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Signe Wilkinson is latest editorial animator; thoughts on judging animation

With all three of the Pulitzer Prize nominees having submitted animated editorial cartoons, I was beginning to wonder if that was the harbinger that ushers in the era of animated editorial cartoons (at least for those who want the “prize”). Signe Wilkinson is the latest to take a swing at animation. You can check it out on the philly.com web site. It’s not quite as polished as other editorial cartoonists, which begs a question that’s been ruminating in my mind since the Pulitzer was announced. How do the judges take into account the cartoonist’s actual involvement in the animation process? Nick Anderson has some of the most polished and technical animations on the web, but from the few animations I’ve seen does none of the audio, voice, or animation. Will that hinder him when he’s up against another cartoonist who did all of the animation, some of the voice overs etc. From what I’ve read, it sounds like Walt Handelsman does the lions-share of his animation work, but did that help him win the Pulitzer? Is the amount of involvement even considered?

Community Comments

#1 Brian Fairrington
April/26/2007
@ 10:23 am

Alan,

Walt Does everything himself and gets no help from anyone with regard to his animations. As far as Nick goes, I’m told that his paper farms out everything to an outside animation company. If the latter is true then this does bring into question who should be appropriately credited and if you did not do all the work is this appropriate at all. How many beat reporters win awards for work they never wrote?

Furthermore, the fact is that as these animations become more sophisticated they will require assistance in creating them. TV animation is a team effort and if these animations are ever to compete they will have to rise to that standard. Walt spent weeks just on one animation.

#2 Rich
April/26/2007
@ 12:08 pm

How about they just have a seperate category for animations so it becomes a moot point. Then when animations win, it will be like a movie winning best picture.

#3 Nick Anderson
April/26/2007
@ 5:50 pm

Brian,
Your second paragraph contradicts your first, but never mind that.

First of all, my paper does nothing other than give me a strict budget and occasionally veto some of my judgments about how it is spent.
There is no “animation company” to whom it is all farmed out.

For the 3D stuff, I found the freelance animator by doing web searches and negotiated price. I design the characters by drawing them from front and side…all the features of the two drawings have to line up exactly.

The 3D animator creates the model, then sends it to me for changes, which there almost inevitably are because of the quirks of 3d modeling from 2d drawings.

I write a script, then a storyboard. The animator and I have to collaborate on every detail: camera pans, angles, zooms, facial expressions, timing, editing, lighting, pacing, etc.

He sends me a series of drafts from which I make more changes and refinements.

The first couple animations involved about 1000 email exchanges each. I’m not exaggerating. We’re probably down to about 500 emails per animation now since we’ve gotten used to working together.

For the audio, each animation is different. Sometimes I have to hire professional vocalists if I can squeeze it out of the budget, sometimes I use friends for the voices or find a good impressionist by word of mouth. I do some of the easy voices myself, or use my wife for the female voices.

I do some of the sound effects in my home, as well as the audio editing in some cases. If I can’t do the sound effects, I search online and buy them from companies that do that kind of thing.

When I set words to music, the audio is a little bit of a hassle because I have to find new vendors, make sure the voices match the character and constantly negotiate.

I’m working on one now that some friends of mine who can sing pretty well are going to do at my house, with my computer.

We also do some 2D stuff in house. I do all the drawings and work with a Flash animator in our online department to bring them to life. We’d like to do more of these because it is so much faster, but he’s not always available.

It’s perfectly valid for judges to weigh the fact that I’m not doing the actual animation when others are. That’s why we disclosed that in the entry letter (as well as in the credits of each animation) so the judges could have a good faith discussion about it, and I suspect they did.

Also, I told my online editor weeks ago that if we win we should split the prize money, especially Oscar Campos, my 3D guy, who has gone above and beyond what I’ve asked of him several times.

I congratulated Walt for his honor and meant it. What he did last year was extraordinary. My attitude when I found out about being a finalist was philosophical: it would be great to win, but if working every waking hour is what it takes to win a Pulitzer then he can have it, and probably deserves it.

But we didn’t start this to win awards. We started it because we think animation can be an important supplement (but NOT replacement) to the daily cartoons in the digital age and we’re trying to develop a sustainable model for it. While admirable, I don’t think Walt’s pace from last year is sustainable over the long haul.

If that is what is expected of cartoonists in the digital age, count me out. I’ve got a couple of young kids and a wife I like to spend time with regularly.

Comparing this to a writer who doesn’t write his or her own copy is a specious comparison. There’s a little more to it than that. Is “Doonesbury” Garry Trudeau’s creation even though someone else does the actual artwork? On a grander scale,is Steven Spielberg any less of a director because he doesn’t do the acting and camera work?

Lastly, we’re in an environment where many large newspapers seem to regard a staff cartoonist an expensive extravagance. The Chronicle, on the other hand, is so convinced that a cartoonist is an essential part of it’s internet strategy that they are not only willing to hire one, but invest in experimentation with the art. And this is a bad thing?

I’m sure there are many, many cartoonists who agree with you, so I’m happy to have the opportunity to address your sentiments.

Regards,
Nick

#4 Alan Gardner
April/26/2007
@ 6:09 pm

Daryl Cagle has written a piece on his thoughts regarding animation.

The aimless charge to the internet extends to the Pulitzer Prizes. This is the second year the Pulitzers accepted entries that were not printed, but were posted on the Web sites of paid circulation, daily print newspapers. The winner and nominees this year were all employees of print newspapers who submitted portfolios of animated Web cartoons that could not be printed in their newspapers–a first for the Pulitzers. The editorial cartoonist community is in a tizzy. Cartoonists want to win prizes and keep their jobs, and according to the Pulitzer jury, the way to do that is to jump on an internet bandwagon that no one is steering.

#5 Alan Gardner
April/26/2007
@ 6:29 pm

Nick said:

But we didnâ??t start this to win awards. We started it because we think animation can be an important supplement (but NOT replacement) to the daily cartoons in the digital age and weâ??re trying to develop a sustainable model for it.

I’m baffled by the move to animation. The power of the editorial cartoon is its simplicity – one picture says it all. I haven’t seen any animations that have quite matched the impact/power of a good single cartoon. I think Cagle’s right when he writes that, “Cartoonists want … keep their jobs, and according to the Pulitzer jury, the way to do that is to jump on an internet bandwagon that no one is steering.”

#6 Nick Anderson
April/26/2007
@ 7:18 pm

Alan,
I agree with you that the power of an editorial cartoon resides in its simplicity, but I don’t agree that an animation can’t have as strong an impact, but in a different way. Satire comes in many forms.

I think Daryl made some valid points, but people at my paper who are smarter than I disagree with him. Fortunately I only need to concern myself content, not the business model. I do hear that the share of internet advertising as a percentage of revenues is growing rapidly.

At any rate, for a variety of reasons,I still think the daily still cartoon will remain the backbone of editorial cartooning for many years to come, if not for good. That’s why I’m only willing to experiment with animation on a limited basis. I’m kind of getting to have it both ways. I only had to move my family half way across the country to get that, but that’s no small thing.
Nick

#7 Nick Anderson
April/26/2007
@ 8:39 pm

Alan,
One other thing regarding the relative impact of still vs. animated cartoons: the single most talked about cartoon I did last year was this animation. Six months later, I still get comments from people about it in casual conversation from both Democrats and Republicans.

Food for thought.

Nick

#8 Rich
April/27/2007
@ 1:00 pm

Nick,

Well, that is a nice job on that animation (a hoot to boot). It’s memorable because it’s catchy and cute. It should be very disturbing, that trunk is damning, but it virtually ignored by mainline media. Making it catchy tends to minimize just how disturbing it is. If that’s based on one of your editorial cartoons, I bet the editorial cartoon has a much starker and daunting impact than the animiation.

My contention though is that there should be two categories one for editorial cartooning and one for editorial animation. They are different although related. I agree with Alan on the impact of the single-panel cartoon vs. an animation. It does not make sense to me that editorial cartoonists even should submit their animations for the award. I think there must be confusion due to the name “cartoon” since cartoons can be animations or comics. I alway think of editorial cartoons as editorial comics. Editorial animations start to get into more of the area of editorials (writen editorials) than a quick-impact comic (or interviewing the cartoonists on what their cartoon meant … which generally kills the impact). But perhaps that’s just me.

Do you think editorial cartoonists’ jobs are more in jeopardy if they don’t win awards (than say the downsizing happening due to newspapers lack of ability to connect with their audiences)?

#9 Daryl Cagle
April/27/2007
@ 2:12 pm

I’d do animations too, if I could sell them to anybody.

Nick’s comment that: ” I do hear that the share of internet advertising as a percentage of revenues is growing rapidly.” made me laugh.

A typical newspaper would get 1% of revenue from their web site and see that grow to 2%, then tout that: “online revenue has jumped 100%!”

Online revenue is not growing anywhere near the rate necessary to make up for declining revenue from print advertising at newspapers nationwide – although the big drops in print ads make meager online revenue an increasing percentage of overall revenue at most papers.

#10 Rich
April/28/2007
@ 1:11 am

Daryl, that makes sense. I suspected that web ad space wouldn’t generate much revenue (based on things like google adsense). Thanks for the insight.

#11 Brian Fairrington
April/28/2007
@ 12:22 pm

Nick,
I did not mean to infer by my comments that your animations are any less valid with regard to quality or content as any one elses. I was merely speculating on how an award that has been traditionally given to a solo creator might have to adjust to address the changing landscape. I have not seen any of you animations but I can assume based on your other work that they are a high quality product.

However, I erred in speculating on how you created your animations based on what someone else told me without getting if from you first. The source claimed they read it in an interview you gave which was obviously incorrect.

Apologies.

#12 Nick Anderson
April/28/2007
@ 3:47 pm

“Nickâ??s comment that: â? I do hear that the share of internet advertising as a percentage of revenues is growing rapidly.â? made me laugh.”

Nice, Daryl…I’m happy to provide you with such amusement. The ad revenues I’ve heard around here are significantly beyond 2%.

And while they don’t grow as quickly as circulation declines would require, better to recapture some of than none of it.

There isn’t the same sense of panic and gloom around here regarding the internet that there is at other papers, but then, they are far ahead of many of them in adapting to it. What other papers are doing now, the Chronicle has been doping for a couple of years.

While other papers are slashing staff, the Chronicle has hired 30 people in the last year. The newsroom recruiter sits across the hall from me and she seems consistently busy.

Perhaps your condescending take that everyone is aimlessly hopping on the “internet bandwagon and no one is steering” or they are just “wandering blindly” isn’t universally true.

At any rate, I’ll take wandering blindly over sitting still in this journalistic environment any day. Whether or not you could sell animations is irrelevant. The syndication paradigm may be just as vulnerable to disruptive technology as print journalism.

Brian, no offense taken. I’ve heard the same rumors and I prefer to address it out in the open than to just have people whispering about it.

Rich, personally, I don’t think animation should be a separate category right now. There just aren’t enough people doing it. There will be plenty of people winning without it in future years.

Nick

#13 Rich
April/28/2007
@ 11:16 pm

Nick, thanks for commenting on my idea … you’re the only one who’s even addressed it. I see your point.

I do believe you are also on to something about syndicates being affected by the same paradigm shifts as papers … it would make sense that their customers’ problems are also thier problems. I wouldn’t discount Daryl’s argument on the value of it though. If he has no market for it (and it is time-consuming and more expensive work that straight cartooning), then it might be worse to spend time developing it than sitting around. If he’s not reading the market correctly, then the market will develop for it and he could adjust accordingly. I think syndicates could have an advantage by staying flexible while concentrating on what they do best to stay productive. There is always tention between making the best buggy-whip and keeping an eye on the train (or auto) market. Leaders can be bleeders, but they can also reap the reward of pioneering new markets … although, nothing keeps the cautious from accessing those same markets later and winning it back.

Oh well, I blather too long on this. Thanks for the interesting discussion and insights into the market. I honestly don’t put much value in these awards anyway … I like who/what I like and most are too conservative to win one anyway (animation or not). ;)

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