Panic Jobs and Old Age

People often speak about the multiple movie and television projects I’ve worked on and seem to regard my entertainment career as something stellar. In reality, the work I did was often challenging but they were simply jobs. Assignments taken to pay the mortgage, a car note and get the kids through school. Often, the jobs were unexpected. They were last minute assignments because a TV show had to be aired or a movie needed to wrap. It would appear that the desperation of a client sent these jobs my way. I’m always looking for a new challenge and I eagerly accept these crazy last minute panic jobs. They pay the rent and they keep me on my toes.

My first panic assignment was a troubled, network television show that failed to make its airdates. Back then, television producers were punished by fines should they not deliver, and the fines were not cheap. In order to save the production house from a total meltdown, the producers came up with a last minute solution. They would hand off the remaining shows to independent producers to accomplish what they clearly could not. For my partner and I it was a challenge and an opportunity. We could demonstrate to our industry partners that we knew our stuff and could be counted on to deliver the goods. Thankfully, things went well and we delivered our shows on time and on budget. However, our professionalism failed to send any additional work our way, and we reluctantly returned to earning a living as employees.

On another occasion, an art director invited me to an unexpected meeting at a television studio in Hollywood. A new network show had been sold to the ACB Television Network and was about to go into production. They needed someone to create a series of funny little signs that would be moved past the camera during the course of the show. I regarded this lackluster assignment as dull and mundane and would have much preffered to be doing something more creative. One afternoon, while visiting an actor friend onset I learned the shows producer had a problem. And, it was a problem I could help solve. Because of this chance meeting, one thing led to another and one day I found myself on the writing staff of the show. Of course, this was totally unexpected and the last thing I thought would happen when I first joined the project. I was now a member of the writing staff of a network sketch comedy show and was beginning a new career path. However, with the programs abrupt cancellation I became soured on television writing and returned to cartoon animation where production procedures seemed to make more sense. In any case, I put my writing career on hold for several years.

Back in the seventies a television pilot was being filmed in a Hollywood studio and the producers needed an animated title for the show. Late one Wednesday afternoon I was summoned to the set by the shows director and quickly told what was needed. Apparently, it was important that the teen dance show have cool, dancing locomotive to open the show. Naturally, the completed cartoon title needed to be animated, painted and photographed in a couple of days. Moving into panic mode, my partner and I delivered the footage to the producers on a Saturday afternoon and the successful television pilot was sold. Not long after, “Soul Train” became a television hit. Should you ask me I’d tell you I find this little animated segment somewhat cheesy because it had to be cranked out in limited time and with a severely limited budget. However, as the years passed, I’ve been told that my animated locomotive has become, iconic. Honestly, I still consider the animated show opening, embarrassing.

Of course, there are times when I’m proud of the work I’ve done. Some years ago, while attending a Comic Book Convention I received a panic phone call from a producer whose film was in trouble and his director was hopelessly behind schedule. He begged me to fly to the location and join the production team making the movie. Once arriving on set I began to scope things out and I began creating a series of storyboards in order to expedite filming. My years of making movies on the cheap truly paid off as I found ways to move the film forward without spending a lot of money. Before long, we had the shoot back on schedule and after completing another panic assignment, I returned home to my usual life of “working retirement” because at my age I can’t seem to find a real job. Certainly not at any mainstream studio, in any case. 

I guess I can’t complain. People seem to like what I do and they value my skills and experience as a writer and an artist. On occasion, they’ll even invite me to jump in and help them solve a problem. However, the one thing they’ll never do is hire me. It’s not because I’m not liked or respected. It’s not because I don’t have the skills to do the job. It’s because studios don’t hire “old people,” and I just happen to be one of those who fit that description. There is an upside to all of this, however. If things get truly bad enough on a project they just might call me. And, that my friends is how this old timer keeps working in todays animation business. A business that venerates its knowledgeable veterans but only hires children.

Keeping busy in panic mode. At my age, it's often the best way to stay sharp.

Keeping busy in panic mode. At my age, it's often the best way to stay sharp.

The Feature

Back in 1957 the motion picture was known only as, “The Feature” and not just anybody was deemed worthy of working on it. In most cases you needed at least a year under your belt to even be considered. Most of us young trainees had cut our teeth on such simple fare as Jiminy Cricket and Donald Duck. However, being a good duck in-betweener hardly impressed anybody. In the Disney view of things you were still in the minor leagues. 

Then came the fateful day when the animation boss, Andy Engman gave you the word to report to a key assistant in D-Wing. It went without saying that coveted D-Wing was the home of Walt Disney's legendary Nine Old Men. If you were summoned to this special wing it meant you were probably being considered for “The Feature.” In those days, the wing was quiet and your footsteps seemed to echo as you made your way down the hallway. Most doors were closed, but a few remained ajar and you quickly glanced at young men and women hunched over their drawing boards. They could have been devoted monks copying biblical text. They worked in silence and with an intensity we had not experienced before. Not even at the Disney Studio. No, boys and girls, this wasn't Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse. Welcome to Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” where the men are separated from the boys. A few meager in-betweens were doled out among the few of us young artists and we were told to report back later. However, we shouldn't bother returning to this particular location. We were instructed to return to 1D-2 where three lovely young women would evaluate our work. If you think we were getting off easy, think again. The "girls” as women were called back in the old days, were not about to make our lives any easier. These young women were tough. I’d say a good deal tougher than any of the men who occupied the famous wing. We stood like scared school boys as the lovely young Disney veterans looked over our drawings and began to make corrections. After being scolded soundly, we were sent on our way with a stern warning to be more dilligent. Eventually, we upped our game and in time learned how to be a feature quality Disney artist. There was even a Disney happy ending to this challenging ordeal because one of the young men eventually fell in love and married one of his “bosses.”

I thought I would share this story with you because it illustrates what was expected of young Disney artists who saw themselves as possible contributors to this Walt Disney masterpiece. You had to be good to work on “Sleeping Beauty” back in 1958. Actually, to work on this Walt Disney classic you had to be better than good. If you don't believe me, take another look at this amazing Walt Disney animation art. Gorgeous art that still astonishes me even to this day.

 

Original Sleeping Beauty art. You had to be good to work on this Disney motion picture.

Original Sleeping Beauty art. You had to be good to work on this Disney motion picture.

The Real Job of a Manager

Many years ago, before management morphed into a collection of corporate wimps, bosses would sit down for a final meeting with a dismissed employee. It was often a painful transition but almost always it was an important one. In truth, it was probably beneficial for both employee and employer. Success and failure on the job could be discussed, and in many ways valuable lessons were learned by both.

Of course, this never happens today. Faceless corporations are more concerned with covering their asses than having the courage to face an employee that's being shown the door. And, I have no agenda here. Some employees need to be sacked because they clearly demonstrated their failure on the job. In other cases, competent workers have to be let go through no fault of their own. A change in company direction or a lack of financial resources may dictate such a decision. In any case, the person in charge has an obligation to face the staffer being dismissed. It was never a pleasant task, yet it was always a necessary one. It was a crucial part of doing your job as a manager. It was your responsibility as the person in charge.

I've never hidden my feelings for the nefarious department known as Human Resources. And, it's not necessary to explain why corporations feel they're necessary. That's a subject for another time. More than a few friends have told me about their “exit interview” after working for decades at a particular company. The young HR person behind the desk had no idea who the person was or what they did while employed by the company. They simply followed company policy as they sifted through the folder on their desk. The former employee was being “processed out,” and it was as cold, and simple as that. Having had the same experience, no one had to convince me that this is the way it works.

In times long past, when men were men and women were women, we faced up to our responsibilities no matter how difficult the task might have been. If you were the boss, that meant you gave the decision to hire new staffers, and should things not work out, it was your responsibility to dismiss them as well. That's what being a boss meant. It wasn't all good times and fun. it was unpleasant things as well. If you're a boss, it is your responsibility to let your employee know why they're being dismissed. if it's no fault of their own, but simply a company situation - let them know that. Let them know you were impressed by the fine job they’d done and hopefully the two of you might work together again. On the other hand if the employee failed to meet expectations - they should know that as well. You have a responsibility to let them know that. It's in their best interest, of course. If they're not aware of their failings, they'll simply repeat those same mistakes on their next job and that's not a good thing. If you're the boss, and you take your job seriously, then do the job of being a boss.

Should you think this is a tirade against private business, please think again. I've had the opportunity to run my own business and I can honestly say it was a great learning experience. More importantly, it provided the opportunity to see business from the perspective of both employer and employee. And, for that, I've always been grateful. I don't hold a degree from either the Stanford or Harvard business school, but I have learned a thing or two about business. Probably a good deal more than some of the clueless mangers I've worked for in recent years. I'd like to see managers take responsibility again and I'd like to put an end to the pointless HR exit interview and return that responsibility to the top managers where it belongs. That's why they pay them the big bucks, right? In this world of limitless litigation, I doubt we'll ever see change. We will continue to do business as usual and companies will be the worse for it.

Some employees don't deserve to lose their jobs. However, there are plenty others that do.

Some employees don't deserve to lose their jobs. However, there are plenty others that do.

The Story Master

When I was a kid one of my earliest memories was being ushered into a darken theater where Walt Disney’s “Bambi” was being screened. The images onscreen seemed to glow magically and I was instantly swept into a wondrous world of talking animals living in a glorious watercolored forest. Even though I was a child I knew the images onscreen were not real. No matter. I was totally entranced by the magical world Walt Disney and his remarkable artists had given us.

Yesterday, I spent part of my afternoon sitting in front of a camera on set introducing scenes from the amazing Walt Disney motion picture that began its story development journey decades ago. Walt Disney was a master story teller and when he sat with his story team at the old Hyperion Studio in Los Angeles, there was a good deal of work ahead. I’m fairly well acquainted with the story development process and well aware that in scripting an animated feature film it’s easy to venture off in the wrong direction. Sometimes we get so involved in a clever bit of business we stray too far from our main storyline or we begin to neglect our lead character. Walt Disney had a laser like focus when evaluating a storyline and when things began to go off track he knew immediately when to make a change. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to view deleted sequences from the classic Disney film I saw as a child and share all this with the audience. I won’t be telling you about the material we shared just yet, but you’ll be seeing it soon enough when the new storyboarded sequences are made available.

It’s interesting for an old storytelling guy like myself to know that the same mistakes we make today were made back in the thirties as well. Like the old seasoned Disney veterans, we’ll tend to get caught up in an interesting bit of storytelling that is not crucial to the main plot. I’m sure you’ve notice sequences in today’s animated films that make you wonder, “why did they put that in there?” Or, why was that bit of business needed? It has nothing to do with the character or the main storyline. Lucky for the story team on “Bambi,” the story artists had a master story editor like Walt Disney to keep them on track. Walt Disney always believed in a lean, clean storyline and I learned this firsthand when working with The Old Maestro on “The Jungle Book” back in the sixties. Walt Disney was a master storyteller because he never lost focus. A lesson todays young story tellers might want to consider.

Though his storytelling teams were the best in the business, Walt Disney remained the finest story editor I've ever worked with.

Though his storytelling teams were the best in the business, Walt Disney remained the finest story editor I've ever worked with.