets sent overseas?
Michael: We're strange beasts.
Mark: I'm not a 'union' guy, I don't think a union would work at all, but a professional association? I agree with you, it may be best to form a template and start locally with the idea that these groups will eventually coalesce.
Michael: Toronto has a few different groups already: TAIS, Alexis Victor runs something called Industry Night and always draws a crowd, and now here's a new group started by Barry Sanders: Animatic TO. There's also been talk of something out in Vancouver, just an opportunity for industry folks to socialize semi-regularly. And I'm going to be getting a seasonal get together started here. Start it as event-based, a screening, a lecture, plus something social. No dues, no memberships. Just getting people into a room together every few months, then a year down the road, create a membership, but no dues. Raise some sponsorship to cover the events, then you tie the groups together.
Mark: That sounds great, but it will be amazing how few people show up in a large animation community for free! I think you're right, we're strange creatures.
Michael: Well, it helps to have an open bar, or at least free drink tickets!
Mark: Agreed, but the studios are very fearful when it comes to labour organizing. Booze would work though!
Michael: Yeah, but what you do is make sure they have representation on your advisory board, so the studio interest is represented. You're there to be their voice, as much as the individual. But you have to have the worker bees represented as well. Put them at the same table
Mark: I could see that, but what things would you eventually be going for, other than strengthening the community? What benefits come out?
Michael: A unified voice that can bring issues like the provincial tax credit situation to our policy makers, but for now, I'd be happy with just having more communication in the community, that would be a victory unto itself.
Mark: That's a major one. We need to strike down the laws that make it difficult for us to go where the work is, each province could have it's own rate knowing that when a worker is there his money and taxes are dropping right in the province.
Michael: Agreed. We're competing with ourselves.
Mark: I think we need to talk seriously about group health benefits, seeing as how so few companies offer them.
Michael: Also very important. Without treading into union territory, it wouldn’t be too hard to arrange a group benefits program that members would have access to. I have friend in the insurance business that I've been talking to about this very thing.
Mark: I think we really need every 6 months a wage survey, so people know what the 'going rate' is for services. No one forces you to abide by this, but you can see for every region what the standard rate of pay is and you will feel obligated to follow that.
Mark: We are competing against ourselves, but companies prey on the ignorance of the newbies.
Michael: That's always been the case, that's why all the seasoned talent ends up working in their guest rooms and basements doing boards or sheet direction. There's always someone who will do the job cheaper.
Mark: Haha, it's true.
Michael: Not necessarily better, but cheaper rules the day. The real tragedy is that the current studio model is actually incredibly inefficient. An older model, with the emphasis on a strong director who is also the show runner and experienced talent is much cheaper to run. You pay more for fewer people.
Mark: I find the 'veterans' are often the toughest to reach with this stuff because they have carved a comfy little niche for themselves. They don't see the next generation being taken advantage of as their problem.
Michael: True in many cases. They've been burned, so now it's someone else's turn.
Mark: I agree the current model sucks, there is so much waste.
Michael: And they're usually only too happy to see the snotty, cocky punk straight outta school get the entitlement knocked out of them
Mark: It's true, I just wish they saw those people as themselves when they were full of naive hope and animation industry ignorance.
Michael: Well, the current attitude coming out of the schools, and I'm saying this in the broadest sense, is a lack of respect and level of entitlement the likes of which I've never seen before. No one feels they have to prove themselves.
Mark: It's so true. I've hired at Sheridan for 8 of the last 13 years and it's worse EVERY year. They're talented, but every one of them wants a directing job, or a development design job. It's brutal!
Michael: Well, since animation became a "hot job" (and that's a direct quote from an issue of Entertainment Weekly circa 1994) it began attracting people who are essentially lazy, people who can draw, and think it would be an easy way to make a living. And there are so many schools out there, every one of them will get in somewhere, and be pumped back out into the industry , 10 months later in some cases, thinking they are animators.
Mark: The schools are a big part of the problem. There is one here in Halifax that charges $17,000 a head per year for two years, and I can't even think about hiring them. I've spoken to some of the instructors and they're told not to fail anyone. It's borderline criminal.
Michael: Nick Cross recently said to me that he's only just become comfortable calling himself an animator. And Nick has been making his own films for 10 years.
Mark: Nick is awesome.
Michael: Yeah, arguably the best independent animator working in the industry, and he only just started calling himself an animator. The school situation got bad 10 years ago. In some areas it settled down, but there's always some where else that opens and cranks out kids. I was in Vancouver when it happened there. Fly by night outfits that opened, took your money, and were sometimes out of business before they graduated their first class.
Mark: This is the kind of 'reporting' I would like to see for our industry. Articles about tax credit law, and where you're eligible (because most people don't know), articles about the education problem, articles about successful individuals who have maintained humility and respect for the industry like Nick Cross. Not fluff like Animation Magazine.
Maybe we can start an online news source and build the community and interest that way?
Michael: Hmm… You think?
This is the direction I'm trying to take the blogsite. It's tough. People don't talk too much, so getting those opinions can be tricky.
Mark: I don't know, we all have our routine on the computer, check CHF, check your site, check facebook, then get to work. It can be part of the ritual.
Michael: I hope so. I haven't really pushed the content on the site too much yet, but that's where it’s headed. This would be a great thing to post, this conversation. See if we can get people talking. There are rarely comments on the blog, which I find surprising.
Mark: It will be difficult, in fact it will be tough to keep it from sliding to mudslinging and conjecture. But real reporting is difficult. I think if you had some regional people that got a lot of this info together... you're essentially editing it at that point.
Michael: Yeah, it has to have teeth, and I don't mind REPORTING on mudslinging, but you have to be respectful of all the players in the community. People have to be willing to sit down and speak frankly
and stand by what they say though. It can be done without being offensive. Speaking your mind and being disrespectful are two very different things.
Mark: There are a lot of stories out there that need to be told. Reporting could be cool, going into a studio and asking why the decision was made to send a project overseas, pros, cons, etc. And report that unbiased to give everyone the reasons from that company's perspective. Approach Teletoon and ask why they only put a fraction of shows together last year. The editorializing can come when we discuss why the greatest and most fertile animation country in the world has 'Teletoon' as our official cartoon network. We can ask why the real creatives are not getting opportunity.
Mark: As far as the studios, it allows for them to advertise jobs AND proudly represent any awards, or production deals, or news that they have DIRECTLY to the animation artist community.
Michael: Sadly the reality is more likely just a place to fire off press releases.
Mark: For some. Others may take the opportunity to talk directly to the artists.
Mark: I don't know how to brew more commentary. You would think that if this thread was posted there would be lots of people who agree, disagree, and have ideas of their own, but very few people would comment I think.

From there the conversation devolved into mutual masturbation and appreciation. But I’m going to make this a regular feature and open the door to other members of the community to have some frank conversation, share their feelings about the industry, the larger animation community, and the blog itself. I’m not putting forth that Mark or myself have any answers to the questions of the day, but maybe these types of conversations can at least give us the questions.
Please feel free to chime in: tell us what know-it-all bastards we are, offer alternatives, opinions or links to get rich quick schemes.
Communication furthers our community and benefits us all.
mv

17 comments:

Barx said...

Hey Mike, Jeff Barker here.
Good interview with Mark, some great ideas being bounced around, and some very familiar territory that I have encountered along my animation journey as well.
It really is a small community and shouldn't be as hard as it is to bring it together.....(booze usually helps, no doubt).
I look forward to seeing how this site evolves.

Rob A. said...

Great article!

I agree that some sort of association would be beneficial to the community. I think we need to treat ourselves like the rest of the film community and be film makers/craftspeople of some sort.

Stephanie N said...

This was a great read-gives me some hope for the industry at a time when a lot of us need it.

Gene Fowler said...

No members for ASIFA Canada eh? What's the pitch, the upside? Does it provide enough value to the member for the price it demands?

I'd love to have a meeting of the minds with a few studio heads in the atlantic region about forming an organization.

It's kind of our responsibility to do it, not that joe animator wouldn't or couldn't do it, but it would be alot easier if the studio heads got on board first. Then they could send it down through the ranks as option or policy or whatever.

It would be a long road, but I'm certain willing if say, yourself Mark, Murray, Luke, Richard and whomever else has a studio in the region would like to meet an discuss the benefits.

I do see alot getting in the way in these times. It's hard to win good paying work with our still kinda high canuck dollar, more and more co-productions come across my desk where the partner needs us to defer costs or come up with financing or this or that. It's tougher to get a show these days then it was even 18 months ago.

Also more states such as Connecticut are receiving tax credits to compete with Canada. Not to mention countries like China and Singapore who can work 1/4 of what we charge with their ever improving quality.

I agree with Mark, we need to keep ourselves educated on how the industry works. Like you said about Nick, it takes years before you can learn enough to call yourself an animator. It also takes years before you can learn enough to call yourself a producer or studio runner. There' so much to every aspect of every position in this industry. It truly is a craft at every level.

I say make CAR a site that doesn't showcase art so much as educate it's followers on their own industry. This would be amazing and unique.

Keep it going bruddah.

Gene.

chumpmonkey said...

I regret being one of the lazy many who didn't take the opportunity to jump on Mark's assoaciation idea back when he proposed it. I have my views-- and I'm willing to share them if you want to hear them, most people I know have already heard me complain until they just wanted me to stop repeating myself-- about the cause of a lot of the problems in the animation industry, and it would be great if a forum existed where I, a lowly animator, would have a chance to voice those opinions to someone who has the power to change things, rather than just comiserating with the other people who are suffering the same woes I am.

Ron said...

This all sounds great,
especially during this animation-
recession.

Forums and discussion groups with regional sections and then nationwide issues. Mark, Murray, Luke, Richard, and Gene (plus whomever else) for the east coast. Every part of Canada having their own regions of studio heads contributing to creating discussion groups and updating the country on what's happening on their end.

The animator-unemployment rate is at an all time low, with funding kicking-in soon across the country, there's hope, but the last 18 months have been bleak, this sort of open discussion forums/blogs can at least help the animation graduates and veterans alike.

p.maestro said...

if you build it, they will come.

Jason McArthur said...

Great post Mike, I dig what you boys are saying....

A collective group of animators that meet on regular basics would rock, I know some times as an animator you feel on the out...it would be great to have a group of creative’s , get together and talk shop.....out here on the EAST coast would rock....lets do it gents


Later
JMAC

JMAC

Carrie Thornhill said...

I think we need this type of organization, and I feel that Mark's original proposal for a Professional Association was strong. But we were too easily discouraged. I think if we can find a core group of a dozen people who want this to happen, then we can make it happen. I have no doubt others will join once they see it's working.

The other issue was money - no one wants to pay. So I would suggest using the many free options available such as a Lefora forum, blogs... even a facebook group. Meetings could take place at libraries, coffee shops, or someone's house. Many people will volunteer their time for research, polling, web maintenance, event organization, etc.

My advice is to start small, regionally, with a strong core group, and grow from there. Although I feel it is very important to listen to all points of view, if we give too much heed to the naysayers this will never get off the ground. We need to find some positive people who feel strongly that this needs to happen, and I have no doubt it will.

p.maestro said...

ok, here's my thing. communication concerning this thing is obviously important. to that point, i absolutely agree with what ron said: an online forum would be an efficient way to increase communication about the effectiveness of our industry's members. how can this region draw more product while keeping pay rates from stagnating any more than they already have? it'd be a great place for "press releases" by the companies (job postings, significant congratulatory developments within the studios, whatever info they want to release to cast themselves in a positive light and have it all easily accessible by potential employees)

if something like that isn't successful, i don't know how a professional association ever would be.

the problem that would come with a web-based forum is i think you get a very watered down opinion from those who don't remain anonymous for fear of casting themselves negatively in the face of potential employers, and if the forum DID allow anonymity you'd get nothing more than the bickering you see on "ratemyemployer.ca" freedom of speech was meant to drown out insightful opinions.

if you're talking about an actual gathering of bodies into shared breathing space, say every 3-4 or even every 6 months, as michael mentioned, to host a lecture or social event, that could be interesting.

as far as unionizing or professional associations go, i'd love to here more about the pros and cons of both (and why exactly they're different?). maybe if people could understand why a prof.ass. would be so incredibly (mutually) beneficial for employers and employees, then there'd be a significant interest from both parties, and the prime movers would get things done.

however, i must admit i'd be wary of any organization that uttered a "by the people for the people" type of slogan, run by all the studio heads. who watches the watchmen? you know what i mean?

i'd point out comments like "we pay less in the maritimes because the cost of living is lower" when rent, milk, bread, and gas are all more expensive in halifax than in montreal, and "the canadian dollar is too high to attract american contracts" when it's at it's lowest point (to the american dollar) since 2004 - when american contracts were still rolling in.

maybe i don't know all the variable influencing these soundbytes, but the lack of communication and clarity certainly raises some hostility when those statements are made with no other purpose than to shut up curious employees.

i recently heard an account from a intern stating we work that much harder in the maritimes for that much less pay because we just haven't built a reputation for animation in the maritimes yet while studios in toronto get handed more money just for being in toronto. a far more believable statement i was never given from anyone who should've been able to.

if anyone has any ideas how to keep canadian animation contracts in canada, i'm all ears.

michael valiquette said...

Wow, so much talk, so great to hear it all. Obviously, there's interest in some form of representation, which is great. Interest in theis type of things is always greatest in times like these, it's seeing if people stay interested when they're fat on contracts, that's the big test. It sounds like the timing is perfect out east. You guys are all saying the same thing, so get each other into a room and talk frankly. This is not the time for bluster or comparing whose cartoon cock is bigger, check your egos at the door and put your heads together. My words of caution on this: it's all good to get the studio heads together, these people make decisions that impact at every level, but you are nothing without your animators, your IT guy, everyone who works for you. Someone from the rank and file needs to be at the table with you, or the group becomes an elite. There's more to your community than a roomful of bosses, make sure the group respects and refects that.
As far a more formal association is concerned, that's a long way off, but something we should all be looking towards. We do need people who can bring our concerns to the policy makers in this country, we do need to offer a group health care program to an organized membership. Not everyone would take advantage, but there are enough out there who want it that it would be worthwhile.
If this is the the kind of conversation that people want to be having, then I'll put forums back on the agenda for the site. If you guys keep coming back, I'll keep doing this. I'm still going to post clips and art, I'm still going to provide links to press releases, but you can all expect more of this kind of content. These are conversations I'm having with animation-types all over the country, so I'll try to kep sharing them.
Thanks guys!
m

Mirco said...

Interesting discussion, a lot of good ideas. Have you ever considered maybe starting a podcast of interviews for and about people in the industry?
An online forum seems like a good start and this blog and others are really starting the ball rolling. It would be great to have a place with info on tax credits and grant deadlines and the like. Maybe an open source like page so maybe people could up load small bits of info and together could give a whole picture of the industry, without putting too much of the burden on one individual.
Hope to read more in the future, especially while I'm at work...

James said...

Without highschool training for practical art fields like animation, and studios lacking both the time and money to train inexperienced employees from the ground up, it seems animation schools will remain a necessary evil for the foreseeable future.

So, how can we make them good?

A review program might be an idea, resulting in an online publication that ranks the individual schools on their strengths and weaknesses.

Holley Smirnov said...

i agree that we need some sort of organization.
i recently graduated from one of the (worst) animation assembly line schools, and i really feel like they didn't tell us anything about the industry or how to really look for a job. i learned a lot while there, and i feel confident that i can do the work, but selling myself and managing the situation with the industry is just going over my head.
it would be great to have someone to talk to about that sort of thing.
i had the privilege of working with mark cappello at collideascope, so i know there are great companies and people in the industry. i think there definitely needs to be some sort of resource for us newbies to learn from what others have dealt with before us..

Mark Douthwright said...

Seeing the day an Association of Canadian Animators & Designers (or ACAD, if you like acronyms) come about has, and still is, a dream I share with the a lot of you. It's a big dream but it can happen if we believe it can. From reading comments on this blog, I believe we are already an association, we just haven't realized it yet.
Perhaps we should start small so as not to get mired in all of the details. Mike's blog is a fantastic springboard for this. Why not complement it with a series of regional meet & greet events? Through which we can begin to see who are members are. Keeping it regional at first might also help isolate any problems that might arise from some of the negative effects mentioned in the above comments. Once a few groups are formed, the other regions will follow once they see others have achieved what they previously thought was impossible.
I strongly suggest starting with a free service like www.meetup.com. It seems to go beyond the conventional online social networking services like Facebook. I personally have used it to find others in my region who share my same interests and values. More importantly, it's hard to hide behind the anonymity of the web. It's all designed around meeting face-to-face and getting things started.
Check out the two videos posted on their main page. They're great and they explain it better and in more detail.
And no, I am not affiliated with www.meetup.com, I just see it as a potential starting point for starting our association. I would be happy to help in any way I can.

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