Takeaways from Spain

Last week, I traveled to Barcelona and Madrid for a much needed vacation.  I purposely left my laptop in Boston to avoid the urge of doing work. I wanted to open my senses to a new and exciting place without the usual distractions, and what I found was a country so different from the United States, but a place that had clearly been infiltrated by American culture.  In almost every store or restaurant I entered, familiar music could be heard – Ella, MJ, Madonna. McDonalds, Burger Kings, and KFCs amazingly stood out next to Antoni Gaudi buildings.  Apple products were everywhere – iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks.  I even spotted some old friends such as Spongebob, Buzz Lightyear, and Phineas and Ferb.  I was in place so different than my own, yet it felt so similar in many ways.  But looking at the bigger picture (and lots of art), I realized the US can learn a lot from Spanish and probably most of European culture.  One lesson that seemed especially relevant (for the blog) is their connection to classical art and art history.

Goya is a national hero, Dali is a legend, Picasso is a god, and their buildings are shrines. They’re important, they’re relevant, and they’re part of the historical conversation – it creates a culture of inspiration for new generations of artists.  I also visited a college art school gallery in Madrid that blew me away.  Because art is their culture, it seems there is a greater focus on classical art and draftsmanship, and it showed in the student work.  Visiting Spain made me realize that the art of art is drying up in the US.  For the most part, the importance of traditional art skills is not preached or practiced here (especially for younger kids).  The result is portfolios from recent grads who can’t draw and don’t have an understanding of anatomy, perspective, or color theory.  Why?  Some ideas:

  1. The craft of seeing, drawing, and painting is not being properly taught in art schools.
  2. There is an emphasis placed on ideas over technique.  Ideas are a crucial element of modern art, but so is craft.
  3. Students are distracted by media and technology, and aren’t able to focus and push themselves to that next level of creation.

I don’t know if it’s possible to truly change the way the US views the arts, but young artists in the States should understand that being an artist is a constant evolution that takes a lot of time, hard work, dedication, patience, and love.  CloudKid believes this process starts with an emphasis on traditional art skills.  While I learned many more things during my trip, Spain truly opened my eyes that we need to embrace our artistic heritage, need more effective art education, and need to constantly push our craft.

Ready to Learn: Escape from Greasy World

Escape From Greasy World

Last week I traveled to Washington DC to present the Beta of our latest Lunch Lab interactive creation, Escape from Greasy World, at the PBS/CPB Ready to Learn Summit.

Escape is a large-format online experience that features one longer narrative that’s connected by mini-math challenges that must be solved to push along the story.  We’ve been working very hard on this 40+ minute experience which features eleven minutes of new animation, six mini-games, and an immersive side-scrolling world.  The premise: When Professor Fizzy and the Lunch Lab gang go missing, Henry and Avril decide to investigate. Using their problem-solving skills, they find clues, solve math puzzles, and uncover intel that unravels the mystery. The beta was well-received and the attendees seemed excited by the larger narrative.

At the conference, all the PBS producers presented their transmedia betas, which were exciting and inspiring to see. The conference also featured great speakers and discussions about children’s interactive media – I am always impressed by PBS’s commitment to meaningful content. The best part of the two days was meeting all of the amazing content producers, researchers, and educators who are working on the RTL project.

Escape from Greasy World will launch in September.


Things We Look for When Hiring

illustration by Mike Annear

A few months ago, we posted an article that outlined tips for submitting a portfolio. Now that we’re ramping up for a couple projects, we’ve decided to take it one step further; What type of person is the ideal CloudKid?

Dave and I both graduated from the Studio For Interrelated Media (SIM) at the Massachusetts College of Art + Design. SIM is a concept-driven, critique-focused, and collaborative environment for artists. The program encourages students to identify concepts and to translate them to the most appropriate media for each idea. In any given SIM class, students present works ranging from spoken word to paintings to animation to everything in-between. The results can vary from amazing works of art to visual (and audio) noise, but this model creates artists who view art in a more well-rounded manner, can talk about ideas, and know how to work with others in a creative setting. The tools we picked up in SIM guide CloudKid’s underlying foundation, and while not every artist we hire will graduate from SIM, most of the qualities we saw in our successful peers guide our hiring decisions.

In addition, we are committed to being a small, nimble and highly efficient creative studio. In order to do that, we look high and low to find extraordinary people with an extraordinary range of talents and skills. We recently took a close look at all our employees and identified the qualities that continued to surface.

1. Versatility

Most animation or interactive studios require lots of specialization. We are no different. We have high expectations for our animators to animate, designers to design, and writers to write. However, where we differ is that we also place a high value on people with cross-over and versatile skill-sets. We don’t just hire an animator, we hire an “animator plus”, someone who’s not afraid of working with typography, loves to write or even play with sound. We encourage our employees to take on multiple roles and to learn, grow and stretch through our projects.

2. Drawing

Drawing is the fundamental vehicle for visual communication – especially for anyone working in the creative arts. Everyone who joins CloudKid has to draw, even our producers and programmers. We’re not necessarily looking for the next MC Esher (though it helps); instead, we expect that our employees can quickly sketch in order to communicate thoughts and ideas. We view these type of rough, loose drawings the life-blood of our creations. But, if you’re applying for an art or design position, we expect that you’ve mastered the fundamentals of drawing.

3. Ideas

A lot of people can draw, but there are few people who have truly great ideas. As much as we pride ourselves on generating a high-quality product, ideas are the foundation of it all. We are creative problem-solvers and we spend a lot of time thinking about concepts and how to transform words and thoughts into a real thing. It requires being able to come up with ideas on your own, contribute to a larger group, and provide feedback to make the project even better.

4. Passion

While work is work, you should feel a sense of excitement, curiosity, and love for animation, character-driven storytelling, and gaming. We hire people who truly love to create things. Sketchbooks, side projects, and personal experiments are often the best way to gauge a candidate’s passion. If you haven’t filled a sketchbook in the last year or created projects outside of work or school, it’s usually a red flag. We live by the saying: You can fake passion. You can’t fool us.

3 Things Art Schools Need to Embrace for Success

In September, the Massachusetts College of Art and Design President, Kay Sloan, announced her resignation.  The college shared her letter with the college community and alumni network.  While most of the statement was standard fare of things she’d accomplished, what an honor it’s been for her to serve in this role, etc, this paragraph stood out:

But higher education and the art and design world are all undergoing rapid change. Our curriculum and programs, too, must be continually re-envisioned to meet changing expectations of students, possibilities provided by emerging technologies, and new demands of our society and economy. If MassArt is to develop further as an imaginative and innovative leader in visual arts education, it will be essential that the college continues to embrace new opportunities and models of education over the coming decade.

While this warning (and call for change) may seem pretty obligatory at first glance, we think Sloan is underscoring a deep and profound challenge with 21st Century higher education in the arts.  Indeed there is a “rapid change” taking hold in our culture and economy.  The tools for content creation and distribution are so widely available, anyone with a personal computer can create a work of art which can be seen and talked about by millions of people.  How do you convince students interested in the arts, design, and media that they should spend $20,000+ a year on an education they could have produced for a couple thousand dollars in their bedroom?

Crowd-sourcing, the act of outsourcing to a community of contributors, is good for capitalism but not for the artist with massive school debt.  Many corporations like IBM, Netflix, Pepsi and others, are already embracing crowd-sourcing to supplement parts of their production.  Opening the flood gates of crowd-sourced is leveling the playing field for unskilled contributors while simultaneously driving down the cost of production for creative goods.

The current art school curriculum is deeply rooted in an outsourcing-free, crowd-sourcing-free, early 20th century understanding of the role of the artist as a local artisan and craftsperson. The dependency on a local creative economy has all but disappeared these days.  Students graduating now are faced with a workplace devoid of entry-level creative opportunities but abundant with minimum-wage service positions.

The challenge: How do you effectively prepare students for the new creative economy?  Here are three suggestions that we feel can revitalize art curriculums to be more effective for creating successful, talented, and culturally transforming artists.

Destroy the Individual Artist

Artists are not birthed in an isolation chamber.  There is a Renaissance-era cultural bias towards the individual that is as compelling as it is pervasive. Art history is designed to romanticize the singular view of the artist and it is, this view, that is detrimental to artists.  There is a context of support, connection, opportunity, privilege and collaboration that is largely glazed-over or ignored all together by the individual narrative.  Graduates who cannot find creative jobs, continue their art-making, or have given up on a creative career unfairly internalize their failure.  It is, however, the myth of the individual artist that has failed them.  Students are entering a harsh post-college reality where they have little chance to succeed when faced alone.

If not the individual artist, then what? Science also has a long history of romanticizing individual contributors who, in their day, were able to access the entirety of the paltry amount of human knowledge available to them. That is not the case today.  If you look at the recipients of the Nobel Prize (specifically achievements in science) over the past two decades, you begin to see a narrative that is largely based on collaboration, not individual scientists having their eureka moment in a lab.  A way that creatives can continue to be viable in this new world is to embrace radical approaches to collaboration.

Radical Approaches to Collaboration

A cross-discipline, team-approach to art-making needs to happen early and often during the collegiate experience.  Why not require a photography assignment where two (or three) artists work together on a larger body of work.  Why not have Graphic Design students interview painting majors and create a small book about their work.  Why not have Art History students study a Sculpture major’s work and write a paper about their findings?  Why not have an collaborative assignment where Fashion and Printmaking students create a piece of clothing?  All of these possible scenarios would encourage students to step outside their comfort zone, make greater connections with the larger creative community, and have a more holistic view (and understanding) of the creative process and arts.

This type of collaboration and cross-pollination will equip students with a better understanding of how the multi-media post-graduation world operates; and most importantly, it’ll help build a foundation for larger creative networks and more powerful cultural institutions.

Inspire a Culture of Entrepreneurship

There is a stigma that artists make bad businessmen and businesswomen, and this myth permeates higher-education creative institutions.  Art schools are not grounded in a culture of entrepreneurship and this needs to change.  Across the country, many graduate and undergraduate business programs have done a great job of encouraging and inspiring their students to create business ventures after college.  Why should we not expect the same from creatives?

The constant complaint from recent graduates is the lack of business courses offered in art schools.  While students may get the fundamentals of grant-writing, taxes, and self-promotion, many students don’t understand the value of labor, how to negotiate, or write a business plan.  By providing introductory entrepreneur-focused courses, grads will be able to create, market, and launch ventures that have more sustainability and long-term potential.  Moreover, the larger creative economy will benefit if artists launched business ventures rather than navigating the bleak world of the individual artist or the even bleaker world of creatively-devoid service industry.

CloudKid in the Sunday Boston Globe

Scott Kirsner swung by the CloudKid HQ in late-August, and we talked to him about what we’re working on and how, as a startup, we fit into the Boston media landscape (and beyond). The content of our conversation is featured in Scott’s latest article on the front page of the Business section of the this week’s Sunday Globe. CloudKid was mentioned along with the small crop of animation studios in and around Watertown.

CloudKid LLC is one of the newest companies on the scene, formed in May 2009 by Dave Schlafman, formerly an artist at Soup2Nuts. The fledgling studio won a $400,000 PBS grant to develop a site called Fizzy’s Lunch Lab, which presents videos, games, and easy recipes, all intended to improve kids’ eating habits. The site went up last November, and earned an Emmy nomination not long after. (The firm didn’t win, but was nominated for the “new approaches in children’s media’’ category of the daytime Emmys.)

Read the whole article here.

CloudKid Founder Featured in Swampscott Reporter

This week, The Swampscott Reporter featured CloudKid founder, Dave Schlafman, and chronicled his path from a Mario-loving chubby kid all the way to Fizzy’s Lunch Lab.

Professor Fizzy and his crew fight the evil Fast Food Freddie, who’s always trying to get kids to try his latest, disgusting food products and inventions, such as a contraption to hypnotize kids into eating “double-fried” potato chips.

Fast Food Freddie is one of many characters that Dave Schlafman, a native of Swampscott, co-created for a season of PBS webisodes on LunchLab.com. And with Fizzy’s help, kids can combat Fast Food Freddie. This is where the interactive part begins.  With each webisode, a new, healthy recipe is explained, one that can be printed for parents to make, and with the idea of combating childhood obesity.

Schlafman’s road in following his passion began in Swampscott, at Stanley School.

“I just always loved drawing,” he says.

Doodling characters was merely a hobby, however, and up until Schlafman completed his first year at UMass, he hadn’t even thought about a career in art.

Read the full article here.

Media Tide Changing?

This spring CloudKid went to the PBS Kids Producer’s Summit in Washington DC.  It was an amazing two days of workshops, speakers, and presentations about the children’s media landscape.  One of the highlights was keynote speaker Vikki Rideout from the Kaiser Family Foundation.   Rideout headed the landmark Media in the Lives of 8-18 Year Olds study that was released earlier this year.  One of the most interesting findings was:

For the first time over the course of the study, the amount of time spent watching regularly-scheduled TV declined, by 25 minutes a day (from 2004 to 2009).  But the many new ways to watch TV–on the Internet, cell phones, and iPods–actually led to an increase in total TV consumption from 3:51 to 4:29 per day, including :24 of online viewing, :16 on iPods and other MP3 players, and :15 on cell phones.  All told, 59% (2:39) of young people’s TV-viewing consists of live TV on a TV set, and 41% (1:50) is time-shifted, DVDs, online, or mobile.

41% (and growing) is a significant number that networks and investors should be aware of.  Children’s networks and publishers need to start looking at the web (and cloud) as a legitimate medium for new content – not to just reinforce their current IP.  PBS Kids funded two web-only projects in 2009 and they funded four (two new ones) this year.  I commend them for taking the initial risk.  It’s a start.

Until production and promotion budgets for web projects increase, we going to be swimming in a sea of sub-par web content.  If networks, studios, and publishers have the guts to spend a little more money to develop fantastic web-only properties, things could change. Until that happens, kids will be forced to watch shortened clips of TV shows over and over again on the web.