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!