My Journey into Animation: Part 1 “Beginnings”

Hey everyone.  So I know it might be a little fast to start a new series so fast after writing the start of my series about the “Decline of Feature Animation”.  But before I continue writing my opinions about that, I first wanted to write a couple of posts to talk about myself a little bit to give you some backstory as to where I’m coming from with my opinions.  I know not everyone understands why I’ve been so hard on todays animated films.  I seem to have given some people the idea that I’m overly critical and that I expect too much out of films that tend to be geared towards a younger audience.  I’ve already explained in my recent post about the issues I have with films skimping around important themes and talking down to children.  But I’m only critical because I love the medium of animation, especially feature animation.  Watching feature animation as a kid is what got me hooked on this wonderful medium in the first place and made me want to pursue a career in the field.  I decided when I was 10 years old I wanted to become an animator for Disney.  A Supervising Animator like Glen Keane, to have my own character to be in charge of.  I suppose even at that early age I had a desire to be in a leadership position.  But my history with animation goes way back, and already I was introduced to Disney practically two weeks after my birth.

My parents were avid lovers of Disneyland before I was born.  It was one of their absolute favorite places to visit.  In late November of 1981, two weeks after I was born, my parents took me on my very first trip to Disneyland.  It was a family trip, and my aunt who lived in New Jersey was visiting and came with us.  Of course, I had no idea what the hell this place was.  My parents took me on “its a small world”.  My aunt had her super 8 movie camera on me the whole time as I spent the whole ride in fascination staring up at all the colored lights on the ceiling.  Forget the songs and all the dancing dolls!  A few years later my parents and I got the very first annual passports in 1984, which for adults cost $65 and for Children $45.  It’s about half of what a day admission costs at the park today.  But at any rate, we were Disney fanatics.

My favorite animated film at the time was Pinocchio.  Of course, it scared the crap out of me every time I watched it.  I had to run into the other room and close my eyes when Stromboli or Monstro showed up.  Everyone usually says it’s the children turning into donkeys scene that freaked them out, but I never quite got that.  I remember it was scary, but it wasn’t as terrifying to me as Stromboli.  As a kid, I was right there with Pinocchio all the way, completely moved every time I watched it.  I was even Pinocchio for Halloween when I was 5.  For a kid like me to be so freaked out and yet so obsessed with this cartoon, its amusing every time I think about it, as if I was going “I love this movie, yet it scares the shit out of me!  But why do I still love this movie?  Let me watch it again….AHHHH!!!”)  It wasn’t just Pinocchio though.  Everything fucking freaked me out.  Maleficent’s transformation into the dragon, Snow White running through the woods, the witch in Snow White, Ursula in The Little Mermaid, and yet I seemed to enjoy traumatizing myself every time I watched a Disney cartoon!

I was into a lot of other cartoons as well.  On TV I watched Ninja Turtles like every other kid, but I was mostly drawn to the funny cartoons.  Garfield and Friends was probably my favorite cartoon on TV when I was 7 or 8, and I also used to read the Jim Davis comic all the time.  My all time favorite cartoon was Garfield And Friends.  And here’s my all time favorite Garfield strip:

As the years went on I got into the Disney Afternoon shows and eventually more of the funny stuff, like Tiny Toons and Animaniacs, and my all time favorite cartoon show growing up, Pinky and the Brain.  During those early years though I didn’t think of becoming an animator right away.  I was so enamored with Disneyland during that time that my first life goal was to become an imagineer.  It would be that I would start designing rides, and whenever we went to restaurants, I always tried talking my parents to going to places I knew they had paper placemats so I could draw on them and design my dream rides.  They were usually dark rides.  But what was funny about this is how it related to my future in becoming a filmmaker.  What was I would go to the movies with my parents, and then I would RECREATE the entire story of the movie as a ride just like they would do at Disneyland.  My parents took me to practically every movie, even R rated ones (light R-rated adult films, rarely ever horror or films with hardcore violence and nudity in them-they did take me to see “Misery” though, which looking back I thought was kinda funny).  But aside from giving me a good film education at an early age, I would make the rides out of them…Goonies The Ride, Roger Rabbit: The Ride…then they got more amusing…Three Men and a Baby: The Ride, Field of Dreams: The Ride!  But like a filmmaker looking for the most important beats of the story, I was picking out the most important parts of the story to put into the ride.  Which is pretty fascinating to me now that I think about it.

I also discovered at an early age the films of Ray Harryhausen.  The monsters in those films captivated me like nothing else.  Clash of the Titans was the first one I saw, which of course was Ray’s swan song, and yet Medusa in Clash remains as my favorite creation of his, as she is absolutely terrifying.  It led to some interest in playing around with stop motion animation and making clay figures move from plasticine I bought at a model shop.  Later I made films that I put my friends in being chased by an animated three inch figure.  It was great stuff.

In 1991 though, at ten years old, I suddenly found a new calling in life, and it was one that would forever change me and take me into the world of animation.  That film was “Beauty and the Beast”.  It not only had its funny moments, but even as a kid I was so moved by the emotion of it, particularly in the now famous Beasts death scene, which also left me in tears.  Up to that time, in my eyes, it was the single most amazing animated film I had ever seen.  What sealed it for me though…my parents bought me my first “grown up animation book”, The Art of Animation by Bob Thomas.  It cost $40 at the time, which for 1991 was pretty expensive.  But it had a whole section in the back on the making of Beauty and the Beast, and I was introduced to the greats like Andreas Deja and Glen Keane.  But like many others, it was Glen, who had animated the Beast, that became my idol.  I even started memorizing how to draw the beast straight of the book (and for a long time after I liked to impress my friends that I could draw the Beast!)

So as you can see, up to this point in my life I was pretty enamored by Disney.  But I was into plenty of other cartoons as well, and there were the jewels I saw such as Will Vinton’s The Adventures of Mark Twain, Rankin/Bass The Hobbit and The Last Unicorn.  I owe a debt of gratitude to my Uncle who used to babysit me when I was younger while my mom went to choir practice on Thursday nights.  My uncle collected animation from all over, so every week he’d show me something different.  Sometimes it was Disney, but I saw a lot of early Don Bluth work…He had the complete animation for the Dragon’s Lair and Space Ace Video games, and he also first showed me The Secret of Nimh (I was too young when it first came out in theaters).  He exposed me  to a lot of great stuff.  But at that early time, it was never just the animation that held me, it was the always the power of the emotional moments those films had to offer.  Especially when they went to a dark place or started talking about things such as life and death and the mystery of life…these were subjects tackled in animation back then!  But even as I revisited those films today, it amazed me how much those stories really held their own.  They weren’t afraid to tackle big issues, and yet they never talked down to children.  Those films spoke to me, and they took me seriously as a kid.  But really when I watched those films, as much as I loved watching the animation, it was really the power of the storytelling that had a hold over me.  I could also tell when it wasn’t working for me either.  There were a few not so great films I remember loving at the time.  I LOVED Oliver and Company when it came out, but it was one of those films looking back on it I could see the new Disney was still trying to find their footing with an audience, which was the year before The Little Mermaid became  their smash hit that revived the studio.  But Oliver was a better film than some of what came later on, after The Lion King, which we got Pocahontas (a major disappointment for me), and then Hunchback (beautiful, but too much of the Disney influence was forced on it for a story that was supposed to be much darker)….Hercules was a bit of a comeback, and so was Mulan.  Tarzan was also beautifully done, but much of the Disneyfied gorillas and the obnoxious Rosie O’Donnell held it back for me.

Looking back on myself as a young kid, its interesting to me to see the kind of stuff I was into.  I seemed to be really fascinated with films that scared the crap out of me.  Sort of like at Disneyland it took me years before I found the courage to ride The Haunted Mansion or Big Thunder…even the Snow White and Pinocchio rides freaked me out!  But the things that scared me and all the darkest elements of a animated films that gave me a feeling of foreboding or talked about the dark side of life…those moments seem to be part of my vocabulary now as a filmmaker.  There were times for me as a kid where it seemed like I was afraid of everything.  But now it’s those things that scared me so much that have become fascinating to me.  Because practically all the things that scared me were coming out of films that (to everyone else) was geared towards children!  They were subjects that today it seems a lot of filmmakers making movies for kids are to afraid to talk about…subjects like death…and the feeling of leaving behind one part of your life and moving onto the next.  I always felt something inside about those things.  But as Joseph Campbell would say, it seems to be the goal of society to keep that child around instead of letting kids understand how to move forward.  I understand this just as well, coming from a conservative upbringing.  I don’t mean to say my parents were horribly right wing conservative…nothing like that.  They took me to R-rated movies all the time.  I was exposed to a lot of good stuff with them, and they generally had good taste in movies.  But emotionally I felt held back from a lot of my peers…and its probably why I was scared so much when I watched these films as a kid.

 My grandfather especially collected classic films and was a complete biography of Hollywood history.  It was through my grandfather at the age of seven I was introduced to “Modern Times”, which today still remains my favorite Charlie Chaplin film.  I was always into comedy and funny stuff, but I also loved dark humor, Monty Python, Mel Brooks, Jay Ward…later I got into Jack Benny’s show, and Bob Hope.  I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself here, but classic comedy for me is where its at, and there’s so much to learn from it.  I also loved intentionally unexplained endings in films.  Many people I know don’t care for this film, but I loved the movie “Contact” when it came out.  I got the ending.  I wasn’t disappointed that she may or may not have reached the center of the galaxy.  Because that really wasn’t the point.  It was a test of her faith.  To tell you the truth, I was slightly annoyed that she had “evidence” of her trip through the 17hours of recorded static, because its not really that important, and it felt more like they were throwing the audience members a bone who wanted to believe she went on this far off place.  Those people were still just as pissed by the ending, so I don’t think it would have mattered much. Kind of like the stupid tag at the end of Prometheus because no xenomorph aliens appeared in the film except at the very end, and it had nothing to do with the rest of the story.  But what I’m saying is that I love more obscure endings (when they’re intentional) because they force you to think and sometimes come up with your own answers, as if inviting you to the conversation.  I love it when a film does that.     

During the early 90’s I started noticing this guy show up named Brad Bird.  Now, I know some people might be asking how I could know who Brad was at that early age when it wasn’t until “The Iron Giant” that really called attention to him.  Well, from the time I was born to when my parents first started taking me to the movies, we always stayed through the end credits.  My dad worked for MGM as a lab tech. in those days and many times he had people and friends he knew pop up in the credits.  Well, because of that, I started seeing big names appear over and over again, and pretty soon I started to keep track of them, even if it might have been a more unknown actor and filmmaker.  Brad was one of those people.  He was known by people in the industry and animation community for his work on Family Dog for Amazing Stories, but at the time I was just a kid, so I had no real connection to the animation community.  But I first got to know him after watching “The Simpsons” as he was credited as a creative consultant.  He also directed a few first season episodes, including the classic “Krusty Gets Busted”, which introduced Sideshow Bob as a villain, and “Like Father, Like Clown”, which Krusty meets his estranged father Rabbi Krustofski (voiced by the great Jackie Mason).  After a few years I saw Brad’s name as director of Family Dog, so I got a peek at the incredible talent this guy had.  I saw the trailers for Iron Giant when it came out which didn’t exactly blow me away, but I did find out Brad was the director on it.  So I went to see it assuming he was behind it the film would probably be alright.  Of course, once the film was over, the word “alright” dropped from my mind immediately.

The year was 1999.  I was 17 years old when The Iron Giant came out.  I was still very much into Disney, even though the last string of films that came out weren’t as strong as the films of the early 90’s.  But I was still pretty intent on becoming an animator.  Well, The Iron Giant changed all that.  At the time when I saw the film, to me…it was the single most beautiful story I had ever seen in an animated film.  The story blew my mind.  The animation in it didn’t matter so much.  It was economical for feature animation.  Because of the time and limited budget, there was no room for the flair of a film like Tarzan which came out earlier that summer.  But it was the story that mattered most.  The film not only went to a dark place, it had a tearful goodbye, and not necessarily a happy ending…but an optimistic one.  Being an animator didn’t seem so important to me anymore.  I wanted to become a filmmaker.  I wanted to become a director.

I wrote to Brad shortly after the film came out.  At the time I was in the Boy Scouts and I was preparing for my Eagle Scout ceremony.  I wrote to him the first time to ask if he could send a congratulatory card that I could put into a book of cards.  Basically when you reach Eagle, you can mail to people like the President of the United States, Congressmen, etc to send you letters of congratulations to put them in an album.  Well Brad sent me one.  Iron Giant was a flop at the Box Office so he still had yet to be known in the eyes of the public, which was good for me because it gave me access at the time to write to him and for me to get more of personal response from him.  And when he did respond, it melted my heart.  That card was more important to me than the letter I got from the President of the United States.  Because it was from my hero, and it was a personal note.  It wrote about the great achievement I made, signifying the importance of leadership in becoming an Eagle Scout.  But at the end he added, “…and never forget the sage advice of young Hogarth Hughes: You are who you chose to be”.  It was never a more perfect line from a perfect film that would have such a great impact on the future of my career.

NEXT: PART 2: CAL ARTS…My journey through the worlds most prominent animation school…and the greater unexpected life changes that resulted from it.

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