My Song to Graduating Students

Don't you sometimes wonder why we, the people from Eastern Europe, young and old, are scattered around Europe and the rest of the world? Perhaps just like the steam escaping pressure cooking pot we want to mingle with the gentle and permissive molecules of air outside the pot?

Time to time a European or American person aspiring to be an animator sends me a message asking where is the best place to study animation. I don't even have to think about it.

- Estonia or Czech Republic, - is my instant replay. 

But then one day, to my surprise, I received the following message: "I am an Estonian animation student based in London and it is part of our third year project to ask advice from artists who inspire us. I have a couple of questions for you."

Why would an Estonian go to study animation in London and why would she want an advise from someone who has never studied animation?

Life is mysterious and world is populated with people who who have their secret reasons to move from one place to another (I will reveal you mine if you ask).  After exchanging few messages with the Estonian animation student based in London - Sofja Umarik - we agreed that I will reply to her questions on my blog.

Question number one: "How do you manage to keep creating meaningful and beautiful films despite the industry pressure (and finance)? It has always been my dream to create films with deep impact, but I feel like nowadays it's very difficult unless you are making an independent film in the evening after work."

My answer: There are many beautiful and meaningful animated films. In fact, there are so many beautiful and meaningful animated shorts that it is nearly impossible to get your short film into a film festival unless its something truly spectacular or mind-blowing (my latest short "The ABC of Travel" is only cute and got so many rejections that I stopped submitting). Maybe it is different for animated feature films because feature films require putting together financial puzzle and that repels quite a few artists but attracts producer types. In any case, there is nothing wrong (or unusual) to make an independent film after work, that's how most animators start out.

One answer to your question is - I was able to make "Rocks In My Pockets" because I was willing to produce it myself. I am bad with numbers so budgeting and accounting was truly painful, but that's what I had to do as a producer. At the start of the project I made a budget (which was sort of delusional - reality adjusted it fast) and raised the money I thought I needed through fundraising events and non-profit donations, and when the project run out of money I started a Kickstarter campaign. The Kickstarter campaign connected me with new partners who were willing to share the producing burden with me and we were able to finish the film without me starving to death. I know a few animator friends who make money making commercials and then put that money into their independent films. It's just the question of how you want to spend your time: making commercials or fundraising and accounting. I personally like thinking about my projects (and not commercials) all the time and I like building partnerships around them. Also - writing project proposals and making budgets can educate you about the project you want to make. 

The other answer to your question is: I am able to continue to make my films because I sacrifice the parts of my life that other people are not willing to sacrifice - family, children, friends, pets, regular income, financial security, new clothes, car or house. Any one of those things would hinder my ability to make films. I am an animation nun. 

Question two: What advice would you give to a graduate trying to enter the industry?

My answer: I think it is very important to figure out early what you want to do and why. If you want to use your art skills to make some money, it's fair. Just don't cry that you don't get to make Art. If you decide that you'd like to make your own films to express your Deeper Self, then you really have to know why is it important for the rest of the world that you express your Deeper Self. The practical implications of making independent films will make your family and all your friends freak out and grill you about your sanity and financial savvy. "You spent how much money to make a DCP?" - they will ask and shudder when you reply. "You paid your rent with your last money and have no income to make the next rent!?!" - they'll scream. 

"WHY do you do this?" - they will ask. "It makes no sense!"

So I prepared an answer that actually makes sense, at least to me: I spend all my money on my films and endure financial risks and live in constant stress because making films is my purpose. Like fish swim in creeks, birds fly in the sky, I make films because I cannot not make them.

I make films because I do believe in an individual voice telling a unique story that the Hollywood money-making machine cannot tell.  I believe in Art as Self Expression and I want to defy the notion that one's worth can be measured by how much money she makes.

My advise on a practical level is something you have probably heard already many times, but we all know who is the Mother of Learning (Repetition), so here it goes:

To enter the industry, start with an internship/apprenticeship and make yourself irreplaceable there.

Contact accomplished animators, ask them for an advise - make a connection. Be nice. Keep in touch. Make friends with them.

If you started a project, finish it. Nothing is more demoralizing than a personal landscape littered with unfinished homework.

Treat your work as work (the most stupid quote of all times is "If you do what you love you will never have to work a day in your life", which is absolutely not true - work is work, no matter if you love or hate it). Treat your work with discipline and respect, please. Even if you work at home - get up at the same time, put your best clothes and shoes on,  get to work at the same time, eat lunch at the same time and stop working at the same time, if you can. Take one day a week off  to live a little. 

Start with what you know an build from there. Dream big, but build from the ground up. Form or find a community around yourself of like-minded people who will support and challenge you. Make films consistently - it helps to build a following. Use social media wisely (so that it doesn't consume you and all your time). Make space for boredom so you can open gates to new ideas. Read many books, watch many films (not just animation). Learn what is it what you make an impact about.

Watch people. Think about people. Understand motivations of people. Study acting to enrich the vocabulary of your animated characters. Dance. 

Find a purpose in what you do. Submit your life to something good and bigger than you and you'll be all right.