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Animated Insights for Non Artists:
Comic-Con: Making the Most of a Convention
by Shannon Muir

My original goal for this column had been to take readers behind the scenes while preparing and being on a convention panel, which I'd done for Comic-Con International: San Diego events in 2000 and 2001. However, due to a lack of openings that fit my expertise on the Con-organized panels, I was not asked to speak or moderate in 2002. So I decided to tackle Comic-Con through the eyes of a writer or production person (or someone aspiring to similar fields) who attend, and how conventions can be used to advantage for finding out what's going on, as well as furthering one's own education.

I attended all four days (Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) of the convention, which meant I'd have maximum networking opportunities to find employment. Given that outside of my writing, I didn't have a full-time gig and hadn't since INVADER ZIM ended six months earlier, that was important to me.

Thursday's check-in went rather seamlessly, I anticipated chaos due to the new restrictions requiring all badges to be picked up at the convention for security reasons. It turned out that check-in went very easily, probably because it was only Thursday. Saturday is the peak day for attendees. I made it in ample time for the first panel, devoted to the ROBOTECH franchise and production company Harmony Gold's current plans for it. What I expected was a panel solely to hype the forthcoming ROBOTECH:BATTELCRY game release, and that definitely got coverage, along with information on the trading cards that I also knew about. I did not expect announcements of additional product, including a new comic line from DC/Wildstorm in December 2002, and more importantly, that serious strides are being made for a new ROBOTECH animated series for 2004. They made it clear it would not be the completion of the ROBOTECH SENTINELS storyline that was scrapped, nor would it be the now-abandoned ROBOTECH 3000 as Harmony Gold's decided to stick with the 2D feel as that seems to be what fans want. Rather, it would closely follow the end of the original series and they summed it up as a "Generation 3.5," and confirmed it would feature new villains. Though I initially intended to attend this panel solely as a ROBOTECH fan, I wound up learning about employment possibilities that might present themselves down the line. It also gave me the opportunity to visually identify some of the players behind the scenes at an animation production company for later networking.

A brief hop downstairs to the exhibit hall for lunch, and I hoped to get in on the first of a series of panels on the history of animation that would run over all four days. Unfortunately, the sessions ended up in one of the Convention Center's smallest room -- probably under the impression there'd be low interest -- but by the time I got there the room was full and I was turned away, as were at least a dozen other people who showed up after me while I decided what to do. Frankly, I was pleased the turnout far exceeded the Con's expectations, but the downside meant that I could not take advantage of the rest of the series!

Instead, I roamed the exhibit floor for a bit before going to check in at my hotel. The first booth I saw strongly illustrated how the Comic-Con in San Diego has evolved over the years. Screenplay Systems, makers of the Movie Magic Screenwriter 2000 screenplay formatting software, along with story development aids Dramatica Pro and StoryView, set up a booth at the Con; I'm presuming they hoped to sell to the live-action SF/fantasy and animation scriptwriters. Many of the major comics companies (who have animated tie-in properties) and producers/distributors in the anime arena also attended, so there was much to see -- and potentially buy -- at discounted rates where the company sold directly instead of through a retailer.

After a walk over to the hotel, I found that they did not have my room ready. Granted, I'd come an hour before official check-in, but this had not posed a problem in the past. Apparently the prior convention was slow at checkout. So I took a break to catch my breath and went back to roam the exhibit floor for another two hours before going back and finally getting the hotel room, networking with new people and catching up with old friends along the way. Bear in mind that the exhibit floor grows larger every year, and now that the San Diego Convention Center doubled its capacity, there's even more room for it to expand! It really did take all four days to make sure I'd seen everything.

Toward the end of the day, I went to a couple more panels. The first one covered the comic book incarnations of the Justice League of America and their counterpart, the Justice Society of America. While this panel had no direct relevance to the Warner Bros. Animation TV series JUSTICE LEAGUE, it is the property on which the show is based and I was curious where they were taking the comic books. Sometimes major changes in the underlying property can affect an animated series, so it never hurts to check on the underlying property even though more often than not, the end results are worlds apart.

The other panel billed itself as being devoted to 25 years of anime and manga fandom. However, given the background of many on the panel, it quickly turned to a heavy emphasis on the evolution of the business of anime over the past quarter-century. Speakers included: Jerry Chu, Marketing Director at Bandai Entertainment; Carl Macek, noted for his molding of three animated series into the ROBOTECH saga and currently working on the LADY DEATH animated movie for ADV Films; Fred Ladd, whose past credits include work on ASTROBOY and time spent doing original animation at Filmation; James Lang, currently involved with BATTLE OF THE PLANETS projects; Fred Patten, who founded the CFO -- the first fan club dedicated to anime and manga fandom -- in Los Angeles 25 years ago; and Don Yee, current President of the CFO. They noted that anime and manga fandom can definitely be noted for its fans long-standing devotion versus just being a passing trend. It was suggested that some westerners may find Japanese culture exotic and therefore a big reason they are attracted to anime and manga; Carl Macek expressed the opinion that its early hold came from the fact anime and manga filled a "space opera" niche that American animation was not pursuing at that time. Also noted was that most anime does not talk down to younger viewers, with some of the newer properties such as POKEMON, DIGIMON, and YU-GI-OH! as exceptions.

Carl Macek offered an interesting piece of trivia regarding his adaptation of ROBOTECH, saying he knew the NBC affiliate in New York would air the syndicated show and therefore got his hands on their Standards and Practices Guidelines. He used them as his bluprint for shaping ROBOTECH so he could be sure it would be appropriate for that major market. He feels that "anyone could make a show like ROBOTECH," despite such S&P guidelines, but that people "just didn't want to." Carl also defended his work on ROBOTECH, insisting "no matter what I did to ROBOTECH, no matter what it is, I did not deface the core--the soul."

It was noted that trying to get anime to the mass market relies on walking a touchy line between preserving the world as presented and the world as its perceived by those on Wall Street. Carl told a story about trying to sell NEON GENESIS EVANGELION as a series to television stations that who bought it until they saw the actual show and were distracted by some imagery. Fred echoed that, "if it [the material] is sensitive, broadcasters want nothing to do with it." The difficulties in marketing strategies for PRINCESS MONONOKE and VAMPIRE HUNTER D: BLOOD also came up in discussion. Most promotion for anime films still seems to be done by anime clubs and quiet grassroots campaigns. Overall, this session proved to be valuable insight into the business of anime than a celebration of its fandom, which I found very valuable given the boom of anime dubbing and subtitling going on in the business right now. So I ended up getting more out of that panel than I expected.

Friday morning began rather slowly, visiting many booths and checking out upcoming products and projects. One of the items I discovered was the premiere issue of a competing magazine devoted to writing for comics, animation, and science fiction. I might never have heard about it if not for the booth at Comic-Con, or heard about it too late without being able to find out who else is trying to get information out there to readers like you. If I was working on a series, I could just as easily find out about upcoming competing series or projects that could be optioned to become competing series. Checking out the exhibit hall floor is invaluable.

It was also a time of tough choices. Kurt Busiek (a comic writer I really like) had his own spotlight panel from noon to one p.m. that interested me, but the panel for the new HE-MAN show started at one p.m. and I knew getting in there was a must. So I decided to not go see Kurt Busiek, so as not risk getting shut out of the HE-MAN panel, especially after waiting in long lines the previous year for the SAMURAI JACK/JUSTICE LEAGUE panel and getting shut out (luckily they had the quick thinking to do a last-minute encore presentation that Sunday I could attend). As it turned out, people didn't have trouble getting seats for HE-MAN, though it was fairly attended, and fortunately Kurt Busiek appeared on the JLA/JSA panel on Thursday so it's not like I missed him entirely. However, you never know, and sometimes must make tough priority calls to keep up with what's going on in the field.

The HE-MAN panel discussed both the recently debuted toy line and the series scheduled to debut on Cartoon Network. Speakers included: Geoff Walker, director for the He-Man brand at Mattel; Bill Schultz, producer of the HE-MAN show for Mike Young Productions (which did the pre-production work); Dean Stefan, Story Editor for the new series; Gary Hartle, director for the HE-MAN show; and San Register, Senior Vice President of Development for Cartoon Network. They planned to begin with a movie premiered on August 16, 2002, and then launch the series in September of 2002. Twenty-six episodes initially were produced. The big differences for the series redesign include more of an anime influence and more importantly, a drastic physical stature difference between Prince Adam and He-Man. Prince Adam is an average 16-year old boy who through the sword becomes an empowered man capable of saving his world. The series plans to delve more into the origins of many of the characters, including Skeletor, and clearly establish why Adam received the sword from Castle Grayskull and not his father, King Randor. Story Editor Dean Stefan promised exploration into characters never before seen but only previously heard about, and that much of their approach to story came about by looking at character. He cited an example where Mec-a-Nek (who can stretch his metal neck, originally just a toy gimmick) laments that his power sucks, and they explore him finding his useful place in the world. Man-E-Faces -- a character with multiple faces -- is another character that went through a similar exploration process since "no one could figure out what to do with him," so Dean made it a mission that they figure out what to do with the character.

Don't think that means the show will be devoid of action. Many different fighting styles were studied to give characters their own unique feel in combat (for example, Teela has an Asian influence, Man-At-Arms cautiously waits for others to fumble and then takes advantage), and director Gary Hartle previously has worked on animated series like JACKIE CHAN ADVENTURES, so he does have experience with this sort of animated choreography. All this action will be placed on a backdrop described on the epic scale of STAR WARS.

Many of the staff on the show and working with the toy line grew up as fans of the show and want to see things done right. While the show needs to be able to draw in the 6-11 demographic for merchandising concerns, everyone agreed that it will -- and should -- draw in the 12-24 age bracket if not higher (since many older fans watch the Cartoon Network TOONAMI block that HE-MAN will be a part of). Sam Register of Cartoon Network did admit they wanted Adam to be 12 years old, but reached a compromise that he would be portrayed as 16. Cartoon Network's motivation to carry a new HE-MAN show came from the large amount of phone and e-mail requests received to air the original show, and feels the new style show will be a good fit for the TOONAMI brand. Bill Schultz of Mike Young Productions, the pre-production house on HE-MAN, said the biggest challenge was "not to screw it [the show] up," and that they had to pay attention to what originally made the show successful, otherwise why bother?

The biggest lesson that came out of this panel was that while '80s properties are in vogue (as also evidenced by the ROBOTECH panel, not to mention all the TRANSFORMERS and GI JOE merchandise on the exhibit floor), that people behind the properties wanted their heart and soul in continuing the universe in a quality way versus just rehashing old things. Something to pay attention to and see if it's a matter of fans just grasping on to quality properties that just happen to be from the same era or a passing fad.

After the panel, I made sure to corner Dean Stefan briefly as I have been trying to meet him for years now. Dean served as the first and primary Story Editor for EXTREME GHOSTBUSTERS, though others came on board later. Of all the Story Editors, he was the only one I'd never been able to meet in five years. Normally I try not to grab people right after panels, because so many other people are trying to get their attention, but I didn't know if I'd have the chance to see Dean again for another five years. If you decide to go this route to introduce yourself to someone, my suggestion is lots of patience.

After getting lunch at Seaport Village, away from the crowded convention center, I went back to checking the exhibit floor. At one of the booths I found several cels from JUMANJI -- the first show I ever worked on -- were being offered at (for cels) reasonable prices. I'd been under the impression in the past that no cels would never be made available, so seeing them truly was a surprise. I felt I couldn't afford one I really wanted as a souvenir of my work, due to being unemployed, so I went on to the next panel.

The last panel I attended for Friday covered Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy in the print media. The only direct animation tie came from married couple Emma Bull and Will Shetterly appearing on the panel, who amongst their credits co-wrote an animated motion picture called VIRTUAL MELTDOWN, and Emma also has shared writing credits on WAR PLANETS (a.k.a. SHADOW RAIDERS) and POCKET DRAGON ADVENTURES. The real highlights of the panel though, amongst other SF/fantasy novelists such as David Gemmell, Kevin J. Anderson, Rebecca Moesta, and R.A. Salvatore, were Peter David and acclaimed SF author Larry Niven. Though I recommend also staying in tune with print SF/fantasy to see where new properties may come from, this panel proved largely just for fun.

After the panel, I did go back and acquire the cel after doing some thinking, soul-seaching, and inquiring. The other two that were there were not of the same framing quality, and no telling when or if I might ever get the chance again. Also, as I said, they were inexpensive as far as cels go. They could go up in value later, no telling. Better to do it now and if things go so far south I never work in this industry again -- something I'm bound and determined not to see happen -- I can remember my times here.

Last for the day came a dinner meeting. Apparently Comic-Con wasn't the only major event in town as my guests and I waited for almost an hour and a half to get in to the Old Spaghetti Factory. 9:30 at night for starting dinner is about the latest I think I've ever gone (though I would wind up repeating that Saturday night too). Food and conversation both worth it, though the tradeoff was very little sleep before the next -- and even longer -- day began.

Saturday kicked off with a panel on Writing Feature Animation. With the advent of so many successful animated films, people believe they can easily break writing these type of movies, evidenced by the overflow crowd that attended the panel. However, the reality is that most animated films get developed in-house and worked on by writers known to the companies. The panel was designed (in the admission of moderator, Len Uhley, whose credits include direct to videos in the LAND BEFORE TIME and AMERICAN TAIL franchises) to both educate and discourage people about the realities of this aspect of the animation business.

The guests were Chris Sanders (LILO & STITCH, co-head of story on MULAN), Floyd Norman (who has experience with the Disney story department going back to JUNGLE BOOK, and more recently worked on TOY STORY 2 and MONSTERS INC. at Pixar), and Terry Rossio (co-writer of ALADDIN, SMALL SOLDIERS, ROAD TO EL DORADO, MASK OF ZORRO and SHREK). Floyd started out in comics, which led him to film. Chris made homemade cartoons, then his grandmother talked him into going to CalArts; his first job after that was three years on staff at the MUPPET BABIES show, followed by a brief stint at TMS before getting hired in Disney development where he stayed for 13 years before LILO & STITCH. Terry's big break came when he and his partner had a live-action development deal with Disney's Hollywood Pictures but heard ALADDIN was in need of new writers on the project and took a gamble writing an animated feature.

The panel agreed that, until someone finally is willing to take a risk on an animated feature spec script, the only value in writing one is personal practice. Chris felt it might help you get representation, but I later followed up and asked the panel if anyone saw a use to get you a job on an already-developed project; both moderator Len Uhley and Terry Rossio felt that a live-action script would service you better since some executives still have biases that animation writing is something less and why hurt your odds?

When asked to compare the animation script process, the three offered varying takes. Since Terry came to animation from live-action, he started out saying the two processes do not compare. In his opinion, while concepts, story structure and character must be strong, the other elements need to stay somewhat non-defined, since the process is somewhat a collaborative effort (creating the look and feel of characters, backgrounds, etc.) Chris echoed this and underscored that movies at Disney rarely start from finished scripts; LILO & STITCH was the first time he tried to work from a finished script and still made radical revisions. Floyd pointed out that in Walt Disney's days, the story was in Walt's head and all he'd provide were generalities for the story crew to second-guess and shape, later bringing on a dialogue polisher to tighten the banter; only Walt's feedback let you know when you strayed. Floyd left Disney for a while and returned to work from script pages, which he found a drastically different process.

Terry also emphasized that writer involvement with animated movies stretched well into the story reel stage (storyboard to a rough dialogue track), versus turning in a television script that the Story Editor tweaks. Chris clarified that Disney's "Gong Show" of old -- where anyone on Disney staff was allowed to pitch to executives at set times in brief bursts -- has gone the way of a more open door policy of just phoning executives; Terry expressed caution with this format because of the potential for a company to claim ownership of an idea pitched on company time, even if the company passes on it, therefore not allowing you the ability to pitch it elsewhere.

Since all three have worked in collaborative story effort, that angle was addressed. Chris expressed the greatest fear is the breakdown of the relationship, but a definite plus is that another perspective keeps things honest. Terry concurred, adding that if there is a choice to be made and the writers disagree, then whatever choice ultimately is agreed on must be justified, because the disagreement forces analysis of the story situation. Floyd said Walt always believed in partnership and encouraged his story persons to work together. He also told the story of how he first met Walt while waiting to get into a storypersons meeting, when Walt stepped out of a backlit elevator, casting a huge shadow that made everyone cower; Floyd went on to describe Walt as "a very sharp, great old guy."

Money became an unavoidable topic at one point, described as "the business that makes art possible." Terry never was asked to join 839 (the Motion Picture Screen Cartoonists Union, which traditionally has covered writers under "story persons," a title dating back to when storyboard artists also scripted story flow), and his representatives had to negotiate a deal for him after the fact for any compensation; basically the paperwork was finalized on his ALADDIN monies when he got the videotape in the mail. Later on, Terry also reminded that with some of the newer films, while residuals don't exist, box office performance bonuses have been negotiated into some contracts. Home video sequels and direct-to-video cost $3-$10 million to make depending on the studio (Disney being the higher end), generating roughly a 5-to-1 income by the figures quoted. With great luck, and if you have a niche concept like a Christian animated video, there may be smaller companies that can help a writer get an animated spec made, but it's a tough road.

Looking to the future, Floyd reminded the audience that the business has seen tough times and believed it would emerge again with more studios and the co-existence of 2D and 3D. Chris went so far as to say he felt 2D still was commercially viable, because of the big differences between the types and not all stories lend themselves to 3D; also, he foresees a lot more combination of 2D and 3D techniques. Terry felt the new Academy Award for Animated Feature Film would continue to spur creation of animated films of all kinds.

The huge amount of people made it impossible to grab lunch in the Convention Center after such an informative panel, so after a walk to the fast food court in nearby Horton Plaza (a large mall), I returned to catch Ray Bradbury and Julius Schwartz. Actually, I also sat in on most of the FUTURAMA panel that preceded it, but the focus of that presentation was to the longtime fans of the show -- and I just haven't been able to catch it on Sundays for some time now, so quite a bit sailed over my head.

Ray Bradbury and Julius Schwartz were a treat worth waiting for. A wonderful surprise came for Mr. Bradbury when, after forty years, he finally got to meet Al Feldstein -- who had unwittingly adapted the SF legend's stories for EC Comics when the publisher (possibly inadvertently after reading Bradbury's works while drunk, if I followed the story correctly) passed the pitches off as his own. When Mr. Bradbury first found out about his stories appearing in EC, instead of getting mad he wrote a letter thanking them for such a good adaptation with a postscript that they forgot to send his adaptation check; within a week he received payment. The day proved an emotional moment for both sides as they hugged, and Mr. Feldstein broke down into tears as he spoke of how honored he was to get to adapt Ray Bradbury's works. Then, Ray Bradbury and Julius Schwartz carried the rest of the hour as they shared memories of how they met and Mr. Bradbury's early publishing days. I am thrilled for the opportunity to hear legends of the SF world, from which it may be said that interest in modern SF has spun out from their earlier works.

After them, in the same room, came a Joss Whedon panel. The creator of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, ANGEL, and the new "Wild West meets Outer Space" series FIREFLY for the Fox Network (along with Tim Minear, who previously worked with Joss on scripts for BUFFY) was noticeably tired. He apologized for his comic mini-series FRAY being delayed, and said the plans are for a Fall release. This panel was another one of those primarily for guilty pleasure, but as a writer/developer I admire the way Joss works so hard to tie his universe together, which he described as "fun and joy," and I like hearing his insights and approach to the process.

The evening closed by networking at an animation writers reception I'd been invited to -- catching up on job leads and hooking up with friends I don't see often -- followed by a late dinner with my boyfriend and his family, who come down to San Diego every summer around Con time. It's nice not to be totally alone.

Sunday proved to be a relaxing day, and all about friends. One friend's short pilots and presentation reel for a property he'd previously released as a comic series (one a color animatic with a high quality soundtrack, the other done in Flash) were screened as part of the Comic-Con's Independent Film Festival. I previously didn't know much of the background on how he'd brought the elements together, or even on the concept, so I learned a lot from attending the entire session. After that, I crashed the last thirty minutes or so of the ROUGHNECKS panel, which highlighted the latest two DVD releases. Some people who worked on ROUGHNECKS go back to my EXTREME GHOSTBUSTERS days at Sony, others I know from elsewhere but hadn't seen since the prior Con. All I could get in was some simple hellos, as they all had places to be afterwards, but sometimes that's all you need. A last, quick pass on the exhibit hall floor to see if anything I was interested in became further discounted (I did) and then it was all over.

I know that in the days since I left Comic-Con and started writing this, contacts haven't had immediate payoff. If anything, opportunities that waited in the wings before the convention fizzled out. However, in this industry, you never know what chance meeting may pay off down the road. You must keep trying and not give up, if you're serious about this. At the least the convention armed me with the latest knowledge to help me look for opportunities, and have fun in the process.


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Shannon Muir is known in the animation industry for her work as a production coordinator for Nickelodeon's Invader Zim. She also served as a Production Coordinator for Extreme Ghostbusters and a Production Assistant for Jumanji: The Animated Series. Muir is an accomplished writer and often participates on panels or as a guest speaker at conventions like Comic Con International.

Muir moved to Los Angeles in 1996 from Cheney, WA (population approximately 8,000), knowing she wanted to be part of the animation business. Since then, she's never strayed far from making that dream reality, whether it be actively working on a production or writing articles about the industry.

You can email Shannon Muir at shanemuir@aol.com.

All editorialized columns, including this one, that appear in Digital Media FX are not necessarily reflective of the opinions of Digital Media FX, its partner sites, and its advertisers.

> Access a Printable Version of this Column. (printable version coming August 20)
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