My animation friends and colleagues can pretty much tell the same story. All of us benefited greatly by having the opportunity to work side by side with seasoned veterans. Our careers were enriched by the tips and techniques they generously shared, and the expertise acquired over the years. However, there was another important benefit. a benefit rarely talked about. I suppose one could call it, life experience. You see, unlike most of us kids these veteran animation professionals were well up in years and had already lived a full life. Most had raised families, traveled the world and read extensively. They possessed a wealth of knowledge and experience that went well past a career in the cartoon business. They had learned lessons in life and they were gracious enough to share that knowledge with us.
I’ll begin with a gentleman who had worked in the animation business in New York. I suppose the sudden demand for animators had enticed him to travel west and take a job at the Walt Disney Studio. He seemed sophisticated and urban compared to us geeky kids. Unlike us, he had traveled extensively, was extremely well read and often wore a suit and tie to work. Totally approachable, he often amused us with funny stories and his charming wit. That’s what I loved about the older men and women. Not only could they explain a run cycle on a cartoon bunny rabbit. They could also chat about literature, philosophy and history. It was a reminder that life is about much more than cartoon making, plush toys and weekend box office numbers.
For instance, we gained a unique perspective of the Second World War by old gentleman who had the dubious distinction of having fought on both sides of the historical conflict. Yes, that’s correct. This individual fought for Hitler’s army as well as the Allies. Before the top of your head blows off, I’ll need to explain. You see, when this individual was a young man he was faced with limited options during the war. When the German army invaded his small village in North Eastern Europe, all young men of a certain age were conscripted into Hitler’s military. Your choice was clear and simple. You would join the German army or have a gun put to your head. That meant, wear the German uniform or be shot dead on the spot. In time, fortunes eventually turned against Hitler’s war machine and his troops began to retreat. The old gentleman told us he was delighted take off the Nazi uniform and began fighting on the right side of the war. Not wanting to returned to his devastated village after the war, he made his way to America to seek a new life and a new career. Oddly enough, that career path eventually led him to the cartoon business. He often joked that working in animation was almost as dangerous as being a soldier. However, we loved this old gentleman’s perspective on life. He made us young people aware that life is not always filled with easy answers and choices will sometimes be difficult and gut wrenching.
Another old gentleman worked at Walt Disney’s Hyperion studio in the thirties even though his lengthy career allowed him to spend time at a number of animation studios over the years. While strolling on the Disney studio lot some years ago he pointed out buildings he had occupied back in the thirties. These vintage structures were actually trucked over from the original studio site in Silver Lake to the classy new Burbank facility on Buena Vista. He spoke of the good times he and his pals experienced back in animation’s early days.
Of course, he taught us all a thing or two about the cartoon business. I was impressed by his lack of pretentiousness. Eschewing such lofty titles as, screenwriter and story development artist, he simply described himself as a “gag man.” Unlike pretentious young story guys and gals who prattle on about story structure and character development, this guy simply understood what worked and how you could effectively construct an entertaining motion picture. It was always a delight to run a story idea past him because you knew you’d receive an honest evaluation free of the usual intellectual studio clap trap. However, he also spoke of life in the animation business and the things that really mattered. He spoke of the talented people we would meet and work with and the delight of coming to work each day to do a job you truly loved. Animated filmmaking wasn’t about accruing a personal fortune, stock options or being given gold plated statuettes. It wasn’t about phony titles and shallow status. And, it sure as hell wasn’t about legions of subordinates kissing your butt. In time, our good friend passed away in a manner all of us would envy. He suddenly collapsed while wrapping gifts on Christmas eve. Should you have to leave this earth - and we all will eventually - can you possibly think of a better way to go?
All of this reminds me that there is much to learn from the old timers in this wonderful business. Sadly, there are fewer and fewer of the old guys and gals even around today. If you’re a kid, and you’re lucky enough to know an old animation veteran, take some time and get to know them. You just might learn a thing or two.