Saturday, October 18, 2008

30 Scrappy Years (Shoutout alert!)

Three decades ago this week (I forget the exact day) I arrived in Los Angeles to pursue a career as a big-time Hollywood cartoon animator. My prospects were slimmer than I had ever suspected and my portfolio was weak. But passion and tenacity pushed me onward and it continues to still. What a long strange trip it's been and though I'd like to think it's far from over, moments like this inspire one to reflect a bit.

I don't like to dwell too much on the past, but the amazing thing is that in my brain the time feels like a long one, but in my heart (for lack of a better term), it feels like yesterday that I was cold calling the few studios left in L.A. at the time and pestering Eric Larson for advice (I had made contact with him when he visited my alma mater, The Art Institute of Pittsburgh earlier in the year). Day One I called Bob Clampett's studio, one of the few listed in the metro yellow pages, even though I was pretty sure he hadn't produced a cartoon in nearly twenty years at that point. To my startled shock, Bob Clampett himself answered the phone, only to tell me he wasn't hiring but when he got back from a three week trip to the far east, he would be happy to meet me. Alas, I never followed through. I just needed a job. Mr. Clampett passed away a few years later, but not before inspiring a great number of young artists with his generous time and insights. 

I did follow through with Michael Lah, who was running a going commercial house at the time, Quartet Studios. Again, he couldn't offer a rookie like me any work but he spent a generous afternoon reflecting on his years at MGM and early HB. Eric Larson helped me a great deal over many visits to the Disney studio with my latest sketches for him to critique and he eventually got my foot in the door and mentored me for a brief but indelible period.

Less than a a year into my first stint at Disney, I found myself gainfully unemployed, and was lucky enough to scramble aboard at the newly founded Don Bluth Studio, where I spent nearly five years on such ground breaking projects as THE SECRET OF NIMH, DRAGONS LAIR (1 & 2) and SPACE ACE. I have always said that the Renascence of animation that took place in the late 1980's owes a great deal to three people: Richard Williams, Ralph Bakshi, and Don Bluth. Outside of Disney, these three artists trained a vast number of the animators of my generation and kept the flame alive during the darkest decade the craft has known: the 1970's. It is no coincidence that three of the biggest cornerstone projects of the great animation revival were done at their studios: AN AMERICAN TAIL (Bluth), THE NEW MIGHTY MOUSE (Bakshi) and ROGER RABBIT (Williams).

The mid-eighties found me drifting around a bit; I began freelancing in earnest while I held day jobs, mostly at Filmation, first as an assistant on the last HE MAN shows and then as an animator on Filmation's doomed, ill-concieved "sequels" to Disney features: PINOCCHIO & THE EMPEROR OF THE NIGHT and SNOW WHITE AND THE 7 DWARFELLES. Neither got wide theatrical distribution (or even home video) but I did meet and work with a great number of talented and fun people there, many who wound up at Disney later when I worked there again. A short list includes my great friend Larry White, Mike Show, George Sukara, Bruce Smith, Nancy Kneip (who later became my key assistant on several Disney features), Christy Lyons, and Phil Cummings, now an Annie-award winning Cartoon Network director.

Mainly on the weight of a generous personal endorsement by Glen Keane, (thanks Glen!) my portfolio was accepted back at Disney on OLIVER & COMPANY in 1987. The breathtaking 9 years of employment there that followed included some of the most well received features of their day and I remain immensely proud to have been involved. Since then I have worked mostly at either Disney, Dreamworks and now Imagi. A short list of people to thank for these opportunities includes Jeffrey Katzenberg, Don Hahn, Kirk Wise & Gary Trousdale, John Musker & Ron Clemments, Peter Schneider, Tom Schumacher,  Roy Disney, Ann Daly, Bill Damashke and Cecil Kramer. The incredible talent pool that I have been lucky enough to work during all this time with includes Eric & Susan Goldberg, Chuck Jones, Darrell Van Citters, Andreas Deja, Howard Ashman, Stephen Schwartz, Alan Menkin, Mark Henn, Linda Miller, Glen Keane, Shawn Keller, Leroy Cross, Cliff Nordberg, Chris Buck, Michael Giamo, Mike Gabriel, Dave Spafford, Hendel Butoy, Brenda Chapman, Burny & Sylvia Mattinson, Vance Gerry, Floyd Norman, Joe Ranft, Kelly Asbury, Joe Grant, Vicky Jensen, Lorna Cook, Dale Baer, Kevin Lima, Roger Allers, Art Vitello, John Pomeroy, Dan Jeup, Nik Raineri, Dave Pruiksma, George Scribner, Kathleen Gavin, Tony & Tom Bancroft, John Sanford, David Silverman, Conrad Vernon, Tom McGrath, Bibo Bergeron, Patick Mate, Kathy Zeilinski & Kevin Kuchaver, Rob Minkoff, Rodolphe Guenoden, James Baxter, Ken Duncan, Sandro Cleuzo, Marlon West, Rowland B. Wilson, Shirley Pierce,  H. Lee Peterson, Dan Molina, Sue & Terry Shaekspear, Dave Molina, Mark Hester, John Carnaghan, Vicky Hyatt, Claudio Acciari, Tim Johnson, Bonnie Arnold, Tom Owens, Thom Enriquez, Bill Riling, Sean Bishop, Jordan Reichek, Bob Logan, Liz Ito, Dave Feiss, John Kricfalusi and an extended list too long to catalog here. Some of my closest and best friendships have forged in these ranks as well, including Scott Santoro, Rick Farmiloe, Chris Wahl, Chirs Bailey, Rej Bourdages, and the aforementioned Larry White to name a few--all close colleagues, great friends, and men of many talents. I have learned something new every day from the hundreds of brilliant and gifted people I have met over the years.

The animated world I stepped into way back in 1978 is a very different one today and no doubt will continue to change and evolve. The advent of the internet with its daily dose of surprises and goodies has been a boon to the artform and to us personally as now I have an even longer list of colleagues I have met through this medium. When I graduated from art school, many of my instructors discouraged me from pursuing animation. Although it was a rough start and continues to be something of a "rollercoaster" (in the astute words of my Imagi colleague Liz Ito), I am still happy to be here. These days the next 30 minutes could be as packed as the last 30 years!


Mike Gillett said...

Will... thank you for the guided tour down your Memory Lane. We go back over those thirty years... and I well remember you having more stones than I, to not just pursue your dreams but chase them down and capture them till they gave up and gave in. Had you less chutzpah you would have played it safe... and moved back to the old hometown and done paste-up for a Mom-and-Pop print shop or something.

As I recall you bummed a ride to the West Coast... with little more than your sketchbook, portfolio and the aforementioned stones. You were, are, and always will be my hero.

And I will hold the title of the founding member of the "Will Fan Finn Club"... You've made me proud, pally.

Will Finn said...

Thanks Mike, you remain a great friend and a favorite cartoonist of mine despite the time and distance that have gone by. Also, you nailed it on bumming a ride too, I recall that Barb Gaddis, our AIP alumnus was heading to L.A. where her brother was already living. She offered to take me along and she was very nice to do so. I couldn't even drive back then, but she was nice enough to cart me along on the basis of sharing expenses over the five day trek. I was so broke and hopeless that I suspect she paid more than her share. My housing situation for the first half year was just as rife with adventures. I am always grateful for the folks who gave me a hand (and a couch to crash on) starting out. i sure needed it!

It took a solid year for things to stabilize, (sort of) but that year flew by and they've been flying since.

Larry Levine said...

Hi Will, Fascinating post--thanks for sharing memories of your humble beginnings & it's road to a brilliant 30 year (thus far) career.

Weirdo said...

Wowzers, pretty heavy stuff for one lifetime. I am so amazed by your story. Hopefully, I'll be able to have the kind of chutzpah and tenacity you had back then. You are truly a great inspiration to me.

Secondly, you actually got TO MEET MIKE LAH! That is so cool. Did he say anything about working for Tex Avery? I want details.

Lastly, awesome drawings. You are a truly phenomenal cartoonist.

Daryl T said...

Thankyou Mr. finn for a fascinating trip down memory lane. For all us students it's nice to know that you had just as hard time starting out as we do know.

Uncle Phil said...


Congratulations on your last 30 years of working in animation. Your story is great, but what's even better is that you are more than willing to share that story. I've only had 3 years here in LA and it's had it's ups and downs. So I'd imagine that 10x those ups and downs would be one helluva ride. But seriously, I look forward to it. And thank you for "paying forward" some of the advice and time that was given to you as you started your career, onto myself and the other young cartoonists and animators that read your blog. I look forward to writing your name in post like this in 27 years..... if Blogger ever lets me upload a new post :)

Mike Gillett said... I recall (hopefully correctly) that you also had the stones to take a Greyhound Bus from Upstate New York to Pittsburgh to attend the Art Institute. The dorms were full at Duquesne so they made you board at the YMCA for a week or so, right?

Imagine any of us "adults" going off to college in such a manner or going off to make a name and fame in Hollywood like you did. We would have talked ourselves out of such uncomfortable fantasy. I am soooo glad you didn't.

I would urge you once again, to post some old stuff on your blog so these young pups can see and be in awe.

pud said...


You have been a part of my learning curve regarding this art and how to look at things.
You have in the past taken a chance with me, and I am always thankful for that.

It's funny in this business, how sometimes just a small gesture or comment can at times effect someone and their career and you have no idea of how positive it can be.


John S. said...

Man, what a ride!!! Thank you for an incredibly entertaining re-cap of your career. I am happy to have played a small part in it. I truly hope we'll work together again in the next 30!

pspector said...

With the way you can draw, you would have been a success in any era. No doubt.

tiny dean said...

It's always nice to hear a seasoned pro recount one's career.

I am certain that Filmation's sequels to Pinocchio and Snow White were available on home video, although I can't say how widely they were distributed. I have the Snow White one on VHS, although it is entitled "Happily Ever After."

chrisallison said...

Hey Will,

I attended a talk with Don Hahn and James Baxter the other night and he showed us some work from Vance Gerry. The artwork shown looked old and was beautiful watercolor sketches that were hilarious. I was wondering if you knew if Mr. Gerry was still alive. By his aesthetic, I'm assuming he's old school, but who knows. Just curious. His sense of humor is really appealing to me and I'd love to pick his brain.

From somebody that is just starting their career, this post is an interesting and inspiring read. Gotta take advantage of the opportunities before they're gone (Clampett), show yourself around to lots of artists you respect, and followup/work like the dickens.

David Nethery said...

"the amazing thing is that in my brain the time feels like a long one, but in my heart (for lack of a better term), it feels like yesterday "

Isn't that the oddest sensation ? I know exactly what you mean. I haven't been at this quite as long as you have (my first real , paying job in the biz was in 1984 ) but a lot of that time feels like it was only yesterday.

Those days at Filmation on the Pinocchio and Snow White sequels are something that I look back on fondly , not so much for the films we worked on, but because of meeting and working with people like you and Larry White and the others you mentioned. That was a great crew and in retrospect it was fortunate for us that Filmation was there to keep us gainfully employed for a couple of years before Disney started hiring in a big way .

Will Finn said...


Sadly, Vance Gerry died about four years ago and he is greatly missed. I did get to hang around and yak with Vance quite a bit, he was a great artist, and one of the most self-deprecating people I think I ever met. It was literally impossible to pay him a compliment, he would scoff anything of the kind off. He was also a fountain of funny stories and he had a great collection of books he allowed me to borrow and xerox.

Dave, it was a fun crew at Filmation, despite the sheer awfulness of the projects. One cohort, who may not want to be named liked to refer to the studio as "Crimes Against Paper Inc." I still have a lot of drawings, gags and even a some rough scenes from those days. Thanks for adding to the comments here.

Wes Riojas said...

Hi Will. I'm an animation student and hopeful. I appreciate your honest story. I think the desire to animate is something your born with. Why else would animators fight through such a roller coaster industry if it were not in the blood?

I appreciate your work. Also, my 2 year old daughter just discovered Home on the Range. She watches it religiously. Needless to say, she gets angry when I step-frame the movie.

Floyd Norman said...

Hey, Will. Thanks for the memories.

Sounds like an incredible ride. Thanks for allowing me to share some of those wonderful times with you.

Will Finn said...

hey Floyd, --it's an honor, sir i must say! hope to catch up with you some Friday soon!

Pedro Daniel said...

Great History and congratulations for you 30th anniversary :D

James said...

This is a great insperation I have only just started my life in animation and already feel discouraged but this has given me streath to keep going onward to my dreams
Thanks Will

Yours James