A recent post on Steve Moore‘s excellent FLIP Blog about the start of his animation journey, reminded me that this month marks the 40th anniversary of the first steps into my own career too. In my final year of high school, Hanna-Barbera‘s Australian studio finally responded to my (frequent) query letters from the year before, and sent me drawing tests. After eagerly completing them and getting an in-person interview (necessitating a long train trip to Sydney accompanied my dad) I was ecstatic to be offered a job on the spot. I’d have accepted on the spot too, if Dad & Mum hadn’t made me finish high school at the end of that year (the Australian Academic year ends in December). Their reasoning was that the job would still be there after a few months, but completing high school would keep my options open for tertiary education, if the much dreamed-of animation job actually sucked. The delay was disappointing.. but Hanna-Barbera suggested that I work during upcoming term breaks. I was overjoyed, when in September 1981 I stayed with my Aunt & Uncle in Sydney while working on cartoons. The very first scene I ever worked on was of POPEYE (in caveman garb for The All New Popeye & Olive Comedy Show) and more early 80s craptacular cartoons soon followed when I started work in earnest the next year.
The Hanna-Barbera Sydney studio was established in 1972 around the time of some contentious LA animation strikes, (only to be itself the victim of cheaper outsourcing options a few years later). Knowing none of this context at the time, I showed up to work as a spotty faced 18 year old eager beaver, simply wanting to draw cartoons – “ooh boy! showbiz!” The 10 year anniversary party for the Sydney studio was a few months after I started work, with Bill Hanna as the guest of honour. He had helped set up the studio himself, and often came to Australia thereafter. Sydney was a long way from LA, and we didn’t meet many big names from American animation (although Mel Blanc did visit the studio too).
Being hired by an animation studio direct from high school might seem unusual now, but it was the norm when & where I began my career, and I wasn’t even the youngest employee. Both the ink-and-paint and inbetweening departments had crew as young as 15. “HANNA’S” as the studio was always called in Sydney (Joe Barbera was invisible as far as we were concerned) had a more rowdy atmosphere than any other studio I’ve worked at, and part of this rambunctiousness was due to the youth of the crew. I’ve not found this anywhere since but it was typical in Australia at that time. Animation was a tiny industry, employing only a couple of thousand people nationwide, and there was little demand for animation courses so we simply learned on the job, like an apprenticeship.
Newbies typically started as an ‘Inbetweener‘, drawing intermediary poses between the animator’s key drawings, and a quirk of the system was that most drawings on screen were actually drawn by people who’d often just started in the industry a month or two ago. Artists were paid by the amount of work: foot of film (for animators, assistants, inbetweeners & camera operators) or pieces of artwork (layout artists, cel painters & BG painters). Some people made a lot of money working that way, but I wasn’t one of them. Piecework favoured artists who could churn it out, and many mass-produced utterly awful work, but not all of them by any means.
Learning on the job is sink or swim, but newbie inbetweeners weren’t totally left alone, as the department head (Helen McAdam) showed us how to draw ‘on model‘, and make the animation flow (such official mentoring tended to drop off later, in other departments, when we were expected to be more self sufficient). The inbetweening department had diehard dorks (like me) who were really into animation, but many wandered into the job by accident, and a few preferred to be someplace else.. wannabe musos from rock bands, dancers between shows, out of work thespians, or renegades from art school, all merely slumming it until their dream-gigs materialized. Animation has become a sought after occupation, but it was not ‘aspirational‘ back then.
I enjoyed being in a building full of people working with their hands, and learned a great deal simply by watching other artists at work, or poring over their art.. To me, working on hand-drawn animation felt like being in a mediaeval guild where hundreds of artisans toiled away on a project (but instead of a beautiful gothic cathedral, we built episodes of Drak Pack or The Robonic Stooges). The process itself was so fascinating that I often stayed late in the studio to explore the various departments. Looking at the paintings in the background department, or the cells in ink & paint, drawings in the layout department, and so on. The tactile pleasure of working side by side with other people covered in graphite or spattered with paint is something that I’ve missed since the animation industry went digital, and the products of our labours are on a computer screen.
Working on Saturday morning cartoons tended to be seasonal, and after inbetweening (on Mork & Mindy, Popeye, Smurfs, etc) most of the crew was laid off near the end of the year, when all episodes had shipped to the USA. Established artists could pick up freelance work at other Sydney studios (Burbank Studios, Yoram Gross, Film Graphics, etc) but initially none of those studios knew who I was, and getting regular work was difficult until I had more skills. Thankfully, that experience would come.
Next season, I worked with the animation checkers, doing their fixes. To maintain the churn of production, mistakes weren’t sent back to artists who’d made them but to a fix team instead. This work was no fun, but I learned a lot from the clumsy parade of shonky off-model drawings that staggered drunkenly across my lightbox, and in a system that prioritised fast over good, there were a lot of these – a crash course in how NOT to animate. Thankfully, I soon graduated to animation clean-up (over Mike Stapleton‘s roughs).
A disadvantage to being trained on the job is only being taught the narrow needs of your job description. People who learn animation at college get to experiment, but such pottering about was frowned on at Hannas (I’m not complaining, mind you, as learning on the job saved me the massive college debt that is common now). In an attempt to teach myself, I fiddled around with clumsy pencil tests on evenings & weekends. This (indirectly) led to getting to work on a TV special (Directed by Steve Lumley and animation directed by Don MacKinnon) that was being done in a separate unit. Best of all, I finally got to animate, and the cherry-on-top was the many talented animators on that project (Jon McClenahan, Chris Hauge, Simon O’Leary, Lianne Hughes, Arthur Filloy, & Janine Dawson) who took time to show me a trick or two, and inspired me daily with what they could do.
As an inbetweener, I’d kept up with the required pace, but as an animator I often struggled to make quota, because I was trying to learn, and redid my scenes.. I’d get in trouble for my low footage, and was compared poorly to the studio footage champions (even though I knew from my time in the fix department that many of the footage champs were the redo & retake chumps). After a year of two of animating, I tried layouts, which was where I finally found a balance between work that I enjoyed, was proud of, and could do enough of to keep production managers off my back. I learned 2D layouts under Deane Taylor and he was another artist who did inspiring work, a lot of it, and fast. Because I never went to art school, these early years working with (and watching) such artists at their work, was my closest equivalent.
So happy to be working at a job that I’d wanted since being a tiny child, it took a while to accept that the 1980s was creatively a terrible time for the biz. Most animated projects were cynically conceived; either advertising masquerading as entertainment (Donkey Kong) or where old live action TV series & movies went to die while corporations squeezed the last few drops from their IP.. (Laverne & Shirley, Teen Wolf, the Dukes of Hazard, etc). The way the wind was blowing back then, it seemed that this biz would not provide a viable, long term career..
This was never clearer than when attending a screening of THE BLACK CAULDRON with workmates. Perky animation wannabes went into the theatre, and 90 minutes later a slump-shouldered group of animation youngsters came out to discuss it afterward. The general consensus was that if what we’d just seen was the best that DISNEY could do, then then animation was indeed on its last legs. We’d arrived just in time to witness the death-rattle of a once-great industry. Such thoughts were on my mind while planning some overseas travel (with a brief side trip to Taiwan to earn much-needed funds) and I’d resigned myself to finding something else to do when I returned..
However, mere months before leaving Australia, there were signs that a change was coming. I was subletting studio space in a building that was a warren of independent animation companies (artists, camera operators and ink & paint types) when we were all called into the editing room to see a show that was being ink & painted and shot in Sydney, but had been animated in the USA. What we saw was exciting, and head & shoulders above the 1980s norm – THE FAMILY DOG episode of AMAZING STORIES, and it was (thankfully) the shape of things to come..
It astonishes me now to realise that the entire time I lived and worked in the Sydney animation biz was only from 1982-1986. That brief time had a bigger influence on my life than a mere 4 years should do. Of course, a lot happened in that time. I moved from my rural home town to start work in a big city. My mother died. I started animating. I got my first flat alone. I learned animation layouts. At around the 3 year point, I began to wonder if the grim predictions of older colleagues might be true, and that the animation biz was doomed, and at the 4-year point I set my sights on some travel, while I figured out what to do next. Thankfully, what actually happened was an animation renaissance, and these early years working in Sydney were the apprenticeship that allowed me to participate, and make a long career in the job that I love.