Privilege within Animation Education

I’ve been debating about what to write for my blog post for awhile. There are so many topics within animation that interested me that those who are close to me know that I am willing to talk about most of them until 4 in the morning.

However, there’s been this topic that has been eating at me for awhile and it’s something that I know that has been discussed amongst my peers. The topic I would like to talk about with you today is Education within Animation.

Before I go into more details I would like to say that I am not going to go into specific details of schools, programs, or anything of that sort whatsoever. I am going to be talking through an objective lens as something who not only is a student, but also a teacher as well. The main reason behind why I wanted to talk about this stems from an email conversation that I had with one of my past students from a summer camp that I taught at. I’ll provide some background, during the summer between my freshmen and sophomore year, I was a Teaching Assistant for a 3D animation course for a summer camp program. There I met a student and we’ve been corresponding ever since.

We had been mostly talking about animation related things, however it wasn’t until recently that I got word that they would not be going to school for animation as they had planned a couple of years ago. I was curious about their reasoning and then they said this:

“Unfortunately animation slowly slipped out of my focus. It was too hard to progress without any instruction.”

This really got to me. At first, I felt upset because they had a lot of talent and I wasn’t able to help. However, I got to my sense and replied back with all of my best wishes and wished them luck on their college journey.

As the weeks passed on, I thought more and more about that statement: “It was too hard to progress without any instruction”. I thought about how I had the chance growing up to attend some 3D animation camps and was able to get into a school with the industry so close to me. Then I thought about my fellow peers, at school and elsewhere, and how they got to where they were. There was a common thread that among them, in which that people at least had a somewhat privileged financial background in order to pursue their dreams.

The statement I made above is mostly a general assumption, for anyone reading this and does NOT fall under the statement above, please do not be angry about the general assumption. I am viewing this objectively. Over the past decades, creating an animation, regardless of medium, has gotten expensive. The equipment in order to create is insanely high. An artist at least needs to have a computer now a days to share their animated content. Whether it’s a simple smartphone or computer, it still can be a hefty cost. Depending on the medium, an artist also might need a tablet and also rendering power of the computer for export. Obviously within the animation world, there’s cheaper software and ways to get around in order to create animations, but usually within a certain studio system, that could be looked down upon.

There’s a lot beyond equipment as well. As my student said,  in order to progress, there needs to be instruction. With the internet, it has been amazing to see that there are more opportunities in order to hire someone who is self taught in the animation field. However, there is still a large amount of people that have more opportunities just because they “knew” someone. This isn’t to discredit their talent whatsoever, this goes to show that there is much more than talent in order to go into animation. Networking is extremely stressed into the programs that I have had experience with and is also huge within animation. I know that I had the chances that helped me progress into the industry. Some of the best opportunities to network is within schools and conferences. I would not say that other venues aren’t a good place either, but most of the time there are good ways to network within conferences and schools. Schools… are expensive. Even online animation programs are expensive. And I know a lot of people that are also going to conferences such as CTN, GDC, SIGGRAPH,  and etc. All of those have prices that are ridiculously expensive as well. So what is the best way for an aspiring animation person to network when they might not have the chances to do all of these things?

Obviously within all of these aspects, there are ways to get around it. The internet is a fantastic resources with a bunch of free tutorials and talks where people can talk and network. But it is undeniable that an artist who has a privileged financial background has a better chance of making their dreams come true, vs an artist that is not.

An Industry Issue and an Unholy God – The Burnout Epidemic and Not “Worshipping the Crunch”

Animation, along with many other industries within fields of arts and entertainment, is sufferring from an issue that needs to be addressed. And the issue is – burnout. I am referring when one experiences emotional exhaustion, depression, low self esteem, and a lack of motivation to continue working, usually as a result of overwork. Burnout runs rampant in this industry, and effects not only the artists, but their work and lives as well. Today I will not only be looking at just burnout, but more specifically, one of the most common causes of burnout: “crunching,” or working excessive overtime.

A couple months ago, I read a Polygon article called Why I Worship Crunch. In summary, the article was about an industry veteran in the gaming industry, Walt Williams, and his outlook on “crunching” for work.  Throughout the article, which looked at an excerpt from his book Significant Zero, he addressed the chaotic, even toxic nature of crunching, how common and even “necessary” it is for the production of games and other media, and even talked at length about the attractive aspects of crunching.

While Williams has come out with disclaimers explaining how he does not support crunching in the industry, the article caused quite a reaction from numerous industry professionals such as Scott Benson and Tim Schaefer. The article also sparked more articles which discussed better and healthier ways to avoid creating a studio with crunch culture.

But anyway, after reading this article, it inevitably made me reflect on myself, and what crunch and burnout means for me and my peers. The topic of burnout paired with all nighters was a familiar subject, but it becomes more disheartening as young creators looking to work in this field. I myself have experienced a bit of both, and will admit I do not look forward to continuously having to crunch, and go through cycles of burnout and recover. Unfortunately, this seems to be a problem that many of us are blatantly or subtly told to prepare ourselves for, and even wear as some sort of weird battle scar. An awful badge of honor with “Look at Me, I Endangered My Health and Relationships Just So I Could Animate this Cool Character Over Here”  emblazoned on it. And this “artist that creates better work through suffering” mentality is one that needs to be changed, for the future of our industry, our artists, and ourselves.

So how do we change our industry-wide crunch and burnout culture? Well for a start, there needs to be a harder push from within professionals to demand better working conditions that avoid the need for excessive crunch. Additionally, providing resources to help artists battle mental health issues that may lead to burnout. We must become firm with studio execs, let them know that artists cannot be exploited for our creative drive and need for a job, and that mental health is a basic human right that only creates better results from happy workers.

We also need to make sure excessive crunching and burnout are no longer socially accepted within our community. Occasional all nighters may be still expected, but to the point of putting yourself at risk of death, breakdowns, or substance abuse should not be tolerated. This change also needs to happen in schools, where already students are taught to crunch, which results in burnout so early in one’s career. Looking back at my own experiences, I am upset and scared at the fact that I have already experienced both the physical and emotional side effects of crunch and burnout, and I have not even graduated yet. We all need to take steps to call ourselves and our peers out for this behavior, myself included, along with passing on healthier mentalities to the younger generations.

In conclusion to this long-winded post, I sincerely hope we as a community can address these issues. Imagine how many of us would be so much happier, create more, and create better content if we were well rested and less anxious. We are in this industry not for the money (most likely anyway) or power (once again, not usually), but because we love what we do. So we need to take all and any steps needed to preserve our wonder and excitement for our craft, because with out it, why are we doing this?

What went wrong with Netflix’s Death Note?

Oh boy, here we go. Today I’m going to rant about Netflix’s 2017 adaptation film of the Japanese manga/anime Death Note. I’ll give you a summary of the movie with commentary and explain how this film is problematic when you look at how America creates adaptations of foreign entertainment for American audiences.

Here’s how the story unfolds. Light Yaga- *ahem* excuse me, Light Turner is a brilliant high school student living in Seattle with his single dad, who is Seattle’s Chief of Police. A mysterious book falls from the sky at Light’s feet, with the words “Death Note” written on the cover.

Wait, let’s pause for a minute. This character, who hasn’t even had any lines yet, receives this life-changing notebook right after we meet him. The only set-up of his character before he gets the Death Note is him doing some other kid’s homework and exchanging it for money.

Moving on. Light sits and watches a kid get bullied to the ground and when the bully turns toward the girl he likes, he stands in between them and yells the fuck word at him for a few seconds before getting beaten to the ground himself. After he wakes up, he learns that a teacher found the other kids’ homework in his backpack, so they give him detention. In detention, when Light is alone in the classroom, a death god (shinigami in the manga) named Ryuk appears and destroys the classroom, making Light scream like a little girl. And I’m not exaggerating when I say he sounds like a little girl. Ryuk tells Light that the Death Note has the power to kill people, and that when you write the full name of the person with their face in your mind, you can kill them in any way you specify on the page as long as it’s possible for it to happen. Light, unsure if it will work, writes down the name of a bully outside the window, and chooses to kill him by DECAPITATION. And it works.

Now confirming the Death Note’s capabilities, he uses it on the man who got away with killing his mom, mending his broken relationship with his dad. From that point on, he decides that it is his duty to act as God and punish those who commit crimes in order to wipe out all crime forever.

The next day or so, Light sits in his school gym while students are practicing, casually reading the Death Note in public. Naturally, the girl he likes sees him and asks what it is, to which Light replies “I can’t tell you.” Smooth, Light, not suspicious at all. She doesn’t care enough to press him further, and as she starts to leave, Light asks her “Do you really want to know?”

I can’t express to you how many times my palm smacked my forehead after hearing this. He just met this girl, and he’s about to share with her the murder weapon he used on the bully. And she didn’t even care enough to know in the first place.

She replies “Sure?” and he takes her to a private spot to explain the Death Note to her. She, being the murder-obsessed crazy person that she is, thinks it’s amazing and wants to watch him kill people. They go back to his place and make out while looking up criminals and writing their names. Gross. I don’t know if the director thought this choice would be edgy or something, but it just comes off as embarrassing and cringe-worthy. Well, at least it fits the rest of the movie.

Light decides it’s a good idea to take on the persona “Kira” and have non-Japanese speaking criminals write the name on walls in Japanese kanji before they die (which, by the way, is contradicting the established rule in the movie that the victims can’t write what they do not already know how to do). Light explains that he wants criminals to know that this is an intentional punishment being done by a god-like savior, and that they should be warned that they will die if they commit crimes.

In the manga, Light does not pick the name Kira. His anonymous followers on the internet name him that, and Light embraces it. Therefore, the Netflix writers had to come up with an idea for how he chose the name. Light Turner told Mia that “kira sorta means killer in Japanese,” so they would try to look for him in Japan. I love how they think this is a genius idea, and yet my 6-year-old cousin could have come up with that for all I know.

Later, we meet L, who is a super-genius detective who solves unsolvable crimes anonymously so he won’t be punished for operating outside of the law. At least, I assume so, because in the movie they never really explain why he wears a cheap scarf over his face. It’s a good thing Light conveniently can’t kill without knowing what his face looks like! His assistant and adopted father Watari, on the other hand, has a bad habit of showing his face and giving out business cards with his name written on them. But we’ll get to that later. L tells Light’s dad, the chief of police, that he knows that Kira is in Seattle and not Japan because the information that Kira obtains is only available to the Seattle police force. He then goes on the local news network himself, and dares Kira to kill him now, because otherwise L will find him.

The movie completely dumbs down the brilliant scene in the anime and manga where L uses a decoy to see if Kira can and is willing to kill him, which he does, and then L proceeds to ask Kira to kill him, which he cannot do. By these means, L figures out that Kira would kill him if he had the chance to, and that Kira can kill someone by knowing their name and face. In the movie, he comes to the same conclusion. However, because L did not confirm that Kira would kill him if he could, it could have been that Kira would refuse to kill an innocent life even if he was coming after him. Therefore it isn’t right for L to jump straight to the conclusion that Kira couldn’t kill him. This scene is the best example of how the writing is lazy throughout the film.

After that, L has some FBI agents secretly follow family members of the police force, and when Light and Mia notice, Light decides to lay low until they stop. However, without Light knowing how, all the FBI agents walk up to the roof of a skyscraper and commit mass suicide. Light blames Ryuk, but Mia was actually the one who wrote their names in the book.

At this point, Light’s dad is pissed because innocent lives were murdered, so he goes on live television to threaten Kira, knowing that he could be killed. Light and Mia watch this together at home, and Mia IMMEDIATELY goes to the book and tries to write her boyfriend’s dad’s name in the notebook before Light stops her.

Meanwhile, L now knows that Kira has to be Light, because why wouldn’t Kira kill the chief of police if he wasn’t the chief’s son? That’s right, L still has yet to display the logic of a person older than 6. He decides to confront Light in person in a public place, telling Light he knows he’s Kira. His reason for revealing this? Who knows! His reason for showing his face to Kira, knowing that he needs that information in order to kill him? WHO KNOWS?! Maybe for that sweet drama that the American teens love to see in movies.

Not only does the scene make L look dumb, but also Light. It only took one accusation for Light to crack and hint a confession through preaching Kira’s ideals and motivations for punishing the wicked. He even told L that he should stop working against Kira and start working with him instead. If L was actually smart, he would’ve worn a wire because Light spewed enough evidence to convince anyone that he’s Kira.

After this, the movie gets really strange. Light writes Watari’s name in the Death Note (by the way, he just wrote Watari, no last name, so how did the note actually work?) with this complicated plan of Watari being brainwashed into obsessively finding L’s name and calling Light to tell him what it is. With this logic, why didn’t he tell Watari to just kill L himself? Anyway, he has to go on this long quest to find L’s orphanage, but just before he reads the name, he’s killed by gunshot.

When L figures out about Watari missing, he knows that it’s Kira’s doing and shows up at Light’s house. He then proceeds to attack Light and scream and throw a fit until the police go into the house with a search warrant. But don’t worry, Mia stole the Death Note before the police show up.

Light and Mia go to prom together, where he finds out that she wrote his name in the Death Note, and that he would die if he didn’t officially pass the book on to her. Then, as they realize that they’re being watched, Light secretly leaves the party to scribble the most specific, unlikely plan in the notebook on how he would get L off his back and find out if Mia loves him.

Once he’s done, he texts Mia to meet him at a ferris wheel on the pier to carry out the plan, and L chases him throughout Seattle in one of the most pointless chase scenes I’ve ever seen. When L finds out Watari died, he loses his fucking mind and steals a police car to search for Light. L chases Light until he’s cornered, and he almost shoots him, but a by-standing Kira supporter knocks L out, allowing Light to escape.

Once he meets up with Mia, Light goes up in the ferris wheel with her and explains how he also wrote her name in the book, and when she took the notebook from him, she set off a conditional chain of ridiculous events that Light wrote about earlier how the ferris wheel would break and they both fall from the highest point, but Mia lands on the pier and Light lands in the water, saving his life. Light also wrote in the book that Mia would also rip out the page with Light’s name on it and it would fall into a conveniently placed trash can fire, saving him from the notebook. And it all happened as he said, because that all sounds very possible and not against the rules at all.

L breaks into Light’s house and finds the notebook page with Watari’s name written on it, and we see him debating whether to write Light’s name in it or not. And we never find out! Cliff hanger!!

In the final scene, Light wakes up in the hospital next to his dad, and his dad explains how he saw a newspaper article in Light’s room about his mother’s murder and realizes that Kira’s first victim was the murderer, and therefore it would have to be Light.

Wow, what an unsatisfying way to end that chain of strange occurrences that is Netflix’s live action Death Note movie.

Along with the terrible inconsistencies and dumbing down of the original Death Note characters, this movie has some underlying cultural issues relating to American adaptations of foreign content.

First of all, Netflix changed the location from Japan to Seattle, which completely drowns out the cultural significance of the shinigami in Japanese culture. Shinigami are not really gods, but more spiritual beings that exist by killing humans to add years to their own lifespan. By making Ryuk a generic death god, he loses his Japanese identity, a common issue that Hollywood makes again and again by white-washing characters of color.

In addition, Hollywood studios keep remaking or adapting films because they were popular, without looking into why they were popular in the first place. The Death Note series has a very compelling dialogue about justice and what the purest justice is, while also bringing Christianity, Buddhism, and Japanese mythology into the mix. The American film does not see these themes and exchanges clever and compelling scenes with gratuitous gore, teen angst and sex, and unnecessary action and chase scenes.

Do not watch this movie. It’s a waste of time and I already gave you the plot. Instead of encouraging Hollywood to keep inappropriately adapting foreign films and shows, support the source material. Death Note is one of my favorite animes, and I recommend it to everyone.

Toblerone Time aka The Neo Yokio Story

By story I mean review.

Neo Yokio is like a Bugatti car crash in six, twenty-minute episodes. Posh, expensive and heading for disaster. But you can’t help but stare.

Well, you probably can after episode one. But not me! This was a show too weird to pass up!

Straight to my thighs

Created by Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig, this luxury, low budget anime follows number one bachelor Kaz Kaan (voiced by Jaden Smith, which is probably all you’ll ever hear about this show) navigating his demon-fighting life in the mythical city/island/thing of Neo Yokio. By the way, demon fighting has very little to do with anything. It’s just an occupation for our Kaz. The real “plot” lies around our protagonist dealing with past relationships and his social standing within the city.

I just want to interrupt really quickly and say that I actually do like this show. At first I thought ironically, but now I’m not so sure. Let me explain.

The animation is bad, the voice acting is terrible (with some exemptions, thank you Jude Law) and the through-line narrative is limper than the spaghetti I’m cooking while writing this. However, all these shitty pieces might be working together to parody something I’ve seen online far too much. Anime dub parodies! That’s not an actual genre, I made it up, but I’m referring to the hilariously overacted dubs by groups like TeamFourStar and PurpleEyes.

If you don’t know where this is from, please educate yourself and click this man’s face

I found a quote from a TV Tropes page categorizing this genre as an “Abridged Series.” I’m going to provide the quote and back away slowly:

“A Sub-Trope of Gag Dub and a type of Crack Fic, that deals specifically with shortening works of fiction, and making fun of it.”

If that made sense to you, maybe you can explain it to me after class.

Anyways, Neo Yokio almost mirrors this abridged genre to a tee: Animation solely based on mouths opening and closing with little to no expression. Starkly contrasting voices (seriously, they got Susan Sarandon and Steve Buscemi in this show) coming out of stagnant anime faces. Sight gags galore. It’s got everything you need for the next DBZ Abridged.

From what I can tell, this was NOT the intention of Ezra Koenig, or anyone on the Neo Yokio staff, but if you can keep that “abridged” idea in the back of your mind when watching the first episode, you might find some humor in it.

Other than the occasional joke that hits, most feel like misses. I enjoy the quipping between Kaz and his rival Arcangelo (voiced by Jason Schwartzman, I know, this cast keeps getting WEIRDER), and some of the Twitter-esque lines that Kaz utters get to me. But the show still has the hurdle of combatting what Neo Yokio is about and what it can do for its audience.

Now these are the names that come to mind when I think of anime

There’s something to be said about Kaz’s slow, increasing ambivalence towards his luxury lifestyle and the separation of classes within Neo Yokio, but the show doesn’t go there until episode six and by then it’s season finale time. There’s an opportunity for Kaz to step down from his pedestal and venture into the less-glamorous areas of Neo Yokio for some much-needed societal education. But that probably won’t happen until a season two.

And I do want a season two! Maybe not a 24-episode season two, but another 6-episode attempt would put Neo Yokio on the right track if it decided to follow those themes. The show has protentional, but even if it fails to use it, there is still a case to be made about the sheer bizarreness this show inhabits on the Netflix Originals lineup.

It’s weird. I like weird. If you do too, check out Neo Yokio. Just pretend it was made by a couple of dumb YouTubers and not Netflix with all of its money.

Spaghetti’s done!

this is what I actually look like