Jul 272018
 

I recently found old faded samples of some of the first drawings I ever had “published”; some fan art submitted to BANTHA TRACKS, the 1970s/80s STAR WARS fan club newsletter.

Soon after my 13 year old mind was thoroughly blown by STAR WARS in 1977, I saw an ad in a magazine (probably a 1978 issue of STARLOG) soliciting members for the STAR WARS FANCLUB, and I eagerly sent in my application. A few weeks later, I received my first issues of the fanclub newsletter that kept mouth breathers around the planet updated on our movie obsession; the ongoing Star Wars saga. OH BOY! 

Over the next few years I sent several cartoons to the newsletter, which was a simple pamphlet folded from one broadsheet of paper, and my cartoons were even published, which was quite a thrill for a dorky 14-16 year old living in a small town on the far side of the world.

Recently finding a few faded issues of this old fanzine was a major nostalgia blast from a time when such fan newsletters and zines were how we sweaty fan nerds stayed in touch with each other, and got information on our various obsessions. A network since replaced by THE INTERNET.

Sep 302017
 

Although I’ve worked in animation since 1982 and loved the medium my whole life, there was only one time that I made an animated project on my own (apart from flip-books). At the age of 15/16, my obsessions were WARNER Bros CARTOONS, STAR WARS and MAD Magazine, influences clearly seen in the crudely made parody finished over a year later. In 2014 I found the spool of super-8 film containing all 6.5 minutes of ‘SPACE FLiK‘, and transferred it to digital media. Watching it again for the first time in over 30 years brought back so many memories…

Initially, I’d intended to fully animate the whole thing, but quickly realised that would not be possible. Apart from the time that it would take, I couldn’t find (nor afford) animation cels. I made a few myself (out of shirt box lids and the like) but only enough for one scene. Even animating on paper presented its own problems (the pencil-mileage of redrawing backgrounds, or not having any backgrounds at all). After fiddling around, a hybrid technique developed; some scenes animated and shot on paper, some scenes done with cut-out animation (inspired by Terry Gilliam‘s book on the subject) and some animated scenes on paper, with individual poses cut out and temporarily glued to my few reuseable cells (or manipulated under camera on a homemade multiplane). It was not the ‘Illusion of Life‘, by any means, and barely even the illusion of the Illusion Of Life. It was NAFFimationâ„¢.

The drawing was fiddly but was something I loved to do, whereas the filming took me into unchartered waters of complexity and frustration. The only camera I’d ever owned was an Instamatic, and I knew nothing at all about exposure & focus, and had to learn by trial and error (heavy emphasis on the error) with a borrowed super-8 camera. In those pre-digital days, we were never sure what we’d shot on film till it came back from the processing lab, when I’d discover badly exposed sequences, weeks after shooting them. My town had no lab for super-8, so the film had to be sent away to be processed, and this iterative cycle of – shoot, wait, watch, scream, reshoot, wait, watch, scream, etc – took a lot of time. Time which ran out long before I was done. The borrowed camera had to be given back to the institution that owned it, and I had to simply remove failed scenes from the final print and submit it to my HSC art course.

Finally, after more than a year of drawing, and a few months of tinkering with borrowed camera and editing equipment, the premiere screening of all 6.5 minutes of ‘SPACE FLiK‘ was in the ‘good room‘ of the Baker family home in 1981 (on a borrowed super-8 projector) for an enthusiastic group of family and friends. The second screening was for examiners of my HSC. Hilariously, the third screening was at the Sydney Opera House in early 1982, at the National Youth Film Festival, where none other than Peter Weir was keynote speaker. My high school art teacher Ross Cochrane had heard about about this contest, and suggested I enter my film. I did, and it was accepted. By the time of the event, I already knew that I’d not won anything but was thrilled to attend and see all entries, including my own, screened in that famous building. I was very impressed with the quality of the other films shown, and some of the award winning young filmmakers went on to become prominent within the Australian film industry.

We contestants all received detailed critiques of our films written by the festival judges, who were film critics, film makers, or film lecturers at various universities. In my memory, the feedback was savage and I regret to say that I threw it away, but the truth is that all these critiques were absolutely right and I’d enjoy reading them now. At 17, I’d already understood the technical mistakes I’d made (bad timing, shoddy focus & exposure, etc) but the tragedy of expending a Herculean effort on a flimsy parody, rather than something original of my own, was only starting to dawn on me. Sadly, I became ashamed of this silly film. Although I’d intended to show SPACE FLiK to the animation studio in Sydney (Hanna-Barbera) where I’d hoped to work (and eventually did) my film was never screened again after the Opera House Ego-Massacre (besides, pro studios didn’t have super-8 projectors, and I didn’t either, so it wasn’t easy to show even if I’d wanted to).

However, all these many years later, it was wonderful to see this fun reminder of the eager young dork I was back then; a wide-eyed fan in a pre-internet small town with no resources and even less of a clue, but with enough raw enthusiasm to make a film anyway. When I discovered that the box containing the film spool also included all the original 1981 artwork, I began a fun project to restore mis-shot & deleted scenes, and add the simple soundtrack that I’d planned long ago, but didn’t then have the resources to do. A 53 year old professional learning Premiere-Pro simply to fiddle with his own teenage amateur work is self indulgent perhaps, but as the original project was a Star Wars parody, a Lucas-style revised “Special Edition” should also be fair game for the lampoon;

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been waiting 35 years, till the ‘technology was available‘ to complete my ‘original vision’. Without any further ado, please enjoy ‘SPACE FLiK: The Corrector’s cut‘.

Dec 052014
 

Recently, I found a small cardboard box that contains all the artwork, and the super-8 film spool of a movie I made when I was 15-17, for my final high school HSC art exam. This celluloid masterpiece was called SPACE FLiK, and was a parody of Star Wars in the style of Mad magazine (two things I was obsessed with at that age). The same box even contained a journal of my process making this opus, that I submitted to examiners along with the film. It took well over a year of spare-time drawing and very fiddly filming to complete this 7 minute silent epic, and was definitely a case where the end result does not show the amount of time and effort that went into making it.

SpaceFlik_box

As a small child, I’d often dreamed of doing animation for a living, but didn’t think it was even an option. The cartoons on television all had American accents, so I assumed that animation wasn’t produced in Australia. In 1979, I had the choice of leaving high school at the end of that year, as I’d completed the compulsory education requirement, but my parents were both firm believers in the power of education, having been shaped strongly by it themselves, and were insistent on my continuing the final 2 years of high school to keep my options open for further study. I briefly considered studying at film school, but the Australian Film and Television School prospectus convinced me that I was not worthy. The pamphlet I recieved in the mail contained the bios of the previous year’s enrolment of 20 students, the cream of 2,000 applicants, each one of them a prodigy; making award winning super-8 movies at the age of 9, that sort of thing. I needed a new plan.

SpaceFlik_lineup

These days you can easily search for specific things on the internet, and even if you don’t know exactly what you are looking for you can make headway by tinkering with a search-engine for a few hours. As a teen, I only had the local library and the phone book, which were only useful if I knew exactly what I was looking for, but I didn’t. Then, during school holidays between 1979 and 1980, Dad read out a newspaper advertisement; “Sydney animator will hold an animation workshop over the summer break.” Wha!? I enrolled and met a future co-worker. While we farted around with pencils and paper, he explained that although the voices on TV cartoons were American, many episodes were actually animated in Sydney, at the Hanna-Barbera studio. Better yet, I didn’t have to attend a special school to work there, and could be trained on the job. My jaw hit the floor. Suddenly, a dream job now seemed a possibility, and I had a mission: find out more about this studio and get a job there. I wrote a letter to Hanna-Barbera including my drawing samples, and put it in the mailbox. Even after a few repeat queries, I didn’t get a response, so I got on with life.

In 1980, the year I turned 16, I begun planning the practical art requirement for my final year high school art exam, which was to be at the end of 1981. Because I’d taken 2-unit Art (a ‘double major’ in American terms) I had to do two of these art pieces, and decided to make a short animated film and a series of book illustrations. The illustrations were for the RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER, a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge that we studied in English class, and I did 7 moody pencil illustrations on pastel paper. Thus feeling that I had the highbrow art angle sufficiently staked out, I went lowbrow for my next effort; SPACE FLiK, a super-8 animated movie that used a combo-technique of animation on cells, animation on punched paper and cutout animation, that took NAFF to a whole new level..

SpaceFlik_storyboard

Although I’d often animated flip books, I’d never even attempted to animate on film before. I loved animation, but actually doing some myself seemed about as likely as a ride in a Lamborghini. 1980 was a different time. These days we all carry a tiny movie camera in our pockets, but back then I didn’t know anybody who had a proper movie camera, and even still cameras were relatively uncommon. Our school did own a massive 1970s video camera, and a few of us students tried to do some stop-motion, but the clunky thing had no single-frame shooting capability. If you could squeeze the trigger gently enough, you’d shoot half-second bursts, and make a silly video of your mates seeming to fly around the running track in jerky pixelation, but nothing with finesse. This changed when a good mate of my Dad’s who taught at the nearby Teacher’s College, John Harris, finagled me the extended loan of a proper film camera via his department. Meaning that frame-by-frame animation was something I could finally try.

SpaceFlik_LOGOMy spare time in 1980 was spent planning storyboarding and animating, drawing on bond paper scrounged from school or Dad’s work, and punched with a standard two-hole punch. By the end of that year, I was ready to start filming, and for a boost of inspiration, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK came to my hometown cinema at around the same time. I knew that ‘proper’ animation was done on clear plastic cels, but had a hard time finding raw material to make cels with, and used whatever was available. I butchered several shirt boxes for their clear plastic but never had many, and didn’t have the means to xerox my drawings onto the cels anyway, so the animation done on paper was then cut out with scissors, and painstakingly glued onto these naff cels.

After each shot was in the can, the drawings were peeled off the cels and I’d do another scene. Sometimes, I’d just eyeball it and move the sequential cut outs under camera, using one cel with positioning guides drawn on it. I was utterly clueless about photography at this stage in my life, but thankfully David Rose, a photographer from the Teacher’s College, impressed upon me the need to take great care with the technical aspects. He painted a vivid mental picture of me filming for months, only to develop the roll of film and discover that I’d either under or over exposed it. Needless to say that scenario was my nightmare, and was only averted by David showing me tricks to ensure that the exposure in the camera was set correctly (involving holding a grey neutral card under the camera when taking a light reading).

SpaceFlik_inviteSPACE FLiK was shot in a study room at school where I could leave the camera setup undisturbed. Because this was the only camera that I had access to, and was in use by others during term times, I did most of the shooting during weekends and holidays. While my family went on holiday that summer, the end of 1980 into early 1981, I stayed home to shoot my movie, and ‘shooting’ was the theme of the shoot; the radio played the news of John Lennon’s killing while I was filming, then the Pope was shot a few months later and Ronald Reagan a few months after that, around the time I started editing (it was a brutal shoot in more ways than one). Although I’d worked on the film for ever so long, it took so much time to simply animate, shoot, and edit it that there wasn’t time for many reshoots, and the final film is pretty much my first pass.

In that same box of recently-found SPACE FLiK materials, was an invitation I drew for the FILM PREMIERE party, where family, friends, various supporters, and Ross Cochrane, my art teacher, all assembled in August 1981 to finally watch SPACE FLiK. It debuted at a screening in the poshest room of our house, where I’d set up a movie projector and screen (likewise provided by John Harris and David Rose). As we nibbled Mum’s snacks and watched my movie, my supporters were a very appreciative and encouraging audience, but I could see all my mistakes; the timing was off, sometimes too rushed and sometimes too slow. Nearly 2 years after I’d cooked up the idea, it seemed perhaps a little too silly, even to me; I was 15 in early 1980 when I hatched the plan, and 17 when it was finally done in late 1981. The ratio of work done to screen-time was heartbreaking, but it was great to have it finally done at last. Not long after, it was sent off to be judged by the HSC examiners, along with my artsy book illustrations. In the end, I made quite a cock-up of the written part of the HSC art exam (answering BOTH questions in an either/or essay option and neglecting to answer another compulsory question completely) and my final art mark was a disappointment to everyone, not the least being me.

SpaceFlik_baddie

After submitting it to my high school art exam, I entered SPACE FLiK in a young filmmaker’s contest, perhaps with visions of being thought of in the same glowing terms as the filmmakers in the Australian Film and Television School prospectus that I’d read earlier. The gala screening was a fancy shindig at the Sydney Opera House, and though I knew in advance I’d not won any prizes, it was a thrill to attend and hear the keynote speaker Peter Weir, who addressed we young hopefuls. I eagerly looked forward to reading the judges’ thoughts about my film, which all contest applicants received. The thrill diminished substantially upon reading the multi-page assessment of SPACE FLiK, where each of the judges utterly savaged it in one withering page after another. Though it gutted me to read this tome of scorn at age 17, I’d gleefully share some quotes with you now if I could, but I must have tossed the document away in a fit of teen peevishness. But the judges were right; as a personal film, SPACE FLiK was derivative and hopelessly crudely made.

This project from my long-ago adolescence is my closest equivalent to the films my colleagues all made at CalArts or Sheridan, and the only personal animation project I’ve ever done. Finding these mementos of my NAFFimation™ has brought back a flood of memories and quite a few chuckles, and I’m now looking into a way of transferring it from super-8 to digital media so I can watch it again. Perhaps due to its critical savaging, and my own growing awareness of its limitations, I never showed  it to anyone to get a job in animation, although that had been on my mind when I made it. I eventually got my first job at Hanna-Barbera on the strength of my drawn portfolio alone. But making this silly little high school film was invaluable experience nonetheless.

SpaceFlik_TIE

Learning the punishing ratio between workload and screen-time in a cartoon was a useful early lesson for someone who’d soon go on to work in professional animation, because the same principal exists there too. Over the next 30 years in the industry, I’d learn another startling truth; crews work every bit as hard on the films that you hate as they do on those films you love. Family and friends will always be impressed by the filmmakers’ efforts, but everyone else only cares about what’s on screen. It’s a heartbreaking fact that sometimes the hard work simply isn’t captured in the film, for utterly mysterious reasons, unrelated to the talent, brains, passion and work ethic of the filmmakers.

UPDATE: I’ve finally finished the SPACE FLiK restoration. The “Corrector’s Cut” can be seen HERE.

Mar 172014
 

I have recently been wrestling with re-learning how to draw. The loss of my former ability has led me to reflect on what drawing has meant to me in my 30 year career as a cartoonist, and how and why I came to be so interested in drawing in the first place.

on_drawing_1

Back when I was very little, when my active interest in drawing began, there was no ’creative’ person in my family, apart from my Mother who played piano, and certainly nobody that drew. However, my Father enjoyed cartoons, whether in magazines or animated films, and I remember being endlessly fascinated at a very young age by the idle doodles on his desk blotter; silly faces and the like. His younger brothers, my uncles, could be relied upon as a source of cartoon books, comics, Mad magazine, and so forth, and in general, I grew up in an environment appreciative of cartoons. As I got older, I certainly never had to fight anyone to pursue drawing as a career. While many of my colleagues had to battle their families, I’m lucky that my own encouraged my interests.

Drawing became a big part of my life since as far back as 7 or 8 years old. I drew before then, of course, as all children do. I had drawing battles with many of my classmates in 1st and 2nd class, and at that age everyone drew, at least to some degree. But the beginning of my serious interest in drawing dates from the time when most kids were turning away from it, around the age of 8. Children become self conscious at that age and reject anything identified as childish. I too remember self-importantly announcing to my mother that I was too old to lick the excess cake batter from her cooking bowl, much to the great delight of my Father, who licked it clean with great relish (though it is unclear which gave him more glee; the tasty morsel or the crestfallen expression of an 8 year old realising he’d given away the crown jewels?)

I became more intrigued by drawing rather than less, and maybe the solo-escapism of drawing became part of its appeal. When I had turned 7, my family moved to a new town, and I felt disconnected, and again when we moved abroad 3 years later. If this had not happened, would I have clung so determinedly to drawing? This interesting thought was first pointed out to me by my childhood friend Peter Lawlor when we were both adults. As a child, I deeply regretted the family move, but if Peter is right, I may have gotten something wonderful, in addition to his friendship, in return for the brief period of childhood alienation.

After the age of 8, when most classmates lost interest in drawing, the one exception was a boy called Warwick Cook. While I staked out the lowbrow, cartoon end of the drawing spectrum, Warwick was a fully fledged watercolour painter, doing beautiful landscapes of the rugged bush around our town. In my memory, these were very sophisticated paintings for a boy of 9 or 10 and I admired Warwick’s ability a great deal. He really was a remarkable boy; good at sports, a good student and one of those likeable people who can mingle easily with everyone, perhaps because of his easy facility with many different facets of life. Rather than grabbing obsessively onto drawing with both hands as I did, (sometimes to the detriment of other things) it was merely one of many things that he enjoyed.

on_drawing_2

Warwick made a great impression on me, but I only have memories of him from 2nd-4th class, because I went abroad in 5th class and he’d moved to a new town later on, when I returned. From mutual friends, I’d hear of Warwick’s exploits during high school, and expected great things from him. Sure enough, many years later, when I began working in animation, Warwick went to study painting at art school in London, and he seemed well on his way. Tragically, he was struck by a tube train in a ghastly accident, when he slipped from a wet and crowded underground railway platform one rainy New Years Eve. I had not seen him for 10 years by then, but keenly felt his loss just the same. Warwick will always stay with me as one of my early inspirations at the dawn of my interest in drawing.

It’s hard to overstate the effect that adult attention can have on a kid, especially when not from family members. When I was 8 years old my parents held a party at our house, and I was introduced to Anne Gunner, a student of Dad’s who herself was an educator; an art teacher. On hearing that I liked to draw, she asked to see my drawings and made an ego-gratifying song-and-dance about whatever crude scribblings I showed her (perhaps even some of those here). I remember that she immediately talked to me as one artist to another. Was this a semi-theatrical show for the benefit of amused adults nearby? Possibly, but the important thing is that her unsolicited attention was like water sprinkled on a flower, and I responded to it. She told me that as an aspiring artist I must absolutely make a portfolio. I had no idea what this was, but earnestly understood it to be of paramount importance.

1972_portfolio

So, hilariously, at the age of 8, I gathered together all my drawings and compiled a crude ‘portfolio’, using left-over wallpaper from the renovation of the ’good room’ of our house for the cover. Not clear on what the purpose of such a thing must be, in practice it became a sort of scrapbook; half my own drawings and half whatever interested me at the time, and I carried that thing everywhere. Many of my childhood drawings, including those here, survive to this day mainly because I kept them in that binder, although it was a close thing; a few years later, when my drawings began to markedly improve, I almost threw out these early scribblings in a fit of tween self-consciousness, but I am so glad now that I did not.

A few weeks after meeting Anne Gunner, there was a surprise parcel for me at the front door, even though it wasn’t my birthday or Christmas. She’d sent a huge box of art supplies; crayons, brushes, poster paints, plasticine, and other goodies that lasted me for years, as well as some Walter T. Foster art-instruction books that I still have to this day. I have no idea where Anne Gunner is now, though I’ve tried searching for her on the web several times, but if I ever did get her contact info, I would like to thank her for taking an interest in a 8-year-old boy and following up with a thoughtful gift that changed his life in a very real way.

Drawing; thinking about it, and consciously trying to get ’better’ by understanding how other people did it, became my focus. I’d always loved animation and attempts to draw famous cartoon characters were there right from the very beginning. Though these scribbles are of Disney characters, the cartoons that played most often on TV were by Warner Bros. and they made me laugh hardest and got most of my attention. It wasn’t only that cartoons were funny, but that mere drawings could move and seem alive was magic to me at that age (and hand-drawn animation has that effect on me even now). I wanted to be able to do that too. There’s something about plucking an idea out of my own mind, shaping it, and making it graphically ’real’ on a piece of paper so that it appears to have a life of its own, that endlessly fascinated me, both then and now, and it’s equally intriguing if someone else does it.

The ability for human beings to do marvelous things in sports, the arts or the sciences; the various ways in which the human mind and body dance together, exerts a fascination over all of us, each to their own preference. But the ability to draw, to capture a personal slice of the world, or a quirky phantasm of the mind, is the particular area of human achievement that intrigues me. Over time, drawing became not only a fascination, but also my chosen means of expression. Where someone else may strum a guitar, kick a ball, or dance to vent their pent up emotions, drawing became my go-to means of expressing the inexpressible.

Why were the drawings in magazines and TV cartoons were so good; ’How come I can’t draw like that?’ Seeing this crude page of bird drawings (an attempt to draw the Warner Brothers’ Chicken Hawk so obsessed with Foghorn Leghorn) brings back a memory of a frustrating day trying to draw beaks; ’How do they make the beaks look so good in cartoons?’ I’m not sure why the inability to do something ’well’ led to the abandonment of certain pursuits (mathematics, sport, getting the girls to like me) whereas, my inability to draw was an obstacle to overcome. I lost interest in many things that I was not good at (that list was long indeed) but drawing held my attention despite the frustration of constant failure. I drew no better than the next child, but stayed with it. Why is that? I have thought about it often, but ultimately, I do not know whether it was circumstantial that I would fall in love with drawing, or inevitable, but love it I do.

People who don’t draw sometimes ask me ’When did you start drawing?’ I answer ’When did you stop?’ because every child draws and I just never stopped. I believe that the amount of time a child spends drawing, and more importantly enjoying drawing, is the key to artistic ability, rather than innate talent, which is a factor too, but not as often as you’d expect. Whether a child enjoys drawing enough to stay with it is not tied to their ability, in the beginning anyway. Looking at drawings by a group of 4 and 5 year olds, it is hard to predict which of the kids will become artists in future, and which will become accountants. At around age 8 or 9, the difference in artistic ability becomes more obvious, but by then, many children have already abandoned drawing. Those who enjoy it, despite the frustration, will keep drawing, and the extra time spent scribbling makes a difference that you can see.

For me, drawing was an interest, an escape, and it even played a part in healing me at times. Being alone, drawing in my room, or figuring out how others did the drawings that amused me in magazines and books, is a constant memory of my childhood. I have a vivid memory of a magazine article about the animation director Chuck Jones I read at around the age of 9. I’d already noticed that his name on the cartoon credits meant something hilarious was about to happen, so this article didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, but it was full of pictures from the cartoons themselves, and this was more precious to me than gold. In an age when every home was not connected to the internet or a digital printer, we didn’t have access to images whenever we wanted, so an article about cartoons complete with pictures I could cut out and keep was a treasure. Reverently, I glued them into my ’portfolio’.

on_drawing_3

Children are very concerned with ’growing up’ and so abandoning drawing can be a self conscious attempt to leave ’childish’ things behind. When we learn to read, we move from picture books, then to picture books with some words, then to story books with spot illustrations, and finally to books that are all text with no pictures at all. Thus, we are culturally conditioned to associate pictures with immaturity. Even my career as a cartoonist is rooted firmly in children’s media; animation is occasionally done for adults, but not very often, so if you want to draw as I do for a living you must make your peace with your role as babysitter.  Even though you could make the case that running around chasing a ball is childish too, the fact that adults stay focused on sports means that children stay with it too, but we have ingrained in us that pictures are for kids.

The fact that our education system doesn’t place much importance on visual skills beyond kindergarten is another reason that many children give up drawing. At a similar age, we are being awarded prizes for academic and athletic achievement, so improvement in those areas (and overcoming the frustrations of your limitations) is rewarded. In my experience that was not the case with drawing, where the rewards were all purely personal.

On the other hand, drawing skill not being rewarded, or even acknowledged by ’the system’ was a large part of its appeal to me as a child. Making pictures was the only thing that gave me pleasure that wasn’t contingent on the opinions of team members, class mates, parents or teachers. After about the age of 10, none of my other classmates drew, so it wasn’t a question of competing or being compared to anyone else. Drawing was something that I could do on my own, free from any judgements or comparisons with others.

In adulthood, when I discovered the camaraderie of the art community on the internet, I wished there’d been such a fantastic resource when I was a child. In a small country town, to have had access to a community of like-minded people around the globe would have been marvelous, it seemed to me. But I’ve come to realize that being left to my own devices was probably just what my frail ego needed. By the time I was about 13, my younger brother Rob too took an interest in drawing. It shames me now to remember that at the time, I found this a source of insecurity rather than joy, as I do now. At that age, I’d finally found a persona and identified myself as ’the kid who drew’ and feared sharing the title, as ridiculous as that now sounds. Thankfully, my shrill note of insecurity passed, Rob continued to draw, and in fact he later went to art school. I’m happy to say that he paints to this day, and we often swap notes about the creative process.

At times, it seemed a disadvantage that my interest in drawing grew in isolation, because I had no one to speak with about my interests. Yet, it was really an amazing advantage, because I had many years to develop my own voice, free of comparisons with others. Eventually, my lifelong interest in drawing led me to do it for a living rather than solely to amuse myself, as I did as a child. By the time I was compared to others, and as a pro-cartoonist it is a fact of life, I’d already built a solid relationship with drawing. Even though I was constantly challenged, and worked daily in the presence of masters whose abilities far overshadow my own, it didn’t change the fact that I love drawing. But if I’d been subjected to the ego acid-bath of this process earlier, my frail adolescent ego may not have survived the competition, and I might have tossed drawing aside, as I did so many other worthy pursuits.

As a pro-cartoonist I was surrounded by other people who drew, and drew astonishingly well. Like it or not, I had to accept that I was no longer ‘special’. But in exchange for this reality-check, I became part of a creative collaboration, which is wonderfully rewarding in another way. I grew to take pleasure in the prowess of others, and seeing those phantoms plucked from other people’s minds and then made ‘real’, via their drawings gave me daily delight. Sometimes, it is hard for a pro to summon up that spirit of pure joy that drawing gave as a child, because the drawings are now tied to budgets and schedules, and generally bogged down in other mundane things, yes, even including the judgements of others that I was blissfully spared as a kid. But I think that my best work as a pro came on those days when I could somehow find that childish, playful joy, and pour it into a picture. That spirit sustains me now that I’m learning to draw again these many years later.

childhood_drawings_1972_004

It is difficult for me to imagine my life over the past 30 years without drawing, which ultimately led me out of my home town, took me around around the world, allowed me to see (and sketch!) many foreign lands, and connects me to so many of my friends today. Animation is at times a topsy-turvy business, and I’ve been at it long enough to have seen the great breathing cycle of the industry expand and contract several times already. It can be nerve wracking, but it’s never felt like the wrong choice. I’ve loved living a life led by drawing, and I sincerely hope to get back at it one day; as a south-paw now that my trusty right hand is kaput.

But what about that alternate-universe version of me pointed out by my childhood friend, Peter? An other James Baker whose Dad did not accept a job in another state, and who may not have been briefly thrown on his own inner resources, and might never have discovered the lifelong joys of drawing? Well, what did HE do for a career for the past 30 years, I wonder?

Aug 252010
 

When he isn’t running his own animation Studio, my friend Steve publishes an excellent web magazine for animators called FLIP. Recently, for an up-coming article, he asked his animation friends for some of their childhood drawings. This sent me on a hunt for a pile of old, yellowed paper I knew I had some place…. Here are a few scans from that stash. First, behold this epic battle-spread of German Knights VS English Knights. Gasp!

I’ve always drawn, for as long as I can remember, and these drawings here are certainly not my earliest (my toddler-scribbles are probably in a pile, along with those of all my siblings, collected by my Mother and hopefully still at my Dad’s house). These date from that period when I began to take an active interest in drawing, not simply doing it but also thinking about it; consciously trying to get “better” by understanding how other people did it. In my case, this fascination began in 1972, the year that I turned 8 years old.

The previous year, we had just moved to a new town. I often wonder if the period of alienation that followed inspired the escapism of drawing. But it is quite possible that this interest would have happened anyway. I had always loved animation and you can see some attempts to draw famous cartoon characters were there right from the very beginning. Though these few scribbles shown here are of famous DISNEY characters, the cartoons that played most often on TV were by WARNER BROTHERS and they were the ones that made me laugh the hardest and consequently got most of my attention.

I became even more fascinated by cartoons, beyond the fact that they made me laugh. I tried to figure out why the drawings were so good. “How come I can’t draw like that?” I have never understood why the inability to do something “well” was sometimes off-puting to me; leading to the abandonment of certain pursuits (mathematics, sport) whereas, my inability to draw was an obstacle to overcome and explore. Of course, this choice is unique to each individual. Other people (most, in fact) give up drawing to pursue other things.

Seeing this crude page of BIRD drawings (an attempt to draw the Warner Brothers CHICKEN HAWK so obsessed with Foghorn Leghorn) brings back a vivid memory of a frustrating day trying to draw BEAKS… “How do they make the beaks look so good in cartoons?” I still have a scrapbook of images cut from magazines that I would look at, from this period. Single-panel gag-cartoons, pages from Mad magazine and so on… Hilariously, around this time I also compiled a crude “portfolio” (using some left-over wallpaper from the renovation of our new house for the cover) because someone had told me that artists needed a portfolio. These drawings survive mainly because I had kept them in that binder.

A few years later, when my drawings began to improve, I became ashamed of these early scribblings and almost threw them out in a fit of self-consciousness. But I am glad now that I did not. I will post more from later years when I have scanned them.