A Sad, Sorry Situation

The magazines arrived in the mail every month when I was just a kid growing up in Santa Barbara. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the publications. You’re probably not old enough to remember The Ladies Home Journal, The Saturday Evening Post, McCalls Magazine, and the other publications of that era. What was special about these monthly magazines and what interest would a young kid have in what was usually referred to as, women’s magazines? Well, the articles were seldom of any interest to me. However, the magazines pages were filled with amazing illustrations by the cream of the crop of mid- century illustrators such as, Coby Whitmore, Al Parker, Jon Whitcomb and Joe DeMers. The magazine stories focused on love and romance, while the more masculine stories might have featured a beautiful illustration by Robert Fawcett. Most of my fellow students at Art Center College of Design were dreaming of careers as magazine illustrators and we were lucky enough to have a few of the masters on our teaching staff. Sadly, by the time many of my fellow students had graduated, the illustration field was beginning to dry up. It would appear many publications were moving toward photography and the golden age of illustration was quickly becoming a thing of the past. 

One of my fellow students, a talented artist named, Guy Deel took a position as a development artist at Walt Disney Studios because the magazine illustration field was no longer as robust in the seventies. Guy Deel continued with Disney for a number of years, but I know he probably would have preferred doing magazine illustration. Of course, this is not unlike what’s happened to traditional hand drawn animation. The film studios, much like the fifties publishing magazines decided they needed a change. Photography replaced illustration in the fifties and the encroachment of digital production totally marginalize hand drawn animation in the late nineties. Yet, one might ask, why can’t beautiful illustration co- exist with photography? And, why can’t hand drawn traditional animation share the screen with computer graphic imagery? Why does it have to be one or the other? A zero sum game? The titans of the publishing world made a decision over sixty years ago and it pretty much ended a fabulous era of awesome magazine illustration. Likewise, the animation studios rallied together and pronounced hand drawn animation dead. Naturally, it was a self fulfilling prophecy. 

Of course, we all know it doesn't have to be this way. The advent of photography did not put an end to painting and illustration. Why should CGI film production spell the end for a film making technique the public still eagerly embraces?I remember standing next to a gentleman watching Disney cartoons on a huge video display a few years ago. He wondered out loud, “why don’t cartoons don’t look like this anymore?” I reassured him that hand drawn animation was alive and well, but there was little chance it would be embraced by mainstream studios in the near future. I further stated, as long as the major animation production houses maintained this perception, things would not be changing anytime soon. Finally, I’d like to mention the gifted magazine illustrator, Jon Whitcomb. While on a fifties visit to the Walt Disney Studios some years ago, Whitcomb completed several sketches of Mary Costa, Helene Stanley and Margaret Kerry as a tribute to the fascinating women of Disney. Naturally, all the Disney artists were thrilled to have such a remarkable illustrator visit the Walt Disney Studio. Recently, the iconic movie poster illustrator, Drew Struzan was nice enough to pay us a studio visit. Struzan created the amazing, “The Force Awakens” poster for the J.J. Abrams film. Yet, the amazing illustrator was given short shrift by Disney when their film marketing department decided to replace the work created by the artist with a computer generated hodgepodge. Even in today’s film world the computer still trumps traditional hand generated artwork.

I still remember the impressive illustrations of the nineteen fifties and the artwork that inspired me as a child. I dreamed of emulating these mid-century masters and perhaps finding a career in art myself. I still get steamed whenever I see a film marketing boss choose a Photoshopped image over an actual painting. Or dismiss a painting because it looks too much like, “art.” It’s a sad, sorry situation for art and artists and there appears to be no resolution in sight.

 The amazing fifties illustrator, Jon Whitcomb. I've seen his original illustrations and they were gorgeous.

The amazing fifties illustrator, Jon Whitcomb. I've seen his original illustrations and they were gorgeous.

Embrace the Chaos

If you’ve been in this business as long as I have you’ll easily recognize this particular situation. It’s the moment when you realize how much trouble you’re in. It’s when everything has gone wrong. It’s the train wreak, the plane crash, the awful meltdown. If filmmaking has been a part of your career, then you probably already know what I’m talking about. Some years ago, my bosses had their hands full so I took over a particular project. I put together what I considered a pretty good team and created reels for our client’s film. Before long we were ready for the big meeting. However, that Friday afternoon was one of the worst of my life. Not only did our client dislike what we had produced - they hated it. The meeting was a disaster and afterward I sat numb in my office as the evening sun slowly sank. I do not exaggerate when I say I was practically in tears when I drove home that evening.

But, guess what? Our team jumped back on the project and swiftly turned things around. The completed film was totally embraced by the client and suddenly we were heroes. I learned a valuable lesson that day. A lesson that has remained with me throughout my career. Never fear disaster. Once you’ve hit bottom - there’s nowhere to go but up. Over the years I’ve had my share of production meltdowns and I’ve actually come to embrace them. I’ve learned that fear is pointless and unproductive. After all, when you’re already part of a disaster - things can only get better. Since that time, I’ve actually enjoyed jumping onto “doomed projects” because they offer the greatest challenge. As a matter of fact, I began my career in story by being thrown onto an animated movie Walt Disney actually hated. “How much of the story can we keep,” we asked? “None of it,” replied the Old Maestro. “Start over!” So, I began my feature film story career already in trouble. After leaving Disney in the late sixties, my partner and I took on a troubled television series. A program that couldn’t seem to complete its shows or make its air dates. Though things were a disaster, we eagerly jumped in to turn things around. If everything was a mess already - we could hardly make things any worse. This kind of thing has continued throughout my career and has become so routine that I now prefer the troubled assignment. It’s more exiting to be part of a “sinking ship” than to be on a project where everything is going smoothly. I’ve received frantic phone calls more than once from producers in trouble. Sometimes it’s an animated project or live-action. I’ve storyboarded scenes while flying to a location and I’ve quickly sketched boards on set so filming could be moved along at a faster pace.

Because of my experience, I’ve had the opportunity speak about this situation and encourage many a young film maker on how to cope when things go bad. I share my perspective on this crazy business and remind them that this very situation is what makes our work so stimulating and exciting. If you want security and sameness then go work in an accounting firm. However, should you prefer your life be exciting then I recommend you go out and do what I’ve done most of my career. Embrace the chaos. Enjoy the ride on the runaway train, the airliner with all the engines flaming out. It’s what makes this crazy business so exciting and it’s why I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

 When you're going down in flames...enjoy the ride. It's what makes this crazy business so exciting.

When you're going down in flames...enjoy the ride. It's what makes this crazy business so exciting.

Mel's Diner

Like all my Disney stories this one is true. Not too many years ago, Mel Brooks was producing a television series and all production was being done at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. That meant Mr. Brooks and his production staff had offices on the Walt Disney studio lot. I gotta confess it was fun having Mel Brooks and his writing and producing pals on Walt’s lot. Mel and the guys loved having an afternoon coffee break on the patio of the studio commissary each day. Knowing this, we would schedule our break time each afternoon in the same location. That way, we could sit nearby and enjoy Mel Brooks and his guys tell zany stories and crack jokes throughout the afternoon. It eventually became something we looked forward to each afternoon.

Naturally, Mel Brooks and his cronies enjoyed lunch at the Walt Disney Studio Commissary each day. Mel loved to dine outdoors and he eventually found a table on the studio commissary patio that he particularly liked. Each day at lunch time, Mel Brooks and his guys could be found enjoying their lunch at this particular table. In time, it became common knowledge that this was, "Mel’s Table." I guess you can see where this is leading. One day a hapless individual new to the Disney studio purchased his lunch and headed outdoors to the patio. As you’ve probably  already guessed, he made the mistake of sitting at "Mel’s Table." Those of us already enjoying lunch waited for the upcoming scenario to be played out. At least five or ten minutes went by before Mel Brooks came through the commissary doors and headed for his table only to find the young man sitting alone eating his lunch. Eventually, Brooks was joined by his team, and the group of five or six simply stood silent on the studio commissary looking at the young man who continued eating his lunch. Moments passed, and then the young man suddenly became aware he was the center of attention. In a quiet panic, he quickly gathered up what was left of his meager lunch and scurried away. During this entire scenario not a word was spoken. It was like a scene in a movie except this particular Mel Brooks comedy bit took place in real life.

The result of this benign incident is that it was so beautifully underplayed. Not a word was spoken yet the whole incident was hilarious. As an old gagster and comedy writer you learn that the funniest things that often happen - are the times when nothing funny happens at all.

 A Mel Brooks comedy being played out at the Walt Disney Studio. And, we watched it all happen.

A Mel Brooks comedy being played out at the Walt Disney Studio. And, we watched it all happen.

My New Best Friend

The conversation took place in the rear of the studio theater on the Walt Disney Studio lot. The woman I was speaking with inquired how long I had worked for Disney and I replied, I began working in 1956. Suddenly, I was being mocked by a guy in the seat behind me. The voice was brash and gleefully irreverent as he said, “Man! You must be really, really old!” I tried to continue my conversation, but the wise guy in the seat behind me refused to give up as he continued to razz me. Who was this jerk, I wondered, and why did he seemed determined to pick on me? He was like a character in a movie. You know the type I mean. The kind of smart ass character usually played by actor, Bill Paxton. Finally, I’d had enough. Fed up with the wise guy behind me I turned in my seat to find myself face to face with - you guessed it. Bill Paxton.

First of all, you gotta know I love Bill Paxton and he’s one of my Hollywood heroes. I doubt I’ll ever forget his role as Private Hudson in James Cameron’s “Aliens.” Boastful and full of bluster, Hudson remains likable in spite of his obnoxiousness. In an early battle, Hudson loses all hope when the aliens kick the asses of the space marines and the once brash Private Hudson practically whimpers as he shouts his iconic line - “Game over, man! Game over!” Bill Paxton always managed to allow the audience to connect to his characters. Hardly stellar role models, Paxton often played men who were shady, calculating and weak. My wife still loves his portrayal of “Simon,” the bogus spy who was really a sleazy used car salesman in “True Lies.” However, Bill Paxton could work his magic on the small screen as well. The television show, “Big Love” was made watchable by Paxton’s portrayal of a religious patriarch. Yet, even in this role Bill Paxton managed to give his character a degree of warmth and depth that kept you coming back for more. Finally, in James Cameron’s epic film, “Titanic,” I’ll never forget Paxton’s unctuous smile as he notes that the elderly Rose is his, “new best friend.”

In recent years, Bill Paxton had spent more time behind the camera than in front of it. He was now directing and was getting pretty darn good at it. He was working on a project for Disney but he confided there was another more exciting project he really wanted to do. I could hardly contain myself. “What is it,” I asked eagerly? “I’d love to do a remake of “Swiss Family Robinson,” Paxton smiled. “I think it would make a great film.”As we spoke, I couldn’t help but think of this unique but odd situation. Here I was at the Walt Disney Studios trading ideas with one of my favorite actors. Each of us sharing the same enthusiasm for a Walt Disney movie we saw as kids decades ago. It appears in La La Land anything is possible.

After the studio screening, we stepped out into the chilly, December evening and I reached for my top coat. I appeared to have difficulty putting on my coat, so Bill Paxton immediately stepped in to help. “Look at this,” I said. “I’ve got one of Hollywoods top movie stars helping me put on my coat.” As we headed out into the cool evening I reminded Bill to keep me informed on his proposed remake of Swiss Family Robinson. Much like his character in “Aliens,” Paxton smiled and said, “I’m on it!” It’s still difficult to deal with the suddenly loss of Bill Paxton. The plain, simple guy from Fort Worth, Texas who arrived in tinsel town and made good. Like most good actors, you never saw the work that went into Bill Paxton’s performances. He made it all look spontaneous and effortless. It was as though he suddenly showed up on the set and became the character with no preparation. A good actor always makes it look easy. Sadly, we received the news of Bill Paxton’s passing as we prepared to head for the Oscars. Later, that afternoon, Jennifer Anniston took the stage of the Dolby Theater to speak about the loss of a wonderful actor and director, and his impressive career. It’s still difficult to believe Bill Paxton is gone. If you’re a guy you can’t help but relate to Bill Paxton’s incredible career and the colorful, flawed characters he played. Men who were charming, brash and vulnerable. How can you not? He was everyone of us.