Archive for December, 2013


Vikas Kumar is CEO of Digitoonz, an animation house specializing in Flash, 2D, 3D and and motion-comic animation from its home base in Noida, about 12 miles outside of New Delhi.

Your company, Digitoonz, works on many international properties. Are there some themes or story lines that are common to most countries? Do you find that children are children pretty much the same, with similar interests and concerns?

“Digitoonz works on entertainment content for all age groups. We are developing the content for different countries and cultures. These shows are based on almost same themes, aiming to provide knowledge with fun & entertainment. About kids interests and concerns, I would like to say that yes, kids are kids and they love humor and fun. The stories may relate to their own unique environments and things around them so that they can relate themselves to the story, but the basic ingredient  is always fun and humor.”

When Digitoonz starts working on a new show, do you sit down with the creators and discuss things like culture, humor and style?

“Yes, actually this is very important. Our creative team communicates with Creators and Producers of the show to understand their thoughts behind the story, the key points of the story which we will need to keep in mind while working on it. Producers of shows also visit the studio during the production and spend time with whole team.”

Does every show have to be watchable in every country for it to be successful? Or is it possible for a show to focus on a particular region and still find global acceptance?

“Shows should be acceptable globally to be successful worldwide if it will relate itself to audience world e.g. kids’ fantasy world, which remain almost same irrespective of place, region & boundaries. Then it would be acceptable globally — even though some shows gain huge success in one country or region and still find overall success. A show featuring a soccer player will get good audience in soccer playing countries.”

Do you find the tastes of global broadcaster is shifting toward more diversity?

“Yes, broadcaster taste is shifting toward more variety. There was a time when most of the shows were based on traditional stories and on specific style, but now we can see shows based on many unique themes. You can find lots of shows with sci-fi stories and more interactive shows. You may also find the medium of content from 2d & 3d to mix media. We are watching these varieties in content & medium now because of their wide acceptance by broadcasters.”

What, in your opinion, makes for a solidly entertaining show for kids?

“Story and representation of the story are key point to make a entertaining show. The other features which are also very important are characters, colors and music. Music keep the kids connected with the show.”

Do you see Digitoonz developing its own projects in-house? Or do you prefer to tackle the production tasks for outside projects?

“Yes of course! Digitoonz is planning to develop its own projects. We are working as co-producers also on two shows and we will continue the production task for outside projects too.”

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With a degree in Fine Arts, the animator Ennio Torresan, born in Rio de Janeiro, has been living for over ten years in Los Angeles, where he currently works as head of the story department at DreamWorks. Following his award-winning El Macho (1993), he became director of an animated series created by Ralph Bakshi for HBO, called Spicy City. Later he was screenwriter and storyboard director for SpongeBob Squarepants, for Nickelodeon. His next step was directing Disney’s Teacher’s Pet, for which he won an Emmy in 2003. At DreamWorks, he has helped to create Madagascar (1, 2 and 3), Kung Fu Panda, Megamind, and, most recently, Turbo. He has also found time to continue working in Brazil, on projects like the 2D feature animation Até Que a Sbornia Nos Separe, produced by Otto Desenhos Animados. He also still nurtures the passion for comic books that began it all, and has participated in the Scrambled Ink collection, by Dark Horse Comics, with an autobiographical story called The Guy from Ipanema.

The success of SpongeBob hit Nickelodeon like a tornado – no one seemed to anticipate how hugely popular the show would become. How hard was it to scramble and assemble episodes in the wake of such media and audience attention?

“Steve Hillenburg (creator of SpongeBob), who came from doing his personal short animated films, wanted to hire artists who’d had the same kind of experience and drive as himself. He wanted independent filmmakers on his show. I was free at the time after my show being developed at HBO, “El Macho,” was canceled.

The artists who first worked on SpongeBob were unlikely to succeed in other more conservative, script-oriented shows. The top management at Nickelodeon didn’t care much about SpongeBob so they left us alone to “try out” the script-less approach. Shows like CatDog and Angry Beavers were more in tune with what Nick’s top management wanted. However, the Sponge became an uncontrollable hit after being let loose. I saw Steve fight many battles to keep its integrity (including one executive who hated Southern accents!). Steve fought hard like he always did and Sandy remained a squirrel from Texas. That executive is no longer there, and Steve today has an estimated net worth of $90 million dollars.

Please don’t be naive, this kind of success doesn’t happen frequently. I’ve seen wonderful charismatic shows crash and burn more often than not. There are so many things that have to happen in the right order for a show to hit this big.”

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What does it take to connect to the mind of a child? Do you maintain a strong connection to your own feelings and point of view as a small boy? Do you find kids are similar in what they want to see, no matter where they live and grow up?

“Kids are kids. Regardless of ethnicity, origin, background. They will laugh at the same jokes and are scared when the scary music cues happen. Making them laugh and engaged in a particular story becomes much easier once you have kids yourself, as I found out. Before having kids I was digging deep into my earliest memories.”
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Your work is seen all over the world, and your personal projects have a distinctly international feel. Are all markets opening up to more diverse cultural themes in cartoons? Or is the industry divided between English and non-English speaking stories and types of characters?

“It seems that now more then ever, kids are in charge of what they want to watch. There are fantastic shows being produced straight to streaming video. Tinga Tinga and My Big Big Friend are just two of the most creative and well-realized shows these days. The first one was produced in Africa and the second was a co-production with Canada and Brazil. The world has become a much smaller place and great shows can be created and produced anywhere in the world.”

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There are so many requirements for a cartoon’s global success – merchandising, ancillary products, etc. Is it possible for a smaller, simpler idea to find an audience these days?

“There is more competition now. There are more creators realizing their projects now than let’s say ten years ago. Streaming is changing the way we watch TV.

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The way an idea goes viral these days depends on how much energy the creator can exert, and how persistent they may be. It took me five years to make my first short, which I had started in ’87. It was all animated on paper and shot on a 35 mm camera. There weren’t that many places to screen it afterwords. Today I could accomplish that in a fraction of the time and with much better tools, and it would be accessible to the whole world instantly.”

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What are your hopes for the future of the animation industry?

“I wish there were directors as important as Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, PT Anderson, Francis Coppola, Luc Besson, Roman Polanski, William Friedkin or Jonathan Demme who would be doing new kinds of animation. I wish animation would grow up and venture in the world of adulthood. That’s my wish for the future of animation.”

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David B. Levy is Manager, Animation at Disney Publishing Worldwide. Over his career, Levy has directed animated TV series and pilots for Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, Scholastic, Disney, Sesame Workshop, National Geographic, and the Fox Broadcasting Company. As a writer, Levy has been engaged by major companies such as Garan, Inc., Kidville, and Classic Media to create animated projects based on existing properties and by Disney, which optioned one of his original creations. As an author, Levy has penned the three essential books on the animation business (Your Career in Animation, Animation Development, and Directing Animation) and is the co-author of the upcoming Independently Animated: Bill Plympton (2011), published by Rizzoli press. “Grandpa Looked Like William Powell,” Levy’s recent indie animated short, was in over 55 film festivals worldwide including the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival, Athens International Film Festival, Florida Film Festival, L.A. Film Festival, and the Atlanta Film Festival.

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As the saying goes, you’ve written the book on animation, having immersed yourself in all aspects of the industry for many years. Why animation?

“This is all I’ve ever wanted to do with my life. My father was a big art director in Advertising in NYC, so I grew up knowing one could make a living in the commercial arts. But, my passion was animation so I grew up making cartoons on the family super 8 and video cameras. I couldn’t wait to get home from school to work on my own cartoons each day. And, all these decades later, I still have that passion, only I love my day job (working for Disney) too! I am of the belief that animation is a very special art form with unique abilities to tell stories like no other way. It’s so much fun to push at the medium and see what it can do.

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You have been a show creator, a writer, a director and an executive – what role do you find is the most natural for you, and how does it serve as a foundation for the others?

“For me, its been a gradual build up to the point where I now head an animation team at Disney. This current role has me using every skill that I’ve learned along the way, so all those old roles are still a part of me. The directing/supervision work is the hardest won because you have to know what it’s like to do all the jobs in the pipeline before you can effectively lead a team or supervise a production. Teaching at the university level for ten years has proven a big help to me because it required that I learn how to hold a class room of 50 students together. When you’ve succeeded at that, managing a team of 9 people doesn’t seem as daunting.

Do you prefer to work on original material or existing properties?

“It’s always fun being the first to figure something out. For instance, I am very proud that I supervised the animation for the Bob’s Burgers TV pilot, the very one that scored the series pick up. Opportunities like that are amazing. But, it’s also neat stepping in to something already in spin. My work at Disney, in app creation/production has me and my team interacting with all the classic properties and we take that responsibility very seriously. You feel the obligation and weight of that legacy.”

Have you been able to interact with your core audiences much, like attending market research sessions? Do you find street-level feedback valuable?

“When I was a director on Blue’s Clues I went to quite a few research testing sessions where our show concepts and rough animations were tested on classrooms full of preschoolers. That was eye-opening to see just how young our audience was and what level of development they were at. It definitely changed the way I thought about our product. I’ve had similar opportunities to see app user testing and it was just as enlightening.”

Sometimes young people want to jump into a creative career, but they’re not sure about how to develop their own unique voice and point of view. Following your gut instincts as a creative person – is that a skill you are born with and develop, or is it something that can be learned?

“If only! The first 10 years of my sideline indie filmmaker career are best forgotten because all I was doing was trying to ape other creator’s styles and failing miserably at that. I only discovered what my “voice” as a creator/filmmaker was when I ignored all that outside influence and just made what I wanted to make. Surprising things bubbled up when I allowed that to happen and I sure wish I could have tapped into that starting from college. The same pattern happened with my series pitches. None of them quite connected, until I made my own youtube series on my own terms, and then… POOF!… suddenly I got a distribution deal. Go figure! haha…

Cartoons are so much more than half-hour TV shows – does it ever concern you that a truly great piece of work might be overlooked because it doesn’t naturally extend itself to ancillary markets like theme parks and games?

“I can’t imagine how anything could get greenlit anywhere if it has to prove itself on all those fronts from the get go. More often it just needs to show potential to attract an audience. I think the smart execs know how to nurture that little seed. A whole forest can grow from the right little seed.

The animation industry is high tech, with digital connections linking companies from many different countries. Does this give smaller, less globally-dominant cultures a leg up into the mass market? Will it help level the playing field?

“I think social media and Youtube, etc, have leveled that playing field, along with how cheap and accessible it is to produce content. That won’t make content automatically worth watching, but it means more people have access to try at creation and I think that’s a great thing. And, the old guard entertainment companies are profiting from this new leveled playing field too because they get to use Youtube as a virtual applause meter to monitor trends or to pick up hot new projects from unexpected places.”

The stakes are always high in animation because of the cost. That same dilemma has forced the movie industry to rely on franchises. Do you see cartoons heading in the same direction, making it harder for quirky projects to gain a foothold?

“I think the onus is on the little guys and gals, for us to make our own passion projects. We need to believe in them first and prove it with actions. The big studios and entertainment giants need some level of franchises to develop brands and retain the audience. I don’t think creators should distract themselves with that reality. Just make what you want to make. Say what you want to say. Get it out there. Promote it yourself, and make more! Learn, grow, improve! There’s nobody stopping us.”

Are there cartoons from your childhood you wish you could work on now?

“I’m getting that opportunity at Disney. I wrote an app script/concept for Mickey Mouse with my awesome team and when I heard Mickey speaking our words it was quite an emotional moment. In a career we don’t usually have the time to stop and revel in moments like that. But, I’m okay with that. It’s fun to just keep on chugging to the next thing!”

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John McKinley studied Fine Art and Illustration at Denison University in Granville Ohio, and at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. He specializes in character design and humor, and has illustrated the Ready, Freddy book series for Scholastic. The series has more than 3 million copies in print. John’s work has appeared in diverse media, from Popular Science magazine to the LA Times to the famed Children’s Television Workshop.

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Much of your work contains more than the simple illustration itself – I mean it often conveys ideas, wordplay, humor that stretches reality. Have you always been interested in extending the meaning and ideas in this way? Have you ever drawn a simple basket of fruit?

“Being an illustrator, I have to be able to draw anything and everything.  Knowing how to draw a bowl of fruit is important to me. Much like having gloves is important to a mountain climber. But extending the meaning is what it’s all about.  If I’m not employing wordplay, then I’m focused on the character’s unique expression. It’s never just the fruit bowl with no other message. That’s what art school is for.”

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There’s a animated cartoon quality to some of your drawings – something akin to the old Tex Avery kind of va-voom! eyes, or the classic Warner Brothers hyper-reality. Were you a fan as a kid?

“I liked Warner Brothers cartoons, but my real inspiration came from the illustrators at MAD Magazine. Some of those guys, Jack Davis, Mort Drucker, Don Martin, Norman Mingo, Al Jaffee, Jack Rickard, all knocked my socks off. I wanted to be as good as them.  They were my heroes.”

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When you brainstorm new ideas, are you chiefly interested in the words first (to create a visual pun) or is it more that you see or hear something and it strikes your mind in a way that tells you: this could be something interesting?

“Mostly it’s the words that come first.  A funny play on words will pop into my head then I’ll go to the drawing board and work it out.  I’m much more productive starting with a solid mental concept, than when I drift along drawing, trying to arrive at something. Of course I do spend tons of time drawing with no clear destination in mind.  I save ALL of my sketch books,  and will go back and look at them, because they are filled with funny ideas.  Things that didn’t strike me funny when I was drawing them.”

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Your characters have a kinetic aspect to them, they are often captured mid-motion. But even when they are simply looking at the viewer, they seem to be ready to do something that could get them arrested. Do animals know more than they are telling us?

“Yes, definitely. I love the knowing stare…the eyes that lock onto the viewer.  I am endlessly amused at drawing animals looking right at me.  There’s plenty going on in animals heads that we don’t know about.   But the perfect, energetic, dramatic gesture is always successful in picture making. People like lively.”

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What’s your favorite type of illustration? Do you prefer the one-off, stand-alone funny ones? Or would you like to get into more longform media like graphic novels?

“That’s easy, the stand alone drawing. Maybe it’s my short attention span,( I can barely follow a movie plot) but I prefer the impact of the single image.  I illustrate long stories, but my preference is short and to the point communication. I do love creating characters and whole universes of creatures. Instead of writing a script about what they say and think, I put it all in their faces.”

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You have perfected a “John McKinley” style — did you start out drawing with this flavor or was it something that developed over time?

“The flavor has always been there but my technique has become more refined over time. I feel I draw better every day, which is a gratifying thing.  I am at a point now where “how to draw it” isn’t the challenge anymore.”

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