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.


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 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.

Apr 222010

Here are some rough designs from a few years ago. This project died pretty soon after the design process began, which happens to most projects I work on in development.

What was unusual (but may be the shape of things to come, unfortunately) was that the company went bankrupt before I had even finished the rough drawings.

Apr 112008

With great relief, I delivered yesterday some artwork on a job that I have been working on off-and-on for quite a while. One of the aspects of working at home is the lack of structure and, for me, that sometimes can be a drawback in that it results in a lack of focus… There are those days where a good drawing doesn’t seem to flow out of the pencil…

On days such as those, while working at a 9-to-5 job in a company, surrounded by producers brandishing schedules, I’m obliged to stick at it until a good drawing does appear or submit whatever comes out of the pencil, no matter what it looks like.

But when working at home, it is tempting to walk away from the desk and wait until the muse magically appears… That tendency was compounded by the fact that this particular job had no firm deadline, which allowed me to procrastinate, spin my wheels and meander to my heart’s content.

Until last week anyway, when the hammer finally came down and I was told to wrap it up this week, which required a desperate push to tidy up all the scribbles I had been doing over the past few weeks and arrange them into some kind of a presentable package…

Maybe I need to work in a shared studio again… I am getting a little weary of working at home and stewing in my own juices

Oct 142007

This is a design I drew years ago (in markers pencil and gouache) for a story idea, created by John Hays, about a weirdo San Francisco detective. The project was called THE DICK.

It also illustrates my most recent reading obsession; detectives; hard boiled, soft boiled and scrambled. This fascination came to me by way of the informal paperback exchange in my apartment building. Tenants leave their old books on a mantel shelf in the lobby for others to take, and in doing so I discovered many authors I may not have heard of otherwise.

One neighbour is clearly an avid reader of crime fiction, because I found several mysteries by Tony Hillerman that chronicle investigations by Officer JIM CHEE and Lt. JOE LEAPHORN of the Navajo Tribal Police. Another find was a novel by MC Beaton from her series about HAMISH MACBETH, a small town policeman whose beat is the Scottish Highlands. My next score was Carl Hiassen‘s very funny crime novel called SICK PUPPY which follows an outraged environmentalist chasing after corrupt real-estate development in Florida.

But what really got me interested in reading more detective fiction were some books by Robert Crais, featuring smart-alec LA detective ELVIS COLE. Though set in contemporary LA (late 1980s to early 2000s) they are written in the first-person narration I associate with the classic private-eye style. I have read about 7 of the books in this series and due to the funny-tough, sensitive-guy persona of the main character they are very fun to read.

Follow-up reading online lead me to Robert B. Parker and HIS own wise-cracking Boston Private Eye from the 1970s called SPENSER. So far, I have read 4 books about this gourmet cooking, hard punching tough guy with a heart of gold, a character cited as an influence on the Elvis Cole series. Both are tough guys in the private-eye tradition, though neither is hard-boiled all the way through. They have steady girlfriends and their committed relationships make them more than mere lone-wolf private Dicks. Never the less each series has a formula of sorts and I wanted some more variety in my crime-fiction diet…

More research online led me to the Thrilling Detective website; a wonderful resource to find out about writers and characters, learn which series came first, what order books should be read in, find out which writer was influenced by whom and learn what defines a story about a private-eye, as opposed to a police procedural or an amateur sleuth.

After several trips to Green Apple Books I now have a huge stash of 2nd hand crime paperbacks that I am ploughing through… I read a few books by Sara Paretsky featuring tough-gal detective V.I. WARSHAWSKI. Then one of my favourites so far; FLETCH by Gregory McDonald, a very witty and cleverly plotted crime story following the exploits of a wry investigative journalist. Elmore Leonard writes crime fiction full of shady quirky characters and those that we root for straddle the line between “goodie” and baddie”. His style of dialogue is imitated often, and many of his books have been made into movies, such as a very entertaining book I just read called RUM PUNCH (which became JACKIE BROWN).

Generally, I have been working my way backwards in time, so after the modern crime stories I read a few of Ian Fleming‘s 1950s pulp novels featuring JAMES BOND, a character who, I think, owes something to the hard-boiled crime stories of 20s 30s and 40s…

…And they were next on my reading list. I caught up with James M. Cain‘s classic crime novels DOUBLE INDEMNITY and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE. These aren’t detective novels, but are part of the ROMANS NOIR tradition where some average sap is tempted to do horrible things for love or money, or both (They were made into classic FILMS NOIR).

I really enjoyed re-reading THE MALTESE FALCON by Dashiell Hammett. Although NOT in first person narration, it is written in a sparse, tight, blunt, yet somehow elegant style that has been imitated ever since the book came out in 1930. It is especially satisfying to read if you live in the same neighbourhood as SAM SPADE, and I do; all the action takes place within blocks of my apartment. I wanted to read other adventures of Sam Spade but to my surprise and disappointment, there were no other stories ever written featuring this iconic character.

Thankfully the same is not true of Raymond Chandler‘s creation PHILIP MARLOWE, a hard boiled detective (some would even say THE hard boiled detective) who walked the seedy streets of 1940s and 1950s LA and whose cases spanned 9 novels starting with THE BIG SLEEP. It is no wonder that Raymond Chandler’s style is probably one of the most copied of all time when he has detective Philip Marlowe narrate his cases using lines like these:

“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.”

“Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”

That voice that has been ripped-off, referenced and lampooned so often that the spoofs come to mind while reading the books. When reading Hammett and Chandler, it helps to remember that the lines about deadly blondes, the similes about goons, or the scenes where someone falls through the office-door with a knife in their back and riddled with bullet-holes only to mutter a cryptic clue before dying on the floor, were all NEW when they were written. They somehow remain fresh even today; even if I think of DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID or a Harvey Kurtzman spoof as I read them, these books are a joy to read.

As a change of pace from gun-toting gum-shoes, and femme fatales, I am now reading Arthur Conan Doyle‘s famous creation, SHERLOCK HOLMES in a collection featuring both novel-length adventures and short stories. The elegant Victorian prose of these tales is a great contrast to the hard boiled style, and once again the pleasure of reading transcends the fact that the character has become something of a much lampooned cliché.

Hard to say how long this obsession will last, but if it has legs I still have to read stories by Mickey Spillane, James Ellroy, and Jim Thompson. Not to mention Edgar Allan Poe, the man credited with inventing the crime novel in 1841 with the publication of The MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE. Then I want to read more Raymond Chandler, and Dashielle Hammett’s THE THIN MAN and ALL the FLETCH novels. Oh, and Ross Macdonald‘s private eye, LEW ARCHER.

OK, must dash; I have a lot of reading to do!