A beloved longtime member of the Bay Area animation community, has finally succumbed to pancreatic cancer after battling it bravely for over 3 years. Phil Robinson will be greatly missed by his loving wife Jennifer, and his many friends from around the world, me amongst them.
Phil came to the Bay Area in the early 1980s but I first met him in January 1991 when I’d just arrived from France and started working at Colossal Pictures. My contact on the project I was hired for was out of town when I arrived, so I was put in a big, freezing, empty room with two other artists assigned to the same show. The 3 of us didn’t know each other and toiled away on our respective tasks in anxious silence. I wasn’t even sure exactly what I was supposed to be doing anyway. Then one of the other guys cracked a joke– a wry observation about the ludicrouness of our situation, that made it clear he felt the same as I– we all 3 burst out laughing, the tension and anxiety melted away, and we all became friends on the spot. The cheeky joker was Phil Robinson and the other equally hilarious fellow was Dave Gordon. I wish I could remember exactly what Phil said to make us all laugh so hard, but as is often the case with the really good jokes, I was too busy belly-laughing to remember. What I’m left with is the feeling of that moment; the unmistakable knowledge that I’d made some amazing and irreplaceable friends.
In his 35 years in the Bay Area, Phil worked at studios like Nepenthe, Mill Valley Animation, Colossal Pictures, and ILM, and was a founding partner of Wild Brain and Special Agent. He was stalwart member of the animation community; an older brother figure to some, a mentor to others, a colleague to many, a business partner to a few and a friend to us all. He was one of the two directors on that first project I ever worked on in America (John Hays being the other) and because of that particular crew I fell in love with San Francisco and made it my home after many years of wandering hither and thither, and I’ve been here ever since. Phil Robinson was a huge part of my decision to stay, and was my constant friend and colleague for the past 24 years. The only time in my long career that I ever conceived of a project myself, Phil was the voice of the titular character, which was one of my few mini-triumphs in making it, and I remember that aspect of the otherwise benighted project with great fondness to this very day. I happily worked on several commercials under his inspired direction at Colossal Pictures, before Phil, John Hays and Jeff Fino split off in 1994 to found Wild Brain— that great little Bay Area studio that gave so many people their start in the biz– and I worked there with him many times too.
He was an interesting mixture of things. Phil was endlessly patient and a fantastic mentor to a generation of Bay Area animation artists in the 1990s and 2000s, but there was definitely a ’stroppy’ side to him that you’d see sometimes. Perhaps it was his old punk soul, but he couldn’t ignore pretentiousness, the putting-on of airs, or the brandishing of authority for its own sake. Then you’d see what John Stevenson called the ’strunty little Welsh git’ step out from the skin of the otherwise warm and silly fellow. I remember being in a bar with Phil when we got to bickering about the finer points of something or other— if Phil had an issue between his teeth he wouldn’t let it go, and I have that streak in me too— and our argument (and the beer) flowed till closing time. The bouncer (utterly massive in that style the Samoans do so well) told Phil in menacing bouncer-speak to shut it all down and move on, pronto. Picture a fiercely growling Doberman confronting a tiny Jack Russell Terrier– when a show of terrier steel scares the beJesus out of the Doberman and sends it skeedadling with its tail between its legs– and that would sum up what happened next. Phil and I finished our ‘debate’ at our leisure, and left in our own good time.
Even though I knew that a day might come when Phil could lose his fight with cancer– he was diagnosed way back in late 2011– it still managed to be a savage kick in my stomach when that day came. It was more of a shock than when my other loved ones had been overwhelmed by cancer before, and I wondered why this might be so… I think it’s because I’d felt that if anybody could possibly beat pancreatic cancer it’d be the mighty Phil Robinson, and despite his terrible odds I thought he actually would. Right up until a few weeks ago he looked fine and healthy, had a full head of hair, a bounce in his step, a smile on his face, a twinkle in his eye, and you’d have no idea to look at him that he was in the midst of a tenacious battle with a type of cancer that has one of the lowest survival rates of all. I’d ask him how he was doing, and he’d cheerfully admit that he felt “like crap” but he honestly seemed like he’d battle on forever. He was a tough little bugger with the constitution of an ox, and he put up one hell of a fight, but in the end, the cancer won (although, I like to think Phil gave his cancer a few savage, pub-style head-butts of his own, and made its victory really hurt). What a wonderful soul he was– witty, wry, considerate, silly, generous, talented, patient and strong– and what a great loss to Jennifer, his loved ones, his friends, his Bay Area animation community, and the human race, Phil’s leaving us will be.
Phil Robinson– you utterly splendid human being, you– You’ll always be missed, but never forgotten.