Cover image from Opal Waltz by Vincent Tsui

Independent Animation in Los Angeles

Sean Buckelew
Dec 14, 2017 · 14 min read

Making an ambitious animated film on your own is really hard. The stereotypes of animators working long, thankless hours alone in a room turn out to be mostly true when it comes to making personal projects. There are about a million practical and emotional roadblocks that will prevent you from completing the project. I chronicled some of my personal hurdles producing an independent short in a previous blog post. At the end of that process, I was interested in what others’ experience was like producing short films on their own outside of any support system.

In addition to making films, I help program at the GLAS Animation Festival — an animation festival held annually in Berkeley, California, and love getting to watch all the shorts for the competition screenings. Jeanette Bonds, the founder of GLAS, approached me with an idea to collaborate on a screening/panel focusing on independent animators working in Los Angeles. I was immediately taken with the idea. Los Angeles boasts one of the best creative communities in the world, with artists flocking from all over to make work here. But oftentimes, the currency by which work is judged is solely commercial, and talented artists coming to Los Angeles or graduating from school with amazing short films will immediately get absorbed by the animation industry and stop making films for themselves. Ambitious animated shorts made outside the animation industry for no commercial gain carry a particular creative edge in this context. I wanted the screening and panel to serve as validation and inspiration for everyone trying to make work like this, to unpack the unique circumstances for how these exceptional films came to be.

Below are all the films featured in the screening, along with an overview of each project and commentary from the artists about producing work independently, letting your personal work define you, keeping up your passion while working on a project by yourself, and balancing personal projects with commercial work.

The ubiquitous viral sensation Hi Stranger by Kirsten Lepore started off as a completely different film. During the process, the initial idea she’d been working on for five months was interrupted by a year-long commercial job. After finishing the job, the film she had been developing didn’t feel as relevant. With a looming deadline from Late Night Work Club racing towards her (the film was originally part of the collective’s Strangers anthology), she decided to take a new approach. “I was trying to come up with something that was really simple and manageable to do in a short period of time, so I thought ‘one character, one shot.’” Incorporating elements of frustration and exhaustion from her daily life, the film flowed out quickly, completing production after one month working nights and weekends. “I feel with every other film I’ve done, I just want to die. Everyone’s just like ‘Oh, you do animation, it must be so fun’, and I’m like ‘Not really’. It’s fun like 20% of the time, or when I’m working on a film like this where I can shoot it in a couple of days. Most of the time, it’s grueling for a solid year or two. It’s so emotional, it really is like a roller coaster.”

By limiting the scope of the length and concept, she was able to take the pressure off herself, which she credits as one of the reasons it was so successful (in addition to being personally gratifying). “This just feels like me on the screen, and I didn’t overthink it too much, and that was liberating and part of why I enjoyed making it.”

As a successful commercial director, Lepore finds a harmonious co-existence between her personal and commercial work: “It’s a little easier sometimes to just sit back and do a commercial or do a thing where someone else has taken care of a lot of the heavy creative lifting. You can put your spin on it, do your thing, make it, make money and then you can relax again. And maybe make something of your own for no money. I don’t mind that kind of system, it doesn’t bother me.”

After its explosive online release, Lepore opened a shop for Hi Stranger merchandise.

Song E. Kim’s Bite of the Tail started as a three minute thesis film from the CalArts Experimental Animation Program in 2007. It was completed six years later, fit in between commercial work and life events. For Song, it was important to maintain the passion for the project, even after taking a year off. “I wasn’t really afraid that I was taking a break. I didn’t try to set a specific schedule or deadline for it. I wanted to make sure that I was in the right mood, that I really wanted to work on it, not being pushed. So if I didn’t want to work on it, I didn’t work on it. I worked for money.”

Similar to Lepore, Kim was able to successfully delineate her personal practice from her commercial practice, working on her own films outside of any consideration for advancing her commercial career. “If I make my film and consider it as a calling card, then I’m considering what other people will think, and I don’t like to do that because I’m not getting paid for that. So I just make it for myself. It’s very freeing and therapeutic if I just make it like ‘this is what it is, and this is what I want to say.’”

She also spoke to the necessity to vary the type of work you do and how you can’t solely focus on personal projectors. “You don’t want to be by yourself all the time. Sometimes it’s good to go to a company, take off your PJs, put some makeup on, go have a regular life, talk to people, and then come back and watch Youtube videos and go to bed.”

After finishing the film five years ago, Kim says that she has other ideas for big films, but that her priorities have shifted after having children (“on purpose, not accident”) — “I don’t want to pay for therapy for my children so they can talk about how their mom was never around because she was working on a film.”

David Lewandowski’s Going to the Store trilogy marks one of the most ambitious independent projects in Internet history. After originally premiering at a Channel 101 screening in Los Angeles, the original Going to the Store was released on Youtube and exploded. The short drew inspiration from Lewandowski’s time working in the VFX industry (and the uncanny render errors that made the hyper-realistic character animation accidentally strange or hilarious). With each subsequent installment, Lewandowski raised the bar exponentially for one of the most massively scaled silly Internet joke videos of all time. With astounding production value, the joke escalates from a single man walking around Los Angeles to a massive crowd migrating to Pacific Ocean off the coast of Japan.

Amongst animators that reach massive audiences on YouTube, Lewandowski chose an unconventional path. Eschewing the cult of personality that generally comes with running a popular channel, keeping the timeline of production a mystery and electing to not upload a profile picture (instead sticking with the evolving default icon, currently a purple circle with a capital ‘D’), there is a distinct lack of context surrounding the films, which lends itself to the directness of the humor.

For the third film time for sushi, Lewandowski rolled out an online boutique of artisanal merchandise commemorating the series (at the aptly named www.goingtothe.store), including full-size body pillows and a $90,000 premium chess set. As the text on the store explains, “I didn’t plan on this from the outset of the third video, and, in fact, I’ve always felt distinctly anti-commercial about this series. However, with the crash of YouTube’s ad economy in early 2017 via the advertising crisis, options for filmmakers like me have quickly changed.” Also available at the store is the book “Youtube Inbox,” which gives rare insight into the rapidly evolving experience of releasing a massive video online, from standard fan praise, to back and forth discussions on fair use, to countless internet video middlemen circling around the popularity like hungry vultures.

In an email conversation outlining the difficulties of creating this kind of high production value, artisanal work in the context of an ever-changing online ecosystem that increasingly rewards quantitative clickbait over everything else, Lewadowski explained the rationale for making films in this way. “The only justification for independent work I can offer is the pursuit of uncompromising artistic expression and the profound satisfaction of communicating via art.”

Vincent Tsui made the music video Opal Waltz at night and on weekends over the course of a year while working full time at Buck. The project started when two musician friends reached out about doing a new music video. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a budget in place for the video, but Vincent was excited about the song and decided to go ahead and make the short anyway.

Although he is now focusing on a comic, Tsui regards the short as the perfect format for an individual artist creating animated work (a sentiment that was echoed by others on the panel). “In animation, the short form is the easiest way to make a film. You could make a feature film, but it would take forever. For now it feels like the short film is the only format to experiment with visually or conceptually.”

In 2015, David OReilly released a number of films, including the subsequently Sundance-selected The Horse Raised by Spheres, on an experimental, interactive site that stitched all the films together in a continuous tunnel. Between each film, a narrative unfolded where the user could type out messages from a computer becoming self-aware. The roll out was announced through a cryptic Instagram post showing a long seemingly random string of numbers appended with a “.com” web address (the original site, 109645790437692847650.com has since been removed, along with the Instagram post showing the URL, but many of the individual shorts are available on OReilly’s YouTube account (it’s also noted on his site that some of the shorts were subsequently removed from YouTube).

a sample of the interactive narrative stitching from 109645790437692847650.com

OReilly has taken big risks in his career, with his most ambitious projects being entirely self-funded. In a recent interview at the Bit Bang Festival in Buenos Aires, OReilly said “Talking about my independent work, I’ve never depended on anybody for money for those projects. And maybe I could have, but they wouldn’t be the same, because I think to do anything really new, very few people are going to understand what you’re doing. They’ll understand it after it’s finished, but they won’t understand it before. So it’s very hard to fund things that you’re very passionate about if there’s no precedent for them.”

Since the release of these films, OReilly has focused his attention on games, most recently with Everything.

After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2016, Conner Griffith moved back to Los Angeles. Having just completed two films that used photographic and video sources for formal play, Griffith decided to continue pursuing this train of experimental thought by gathering new source materials (while also looking for a job). With an interest in playing with time displacement, slit scanning, and one point perspective, he began sneaking into hotels and shooting. “I wasn’t really thinking of it as a film when I was making it. It was more like, I’m gonna just try and see if I can make this thing work and I didn’t really know what I was gonna get, or how long it was gonna be.”

Griffith has managed to continue making work by keeping his aims simple and playful, “I just want to keep making little experiments like this and using Vimeo as this outlet that can get me some views and some reception.”

Consistently dropping new shorts, Joe Bennett is one of the most prolific independent animators working today. From God’s Mouth To Your Ears started when a friend sent him a 30 minute unedited field recording of a man talking at a bus stop. He whittled the audio down to its current form and reached out to Pennsylvania-based animator Charles Huettner to join in (Huettner animated the scenes with the surveilling agents). The two would later collaborate on the short Scavengers for Adult Swim.

Bennett describes the creative purity involved in these personal projects, “I feel as an artist when you’re able to make something with nothing and for nobody but yourself it does a few things. When you’re removed from the commercial world you can see your development clearly as an individual artist removed from all the trends and everything, just what you are capable of creating that moves you right now. For me it feels like the purest approach. It may not have the same polish as a commercial, but it personifies you better than anything else.”

Inspired by the quote from General Patton that “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week,” Bennett also stresses the virtue of completing all the projects he starts. “When I sit down and make something on my own from start to finish I improve as a storyteller. I’m consistently proving to myself that I can do it and finish it, even if they are small projects. That means more to me than almost anything else.”

In the ongoing conversation about sustainability as an independent animator, Bennett recently threw his hat in the ring and began selling his “Creative Review” sticker packs, perfect for communicating passive-aggressively with fellow creatives.

Allison Schulnik maintains her filmmaking practice as part of a broader, hybrid approach to art-making. After establishing herself as a fine artist, mounting successful gallery shows around the world, Schulnik began releasing stop-motion videos that utilize clay in thick shifting chunks, like moving versions of the textural brushstrokes in her paintings. Although formally the two bodies of work exist in slightly different exhibition formats (festivals vs. galleries), Schulnik describes them as conceptually operating in one. “I think all my work exists in the same realm. Even if something is moving and another is still. Something is clay and another is paper. Everything resides in the same world. People seem to look at my work as one body, but I can’t be sure. Narratives and figures travel across one medium to another, and really don’t stop moving no matter the material they are made with. I’m sure some things really sink into some people more than other things. I just try to make honest work.” Balancing the two careers has also allowed Schulnik to make ambitious and beautiful films without the material concerns of an animator whose only output is short films.

Although most of the work in the screening was produced in the last couple of years, it felt imperative to include a piece from Sally Cruikshank, a seminal influence to a future generation of independent animators. Face Like a Frog felt like an emblematic piece from this era, brimming with a intuitive joy and exuberance and a collaboration with composer Danny Elfman. Looking back with rose-colored glasses, the animation scene in Los Angeles in the 1980s seemed like fertile ground for an innovative generation coming of age, creating commercial work that felt original and exciting, with many of these animators continuing on to long, successful careers. But as Cruikshank describes it, the scene could also feel isolating and industry-focused just as it does today. “I’ve had so little involvement in any independent animation community. When I lived in the Bay Area and was working on my films, there still weren’t many other people doing that, and L.A. was so dominated by the studio system where women were expected to do ink and paint.”

At the time, independent animators found analog solutions to distributing and marketing their work. “In the 70s the few who were doing independent animation in the US found a market selling prints to libraries and also doing talks with screenings at museums, libraries and film societies. You’d go out on a tour, like a road show, paid at each stop — animator’s version of vaudeville.”

In an interview with Art of the Title, Cruikshank also describes the difficulty of producing work in a pre-digital age, something that makes her body of work all the more remarkable. “The animation cel process was so labour-intensive and tedious. It was kind of phenomenally difficult. Really hard if you were entirely on your own. I hired a lot of friends to paint cels. You just had to ask for favours. Everybody was so poor!” Cruikshank managed to produce a body of work with an unmatched joy and energy that deftly balanced creative commercial work with independent shorts. Later, she made the move to digital and continued to create animation in Flash on her website.

The production saga on Kangmin Kim’s Deer Flower brings the discussion full circle, with ups and downs and a certain kind of redemption. It starts with Kim moving to the Bay Area after graduating to take a full time job working on a feature at a new and exciting stop motion studio. Several months later, the studio was shut down, and Kim had to return to Korea. Feeling like he was at a low point, he decided to develop a new short. He applied for and received a $40,000 grant to make the film. But there was a caveat: if he didn’t finish the film in a year, he would have to return all the money. After developing the film in pre-production, he returned to Los Angeles for an intense 4-week production shoot at the legendary Chiodo Brothers studio (famous for their groundbreaking stop-motion work, and infamous as the directors of the cult classic Killer Klowns from Outer Space). The film was completed on time and premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

The sentiment that your personal films can represent you better than you can represent yourself became a running theme of the discussion. As Kim describes, “When someone asks, ‘Hey, what do you do?’ I say ‘This is what I do, just watch it.’ I have a serious language problem, but my short film explains everything about me.”

Although he described the production as a “nightmare” and swore “I’m never doing that again,” Kim has already finished a new short film, a sequel to his previous film 38–39°c titled JEOM, made in collaboration with the stop motion studio Open The Portal.

During the discussion, I was surprised by the consensus that seemed to be emerging about how each of the filmmakers considered their films. For the directors that had cultivated successful commercial careers, I expected there to be more of an emphasis on the practical usefulness in using these pieces as a calling card, but a consistent tone throughout the panel was that these pieces should exist for their own sake, otherwise part of their artistic integrity would be compromised.

I brought up emerging platforms on the internet (like Patreon or Kickstarter) as a path for artists to gain independent sustainability. This was rejected as something of little interest, that it would require too much focus on personal work, which is unhealthy. The sustainable model that emerged over and over in the conversation was based on an understanding that you balance your personal projects with commercial projects, and that’s the best way to make it work and stay sane.

Another commonality was that, without any meaningful economic drive to making an independent short, each project required the individual to move it forward, and rarely were there any external forces or incentives to push these films through to completion.

Despite production horror stories, the overall tone of the conversation was also surprisingly optimistic about the importance of making shorts in this way. There was agreement that the pressures of commercial production fundamentally alters what the piece is, and that if any of these projects were made under more serious financial pressure, they would simply be different films. This led to the most common thread of the night, that these films are most meaningful as a representation of you, your interests and your personality. To try and qualify that outside of itself seems pointless, and serves as the ultimate justification for making this kind of work. This might help explain why making a personal film can feel like a nightmare. It’s the same nightmare as looking at yourself in the mirror and saying aloud “I am important.”

Ultimately, I’m just a huge fan of these filmmakers and their films, and was excited to show off their brilliant work and say publicly “It was worth the struggle, and I’m really glad these films exist!”

The panel, photograph by Hae-Joon Lee

Thanks to Jeanette Bonds for making this screening happen and for supporting this article. Be sure to check out GLAS Animation for more exciting events in Los Angeles and our annual festival in Berkeley.

Thanks to Jeanette Bonds

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