Today is the sixth anniversary of the day I almost left this mortal coil. Ever since, December 26th has become my own personal day of thanksgiving, where I count myself lucky to be here at all. This year I’d like to write about the landmark year of 2016, when I worked on “MARY POPPINS RETURNS” (in cinemas now) and began to claw my way back into the animation career I’d loved for 30 years, after losing the use of my drawing arm in 2012.
Immediately after my STROKE, my focus was on medical recovery; learning to think again, talk again, walk again, and deal with the after-shocks of my condition (many of which l still deal with today). Then there were money woes; medical bills, insurance problems and massive debt. I needed to get back to WORK.. Even though my drawing ability was gone, I could think of no other career I was qualified for than animation, so I began to try and draw with my LEFT hand.
In early 2016, almost 3 years of constant drawing practice began to pay off, when I got my first ever professional gigs as a southpaw story artist, culminating in work on “MARY POPPINS RETURNS”. My old Pixar colleague (from “Ratatouille”, “Finding Nemo”, & “Inside Out”) JIM CAPOBIANCO had been tapped to supervise 2D animated sequences in the “MARY POPPINS” sequel directed by ROB MARSHALL. The 2D animation would eventually be handled in LA, but as Jim is based in the Bay Area, the storyboards would be done up here.
Initially the storyboard unit consisted of Jim, production manager ALEX da SILVA, and myself, and Pixar sublet us a room in one of their many buildings around their famous Emeryville campus. Working from a script by DAVID MAGEE (and lyrics by MARC SHAIMAN & SCOTT WHITMAN) we started blocking out the action, while looking at period cartoonists of the late 19th and early 20th century (especially TS Sullivant, AB Frost, and Norman Lindsay) and a ‘shape’ to the action began to emerge. Meanwhile in LA, animation production designer JEFF TURLEY and character designer JAMES WOODS really cooked up a fantastic look to the sequence (seen in the finished film).
Beat-boards and designs were presented to the director ROB MARSHALL in the historic Hyperion building on the Disney campus (which I’d never visited before despite my long animation career). A large group of people of many disciplines working on other phases of the production all brainstormed together; choreographers, set designers, composers and cartoonists all assembled for what was perhaps the most marvellous meeting of its kind I’ve ever attended.
At times it felt exactly like a scene in a movie about people making a movie, each idea presented being enthusiastically plussed in realtime by people whose own specialty might have been music, dance, set-design or animation. One charming memory of that meeting was the epiphany that people with a background in DANCE (such as our director) and people who work in animation (such as us nerds) BOTH think in terms of striking a strong POSE, and a big part of those respective jobs is figuring out an appealing way of stringing such ‘images’ together..
Not long after this meeting it was decided to drastically edit the sequence. While some of my favourite moments got the axe (including those seen here) it was for the best. LA used to be chock full of 2D animation feature film talent, but neither it nor the many jobs that supported it, are common skillsets any more. By simplifying the sequence it became something actually doable.
Storyboarding earns its keep whenever it allows such choices to be made early, when all that’s been lost are rough drawings, rather than building sets or animating labour intensive scenes only to discover too late that they aren’t needed (or can’t be afforded). Even the simplified sequence was still challenging to do, and personally I wondered if it would even be possible to pull together a big enough team who knew how to do the work required.
It was a happy day when KEN DUNCAN joined the project. I have been a big fan of his work for many years, and he now has his own animation studio in Pasadena. He was able to assemble a fantastic crew of 2D veterans, and new talent too, and the work they did speaks for itself.. As the production progressed, Jim often had to fly back and forth between the Bay Area (supervising storyboards) and Los Angeles (supervising animation) and London (to keep an eye on the live action shoot) so our team of board artists expanded to include both DELIA GOSMAN & OVI NEDELCU, both superlative story artists that I have worked with before (at ILM & LAIKA).
By the end of 2016 the storyboarding was ramping down as the animation was in full swing and I wrapped off Mary Poppins. As I’d been working around the Pixar campus for most of 2016, my old colleagues there could see that I was trying my best to get back to being a pro storyboard artist, and they too took a chance on a broken down cartoonist, by giving me a spot on a new production that I’m still working on now.
This was one of my first chances to work in animation again, after losing the use of my drawing arm. The awkwardness of re-learning to draw with my left hand was offset with the JOY of being back in the industry that I love, working with lovely people on an utterly SUPERCALIFRAGILISTIC project. On this, my personal day of gratitude, I want to thank MARY POPPINS for taking me on.