Jan 132015
 

In late 1996 I was in a mood to travel. There was an impasse in my life and, as with similar confusing junctions before and since, I hit the road, spending Christmas in Britain with friends, planning to head to Paris in the New Year, by way of the train through the CHUNNEL.

Paris1996_97_RERParis1996_7_gendarme

Nobody was riding the EUROSTAR train that year, and with good reason. In addition to a recent tunnel fire, The IRA (an Irish terrorist organisation) had tried to blow up The Chunnel from the British side, and not to be outdone, The GIA (an Algerian terrorist group) had vowed terror strikes from the French end, while labor strikes (a Brit terror tradition) were threatened at British Rail. The general public was wary of being caught in the crosshairs of technical failures, industrial disputes, two terrorist plots and mother nature– being flung at high velocity through a claustrophobic tube beneath the British Channel was still a relatively new concept in 1996– and people who wanted to cross it flew instead. The panicked marketing departments of both British Rail and France’s SNCF offered great deals as an incentive to put caution aside and ride the flaming-undersea-terror-express, so I did, on a nearly-empty train from London’s WATERLOO INTERNATIONAL STATION (Eurostar service switched to St. Pancras Station in 2007).

This wasn’t my first time in a high-speed train. Earlier, when working in Paris in 1990 I’d ridden the TGV, and earlier than that, when living in Japan in the 1980s, I often rode the ORIGINAL Bullet Train, the SHINKANSEN (an Aussie friend in Tokyo hilariously observed; “that thing goes faster than a sharp stick!”) So my experienced eye was initially unimpressed by Eurostar. Though it looked the part, it dawdled till the coast because British Rail hadn’t yet upgraded the tracks from London to the Channel, and the Bullet Train couldn’t truly ’bullet’, lest its 1990s high-tech slickness was shaken to pieces on the 1890s tracks. Thankfully, it picked up speed in the Chunnel and when it made landfall in France hit a cruising speed of 176MPH for a remarkably smooth and speedy ride to Paris. I’d made the Paris-London flight several times before, and although the flight itself is markedly quicker than the train, that speed is more than offset by getting to your departure airport, check-in, customs, immigration and bag retrieval, and the journey from the airport into the city at the opposite end. The Eurostar was downtown London to downtown Paris in about 3 hours.

paris1996_7_DaveCigarParis1996_97_TonyReading

Weeks earlier, when planning the trip, I’d told Tony and Dave that I’d lived in France, and smugly assured them that Parisian winters were mild.. cross-dissolve to: France’s frightfully cold winter that year. We spent most of our time indoors, enjoying Paris’ wealth of bistros, bars and museums with our pals Simon & Tanya, and had a great time. Nevertheless, we were in the “City Of Light” and felt obliged to see Paris, and occasionally braved the arctic weather to ‘enjoy’ the scenery through chattering teeth. After traipsing through the picturesque cold, Tony, Dave and I and paused to take in the view from the middle of one of the beautiful bridges across The Seine.

As we leaned on the guard rail, we saw some rubbish drifting by in the water below us; an LP record album cover of Simon and Garfunkel‘s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” floated into view in the swirling eddies under the bridge. We each saw this freakishly-apt moment of coincidence at the same time, looked at each other with a wide-eyed laugh, then watched “Bridge Over Troubled Water” meander in the currents of the Seine and float off under the next bridge. Cheered by this quirky piece of random chance, we headed into a nearby bistro to discuss the joys of synchronisity and 1960s folk-pop over a chocolate chaud and a croque monsieur..

A few days later, we three travellers went our seperate ways, and I took a side trip to Denmark before heading back to London on the Eurostar from Paris’ GARE DU NORD STATION. I entered a totally empty train carriage, put my bags in the baggage rack near the door, and took a seat up the other end. It seemed I’d have the luxury of an entire carriage to myself until just before the train pulled away, when a large group of largish men bustled aboard and occupied the back two rows. Brit athletes in suits, I thought, perhaps returning from a game in France? The Eurostar depated and I enjoyed the French countryside zipping by until the train entered the Chunnel, when I went to the dining car to eat and write letters (on-paper letters, remember those?) telling family and friends about Chartres Cathedral, the Catacombs and other tourist sites I’d seen in my brief forays into the frigid French winter. I finished my writing and went back to my seat.

Paris1996_97_SimonDrawing

Paris1996_97_Tanya

Pulling into LONDON a mere 3 hours after departing PARIS, I went to get my luggage from the luggage rack by the rear door of the carriage, and absent mindedly noted that in the midst of the large group of very large men was a smaller, rather ugly fellow. Perhaps he was the manager of this burly group of be-suited athletes. He looked like a balding Mr Bean with glasses… Wait, is that Rowan Atkinson? I did a double-take, I knew that face.. it was unmistakably SALMAN RUSHIE, surrounded by his bodyguards. For a time, Rushdie must’ve had the most recognisable ugly face in the world. His hooded-eyed mug was always in the media back then, after The Ayatollah Khomeini placed a Fatwa on him for writing the Satanic Verses. Many famous writers could be passed in the street without being recognised (it must be a pleasantly anonymous occupation for a famous person to have) but not so with Rushdie. He’s highly recognisable even now, but more so back then at the height of his notoriety, when his Bond villain gaze was on magazines and TVs almost daily. As I pondered these things, the rapidly spinning wheels in my mind must have been audible to Salman’s wall-of-muscle, and they gave me their undivided attention with intense alphadog stares. I grabbed my bags and scuttled away.

As I stepped off the train, I thought about my brief brush with fame. In the past, it had already struck me (as it has many others) that famous actors were much shorter in real life. Based on my brief meeting of Rushdie, I wondered if the similar principle with plain-looking famous folk is that they are even uglier in person? Being instantly recognisable must be one of the curses of fame even at the best of times, but extra uncomfortable when under a Fatwa; a game of “you’re it” with homicidal nutjobs weilding rocket launchers and Kalashnikovs.. Clearly, Rushdie’s security team had chosen this mode of travel precisely because there were less people on the Eurostar that year. Their entourage was less likely to be ’made’ by the loons, and there’d be less collateral damage if they actually were. Then it hit me; I’d not only had a brush with fame by meeting Rushdie, but had worsened my odds in my brush with terrorism too. As well as the two terror groups I already knew about, The IRA and the GIA, who’d vowed to blow the Chunnel and therefore had me in their sights by proxy, I’d been riding a train that had been a potential target of a third terror group; the deadly yo-yos unleashed by the Ayatollah. Had they known Salman Rushie was sitting behind me, they would most certainly have shown up, guns-a-blazin’..

a BULLET train indeed!

Feb 062012
 

Last Weekend, Julia and I returned from a fantastic 2-week visit to France. Our first few days in Paris were a blur of activity; sight-seeing, visiting the Musée d’Orsay, and meeting with my old friends from when I worked at Disney Paris (in 1990). Then we got on one of those fancy TGV trains, and spent the next few days down south at the Angoulême International Comics Festival for more of the same; sightseeing, lots of socializing with book-buying besides! By the time we got to SAINTES over on the Atlantic coast, for a visit with my Dad and his wife Wendy, the pace slowed down enough to finally fit in a little sketching, though nowhere near as much as I would have liked.

These first two drawings show some of the Roman artifacts that are highlights of a visit to the region around Saintes, including a spectacular Gallo-Roman Amphitheatre. It is really something for someone raised in the New World, to behold such antiquities as these. In fact, one of the things that struck us both about this town was how matter-of-fact they are about the cultural riches they had. We went to a small museum that was a treasure trove of goodies, but it was all presented as if it were no big deal. We were lucky with the weather the first week, and many days were even mild, but during our 2nd week, the weather turned decidedly colder and the sketching moved indoors. These sketches were drawn inside the chilly Cathedral of Saint Pierre:

After a very pleasant few days with Dad and Wendy, we left them to their own devices and headed back to Paris. We spent our last full day in France inside the the Louvre, that repository of Western Civilization’s greatest hits… A day is not enough to see anything but a teeny fraction of all the marvels in there, so we decided to focus on SCULPTURES, and the sketching thereof:

As a consequence of being a nest of over-achievers for well over a millennium, France is a country with such an embarrassment of riches in History and Art that it is impossible to take it all in… but I can’t wait to go back and try!

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.

Jul 132008
 

This sketch of my buddy Dave Gordon was done in early 1997 when he, I and mutual friend Tony Stacchi all visited Paris during a very chilly winter indeed. We ‘d just ordered chow in our shitty French, and this is my attempt to render Dave’s ‘dialect’. This was just after I had quit Colossal Pictures, and was traveling a little, while I tried to figure out my next brilliant career move.

Paris1996_7_DaveHoodie

I recently found some photos and sketches from that trip, when I was sorting through some boxes of old stuff, and I have been on a scanning and archiving kick lately, organizing the old photos and drawings. This round of activity was inspired when I finally received some boxes I had sent myself when I was in Australia for Christmas 2007. After going home to attend my Dad’s wedding, I had helped my father and his wife Wendy move into their new house, and along the way I was obliged to sort through several boxes of my old junk that I had left at his house all these many years that I have lived abroad, including some stuff from my years of traveling, that I had mailed home for safe keeping. I threw a lot of it away but mailed the rest to myself here in San Francisco. It was sent SEA MAIL so it took quite a while to arrive, many months in fact. Apart from some stuff sent home to Australia during my traveling years, the box also contains some of my childhood drawings and other things that I may post here later.

Jun 102007
 


I spent the last month in Europe traveling about. The main purpose of the trip was to be at my sister VICTORIA’s wedding in Paris, which all my family members managed to attend. It is no easy matter getting all of us far flung Bakers in the one place at the one time either!

Before and after the Parisian nuptuals I was able to visit friends living in Germany and Sweden. My pals of many years the McClenahans have been living in Munich, where they had just finished work on an animated film. When I showed up they dropped everything and went with me on a trip to Venice. What can I say, I loved that city. But believe it or not I had the worst Italian food I’ve ever had right there. Thereafter I made my way to Florence and back to Munich where I caught the train to Paris.

It was a real blast spending time with my small-town family in that wonderful city. I never stopped getting a kick out of it. Despite the terrible summer, the city looked beautiful in the autumn. After spending some time together we all had to go our seperate ways. The group that came over from Australia went home via Vietnam, which I am jealous about as they had a bunch of adventures there.

Once alone, I went up to Sweden to visit my old pal Annelie who I first met in the Orient when I was travelling there years ago. It was late in the year to be travelling around Sweden but I gave it my best shot, despite the sometimes grey weather. Stockholm is a truly beautiful city, I’m not sure why I haven’t heard more people gush about it… Perhaps the high prices keep them away… I briefly visited the Filmtecknarna Animation studio to pick up a new copy of one of my favourite ever animated shorts; REVOLVER by Lars Ohlson. My previous copy went missing a few years ago…

After Sweden I headed straight down to Germany via a train that drove straight onto a ferry. I spent a bit of time in Stralsund and then on to Berlin, and back to Munich where I flew out of Europe. A few days in New York hanging with my buddy Dave Gordon and the trip was done… whew!

Jun 052007
 

Last weekend I put on my moth-eaten old suit and walked the few blocks from my apartment to the San Francisco Masonic Hall, to watch a screening of Ratatouille, the latest PIXAR film. Later, at the Wrap-party, I was surrounded by co-workers and friends, all dressed-up, wearing huge grins on their faces. It wasn’t only the champagne making them smile; they realized that they had somehow made yet another great movie.

I am curious to see how Ratatouille goes over with general audiences. If they like it as much as the Wrap-party audience then it might be the biggest hit of any Pixar film yet. Kids will no doubt enjoy the fun scenes of a rat-chef as much as I did, but will they appreciate the thematic sophistication? Will clean-freaks get beyond the “ICK-factor” and learn to love a little rodent (yes, even in the kitchen) as much as me? How will it play for the People of France and other Francophone people? Will they see the love-letter to French culture that I see, among the many layers of this film?

There were quite a few French artists on the crew. No self-respecting animation studio can compete without its fair share of French artists these days (they are as sought after in the corporate animation-race as German rocket-scientists were in the space-race) and I think that their participation in this particular project lends it an authenticity, right down to the distinctive Gallic gestures in the beautifully acted animation.

Paris is lovingly presented, in one beauty-shot after another. The scenes of the city seen through evening fog from the River Seine brought back memories of my own nocturnal wanderings along those banks. This is the new movie to beat in terms of animation design. Character-design, production-design, staging, shading, lighting… everything.

As someone who worked on it myself, I am not able to give an unbiased review of this film, so I shouldn’t even try. Let’s just say that if you are a fan of any of the other 7 Pixar films, then you are not going to be disappointed by number #8.