Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Death of Hope

Most of my life has been dedicated to storytelling of one kind or another. I’ve had my finger in a lot of creative pies, including animation, live-action film, theatre, comics, prose, improv and sketch comedy. I love them all, of course, and I’ve focused more exclusively on one or another at different times in my life.

The one I love the most, and the one that really broke my heart, is animation.

When I was in my teens, I had three great interests; writing, drawing and acting.

The Rescuers is one of Disney Studios
most underrated post-Walt Films

One fateful night, I took a date to see Disney’s The Rescuers. About twenty minutes into the film I finally managed to get my arm on my date’s shoulder, and was able to concentrate on the screen for a bit. That’s when a few important ideas began to filter into my dense teenaged brain. Somebody had to draw this stuff! They drew characters, and made them act, and told stories! It was like an explosion in my brain. Everything I dug rolled into one amazing medium.

After high school I attended the exceptional animation course at Sheridan College in Oakville. I really threw myself into that course, worked very hard, and dreamed of working for Disney one day.

But, as we all know, reality and dreams seldom correspond perfectly.

I came into animation in the early 1980’s, which was a very bad time. It was a sort of perfect storm of negative energy for the animation business.

I also made a few incredibly poor choices.

First, some truly evil ad executive realized that you could create a series of animated advertisements based on toys and run it as a TV series. Shows like He-Man, Transformers, Pound Puppies and Care Bears exploded onto the Saturday morning programming schedules. Second, some frugal financial genius discovered that you could farm out your actual animation to Korea and Taiwan and cut your bottom line significantly.

Mok, beautifully animated for Rock and Rule by Robin Budd

Thirdly, for many years Toronto’s Nelvana Studios had been making wonderful, animated TV specials. But, after the failure of their feature film, Rock and Rule, they fell on hard times, and decided to do a bunch of “toy shows”. The first was Strawberry Shortcake. I had done some in-betweening at Atkinson Film Arts in Ottawa, but I needed work badly. I did an animation test and a layout test for Nelvana. I guess my animation test wasn’t too spectacular. (I didn’t find Strawberry Shortcake very inspiring.) However, they liked my layout test and offered me work in that department.

Here’s where I made a very bad decision.

I said yes.

While working in layout, I was doing nothing to improve my limited animation skills. I liked the money and the freedom that came with it, and like any young man, I wanted to prove to my parents that I could make a living. So I spent a lot of years working on toy shows, mostly Care Bears, which can really stomp on a guy’s love for the medium. Later I got fed up with layout, but by that time all the actual animation was being done overseas. There were very few opportunities left for animators in North America. To escape layout I flipped over into storyboarding, and did that for a few more years. Storyboarding has served me well, but by that time, I’d forgotten everything I knew about animating.

So near, and
yet, so far.

I had a few decent opportunities, like a brief stint with Bluth-Sullivan Studios in Dublin. Unfortunately, my ability to make good choices failed me again, and I foolishly left the job for all the wrong reasons. I had a tantalizing close call where I almost got to work on the original Bruce Timm designed Batman series with a Toronto company called Lightbox. Unfortunately they couldn’t work out a deal with Warner Brothers, and I was left high and dry. Later, I worked with one of my heroes, Ren and Stimpy creator John Cricfalusi on The Ripping Friends. I thought this might be a turning point in my animation career, but the show came off badly and John was... well... let's say, challenging to work with.

That was pretty much the last nail in the coffin of my hopes for animation. By then animation was primarily being produced by young business school graduates rather than by people who learned the medium in the trenches, and computer animation was taking over from classical animation. Sadly, I have no digital animation skills whatsoever.

After 15 plus years in the business I had never worked on anything I was proud of, or thought was any good, or wanted to show to anyone. I gave up, focused my creative energies on other forms like comic books, improv and sketch comedy, and let the dream die.

But, I sill love the animation medium, which I think is one of the most expressive, adaptable and engaging in the world.

1 comment:

  1. Well that's heartbreaking. If animation is something you might want to return to someday, I'd say go for it. It may not end up being a paying job anytime in the near future but might be worth the happiness it could yield.