Garett Sheldrew, one of the most awe-inspiringly talented artists I’ve ever known, died this morning of cancer. Even after working with many mega talents in studios all around the world, Garett was a stand out, and many of those other geniuses were in awe of his abilities too. If you’ve never heard of him it’s simply because Garett never promoted himself in the slightest. If he’d traded half his talent for ambition he’d have been world famous, but Garett never cared about ‘getting ahead’. Eccentric and utterly brilliant, Garett was a genuine Mozart of the pencil, and I can honestly say that I never met anyone else quite like him.
Most other people in the animation biz come from a mere handful of schools, where they’re all taught the exact same things by the same few teachers, but Garett never had any art education whatsoever. Instead of making student films at CalArts & Sheridan etc, Garett was teaching himself how to draw by copying pinups from girlie magazines while in the Army, stationed in Germany. I find it amazing (and reassuring) that one of the most talented artists I’ve ever seen was completely self taught, and made his own way into this industry. Unique himself, he both thought & worked differently from every other animator I’ve known, and created astonishing artwork as a result.
He became a benign elder Gandalf of the Pixar story department, but when I first saw him in the early 1990s, Garett was a smoldering & mysterious young gun, lurking outside the 3rd Street office of Colossal Pictures in mirrored sunglasses, chain smoking. I’d heard others mutter about this guy before I got to actually know him. ‘What’s the deal with that dude in the assassin shades?’ ‘Wasn’t he ex military?’ Blah blah.. Being largely silent allowed people to imagine wild stories, and project whatever they wanted onto him; ‘intense’, ‘difficult’ ‘intimidating’ etc etc.. but the truth is that he was a Magnificent Kook, a noble Art Wizard, a Gentle Loon and, in a world where the phrase is overused, he was a TRUE ’True Original’.
Back then, Garett lived in a crummy hotel in the tenderest part of The Tenderloin. After one night at a bar, Tony Stacchi & I took him back to his room at 3AM, when Garett’s legs were wobbly. The scene around his hotel was utterly crazy, even on a weeknight. Brawling hookers, skeezy Huggy Bear types, prowling Johns & glaring Travis Bickles.. While Garett snored in his bed, I looked out his window onto this scuzzball diorama, thinking that I’d not want to live there, that’s for sure, but Garett was often oblivious to ‘the niceties’. It was probably the flophouse he landed in after arriving from Seattle and he’d simply never bothered to leave. In that crummy neighborhood, l saw him hand out multiple 20 dollar bills to needy folks many times. Garett was very generous with his money, and in other ways too. There was even one down-on-his luck fellow that Garett allowed to sleep in his car every night (only terminating this deal when the guy puked on the seats).
It is difficult to sum up Garett as a person, or as an artist, and what he meant to those who worked with him, especially back when he had opportunities to show the full range of his capabilities. Later, he became a much loved & reliable member of one department in a big studio and was genuinely happy there, but knowing all that he was capable of, to me he seemed a thoroughbred used for pony rides. When I first encountered Garett, it was in a dynamic environment that encouraged creative growth with ever more opportunities & challenges. The fire of youth was still in him, and I feel lucky to have seen him stretch himself. His example inspired a lot of young artists, myself included, and though I never got even remotely close to Garett’s level, trying to do so expanded my skills a thousandfold.
At one point, I shared an office with him, which was both mystifying and humbling. While I arrived early and grimly battled away at my creative chores, Garett apparently did nothing for days on end. He’d come in late, watch episodes of classic Star Trek, read a few conspiracy theory websites, then knock off early as I sweatily hammered my stuff together. Then, on the day before the pitch, he’d finally start to draw and still be at it as I left. The following morning he’d have a flawless sequence pinned to the wall.
There are countless such stories from people who worked closely with him; ‘He just pulled magic out of thin air!’ etc.. but I wonder if he actually worked things through in his mind the entire time, like a 4D chess master. Far from idling, I’m convinced that he blocked out sequences, animated scenes and drew illustrations in his head, before ever lifting pencil to paper. Able to draw anything from any angle in any style (and animate it too) his true super power was mental visualization.
Occasionally production folk made the mistake of messing with this process, perhaps thinking more Golden Eggs could be extracted from the Golden Goose if he was forced into a 9-5 routine. This never went well. Bosco Ng observed years ago that sometimes Garett had to ‘break in a new coordinator’ which meant stress headaches for anyone holding a schedule & clipboard (Garett didn’t respond well to an ultimatum).
He was a curious mixture of things, as such brilliant people often are. Stubborn and capable of epic clashes with those trying to control him (I always wondered how he’d survived the army) he was an imaginative & cooperative collaborator, kind & sweet natured too. Wise creative leadership left Garett to his own devices, because when given enough rope he spun it into solid gold. On schedule. Every time.
Though absent minded & forgetful about the piffling minutiae of the world, Garett was intellectually dazzling at his craft, displaying a talent so vast that it seemed supernatural. When he explained what he planned to draw it often sounded crazy, but when he did so, it was astonishingly beautiful. Often barely monosyllabic, Garett was beautifully eloquent in visual communication. In corporate life, where verbal flexing in MEETINGS is where it’s at, this truth often gets lost – the best artists are often not ‘good in meetings’ and those who flourish in that verbal arena can’t always deliver the goods outside it (where the magic really happens).
When we lived a few blocks apart I’d often see Garett on the street, and he might walk right past me. This also happened at studios where we were colleagues. Some might interpret this as rudeness but I did not, knowing that Garett was often in his own head (perhaps thinking of a scene, or creative issue). For all this seeming detachment, he was an incredibly astute observer of the world – of motion, of animals, of people & the human condition. Of life. All the nuance, subtlety & poignancy seen in his work was ample evidence of an incredibly perceptive intelligence.
In 30 years of knowing him, I never heard Garett whine or complain even once. If he didn’t like a situation he’d deal with it, leave it, or quietly endure it. He hadn’t seen a doctor since the early 1980s (when in the army) but when abdominal cramps became unbearable for even his stoicism he finally went, and discovered that he already had stage 4 cancer in several organs. Many in his circle have only just heard of this shock, but the fact is that Garett only learned of it very recently himself.
Garett was long loved by Erica Jordan, and in his last days she was assisted in his care by his mother, as his old cronies came to say hello (& goodbye) including Gordon Clark & myself. Yet again, I was utterly amazed at the depth of the man. Were it me learning that I had mere weeks left on this Earth, I’m pretty sure there’d be some ‘why me’ self pity, but I saw not one iota of that from the Mighty Garett. He saw what was coming for him, looked it squarely in the eye, and then we watched an old Ray Harryhausen movie together.
JAMES GARETT SHELDREW
From early in his career, when he was a mere self-taught pup in his twenties (and I first got to know him) here are a few samples of work by the Mad Monk:
Garett did most of the heavy lifting on this early 90s NIKE commercial:
Likewise most of the storyboards and animation on this AEON FLUX episode were by Garett:
The climax of BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA features a Garett-designed ceiling mural.
Aother NIKE commercial designed by Peter DeSeve and Beautifully animated by Garett.