Oct 222017
 

Late 1996, I resigned from Colossal Pictures, the only full time staff position I’d ever had. By then I’d been working in animation for 15 years, but recent job disasters had soured me to the industry, and I was unsure what to do next. After traveling for a few months, I’d decided to focus on the enjoyable aspects of being a cartoonist by creating some projects of my own, and by February 1997 I came back to San Francisco to draw. Although my plan was to save money by working at my kitchen table, Robert Valley suggested that I sublet some space at an animation studio he’d founded in 1995. I did, and it represented a turning point in my creative life.

For several months I didn’t think about paid work, but came up with silly characters and goofy situations for them to be in. I’d recently created some characters for a company and loved the creating part, but the process of getting it made wasn’t a fun experience at all. To rekindle the joy I once felt at being a cartoonist, I resolved to make something primarily for fun. My own thing, not tied to schedules, budgets and the whims of others. I started doodling in the solo medium of comics, and gradually, I began enjoying drawing cartoons again. ROCKET RABBIT, SEPHILINA, and many other personal projects, were all born out of this period of play.

Rocket Rabbit Rocket Rabbit Rocket Rabbit

At around the same time, more freelancers moved in to Robert’s studio; Bosco Ng, and Steward Lee, two more colleagues from our Colossal Pictures days. Maverix slowly became a shared workspace for a loose collective of freelance artists, each working on their own professional or personal projects, while sharing resources and sometimes collaborating on certain jobs, and my American freelance career had begun. More artists joined; Sho Murase, Derek Thompson, Vaughn Ross, and Robert’s brother, John. I’d been on staff continually since arriving in the USA, but once Maverix became my base of operations I could try my hand at a variety of different projects at many different studios, both in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Following various leads (from ex-Colossal Pictures colleagues) I worked for ILM (‘Frankenstein’) Pixar (‘Finding Nemo‘) PDI (‘Tusker‘) and on various commercials and shorts projects at Wild Brain.

The balance between my career, private life, and personal projects had always been hard to manage. When working in a professional studio, I’d get wound up in the cogs of production and think of nothing else but my job, but working at home as a freelancer didn’t give enough structure and I’d waste my downtime. At Maverix Studios however, I had the freedom of a freelancer with the routine and inspiring camaraderie of a studio, allowing me to do my personal projects for the first time. The studio changed its spelling from MaveriCKS  (initially named for the NorCal surf spot) to MAVERIX, to mark the transition from the commercial studio it once was to the collective it had become (besides, that domain name was available). Around 2000 we bought a shared G4 computer (the first time I’d ever used Photoshop) and soon after got a shared website:

Maverix at times became a hive of industry, that expanded from the core membership to include friends helping with various animation projects (commercials and the like) and this meant that it was often a raucous place to work, with loud music, people playing video games, a barking dog running around, and friends of friends dropping by with beers. It could be a difficult place to concentrate in, and ironically I sometimes had to work on my kitchen table at home simply to get away from the noise in my paid workplace, but it was always an energetic and inspiring place to brainstorm, despite those distractions. When we were buzzing with activity, we’d take breaks by playing video games. I remember those competitions fondly, even though I was the loser every time, and the brunt of good-natured smack talking that was a fun feature of these bouts of digital fisticuffs.

During a slow spell at the studio in early 2001, Bosco Ng, Derek Thompson, and I were sitting with nothing to do, and somebody suggested that we should each make a comic for that year’s Comic-Con and actually exhibit. We’d all been attending and submitting portfolios for years, but actually making something to sell had never occurred to us before. We were perhaps inspired by the recent example of a colleague from ILM, Steve Purcell, who had a Comic-Con table the year prior to sell his own artwork. We decided to do something similar ourselves and just make something for a change, instead of getting raked over the coals by snotty art-directors at portfolio reviews. Many times throughout my career, in eager beaver conversation in pubs or coffeeshops, such notions had been mentioned before (“let’s make an animated short!” etc) but this was the first time we followed through, and made the things we said we’d make: three separate comic books.

We knew nothing about printing or exhibiting, but it was remarkably easy to exhibit at Comic-Con in 2001; there was no waiting list, and in February 2001 we booked a table for July that same year, which would be unthinkable now. We’d committed to exhibiting and the ensuing period of making stuff remains one of the most pleasant stretches of several months in my entire career. Each day, the three of us would come in to the studio, jazzed to draw our comics, excited about what we were each doing, and what the other two guys were doing too. My effort was NERVE BOMB (my first Rocket Rabbit book) Derek made BINDU (a collaboration with Brian McDonald) and Bosco made METALUSION. We got them printed just in time. It is quite common for a group of artists to self publish these days, but it wasn’t as common back then, and we got a good reaction simply because of the novelty of a booth containing three artists selling their own stuff. A high point was when Mike Mignola visited our table and bought our books.

I got a rude shock when I finally got my bill from the printer. I’d cut the print deadline very close, and asked the printer to ship a few hundred of my comics expedited direct to San Diego, so they’d make the convention deadline, and ship the remaining 1800 books to San Francisco, at regular rates. They instead sent ALL the boxes to San Diego. The bill for expedited international shipping (from Canada) for 2,000 books was brutal. As that last minute transaction had been all arranged on the phone, I had no paper trail as to who said exactly what & when, so when the printer sicced a collection agency onto me I had to pay up. This was my first lesson that getting things printed was often the sour note in self publishing..

The next few years saw all Maverix members exhibiting their own projects at Comic-Con. There was the annual drama of getting various personal projects drawn and printed in time for the show, shenanigans with printing companies, Kinkos, or ink-jet printers. Hare-brained money-saving schemes to drive to the Con, all Maverix members crammed into a rented van, like the Scooby Doo gang or some lame rock band. Several years of fumbled bookings in shitty San Diego hotels, and assorted shenanigans; Robert accidentally drinking Sho’s contact lenses (twice) or getting stranded in Tijuana without his passport. Oh, such tales could be told (and might be one day.)

Maverix was a chaotic band of loons that nevertheless helped me break the cycle of my own creative lameness. I am not sure why it took me so long to actually make something of my own, except that when younger, I had no idea how to get things printed or made. Researching the means of production wasn’t easy in the 80s and 90s, and it’s only relatively recently that those technologies have been accessible to your average Joe & Jane. Even so, I deeply regret not getting off my arse many years earlier and making something. Anything. I always thought about it, but somehow had the feeling that I needed permission or validation from someone else to move forward. The younger generation of artists today do not make that mistake, and self publish books and make short films right out of school. This is definitely the way to go. When you’re young and before you have a family, you should make stuff of your own as much as you can, as personal projects are the gymnasium where professional artists get to train their creative muscles and stretch themselves.

Maverix became known as a fun place to hang out. The studio was not far from San Francisco’s South of Market club scene, and would often serve as a staging area for night club away teams, and after-parties. There were themed movie nights (“Ape Night” or “Monster Night”) or we’d simply gather to watch the latest anime blockbuster or foreign hit film on Bosco’s groovy projector. Maverix knew how to throw a very fun party on any pretext at all, and members of other bigger studios would all mingle on our common ground.

On the fateful day of September 11, 2001, I was the only person working at Maverix. This was before the era of carrying the internet in your pocket, and I was unaware of the world-changing attacks on The World Trade Center. I walked into work early that morning, and assumed that the police vehicles surrounding City Hall were there for another episode of ’Nash Bridges’, and continued to the studio, where I was working on paper and therefore not connected to the internet. By mid-afternoon, no one else had come to work but I didn’t think much of it, because Maverix was the kind of place where people kept odd hours. Later in the day, I went out to get something to eat at a nearby deli, where the the radio broadcasted something hectic in Korean. The guy making my sandwich was agitated about something in New York, but didn’t speak clear English, and I assumed it was a sporting event. After I walked all the way back home at about 11PM that night and turned on my TV, I finally saw the nightmarish images of airplanes dissolving into the Twin Towers. It still took 20 minutes for it to sink in that this was NOT a movie. That this was real. For the next 24 hours I stayed glued to the TV trying to make sense of it all. Al Qaeda who? Osama Bin What? Why?

My girlfriend at the time was in Europe traveling with her family, stranded by the USA flight ban imposed in the wake of the attacks (for everyone other than the fleeing Bin Laden family). It was a stressful and gruesome time. At the national level there was great distress, but many things in my own life started to fall apart after 9/11. Freelance work started to dry up almost immediately, and most of my friends were out of work for a long time. As the disasters stacked up – political, personal, professional, financial, psychological – it was almost comedic, like a sequence from a movie where a shlub (a Jerry Lewis or a Jim Carrey) is subjected to one humiliating pitfall one after the other, to teach him ‘a lesson’. The difference being that everyone was experiencing this spiral of disaster at the exact same time. For me this grim period culminated in a bitter break up with my girlfriend in September 2002, leaving me dejected about life in America, about relationships, about work, and human beings in general. It took several years to find my optimism again.

The original 9th Street address of Maverix Studios was in a seedy part of town. My memories of Maverix itself are overwhelmingly positive, but any negative memories come from that low-rent tawdry neighbourhood, rife with petty crime and scuzzy ne’er do wells prowling about. I had two different bikes stolen from inside the studio itself within three months, and I wasn’t the only Maverix member to have issues with theft. There was a strange ecosystem of Fury Road shantytowns in the alley behind the studio near our dumpsters, ruled over by a semi psychotic Hobo Warlord in camouflage combat pants, stripped to the waist. This methed-up alpha hobo was known to us as ’Hatchet Man,’ because we’d often see him out our back window flexing his muscles and practicing tossing his tomahawk into a telephone pole; wzzzz THUD! We’d have to thread our way gingerly past Immortan Joe and his underlings to put stuff in our own dumpster.

The back alley shanty town would grow, and periodically the city would swoop in to roust the squatters, and steam clean their paste off the alley. Then another shanty would slowly re-assemble, only to be purged when it too became a festering sore. The City wanted to offset costs for these frequent cleanups, and clearly the hobos had no money, so The City would attempt to send US the bill for these cleanings. One time I was at home in the shower in my own apartment when there was furious rapping on the door, with an officious voice demanding; “Open up! City Trash Police!” (or some such). I opened the door in my bath towel to be confronted by a guy we came to call ‘The Garbage Nazi‘, an enforcer with the city who’d found a scrap of rubbish in the alley bearing my name and address, and this was to be the justification for a BILL from City Hall; if any of our trash was strewn about by the human racoons that lived in the alley (as it often was) we’d get hammered by The City for alley cleanup. There were already stiff penalties for not having a padlock on our garbage can. However the entire system broke down when the guys driving the garbage trucks and emptying our dumpsters wouldn’t put the locks back on after emptying our trash. Then our garbage cans became prime scavenging sites, and even impromptu porta-potties for Hatchet Man and his homies (yes, not kidding).

The initial draw to the area was cheap rent, when most businesses around us were fabric sewing sweat shops, likewise taking advantage of low costs. The first wave of internet start ups happened around that time, and when the tech boom hit the neighbourhood, suddenly those crappy sweatshops were turned into tech lofts and the area was awash with hipsters on scooters. But the .com boom of San Francisco wasn’t all glamour. Sometimes, when working late, we’d overhear tawdry transactions taking place in the medieval monkey cage in the back alley below the studio. It’s a strange disconnect to be working on a child’s cartoon at 2 in the morning, when you hear some drunk tech-nerd stumble out of a nearby bar to haggle a drugs-for-sex swap with a hobo-junkie. This sleazy Blowjob Bartertown was an aspect of the SF tech boom not covered by WIRED magazine.

Maverix soon lost its lease due to the escalating crazy rents brought on by this .com boom, when our landlord suddenly wanted us to pay something like $10,000 a month for a space that cost less than $2000 a month previously, which was very indicative of the greed of that time. The combo of tawdry sleaze & crummy infrastructure and high prices was brutal (and became the problem with San Francisco in general). When it was time to renew our lease in 2003, we couldn’t afford to be in the area any more, so the studio moved to 17th street and the new space was infinitely better than the original place. By that time, some of the members chose to become a proper LLC company, and the loose collective dissolved, and I left Maverix (thinking that we could barely manage the studio trash cans, let alone file paperwork for an actual company). This separation was 100% amicable, it was simply that our different goals for the studio had changed. Although I was no longer officially a member, I still participated in many Maverix events, and often dropped in on my old studio mates. We are all still good friends to this day.

One of the things I was most happy to collaborate in were the Maverix charity art auctions. The first was held out of a desperate need to express our love and support for our friend Mike Murnane, who’d been brought low by a tragic accident. He required surgery but had no insurance, and thus no funds to cover his ballooning medical expenses. The broader Maverix community came together to generate money in the only way we knew how; by making and selling artwork. Organised in a matter of weeks, this first auction raised a significant amount of money, even though many of us were out of work ourselves at the time. It became the first charity fundraiser of many, and such auctions became regular events at the studio. People from Pixar, PDI, ILM, Wild Brain, Ghostbot, and other studios in the Bay Area all assembled for good times and good causes.

This was my first experience of artists doing what they do to raise money for charities without any goal of self-promotion. I have seen similar things since, but for me the Maverix auctions were always the best. They may not have raised the cash of bigger art auctions that came later, but they were always all-inclusive and immensely rewarding to be part of. Lately, I’ve had a visceral sense of what such fundraising activities can do for a person who’s been medically devastated, when I was a beneficiary myself (in 2013). Though the money is very welcome, I found the support from the community to be the real force for good.

I’d recommend any freelance artists who work at home to find like-minded friends to share a workspace with, at least once in your career. In my opinion, an essential ingredient to make the whole thing work is a sort of rulebook (or ‘manifesto’ if you prefer) to ensure that the day to day nitty-gritty of bill paying and trash removal happens smoothly, and it it’s clear in everybody’s mind’s to what extent the studio is a workspace, and to what extent it is a fun space. If you can get those things mutually understood, this is one the most satisfying ways to work as a commercial artist.

When I first fell in love with San Francisco in the early 1990s, the Bay Area had a healthy cross-section of big studios, medium-sized studios, and small studios. Over 25 years later, the middle of that ecosystem has died. There are still a few big places (impenetrable fortresses like Pixar, and ILM) and a few tiny studios too, but the mid-size studios are gone (perhaps because animated commercials are neither so common nor lucrative as they once were). Mid-sized studios were my favourite places to work, providing the bulk of the freelance jobs for people doing what I do, while taking more chances on younger talent than bigger studios. I miss these mid-sized studios a great deal. A lot of innovation is happening in the South Bay in GAMES, but my focus has always been on animation for broadcast or film, and in that respect San Francisco is not the vital town that it once was, sadly.

In 2011, MAVERIX STUDIOS finally closed its doors, marking the end for this fantastic collective of independent, Bay Area animation artists, though ex-members have gone on to work on many high-profile projects in a wide variety of media, from comics & games to film & TV. All members look back on the studio with fondness, despite some setbacks here and there. It was quite an achievement that such an unwieldy group of screwballs could operate so well for so long, during some very difficult years in the Bay Area media community, when many studios with ‘business plans’ and MBAs all went kaput. For many years I’d toyed with the idea of making some projects of my own, but it wasn’t until Maverix that I actually did it, and interestingly, it made me a more professional worker for others, when I had an outlet to do my own thing. Becoming a self publisher led to exhibiting at comics conventions, which I did for about 10 years and got a lot of satisfaction from. Being a member of Maverix Studios remains one of the most fruitful periods of my career.

Founders of the Maverick commercial animation studio: Robert Valley Jeanne Reynolds.

Initial members of the Maverix Studios collective: Robert Valley, John Valley, James Baker, Steward Lee, Bosco Ng, Sho Murase, Vaughn Ross, Derek Thompson.

The 3rd wave: Tom Rubalcava, Osamu Tsuruyama, Tony Stacchi, Sergio Paez, Ted Mathot, Chris Petrocchi, Garett Sheldrew, Ed Bell.

Other friends who collaborated, or hung out: Patrick Awa, Mike Murnane, Gennie Rim, Granger Davis, Lyla Warren, Charlie Canfield, Dan McHale, Chris Carter, Charlene Kelley, Victor Gascon, Sam Hood, Dedan Anderson, Joel Hornsby, Jamal Narcisse, Lance Hughes, Ken Kaiser (and many more!)

Feb 262017
 

Here are a few more visual development sketches done while working in Ralph Eggleston‘s art department on FINDING NEMO, way back in 2000.

Some of my drawings of turtles and pelicans seen here (as well as designs for a moorish idol and sharks posted earlier) actually made it into the ART OF FINDING NEMO book. None of the VisDev I drew for subsequent Pixar movies ever appeared in such books ever again.

Page space in those ART OF books is very limited, and there are literally thousands of drawings generated by the art department over several years to choose from, so it was an utter surprise and delight to be included my very first time working on a project for Pixar.

In the early days working on FINDING NEMO, I was allowed to draw anything at all in the script that interested me, and I played for a day or two drawing kids who might be waiting to see the dentist (who has Nemo in a fish tank in his dental surgery). Personally, I absolutely loathed visiting the dentist as a child (as I still do) so the scaredy cat kid you see below would be me.

In terms of appearance though, as a kid I probably looked most like the solitary little bloke in his scruffy school uniform (middle of the pic on the right, above).

I not only tried my hand at designing NIGEL the pelican, I also got to be his temp voice on the STORY REEL. When making these movies it’s common for the crew to record temporary dialogue used in early edits of the film, before the final actors are even cast.

Pixar had a few Australian employees at the time, and it was perhaps the first and last time that Australian voices would ever be in demand for a Hollywood cartoon, so I was in the right place at the right time. I was called to do several voices; pelicans, dentists, sharks, random fish, you name it. It was a great deal of fun.

One by one all my voices were replaced with the proper actors, but one of my performances actually remained in the movie, more or less as an oversight. I was on holiday back in Australia when the studio realised that there were a few lines of my dialogue left in the final cut of the film (for a cranky Aussie crab).

It took them a while to track me down in Australia and send me some documents to sign at the very last minute of some deadline or other, to make the whole thing official with the Screen Actors Guild. The upshot is that FINDING NEMO is the only movie I’ve ever worked for which I actually get residuals.

Nov 262016
 

This is some visual development for WALL-E drawn back in early 2005 while I worked under the great production designer RALPH EGGLESTON in the Pixar ART department, before working in the story department on the same project.

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In its very earliest incarnation, WALL-E started as an idea developed by PETE DOCTER, but when it went into production the director was ANDREW STANTON. By the time I worked on it, the basic configuration of WALL-E had been already been decided- a little robot that could fold in on itself like a turtle and walked on caterpillar treads.

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The story artists worked with this description while the art department tried variations. Before the great JAY SHUSTER nailed the final appealing design, I explored a few WALL-E ideas myself.

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In the early days that I worked with Pixar, I often freelanced in the STORY department AND freelanced for the ART department. It was while working in the ART department that I drew these ideas for both the interior and exterior of WALL-E’s home, the dilapidated truck full of junk.

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Over the years of freelancing for Pixar, I’ve spent more time in STORY, but the very first time I ever worked for them was doing ART department chores on FINDING NEMO (see here and here), and some very early visdev on RATATOUILLE (see here) and finally WALL-E. As the studio got to the size they are now, my inter-departmental mobility stopped and I worked solely in STORY from UP onward.

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Most professional animation artists have more than one string to their bow; many story artists are fantastic designers, many animators can storyboard, many people in the art department are wonderful storytellers too, but modern big studio pipeline production forces most of us to stay in our designated boxes.

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One of the main reasons I always opted to stay freelance is that it allowed me to move freely among the different job responsibilities I love, doing as much of each of them as I can. Even when certain studios have a rigid pipeline, being a freelance artist gives me the option of doing design at one studio and story at another.

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I finally got to go on a Pixar art department field trip on WALL-E. I’d often heard about these wonderful trips to research PARIS, or to drive along ROUTE 66, but my chance to be part of such an exotic mission was when we went to research a world covered in trash by visiting the OAKLAND CITY DUMP. We in the ART department also visited a Northern California seal colony, to research, well.. BLUBBER.

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In an early version of WALL-E, it was not immediately obvious that the inhabitants of the spaceship that EVE comes from were human. They appeared to be jelly-like aliens (during production they were simply called GELs).

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It was only at the very end of the story that the audience learns that these blobs of jelly are what the human race has eventually become. They were very fun to design, but this revelation of human devolution was a conceptual bummer at the very end of a cartoon, so there was a major story rethink.

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After a month or two in the ART department I did a few sequences in the STORY department under JIM REARDON. Storyboarding WALL-E was very challenging in its own way, simply because it required so many drawings to describe each idea and emotion.

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Without dialog, the only way to convey the meaning of each character’s intentions was a ton of drawings to elaborately pantomime each bit of business, so that it was perhaps the most ‘animated’ story reel I’ve ever worked on.

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However, all the work I did was in the earlier version of the story mentioned above, and my contributions were ALL subsequently redone in the story rethink of the movie.

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Learning to be philosophical about having much (possibly ALL) of one’s work end up on the editing room floor is a big part of working in the early stages of animation production.

May 192016
 

For the past few months I’ve been teaching 3 seperate classes in 2D hand drawn animation at Academy of Art in San Francisco, filling in for faculty teacher Daisy Church while she was out on maternity leave. Here is a photo of my final class, which was held just this morning; Traditional Animation 3 . (Sadly I did not think to get a photo of the other two classes; Trad 2 and Trad 4).

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Although I’ve been working this animation racket for over over 30 years I’ve never taught it to others before. In one sense, this was being dropped into the deep end, teaching around 40 students in 3 seperate classes, but in another sense it was the best case scenario, in that I had Daisy’s well established curriculum to follow each week. Once I thought of myself not as a teacher but as a crew member, collaborating with students and brainstorming towards a creative goal (which is what I normally do anyway) it all clicked into place for me.

I’m not sure if teaching will be something I do often or simply a temporary thing, but it was a very interesting experience to work with these young artists, especially as I’m currently restoring a super-8 movie I made when I was 16 (just slightly younger than these students). The past few months have reminded me of the teen enthusiasm for animation that got me into this career in the first place, and took me around the world. Entering the animation industry will be so very different in 2017 San Francisco than it was for me back in 1982 Sydney that my advice about career specifics is almost meaningless, but hopefully I conveyed enough of the technical issues, and broader career strategies for the industry that these students love as much as I do, to make a difference to these young artists.

Nov 052015
 

I first started working at the Hanna-Barbera animation studio in Sydney when I was 17 years old, joyfully working on some of the crappiest cartoons ever made. I remember that time as one of great personal triumph, but also profound and enduring heartbreak.

The inbetweener: cartoons

I’d wanted to work in animation since I was 8 years old but thought such a career wasn’t even possible in Australia because I’d never seen a cartoon with Australian voices. When attending a weekend animation seminar at the age of 15 however, I learned that many American cartoons on TV were actually made at a big animation studio in Sydney; Hanna-Barbera. This was an alleluia moment for a lifelong cartoon nerd and I set about getting a job there. After mailing them letters and drawings for a year or more, they finally responded by sending me a drawing test. Using character model-sheets as a guide, I was to pose Hanna-Barbera characters in as many different situations as I could. The model-sheets were from “Kwicky Koala”, the last ever cartoon by Tex Avery, a TV series that was made in Sydney the year before. (The characters “Ratso the rat” and “Dirty Dawg” were where the great Tex Avery ended his career, but where I started my own).

Hanna-Barbera liked my attempts at drawing their characters and called me in for an interview, and Dad accompanied me on the long train journey from my hometown to Sydney. While the typical animation/cartoon portfolio of today is badly drawn anime, back then it was poor man’s Frazetta; lumpy drawings of awkwardly posed, axe-wielding barbarians, accompanied by equally misshapen warrior maidens in brass bikinis, whereas my own portfolio consisted of a few illustration jobs I’d done in my hometown. When I showed my T-shirt designs, cartoons for the local newspaper, and some illustrations for the school magazine, to my surprise and delight Hanna-Barbera offered me a job on the spot. I was 17 years old and could barely contain my excitement, and it took the tag-team of Mum and Dad to calm me down and counsel me not to throw off my final year of high school with only a few months till my final exams. To stop my teen-whining about their repressive parental fascism, they compromised by allowing me to work at Hanna-Barbera during term breaks in my final year of high school.

In September 1981 I was unbelievably excited to have several weeks working as an animation assistant, an ‘inbetweener‘, at Hanna-Barbera in Sydney. I stayed with my Aunty Marg and Uncle Keith near Manly Beach, and caught the 144 bus to St. Leonards and the Hanna-Barbera studio, where I worked my arse off every day and eagerly stayed late most nights. Every animation studio I’ve worked at since has at least one annoying spotty-faced, cardigan-wearing, eager beaver, and in 1981 it was me; “Animation! Oh boy!” One memory of this time which doesn’t involve me sitting at a lightbox and quivering with febrile excitement from head to toe, was going into downtown Sydney to see a new movie that everyone at the studio was talking about; “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” which had just opened in Australia. Hollywood’s early 1980s power couple of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg had just produced a bouncing baby mega-hit and I was working in showbiz myself. Life was just peachy-keen. When my time as an inbetweener was over I went back to finish high school as per the agreement with Mum and Dad, secure in the knowledge that I’d lined up a job for myself when I finished high school (which was just as well, because a few months later I botched my final written exam so it’s fortunate that I wasn’t relying on my HSC marks to get a job). Hanna-Barbera had a late-starting season in 1982 and the timing was perfect, as my family had a lot going on that year and I was glad to be with them.

My mother had given birth to the last of her seven children, my brother Alex, in mid December 1981, and began having mysterious seizures culminating in a particularly terrifying fit after she’d come home from hospital. In the many years since, I’ve often thought about the unbelievable bad luck that not only did my mother have that seizure at all, but that it occurred at the exact moment she had a pan of boiling water in her hands. One minute earlier or later and her hands would’ve been empty. She’d have still had the seizure but would’ve fallen to the ground otherwise unscathed and been spared the intense pain of being doused with a spilled pan of boiling water. So much misery hinged on the quirks of an instant. Apart from the agonizing burns this brought her, it also made for a puzzle of symptoms for the doctors to pick through; partial paralysis, ongoing seizures, burns, all after a history of blood clotting.. Which were causes and which were effects? Answering these questions was the focus of early 1982, when Dad (and later myself) accompanied Mum to Sydney for a variety of medical tests and examinations at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Back then they didn’t have the wonderful brain imaging gizmos available today. I’ve recently had brain scans aplenty and the resolution these days is surprisingly clear, but in 1982 the images were hopelessly vague and ambiguous, like photos of Big Foot or the Loch Ness Monster, and just as likely to cause wooly theorising. There was a dark smudge on my Mum’s brain scans but what was it? A blood clot? Or perhaps something more sinister?

the inbetweener: brain scans

With any other organ in the human body, the very next step would be surgery to find out what that ominous shadow actually is. However, cutting into the living human brain – the repository of what makes each of us actually ‘us‘ – is only a last resort. First, many tests were done in an attempt to surmise what that shadowy thing might be but they were all inconclusive, and the mystery of what horror lurked inside my poor Mum’s head was not resolved until she underwent a brain biopsy; the crude and invasive process of opening up her skull and cutting into her brain to look inside. When Dad and I visited Mum after this grim procedure her head was shaved and the horrifying scars on her skull were bandaged, but I was keenly aware of their presence. She had pipes going into her nose and mouth and was connected to electrodes and monitors. It was a nightmare image that haunts me still. She was weakly conscious though, and gave us a reassuring little smile before needing to rest. It was a sombre ferry ride back across Sydney Harbour to Manly. Although I’d always thought she’d pull through her ordeal, and had blithely reassured her many times, I finally sensed in that knowing part of my guts that my dear Mum would actually die, and when we got back to my Aunty Marg’s house I lost my composure and broke down in grief at the realisation.

The doctors soon confirmed what I somehow knew; she had terminal brain cancer and not a blood clot as was previously hoped. Mum decided to return to our hometown rather than submit to a treatment at a Big City specialist hospital that would not save her, but merely prolong a hospital stay far from her family and her newly-born child. We all returned to Armidale to await the inevitable and Mum was setup in her own room at the hospital near our house. Depending on her strength sometimes Mum would come home for the day, where our focus was on her comfort and hers was on getting to know her youngest child, Alex, (who was not even one year old when months later Mum finally died). I’ve recently had to endure a tiny fraction of the physical difficulties that my Mother went through, a mere crumb by comparison, but I now have a visceral reminder of what a brave and wonderful soul she was. I already knew this, and felt it keenly, but more recently my appreciation for her ability to persevere bravely in the face of hopeless heartbreaking hardship now verges on awe.

One night, after hospital visiting hours were over, I went to the Drive-In with my mates to sit in the back of my mate Phil’s ute, and watch a movie and drink. Drink quite a lot, in fact. I’d already downed substantially more booze than my meagre alcohol capacity, when I stuck my head in the cab to ask Phil to pass me another bottle, at the precise moment he slammed the door. It should be noted here that the door to Phil’s ute was ‘sticky’ and always required an extra HEAVE to close. A force that was applied to my skull, and it rang like a gong from the mighty blow. There was much hilarity, even from me, and as I lay down in the tray of the ute I heard my own laughter as if from afar but could feel no pain, which should have been a sign. The chattering voices of my mates faded in my head, leaving me in a mental still point as I looked up into the star-mottled blackness of the night. Without the distractions I’d prepared for it, my mind dwelled on horrifying realities- the cruel specifics of my mother’s predicament and the fact that she’d soon leave us forever hit me every bit as hard as the truck door had pounded on my skull, and I started to quietly sob. At first my mates thought I was joking, but quickly realised what was happening. They drove to pick up supplies, and took me out into the bush someplace where they built a fire and we sat and talked through the night. I cannot now remember the details of what was said. I was drunk, and probably mildly concussed, but I do remember how much it meant to let out my grief while being supported by my friends.

The long-awaited telephone call from Hanna-Barbera finally came. They wanted me to start work for good but once again it was not a simple decision. Now the issue was not finishing high school, but that my Mother was terminally ill. Mum however was adamant that this time I go and start work so that’s what I did, vowing to travel home each weekend from Sydney. I regret that decision with all my heart now, and wish I’d stayed home in Armidale till the end. All these many years later a few more months with her would be so much more valuable to me than a few months being an inbetweener on “The Animated Mork & Mindy show”. If I could go back in time I’d counsel my younger self much the way my parents had coached him the previous year; ‘don’t throw this time away, you’ll regret it later‘, but in mid 1982 I moved to Sydney to live with my Uncle John in Manly Beach and start work at Hanna-Barbera in earnest. My first day on the job there was one of those snafus that often happen in production, where the person who’d interviewed and hired me the year prior, and who’d finally called me down to Sydney a mere few weeks earlier, no longer worked at the studio and his replacement had never even heard of me. When I suggested she call the other guy for clarification it transpired that he’d gone to England. In the days before email, getting prompt feedback in such circumstances was out of the question so that was a squirmy moment to be sure. Thankfully, she gave me another try out and I re-won my spot as a member of her department, and threw myself into the work with nerdy teen intensity, coupled with the need to distract myself from bigger realities. After years of yearning for it I was finally working in animation at last, though not under ideal circumstances.

the inbetweener: desk

When not at work, I spent many weekday evenings at the cinema, and 1982 was a great year to use movies as a distraction from my troubles, with “Blade Runner“, “Road Warrior“, “Wrath of Khan” “ET“, “Tron“, “Tootsie“, “Poltergeist” and other such fantastic faire. Ironically, all these years later, re-watching the escapist movies that helped me hide from my emotions back then brings back that complicated mix of real-world feelings to me now as fresh as ever. In fact, there are a few movies from that time that I simply cannot watch at all, especially one that my Mother herself loved, often playing the soundtrack music in her hospital room that year (merely hearing that melody now, over 30 years later, brings on a tidal wave of raw emotions from that time).

After working Monday to Friday in Sydney, I caught the Friday NORTHERN MAIL TRAIN at around 9:00 PM from Sydney’s Central Station for the chilly overnight journey to the New England Tablelands, finally arriving at Armidale at about 8 AM Saturday to be with my dying Mother and family. Rural NSW trains had some truly antiquated rolling stock as late as the mid 1980s with compartments that seated about 8, and they weren’t heated even in winter. Sometimes the conductor would toss a heated brick ‘foot warmer’ under the seats. City folk unfamiliar with this drill were aghast; “Is that it?!” they’d cry, dressed on the assumption that there’d be heating. We country folk wore sturdy greatcoats and Ugg boots (which were merely a cheap way for Aussies to keep our feet warm till LA super-models ‘discovered’ them). We’d laugh hollowly that, yes, the pathetic brick was the extent of the heating and add that the really chilling part of the arrangement was that the brick would be long-cold before we got to the really icy spots in the mountains. We’d offer a blanket and thermos of warm drink to the newbies lest we shared the compartment with a frozen corpse by Murrurundi. Many people, including Australians themselves, are unprepared for the fact that anywhere in Australia is COLD but my hometown, and the New England Tablelands region in general, will take those people’s breath away in the winter. The journeys were slow, with the train splitting at Werris Creek and if the cold didn’t mess up your sleep then 30 minutes of to-and-fro shunting sure would. I’d finally be getting to sleep when we arrived at Armidale. I remember at least one time when I dozed through the stop and poor Dad had to step on it and drive to the next town and meet the train there (at Dumaresq or Guyra).

The travel schedule was punishing but my time away from the sorrow each week, and the distractions of work and travel, allowed me to compose a cheerful demeanour when visiting Mum, as the last thing a terminally sick person needs is visits from hangdog sad-sacks. In my weekly visits home, Mum was curious about my new life as a worker in the Big City. She’d always taken a keen interest in my adventures even when I truly had none, and ever since I was a small boy it was a ritual of the day to sit with Mum in the kitchen after I’d come home from school. She’d take a quick break from whatever she was doing (probably preparing food for her brood) and have a cuppa with me and ask about my day in school or how things went with various of my mates. Now that I was working she was full of curiosity and enthusiasm for this seemingly exotic new life I’d somehow found for myself, asking me about the details of the job and my new life in Sydney. Often in my life since I’ve thought how my Mother would’ve liked certain things in my adult life. To meet my girlfriend, hear of my adventures abroad, or my professional exploits. I know too that my siblings who are now parents themselves wonder how Mum would have enjoyed being a grandma (for the record, I think she’d have liked it very much, and would’ve been a wonderfully attentive grandparent). So I feel blessed that, in my case, Mum was able to see me start my own career and express her joy at seeing me finding my own way in the world.

the inbetweener: hospital

As the months of her decline wore on, Mum’s communication skills suffered due to the expanding evil in her head, so she mostly listened while we did the talking, but the spark of her keen intelligence never left her eyes. Intelligence minus the ability to communicate may seem a contradiction, but I’ve recently had the experience myself of desperately trying to speak from within a mind that has lost the neural connections to speech. It is utterly terrifying, though in my case I saw daily improvement rather than daily decline like my poor Mum. Despite the overwhelming number of afflictions that beset her last days, and they mounted one-by-one as time wore on, she never gave in to ‘why me’ bitterness. One of the incredible qualities that my Mother possessed was her warm stoicism, and although all of us around her were increasingly distressed by her tragic situation, I never saw Mum herself rail against the cruel circumstances that had befallen her. The cancer robbed her body of the ability to speak at the precise moment when she had so much to say, and this often made her heartbreakingly frustrated, but her ordeal never caused her to vent at medical staff, God or Fate. Now that I’m more than ten years older than she was then, I’m even more amazed at the grace that this brave young woman, my dear Mother, brought to her plight.

I remember my Sydney-bound return journeys, as the train rushed through spectacular sunrises over the coastal regions around Gosford, the verdant beauty at odds with my sadness at what I’d seen that past weekend. My head out an open window, the wind tousled my hair as I swept past beautifully lush mountainous areas over foggy deltas, and inlets flecked with low morning cloud, and ruminated upon my Mother’s increasing frailty. The train click-clacked over railway bridges and through towns as I came closer to Sydney and prepared for the work day ahead. At Central station I’d grab something to eat, then transfer to the North Shore Line to St. Leonards, and go to the studio. It was a strange double life; shuttling back and forth between inanely detailed work on a cheesy animated TV cartoon in Sydney, where none of my coworkers knew of my family’s predicament, and being at the bedside of my dying Mother in a small country town, where the entire community was aware of our tragedy. My job-title that year was ‘inbetweener’ but it summed up the half-here-half-there state of my existence as well. Weekdays in the city, overnight journeys to weekends in the country, then catching the Sunday overnight train back to Sydney to be at work again on Monday morning, all through the mid-year winter months until November 1982, when Mum finally died, about a fortnight after her 39th birthday.

The day before, my Uncle Keith had phoned me at the studio to say that Mum had taken a turn for the worst and I should head home to Armidale immediately, by plane if possible. Flights were all fully booked so once more I caught the overnight train, and arrived too late. She had died in the night. Tears did not come to me that day. Instead, I was left with a hollow empty feeling. Cancer creates disorienting shifts in the apparent progress of time. It is both excruciatingly slow – a death rattle prolonged over months – and shockingly fast, as the person appears to age years overnight. The grieving process is drawn out into a gruelling emotional marathon, and the horrified realisation of loss happens long before the death itself. With me, it had been back on the day that Mum had her brain biopsy, I’d felt the cold and terrifying certainty of it, wept in anguish at what was about to happen and I’d been grieving ever since, but the actual day of her death I was numb as a plank. It is a sad and terrible thing to watch someone that you love deteriorate in front of your eyes. There can be an impulse to stay away and spare yourself the sight of someone who was once a powerful presence in your life reduced to a mere wisp, and that inclination brings with it stabbing pangs of remorse. I myself felt a strange relief after my Mother died and hated myself for that at the time, and for a long while afterwards, even though I knew that my Mother too was grateful to be done with her pain.

the inbetweener: Mum's grave

As her body failed her and she prepared for her end, Mum was in many ways ready to go, though she made it quite clear that she would whole heartedly regret not seeing her children grow older. Mum died in the company of my brother Rob, who was 12 years old at the time. In those last days, when she was so weak as to be drifting in and out of consciousness, family & friends were taking turns to visit Mum and read to her despite being outwardly unresponsive, hoping that she might hear our voices and be comforted. Rob was reading to Mum when she suddenly woke up. As Mum’s friend Phyl rushed to find a nurse, Mum’s eyes looked at Rob, and then she died. This was a shocking burden for a 12 year old boy to bear, but I told Rob many years later, in his adulthood, that I will always be grateful that he was there, so that poor Mum did not regain consciousness in an empty room with nobody she loved by her side at the end.

The first time most of her children had ever experienced the death of a loved one, it was of their own darling Mother. Children usually ease into awareness of death as firstly, older, more distant relatives die, but all our Grandparents and many Great Aunts attended Mum’s funeral, and most of our parish was there too. The entire process was very harrowing and has left a mark on my clan to this day. Certainly it has left a mark on me to this day, it fills me with sadness to even think about it. That a woman so young should die, at 39 years old, survived by a husband and 6 of her kids, including an 11 month old baby; it seemed so unfair that I was coldly angry about it for quite some time. Try as I might, I could not adopt my Mother’s warmly humane stoicism back then, much as I admired it, but I try to apply her example in my life now. There is an instinct in all of us to help our friends through the dark passages in their lives by pointing out a ‘silver lining‘, and while there’s sometimes wisdom to that approach I’ve never found any optimistic consolation to offer when someone dies. There is no ‘upside‘ to it. We must accept that death inevitably happens to us all, good people as well as bad, healthy as well as sick, young and old alike. Personally, I believe that there’s no divine reason for it, but by the same token, there is no one to blame for it either.

The year I started working in animation was a landmark year for me, and one full of conflicting emotions, both then as it happened, and now as I reflect back upon it. Joyfully, I finally got my foot in the door of a job I’d always dreamed of but as I crossed that exciting threshold, tragically, my young Mother was stricken with terminal cancer and taken from us. Even now, the feelings from that long-ago year are brought vividly to life each time I go back go to my hometown, as my visits there have been so infrequent, living abroad for nearly 30 years. Perhaps we all feel the death of our own childhoods, often associated with a specific place, but the year that I turned 18 and my childhood officially ended, was the exact same year that my Mother died. My trips back to Armidale are always ever-so faintly tinged with sadness, because I associate them not only with the end of the childhood I once had there, but with my sad journeys home in that last year of my beloved Mother’s life. But, as the first-born of all her 7 children, I was was blessed to have had Mum’s loving guidance all the way up to my own adulthood, unlike my younger siblings, so I consider myself very much the lucky one among us.

the inbetweener: family photo
Vicki Patricia Baker (née Stuart) 1943-1982

Jun 102015
 

INSIDE OUT is an unusual film for a big studio to make; it is very ambitious and abstract. I worked on the story team from 2010 to late 2012, and everyone was excited about the idea, but dramatising that idea was at times quite challenging. I finally saw the film at a crew Wrap Party screening last month, and I’m very pleased to say that it has come out wonderfully well.

Inside_Out

While enjoying the screening of INSIDE OUT, many conflicting and complicated feelings bubbled to the surface for me. Not long after wrestling with the challenges of dramatising the inner workings of the human mind, as part of the INSIDE OUT story team, a blood vessel burst in my head, and I was trapped inside my own mind for quite some time, as my body dealt with the effects of a swollen and ruptured brain. I’ve had a very rocky few years, and seeing the film reminded me of my own struggles; locked inside my own mind and struggling like crazy to get out.

So understandably, this film will always have personal significance for me, and perhaps I’m unable to be unbiased when I watch it. Even under less dramatic circumstances, working on these things means that it’s hard to know how other people will respond. Sometimes the general public likes a film more than me, sometimes less. Will my own feelings about this film be typical?

An early INSIDE OUT Story Crew lunch in 2011.

But for whatever my biased (and emotionally charged) opinion is worth, I feel that this is one of the great Pixar movies, and Pete Docter and his team have once again made a film to make people sit up and take notice. It is deep, and heartfelt, but funny and imaginative, and takes you to places that only an animated film can go. It’s a real return to form for the studio.

I hope with all my heart that this isn’t my last film as a pro story artist (I’m currently pushing hard on physical therapy and left-handed drawing practise to get back in the game) but if it is to be my career epitaph, at least I’ll be ending on a very high note and a movie to be proud of.

Inside_Out_WrapParty

The entire story team at the recent wrap party.

INSIDE OUT opens across the USA next week, on June 19th. Please go see it. I think you’ll like it.

Dec 252014
 

AngelKitty_gifts_250Happy Christmas to you all (please insert whatever holiday you prefer, religious, or secular) and I hope you gather with your loved ones today. Speaking of good company; two years ago, before I got sick, I was surrounded by dear friends as we worked together on a TV Christmas special; “The Toy Story that Time forgot.” It’s most definitely a fun secular romp, heavy on comedy and action, and yet one character is focused on the more spiritual aspects of this time of year, ever so subtly. The TV show screened earlier this month, and is available to view online. ENJOY!

Sep 262014
 

I’ve admired the films of Laika for years, and now I’m pleased to say that I’ve been involved in one; THE BOXTROLLS. From 2008-2012 I worked on this film, and to make this an extra special experience for me, it was directed by my dear friend of many years, Tony Stacchi, and Graham Annabel, a new friend made during this production. I finally saw the finished film a few days ago, and absolutely loved it. Now you all get a chance to see it too, as it is released today in the USA.

Boxtrolls

When I first got into animation, over 30 years ago, working in the typical animation studio meant you were surrounded by people spattered with paint or smudged with graphite, and you toiled away to a soundtrack of buzzing electric pencil sharpeners and the flipping of paper. Next, I worked at studios that did commercials and special effects, back in the days when it was all done by hand, and required things to be built by carpenters, model makers, and tinkerers, and even the sci-fi glow of a lightsabre was analog; animated by hand with smudged pencil on paper. That gradually changed when computers entered the biz. As wonderful as the new computer studios are, and I’ve worked at many, I sometimes miss the tactile qualities of the industry I first fell in love with. If you squint your eyes and look around the typical animation studio of today, all the people at their computer workstations could be working at a bank, or an insurance brokerage.

But when I flew to Portland to work with Laika, I was immediately charmed by the fact that I was once again in a building full of people toiling with their hands. Their plaster spattered smocks, paint-smeared aprons and vests, and grimy fingers were the telltale signs that they were not merely pushing around ones and zeroes, but sewing tiny clothes, building armatures, and sculpting and animating puppets. They were tinkering, experimenting, problem solving and making things; real actual objects to be manipulated by nimble human hands. I took great delight in arriving at the studio very early in the morning and creeping about the vast warehouse downstairs, where the final shots were being made. I was mesmerised by the beautiful sets, props and puppets. I could have been in the Boxtroll cavern itself, surrounded by ingeniously designed, intricate handmade wonders. Crazy clockwork toys made by a demented Geppetto.

When you see THE BOXTROLLS, and I really encourage you to do so, remember that the ballroom full of people you see dancing on screen, or the cave chock-full of toothy beasties with their kooky gadgets, were not produced in a render-farm, but are real handmade objects. The elements of the film were all designed, sculpted and hand-built, then expertly manipulated in front of cameras by human hands, and you are watching something unlike anything else in animation today. Stop-motion animators work ‘straight ahead’ and there is a certain jazzy improv to each shot that other modern animated films do not have, because the constant iterations of CGI boil that magic ingredient of spontaneity away. Spontaneity is impossible in most animation, but a form of it is possible in stop-motion. When watching a Laika film, more than any film by other modern animation studios, you are watching a performance and not a process. Stop motion is an intricate ballet, a spatial guitar solo, and a unique sort of performance capture that does not involve someone in a blue jumpsuit covered in ping-pong balls.

I’ve worked in animation myself since 1982, and yet the special skills and thought processes required of stop-motion animators fill me with mystified awe. Laika films have a different rhythm, perhaps as a result of this process, and of course there is a quirkiness to all things handmade. Popular reaction to stop-motion has always been mixed; many people don’t appreciate the irregularity of handmade things, and prefer instead the machined smoothness of the mass produced. If other animation is thought of as a sculpture in clay; an additive process, with plenty of chances for revision, refinement and correction, then stop-motion is a statue chipped from solid rock, and there are limited opportunities to fix mistakes, but when done as well as the Laika artists do it, stop-motion is a rare form of beauty. A dance of toymakers and animators, caught on film.

I’ve been In animation for a long time, but it is only in the last few years that I have begun to see feature films directed by my friends. It is unbelievably exciting to see themes and ideas I have long associated with these pals now on the big screen. Knowing Tony as well as I do, I see so much of him in there; so many poses and face expressions that I know he didn’t actually make or animate himself, but I see him in the film everywhere. He is in its DNA, and it is immensely gratifying to see his quirky subversive masterpiece. It is very hard to say whether the general public will embrace it as I have. Who can say? One person’s ‘quirky subversive masterpiece’ is another person’s ‘boring directionless ramble’, which is quite funny when you think about it, but that is the subjective nature of such things.

THE BOXTROLLS presents a weirder, more lush, expansive world, and sweeter characters than Laika’s other films. While Laika again showcases the awkward and the misshapen, the subterranean heroes of this film are strangely appealing, like the cute/ugly of a pug dog. Where other studios are quick to pounce on the heart strings, Laika has always been admirably restrained, but at times that allergy to maudlin emotion created a coldness on screen, and characters did not connect. But in THE BOXTROLLS, while there are creepy villains aplenty (and the main villain is a wonderfully funny and disturbing creation, with some of the most astonishing animation I’ve ever seen, in any technique) there are also characters that have an undeniable warmth, despite their weirdness, and thus it doesn’t feel like weirdness for its own sake. This is not to say that longtime fans of Laika’s particular brand of darkness will be disappointed, because there are images and themes in THE BOXTROLLS that are weighty and grim. This film somehow manages to be both lighter and sweeter while darker and deeper.

It is tragic that even mediocre CGI films can have a 40 million dollar opening weekend, while Laika’s typical opening weekend is less than half that for utterly wonderful films. But Laika already knows that no matter how lovingly they craft their work, it is an uphill battle to get the general public to care as much as they do, yet they do it anyway. Like a tiny shoe shop that stubbornly makes hand made shoes in a machine-made age, the cobbler does things his own way, for the love of it, and the hope that the minority of the public that do care too, can keep him in business. So, if you are any kind of animation fan at all, I urge you to go see THE BOXTROLLS this weekend, and treat yourself to a lovingly handmade feast for your eyes, mind and heart.

(more about my work on this film HERE.)

Apr 182014
 

July 15, 1986, I left Australia for what I thought would be a 6 month or one year trip at most, but it ended up being an overseas jaunt that lasted the rest of my life.

1986_Hong_Kong_sketch

View From the Tower Restaurant, 1986

I’d worked in Sydney animation studios since 1982, saving money for a trip to Japan. By mid 1986, I’d got my passport, bought a Japan rail pass, and after years of dilly-dallying was preparing to finally go. But before I’d bought a plane ticket, Janine Dawson offered me a job in Taiwan at a big animation studio. Despite years of saving, I was still functionally broke, as my limp 1986 Aussie dollars wouldn’t last long against the booming Yen. However, this brief work detour would be a chance to top-up my meagre funds with then-robust US dollars, so I bought a plane ticket to Taiwan instead, planning to catch a ferry to Japan from there when my assignment ended. I sold, tossed, or stored my belongings, let my flat go, and off I went, on a flight to Taipei, via a stopover in Hong Kong.

As I lay down across 6 seats on an almost empty Qantas Jumbo jet out of Sydney, I realised that it was a good news/bad news thing; it was exciting that I was finally on my way! On the other hand, I had no idea of what I was doing.. I pondered this dichotomy for the 10 hour flight, till the thrill ride landing in Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak airport, when the Jumbo seemed to slip in between the sky scrapers and apartment balconies (where I swear I could see people eating their dinners) and land almost in the city itself. To underscore my greenhorn traveler status, I was ripped off by the first cab driver I ever hailed abroad, who drove me NOT to the hotel I had pre-paid for in Sydney, but to a crummy hostel, and left in a frenzy of spinning tires. By the time I realised what had happened, I decided to pay for a hostel bunk in a room full of snoring travellers, rather than hail another cab and go through the entire humiliating process again.

The next day, I checked out of the hostel and did some liesurely sightseeing before my evening flight, till I realised with horror that I didn’t have my passport!! With my heart in my mouth, I scuttled back to the hostel where thankfully, my passport had been turned in. But what if it had not been? An alternate-universe of misery- where I lost my passport on my very first day abroad -lay down that turnoff, and I’m glad to have missed it. Perhaps it was the stomach churning terror of that moment, or the tropical heat, but I was bathed in sweat, and decided to go to the airport EXTRA early and cool off. Despite this, I almost missed my flight out to Taipei; the departure time on my ticket was wrong. “Quick! You might just make it if you run!” I was hurried from one person barking into a walkie-talkie to the next, through immigration, as I clumsily lugged my bags, there being no time to check them in. Airline employees frantically pointed me to the gate in the distance and cleared my path to the waiting plane, as hot, sweaty and exhausted, I wheeze-thumped my way down the connecting-tube to stagger, flustered and sweat-soaked onto a planeful of faces glaring at me.. I was so glad to make it out of Hong Kong in one piece, that I had a misplaced dread of that town for years. Much later, I had to do a visa-trip there, and to my surprise found it to be a wonderful place. (Which goes to show that state-of-mind influences the impressions of places, as much as vice-versa)..

1986_Taiwan_ChungChengRoad

Cuckoo’s Nest Studio on Chung Cheng road, XinDian, 1986

Thankfully, my arrival at the other end was smooth, and my friend Janine met me at Taipei airport to ensure I made it to my hotel without incident. The next day, I went to fill out paperwork and get situated at Cuckoo’s Nest, which was perhaps the biggest animation studio in the world at that time. They were doing 13 different TV series (each having 13 episodes) whereas the Hanna-Barbera studio that I’d worked at in Sydney could handle only 2 or 3. I was introduced to the new layout department, and the other foreign supervisors that I’d be working with, but would not start work until the next day. Every expat I ever met who worked at Cuckoo’s Nest back then had the same experience at the end of the first day; while you’re still thoroughly culture shocked and jet-lagged, someone from the studio took you to a seedy place called “Snake Alley“. I’m not exactly sure why this ghastly place was chosen to be the ‘local colour’ that introduced us all to Taiwan, but it’s part of the ritual of travel that tourists go to grotty areas of foreign cities they’d avoid at home (Sydney residents who’d avoid Kings Cross will happily visit a similar sleazepit in Amsterdam, for example). Snake Alley’s particular brand of Red Light tawdriness was combined with animal torture. I saw a guy literally peel the skin off a live snake, drain its blood into a shot glass which was then downed with great gusto by another dude, before the dying snake’s heart stopped beating. Thus fortified, he then set off in search of hookers (a shot of snake blood was the Taiwanese version of Viagra, apparently). I’ve never felt so sorry for a snake in my life. It was a surreal and unsettling David Lynch-style end to my first day. (That’s just how it was in the 1980s.)

My first proper day on the job, another turn off to an alternate-universe- the one where my animation career ends by losing an episode -was only narrowly averted. I’d been given an entire show’s animation layouts to check, and in the pre-digital age, that was about 300 scene-folders full of artwork. I sorted the show into two piles; one big pile placed on the floor and labeled ’scenes ready for animation’, and another small pile labeled ‘scenes to fix’, placed on the small shelf available to me. Then, I was called away for lunch. When I returned, the big pile had been taken away, and I sat down to work through the art-fixes. Pretty soon, a production person came by and asked how it was going (as they do) and left delighted when I told her that most of the scenes were already in animation. Within about 10 minutes though, she came back with a quizzical look on her face, and asked me exactly who’d taken the scenes. I said I didn’t know, because they’d taken them when I was at lunch. She went away again, looking confused. I worked some more. She came back again, looking very worried and asked where exactly had I placed the pile? I gestured to the space on the floor.. “You don’t think the cleaners would have..” The production person looked utterly panicked.

We both rushed down the stairs that led to the alleyway outside, and I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I say we saw a garbage truck with the animation scene-folders being dumped into the back. The core-temperature in my bowels must’ve shot up about 15° in an instant. We rushed over to explain that the artwork on its way to the dump was in fact terribly important to us (though given the quality of the shows we made back then, the dump would have been the right place for it..) Thankfully, everything was returned undamaged. At every studio I’d worked in before, the cleaning staff was under strict instructions never to touch any artwork at all, on the floor or elsewhere, and I’ve never before or since seen cleaning crew hauling stuff away in the middle of the day. But a studio of around 1000 artist-employees generated such massive loads of waste-paper that that’s how it was. The humiliating end to my animation career thus dodged, I got back to work. Though I was a generally clueless 22 year old, I did however have a fair bit of experience in animation by that time, since I started working at the age of 17. Even so, looking back on it, the Taiwanese crew must’ve thought I was an upstart pipsqueak at the mere age of 22 to be a layout supervisor, but they certainly never gave me any bad attitude about it.

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Mark Marren Sketching in GongGuan

Taiwan is where people began calling me ‘Jamie‘ rather than my real name of ‘James’. Someone from the translation department (which was essential for us expat supervisors to communicate with the Taiwanese crew) said my name of James would be too confusing, because it was already associated with the owner of the studio, James Wang (who was such a big shot that nobody else could even use the same name). When asked if there were any other names I was known by, I said Sydney friends had called me Jimmy, to a gale of embarrassed giggles from the translator. She made it quite clear that ’Jimmy’ was not going to be an acceptable name, and wouldn’t tell me why, no matter how much I asked. (Perhaps someone can tell me if there is a word in Mandarin -or maybe Taiwanese- that sounds like ’Jimi’ but means something filthy, like ‘aardvark penis‘ or something? I’ve always wanted to know.) Instead, I chose Jamie because that was what I was called by my family when I was small, and what my mother continued to call me until she died. I never knew this name would stick, but it’s a pleasant reminder of her.

The standard workweek in Taiwan was six days, and one day off each week didn’t allow for sightseeing. The entire 5 months that I was working in Taiwan, I only ventured out of Taipei 2 or 3 times, because I was exhausted on my day off, and didn’t have the energy for dealing with transit systems with incomprehensible (to me) signage. I just wandered around Taipei randomly for recreation, and had many late night dinners in Taipei’s abundance of of novelty restaurants with the other expats. We foreigners were thrown together quickly by the twin pressure-cookers of work, and culture shock, and I met an amazing number of people who became lifelong friends while in Taipei, considering that it was only a 5 month gig. We’d joke about our ’tours of duty’ or time on ’pork chop hill’; combat metaphors where people bond under stress. A group of us went to see the movie ‘Aliens’ with the Taiwanese crew that year, and much of Bill Paxton‘s paranoid dialog became our catchphrases; “We’re in some pretty shit now, man!” and the like.

Culture shock was an almost constant issue. Working six or seven day weeks is stressful under any circumstances, but takes on a surreal quality when you’re in a country where you don’t understand the rules. Sometimes we dealt with this with hilarity, sometimes paranoia. I remember coming back to my hotel after a long day of working, late one night. I was tired, and hungry but the hotel restaurant was closed. Nearby, there was a convenience store where I saw the perfect treat to reward myself for busting arse all day; a jelly doughnut. Just what the doctor ordered to soothe my jangled nerves. I bit into it, but instead of tasty raspberry jam, it was full of cold vegetable curry. BLURG! “What the?!” This small moment of culture shock shows how expectations are often pranked, and depending on the state of your nerves, you might explode in a fit of cursing, sob uncontrollably, or burst out laughing. Eventually, after several years straight living in various Asian countries, I got used to being the full-time foreigner, and learned to see that my own assumptions about a situation needed to adjust, but in Taiwan, I was experiencing it all for the first time, and sometimes the combination of work stress and culture shock was potent.

Joe Sherman and I were walking along a Taipei river bank in late summer. It had been a pleasant Sunday away from the stresses of production, we found an outdoor restaurant and sat down by the water to order our dinner. It was a warm evening and everything was going along swimmingly when our food arrived and we tucked in. When Joe bit down on his piece of fried chicken it was rock hard. He pulled it out of his mouth with his chopsticks, and the batter fell away to reveal the grisly image of a half-chewed chicken head, its dead eyes staring up at him reproachfully. He dropped the gruesome morsel: “Oh, God WHY?!” The interesting thing about culture shock is that there is a certain amount of it that is specific to the country you’re in (fried chicken heads are not universal, for example) but a great deal of it can be experienced anywhere. This was brought home to me years later when listening to Japanese friends who lived in Australia describing the things that drove them crazy about my country. Some were specific complaints that could only happen there, but many were exactly the same things that got my teeth on edge when I was living in their country. Because a certain percentage of the issue is simply a feeling of alienation, of awkwardness, or of feeling that your instincts no longer work. Which is to say, don’t grab the piece of battered chicken shaped vaguely like a chicken head and assume that’s not what it actually IS.

Taipei was a humid place, and had smells that I’d never encountered before. Even the regular smells of a big city; exhaust, trash, and the like, had a tropical pungency. Exotic spices were everywhere and to a western nose, even some of the food had outrageous smells.  There was one particular sour odor, that I’d assumed was blocked drains, until one day the smell that had haunted me for weeks was coming from my own dinner; a famously stinky tofu dish. After a few months of this sort of experience, the tables were turned when we foreigners organised a fun pizza night with our co-workers. We expats craved some western food, but had not allowed for the smell of the various cheeses, and especially the Parmesan cheese, being off-putting for many Taiwanese. Hilariously, one fellow said the Parmesan cheese smelled like baby vomit. I’d never made the comparison before but I realised he was quite right! (Later, I learned that the Japanese also find the aromas of traditional Western foods, specifically cheese and butter, have a distinctive smell.)

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Alley market near my hotel.

The early 80s was a bad time for the animation industry in general, and a terrible time for my wallet in particular. As a freelance animator in Sydney, I earned about AU$170-$200 a week, which is just as little money as it sounds. When I got the job in Taiwan however, I got a substantial pay rise for being a ‘supervisor’, and for first time in my life had the money to catch cabs, and dine out, but more importantly, I was able to save enough to travel freely for a few months after leaving Taiwan. Because of currency control restrictions, we were paid in cash rather than a bank transfer, and had to go to the bank each week to deposit an astonishing wad of bills, which we didn’t always have the time to do.  Kevin Richardson and I were walking home from the studio very late one night when we were surrounded by some louts. I didn’t think much of it until Kevin muttered out of the side of his mouth that he had two weeks pay in his bag. We were grateful for the ever present Taiwanese taxis that swarmed about constantly. We saw one, hailed it and skeedaddled.

I spent a lot of time in Taiwanese taxis, travelling to and from the studio each day. They were each uniquely decorated inside, sometimes with mirrored tiles, tassels, or with disco balls and lights, and a few times I rode a cab with a full sound system and karaoke microphone in the back. (Taiwan was where I first encountered karaoke. I did not, and still do not, understand the appeal of paying to caterwaul in public, or hear other tone-deaf folk mutilate songs of their own choosing. I remember thinking that this was a distinctly Asian phenomenon and that karaoke would never catch on in the west. Oh, how wrong I was; there are now karaoke nights in all the pubs in my own home town.) In the swarming, raucous Taipei traffic, there were a lot of motorbikes, scooters and mopeds, frenetically darting about, often with precarious and even dangerous parcels balanced on the tank; gas cylinders and so on. Sometimes, an entire family piled on one motorbike; Mum, Dad and 2 or 3 kids. Nobody wore helmets and the typical bike-rider might have flip flops as they blasted along. I imagine there must be some atrocious accidents, amongst the careening streams of high speed humanity, but in five months of dealing with that traffic every single day, I never saw one.

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Assorted Taipei vehicles.

Joe, my fellow culture shock-trooper, would often share a taxi with me from the hotel we both stayed at, to Cuckoo’s Nest. There was an almost daily ritual where we’d pass by a particular doctor’s practice that had ghastly illuminated signs of the various skin ailments they’d treat; ruptured cysts, extreme rashes, and other stomach churning delights. For blocks in advance of this particular intersection of horrors, I’d warn Joe: “You know what’s coming up, it always gets the day off to a bad start, so THIS time, don’t look, okay?” There wasn’t one single time that I rode with Joe, that he didn’t swivel his head at the last second to see if the ghastly sign was perhaps a mere figment of his imagination… with predictable results: “Oh God! I can’t believe it! Why would anyone put up a sign like that?!” Cue the culture shock melt-down du jour. I eventually learned to navigate public transport in various countries where I couldn’t speak the language, but given my lack of travel smarts, general ineptitude, and punishing work hours in 1986, I’m glad I didn’t have to do it that year, and had enough money to hail a cab, and simply show them the business card of the place I wished to go (written in Chinese of course).

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Ximending shopping district.

When I left Australia, I didn’t bring a camera and quickly realised that this was a tremendous oversight, as I was surrounded daily by visually interesting stuff. So I bought a Nikon FG 20, and Taipei was where I learned how to use it, jamming it into every situation, much to the hilarity of Tony Stacchi my good buddy then and now, and a frequent companion on my explorations of Taipei. I’ve hundreds of pics taken in Taiwan, and I’m happy to have their record of that period, and I think he is too, despite the long-ago teasing for my being a camera-wielding dork. Tony stood out amongst the other young Americans at the studio, not just because of an accent unlike any I’d encountered in a lifetime of watching US television from afar (“is he a Pom who’s lived in the US? or the other way around?”) I quickly learned that, being Bostonian, Tony was a Smart Arse of the highest possible order. Constantly ribbing me hilariously from our very first meeting, he ensured that we’d be friends for life.

Taiwan is not only the place I learned to take photos, it is also where I learned to sketch. Prior to traveling, I had never drawn from life before, and looking through old piles of drawings before Taiwan, there’s no location sketching. I drew caricatures of my pals, or amusing moments that happened at work, but it never occurred to me to draw something in front of me. Yet once I was in a foreign environment that changed, and these sketches here are literally some of the first sketches from life I ever did. The influence of other expats around me, who had CalArts or Sheridan on their resumes, also played a part. These fellows had fancy book-learning and had acquired the habit of sketching at school and I followed their example. I remember being asked where I’d gone to college to study animation, and people were surprised when I said nowhere; I’d been trained on the job, like an apprenticeship, which was the standard in Australia at the time. For my part, I was surprised at the North American approach; “You mean, you went to university to learn how to draw Saturday Morning cartoons?” I asked. “Why yes, I have a bachelor of animation from California College of the Arts”, I was earnestly told. Of course, I’m used to it now, but in 1986, getting a B.A. diploma to draw ‘Care Bears‘ was an absolutely hilarious idea to me.

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Pub Band, Tien Mu.

I experienced my first earthquake in Taiwan. At dinner earlier that same night, we’d talked about ghosts, because it was ’Ghost Month‘ (AKA ‘Chinese Halloween’) when the dead famously come back to Earth. Thus, when I fell asleep in my hotel, my mind was already primed to think of poltergeists when my bed started to shake, followed by the whole building and then the entire city. Still half asleep, my mind took a while to adjust to what was actually happening, and against all earthquake safety advice, I groggily got of bed and chicken-walked across a room that was dancing to and fro, over to the window of my eighth story hotel room and looked out at the city. Neon signs on buildings across Taipei sparked off and on- GZZT! GZZT! -as the shockwave moved across the town, and my mind finally properly awoke and understood what was happening. At the precise moment I realised that standing at the window of an 8th floor room was about the worst place I could possibly be in an earthquake, it stopped. Only the rumbling echoes continued, slowly dying out across the city, as the building itself subtly swayed to a stop. Not long afterward, we had to leave work early one day, and prepare for a typhoon. I was told to fill my bathtub full of water, in preparation for water supplies being cut off, which thankfully did not happen. When the typhoon finally hit, I had a great view from the eighth floor of all kinds of random junk flying around outside in the torrentially horizontal rain, including great long lashings of wire which had come loose and were whipping around the street dangerously. Ghosts, Quakes and Typhoons; never a dull moment in Taipei.

I really enjoyed the fact that in Taiwan, all the movies were subtitled in both English AND Chinese. This wasn’t the case in most other Asian countries I spent time in, where the only time I could understand a film was when it was shot in English. The grammatical quality of the subtitles were sometimes hilarious, but I could at least understand every movie I went to see, and I saw quite a few in the five months I was there, and was exposed to the wonders of Chinese movies for the first time. The 1980s was an energetic and creative time for Chinese cinema, and I loved being at ground zero for the renaissance. A particularly vivid memory is the first time I ever saw a Jackie Chan film. Earlier that same year, I had seen the latest in the Indiana Jones series, supposedly the best thing that Hollywood had on offer at the time, but Jackie Chan’s film roundhouse kicked the crap out of that, then leaped off a building besides. I simply could not believe what this guy could do, and could not understand why I had not heard of him before 1986, but I’ve been a big fan of his ever since.

My time in Taipei also introduced me to the works of yet another cinema master. Just before we layout supervisors left Taipei, after our TV series work was done, we held a series of layout classes for the new minted department. It was while preparing for one of these seminars that I was looking through the Studio’s video library and discovered the films of Hayao Miyazaki. The first Miyazaki film I ever saw was Nausicaä, and I’ll never forget it, even though I watched it in Chinese on a VHS tape at the studio after work, and didn’t understand a word. Despite that fact, I watched it utterly enthralled from start to finish. I made a mental note to track down more of his work, and did just that on my next stop, when on December 14 1986, I left Taiwan from the port city of Keelung, on a ferry to Tokyo via Okinawa.

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At a restaurant not far from the studio.

Taipei’s XinDian area has surely changed enormously in the almost 30 years since I worked there, and I doubt that it occupies that border between city and countryside that it did in 1986. Today, there are unlikely to be any water buffalo ploughing within site of the building we used to work at back then, nor the nearby pig farm that announced its presence to our noses on hot humid days (I often wondered which manufactured more excrement; the animation sweat factory, or the pig farm). By the time I worked in Taiwan, I’d already begun to wonder if the animation industry would last, and the numerous projects that Cuckoo’s Nest was doing that year (which must have represented a substantial percentage of the industry output of 1986) bore that earlier impression out. You could see at a glance that none of it was any good, and even if the industry did somehow survive, I was ambivalent about doing more of the same for my entire life, as much as I loved animation.

Yet even then, there were signs of change. ‘The Brave Little Toaster’, was being finished up at Cuckoo’s Nest by Steve Moore just as I arrived, and the Taiwanese crew was excited about finally working on something of quality. It was the shape of things to come, and other quality projects being made in the mid 1980s (such as ‘The Family Dog’) began to finally turn the animation business around. By the early 1990s, the animation biz was back, and I went on to have a 30 year career that I could never have even imagined in 1986. My being able to participate in the animation renaissance was largely due to working at Cuckoo’s Nest, and the contacts I made there..

With some choices, you’d end up at the same place later, even if you’d taken the other option, because your life is heading in that general direction anyway. But this trip to Taipei was a turning point for me, where so much of what came later in my life; key people that I met, lifelong friends that I made, places I worked, relationships I had, and countries I went to, would not have happened if it weren’t for that 5 month gig when I was 22 years old, working at Cuckoo’s Nest.