Monday, February 6, 2012

Remembering Phil

I have reached that cheerless age when death begins to assert itself in ever more overt and pitiless ways. In the warm blush of youth, it is easy to ignore the lurking spectre of death and imagine oneself immortal. But, gradually, with time and wisdom, death catches up with us. First grandparents go, then parents, and finally friends and colleagues begin to pass out of this life. We are left whistling nervously in the gloom as more and more of that bony, scythe-wielding wraith is revealed by our diminishing numbers.

It has been a bad year for me in that regard. First, my old friend and fellow improvisor Drew Leavy passed away after a long, brave and defiantly humorous struggle with cancer. After that, we lost my uncle Ray, also from cancer, after a major amputation failed to stop the progress of the disease. Then, in December, my terrific father in law, Bill McGillivary succumbed suddenly to failing health, leaving us all without an anchor.

And, just a few weeks ago, came the sad news that a long time professional collaborator, Philip Kates, had died. He was yet another victim of that bastard disease, cancer.

That's Phil on the right. In the company
of pretty ladies, as usual. How did you do it Phil?
Phil was a talented film director, specializing in TV commercials and music videos, and for several years I provided storyboards for dozens of his commercial jobs. He was a great visual thinker, who dreamed up and realized striking cinematic images. He was a lighthearted and hilarious guy, and working with him was always a good time. And, (unlike some directors I could name), he had a great deal of respect for his collaborators. Everything was a team effort with Phil, and he always gave credit where credit was due. He was generous with his time, friendship and talent.

I was working primarily in animation at that time, but I was growing disillusioned with the industry. Another colleague, Chris Minz, had been doing storyboards for commercials at a small production company here in Toronto, but he was heading out of the country for several weeks. He passed my name on to the producers at the company, and shortly thereafter I was called in for a few jobs. 

Then I got a call to come in and show samples to a director I’d never worked with. (Yes, this was in the days when you actually made photocopies of your samples and brought them in, in person!)

That director was Phil Kates.

Phil was not a tall man, but his energy and enthusiasm made him seem bigger than life. We were the same age, but if you had asked me that day, I’d have said he was six or seven years younger than me. The guy had an energetic glow, and a real love of life that shone through from the first moment we met.

I hauled out the two commercial boards I’d done, which were both for kid’s toys, and a few pages of an animation board. As I spread them out on the table, it suddenly seemed like a rather pitiful offering, but Phil was very positive and enthusiastic about the samples. Unfortunately, there was a problem. The commercial he was working on was all about sexy girls, and he didn’t see any examples of this in my work. He was very nice about it, and admitted I could likely do the job, but was clear that he’d be looking for someone who could demonstrate advanced cheesecake skills in their samples. Phil assured me we’d work together on something soon, but this wouldn’t be the job.

I admit that burned me a bit.

Hey, I knew I could knock out a drawing of a nice, sexy gal, and nobody was going to tell me otherwise. I went home that night and drew up about a dozen hot chicks and the next day I arrived unannounced to show them to Phil. (Yes, this was in the days when you could walk into almost any production company without going through seven levels of security and a decontamination shower.) The receptionist called Phil out of a back room somewhere and he came out with an expression of concerned confusion on his face, perhaps wondering if I was some kind of nut who couldn’t take no for an answer.

I told him I didn’t want to take up a lot of his time, but I had some cute girl sketches for him to take a look at. He laughed out loud and flipped through the drawings, quite tickled that I’d gone to the trouble. Inevitably, Phil informed me that he’d already hired someone else for the job in question, but that he appreciated the effort. He called me often after that, to create boards for dozens of spots including several requiring drawings of sexy girls, and often sang my praises to other directors.

I’m most proud to say I did the boards for “Saturday Night” a cautionary public service announcement Phil created for MADD. You can see the spot here: And compare it to some of the boards, which I’ve posted below. 

Unfortunately, we lost touch after Phil moved out west, and I didn’t even know he was sick until my wife ran across his obituary in Marketing Magazine.

It hit me really hard. Even though we hadn’t worked together for a while, it seemd like I’d seen him only yesterday. This much I know, my career, my skills and my sense of professionalism all benefited greatly from our association.

Thanks Phil, I’ll miss you, man.