Phil Robinson

A beloved longtime member of the Bay Area animation community, has finally succumbed to pancreatic cancer after battling it bravely for over 3 years. Phil Robinson will be greatly missed by his loving wife Jennifer, and his many friends from around the world, me amongst them.


Phil came to the Bay Area in the early 1980s but I first met him in January 1991 when I’d just arrived from France and started working at Colossal Pictures. My contact on the project I was hired for was out of town when I arrived, so I was put in a big, freezing, empty room with two other artists assigned to the same show. The 3 of us didn’t know each other and toiled away on our respective tasks in anxious silence. I wasn’t even sure exactly what I was supposed to be doing anyway. Then one of the other guys cracked a joke– a wry observation about the ludicrouness of our situation, that made it clear he felt the same as I– we all 3 burst out laughing, the tension and anxiety melted away, and we all became friends on the spot. The cheeky joker was Phil Robinson and the other equally hilarious fellow was Dave Gordon. I wish I could remember exactly what Phil said to make us all laugh so hard, but as is often the case with the really good jokes, I was too busy belly-laughing to remember. What I’m left with is the feeling of that moment; the unmistakable knowledge that I’d made some amazing and irreplaceable friends.

In his 35 years in the Bay Area, Phil worked at studios like Nepenthe, Mill Valley Animation, Colossal Pictures, and ILM, and was a founding partner of Wild Brain and Special Agent. He was stalwart member of the animation community; an older brother figure to some, a mentor to others, a colleague to many, a business partner to a few and a friend to us all. He was one of the two directors on that first project I ever worked on in America (John Hays being the other) and because of that particular crew I fell in love with San Francisco and made it my home after many years of wandering hither and thither, and I’ve been here ever since. Phil Robinson was a huge part of my decision to stay, and was my constant friend and colleague for the past 24 years. The only time in my long career that I ever conceived of a project myself, Phil was the voice of the titular character, which was one of my few mini-triumphs in making it, and I remember that aspect of the otherwise benighted project with great fondness to this very day. I happily worked on several commercials under his inspired direction at Colossal Pictures, before Phil, John Hays and Jeff Fino split off in 1994 to found Wild Brain— that great little Bay Area studio that gave so many people their start in the biz– and I worked there with him many times too.

He was an interesting mixture of things. Phil was endlessly patient and a fantastic mentor to a generation of Bay Area animation artists in the 1990s and 2000s, but there was definitely a ’stroppy’ side to him that you’d see sometimes. Perhaps it was his old punk soul, but he couldn’t ignore pretentiousness, the putting-on of airs, or the brandishing of authority for its own sake. Then you’d see what John Stevenson called the ’strunty little Welsh git’ step out from the skin of the otherwise warm and silly fellow. I remember being in a bar with Phil when we got to bickering about the finer points of something or other— if Phil had an issue between his teeth he wouldn’t let it go, and I have that streak in me too— and our argument (and the beer) flowed till closing time. The bouncer (utterly massive in that style the Samoans do so well) told Phil in menacing bouncer-speak to shut it all down and move on, pronto. Picture a fiercely growling Doberman confronting a tiny Jack Russell Terrier– when a show of terrier steel scares the beJesus out of the Doberman and sends it skeedadling with its tail between its legs– and that would sum up what happened next. Phil and I finished our ‘debate’ at our leisure, and left in our own good time.

Even though I knew that a day might come when Phil could lose his fight with cancer– he was diagnosed way back in late 2011– it still managed to be a savage kick in my stomach when that day came. It was more of a shock than when my other loved ones had been overwhelmed by cancer before, and I wondered why this might be so… I think it’s because I’d felt that if anybody could possibly beat pancreatic cancer it’d be the mighty Phil Robinson, and despite his terrible odds I thought he actually would. Right up until a few weeks ago he looked fine and healthy, had a full head of hair, a bounce in his step, a smile on his face, a twinkle in his eye, and you’d have no idea to look at him that he was in the midst of a tenacious battle with a type of cancer that has one of the lowest survival rates of all. I’d ask him how he was doing, and he’d cheerfully admit that he felt “like crap” but he honestly seemed like he’d battle on forever. He was a tough little bugger with the constitution of an ox, and he put up one hell of a fight, but in the end, the cancer won (although, I like to think Phil gave his cancer a few savage, pub-style head-butts of his own, and made its victory really hurt). What a wonderful soul he was– witty, wry, considerate, silly, generous, talented, patient and strong– and what a great loss to Jennifer, his loved ones, his friends, his Bay Area animation community, and the human race, Phil’s leaving us will be.

Phil Robinson– you utterly splendid human being, you– You’ll always be missed, but never forgotten.

53 thoughts on “Phil Robinson”

  1. Ahh. I loved your writing. Sums everything. I started at Colossal in 1989. Last worked at Wild brain in 1999. I miss everything and everyone, and that includes Phil. Thank you for your eloquence Jamie!

    • Thanks Stan. John, Jeff, George, Charlie, Scott, Gordon, myself and a few others are all going to toast the lad at a bar later today. It’ll be beers ‘n’ tears all ’round. I’ll raise one on your behalf.

  2. thanks James, beautiful recollections. for some reason i often remember Phil explaining to me the “Glasgow Kiss”, a vicious forehead butt in a pub fight, and imagine the circumstances where a younger welsh punk Phil might’ve actually given me one…

  3. Thinking about him all day today…I’m surprised of how much I’m feeling this, those who live in LA might have noticed the rays of sunshine through the clouds today, that was Phil saying “Hello, all is fine”. He was very important in my life, I will never forget him…

  4. o thank you for sharing your thoughts & feelings – so sorrowful to hear he’s left our world.
    he was lovely lovely lovely.

  5. Phil was a brilliant, creative force of nature and a wonderful person. He touched many lives with his humor, talent and humanity. Its not fair that the best people get taken from the world so early in life. He will be missed by many.

    His spirit will live on through the work of the artists that he mentored and encouraged over the years. We will remember the man and his many talents when we design a character, finesse a gesture, or tell a story. We will recall how Phil improved our craft and we will strive to live up to the standard of excellence he lived by.

  6. Wonderful thoughts about Phil, Jamie. You really captured his humor and sweetness along with the tough as nails side of him.

    Phil gave me my first job in the biz and was always so encouraging and generous with his time, knowledge, praise and criticism. I never remember in a bad mood, or sulking. He’d get irate for sure but usually in passing.

    I remember this drawing he kept at his animation desk of a frog being swallowed by a stork and the frog reaching out of the stork’s mouth with his arms choking the stork. The caption said “Never give up”. How apt for Phil.

    Goodbye boss.

  7. Phil Robinson marked my soul with his wit, smile and kindness. And to be so talented. Damn, we’ve lost a great man. Beautiful tribute.

  8. In 1988, I got to meet Phil in Fil-Cartoons, Inc. Manila. I was a CU&IB trainee. He was the overseas animation supervisor for several projects being done here.
    A year later, as an IB supervisor, a group of us were called into a “pre-prod” meeting. Phil had some very impressive words.
    Animators and CU artists do about 20% of the “final line art work”. The Inbetweeners make up the rest 80%. The final look of the animation was in our hands, he insisted. Following the CU keys and the animators’ timing/spacing grids, IB work was important.
    Phil impressed on me that animation is teamwork.
    The good, they die young. Rest in Peace, Phil.

    • ANGI PALANCA- Thank you so very much for sharing your memory of PHIL from long ago.

      I remember him saying similar things to me too. One of the things that made Phil great as a creative leader was that he truly respected the efforts of each step in a production, and valued every artist. (By the way it is not only assistant animators who have such responsibility. Over in the production side of things, so many times the INTERN holds the film in their hands at a vital stage of production!)

  9. Thank you again Jamie Baker, for your beautiful (and hilarious) eulogy for Phil. Wish I could’ve joined you all the other night. Being afar, it’s difficult to process the finality, but your writing helps a lot.

    • Hey Amber. It has been very difficult on everyone, but you are right that it was a catharsis to meet with many other of Phil’s buds for a good cry, some fond laughs, and lots of drinks. Be forewarned that there may be a bigger celebration of the man in coming months, perhaps combined with an ASIFA retrospective. I’ll try to give you as much warning as I can, so you might attend.

  10. Yes indeed. Jamie, you found all the best words and touched on so many aspects of Phil that I too loved about him. Certainly a much closer to friend to the lucky ones, but a friend nonetheless. Whether in the throes of a job or hanging at a holiday party, that’s how he always made me feel, like a true friend. He will be missed.


  11. I still don’t know what to say about the sorrow of the fact that Phil has left this world. He helped me so much when I had no job, no money and no place to stay in Bay Area.
    I owed him in many ways and even though he’d never claim it the chance to somehow pay him back is forever lost.

    Do not understand why good souls vanish too soon.

    • Hey Pat. Thank you for adding your thoughts about Phil. He was a very generous man, both with the obvious things, like giving someone a ride in his car, or lending them money when they needed it, but also he was generous with his time, which was his most valuable gift of all.

  12. Jamie, thanks for summing up so succinctly (with wit and style) what so many of us are thinking and feeling about Phil’s passing. He was a great guy, and an influence on us all, in ways both professional (the way he approached work, how he handled clients etc) and personal (the calm and brave way he faced this last challenge.)

  13. Dear Phil
    I’ve been thinking of you a lot over the last few months, and what it is that we human individual beings leave behind. What is our legacy?

    When we all gathered on Muir Beach to say goodbye to you, it struck me that for all of our human achievements; our stock portfolios, awards, trips here and there, our careers, and so on, the sum total of our legacy is a moment like that; a circle of people. If we’ve lived well, that circle of people will be moved to tears, certainly, but will be uplifted as well.

    Life is difficult, for each and every person who’s ever lived. Even if not afflicted with dramas or ill luck, simply being born as a frail and impermanent human being carries with it a certain amount of tragedy and burden. Life is a walk up a very steep and rocky mountain where we all must carry very heavy bags on a very hot day. I’ve actually been on trips like that, where despite the hardship, everybody had an enjoyable experience. There were laughs, mostly at our own expense, and a sense of camaraderie that lightened the load.

    And yet, I’ve been on similar trips that were terrible, because someone endlessly complained about their own burden, a similar load that everyone carried, and soon everyone feels weighed down, their feet ache, they feel blasted by the heat, harassed by buzzing insects, and each step is heavier than the last. What makes life bearable or unbearable either way is the spirit of the journey, and you Phil were definitely one of those spirits that made life not just more bearable, but a joy.

    One day it will be my turn to ring the gong, as we all do sooner or later, but in the meantime, I hope to lift those around me, if I can, and leave behind me the echoes of a sweet note ringing in people’s ears when I go. Just as you did.


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