Animated Thoughts

The topic of the conversation was totally unexpected since I was not the one who initiated the chat. I confess, I shared his passion even though the subject of today’s animated product was coming from a person who didn’t work in the cartoon business. The gentleman did work in the movie business, however. A noted screenwriter, he had contributed to a number of successful Hollywood films. However, the writers venue was usually live-action not animation. That’s what caught me totally by surprise as we chatted in a half empty theater in the heart of Tinsel Town. The two of us were friends of the director and we had been invited to a special Hollywood screening. There were producers and other actors in attendance and one would have thought if anything was up for discussion it would have been live-action films such as the motion picture we had just screened. Surprisingly enough, the subject was not live-action. The screenwriter was speaking about cartoon animation.

Fearful of being branded a naysayer I hadn’t broached this subject in a while. There’s always the danger of being misunderstood and this has been a problem in times past. That’s the reason I rarely voice my opinion when the subject is raised. It’s often interpreted as, sour grapes or the grumblings of a bitter old timer who’s no longer relevant in the animation industry. Not wanting to appear negative, I’ve often kept my mouth shut. Suddenly, here was a Hollywood screenwriter who doesn’t even work in animation articulating what he saw as ever growing problems in the world of animated filmmaking. And what problems did he see, you ask? The lack of creativity in cartoon making and the fact that it’s difficult to distinguish one animated movie from another. Even when an animated motion picture has a compelling production design, the digital production pipeline tends to homogenize art direction and it’s difficult to separate one animated film from another. The writer spoke about the limitations of hand drawn motion pictures from years past and how the animated filmmakers made those limitations work for them. The very fact that animated filmmaking was restricted by the physical reality  of being penciled, inked and painted by hand hardly limited creativity. In fact the opposite was true. The limitations of our craft allowed creativity to soar. The fascinating worlds created with pencil and paint still remains far more compelling than the artificial CGI fabrication we often view today.

However, the screenwriter hadn’t finished his criticism of today’s cartoon offerings. Like live-action, animation has been drifting into a series of narrow-minded, unimaginative stories  that appear more focused on selling product than entertaining audiences. The amazing digital technology that pretty much allows anything and everything you can imagine to be replicated onscreen hasn’t really made that much of a difference. Sure, the technology is amazing, but so what? Walt Disney’s animated feature film, “Pinocchio” continues to resonate with audiences today and this is a motion picture made in the forties. In fact, animation goes live-action one better. This amazing medium is storytelling and filmmaking created by hand. The pencil touches the paper and the brush spreads the paint. There is an emotional connection between the filmmaker and the audience that gives the hand drawn animated film something very special. This is not to say a CGI film cannot connect with the audience because clearly they can. However, the filmmaker has to work a little bit harder to cut through the “barrier” of technology.

Let me reiterate these were the complaints of a live-action screenwriter not an animated filmmaker. The very fact that a guy working in live-action could recognize the problems in our industry and articulate them so well was to me, somewhat surprising. However, this was one of the rare times I didn’t have to chime in because this motion picture creator made all the arguments on my behalf without me saying a word.

Hand drawn animation is coarse and messy, but there's absolutely nothing better in the world.

Hand drawn animation is coarse and messy, but there's absolutely nothing better in the world.

Ideas

Ideas are not important. Does that sound odd to you? I thought I might reiterate what a young filmmaker recently expressed. Ideas are not important. Good ideas, even brilliant ideas are a dime a dozen. What makes an idea important is execution. Unless the idea is put into work it remains inherently useless. Execution is the key. Of course, ideas are easy. Realizing those ideas is difficult. Often, very difficult. 

I find a lot of people make this mistake. They have a great idea and think they are on to something truly important. The truth is, an idea not acted upon, not executed remains essentially useless. I can’t tell you how many good ideas I’ve heard over a lifetime in this business. These often brilliant ideas came from co-workers, friends and colleagues. Of course, the idea usually goes no further than that. It was a fascinating idea that never went anywhere. Once again, a great idea not executed remains useless. Some years ago, my colleagues and I came up with what we considered a good idea. The educational marketplace had a real need for instructional media on the subject of Black history. That meant sixties media such as 16mm motion pictures and filmstrips. Of course, we weren’t the only ones to recognize this need. There were other filmmakers who saw this as well and they spoke enthusiastically about it. However, my colleagues and I stopped talking and began to put our ideas into action. Once again, a good idea is worthless unless acted upon. Unable to obtain financing, we reached deep into our own pockets until we were able to come up with enough money to finance our first film. We began to develop scripts and storyboards and even hired a few local scriptwriters to hammer our material into shape. It wasn’t easy, of course. Execution never is. Ideas are easy. Execution is hard work.

Finally, let me add another important element to this discussion. It’s the idea of commitment. And, I mean by that, total commitment. When we took up our educational filmmaking crusade we knew that we would only achieve success by making a full time commitment. We acquired office space in the Wilshire district of Los Angeles, and one by one my colleagues left their jobs. As you can imagine, it was not an easy thing to do. I confess I was the last to leave my sweet storytelling job. You see, I had recently gotten a good job at the Walt Disney Studios. And, it wasn’t just a good job, it was a great job. It meant I even attended story meetings with the Old Maestro himself. You can imagine the surprised look on my bosses face when I informed him I was leaving the company. I had taken on a new role of movie producer in my own company. Naturally, you can’t be serious about your new role and have a “Day Job” as well. Total commitment means not having a fall back position. It means not having a “Plan B.” This is something I continually remind aspiring motion picture producers. If you have a day job, you’re not really a producer. You’re kidding yourself because it’s not your job - it’s your hobby and hobbies don’t count for much in this very serious business.

As young filmmakers we had no shortage of ideas. And of course these ideas were immediately put into action. One thing was certain. We knew we would never be taken seriously unless we began to execute. That means we had to actually create motion pictures. In time, scripts were developed and filming began. There were times when we had three movies in various stages of development and production and it was a very exciting time. Our humble efforts probably seem minuscule compared to the big budget motion pictures of Hollywood but I take a certain pride in being able create our own motion pictures at a time when being a minority production company was not the easiest task in the motion picture business. Finally, I’ll ask whether you have a few good ideas or maybe even a few great ideas. Remember, that great idea is going nowhere unless you decide to execute. Unless you decide to make it happen. That’s something worth thinking about when you consider there’s absolutely no shortage of ideas in this crazy, idea filled town called, Hollywood.

You've got the idea. However, it's nothing unless you make it happen.

You've got the idea. However, it's nothing unless you make it happen.

A Kiss Goodnight

Okay, I freely admit I hardly excelled in English Literature. However, I found this particular high school English class very insightful. Clearly, I was learning a good deal about literature whether or not it was reflected in my assignments. No matter. Because of my less than stellar grades my high school counselors decided to move me to another English class. Apparently, a class that wasn’t as challenging as English Lit. Even with the best of intentions, it appears my high school counselors hardly did me a favor. By transferring me to a class that was, shall we say, less challenging, my writing career could have been permanently stalled by a poor decision. In spite of this setback I continued to write while in high school and enjoyed telling stories, if only to my fellow classmates. You can’t stop a writer from writing. It’s what writers do. It’s what they have to do.

Bill Tuning sat next to me in high school English Lit and he and I shared a love of reading and storytelling. Bill was blessed with natural talent and one day dreamed of becoming a novelist. He had a sharp wit and even dabbled in music on occasion. Bill played a mean cornet in the high school band and music was another love we both shared. While I often struggled with writing, it came easily to Bill and he was able to quickly knock out a number of papers. Because Tuning was so prolific, he even wrote for the school newspaper that was published weekly. Because we often batted ideas back and forth, we were able to convince our English Literature teacher to allow us to collaborate on a story. Luckily, she eventually agreed to let us work as a team, although we were given the feeling that somehow we were breaking the rules.

What I find especially ironic is the future careers of my fellow classmates. They were far more talented than myself when it came to writing and continually received higher grades. I’ll admit I often felt like a dunce compared to my more literate pals, but I simply never gave up on the dream of storytelling. One would assumed they had gone on to careers in journalism or some other form of writing. Heck, they could have written copy for an advertising agency or sought an editing career in a publishing house. Sadly, no one, with the exception of myself, ever dared become a writer even though most were far more talented. On a sad note, my old collaborator, Bill Tuning never achieved his goal of becoming a famous novelist. Distraught by his lack of success as a writer, he simply drowned his sorrows in booze. I learned of his untimely passing on one of my many trips to my home town of Santa Barbara.

As I said earlier, you can’t stop a writer from writing. It’s what we do. Since my high school days I’ve done my fair share of writing that has included books, films and television shows. None of it was great, mind you, but I continued to learn and move forward. I began with a yellow legal pad, migrated to an old Smith Corona, and now use an Apple laptop. Much like my Santa Barbara High School days, I’m still learning to write. Recently, I joined with my old pal, Richard Sherman to create a new book for Disney. Richard and I were lucky enough to work with another talented storyteller named, Walt Disney. As expected, our new book was inspired by our famous boss and should you be curious, our book will be introduced at D23 in Anaheim in a couple months. Stop by and say hello to Richard Sherman and myself. Bring a copy of our new book, and we’ll be delighted to sign it.

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I Got Mine! You Get Yours!

You could say the two artists were a lot alike. Both passionate about their art and both at the top of their game at the world’s premiere animation studio in Burbank California. I think I can speak about these two Disney artists because I knew them both and we spent a fair amount of time together. Both working and in conversation. Yet, as much as these two were alike, they couldn’t have been more different. The first artist made his way to the top by being the best in his class. A fierce competitor, he often belittled his peers for what he considered their lack of initiative and a willingness to settle for less. He cut savvy financial deals that would benefit him and his family and gave little thought to those beneath him who would have to make do with a good deal less. It was clear he had total confidence in himself as an artist and a person, although, some might have substituted a different word for his attitude. Then again, what’s wrong with celebrating your own success? After all, you’ve earned it, right?

Let’s talk about artist number two. A guy who had worked a tough life as a laborer and had lived in Europe before coming to the Walt Disney Studio. He too, was an artist and extremely passionate about his work. You might even say his work was the perfect reflection of himself. His bold, dramatic brushstrokes on canvas truly revealed who he was. However, the energy and vitality of his paintings were not confined to his canvases. The same blistering passion were also part of his daily conversation. Something the casual visitor to his office would soon become aware should they offer an opinion. As expected, the gritty artist also had a social conscience and was not above speaking out for those less fortunate than himself. I guess you can probably see where this is going, right? What if these passionate artists clashed face to face? Well, one quiet day at the Walt Disney Studio that’s exactly what happened.

While I don’t remember the exact details of this particular petition, the document was being circulated throughout the Walt Disney Studios for signatures by the artists. As you can imagine, the complaint was usually about compensation. Today, such a complaint would be handled by the motion picture union. However, some years ago it was not unusual for employee complaints to be handled in this manner. So, here’s how the story goes. Artist Number Two knocked on the office door of artist Number One. “We’d appreciate your signature,” said the young progressive artist. “After all, we’re all in this together.” Artist Number One had the prestigious title of, directing animator, so you might be guessing his name about now. The smug directing animator snatched the petition from the hand of Artist Number Two and gave it a quick glance. Then, he quickly handed the petition back without bothering to sign it. Before turning back to his work, he snarled a few words I don’t think I’ll ever forget. “I got mine! You get yours!” And, with that, the second artist took his petition and headed for the door. However, before leaving, he turned toward the well heeled directing animator with a few final words. “You know what,” he said. “If your blankety-blank house was on fire I wouldn’t piss on it!” And, that was the end of the conversation.

It’s 2017, and that little Disney incident happened many years ago. Two talented Disney artists had a brief conversation. I confess I admire each of the men and had the pleasure of knowing and working with both. As I said, they were equally passionate about their work and how they lived their lives. Yet, I can’t help but wonder which side you would fall on? Do you support the “Self Made Man” who worked hard and made it to the top on his own terms? Or perhaps you identify with the socially conscious artist who felt he had a responsibility to concern himself with the needs of others even though he himself was doing well? What happened at the Walt Disney Studios so many years ago seems especially relevent today. That little incident honestly reminds me who I am. More importantly, it also informs me who you are.

A life lesson learned at the Walt Disney Studios when I was just a kid. Unfortunately, it still applies today.

A life lesson learned at the Walt Disney Studios when I was just a kid. Unfortunately, it still applies today.