Jan 282015
 

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.

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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.

Jun 152014
 

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This is the first comic I ever did, for an anthology made by the staff of the animation department of Colossal Pictures way back in 1992. Originally, my contribution was printed as a 4 page story and the end pages were added later. (I have split the pages in half here to make an 8 page story, plus intro and outro pages, that reads more easily on a computer screen.)

I can’t remember who had the idea for doing a collaborative comic, but once that scheme was hatched, Bob Pauley was the brains behind actually getting it made. He found an offset printing company, designed the book, organised the art and did the paste up (yes, old school 1990s style; with glue!) and he had a neat comics story in the book himself to boot. Bob also came up with a nifty idea for the covers, which was a clever use of offset printers printers’ ‘waste sheets’ and some stickers. We titled the anthology “48X21” (because it was 48 pages made by 21 artists) and we all split the costs of print production between us, and we each got a share of the print run, in time to sell or give away as Christmas presents that year.

This bit of visual nonsense was my first time doing a comic, and it was a lot of fun to do. Whenever you see a texture, I just cut or xeroxed those out of magazines. Some of the miscellaneous objects in the background were likewise xeroxed out of books. It makes no sense at all, but hopefully has an internal logic all of its own. I called this trio Los Troppo Drongos and its members were named Nob, Wuz and Dag, and I had some other equally pointless adventures for them thumbnailed out which, sadly, I never got around to completing. A few years later, when I self published my first solo 32 page Rocket Rabbit comic, I reprinted this story (with the first and last page you see here) as a support feature.

Jun 042011
 

I recently found the drawing that got me my first job here in the USA. These rough character designs of Marty McFly & Doc Brown ultimately landed me an art director job at Colossal Pictures; my favourite company of the many I have worked at.


When I faxed this from France in 1990, I was working for the Paris Disney Studio (on direct to video movies and TV series) and I’d spent the previous 5 years essentially living out of a backpack; following animation jobs (on crummy Saturday Morning shows) from outsourced-country to outsourced-country, with the occasional side adventure to interesting parts of the world. It was a very fun period that I look back on with great fondness, but by the end of it, I was looking for any chance to stay for a LONG stretch someplace, preferably a nice town where I could understand the language and hopefully settle down a bit and make some FWENDS.

Which is exactly what DID happen.

My good friend Tony Stacchi (another veteran of the Porkchop Hill of overseas Saturday morning animation) recommended me to Colossal Pictures’ directors John Hays & Phil Robinson at around the time that Colossal was getting into animated TV series. The original plan was for me to work in San Francisco for a few months alongside the “animated BACK TO THE FUTURE TV series” pre-production team and then go to Taiwan to supervise production of the show (an area I had some experience in by that time). However that plan was revised, happily, and I became one of the two Art Director/Character Designers on the series (John Stevenson being the other) and then stayed at Colossal for many more fantastic years (working on all kinds of fun projects) made a ton of lifelong friends and made San Francisco my home.

All in large part due to this silly, simple drawing.

Oct 042007
 

When I worked at Colossal Pictures we showed animated series ideas to TV networks every year. One of my pitches was about a marsupial magician called KOALA LUMPUR, who I saw as a tiny, mystical problem solver; a cross between Yoda and Mandrake the magician. His action-hero side kick, named Dr DINGO, was a flea-bitten Indiana Jones in a Goodwill pith helmet.

I felt that a duo comprised of a magic detective koala bear and an adventurer/scientist canine could go anywhere and do anything. Between the two of them there would be so many possibilities for funny episodes. Sluething out whodunnits, exploring watchamacallits and fighting a nutty assortment of baddies with an array of dopey invention-thingamajigs. I drew up some pitch-art and wrote out a list of episode ideas and then took the whole lot down to LA and hopped about the room as I explained it all to some network executives. But, as is the case with many a “good meeting” in LA, it ultimately didn’t go anywhere…

Then, few years later, Stuart Cudlitz and the Colossal Pictures interactive unit found the old pitch materials and thought that this goofy investigative team would be a good basis for a computer game. I knew nothing about computer games back then, or computers either if it comes to that, but I got involved in making a Koala Lumpur game because I thought that it might help get a TV show for the idea (networks are sometimes more interested in ideas that have already been brought to market in some form or other). So we pitched a game called KOALA LUMPUR: MYSTIC MARSUPIAL to a big game publisher called Brøderbund, lo and behold,  they actually gave the project a green-light.

After years of working on, and even occasionally directing, all sorts of projects that were dreamed up by other people, it was incredibly exciting to finally be directing an idea of my own. I really threw myself into the project with gusto, and thought of not much else for several years.

I was very pleased that a couple of my best friends were doing the voices for the main characters; Phil Robinson as KOALA and John Stevenson as Dr. DINGO. I had them in mind from the start and their voices were used to pitch the idea in rough assemblies of the game, yet the powers that be intended to replace them with professional actors in the final product… but came around to my way of thinking when they couldn’t find any voices that were better. John and Phil did a fantastic job of bringing each character to life. Koala had a jumbly blendo accent, that was part Hindi and part Australian, and Dingo sounded like a blustery British colonel.

The division of labor between the two companies was that there was a fair bit of collaboration on the concepting, but that art design and art production was handled by Colossal, and programming and game design was handled by Brøderbund. The early phases of production were very fun indeed. Firstly, the design phase, where we worked closely with Brøderbund game designers, and then the art production, which happened both at Colossal and Chicago’s Startoons Studio (producer of many of great Saturday morning cartoons in the 1990s) and I spent quite a bit of time in Chicago, happily working with the Startoons crew there.


Unfortunately, the timing of the Koala Lumpur production was ill-fated for two reasons. Firstly, while our game was being made, the games industry shifted quickly to 3D games, like DOOM and QUAKE, and by the time our 2D game eventually came out, it was already yesterday’s news. The second bit of bad luck was that Colossal Pictures filed for bankruptcy in the midst of production, due to some problems on other productions at the studio. This caused financial and legal rifts between the companies involved and the completion of production was stressful beyond belief.

Brøderbund became severly rattled by Colossal’s financial crisis, and lost faith that Colossal’s art production chores could reliably continue, and thereafter ensured that all game assembly happened 100% at Brøderbund, with the Colossal crew shut out altogether. Without the close collaboration between the two companies that was initially planned, there were some bumps in the final product, and in some cases the art was configured incorrectly. The end-product suffered as a result, and certainly didn’t come out as I had intended. Anyway, despite all the hardship, the game came out on schedule, retitled “KOALA LUMPUR: JOURNEY TO THE EDGE” by some marketing genius, to mixed reviews and moderate sales in the USA. It sold better in Europe, and was very popular Germany, of all places (I am told the German translation was especially funny).

Not long after the KOALA LUMPUR game was released, Colossal Pictures went bust completely. There had been high hopes that the studio could survive the chapter 11 bankruptcy and bounce back but it was not to be, and after 20 years of business, that great studio closed its doors for good. It was a sad and stressful time in more ways than one, for not only did my pet-project get mauled, but the studio too. Colossal Pictures was without a doubt the greatest studio I ever worked at, and I was very sad to see it fail. Interestingly, Brøderbund, which was one of the bigger game companies in the Bay Area when I worked with them in the late 1990s, no longer exists iether, unable to adapt quickly to a rapidly changing market.

After this experience, I came to realise that I just don’t have the stomach (or the brains, balls or spinal chord) for directing big projects, and it just wasn’t as much fun as I thought it was going to be… After this fiasco, I started to focus on on designing, storyboarding and so on; those roles where I could make things, rather than oversee others. This project really taught me the value of collaborative, good-natured crewmembers. I vividly remember those people on the Koala Lumpur crew who were problem-solvers rather than problem-creators, and how grateful I was for their prescence amidst all the other production chaos and politics. I vowed that I myself wanted to be one of those kinds of people henceforth. So as painful as this process was, I learned some very important lessons about professionalism, and creative collaboration that have made me a much better crewmember myself.

Suffice it to say that I look back on the project with a mixture of feelings these days. I learned a lot, but many of the lessons were cautionary rather than inspirational. On the other hand, I still smile when I think about the KOALA LUMPUR SHOW I saw in my mind in the first place, directing THAT could be fun…

May 302007
 

These days, many artists (even those still in school) have their own web-sites, with links to artists who have influenced them. Hop-scotching around the internet from site to site has been a great source of inspiration for me in recent years. You can see links to artists that I admire on my LINKS page, but some of those who have influenced me the most have been those that I have worked with personally, and in many cases they don’t have websites and are therefore unknown by people who have not worked with them too.

Part One: Early Influences
I didn’t attend art school. When I started working in animation, at the age of 17, I was trained on the job and there wasn’t time for much “proper” training in the midst of production. So, while a lot of people remember the early influence of their art teachers, I am grateful to those few artist/co-workers who took time to show me some tricks and give encouragement when I was starting out, and had even less idea of what I was doing than I do today. Here are a few of the cartoonists who influenced me early in my career.

JON McCLENAHAN is an American, but he entered the animation industry in Australia, which is where I met him, when I started out at Hanna-Barbera’s Sydney studio, as an inbetweener. Jon was already an animator and he was the first artist ever to take an interest in me and I owe him a lot for that. He gave me encouragement and help with some animation I was doing in my spare time, because I was getting frustrated with being an inbetweener. Partly due to that after hours experimentation, and Jon’s encouragement, I did eventually get a chance to animate. Jon was, and still is, a very focussed, hard worker and he got a lot of work done by staying in his chair all day and drawing, rather than yakking with co-workers, which was my habit back then. I have since acquired his ability to work hard, day after day, but sadly I have never been able to apply Jon’s straightforward approach to creativity; he doesn’t second guess himself, and forges ahead with his first idea. I admire that approach very much and tried to adopt it for myself, but sadly I am rarely happy with my first idea, and so my method is is to “noodle” and try alternatives and throw away a lot of work along the path to making something I am proud of. Years later, after Jon and his family had moved back to his home town of Chicago, I had a chance to work with him at his own studio, called STARTOONS. Fans of Animaniacs, Tiny Toons, Tazmania and other quality TV cartoons from the 1980s and early 1990s may have heard of that studio because many of the funniest (and Emmy winning-est) episodes of those popular shows were animated by Jon and his crew.

Jon and I haven’t worked together for many years but we are great friends to this day.

Simon and Chris. These guys are often mentioned in the same breath by people who know them, because they are such complementary friends. When I first started working, they were like the big brothers I never had as a kid. In addition to picking up a cynical sense of humour that I hadn’t really earned yet, I learned a great deal about animation and cartooning from watching these two blokes:

CHRIS HAUGE has animated on the influential Gorillaz videos, including that first one for “Clint Eastwood” that blew everyone away (I must have watched it about 100 times). He did those when working in London for Passion Pictures. Before being part of that buzz, years and years earlier, Chris turned on a light bulb over my noggin when he was the first animator who explained to me that animation wasn’t just individual drawings or even pretty drawings… it is the relationship between those drawings that is important; he made me think about TIMING, which is something that he excells at himself. Chris showed me how to plan out the action in thumbnails first so as not to jam too much “stuff” into a scene, and ensure that the drawings each had enough screen time to “read” for the audience. That may seem obvious, especially to those of you who have had formal training, but it was a revelation to me when I was 18. (He later tried to teach me to surf, with much less success. My thrashing and splashing around made him look “uncool” in front of his surfer peers). As well as enjoying working with Chris at Hanna Barbera in Sydney, I also learned a lot from him when we both worked on commercials at Colossal Pictures in San Francisco (my favourite company I ever worked at). Chris now has his own animation studio in Sydney called HALO PICTURES with not only a great showreel but also a great location; near the beach. (Being close to the surf was one of the major factors in choosing a studio location for Chris).

Chris is the only of my art-pals on this list who actually does have a website, so please check out his animation for GORILLAZ and various other bits and pieces of coolness.

SIMON O’LEARY has worked on projects such as Disney’s Tarzan (in the Paris unit) and now directs commercials in Sydney. His cartooning ability, dry sense of humour and unpretentious approach to working were all major inspirations to me when I started in the animation industry and he inspires me to this very day. He is one of those guys who can do FUNNY drawings… drawings that’ll make you blow your coffee out your nose; you are laughing so hard. This is especially so when he busts out a savagely accurate caricature of a co-worker (or YOU) or a funny doodle based on something that happened at lunch hour. For 25 years or so Simon has both written and drawn a comic strip called Fred Gassit which runs in the Australian Motor Cycle News magazine (and several other motorcycle magazines around the world). While the strip is ostensibly related to the world of motorcycling, the humour is really about Simon taking pot-shots at the world in general, via the persona of Fred; a sarcastic dog-like character who is a cantankerous bastard but appealing none the less (much like Simon). Both the humour and the artwork are vulgar yet sophisticated (much like Simon), which is a winning combination for me; the hardest laughs happen when neurones within the low-brow and the high-brow are firing simultaneously. I have a collection of these strips that is a treasured possession I look through when I want a laugh or need to swipe ideas on how to draw a vehicle, a goon, a bikini babe, or anything for that matter. To my mind these cartoons are insanely funny and I wish that Simon was rich and famous as a result, but the fact is that he doesn’t even sign them let alone “promote” them. Self-promotion is not what Simon is about. Which explains why he doesn’t have a website and why you probably haven’t heard of him.

I have worked with Simon in Sydney, Paris and San Francisco and I look forward to working with him again some day.

DEANE TAYLOR may best be known as the Art Director on the Nightmare before Christmas (and a spin-off game). He also did design work on the animated shows Cow and Chicken and I.M. Weasel by Dave Feiss (yet another animation hero of mine, from later in my career). But years before that, Deane ran the layout department at Hanna Barbera in Sydney. After I had been animating for a few years, Deane offered me a chance at learning layouts under his supervision. Consequently, most of what I know today about composition I learned from Deane, or picked up by working with him and watching him go. He was the most prolific artist in the department. He has a very dynamic drawing style, featuring a clever use of shape and silhoette, that many of his trainees tried to copy, but nobody ever matched Deane for graphic dynamism and energy of line. He taught me some simple compositional guidelines that I learned to apply over and over again, but apart from art tricks, he also showed me quite a bit about work ethics and attitude. Even though the shows we worked on were pretty crappy in those days, and many people just went through the motions when making them, Deane was one of the few who tried his hardest on every show, no matter what. He took pride in his work. He respected people who did a good job on whatever they were given to do, rather than those people who will work on only 2 cylinders, saving themselves for the big deal job on the distant horizon.

Deane taught me to always think of how to “plus” the material that came across my desk. That is certainly what he always does.

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I am very lucky in that I have worked all over the globe, at some really great studios, on some quality productions, with loads of amazing artists over the years… but these guys listed here had a huge influence on me, disproportionate to the quality of the projects we worked on together. In many cases the stuff we collaborated on was a lot of crap, yet these artists are still some of those that I respect the most.

Jan 172005
 

After a long battle with cancer that got into his lungs, Dan Lee died this last weekend. He was only 35 years old. I worked with him recently at Pixar where he was one of the main character designers, but we first met at Colossal Pictures back in the mid 1990’s.

I believe that Colossal was the first place he worked at in the USA after leaving Canada. While there, amongst other things, he animated on the Koala Lumpur game that I was working on, and that’s when I got to know him. I remember that he was belting out great animation daily, and seemed highly skeptical of the fact that I loved everything he did and didn’t change anything… Anyone who worked with him back in those days probably remembers his little cubicle drapped in equal proportions with beautiful sketches, lots of pictures of Audrey Hepburn and Dan’s sweaty bike shorts.

Dan was amazingly talented, but not at all difficult about it. I remember that he was the first artist on Finding Nemo to manage a “cute fish” design. I had been wrestling with the challenge of drawing a cute fish for weeks, (it’s harder than you may think!) and Dan managed it immediately. (DOH!) If any of you have the “art of Nemo” book you will be able to see some of his very appealing little sketches of Nemo in there.

Apart from often being inspired by his easy way with a pencil, brush or stylus, I admired the fact that despite his illness Dan continued to work at his job. I suppose it continued to make him happy despite all that he was going through.

I saw Dan as Recently as late October when I was in at Pixar storyboarding on another project he was doing wonderful designs on. (the rest of you will have to wait a year or two to see his work on that film). At that time he was physically frail but was nevertheless cheerful, certainly more so than I would imagine myself being in the same circumstances…

Thanks to Amber Maclean for this recent photo of Dan, taken in December 2004.

An obituary article about Dan was published by the CBC. you can read it online here.

There is also a piece by the TORONTO SUN

UPDATE August 2005: read here about the Dan Lee Commemorative book.