In early 2016, I was taking inventory of my career up until that point.
- I had started a production company with my friends back in 2000.
- I had been a part of many cool film, TV and commercial projects and worked with lots of talented people.
- I’ve met and worked with many celebrities.
- I honed my knack for animation into a craft that I felt I had mastered.
When I went freelance in 2014, the winds of change brought many interesting things my way. I was freely able to command my work schedule and the projects I took on.
My work flourished and I got even better. I learned the power of saying “No” and was, strangely, financially secure because of it. I had just cut the best reel I ever made.
Here’s the “but..."
There was always a lingering cloud of dissatisfaction.
I got into filmmaking because, well, I wanted to make films. And looking back at all of the years of work I had done, I never made anything that was mine and mine alone. My voice. My unapologetic, no permission needed from anyone else, voice.
And I realized that I had spent all of those long filmmaking hours, days, weeks and months making other people‘s visions, ideas and dreams come to fruition. Even all of those cool commercial projects I did for less, or for nothing, were coming close to their expiration date.
And as an artist who was pushing 40, I, too, felt like I was approaching mine.
Something never felt right, to my personal interests, about making a “typical” film. I tried. I wrote scripts. I storyboarded. Designed characters. But I never got passed the pre-production stage. It just took too damn long!
So I resurrected an old idea I had that I called, “AREA 52”
In short, AREA 52 was to be a weekly challenge to explore unusual animation and FX techniques, that could be utilized for other projects, in the form of micro-shorts. 60 seconds or less.
Things like “Make a film completely out of focus,” “Use only circles to tell a story,” and “Make eyeballs out of hard-boiled eggs” were on the list.
In this original form, they were never meant to be films that people actually connected with, that had a message, backed by my personal voice. Just some non-client-sanctioned fun.
So one day I said to myself, in my Bronx accent, “fuck it…I’m doin’ it." Those 5 words ended up opening the floodgates to a new era in my career and in my life.
By the middle of 2016, I had already announced to friends, family and colleagues that I was setting out to make experimental animated micro films every week for a year with no help and no money. By December, it was Facebook official!
Among the many well wishes, there were also chuckles. Lots of "good luck with that’s."
My family didn’t quite understand what the fuck I was doing. They also didn’t understand why someone would do all that work with no financial reward attached. “Oh ok… well that’s good. What else are you doing?” they said.
Even some industry colleagues asked, “How did you broker the deal?” I laughed. “What deal?” They laughed too, then lost interest.
Now I HAD to prove, if only to myself, that I could do it.
Between the time of my announcement and the release of the first film, the project had developed into having a healthy layer of commentary. My own personal worldview paired with my animation over the course of 60 seconds.
Every week. For one year. I was to release films at a promised day and time each week on Instagram.
My first film, “String of Sound”, was released on Jan. 4, 2017. I made it with a piece of wood, two hooks and some white string. I strung along human mouth noises as my audio track and animated the string to fit these mouth noises.
All of my films since that first one were sort of an evidence of growth. Each one having utilized anything I’d learned from films prior. How far could I push this? What else could I dare to say?
I got better and faster at ALL aspects of this project, including the blog posts I’d write each week as companions, chronicling the why’s and how’s of each film.
I learned that I actually had a lot of things to say about a wide swath of topics. Things like:
I found a new respect for the exceptional form and strength of world-class ballet dancers by making this motion study:
I learned that I like making animated “portraits”, like this one about anxiety:
In June, I took on a long-term project for Netflix, which ate up most of my Mondays through Fridays for many months, so the films were relegated to weekends.
Relegated only by happenstance, that is. They were still first priority in my own mind. (SO IMPORTANT)
Making my own art the absolute, no questions asked, number one priority was the life-blood to this project. There were many times along this journey when no one cared about AREA 52 but me. Those were the hardest. And the loneliest.
I can’t even begin to tell you how happy I am that I pushed through and finished when I thought I was the only one who believed in it.
In the end, it’s what was got me to the finish line. Rather than go into long paragraphs on the successes, failures and things I learned after making 52 films in a year, here is a digestible list:
- I fell behind. I took brief breaks for a few weeks at a time after Film #23 and they ended up compounding. By December 1, I had only completed 37 films, meaning I had to complete 15 of them in December alone. With holidays to contend with. Oy!
- Rejection after rejection from film festivals. I typically only submit to the free ones so that’s some consolation.
- Too many emails to count that I wrote to publications and other online platforms to help push my project that got NO response. Crickets. Nobody cared.
- Some films I started and completely abandoned midway through.
This obviously ate up valuable time.
- I finished. I made 52 experimental animation micro-shorts and released them religiously on Instagram, just like I set out to do. No compromises.
- My films are actually starting to screen elsewhere and have a life outside of Instagram.
- I’ve gotten the attention of really cool publications like Filmmaker Freedom to write articles about my experience and hopefully pass on some knowledge to other eager filmmakers waiting to take the leap.
- I won an award for Best Experimental Animated Short at the Palm Springs International Animation Festival for my film “Bi-Polaroid”.
Things I’ve Learned:
- Commitment Is Contagious. I’ve had many people, not just artists, who have told me that the commitment I made to finishing inspired them to do the things they want for themselves. If I could do it, they could do it! This was probably the most rewarding part of this journey.
- You Will Make Bad Work. Unfortunately, this is necessary. Bad work, bad choices, bad art give way to MUCH better work the next time and the next time and the next. Mistakes are good for you.
- Small Films Have Big Impact. I loved releasing on Instagram because people are already in the feed. You don’t have to ask them to go to a separate link to YouTube or Vimeo and have them invest time into watching it. And 60 seconds is a lot of real estate if you use it wisely. You can really say what you have to say, cleverly and clearly, by limiting yourself to a micro-short time length. Speaking of…
- If Your Project Has No Limits, Make Them. Limit everything if you can. Set challenges. Create a short film with a limited color palette. Make a film with no words. Or no people. Or make it upside down. Make a film with a limited color palette, no words or people AND upside down. These limits are where the magic happens.
- You Don’t Need Film Festivals. Actually, the converse is true. The festivals need YOU. Don’t ever worry about festivals not wanting to include your film in their program. Your films just simply aren’t going to always fit into a long list of a festival’s criteria, curatorial voice or taste. Make stuff and be strategic about which festivals you submit to. While you’re waiting on an answer, make more stuff.
- Don’t Beg, but Borrow and Steal. If you must use a crowdfunding campaign, try to limit your goal amount to as little as possible. My advice would be not to beg anyone for any money at all. Go make a film on your phone. Find other passionate collaborators willing to buy in and do great work with you. Steal back precious time by skipping steps of the filmmaking process that might be unnecessary to you. Go to junkyards and thrift shops for props and wardrobe. Read or listen to interviews of other artists or anyone else that you respect talk about their work or point of view. Cannibalize it. Cannibalize everything!
- When You’re Stuck, Find The Honesty. This is true in every aspect of making a film. Any kind of art, really. Dig within yourself first and always, because that well is endless.
So, what are YOU waiting for? Make your film. Make all the films! Find a way. Believe me, you don’t want to look back at your career and wish that you had done it sooner.
Get it. Do it. Jump.
Editor's note: Thanks a million, John. Not only for committing and following through with this rad project, but for sharing your wisdom here on this site. We all appreciate it.
Speaking of which, if you want to see more of John's films from 2017, be sure to scroll through the Area 52 Instagram feed. For even more good stuff, dig into the BTS posts on the Area 52 blog. Lots of interesting and inspiring stuff there, especially if you're an animation nerd.
And if you're super curious to learn more about the concept of micro films and why they might be the best possible thing for your career, check out my beefy micro film manifesto here.