072 – Mike Blum – From Disney to Directing
Award winning Director and Producer
Allan McKay interviews Mike Blum, an Emmy-nominated director who has won awards as a director, writer and producer. Prior to opening his boutique animation studio Pipsqueak Films, Mike worked as an executive and a supervisor at Walt Disney Feature Animation for over a decade. His Disney animation credits include Chicken Little, Lilo & Stitch, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and many more.
Mike’s current studio Pipsqueak Films has completed animation projects for clients like Comedy Central, Netflix, DreamWorks TV, MTV and others. Mike is currently in development on his original series Enko the Eskimo which he sold to Cartoon Network. At the same time, he is directing and Executive Producing the animated series Super Slackers with David Silverman (The Simpsons). He also runs a live-action production company, Blumayan Films and as well as Our Next 4 Years, a volunteer organization staffed by over 250 animation professionals that create animated PSA’s countering the regressive policies of the current administration.
In this Episode, Allan and Mike talk about artistic paths, pitfalls and challenges in the industry, as well as what it takes to be a successful artist.
Mike Blum’s IMDb Page: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0089692/
Pipsqueak Films: http://www.pipsqueakfilms.com
Our Next 4 Years: www.ournext4years.org
Check out the It’s Art Masterclass where both Allan and Mike Blum will be attending in March 2017: http://itsartm.ag/masterclasses17
[-58:49] Just a quick thing to check out: www.vfxrates.com! This is a website that I created to solve a massive problem that we all have: What should we be charging? This is the giant mystery that we all have and most people are uncomfortable talking about what we should charge as a freelance rate. And the worst part is when we go apply for a job and we ask for too much. We risk alienating the employer and never getting that call back. Whereas if we play it safe and ask for too little, we not only get taken advantage of, but on top of that, we leave a lot of money on the table, which over a span of a few years can add up to tens of thousands of dollars.
[-58:03] So this is a chance for you to go to vfxrates.com. Put in your city, your experience, your discipline, software, little things that are important, to figure out what you should be charging as your base rate when you’re talking to an employer. This is based on a lot of experience; but most importantly, it is based on the braintrust of industry people from different fields that we’ve pulled together to collect a very accurate way to generate what you should be charging.
[-57:37] The best part is not just what you should be charging — but what you could be charging by tweaking a few things: how you present yourself, building a brand, learning to negotiate better. Also, there are factors like building an irresistible reel, learning to approach employers the correct way. I want to share all of this information for free. Got to www.vfxrates.com — and find out what you should be charging for your hourly VFX rate.
[-57:02] Welcome to Episode 72. I’m really excited. This is actually the first Episode for the New Year. I think this is scheduled for mid-February, which is a bit late. Whenever we open up registration for the Live Action Series, there is always about a month of recuperating afterwards. And that’s what happened over Christmas.
But before that, I went with a small team to the downtown Los Angles, to the LA River, and we put together this really cool footage. We shot it all on the Red Epic Dragon. I posted the footage online, I had everyone vote for what everyone wanted done for visual effects. I wanted to do something for the end of the year, for everyone to learn something cool. I went through [all the submissions] all by myself which took about a whole day. The top 10 ideas, I had under 10,000 people vote. It was really awesome!
[-54:04] The funniest thing of all was that I didn’t actually tell anyone that the top two were a draw. One was a plane crush, the other one was a reverse gravity affect. What are the odds? I put together these training series and put it online for free. While I was in Canada, I was finishing these. I’m proud of what I did. I did promise my family that I would spend time with my family at Christmas, and I ended up working.
[-52:33] Around that time, I opened registration for the Live Action Series, and that was cool. I had to turn people away because we filled it way too quickly. Between the Course, being in Canada, I needed to take a bit of a break. So, finally now, the Podcasts are back in full swing.
[-51:10] The other big news are: I bought a house and I got engaged.
I’m going to be putting out a lot of information about what’s coming up. One of the big things is that I will be speaking in Paris, in March. About 30 days since this Episode goes up. The speakers are amazing, and a lot of them will be doing Podcasts here. Some of the people going [to the IAMAG Masterclasses] have already been on the Podcast: Ash Thorp (www.allanmckay.com/56), Dan Roarty (www.allanmckay.com/30). Some of the amazing artists coming up are: Neil Blevins (a massive name at Pixar!), Andrew Schmidt (a director at Dreamworks Animation), Nathan Fowkes.
[-49:13] I love going! I always end up meeting a lot of amazing people. A lot of people in my Mentorship as well as the Live Action Series all show up. It’s just going to be this amazing week of hanging out with cool people. There are so many great attendees! I feel like this event is better than any other event I’ve been to: It’s a week of hanging out, doing portfolio reviews, doing shots. I think it’s great! I’ve made so many friendships there.
[-47:37] I thought it was a really great Episode of talking with Amanda Gillespie on immigration (www.allanmckay.com/52). I thought it would be a great idea to have more Episodes coming on, on the same subject: how to work in Canada, Australia, U.K. On top of that, I will be touching on hardware, as well as some hands-on Episodes on how to work from home, building your own company, as well as health. There is so much cool stuff coming up!
[-45:34] This Episode is with Mike Blum who is a director, who’s done some amazing short films, as well as work with Disney for over 10 years (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0089692/). He’s got such great insight over the experience of his career. A lot of what we talk about we actually didn’t plan. A lot of this, I’ve found really inspiring!
[-44:31] Allan: Thanks again for doing this! Let’s start out with an introduction on who you are and what you’re up to.
Mike: Thanks for having me! My name is Mike Blum. I’m the owner of Pipsqueak Films, a boutique animation company in Los Angeles (http://www.pipsqueakfilms.com). Before that, I was at Disney Feature Animation for 11.5 years, in a variety of supervisor positions. I’m also a co-founder of an organization called Our Next Four Years (https://www.ournext4years.org).
[-43:52] Allan: Awesome! Usually, I like hearing artists’ origins stories to understand how they got started. Everyone’s got such a different way on how they break into the industry and found their passion. So, how did you originally get started?
Mike: Okay, well, I will add to your repertoire of unique stories because I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone like myself in terms of a background. I actually have a technical background. Super technical! Undergraduate degree in Computer Engineering, graduate degree in Computer Science where I was doing computer animation. I never thought I would be making films, directing or writing! Never even crossed my mind! But I fell in love with animation my senior year in college and went to grad school for it.
After a short stint after graduate school, I ended up at Disney Feature Animation in their technology group. I was writing software. I was a programmer, when I started out. I was writing tools to help the company and the animators to make our animated films. But after 6 months to a year of that, I realized the production and technology groups didn’t talk well [to each other]. No one in technology really understood how production worked, including myself. I thought we had to do something about it. So I convinced the technology department to green light a training project, where we would — just the technology group! — make a short film using the same processes and same pipelines, as we would use for our feature films. I thought that [as a result] we would have a better understanding and write better tools. I thought it seemed like a cool idea.
[-41:47] About two weeks into the project, I realized: I fucking love this! I spend the next 10 years training myself to be a creative. I directed that first short, showed it to the President of Feature Animation, and he said, “Go do another one!” He had great advice: Use the same characters, use the same setting but tell a different story. Keep improving! The first one was good enough, but the second one we were able to pitch as a training project for the whole company; all these talented people who were stuck doing things and wanted to learn other things. My principal was: If you want to learn, come on in and help out. And that project was about 10 times better quality wise than the first one and it started getting awards.
[-40:36] That one begat a third one. All this over a period of 10 years of working every night, after work, 6:00 to 11:00, putting my 10,000 hours in. And that third one was like, “Yeah, Mike. You can go do whatever you want, with whomever you want in the company.” At that point, I had the Art Director of Chicken Little, I had some of the best animators at Disney pitching in. That one [film] sort of blew up. It was called The Zit (http://www.thezitmovie.com). It won a ton of awards. It got me my first agent. It got me my first professional directing gig.
[-39:29] I realized I was never going to get my chance at Disney. Over the course of those ten years, I’d moved over to production as one of the four supervisors, working on our first project for 18 months (the offshoot of Circle 7 Animation). The goal was to do these theatrical Pixar sequels. We were rolling along. Then Disney bought Pixar and on day number one, they fired the President of Feature Animation. Day number two, they shut down our studio. A week, maybe two weeks later, I got an offer to direct for Comedy Central. I said, “It’s time to go!” So I left, and I never went back.
[-38:27] Allan: I had Carlos Anguiano from Circle 7 Animation here on the Podcast (www.allanmckay.com/3). I think everyone got like a 6-month severance. He ended up learning to shoot guns and learning that he was a lot more passionate about that than animation. There are so many people I know for whom it was a blessing in disguise to leave that project and they were really able to learn what they were passionate about.
Mike: Yeah, absolutely! It’s hard to get any opportunity at all in this business. It’s hard. For me, it was easy to have an opportunity to direct something for the first time — and get paid for it. You have to leap at those opportunities! I was fortunate. A lot of people come out after 10 years of not having made money, not having a ton of experience. But they’re trying to do their passion projects. That’s hard when you have no money and you try to make it. It wasn’t my path. I was able to make a living for a dozen years. So when I did leave, in addition to the severance, I had the security of knowing that I haven’t spent it all.
[-36:41] Allan: I think what’s really important is momentum. If you go from not working to working, that’s one thing. But if you’re staying busy, you’re welcoming more opportunities. Because you’re constantly around other people and you have that mindset of being busy and challenging yourself. To go and commit to something later on, you slow down. That six months, you barely get off the ground. You never know what things could happen during the time you’re busy. You’ve got this thing in the back of your mind, you’ll be able to collect the dots. It think it’s really critical to have that momentum and staying busy rather than slowing things down.
Mike: Exactly! I think you’ve touched on two things that are really important: A. This is not an industry where 99% of the time, you can do it all alone. And for me, that’s the fun of it. I don’t want to do it all by myself. I’m always amazed at working with people who have skills that I will never have. That to me that’s super fun! And then the other thing that you said was, yeah, you’ve got to keep chipping away. It reminds me of the piece of advice that was given as a young kid by Barry Cook (he directed Mulan). He was an early mentor. He told me, “Mike, every day! Every day, you’ve got to do something for your project! You don’t need to be animating a scene everyday, but you’ve got to make a phone call, write an email. You cannot let one day go by! None. Zero. Seven days a week. Everyday, you’ve got to do something to move your rock forward.” If you don’t do that, you’ll take a day off, then a week of.
[-33:18] I’ve taken that to heart. I’ve always put time everyday to move my projects forward. I’m always thinking about what the next thing is.
[-32:51] Allan: In a way, that’s momentum as well. The more time you allow for laziness, the more you’ll commit to that. The only way to get good at any craft — like you said earlier, 10,000 hours — you need to fully immerse yourself in it. By forcing yourself to put in bit by bit, everything you do starts to relate to it. You’ll find inspiration in places you never thought of.
[31:57] Mike: After that, I was going to mention, the rest of the story; what I found was that once I left Disney (another mistake I made).
Allan: I’m all about the mistakes!
[-31:29] Mike: Yeah. That first project I directed, turned out to be a huge hit. It got nominated for an Emmy, it got into Sundance. I expected more opportunities. And: I got crickets! It was zero meetings. No one called me. At the same time, I had an agent, so I thought I didn’t have to proactively go out to create contacts. I knew what I had to do next. Part of that was accurate, but I was also naive. Unless you’re a big guy making a lot of money for your agent, your agent is not going to spend a lot of time on you. That was my experience.
[-30:08] It took me three years to go, “What am I doing?!” I’m writing everyday, but nothing is happening. I had to go back to what was working for me: Being incredibly persistent, always trying to move my projects along into reality. I shifted. I realized what I needed to do. That’s when things really started happening. I took control of my career by myself. I stopped trying to think that the agent was going to push things along.
[-29:05] Allan: That’s so valuable! I think in general in this industry no matter what you’re doing, a lot of us fall into a category of cattle. We get herded. Until you do take your career into your own hands and start to do things to better your own chances — that’s when things start to change. If you’re doing the work, that’s one thing. But if you want to step up and get what you’re after, you have to think how to get to the next level.
[-27:57] Mike: If you’ve been in this industry for a while, you see other people around you who aren’t as good as you are but are succeeding. There is a jadedness that starts to creep in. Everyone needs to fight that, on every level. This industry is set up the way that there are all these barriers that slow you down. If you’re an artist, a producer, it’s all the same barriers. You either get thicker and more jaded skin. Or you embrace it or at least accept it, but love what you do and figure out how to do more of it. You need to pursue your goals in a way that doesn’t suck the energy out of you. I always try to acknowledge how the business works and not let it stop me.
[-25:49] These days, I actually get to choose the people I work with, people that I’m around. I’m the one that’s doing the hiring. I don’t want that jaded person. I want the person who really loves what he does. I saw the potential of going down that road and I fought against it, and as the owner of the studio, you’re definitely factoring that in, when you’re looking to bring people in.
[-25:06] Allan: You’re absolutely right. In terms of negative people, some people don’t realize it. Bit by bit, you don’t want to be around those people. I’m usually the one who builds teams for projects. Those people can be poison to the environment. You want to have a really great crew, you don’t want negative or dramatic people. Those are the people — even if they’re great at what they do — they’re going to derail the morale of the whole project.
[-23:49] Mike: Totally! What we do is hard. It takes a ton of effort. It doesn’t matter how faster computers are [these days] or what version of software you’re using. It always takes a ton of man hours to use those electronic pencils to make beautiful images. You want to do it with a group of people who appreciate what happens at the end. We’re all working toward the same goal. And there will be roadblocks, but that’s the job. It’s not going to go exactly the way you want. You roll with the punches. You do the best you can with what you were given.
[-22:40] Allan: Going back to when you started doing these short films, to test out your pipelines. I used to work for Blur Studio quite a lot. We used to do a lot of short films like Gopher Broke, Rockfish. I love the idea of doing a passion project to test [it] out, before you go do it with someone else’s money. For you though, did you always want to be a director?
Mike: No! Literally! I’m saying even with that first project, I didn’t say I was going to direct it. I liked the idea. I could’ve gone a lot of places coming out of grad school. But I wanted to go to Disney because they knew animation. It was more like: I’m curious, I’m here. I’m trying to do my job well. I want to write software for these amazing artists, but I don’t really understand what goes through their head. They think differently than I do. Let me understand what they are doing. It started with a desire to do my day job better. But it was like a light switch. Two weeks in, I went to: This is so awesome! I knew that I had to figure out how to do it. That was my lightbulb project. I don’t think I really told this to anyone at the time.
[-19:55] One thing that was different for me from all those projects, we called them “officially unofficial”. We got zero funding from Disney. Zero. What they said was don’t get into anyone’s way, but you can use the facilities, as long as it’s after hours and you don’t fuck anything up. That was super challenging: You’re basically running this political game and get this creative stuff done. What does a producer of a big 150 million dollar film care about your project if your stuff shows up to render at midnight. “What production is that?” So I was always trying to figure out how to work the system. It was challenging. There was never any official sanctioning.
[-18:45] Allan: You’re tiptoeing around everyone else, basically.
Mike: Tiptoeing around. And so that’s harder to do. Each [film] improved on the one before. It was hard, but sort of fun. It had a direct impact on what I do now. Pipsqueak Films is no Disney. I have to use that same mindset. Even though we have 2, 3, 4 projects happening at the same time, man, we are not doing 150 million dollar films. I have to figure out how to be scrappy. I don’t know if I would be good at that if I hadn’t gone through a 10-year experience of producing these shorts with literally nothing. I generally look on the bright side of things. It was the crucible that allowed me to make a successful run of my post-Disney career.
[-16:50] Allan: When did you do these first films?
Mike: I think the first one was finished in ’99. The next one was finished maybe 3 years later. The last one came out, I’d have to check, in 2005. It’s crazy, man! Looking back, I wonder how did that happen. They’re short. It’s not a lot of footage over 10 year. The order of magnitude! I just loved it. I love it. I would literally go for almost 10-year period 5, 6, sometimes 7 days a week, from 6:00 to 9:00 or 11:00 at night, I would be putting time into these projects. Looking back, I wonder would I do it now? I don’t know. But at the time, I had to do it. Artists feel that way.
[-15:11] I have to preface this: I don’t consider myself an artist. I know a lot of artists. I know they have this passion: I have to draw, I have to paint. I had to do it! Most people I know who’ve been able to stay in the industry long enough time, they have a certain amount of that of “I have to do it” feeling in their gut.
[14:40] Allan: I definitely agree. I definitely think it’s a young man’s game. I remember a year ago I was at a studio doing one of those late nights. I looked around and most of the people were young and they were grateful to the studio for giving them the opportunity to burn the midnight oil. For me, at that point of my life, I’ve done 10 billion hours, for someone else. But at the same time, it’s so critical that you go through those times of being in the trenches. I know a lot of people who haven’t and it’s such a different mindset. Later in their career, they’re going to have to do it, still.
I had a career intensive, and some people were surprised that a lot of these studios weren’t unionized. At the beginning of your career, you may be working for some sketchy studios who don’t know what they’re doing, getting paid crap money. Later in your career, you’re working at these amazing studios. You’re at the point of when you won’t be working for sketchy places: You can smell them a mile away and they can’t afford you anyway. Everything naturally gets better as you move forward.
[-11:55] Mike: That’s funny. Because I think I’m mid career. I started the other way. I started at the best place to do animation. I left that to start something on my own from scratch. We’re getting better and better, but we’re never going to be Disney.
Allan: You don’t want to!
Mike: From my perspective, I don’t care. What I realized is that I like making stuff. The more I put myself into that thing we’re producing, the happier I am. I want to direct a big animated feature at some point, but it’s awfully fun to come up with a concept, sell it and hear, “Your studio can go make that!” And you go back to the trenches and you get to make it. That to me is super fine. I’m fine with life. I could go on like this and have a very happy career. It’s not the same financial security. But because I went through it earlier, I don’t have the same financial worries. I get it. Most people who are successful follow that path that you’ve just sketched out. I don’t know where I’m going to be in five years.
Allan: Can I segue and say I know where you’re going for the next four years?! (Laughs.)
[-9:30] Mike: I’ve been so focused on career and building Pipsqueak Films, and selling, selling, selling, and bringing new clients. And then this election happened, I got shocked. A lot of us did. I realized all that stuff was important. The world is a really weird place. I wanted to do something that was both positive and pushed back on what I believe were really regressive policies. I’ve seen a post on Facebook from my Animation Supervisor, right after the election. “I’m just going to go do animation and fight this administration that way.” It was a great idea, but I realized it needed an organization behind it in order to produce animation that would have a message that would resonate and get out in the world.
[-7:59] So I started this organization called the Next Four Years. And we’re doing animation with 250 artists (and growing). We’re making a series of animated PSA’s which are pushing back on regressive policies. We just literally released our first spot on ACA. We’ve got whole other ones in the pipeline. I feel that that’s the best way I can put my volunteer hours in. I’m not the guy who can go march and protest. The spots are all positive and entertaining. I hope they make people laugh or cry, but push you feel something.
Allan: That’s so cool!
Mike: Yes, so everyone, go check out www.ournext4years.org.
[-6:30] Allan: I like that. You’re fighting the President with a pencil.
Mike: Yeah. Yeah! Media is powerful. People argue it for both sides. The idea is to take our creative talents. (We literally have Academy Award winners and nominees.) Take leverage of all that talent to produce something that works. But we are not all politically connected or have all the facts on all the issues. So we partner with all these groups that make up for what we don’t have. So far, so good! The response has been uniformly positive.
[-4:53] Allan: What about your talk in Paris? We’re both going to be in Paris at this time in March.
Mike: I’m still working on the talk, but it’s basically going to be on the kind of things we were just talking. I believe in giving my story, and people can generalize and pull lessons from my particular experience. I’m going to impart that in 40 minutes and give people an overview of my history and apply the lesson from my career. No one is ever going to hire me as an artist. I’ve seen the portfolio of your and everyone else’s. That’s not why they’re bringing me on.
[-2:39] Allan: I’ll definitely be attending that talk! I want to be respectful of your time. For the time being though, if anyone wants to reach out, are there any links?
Mike: Well, definitely, go to our website: http://www.pipsqueakfilms.com. Also: www.ournext4years.org for the volunteer project. Those are the best two places to connect. Obviously, you can find us on social media. We’re easy to find.
Allan: Thank you again for doing this!
Mike: Thank you for having me on. I look forward to meeting you in person!
Allan: Lot of beers to be had.
Mike: Yeah, baby!
I’m looking forward to meeting up with Mike. If you want to attend the talk, go to www.IAMAG.co. I hope to see you at the event. I’m not mentioning this for any financial gain. I believe in this event and I have a great time hanging out with attendees.
“This industry is set up the way that there are all these barriers that slow you down. If you’re an artist, a producer, it’s all the same barriers,” says Mike Blum of his experience as a director and a supervisor for Disney Feature Animation. “You either get thicker and more jaded skin. Or you embrace it or at least accept it, but love what you do and figure out how to do more of it. You need to pursue your goals in a way that doesn’t suck the energy out of you. I always try to acknowledge how the business works and not let it stop me.” For more, tune in to Allan McKay’s Podcast Episode 72: www.allanmckay.com/72.
Director Mike Blum defines what it takes to be an artist on Allan McKay’s Podcast: “I know a lot of artists. I know they have this passion: I have to draw, I have to paint. I had to do it! Most people I know who’ve been able to stay in the industry long enough time, they have a certain amount of that of ‘I have to do it’ feeling in their gut.” For more awesome information, visit www.allanmckay.com/72.
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