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.
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.”
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!”