ILM 1998

For the first 10 years of my career I toiled exclusively on shoddy Saturday Morning cartoons and yearned to work on something, anything, well made. Thankfully, the second decade was spent on better quality work, though it largely went unseen. Either it was a TV commercial that was beautifully crafted but aired when viewers went to the toilet, or an entertainment project that stalled for financial reasons and/or studio machinations that I never understood. One such project has become semi-legendary (within the biz anyway)..

Frankenstein & Novo

Mid 1998, a few ex-Colossal Pictures freelance artists drove from San Francisco up to Marin County to show our work to Dave Carson at ILM, who was one of the directors of an all CGI movie (Brent Maddock being the other). That project was ILM’s all-digital continuation of the classic Universal Studios Monsters franchise, featuring both FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER & THE WOLFMAN, plus a whole new menagerie of creepy beasts.

Based on the strength of their folios, Tony Stacchi & Garett Sheldrew were hired on the spot to do some visual development. I was not a perfect fit with the gothic style (being a goofy cartoon guy through & through) but wanted to push myself into new territory. Thankfully, a few weeks later I got a spot too, along with other ex-Colossal folk who trickled onto the project over the next few weeks. Tony Stacchi eventually oversaw a story team that was roughly half freelancers (Garett, me, Robert Valley, Bosco Ng, John Puglisi, John Stevenson) and half ILM/Lucasarts folk (Derek Thompson, Brian O’Connell, Delia Gosman, David Byers Brown, Steve Purcell – managed by Jane Lopez & Kate Relyea)

Rhino Ram!

That year ILM was humming with activity and filled to capacity as it scrambled to finish the first STAR WARS movie to hit screens since 1983, such that there was no extra space whatsoever. The solution for our unit was to set up several trailers in the ILM parking lot, with one for the story team and another for the art department. This turned out to be an ideal situation, and I have fond memories of this little self contained ‘termite terrace’ shanty town, complete with deck & sun umbrellas for our coffee breaks.

In the early days of any animated movie it is not uncommon for storyboard artists to have a crack at visual development, simply because during that early phase of production the art department might not yet be fully assembled. Many ILM designers were otherwise occupied on THE PHANTOM MENACE, so I scribbled furiously, hoping to get some of my designs into the movie during this brief vacuum. I enjoyed trying to keep up with the dark/moody/gothic style being drawn by inspiring artists in the story team, and the growing art department of heavy hitters (Iain McCaig, George Hull, Erik Tiemens, Ryan Church, Terryl Whitlatch, Carlos Huante and others – Managed by Larissa Martin).

the Ostripus

This screenplay featured another mad scientist with the same cut & paste obsessions as Dr Frankenstein, so I cooked up ideas for sinister critters he might stitch together from offcut bits & pieces. Such as OSTRIPUS (half octopus and half ostrich) and a beast I called SQUID KONG (gorilla head and cephalopod body) designed to be a particularly tricky foe for ol’ Frank to battle. These abominations were truly creepy to me, but the directors burst into gales of laughter at the sight of each and every one of them.. I went back to the drawing board and redoubled my efforts.. A living battering ram made from a lion and a rhino?! GIGGLE! Or how about a laboratory crane made from a repurposed giraffe corpse?! More GUFFAWS from the directors..

Sigh..

My goofy design sensibilities were not the greatest fit for the creepy & atmospheric requirements of FRANKENSTEIN, and I eventually gave up trying to design scary monsters, leaving that to the many experts ILM had on tap, and tactically retreated to the storyboard department to draw beat boards and sequences. (Most of what became the final critter designs were by Garett Sheldrew, Iain McCaig, Terryl Whitlatch & Carlos Huante, deftly sculpted by Mike Murnane).

Garett, Tony & I all lived in the same neighborhood, and met each morning on Polk Street to grab coffee before commuting north to San Rafael. Early mornings were typically cold and/or foggy in San Francisco, but during our reverse-commute out of the city, we’d strip off coats & sweaters and would be down to t-shirts when we pulled up to our hot & sunny crew trailer park. At the end of each day we’d commute from summer back to the wintery fog banks of Mordor (AKA San Francisco) often joking that the view of swirling fog over the city, as seen from the north approach to the bridge, looked exactly like a cloud-tank special effect by ILM, circa 1985.

One feature of that era was great studio parties, that welcomed people of other companies too, and ILM parties were fun to attend. There was a big one in summer, as a wrap party for crews of multiple Summer blockbuster productions, and a spectacular Halloween Party, where fabricators from the ILM creature shop flexed their creative muscles on absolutely fabulous costumes. This was a great time to be freelance in the Bay Area, ping ponging around a variety of independent studios, with a healthy cross pollination between various independent companies. We don’t think of Lucasfilm or Pixar as being indie now, but they were separate entities back then. Every studio I loved working for in the 1990s was eventually absorbed into the ever-expanding Disney Borg Cube (and now I’m a corporate cyborg myself!)

Giraffe crane

When Colossal Pictures folded in the mid 1990s, its diaspora became a fantastic networking resource for me, as my ex-colleagues spread to the 4 winds in the Bay Area, and beyond. Even while I was still working at Colossal many years prior, ex-colleagues Bob Pauley & Bill Cone met us for lunch when they worked nearby on THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, and we continued that tradition now that they were at Pixar and we were at ILM. Reunion lunches happened when we ILM folk drove to Point Richmond to meet our Pixar pals, other times they drove to us, and sometimes we met in the middle.

Occasionally, we went to Lucas Ranch to have lunch with friends working there. I’d already visited in the late 1980s, when I had the good fortune to look through the Lucasfilm art archive. The initial furor of STAR WARS mania had subsided by then, with no expectation of more sequels, and there was not as much security as today. I was allowed to look through old artwork, holding many of Ralph McQuarrie’s iconic Star Wars production paintings in my own hands, surprised (but charmed) that these epic images that dominated my childhood imagination were so small in person.

Frankenstein & Komodo-head

I was still working at ILM when the PHANTOM MENACE was finally finished, and attended the crew screening and after party. At that early preview of one of the most controversial pop culture films of that time, a few people immediately didn’t like it, but most absolutely gushed, including one high profile artist who enthusiastically claimed that it was “the best film of the four!” That early impression changed in time (and is still debated today).

Sadly, FRANKENSTEIN was cancelled in late 1999, for reasons too complex for me to grasp at the time, but I suspect that it was a combination of many things all together. The crew was devastated.. after all, we had an official GREEN LIGHT (I still have the celebratory crew T-shirt!) This film became a legendary project that coulda/shoulda been.. but had it actually hit the screen with that very early CGI might it have been another late 90s uncanny valley curiosity? who can say? What is absolutely certain is that FRANKENSTEIN was a great project to work on with a super crew. Sometimes, I don’t realise that I was standing in a sweet spot till much later, but in this case knew I was lucky, even at that time. 

Frankenstein & Novo

When FRANKENSTEIN dissolved, those of us who were freelance retreated back to our San Francisco base at Maverix Studios, bringing DEREK with us. He’d taken the plunge into freelancing and joined our nutty collective on 9th Street.

After hearing the sad cancellation news at one of our lunches, Bob Pauley set up an interview for me at Pixar. While MONSTERS Inc. production chugged along, a parallel Pixar pipeline was being built for a new project, where I worked in both art & story, and finally, my multi-year cancelled-project curse was broken when FINDING NEMO was released in 2003.

Pretorius' tank

In an amusing & ironic epilog, some of my silly creature designs (done long after I’d given up trying to impress the FRANKENSTEIN directors and settled for amusing them instead) eventually did hit the screen, when featured in a short film ILM made to demonstrate their new techniques at Siggraph: “WORK IN PROGRESS“.

43 thoughts on “ILM 1998”

  1. Love this Jamie – memoir, humor & history all in one! Dan Lee was another brilliant ‘bay area’ Designer – tho he hailed from Toronto & Sheridan College – who designed ‘Nemo’ and is certainly missed by everyone who knew him.

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  2. Enjoyed sharing an office with you. I remember when Tim Burton peered in at some toys on the windowsill and then startled when he realized there were people sitting there looking at him.

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    • I can’t remember if I was in the office when Burton did his toy/nerd spit-take, but I definitely remember talking about it with you.. BTW, why was he on the ILM campus that year? Was it his Superman? I don’t remember seeing many celebs, apart from Sean Connery (who was bloody HUGE, contrary to the ‘shorter in person’ actor stereotype).

      Yeah, I enjoyed sharing that spot with you too, Steve (remember ‘Stompy”?)

    • Mars Atacks was 96, so too early. I remember because we met him in the animation department and gushed about his amazing work on…… Ralph Bakshi’s LORD OF THE RINGS!

    • Thank you so much for commenting!
      I was just reminiscing with some other FRANK crew folk that I have no memories of the REELS, and how far we actually got with them before the green light became RED. I remember seeing a few animation tests, but not much more than that.. Do you have any memory of the story reel?

    • Really? You can’t remember the “foul and filthy….Foul and Filthy…FOUL AND FILTHY!!!… FOUL AND FILTHY!!! Cut?

    • Oh, I definitely remember the “foul and filthy” backlash.. after all, I storyboarded that sequence people hated! But I don’t clearly remember the reel itself..

  3. I remember we all had the unenviable task of having to try draw like Garret! (thanks Tony!)But the high tide rises all boats and I think I really improved my nunchuck skillz working with everyone in the trailer.de

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  4. Great story and awesome art Jamie,

    It is indeed a shame that the picture wasn’t made but I concur to the valuable experience gained.
    I’ve also worked on many a doomed project during that era, but working alongside great talent and getting paid for the gig seemed to compensate for everything.

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  5. Wonderful memoir – impeccable detail, thoughtful words and links. Such humanity for a cyborg! Another great edition for the JB anthology. V sad Frank didn’t get up but did enjoy watching ‘Work in Progress’.

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    • Yes! “Work In Progress” did two things;

      1) it was a demo for new techniques learned while making FRANK.
      2) it was a sort of cathartic in-joke about the perils of production.

      Some people got the joke but a lot didn’t, and some staff were even OFFENDED! But anytime something DIES, including a production, people process their disappointment/grief in different ways. Some get drunk and dance at a wake, while others are aghast!

      Anyway, glad that YOU enjoyed it, JD.

  6. Hi, Jamie… In a career that’s certainly had its ups and downs, my writing partner (S.S. Wilson) and I have had no bigger frustrating disappointment — besides the ego-driven ransacking of our screenplay for “The Wild, Wild West” — than getting the plug pulled on “Frankenstein & the Wolfman.” There was a clear vision in the screenplay, as well as in the directors’ (Dave Carson and my) shaping of the film’s look and mood. This was a chance for Universal to step out with its first CG-animated feature, and have it stand on its own with its edgy gothic look and story-line along with its odd but heart-warming main character, little Novo, the mad doctor’s botched prototype. The balance intended was an un-Disneyfied film that still appealed to kids but also to jaded teen-agers as well as all good-ol’ monster movie fans.

    To explain what happened — something owed to the film’s outstanding and enthusiastic team of brilliant artists and technicians — is simple, as best as I can figure it. The project received the coveted green-light from Universal’s then head of production, Casey Silver. Then, deep into production, Casey had moved on in his career and was replaced by Stacy Snyder who, I recalled in early meetings, had never shown enthusiasm or even an understanding of the project. She, of course, may have been right. We’ll never know. And, as new head of production, she had the right and the desire to make films she believed in. So, hard as we all were working, our lovely project was doomed. Perhaps, I should have been more political and periodically flown back to L.A. to reassure her. But any possible success for our film would have been credited to Casey. So, one day, without even a phone call from the new head of production, a nebbishy, unctuous, Dickensian creep of a guy appeared at ILM and very pleasantly followed us around, asking a few questions, until he later announced he’d gotten word from the studio that they’d decided to drop the hammer on the project. Such class. The hatchet-man slinked off into the darkness, or wherever these guys slink off to, and I informed ed my writing partner and talked it over with a disappointed and blind-sided Dave, then we announced it to the whole crew whose brilliant and inspired work was sadly never to be seen. Lessons learned? Yes. But it remains for me, despite its sad fate, one of the best experiences of my career due solely to the passion, vision and talent that supported me so generously for that year at ILM.

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    • Brent!
      Thank you for shedding some light on the murky machinations at work back then..

      Yes, I’ve worked on a few other projects, both before and since this one, where the reason for cancellation seemed to be no more complex than an executive changing of the guard.. (Hollywood execs, like chimps, ritually slaughter the babies of the previous alpha..)

      Anyway, it certainly lives on in the conversations of all I know who worked on it, as both an imaginative project that we nerds loved working on, and a team full of lovely people, many of whom became close friends. Much of the reason for that sustained camaraderie is thanks to the stewardship of you & Dave.

      PS: NUDCOAG (“nebbishy, unctuous, Dickensian creep of a guy”) is my new fave acronym for a common showbiz type!

  7. Thanks for putting together this remembrance, Jamie…it would indeed make an amazing coffee table book and there are so many sub-stories that remain untold.
    Despite the cancellation of the film and disappointment that followed, I still consider this job one of the most cherished in my career. The relationships that were forged, the level of creative inspiration, the challenges ( how to keep up with Garett ! How to do fixes in a Robert Valley sequence! ) were all so meaningful and continue to echo to this day…
    A footnote to Brent’s reflection on the ‘hatchet’, I remember that 2 films released by Universal spelled the undoing of Casey Silver: ‘BABE: Pig in the City’ a& ‘ Meet Joe Black’ were major disappointments for the studio and the knives came out soon after…Casey was slain along with his pride of cubs, and the irony was that Universal shut down the very properties that built the studio in the first place.
    Hooray for Hollywood.

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    • Thanks for your insights, Derek. I had forgotten the bigger picture of OTHER Universal films tanking, just prior to our fall from grace.. And yes, I too cherish this experience, the lessons learned and the friendships made.

      While I sat and watched (& thoroughly enjoyed!) the documentary on Jodorowski’s aborted DUNE film, I thought that THIS movie too could make a great subject for just such an essay.. The collision of Hollywood creativity & Hollywood politics..

      One postscript I might add to this blog post is when a huge gaggle of us FRANK alumni went to watch VAN HELSING much much later, and saw the corpse of our beloved project (designs, sets, ideas) butchered and stitched together with other things in a hilariously hideous fashion. Our entire row (of 8-10 people) in the cinema was howling and/or periodically pointing at the screen, and exchanging nods of recognition and hollow laughter, such that the rest of the audience must have thought us utterly MAD.

  8. Jamie, great post. I have forgotten many details of these years, was still at disney in 98, but first met you in around here somewhere, this fills in some blanks for me. Certainly was aware of the CGI projects at ILM, was exciting at the time. All of these entries will be valuable to history someday, as valuable as animation history is, i guess, but good to set it down before the noggin wears out. all the best and a good year’s end to you and yours! Rememebr the opening line from Scaramouche – ‘ He had gift for laughter and sense that the world was mad!’

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    • Scott, I believe I first met you at Pixar’s Emeryville campus around 2002? And yes, my noggin IS wearing out, so I like writing stuff down while I can still remember it!
      Thanks for commenting.

  9. HA! Nice trip down the Street of Lost Shows Jamie!
    Funny how the fondest memories are the crews for the shows that never happened… the one that got away is always sweetest cause it never had a chance to break your heart by itself… there were villains that stole it away.
    Someone should get to Guillermo Del Toro to resurrect the Monster again…! I’m ready.

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  10. I was one of the envious artists in the bay who missed out on the ILM chapter of life for all my Colossal buddies who got onto Frankenstein. I was intrigued by the promise of that movie, and still am to this day.

    Although, I know it took me a minute to start thinking as cinematically as you all seemed to do from the time I met you! I feel like I wouldn’t have been able to keep up with all that brilliance churning out goulish delights.

    This article scratches the curiosity itch while dazzling me with your brilliant scene and character work. An artbook compiling all your cohorts efforts would be a mindblower. I still have a few xeroxes from Garrett from his time there. Cherished inspiration. BTW: Where is he now? Garett is the one artist I can never track down.

    Anyway, thanks James for this peek into the Mouth Of Madness that is every unmade project in our animation careers. Here’s to the ones that got away!

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    • Ed! It was only around this era that I began trying to think cinematically. A little of that thinking began at (C)P, but you can only explore so far with a run time of 30 seconds! So THIS phase was where I finally had to think about that stuff. From 1996-2002 There were 3 animated movies I storyboarded on that never got made (“Hopper” “Frankenstein” & “Tusker”) where I got to learn the basics, from both cartoony gurus (like Tom McGrath & Mike Mitchell) and cinematic/moody masters (like Garett, Robert & Tony). Nothing actually got made sadly, but it was a period of great learning for me nevertheless.

      PS: the mighty Garett is still in the Bay Area and is freelance now. Not sure where though!

  11. Just re-read this after several months. A great remembrance of a special time, and a nice piece of writing. I have many fond memories of your contributions to that strange and wonderful project. Thanks for documenting some of it -Dave C

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    • Dave!
      So great to hear from you! I’m gratified to hear that you enjoyed this remembrance, and happy that you added your own comment to the others. Clearly your project made a lasting impression on many who worked on it. Some of that is simply the sheer nerd-joy at getting to draw critters & beasties all day every day, but much of the fondness is due to your genial stewardship of we gaggle-o-gomers!

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