Category Archives: Cal Arts

How The Iron Giant Changed Me As A Human Being

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This may surprise some people (even those who know me personally), but I have actually known who Brad Bird was for most of my life, long before I even saw The Iron Giant for the first time.  I was first exposed to his name when I was 8 and The Simpsons first came on, for which Brad served as Executive Consultant, and on occasion director for at least two 1st season episodes.  My parents have been taking me to the movies since I was a baby, and because my dad worked in the film business, we always stayed for the end credits.  Even at an early age I started to recognize names that would show up again and again.  Not just big names like Steven Spielberg, but I’d catch on to actors, writers, directors who would frequently show up.  I recognized Brad’s name from The Simpsons simply because I thought Brad Bird was kind of a funny name.  Over time, I started watching The Simpsons, and Brad was responsible for directing the season 1 classic episode, Krusty Gets Busted, where Krusty the Clown is framed for robbing a convenience store, and it was the introduction to the villainous Sideshow Bob.  It’s a funny episode for many reasons, one of them being that once Krusty’s goofiness is behind bars and Sideshow Bob takes over, he turns the show into an overly-intellectual droll literary hour.  But it’s a great episode and it got my attention as a kid.  After awhile I started to discover more of Brad’s work, eventually seeing Family Dog, the animated short film from Spielberg’s Amazing Stories series, and I began to think, “man, this guy’s pretty good.”

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But everything changed for me on August 6th, 1999.  It was the day The Iron Giant was released into theaters.  I was 17 years old at the time.  There was some pretty bland advertising surrounding the film.  As most of us know, the film bombed at the Box Office in part because of Warner’s failure to properly market the film.  But I didn’t have doubts going in, because I had heard Brad Bird was directing it, and from what I knew of the past works he had done, there was a chance the movie was going to be good.  By the time the end credits rolled, the word “good” for this film was an understatement.  Even “great” seemed low on the scale for a film like this.  At the time when I saw this movie, it was the single most life changing film I had ever seen.  It shattered all my expectations of what I thought an animated film should be.  It was a film so beautiful, so powerful in its message, story, and animation, that I never looked at animated films the same way again after this.  Before this film, I had been a Disneyite.  I based much of what I wanted for myself as an animator, like many people, through Disney films.  Pixar had not yet established itself, although Toy Story came out before The Iron Giant and I loved that movie.  But it was in no way the pinnacle life altering film that The Iron Giant would become for me.  Before when I was into Disney movies I had my sights set on becoming an animator and working for Disney as one.  After I saw The Iron Giant, I decided I wanted to become a storyteller,  a director, and a filmmaker.  The thing that attracted me the most to this film were its moments of darkness.  The Giants transformation into a killing machine is frightening and real, and it shook me out of my skin when I saw the sequence played out.  This was a character that had suddenly lost all hope in himself.  This is someone who lost all faith in the world and turned on a murderous spree.  True, in the movie, we never see the Giant actually kill anyone because the consequences would be too great and there would be no turning back for him if he actually ended someones life.  It’s only Hogarth who manages to stop him and bring him back from the abyss.  But what that sequence also showed me was the things you could do in animated films that Disney could not go.  There were people who already knew this if you had watched a lot of Japanese Anime, which tackles far more serious adult subjects for animation.  But this was the first American animated feature I had seen that was a family film, but took on serious adult themes, with serious consequences attached to the characters actions.  The Giant’s nightmarish transformation was unlike anything I had seen in an animated film.  It made me want to tackle darker themes in my own work and my own storytelling.

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My sense of humor has always been on the dark side, as have been the themes I wanted to explore in films.  In a way, it always felt edgy and cool to me because American Animation rarely ever tackled these areas, or at least, they used to until after The Little Mermaid came out, and it’s like it all suddenly stopped because everyone had their eye on animation as a moneymaker, and nobody wanted to do anything that would scare children and families away.  What’s interesting is the Iron Giant helped me unlock my love for films I saw growing up as a kid that were filled with dark themes, such as Pinocchio, The Adventures of Mark Twain, The Secret of Nimh.  Even films like The Brave Little Toaster had plenty of moments with frightening imagery, and it was great because these movies were never afraid to scare kids.  The simple truth is, unlike what most adults want to believe, kids love to be scared.  It’s not about always protecting our children, because as kids…the thing is…what frightens us also intrigues us at the same time.  Scary images are burned into our skull because it forces us to ask ourselves why the images frighten us.  What is it about watching an animated character in serious peril, or being attacked by a giant monster that makes us want to know where that monster inside us comes from.  It frightens us because we know that monster exists in all of us, and we see it exposed when we watch a film that traumatizes our minds.  I was much older when I saw The Iron Giant, but the killing spree frightened me just the same, knowing that myself or anyone that I loved could become a killer, or could be knocked off course from wanting to be the beautiful soul that they are.

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The soul however is the deeper layer to what The Iron Giant is.  I watched a seminar once taught by voice actor, Crispin Freeman, entitled Giant Robots and Superheros, which analyzed the mythological aspects and cultural differences where the Japanese like to write stories about Giant Robots and Americans like stories about Superheroes.  The Iron Giant brings the best of both worlds and takes it a step farther.  Here is the notion of a giant robot having a soul.  A machine having a soul and wanting to be more than it’s limitations.  It’s interesting because at the same time this film came out, there was another film that examined this aspect, called The Matrix.  That was another film combining machines and spirituality, where in that case the machines became self aware and wanted to turn against humanity, and the human, Neo discovers in his avatar form that he can bend the Matrix to his will, and eventually merging with it.  The Iron Giant is more family fare than the darker Matrix films, but at the same time the human element finds its way into The Giant.  Through his own spiritual journey he finds not only mentorship through a 9 year old boy, he also discovers Superman, and discovers in himself that is what he wants to be, an empowered being who uses his abilities for goodness in a harsh world.  The giant instantly relates to Superman because he is also misunderstood by those around him who fear him as a threat.  He is conflicted by his machine body, his ego telling him what he really is, which is an engine for destruction.  But he finds he doesn’t want to be that at all.  He wants to grow beyond everything he was designed for.

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There was a story where during the finale of the film when the Giant sacrifices himself to save the town, somebody in a story meeting for the film asked why didn’t the Giant just take one of his rockets and destroy the missle from a safe distance.  Brad’s point was that the Giant wouldn’t do that because it would mean turning himself into a gun, which is not what he wants to be.  The message, “You Are Who You Choose To Be”, becomes the center of the Giants whole purpose of being.  When I heard those words for myself as a teenager, it became the center of my own being as well.  They were powerful words I wanted to live by.  It led me down a hard road later in college, because I found myself drifting from the Disney animation status that I thought I wanted from the beginning.  I discovered that I came into conflict with my own desires as an artist when animation was suddenly not as important to me.  I have always had to struggle with my drawing, I couldn’t keep up with my peers at the time, and overall it made it a struggle for me when I felt I wanted a job vs. what I wanted for myself.  In a funny way, I could take The Iron Giant as an example of someone going through the same thing, as he was a being that was in conflict with what he was built for vs. the being he wanted to become, in a decision made on his own.  He fights and struggles because his body that he was built to be wants to keep him down and conformed, but his “soul”…and his awakening into his own being is the thing that transforms him and makes him the defining hero he always wanted to be.

What I have learned from this film, and what it has taught me has always been about following your guiding light…your intuition and your spirit to become the person you’ve always wanted to be.  This includes deciding how you want to approach your career, what you want to contribute to humanity, deciding the people you want to fall in love with, deciding what you want to take a stand for and what is most important to you.  It’s never about following a particular crowd or a religion because many times a religion forces you to fall back on your own body.  On the one end, its meant to keep you safe and keep you grounded.  But it can also keep you afraid an in the dark from the person you always want to become.  It can also tell you there is no other way except what is meant to keep you in line and in fear of following your path.  They are the voices in your head telling you not to go off into the woods because they are dangerous, they are full of turmoil, and you can damage yourself far greater when you let go of a chosen belief.  The conflict comes when you do go out into the woods, and the voices in your head are constantly telling you to come back, that you are putting yourself in danger and that you cannot survive on your own.  It’s why in The Iron Giant, when the Giant thinks Hogarth is dead and all is lost that he falls back on his “machine” life and turns into a weapon of destruction.  He doesn’t know yet that the choice is always within him, but because he lost Hogarth, there was no one left to make the choices for him accept himself.  And that can be a frightening thing.  When we hear the words, “You Are Who You Choose To Be”, it is exactly that.  There is no fear in deciding on the person you want to become.  We can get angry and conflicted when we suddenly find so many voices making the choices for us that we don’t want there anymore, which is what can lead to anger and a need to strike back.

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After I saw The Iron Giant, I wrote Brad two letters.  The first one I wrote to him because I was about to become an Eagle Scout.  I asked him in a letter to send me a congratulatory card with my Eagle Scout packet.  When you reach that level as a boy scout, you can ask for congratulatory letters from The President, Senators, or people you admire.  Brad’s card was the most important one in there, because for me having accomplished becoming an Eagle Scout, his card defined the person I wanted to become.  Brad has always been that symbol in my mind and my hero for all time and I have continued to aspire to be the image of what Brad is to me and the person I want to be.  He’s my “Superman” so to speak.  Later on I wrote Brad a second letter just asking him about being a director and how to become one, and he returned with a 2 page letter reply talking about schools, and what it’s like to be a filmmaker.  He even ended the letter with the simple words, that no matter where you go or where you end up, never forget the sage advice of young Hogarth Hughes, “You Are Who You Choose To Be”.

What is the film that most defines you as a person or as a filmmaker?  I think we all have it in us.  The Iron Giant was that film for me.  It made me want to be more than the sum of what people in everyday life expected from me.  I had to have faith in myself first to find that place for me and decide this is what I want.  The search continues throughout our lives as we go from one thing to another, working to follow our path until we find the direction that most defines the person we want to be.  It’s what we spend our whole lives searching for, choosing to be who we want to be no matter where the world drops us.  It’s up to you to decide what is most important for you and whether your own path is guiding you there.  If it isn’t, it could be time for a self examination to get yourself on track.  If you can do that, however, that you will discover that the universe is putting you in alignment, and the life you always wanted for yourself will have been laid out for you all along.

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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.