So here I am, riding along on the D train, minding my own business, reading the NY Press and alternately raging against and being amazed by something Armond White has to say, when I hear the sound of a voice hawking something. I bury myself deeper into Armond and hope the voice will pass quickly into the next car. Then I hear the words "new animated films" followed by "contribute a dollar and have something your kids'll enjoy -- and you will, too..." I think about this a moment before calling the guy over my way. I mean: one dollar? Even if it turns out to be a blank DVD, I can always download something good onto it.
The dollar and the DVD quickly change hands with a polite thank you from the young black man doing the hawking. Is he the filmmaker, I wonder? (There's a business card clearly showing through the DVD envelope: Mark Stansberry, Director, Screen Arts Animation.) I'm tempted to strike up a conversation on the spot. But no: better wait until I've seen the films and determined if there is anything to talk about.
I have -- and there is.
The DVD offers six short animations, each one between three and eleven minutes in length. Four of these are devoted to a sassy, charming little black girl named Puddin' (above, right), her Asian-American best friend (above, left; the still is from the animated short, "I Need a Hero") and their adventures with everything from a Harlem appearance of The Jackson Five to sneaking in to see the R-rated Shaft movie, a fellow who steals tennis shoes and an early video game. There are also two other short films, drawn by different animators, but no -- it's Mr. Stansberry's Puddin' who lights my fire. The time frame (the early 70s) in which much of the action occurs has a special place in my own life, as, I suspect, it does in that of many New Yorkers. Whether you were just a kid then or an adult like me, watching the films will take you back a few decades and put a smile on your face. And the old-fashioned 2-D animation technique is rather fun -- especially after all the current CGI effects we get from most of our animation blockbusters. I want to see more of Puddin', and from the looks of things, I (and the thousand or so other NYC subway riders who've so far contributed our dollar to the cause), will be doing just that. But not for awhile, as there's more money to be raised first.
As soon as I had finished watching Stansberry's DVD, I left him a phone and an email message. He called me back the following day and we arranged to meet at the gallery adjacent to the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater for an interview. Stansberry turns out to be an extremely pleasant, active/positive, well-spoken fellow with a lot he wants to accomplish. The hour went by in a flash, and below is much of what I learned. Meanwhile, should you encounter Mark and his DVD's on our subway system, fork over the buck and take a look. And tell him hello from me.
TrustMovies: Let's start out with how old you are.
Mark Stansberry: I'm 44.
You don’t look it.
A lot of people tell me that. And when I clean up and shave -- I look even younger!
I would have pegged you in your early 30s, particularly since you are somebody who is just starting out in this business.
Actually, I am not just starting out. I am 16 years into this animation thing. My Puddin' character is maybe just ten years old now. I began as an intern for the former Broadcast Arts here in NYC, which turned into MTV animation. That's where I started 16 years ago.
It's true. People like to talk about "overnight" success stories, but I have found that there are really very few of these.
My career has been quite a bit of work, along with some successes and a little notoriety. But I'm just figuring it'll all make a better story, once I get there.
I think this is a good story now -- even before you get there. It's interesting to me, at least. Why did you choose the 70s as your time/subject period?
Well, Puddin' is the female version of me, I guess. She loves things that I loved that I could relate to and know pretty well. I have children now, too--
How old are your kids?
They range from 19 to 3-1/2.
(He laughs) I have four sons and four daughters. And one wife -- for twenty two years and two weeks. And she is my biggest supporter! My oldest son is 19 and my oldest daughter is 17, then a girl 15, a boy 12, a girl 10, a boy 7, a boy 6, and a girl 3-1/2.
Wow-- in some circles, you'd get a prize just for remembering all that! Is this last child your final one, do you think?
Yeah, we think so. When we got married, we wanted ten, but now we think that, since it's stretching things to make time enough for eight, maybe this is it.
When I first watched your DVD, with the Puddin' materials and the other couple of animated pieces, I brought them to my daughter and granddaughter, thinking maybe they might enjoy them. My daughter definitely did, but for my granddaughter, who is 3-1/2, this was a little too advanced.
I think that young children, when they first hear other children's voices on the DVD, they perk right up. But this isn’t really designed for very young kids.
The music you use perks them up, too, I've noticed. The music really is fun! Did you get the "rights" to the music or are you just using it for now?
We don't have the rights, and that's why I always say to anyone giving me a dollar for the DVD that they are making a contribution here, rather than purchasing the DVDs.
So what money you're bringing in is just allowing you to continue to produce the animation?
Yes --I hope that raising the money toward the production of the full-length feature will help pay for the music. Also, there are a lot of people on My Space who can do music that has the same feel of this period. A few years back it was not possible to do this but now it's fairly easy to find people willing to give you music that you can use.
And you'll credit them when the film is finished? How long do you figure your full-length feature will run?
We have a script that’s 120 pages, but I don't want the actual feature to run more than 80-90 minutes.
For animation, on the shorter side is generally better.
My goal here is sort of like a Blair Witch thing: making it totally low-budget and ending up with a higher quality than people will expect. We budgeted the feature for $200,000. I can make one of those shorts you saw on the DVD for $100 or less. So I figure if I double up my work load....
How long are the shorts on the DVD?
The longest is about eleven minutes.
I particularly enjoyed your little asides to the audience: things like taking a bathroom break, and the warning sign about the "violence" coming up..
I actually did that one for my wife because she doesn't like violence. We used to have one artist who worked for us -- and in the beginning we were planning to make Puddin' really really violent, and over the top in a funny way -- taking out bad guys and things like that -- and we actually lost two artists because of this.
They didn't want to work on that concept?
Right. Some people also took offense to the Asian girl's face.
That didn't bother me because it's animation after all, but my daughter said right away. "Oh, slits for eyes: another Asian cliché." I also noticed that nobody has really dark skin. Does this maybe make it easier for everybody to identify?
Initially, when I designed Puddin', I named her after my wife, whose nick-name that was as a child. I kind of designed the character from that of several little girls from our church, and none of them has very dark skin so I just created Puddin' that way, too.
The mother is very light skinned and the father has darker skin…
Yes, and in the full-length feature, people will find out that the mother is actually Latino, and the father is African-American.
That's pretty typical -- of NYC anyway, which is so multi-cultural -- so why not show it? By the way, where is it that your Puddin' character is actually supposed to live in the city?
She lives on the lower east side, near Chinatown, and that's why she has her Asian friend.
How did you come to use the NYC's MTA for your "distribution"?
Well, I actually live both in Maryland and in New York. My wife and kids are in MD, but I’m up here in NYC at least three days per week, staying in hostels or with friends on couches. I love NYC -- just love it to death! The MTA came about because I ride the subway system all the time, and I have seen so many people selling all sort of things there -- or just panhandling or playing music. I realized that, in the subway you have a pretty captive audience. So what I did to get ready for this, in Maryland on weekends, I go to barber shops and beauty salons and hawk the DVDs there. This worked so well - - they were really a hit -- that I thought, OK: let's take this up a notch and try the subway system in New York.
How long ago did you start doing the NYC Subway thing?
Maybe four months ago in the subway, but in Maryland shops and salons since last January.
What do find the ratio is among your customers in terms of black to white or black to Latino or anything else?
Surprisingly, it's about half and half. I have been totally blown away by the kinds of people who've contributed and gotten a DVD. I expected it would pretty much be my own people, but no: Plenty of business people get these, lots of little old Asian women, white women, businessmen in suits. I've been surprised. But I think only in NYC would this happen.
Maybe in London? But here in America, only in NY. Or maybe in LA. They have a subway there now, too.
I don’t like LA that much. But it's funny, I never really know who's going to get the DVD. So many times I get on board and have been pleasantly surprised . The very people I’m sure won't get one -- they do!
I remember when I first saw you -- or, I should say, “heard” you. I was reading and thought, Oh no, here's somebody else panhandling or selling or something.... But then I heard the words "animated films" and I perked up and listened. And then I heard, "Six short animated films, for only a one dollar contribution. Show them to your kids! Watch then yourself!". And I thought, It’s only a buck. What can I lose? Even if I get home and there's nothing on the disc. But since, even a blank disc costs something, so this is probably legitimate….
Exactly. I can make these for 25 cents each, including everything.
And I think I was probably already imagining a blog post of this: Wow a whole new way to distribute your film: Use the NYC Transit System! Right now, one avenue after another seems to be closing up for young filmmakers, as distribution channels like Picturehouse, WIP, New Line, Think, Palm, Tartan and more close up shop, with maybe First Look and others soon to follow. Some people like Lance Hammer (Ballast) are self-distributing. So I guess I was thinking, here's an unusual way to do it. A couple of months ago I covered a relatively new company called Mitropoulis Films, whose head MJ Peckos either distributes or helps people like Mr. Hammer with his self-distribution. So suddenly, here you are, with yet another interesting way to go about it.
Another reason I love using the subway is that once the feature is finished, I have already sort of built up a brand -- and a fan base.
Do you have t-shirts yet?
Yes, and my kids wear them when we go out. People have already been asking for these! We do have them for sale on My Space. But I can't really see trying to sell them on the train.
Oh --another thing I wanted to ask you before I forget. Will you maybe tone down the amount of lip movement on your characters after the point at which when they have already stopped speaking? I found this kind of annoying, especially when it went on for too long.
The reason for that is that these shorts are not the finished full-length film, but also -- and some people get this right away and some people don’t -- for every second I use no more than 8-10 drawings. In the beginning people used to tell me, Oh-- this reminds me of the old Speed Racer cartoons! I could do this differently, but it's sort of like a little bit of homage to the old Japanese animation like Speed Racer or Astro Boy. Also another reason is that once we get to doing the full length feature, we are not going to be keeping most of the voices we have now. The only one we will probably keep is that of Puddin, which is voiced by my oldest daughter.
I liked the voice of Asian girl, too.
That's the voice of my second oldest daughter.
I also enjoyed the young boy's character in the Shaft short.
We're going to take him out too, unfortunately. I had another artist who used to work with me and we have now parted ways, and that was his character. We're still friends and all, but we're just not working together anymore.
Collaborating can be difficult.
Yes, this has been quite a road, with both good and bad along the way, up to this point. I wish I had thought of stuff like using the subways years ago. But you know, you work with the ideas you have when you have' em. I've learned a lot about myself, working the trains. I am not an outgoing person by nature, but I have had to learn to be -- to some extent. And I have learned to love it.
Has there been any media done on you yet?
Only in Maryland -- a TV channel covered me. We did a couple film festivals and a one night showing of all my work: the shorts and two documentaries. If you Google me, Mark Stansberry, all this will come up! (Ed: You'll have to Google down a bit; there are some other Mark Stansberrys in our universe...)
How far along money-wise are you at this point toward your goal of the $200,000?
We've raised around $4,000. But we are also making some good connections through all of this. Just yesterday someone called me about perhaps producing the feature, and they asked me if I had the figures for the budget and all -- and happily, I did! I've already done all this: the estimate, the marketing costs, etc, and I can give this to the interested people.
What about dealing with the various film festivals you could submit to and maybe get some help?
I just don’t want to go that route. I'd rather do it on my own or with people who come aboard through the route I am taking. I need to go some way that will allow me to have control.
This is really hard. Because that's where the money can come in. Is $200,000 a very small amount for a full-length animated film?
Yes, it's very small. We thought we had one backer awhile ago, a multimillionaire real estate broker. He was there, and then suddenly he just backed out and we never found out why. I'm the kind of person who doesn't like to force things. If people come along, like you did -- that's great. And also, people have wanted me to go the 3-D/CGI effects route with the animation, but no -- I want to keep this flat, 2-D animation. It's funny, in many other countries, they government will help artists finance their films, but America just doesn't do that.
Right, but maybe that will change a little now that we’ll have a new administration at the helm. Oh -- before I forget, which subway lines have you found work best for you?
Mostly the D and the B lines. I have not had time to scout all of them. I realized early on that the #1 train is very, very crowded so I see a lot of opportunity on this line, too. The way to do it is to have enough people on the train so that it is busy -- but not so many that you cannot move easily through the cars. If a train is really crowded, it is pointless to even try. I always wear the Puddin shirt, too, which ties it all together.
You mentioned that your kids were helping you with this project....
I’m a good artist, but my kids are 100 times better the artist that I am. And they know CGI ten times better than I do. My 19 year-old son, also named Mark -- Mark II -- is really good. Every one of my children's names starts with an M -- and my wife' does, too -- Michelle. Anyway, eventually, we might add some CGI to the mix. We have Puddin in CGI, but we have not used her yet. She look great that way! (Ed: That's the CGI Puddin', above.)
Anything else you'd like to tell me or that we've left out.
The only thing maybe is that people sometimes wonder how I make money.
Yes -- with 8 kids, you are clearly not feeding them from contributions on the subway.
No. I worked fifteen years at General Motors in Maryland, and when they closed down the plant in Baltimore, I got a buy-out. I got a huge amount of money at that time. But for all those fifteen years I worked there, I also had my own studio where I was working on my animation and making these shorts. When GM closed, this enabled me to do this 100 percent.
Oh, good. So I don't have to worry about you financially.
No, not at all...
Great -- then maybe you can worry about me.
(He laughs) General motors pretty much put me in a place where I could concentrate on my animation.
And you got the buy out when GM was in better shape and still solvent.
Yes this was 2005-2006.. They are going to do another buyout, but I don't think it will be anything close to what we got a few years ago.
When we first spoke on the phone, you mentioned that you wanted to actually draw the entire full-length feature in New York, all around the city in different locations, while us New Yorkers are actually there, walking, going to work doing what we need to do in our day. And we'll be able to stop for a minute, right on the spot, and watch you actually drawing your film and take a kind of active interest in it.
Yes, that's what I hope to be able to do. I want to start with the NY Subway system; I'm getting a lawyer to get in touch with the MTA now to see if there is a way to get the ball rolling.
Where might you do this?
Basically because this is a New York film, why not draw it in some of the bigger stations: 42nd Street, 34th Street?
There are also some huge stations in Brooklyn and Queens, too.
Really? I'll have to check those out!
And here's a just-in update: Mark emailed me yesterday with the following news:
Someone i met a few weeks ago on the train has approached me about marketing and distributing "Puddin" and the DVDs in Japan. We'll be working out the details next week, and Puddin could be in Japan within a few months. I'm currently posting on myspace to find more original new music for the DVD. Will keep you updated on that as well .... been kinda busy lately, which is a good thing..!!!
Interested readers can reach Mark Stansberry at his email address firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 443-527-7612.