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More Important Than Any Reward

Oscar1 Oscar2

I’m not crazy about the Oscars or most awards ceremonies for that matter. I was invited to the Annie Awards this year (The “Animation Academy Awards”) with some friends and we were there for about an hour before we finally decided to just get up and leave. It was a horrible show. There was one screw up after another, technical difficulties, problems with the teleprompter. The animation that was actually nominated for awards….a lot of it was just crap. Seriously awful, loud and obnoxious animated shows were being rewarded with almost no pleasing aesthetics to the designs and animation of the characters (If there was any place we could reward mediocrity even more…). Then there was also one surprising thing my friend pointed out that I have to agree was strange. The whole event was run by voice actors. Not animators. A voice actor hosted the show. The awards were presented by voice actors. And the awards show itself was started 40 years ago by….a voice actor. And then the life time achievement award was given to a voice actor.

So to tell you the truth, I found myself kind of dumfounded when the Oscars rolled around this year, and for the first time in its history it was hosted by an animator, Seth MacFarlane. The huge juxtaposition between the awards shows and the irony of it all is just so…funny. It’s possible for an animator to host the Oscars, but not their own awards show. In a strange way the Annies is an awards show animators never decided for themselves they wanted in the first place. Somebody else did it for them. On the surface it might be seen as an act of good will by the voice actor that started it. But if anything, the show should have been started by a voice actor so that animators could take it over and embrace the awards show as their own thing….if that’s what animators really wanted and asked for. But after 40 years of this ceremony, voice actors are still running the show. Why? And at what point will animators have enough self-worth to decide what they want for themselves instead of having an outside influence decide for them?

The Annies feel like they are finally being taken seriously by the Academy as an influence for the Oscars for Best Animated Feature and animated short. But this is exactly the problem though. There is this desire for approval that is VERY STRONG in most animation artists. There’s this desire to want to be taken seriously by the rest of Hollywood. But the rest of Hollywood doesn’t really get animation beyond seeing it as a medium for children, nor do they care. And animators themselves aren’t doing very much to change that. They’ll convince themselves American animation is more mature now. But why does the rest of Hollywood still not want to take it seriously? It was a major thing when Beauty and the Beast became the first animated film nominated for an Academy award. But now that we have a “Best Animated Feature” Oscar, it all but ensures that animation will continue to be segregated as separate from the rest of Hollywood. One of the reasons I don’t care about awards shows like the Annies or the Oscars is that Hollywood doesn’t really care either. It’s almost like they set up the Animated Feature Award just to shut us up, and pretend like they’re actually taking us seriously. But then the placement of the presentation of the award during the Oscars is at the beginning of the show, at the bottom of the totem, to get it out of the way and move on to the “more important awards”. That should tell you how much the Academy could really care less, by not even having an animated feature award placed closer to the “Best Picture” award.

As far as the Annies go, animators should have been given the capacity to run it themselves, and it never should matter to begin with whether or not they are taken seriously by the Academy. At one time, it didn’t matter. But the Annie Awards are set up and geared towards pleasing another outside influence. And it’s started by an outside influence: actors instead of animators. What’s the real motivating factor here? The animation community was better off celebrating their own, with their peers and people who do take them seriously. So to be blunt, I can’t stand these award shows, which only serve to fuel more frustration, leading to shows that are about nothing but pandering and inspiring boredom.

Much of my realizations and feelings about the Annies and the Oscars were summed up recently. But before I came to this realization about my real feelings about these awards shows, I have an interesting story to share, that at first may not sound like its related to what I’ve just said. But there is a connection.

I was invited to go to the Oscars this year. Back in December, my best friend and his girlfriend were visiting from New Mexico. My friend’s girl is the relative of a very famous, prestigious Hollywood icon. This year her family was invited to the Academy Awards ceremony, and I got the invite to go with my friends. Now, here’s the thing. For all the complaining, I have to admit to some degree getting invited to the Oscars is a pretty exciting thing. When you’re working to get into the business, there’s the potential to meet a lot of people. The actual awards show I really couldn’t have given a crap about. But the opportunity to meet a lot of people high up in the Hollywood chain was something I looked forward to.

So over the next few months till February, my friends were getting pumped up for the Oscars. I also had a few animator friends who would be at the ceremony who had some animation work that was nominated. It was bound to be an interesting night. The week before the big event, I rented a tux, paid for it and picked it up 4 days before the event. Somebody suggested to me that I should make some business cards as well for any potential people I meet. So I threw in an extra $20 cards and a few days to quickly get some business cards made. Everything was all set, and my friends were on the train Friday, on their way to Los Angeles from New Mexico.

Friday night around 9pm, I got a phone call from my friend. I was listening to my friend as she spoke, but I already had a feeling I knew what was coming. She found out there had been a mistake with our tickets. Something happened when our reservations were mailed to the Academy, and through some error, our ticket reservations ended up in the wrong department. It turned out we were not going to the Oscars after all. This was discovered all at the very last minute as my friend and her dad were on the phone arguing with obnoxious Academy people. Despite the fact that they were related to this prestigious film icon, it was no sale and there were no seats left. We lost our chance to go.

My friend apologized profusely to me on the phone, saying that definitely next year it would happen, but what really happened on my end is when I listened to my friend…I wasn’t really upset at all, and not terribly disappointed. Granted, I paid for a tux I couldn’t get a refund on, as well as put $20 ahead in paying for business cards…it was more amusing what just happened to anything. My friend continued to apologize on the phone, and I just said, “It’s okay, hon. It’s no big deal, that’s just the way it happens. It’s alright.” In the back of my mind, I thought at the time…well, the universe works in strange unexpected ways. Maybe this will work out.

The next day I contacted some friends of mine closely connected to people in the Academy and tried to explain the situation. But I didn’t get an answer back in time, and when Sunday finally came it was pretty much a sure bet our trip to the Oscars was dead in the water. My dad offered to return my tux, and I said, “yeah, go ahead.” Again, I wasn’t upset, but admittedly I felt a bit of disappointment that the trip didn’t work in our favor this time.

In the meantime, my parents decided to have a small Oscar party at our house. When talking with my friends while they were staying with us, I mentioned to the girlfriend about her 5 year old nephew Andy, and asked if he’d like to come over during the Oscars and play with my 6 year old cousin Kyla. We managed to arrange it and the kids came over to play while the adults sat in the living room to watch the Oscars. I had no real interest in watching the Oscars ceremony for all reasons I stated above, so instead went and hung out with the kids in my room for a little bit. Kyla and Andy were meeting for the first time. In the back of my mind I was praying in some way that this would work out, because I really liked both Andy and Kyla, and I was watching them to see how they got would get along. At one point my aunt just reassuringly came in and said, “they’ll be all right. Come out and watch the Oscars.”

I went to the living room to watch the show a little bit, but got bored pretty fast. So I told my dad I was going into my studio to do a little work. I started working, when I heard Kyla from my room go, “Lets see what Mike’s doing!”, and the two kids stormed into my studio. I was amused, so I stopped working and showed them my animation program I was working with on my Cintiq. And then I let them draw on my Cintiq. The two of them would take turns, so when one of them was using the Cintiq, for the other I set up a little art space where they could draw on paper. Kyla and I had made our own movies together, so I worked with Andy to help him make his very own animated cartoon. He was thrilled to see his drawings move. Both kids started tossing ideas back and forth to each other, some of which were very funny! Sometimes they would argue a bit, but then one would concede to what the other wanted. One was more flighty and imaginative, and the other was more grounded, but I watched as the two of them helped each other out. When the Oscars were over and the kids went home, I later found out my cousin had a great time with him and wanted to see him again. At the party after my cousin left I went to Andy and said, “You we’re very nice and polite to my cousin, so thank you. Would you like to play with her again sometime?” Andy in a funny posture, looked up and thought for a moment, then turned and said “Yeah, I think I’d like that!”

When I thought about this entire situation afterwards, looking back on the build up and the money I had spent to go the Oscars, only to have the situation change entirely so I could spend my evening helping to bring to kids together as friends, I came to this conclusion:

Everything happened exactly in the way I wanted it to.

I’m not talking about “what was meant to be”, or that “it was really my purpose not to go to the Oscars and help these kids be friends”. I’m say that deep down without needing to articulate it, the universe gave me exactly what I wanted. I never really wanted to go the Oscars to begin with. I don’t like awards ceremonies. At home, I didn’t want to sit in my living room pretending to wish I was there when I really could have cared less. And when those two kids showed up to my house, it was my deep down desire for those two kids to meet and become friends. I really wanted it for my cousin, but also for Andy, who I spent time with at Disneyland with her aunt and my friend. The two of them may not realize it right away, and their likes and dislikes are very different. But their personalities complimented each other. Only time will tell how it plays out between the two of them. But I think what I discovered in that moment is how powerful a persons “Will” deep down inside to make something happen can be, whether its something you want or don’t want. When I look back on it, everything that did happen was exactly what I wanted to happen. That’s a pretty damn powerful realization! It’s the notion that underneath all your perceptions of the things you think you want are really in fact all the things that other people want. Hidden beneath all that is the real you, that knows all the things you truly want, and it’s a matter of allowing yourself the realization that you have the power to give yourself what you want any time you want.

So coming to this realization as an animator, and looking at the entire animation community as a collective, it made me contemplate on an awards show like the Annies, and the fact that it was an influence by the will of somebody who was not an animator at all (instead a voice actor). But the torch was never passed to the animators. It’s a showcase for voice actors. Animators never really asked for this and the community is acting on it simply because somebody else told them this is what they wanted. If this is what the animation community really desired, an actual animator somewhere would have done this long before the Annie awards started. To be perfectly honest, when you look at what animation was like before the Annies started, the work content was so much better! The nine old men, the WB animators, UPA, Jay Ward, all those people who started this medium….I don’t think they really cared about awards. They just did it because its what they loved. Our will as people, whether its in a community or if it’s the entire world, is very powerful. To think how powerful it is when one person imposes their will versus an entire community working together for the same desire. But being interconnected, it’s the desire deep down we all feel that we have the power as animators to change the industry if we want to. If I can search for my own realization, my deep down true desire for what I want that isn’t the influence of anyone else but me…there is the possibility to achieve that desire for happiness. Not just in yourself, but for all the people around you who chose to share in that desire as well.

Pinocchio’s 73rd Anniversary and Bill Tytla

Today, February 7th marks the 73rd Anniversary of Walt Disney’s second animated feature film, “Pinocchio“.  Pinocchio may be the most important Disney film of my childhood.  It’s the first animated film I remember seeing with any clarity on how I really felt about it.  It’s not only a terrific movie, but like most of us who remember watching it, it’s frightening as all hellIt wasn’t the kind of fear that drove me away from watching it though, but the kind that led me to obsess and watch the movie over and over againThere’s the obvious reasons I liked it of course a kid, because it is about a little boy.  But I think I really wanted to understand why the movie fascinated me so much.  The funny thing is, I feel that when all of us  we’re kids and we watched a movie over and over again, the benifit of having that child perspective is that we always watch the film again as if we’re seeing it for the first time.  We look at it as if something is going to change or we’re going to see something different, even though we kinda know the movie always goes to the same placeEvery time I’d watch Pinocchio again, I’d always think…well maybe he’ll make the right choice this time!  Maybe he’ll know to stay away from the Fox, or Stromboli, or the Coachman.  But then of course the movie would play out as it is, and I would wind up getting scared all over again!  As a film with scary imagery in it though, I always felt like it was a good kind of scary.  Thinking of films like this reminded me of a time when filmmakers we’re not afraid to frighten children in movies.  I always thought it was important to show this stuff in movies for kids because its a safe way for kids to see something bad happen to a character (like a little boy or a girl) and remind you to watch out, and be careful, because there’s always going to be someone out there trying to trick you, or possibly harm you for their own personal gain.  With a movie like Pinocchio, you get to watch somebody else suffering the consequences of their actions without you yourself getting into the same trouble, which is an important teaching tool in storytelling.  

It’s interesting watching this film now 25 years later from an adult perspective, and one of the things I always thought was amusing was that the villains that frightened me so much in the movie we’re actually very funny.  The main one I speak of is Stromboli, which may hold the place for me as my favorite Disney villain.  I say favorite, because as a kid he was the one character that frightened me the most and gave me nightmares.  But in seeing the character again as an adult, I came to discover he’s not only very funny, he’s also beautifully animated, and the animation comes from a place of raw, pure emotion.  

 Stromboli was also animated by my favorite Disney Animator, the great Bill Tytla.  Tytla was among the first batch of supervising animators before The Nine Old Men came along, with him, Freddy Moore, Norm Ferguson, and Hamilton Luske.  These animators fell by the wayside when they couldn’t keep up with the increasing demands of Walt when he wanted to expand and evolve the actual drawing of animation and take it to new places.  But Disney Animation would not be what it is today, and there would be no Nine Old Men without these four supervising animators, who broke ground and were the foundation of everything Disney was to becomeDisney’s first5 feature films were made under these me, which are probably still their best, Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi.  By the time Disney returned to features in the 50’s after the war years with Cinderella, you can see they began settling down with a kind of house style.  That’s not to say those later films don’t have their own particular artistic achievements.  But those first 5 films in my opinion are the most powerful, and the most emotional which set up everything to make Disney the studio it would become.  

As far as Bill Tytla goes, his animation was the most powerful and emotional of all of them.  Not surprising when I looked up his birthday, he’s a Scorpio like meScorpios are natrually inclined to striking to the heart of something, and holding up the mirror of truth to others.  Tytla as an animator is a prime example of thisHe was considered a very quiet soft spoken man in real life, but when it came to putting pencil to paper, everything he animated was channeled through emotional intuition.  If anything, he‘s the one animator I aspire to be like, because in my own work while I know the mechanics of how animation works, what matters the most to me is finding the flow and letting the performance of the character guide me as I’m doing it.  I have to investigate further as to how much of Tytla’s animation was planned (doing thumbnail drawings, acting poses, etc) and how much of it was improvised straight ahead.  In animation there’s three methods of animatingThe first is pose to pose, where you plan out all the character‘s acting poses and fill in the inbetween parts.  The second is straight ahead, in which you just start from drawing one and improvise the performance.  Then the third is a combination of straight ahead and pose to pose, where you animate the performance straight through in a first rough pass, find the key poses/ drawings you want, which become like guide posts.  In this intuitive fashion, it’s more like letting the character tell me you what it wants to do, and finding ways to hit certain beats in the performance that accomodate the acting.  For an animator like Tytla, I think was important for him to operate in this fashion, because while it’s true that the character is always coming from the artist, the most important aspect to animating is treating the character as if they’re their own person, telling you what it wants. I like to practice more doing straight ahead animation like Tytla, because there’s just an incredible energy you can’t match when doing everything pose to pose.  It also takes a certain fearlessness to go there as well, when you are ready to trust your gut with how the performance is going to turn out.  

Tytla was the master of straight ahead animation.  There is a sequence in particular in Snow White that he did which is considered a groundbreaking performance.  It’s the scene where Snow White kisses Grumpy on the forehead.  He resists at first and storms a way, but then his angry emotions suddenly melt into a soft, momentary feeling of happiness when he realizes he likes the kiss.  It’s one of the few moments Grumpy drops his guard.  It was groundbreaking for its time because nobody had attempted that kind of sophistication in an animation performance before.  

Tytla was not only a master of emotion, but also of weight and timing.  In the Mickey Mouse short, “The Brave Little Tailor”, he animated the giant.  He was also responsible for the powerful performances of Chernabog (The Devil on Bald Mountain), Stromboli, Monstro the Whale, and was also supervising animator for non other than…..Dumbo.  Yes, the guy who animated Satan also animated Dumbo.  There are two sequences in particular that are pure wonderful Tytla moments…the scene where Dumbo is being bathed by his mother, and the other is the “Baby Mine” song sequence, the moment where Dumbo’s mother cradles him with her trunk while being trapped in her cage.  

It’s really Tytla’s performace with Stromboli that is my favorite, and what I consider his most engaging and emotional.  It’s because Stromboli’s emotions are like a time bomb, jumping from humor to instant rage in a split second.  That and having no qualms about chopping little wooden boys into kindling!  

Keep in mind this animation was done before the much more stringent draftsmanship skill was attached to Disney characters. That’s not to say at all that the character of Stromboli doesn’t have a tremendous draftsmanship skill attached to it. But look at how exaggerated the limbs are, how loose and giggly his belly is. Putting too much in the way of anatomy and accurate drawing skill would restrain a character like this too much. He has to be much more bombastic and wild. The accuracy of the drawing skill is nowhere near as important as communicating the manic side and unpredictable, crazy energy of this character. This is the kind of animation I prefer so much more! It’s so amazing to watch. As much as I like the later Disney films, it’s really this youthful energy that just became absent after awhile. 

This next sequence is the part of the film that takes place in Stromboli’s Wagon. This entire sequence is not just a great piece of animation, but it’s a powerful demonstration of filmmaking. The entire sequence has to be storyboarded and laid out to play off of Stromboli’s manic personality, which is at the center. There are high points and low points interspersed as if conducting a symphony, and meanwhile the energy has to build to the point where Stromboli throws Pinocchio into the cage. What’s interesting too is that for the first half of the sequence there’s no music. It only builds up after Pinocchio is put in the cage. The actual performance of Stromboli plays on practically every note, from delight, to anger, to daintiness, to murderous rage, but the entire sequence is carefully planned out to bring order to the manic behavior, as if conducting a symphony. When you watch the story, the actual filmmaking never gets in the way of the performances, and how the characters are supposed to act and play off of one another. It supports both characters perfectlyIt’s pure intuitive construction of the sequence, and it’s in my opinion one of the most brilliant animated sequences ever put on film. Take a look: 

Finally, here’s a nice Pencil Test of Tytla’s animation for the line, “Goodnight…my little goldmine!”

This is just a prime example of all the great things animation could be if we allowed it to go there again.  It doesn’t always have to be about polished drawing skill.  Bill Tytla was one of those animators who was capable of getting inside and making something out of raw emotion. He was said to be very intense when he worked, but the results are there when you look at his incredible animation.   

I will be writing more posts later on about Tytla, as well as the other great supervising animators, Fergy, Freddy, and Hammy (okay Ham, he probably didn’t like being called Hammy). 

Remember Cal Artians, Be Nice and Don’t Piss Anyone Off

I have no movie stuff to write about at the moment.  My sleep schedule has been wonky, so I won’t fall asleep till like 4 in the morning.  Which is fine because my project is on temporary hiatus.  Oh yes, and my phone died today with all my contacts.  It’s been one of those days!  But today I’m just cutting loose to chat.  I suppose I could talk about something controversial, like all my repressed angst towards Cal Arts.  That’s always fun!  Of course, in the past when that’s happened I’ve gotten myself in trouble with my fellow Cal Arts classmates, and I get accused of being controversial.  I don’t mean to be that way (well, not always).  It’s just that sometimes it seems like there are obvious truths about what happens to Cal Arts animators once they walk out the door of the school and into their careers.  I’m speaking of course having been with my peers at the school, only later to become an outsider of the industry looking in.  I’ve been out of school for 6 years now, and have fallen down practically every step of the way to just getting my career started.  I’m not ashamed to admit that.  I have some of my fellow classmates who have struggled just as hard, but are every bit as talented as those people who did make careers for themselves.

And what of those people like myself who didn’t make it right away?  Well it is hard.  Most of my former Cal Arts classmates I have as friends on Facebook now.  I watch as most of them have gone off and entered the animation game, gotten jobs, are getting married, having children, posting cute baby pictures of their next generations.  Me?  Well, I’m typing this from the bedroom of my parents house!  Should I be admitting that?  I suppose right now it doesn’t matter.  My blog averages about 60 views a day right now, half of which is probably spammers.  It’ll be interesting to see the day I make a name for myself, and I have my fans scour this blog to see what I was talking about before I made my millions.  And then come to this post to see all the dirty things I said about my classmates!  (No, I promised myself I would be more civil when I want to talk dirty about Cal Arts!).  By the time I’ve made it I’ll have the chastity belt of industry politics, and I’ll deny everything I said here.  I seriously hope it never comes to that.  But I’ll be honest…not being able to make a name for yourself so long after college kind of sucks, even if it’s not about achieving success, but just feeling like your one of your peers again.  It can be a lonely existence, where the alternative to having success in the industry is to be out in the world and search for meaning in yourself.  That’s hardly a bad thing, but you also wish you could search for meaning and still be making money at the same time.  But how do I feel about being on the outside from all my Cal Arts peers who work in the studios?  Do I have any right to comment when you’re on the outside looking in, not working within the system or being engaged in any and all industry politics?  It’s a blessing and a curse having gone to Cal Arts.  You feel as though you’re a part of something when you’re going to that school, especially if you’ve had the desire your whole life to be an animator like I did.  And still do.  Almost everyone you go to school wants to find their equals…the peer group that completely understands them as opposed to the time they were sitting alone of in the corner of the lunchroom in high school…rarely talking to anyone, drawing and retreating into their imagination.

I was one of those people in high school.  I drew in class all the time just as much as I got in trouble for it.  Somehow I managed to get by, and of course graduate from high school.  I was lucky that I did have a peer group outside of high school.  I was in the Boy Scouts, and those guys became my real peers and true friends growing up.  Most of my pals in scouts like me we’re ignored by our high school peers, which is why I guess when I was with them I found my sense of belonging.  I didn’t quite feel that when I was in high school.  I switched halfway to another high school after my sophomore year, and by the time I got there friendships had already been established.  But it also meant that nobody would really bothered me.  I made one friend that I stuck with who arrived during my senior year…who went on to become my best friend and brother for life…because he was also another outsider at the school like myself, and the two of us really didn’t have anyone…which I suppose made it easy for us to get along.  But he also shared with me that outsider perspective, watching and commenting on some of the silliness of everyone else as our high school life went by!

Being an outsider can be lonely.  But it can also be a gift.  In some ways I suppose it can give you a sense of perspective about the world around you when belong to no specific peer group.  At the same time, however, for all the time I’ve spent alone I have craved that sense of belonging in my life.  When I did get into Cal Arts, for at least 2 of the 4 years I was there I got that sense of belonging and I was happy.  I told my parents once, “they’re all exactly like me!” For awhile, I was on the same page as everyone else, and life was good.

But that did change, and it happened to me while I was still in college.  I started to feel a disconnect from the group after awhile when I started to worry where my future path was taking me.  When I really looked at the life I had planned ahead of me, a life I thought I had set in stone when I was 10 years old and first realized I wanted to be an animator, I realized I wanted the same life everyone else wanted.  Compete for your job, work in the industry,  compete for the next job, get married, have babies, compete some more, retire, and then die.  My destiny in life seemed to consist of an endless competition with my peers, where you spend your whole life competing against the same people over and over again.  And the people you’re competing with are good.  Really fucking good.  When you’re at Cal Arts, the one thing you discover, and its a basic truth…the animation industry is very small.  When you graduate from Cal Arts, one steady truth is this:

Cal Arts does not end when you graduate.

It doesn’t.  It’s not like a normal college where you leave your peers behind once you graduate (as you did with high school) and go off and make a life for yourself…a unique and individual life for yourself.  No.  When you go to Cal Arts and then work in the same industry, you are stuck with the same people for the rest of your career.  You can’t get away from them.  As much as you may have hated them in college, you are forced to be nice to them.  Because that asshole who was your roommate will probably be your boss.  On my first day at Cal Arts, the director of the animation program at the time basically told us, “Be nice and get along.  You’re going to be working with these people someday.  Don’t piss anyone off.” I’m paraphrasing obviously, but the message is clear: You’ll never get away from your classmates.

And the competition gets worse.  In school, you’re not just trained to be artists, you’re trained to compete against your own peers with Industry shows like The Producer’s Show, where only the best films get selected and studios select their new talent and Cal Arts keeps its reputation.  Or Job Fair, where all the major studios come, and you have to put your portfolio next to prodigy art genius.  You might be a funny artist, but if your actual drawing skill can’t compete, you’re screwed.  In school, many students would spend their whole 4 years gearing their work towards one particular studio they wanted to work at, whether it was Pixar, Disney, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, Dreamworks, etc.  Some people that do make it go off to work as animators or layout, or storyboarding.  Others…well, they work up the ladder, and go on to produce their own TV shows and become big time Hollywood talent.

I’ll be perfectly honest, and I have no problems saying this because I know truthfully in some way all other Cal Arts students have felt this:  I have resented the success of some of my classmates.  I won’t say who, and not all of them I resent because some of those people are genuine individuals where success has not changed who they are inside.  For those I do have issues with, there are certain things that come to mind.

For some of those people who have cashed in and landed major success with their own TV shows, there’s one thing that seems the same about all of them:  It’s college humor.  It’s like their level of storytelling or what they have to say about the world never changed after they left college.  Their craft may have improved, and they’ve been through the fire of training before landing success as a show runner.  But the content is the same.  It’s a polished version of what they did at school.  They’ve hired all their Cal Arts friends they never got away from, out doing each other and impressing one another with the same gags.  The stories they tell are the same they did in college, only now in different clothing.  You have to wonder what these people would be like if they had all their core Cal Arts friends stripped away from them.  If they had to work with a completely different set of people they never knew, worked with, or had as peers.  Would everyone else so easily conform to their own vision?  Or would their vision be a harder sell?  And what the hell is this obsession with 80’s nostalgia?? (sorry, that’s another post)

I had a friend for awhile from Cal Arts, after graduating this person had trouble getting work for well over a year.  He didn’t have the elaborate drawing skill so many of our classmates had that made it easier for them to find work.  This person had talent, but like me, it was our drawing ability that held us back.  The person got a job teaching drawing to kids and for awhile we managed to stay friends, get together quite a bit, stay close and keep each other company in our lonely search for a job.  This person I knew well when we were at college and I was good friends with then.  But one day, well over a year after school ended, he broke down in front of me.  Crying and upset, all he wanted was to have the life he once had, to be back with his Cal Arts friends and no longer feel the empty loneliness inside.  There wasn’t anything I could say except to try and comfort him.  And in some way I did feel the same as he did.

However…after awhile things turned around for him, and he did get his wish.  He got hold of a CG program (albeit illegally), learned it and managed to get work in the industry, and pretty soon he was back with all his friends from Cal Arts again.

But once that happened, he stopped talking to me.  I wasn’t in the club, so I was suddenly no longer important to him.  It’s ironic in a way.  I knew a girl I was best friends with in grade school, but by the start of Jr. High, a peer group of asshole boys she thought were hot suddenly became more important to her than me.  And then she was gone.  This person from Cal Arts, for awhile I tried to contact him, but he basically ignored me.  And yet in another huge ironic twist it was his desire to return to all the people who had essentially ignored him for the last year and a half when he didn’t have a job and wasn’t a part of the club.  His classmates were never there for him or gave a shit about him when he wasn’t in the “Cal Arts group”.

I have a lot of people I know from Cal Arts as friends on Facebook.  But I get rare responses from any of the ones who actually work in the industry, not even getting back to me when I suggest getting together to hang out. I do respect these people and their talent, otherwise I wouldn’t have asked them to be friends on FB.  But I know I’m really not part of the club.  I became enemies with one Cal Arts person when I saw them achieve success and have fans on twitter, but then later watch them slam their fan base on FB behind their backs with the rest of their friends.  I argued that this person was showing no professionalism and treating their fan disrespectfully when all the fan did was thank them graciously for responding to their question.  After I posted my objection to them, that person deleted me as a friend.  The person thankfully wasn’t anyone important or someone I was terribly close with.  I won’t say good riddance about them either, because even the people I don’t like from Cal Arts, I try to show a mutual respect for.  But really…it just saddens me to see those who are corrupted by their own success, when they feel it necessary to knock on the people who helped them raise their status in life in the first place.

I’m not the first person to complain about the cocky attitude that some people from Cal Arts have shown.  I’ve talked to animators in the industry, who never went to Cal Arts, but resented the huddled group-like mentality of their Cal Arts peers.  I talked to a successful Disney animator once who expressed resentment of Cal Arts influence on the industry by saying, “If you’re not a part of the club, you never will be.”

It’s frustrating to me really, because so many animation directors today are from Cal Arts.  But more and more of these films are standard and forumlaic, telling the same stories over and over and over again dressed in a different costume each time.  The lesson is almost always the same: “Be yourself”.  But do any of those people preaching the message really know what it means?  These people have spent so much time keeping themselves within their small group, never stepping outside the code of the industry, never risking making others mad or pissing anyone off for the sake of their their vision.

Stepping away from all that is scary, and you do risk falling into the darkness.  But there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  There is a journey of self discovery you can only achieve by yourself.  It gives you a personal vision and you find out what it is you REALLY want to say about the rest of the world.  You won’t be joining a cause because all your friends are doing it.  You’ll find your own cause, and your own belief systems emerge.  You can’t get that if you spend your entire life hanging around your college buddies.  It’s like never getting rid of your high school pals.  You’ll never know anything outside your own social circle.  Or there’s what happened to my friend, who was away from his peers but couldn’t take it.  For those of us who don’t have the same developed abilities as others, there is no choice but the path less trodden.  There are plenty of horrors that await you when you have no choice but to enter the dark forest.  But on the other side there is salvation.

For those Cal Artiens  who achieved success so early in their careers, what’s going to happen to them after awhile when they look inside themselves.  Will they ask, is this it?  Will they ever risk breaking all convention they’ve established for themselves?  Would they risk brutal failure?  Or worse yet,  standing up for something that could make enemies of their friends?  It’s hard to say.  The animation community is such a repressed culture.  I’m sorry, but it is.  No one wants to say anything out of turn.  No one wants to risk it because the industry is so small and almost everyone knows each other.  Some might complain…but nothing really gets done.  And no one really wants to rock the boat or step up and challenge the world around them.

As I’ve said to many people, Brad Bird went to Cal Arts, but also went through 20 years of toil and struggle before he created his masterpiece The Iron Giant, a grown up, mature story that has something to say about the world.  It’s the same with The Incredibles.  These films were born out of Brads own experience and life of struggle.  The only struggles you see portrayed in most Cal Arts films are adolescent ones, talking about difficulties about getting along in the world when they were kids, but never really addressing the struggles of adulthood.   In some ways, I don’t really blame Brad for leaving animation for live action.  There’s just more freedom in live action for him to tell the kind of personal, adult stories he wants.  There are stories he wants to tell he could never make working for Pixar.  In a way, that’s kind of a shame, because our country still has yet to develop a maturity in animated storytelling beyond the notion that cartoons are just for kids.

But its really those creative thinkers who stepped outside the long treaded path, who risked everything, including their reputations for their careers, to create something new and innovative that nobody has ever seen before.  John Lassiter is one such innovator.  How many people scowled at him for wanting to tinker with this primitive computer image thing you could hardly animate anything with? After only 10 years, he made Toy Story.  So is Tim Burton, who used his animation background and dark storytelling to innovate the visual style in the world of live action.  You have to know when to learn and listen when something greater is calling to you.  And it may also mean learning to let your peers go.  Having that kind of courage means going to a place inside yourself where you can’t take your friends with you.

  My Cal Arts friends are all gone.  But so are my boy scout friends.  And so is my best friend.  They all live far away from me.  So I really have no social group left.  When I think about it, I don’t know if I’ll ever really want to belong to a group again.  I’ve spent 6 years of my life after college pretty much on my own.  It can be difficult.  But its not as terrible as it sounds, especially when that solitude can lead to your own personal growth.

So that’s a taste of my relationship with Cal Arts.  And hopefully anyone I know from Cal Arts won’t bear me any ill will for saying how I’ve felt for so long.  You are welcome to disagree with everything I’ve said here.  It’s okay, I still love you 🙂  I already have my enemies, so any more I make won’t be much of a difference.  But if you are that one person from school, who has wanted to step off the beaten path but has been afraid to, I say…don’t be afraid.  Because as great mythological scholars have said for those who have fallen off the beaten path:…where you thought to find an abomination, you will find a God, and where you find a God, you find yourself.    

Rhapsody In Blue Mural

This is the second cartoon mural I’ve done, and it’s based on the great Fantasia 2000 segment “Rhapsody in Blue”. This mural was painted in the hallway of my parents home in Van Nuys.

The characters on the left side of the wall portray the characters in the Rockefeller Center ice skating section of the film.

Below: The guest bedroom door.

The right wall next to the door:

This is the opposite corridor to my room. The opening city shot is on my door, and this is basically the Rachel corridor, showing the montage of her life.

The other montage wall, with the building drawn on on the towel cabinet and drawers:

And last but not least…

….Flying John…on the bathroom door, respectively.