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!

Oct 102014
 

Here Be Monsters is a book illustrated and written by Alan Snow that inspired the animated film, The Boxtrolls. The book is a rambling grab-bag of fun ideas, seemingly every idea that Alan Snow ever had up till that point. It is a very enjoyable read, but presented a problem to adapt into a 90 minute movie. There was so much material that the biggest job was to edit it. If you made a 90 minute movie of the Bible (almost as thick as Alan Snow’s book) would you try to sketch out the entire narrative? And what would that be? Or would you just show one particular part?

HBM_LaundryPirates

Most of my work on the film was in the early period, focusing on storyboards, but occasionally I’d attempt a design, such as these guys above; the Laundry Pirates, whose captain was a dashing rat. The book was full of such whimsical characters; such as the Rabbit Women, the Trotting Badgers, The Cabbage Heads, and weird little sentient cheeses that ran about the town, or were chased through the countryside by gentlemen on horseback (as in a fox hunt).

HBM_TrollHiveHBM_cross-section

This project was full of many lovely ideas that had to be cut, as there is only so much that you can show in only 90 minutes. Alan Snow’s book is brimming with eccentric characters and whimsical scenarios and has enough material for a TV mini-series, but with a film adaptation, there was bound to be some aspect of the book that was someone’s favourite part, but that had to go.

HBM_Boxtrolls

I had a lot of fun wandering about in Alan Snow’s kooky world. Working on the development of any movie is a fun phase to be involved in, although you do have to be philosophical about the possibility of up to 100% of your work being grist for the exploratory mill, and being deleted.

HBM_town

Sep 262014
 

I’ve admired the films of Laika for years, and now I’m pleased to say that I’ve been involved in one; THE BOXTROLLS. From 2008-2012 I worked on this film, and to make this an extra special experience for me, it was directed by my dear friend of many years, Tony Stacchi, and Graham Annabel, a new friend made during this production. I finally saw the finished film a few days ago, and absolutely loved it. Now you all get a chance to see it too, as it is released today in the USA.

Boxtrolls

When I first got into animation, over 30 years ago, working in the typical animation studio meant you were surrounded by people spattered with paint or smudged with graphite, and you toiled away to a soundtrack of buzzing electric pencil sharpeners and the flipping of paper. Next, I worked at studios that did commercials and special effects, back in the days when it was all done by hand, and required things to be built by carpenters, model makers, and tinkerers, and even the sci-fi glow of a lightsabre was analog; animated by hand with smudged pencil on paper. That gradually changed when computers entered the biz. As wonderful as the new computer studios are, and I’ve worked at many, I sometimes miss the tactile qualities of the industry I first fell in love with. If you squint your eyes and look around the typical animation studio of today, all the people at their computer workstations could be working at a bank, or an insurance brokerage.

But when I flew to Portland to work with Laika, I was immediately charmed by the fact that I was once again in a building full of people toiling with their hands. Their plaster spattered smocks, paint-smeared aprons and vests, and grimy fingers were the telltale signs that they were not merely pushing around ones and zeroes, but sewing tiny clothes, building armatures, and sculpting and animating puppets. They were tinkering, experimenting, problem solving and making things; real actual objects to be manipulated by nimble human hands. I took great delight in arriving at the studio very early in the morning and creeping about the vast warehouse downstairs, where the final shots were being made. I was mesmerised by the beautiful sets, props and puppets. I could have been in the Boxtroll cavern itself, surrounded by ingeniously designed, intricate handmade wonders. Crazy clockwork toys made by a demented Geppetto.

When you see THE BOXTROLLS, and I really encourage you to do so, remember that the ballroom full of people you see dancing on screen, or the cave chock-full of toothy beasties with their kooky gadgets, were not produced in a render-farm, but are real handmade objects. The elements of the film were all designed, sculpted and hand-built, then expertly manipulated in front of cameras by human hands, and you are watching something unlike anything else in animation today. Stop-motion animators work ‘straight ahead’ and there is a certain jazzy improv to each shot that other modern animated films do not have, because the constant iterations of CGI boil that magic ingredient of spontaneity away. Spontaneity is impossible in most animation, but a form of it is possible in stop-motion. When watching a Laika film, more than any film by other modern animation studios, you are watching a performance and not a process. Stop motion is an intricate ballet, a spatial guitar solo, and a unique sort of performance capture that does not involve someone in a blue jumpsuit covered in ping-pong balls.

I’ve worked in animation myself since 1982, and yet the special skills and thought processes required of stop-motion animators fill me with mystified awe. Laika films have a different rhythm, perhaps as a result of this process, and of course there is a quirkiness to all things handmade. Popular reaction to stop-motion has always been mixed; many people don’t appreciate the irregularity of handmade things, and prefer instead the machined smoothness of the mass produced. If other animation is thought of as a sculpture in clay; an additive process, with plenty of chances for revision, refinement and correction, then stop-motion is a statue chipped from solid rock, and there are limited opportunities to fix mistakes, but when done as well as the Laika artists do it, stop-motion is a rare form of beauty. A dance of toymakers and animators, caught on film.

I’ve been In animation for a long time, but it is only in the last few years that I have begun to see feature films directed by my friends. It is unbelievably exciting to see themes and ideas I have long associated with these pals now on the big screen. Knowing Tony as well as I do, I see so much of him in there; so many poses and face expressions that I know he didn’t actually make or animate himself, but I see him in the film everywhere. He is in its DNA, and it is immensely gratifying to see his quirky subversive masterpiece. It is very hard to say whether the general public will embrace it as I have. Who can say? One person’s ‘quirky subversive masterpiece’ is another person’s ‘boring directionless ramble’, which is quite funny when you think about it, but that is the subjective nature of such things.

THE BOXTROLLS presents a weirder, more lush, expansive world, and sweeter characters than Laika’s other films. While Laika again showcases the awkward and the misshapen, the subterranean heroes of this film are strangely appealing, like the cute/ugly of a pug dog. Where other studios are quick to pounce on the heart strings, Laika has always been admirably restrained, but at times that allergy to maudlin emotion created a coldness on screen, and characters did not connect. But in THE BOXTROLLS, while there are creepy villains aplenty (and the main villain is a wonderfully funny and disturbing creation, with some of the most astonishing animation I’ve ever seen, in any technique) there are also characters that have an undeniable warmth, despite their weirdness, and thus it doesn’t feel like weirdness for its own sake. This is not to say that longtime fans of Laika’s particular brand of darkness will be disappointed, because there are images and themes in THE BOXTROLLS that are weighty and grim. This film somehow manages to be both lighter and sweeter while darker and deeper.

It is tragic that even mediocre CGI films can have a 40 million dollar opening weekend, while Laika’s typical opening weekend is less than half that for utterly wonderful films. But Laika already knows that no matter how lovingly they craft their work, it is an uphill battle to get the general public to care as much as they do, yet they do it anyway. Like a tiny shoe shop that stubbornly makes hand made shoes in a machine-made age, the cobbler does things his own way, for the love of it, and the hope that the minority of the public that do care too, can keep him in business. So, if you are any kind of animation fan at all, I urge you to go see THE BOXTROLLS this weekend, and treat yourself to a lovingly handmade feast for your eyes, mind and heart.

(more about my work on this film HERE.)

Apr 182014
 

July 15, 1986, I left Australia for what I thought would be a 6 month or one year trip at most, but it ended up being an overseas jaunt that lasted the rest of my life.

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View From the Tower Restaurant, 1986

I’d worked in Sydney animation studios since 1982, saving money for a trip to Japan. By mid 1986, I’d got my passport, bought a Japan rail pass, and after years of dilly-dallying was preparing to finally go. But before I’d bought a plane ticket, Janine Dawson offered me a job in Taiwan at a big animation studio. Despite years of saving, I was still functionally broke, as my limp 1986 Aussie dollars wouldn’t last long against the booming Yen. However, this brief work detour would be a chance to top-up my meagre funds with then-robust US dollars, so I bought a plane ticket to Taiwan instead, planning to catch a ferry to Japan from there when my assignment ended. I sold, tossed, or stored my belongings, let my flat go, and off I went, on a flight to Taipei, via a stopover in Hong Kong.

As I lay down across 6 seats on an almost empty Qantas Jumbo jet out of Sydney, I realised that it was a good news/bad news thing; it was exciting that I was finally on my way! On the other hand, I had no idea of what I was doing.. I pondered this dichotomy for the 10 hour flight, till the thrill ride landing in Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak airport, when the Jumbo seemed to slip in between the sky scrapers and apartment balconies (where I swear I could see people eating their dinners) and land almost in the city itself. To underscore my greenhorn traveler status, I was ripped off by the first cab driver I ever hailed abroad, who drove me NOT to the hotel I had pre-paid for in Sydney, but to a crummy hostel, and left in a frenzy of spinning tires. By the time I realised what had happened, I decided to pay for a hostel bunk in a room full of snoring travellers, rather than hail another cab and go through the entire humiliating process again.

The next day, I checked out of the hostel and did some liesurely sightseeing before my evening flight, till I realised with horror that I didn’t have my passport!! With my heart in my mouth, I scuttled back to the hostel where thankfully, my passport had been turned in. But what if it had not been? An alternate-universe of misery- where I lost my passport on my very first day abroad -lay down that turnoff, and I’m glad to have missed it. Perhaps it was the stomach churning terror of that moment, or the tropical heat, but I was bathed in sweat, and decided to go to the airport EXTRA early and cool off. Despite this, I almost missed my flight out to Taipei; the departure time on my ticket was wrong. “Quick! You might just make it if you run!” I was hurried from one person barking into a walkie-talkie to the next, through immigration, as I clumsily lugged my bags, there being no time to check them in. Airline employees frantically pointed me to the gate in the distance and cleared my path to the waiting plane, as hot, sweaty and exhausted, I wheeze-thumped my way down the connecting-tube to stagger, flustered and sweat-soaked onto a planeful of faces glaring at me.. I was so glad to make it out of Hong Kong in one piece, that I had a misplaced dread of that town for years. Much later, I had to do a visa-trip there, and to my surprise found it to be a wonderful place. (Which goes to show that state-of-mind influences the impressions of places, as much as vice-versa)..

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Cuckoo’s Nest Studio on Chung Cheng road, XinDian, 1986

Thankfully, my arrival at the other end was smooth, and my friend Janine met me at Taipei airport to ensure I made it to my hotel without incident. The next day, I went to fill out paperwork and get situated at Cuckoo’s Nest, which was perhaps the biggest animation studio in the world at that time. They were doing 13 different TV series (each having 13 episodes) whereas the Hanna-Barbera studio that I’d worked at in Sydney could handle only 2 or 3. I was introduced to the new layout department, and the other foreign supervisors that I’d be working with, but would not start work until the next day. Every expat I ever met who worked at Cuckoo’s Nest back then had the same experience at the end of the first day; while you’re still thoroughly culture shocked and jet-lagged, someone from the studio took you to a seedy place called “Snake Alley“. I’m not exactly sure why this ghastly place was chosen to be the ‘local colour’ that introduced us all to Taiwan, but it’s part of the ritual of travel that tourists go to grotty areas of foreign cities they’d avoid at home (Sydney residents who’d avoid Kings Cross will happily visit a similar sleazepit in Amsterdam, for example). Snake Alley’s particular brand of Red Light tawdriness was combined with animal torture. I saw a guy literally peel the skin off a live snake, drain its blood into a shot glass which was then downed with great gusto by another dude, before the dying snake’s heart stopped beating. Thus fortified, he then set off in search of hookers (a shot of snake blood was the Taiwanese version of Viagra, apparently). I’ve never felt so sorry for a snake in my life. It was a surreal and unsettling David Lynch-style end to my first day. (That’s just how it was in the 1980s.)

My first proper day on the job, another turn off to an alternate-universe- the one where my animation career ends by losing an episode -was only narrowly averted. I’d been given an entire show’s animation layouts to check, and in the pre-digital age, that was about 300 scene-folders full of artwork. I sorted the show into two piles; one big pile placed on the floor and labeled ’scenes ready for animation’, and another small pile labeled ‘scenes to fix’, placed on the small shelf available to me. Then, I was called away for lunch. When I returned, the big pile had been taken away, and I sat down to work through the art-fixes. Pretty soon, a production person came by and asked how it was going (as they do) and left delighted when I told her that most of the scenes were already in animation. Within about 10 minutes though, she came back with a quizzical look on her face, and asked me exactly who’d taken the scenes. I said I didn’t know, because they’d taken them when I was at lunch. She went away again, looking confused. I worked some more. She came back again, looking very worried and asked where exactly had I placed the pile? I gestured to the space on the floor.. “You don’t think the cleaners would have..” The production person looked utterly panicked.

We both rushed down the stairs that led to the alleyway outside, and I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I say we saw a garbage truck with the animation scene-folders being dumped into the back. The core-temperature in my bowels must’ve shot up about 15° in an instant. We rushed over to explain that the artwork on its way to the dump was in fact terribly important to us (though given the quality of the shows we made back then, the dump would have been the right place for it..) Thankfully, everything was returned undamaged. At every studio I’d worked in before, the cleaning staff was under strict instructions never to touch any artwork at all, on the floor or elsewhere, and I’ve never before or since seen cleaning crew hauling stuff away in the middle of the day. But a studio of around 1000 artist-employees generated such massive loads of waste-paper that that’s how it was. The humiliating end to my animation career thus dodged, I got back to work. Though I was a generally clueless 22 year old, I did however have a fair bit of experience in animation by that time, since I started working at the age of 17. Even so, looking back on it, the Taiwanese crew must’ve thought I was an upstart pipsqueak at the mere age of 22 to be a layout supervisor, but they certainly never gave me any bad attitude about it.

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Mark Marren Sketching in GongGuan

Taiwan is where people began calling me ‘Jamie‘ rather than my real name of ‘James’. Someone from the translation department (which was essential for us expat supervisors to communicate with the Taiwanese crew) said my name of James would be too confusing, because it was already associated with the owner of the studio, James Wang (who was such a big shot that nobody else could even use the same name). When asked if there were any other names I was known by, I said Sydney friends had called me Jimmy, to a gale of embarrassed giggles from the translator. She made it quite clear that ’Jimmy’ was not going to be an acceptable name, and wouldn’t tell me why, no matter how much I asked. (Perhaps someone can tell me if there is a word in Mandarin -or maybe Taiwanese- that sounds like ’Jimi’ but means something filthy, like ‘aardvark penis‘ or something? I’ve always wanted to know.) Instead, I chose Jamie because that was what I was called by my family when I was small, and what my mother continued to call me until she died. I never knew this name would stick, but it’s a pleasant reminder of her.

The standard workweek in Taiwan was six days, and one day off each week didn’t allow for sightseeing. The entire 5 months that I was working in Taiwan, I only ventured out of Taipei 2 or 3 times, because I was exhausted on my day off, and didn’t have the energy for dealing with transit systems with incomprehensible (to me) signage. I just wandered around Taipei randomly for recreation, and had many late night dinners in Taipei’s abundance of of novelty restaurants with the other expats. We foreigners were thrown together quickly by the twin pressure-cookers of work, and culture shock, and I met an amazing number of people who became lifelong friends while in Taipei, considering that it was only a 5 month gig. We’d joke about our ’tours of duty’ or time on ’pork chop hill’; combat metaphors where people bond under stress. A group of us went to see the movie ‘Aliens’ with the Taiwanese crew that year, and much of Bill Paxton‘s paranoid dialog became our catchphrases; “We’re in some pretty shit now, man!” and the like.

Culture shock was an almost constant issue. Working six or seven day weeks is stressful under any circumstances, but takes on a surreal quality when you’re in a country where you don’t understand the rules. Sometimes we dealt with this with hilarity, sometimes paranoia. I remember coming back to my hotel after a long day of working, late one night. I was tired, and hungry but the hotel restaurant was closed. Nearby, there was a convenience store where I saw the perfect treat to reward myself for busting arse all day; a jelly doughnut. Just what the doctor ordered to soothe my jangled nerves. I bit into it, but instead of tasty raspberry jam, it was full of cold vegetable curry. BLURG! “What the?!” This small moment of culture shock shows how expectations are often pranked, and depending on the state of your nerves, you might explode in a fit of cursing, sob uncontrollably, or burst out laughing. Eventually, after several years straight living in various Asian countries, I got used to being the full-time foreigner, and learned to see that my own assumptions about a situation needed to adjust, but in Taiwan, I was experiencing it all for the first time, and sometimes the combination of work stress and culture shock was potent.

Joe Sherman and I were walking along a Taipei river bank in late summer. It had been a pleasant Sunday away from the stresses of production, we found an outdoor restaurant and sat down by the water to order our dinner. It was a warm evening and everything was going along swimmingly when our food arrived and we tucked in. When Joe bit down on his piece of fried chicken it was rock hard. He pulled it out of his mouth with his chopsticks, and the batter fell away to reveal the grisly image of a half-chewed chicken head, its dead eyes staring up at him reproachfully. He dropped the gruesome morsel: “Oh, God WHY?!” The interesting thing about culture shock is that there is a certain amount of it that is specific to the country you’re in (fried chicken heads are not universal, for example) but a great deal of it can be experienced anywhere. This was brought home to me years later when listening to Japanese friends who lived in Australia describing the things that drove them crazy about my country. Some were specific complaints that could only happen there, but many were exactly the same things that got my teeth on edge when I was living in their country. Because a certain percentage of the issue is simply a feeling of alienation, of awkwardness, or of feeling that your instincts no longer work. Which is to say, don’t grab the piece of battered chicken shaped vaguely like a chicken head and assume that’s not what it actually IS.

Taipei was a humid place, and had smells that I’d never encountered before. Even the regular smells of a big city; exhaust, trash, and the like, had a tropical pungency. Exotic spices were everywhere and to a western nose, even some of the food had outrageous smells.  There was one particular sour odor, that I’d assumed was blocked drains, until one day the smell that had haunted me for weeks was coming from my own dinner; a famously stinky tofu dish. After a few months of this sort of experience, the tables were turned when we foreigners organised a fun pizza night with our co-workers. We expats craved some western food, but had not allowed for the smell of the various cheeses, and especially the Parmesan cheese, being off-putting for many Taiwanese. Hilariously, one fellow said the Parmesan cheese smelled like baby vomit. I’d never made the comparison before but I realised he was quite right! (Later, I learned that the Japanese also find the aromas of traditional Western foods, specifically cheese and butter, have a distinctive smell.)

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Alley market near my hotel.

The early 80s was a bad time for the animation industry in general, and a terrible time for my wallet in particular. As a freelance animator in Sydney, I earned about AU$170-$200 a week, which is just as little money as it sounds. When I got the job in Taiwan however, I got a substantial pay rise for being a ‘supervisor’, and for first time in my life had the money to catch cabs, and dine out, but more importantly, I was able to save enough to travel freely for a few months after leaving Taiwan. Because of currency control restrictions, we were paid in cash rather than a bank transfer, and had to go to the bank each week to deposit an astonishing wad of bills, which we didn’t always have the time to do.  Kevin Richardson and I were walking home from the studio very late one night when we were surrounded by some louts. I didn’t think much of it until Kevin muttered out of the side of his mouth that he had two weeks pay in his bag. We were grateful for the ever present Taiwanese taxis that swarmed about constantly. We saw one, hailed it and skeedaddled.

I spent a lot of time in Taiwanese taxis, travelling to and from the studio each day. They were each uniquely decorated inside, sometimes with mirrored tiles, tassels, or with disco balls and lights, and a few times I rode a cab with a full sound system and karaoke microphone in the back. (Taiwan was where I first encountered karaoke. I did not, and still do not, understand the appeal of paying to caterwaul in public, or hear other tone-deaf folk mutilate songs of their own choosing. I remember thinking that this was a distinctly Asian phenomenon and that karaoke would never catch on in the west. Oh, how wrong I was; there are now karaoke nights in all the pubs in my own home town.) In the swarming, raucous Taipei traffic, there were a lot of motorbikes, scooters and mopeds, frenetically darting about, often with precarious and even dangerous parcels balanced on the tank; gas cylinders and so on. Sometimes, an entire family piled on one motorbike; Mum, Dad and 2 or 3 kids. Nobody wore helmets and the typical bike-rider might have flip flops as they blasted along. I imagine there must be some atrocious accidents, amongst the careening streams of high speed humanity, but in five months of dealing with that traffic every single day, I never saw one.

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Assorted Taipei vehicles.

Joe, my fellow culture shock-trooper, would often share a taxi with me from the hotel we both stayed at, to Cuckoo’s Nest. There was an almost daily ritual where we’d pass by a particular doctor’s practice that had ghastly illuminated signs of the various skin ailments they’d treat; ruptured cysts, extreme rashes, and other stomach churning delights. For blocks in advance of this particular intersection of horrors, I’d warn Joe: “You know what’s coming up, it always gets the day off to a bad start, so THIS time, don’t look, okay?” There wasn’t one single time that I rode with Joe, that he didn’t swivel his head at the last second to see if the ghastly sign was perhaps a mere figment of his imagination… with predictable results: “Oh God! I can’t believe it! Why would anyone put up a sign like that?!” Cue the culture shock melt-down du jour. I eventually learned to navigate public transport in various countries where I couldn’t speak the language, but given my lack of travel smarts, general ineptitude, and punishing work hours in 1986, I’m glad I didn’t have to do it that year, and had enough money to hail a cab, and simply show them the business card of the place I wished to go (written in Chinese of course).

1986_Taiwan_ShiMnDing

Ximending shopping district.

When I left Australia, I didn’t bring a camera and quickly realised that this was a tremendous oversight, as I was surrounded daily by visually interesting stuff. So I bought a Nikon FG 20, and Taipei was where I learned how to use it, jamming it into every situation, much to the hilarity of Tony Stacchi my good buddy then and now, and a frequent companion on my explorations of Taipei. I’ve hundreds of pics taken in Taiwan, and I’m happy to have their record of that period, and I think he is too, despite the long-ago teasing for my being a camera-wielding dork. Tony stood out amongst the other young Americans at the studio, not just because of an accent unlike any I’d encountered in a lifetime of watching US television from afar (“is he a Pom who’s lived in the US? or the other way around?”) I quickly learned that, being Bostonian, Tony was a Smart Arse of the highest possible order. Constantly ribbing me hilariously from our very first meeting, he ensured that we’d be friends for life.

Taiwan is not only the place I learned to take photos, it is also where I learned to sketch. Prior to traveling, I had never drawn from life before, and looking through old piles of drawings before Taiwan, there’s no location sketching. I drew caricatures of my pals, or amusing moments that happened at work, but it never occurred to me to draw something in front of me. Yet once I was in a foreign environment that changed, and these sketches here are literally some of the first sketches from life I ever did. The influence of other expats around me, who had CalArts or Sheridan on their resumes, also played a part. These fellows had fancy book-learning and had acquired the habit of sketching at school and I followed their example. I remember being asked where I’d gone to college to study animation, and people were surprised when I said nowhere; I’d been trained on the job, like an apprenticeship, which was the standard in Australia at the time. For my part, I was surprised at the North American approach; “You mean, you went to university to learn how to draw Saturday Morning cartoons?” I asked. “Why yes, I have a bachelor of animation from California College of the Arts”, I was earnestly told. Of course, I’m used to it now, but in 1986, getting a B.A. diploma to draw ‘Care Bears‘ was an absolutely hilarious idea to me.

1986_Taiwan_RockBand

Pub Band, Tien Mu.

I experienced my first earthquake in Taiwan. At dinner earlier that same night, we’d talked about ghosts, because it was ’Ghost Month‘ (AKA ‘Chinese Halloween’) when the dead famously come back to Earth. Thus, when I fell asleep in my hotel, my mind was already primed to think of poltergeists when my bed started to shake, followed by the whole building and then the entire city. Still half asleep, my mind took a while to adjust to what was actually happening, and against all earthquake safety advice, I groggily got of bed and chicken-walked across a room that was dancing to and fro, over to the window of my eighth story hotel room and looked out at the city. Neon signs on buildings across Taipei sparked off and on- GZZT! GZZT! -as the shockwave moved across the town, and my mind finally properly awoke and understood what was happening. At the precise moment I realised that standing at the window of an 8th floor room was about the worst place I could possibly be in an earthquake, it stopped. Only the rumbling echoes continued, slowly dying out across the city, as the building itself subtly swayed to a stop. Not long afterward, we had to leave work early one day, and prepare for a typhoon. I was told to fill my bathtub full of water, in preparation for water supplies being cut off, which thankfully did not happen. When the typhoon finally hit, I had a great view from the eighth floor of all kinds of random junk flying around outside in the torrentially horizontal rain, including great long lashings of wire which had come loose and were whipping around the street dangerously. Ghosts, Quakes and Typhoons; never a dull moment in Taipei.

I really enjoyed the fact that in Taiwan, all the movies were subtitled in both English AND Chinese. This wasn’t the case in most other Asian countries I spent time in, where the only time I could understand a film was when it was shot in English. The grammatical quality of the subtitles were sometimes hilarious, but I could at least understand every movie I went to see, and I saw quite a few in the five months I was there, and was exposed to the wonders of Chinese movies for the first time. The 1980s was an energetic and creative time for Chinese cinema, and I loved being at ground zero for the renaissance. A particularly vivid memory is the first time I ever saw a Jackie Chan film. Earlier that same year, I had seen the latest in the Indiana Jones series, supposedly the best thing that Hollywood had on offer at the time, but Jackie Chan’s film roundhouse kicked the crap out of that, then leaped off a building besides. I simply could not believe what this guy could do, and could not understand why I had not heard of him before 1986, but I’ve been a big fan of his ever since.

My time in Taipei also introduced me to the works of yet another cinema master. Just before we layout supervisors left Taipei, after our TV series work was done, we held a series of layout classes for the new minted department. It was while preparing for one of these seminars that I was looking through the Studio’s video library and discovered the films of Hayao Miyazaki. The first Miyazaki film I ever saw was Nausicaä, and I’ll never forget it, even though I watched it in Chinese on a VHS tape at the studio after work, and didn’t understand a word. Despite that fact, I watched it utterly enthralled from start to finish. I made a mental note to track down more of his work, and did just that on my next stop, when on December 14 1986, I left Taiwan from the port city of Keelung, on a ferry to Tokyo via Okinawa.

1986_Taiwan_restaurant

At a restaurant not far from the studio.

Taipei’s XinDian area has surely changed enormously in the almost 30 years since I worked there, and I doubt that it occupies that border between city and countryside that it did in 1986. Today, there are unlikely to be any water buffalo ploughing within site of the building we used to work at back then, nor the nearby pig farm that announced its presence to our noses on hot humid days (I often wondered which manufactured more excrement; the animation sweat factory, or the pig farm). By the time I worked in Taiwan, I’d already begun to wonder if the animation industry would last, and the numerous projects that Cuckoo’s Nest was doing that year (which must have represented a substantial percentage of the industry output of 1986) bore that earlier impression out. You could see at a glance that none of it was any good, and even if the industry did somehow survive, I was ambivalent about doing more of the same for my entire life, as much as I loved animation.

Yet even then, there were signs of change. ‘The Brave Little Toaster’, was being finished up at Cuckoo’s Nest by Steve Moore just as I arrived, and the Taiwanese crew was excited about finally working on something of quality. It was the shape of things to come, and other quality projects being made in the mid 1980s (such as ‘The Family Dog’) began to finally turn the animation business around. By the early 1990s, the animation biz was back, and I went on to have a 30 year career that I could never have even imagined in 1986. My being able to participate in the animation renaissance was largely due to working at Cuckoo’s Nest, and the contacts I made there..

With some choices, you’d end up at the same place later, even if you’d taken the other option, because your life is heading in that general direction anyway. But this trip to Taipei was a turning point for me, where so much of what came later in my life; key people that I met, lifelong friends that I made, places I worked, relationships I had, and countries I went to, would not have happened if it weren’t for that 5 month gig when I was 22 years old, working at Cuckoo’s Nest.

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 042007
 

I am still working at SONY PICTURES, which is on the properties of what used to be called UNITED ARTISTS, MGM and COLUMBIA. One of the novelties of working at this particular animation studio is being across the road from a real Hollywood movie backlot, the CULVER STUDIOS, where a lot of classic films have been shot, including “Citizen Kane” the original “King Kong” and “Gone With the Wind”. Sometimes we animation geeks go to the backlot to have lunch in the studio cafeteria, where all the movie crews and movie extras get their lunch. (I guess the big wig directors and movie stars get fed elsewhere) Supposedly a TV show about LAS VEGAS is currently shooting and sometimes the cafeteria is frequented by extras dressed as dancing girls in skimpy costumes. So far I haven’t been fortunate enough to witness that spectacle myself.

This part of Los Angeles, known as Culver City, is where a lot of the earliest studios set up shop when LA started to become movie land in the 1920s and is consequently full of movie history. Not far away is the Culver Hotel, which was once owned by CHARLIE CHAPLIN and accommodated the midgets who were cast as MUNCHKINS while the movie THE WIZARD OF OZ was being filmed. According to the local lore they were a pretty rowdy and raunchy mob. Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy shot many of their films in the streets around where I work. The HAL ROACH studios used to be nearby but I haven’t figured out exactly where yet. the TOM AND JERRY cartoons were made a few blocks away on another SONY backlot (what used to be the MGM lot).

Although I am slowly starting to find some of the charms that Los Angeles keeps so well hidden, my initial impressions of this town were anything but positive. The very first time I came to LA was as a tourist, years before I ever settled in the USA. I was visiting my pal TONY in San Francisco and we took a greyhound bus to LA, arriving at 5 AM at the downtown bus station in the heart of the notorious skid row; a place which makes San Francisco’s Tenderloin seem quaint by comparison. The scene around the LA bus station I will never forget. Bewildered foreign backpackers huddled within the light of the run down and filthy bus station, as a horde of predatory lowlifes swarmed around outside in the dark, like zombies on the make. We had to plunge into the seething filth and wade several blocks to connect with another downtown bus line, and I simply could not believe the desolate scene that we passed along the way. It was so decrepit, creepy and seedy that it could have been a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie, such as Escape from New York. But this was no movie set; it was a real place in the town where they make those movies. We passed buildings bashed to pieces, their scraps used to make bonfires that raggedy people hunched over in the morning cold. We were shadowed by a sinister little band of scumbags trying to sell everything from heroin to useless pieces of old bicycles. By that point in my world travels I was certainly no stranger to poverty and decrepitude, having spent several years traveling in a lot of the 3rd world. But that scene in downtown LA rates as one of the grimmest I have ever seen.

Consequently, the first time I ever worked in LA (about 10 years ago) I was absolutely dreading coming down here. My initial bad impressions had by then been fortified by years of living in the Bay Area, where one of the favourite pastimes is LA-bashing. Surprisingly, I enjoyed those several months in LA, but I think it was because I spent the whole time in Santa Monica, which is an easy part of town to deal with for those of us who cannot drive; there is a decent enough public transport system and there are several neighbourhoods were you can get around just fine on foot, which I did a lot of. I spent most of my free time walking around, because I didn’t really know anyone down here back then.

This time however, I have quite few friends living down here, mostly cronies from my years spent working at Colossal Pictures and ILM. Although quite a few of them used to participate in the LA-bashing game, they all seem to be living happily down here now, and in one case there is even some San Francisco bashing going on (“San Francisco is SO provincial”). Hilarious.

Along with Tony and Gale and old pal Anne, I went to see the Scottish comedian BILLY CONNOLLY live on stage in a one man show. He opened his act by addressing the issue of rampant LA-bashing, noting that he has never understood why everyone hates the place so much. Thereafter, he stood up and rambled on for over two hours in a shapeless but hilarious, meandering performance that was really no more than a long winding string of reminiscences and parenthetical observations evoked by those memories. Normally, I am a fan of these sorts of things having some underlying structure, but he made the whole thing hang together just through the force of his charming storytelling. I later found out that his show was different each night, but the performance I attended ended on the strongest laugh of the show. His story of the time he was trapped in a sleeping bag with a faulty zipper, along with a girl he had been planning to get physical with, but who was going into the tell-tale mini convulsions that indicate someone is about to puke… his description of his frantic, and futile, attempts to flee the scene had me laughing so hard that my face hurt. It felt like I had been sunburned.

Thanks to ANSON JEW, who kindly drove me all over the place, I was able to see some great art shows. This past weekend we attended the Society of Illustrators show, and the weekend before that we saw a MARK RYDEN show at a gallery on Melrose where they had some really huge paintings on display. The biggest of the paintings on show (pictured here) sold for $800,000. The brushwork and finish on these pics was really something to see. Many of them had some very elaborate and whacky custom built frames.

Then we went to La Luz de Jesus gallery and then on to Alhambra to visit the GALLERY NUCLEUS, which is actually a bookstore but with a good portion of the space devoted to art display. That night the place was jammed full of hipsters throwing money around, at a book launch by some of the Pixar crew. LOU ROMANO, DON SHANK, NATE WRAGG and SCOTT MORSE have just put out a book called THE ANCIENT BOOK OF MYTH AND WAR. I was happy to see them and some other Pixar friends who had come down for the weekend.

For my slice of LA outdoor splendor I made sandcastles on Santa Monica Beach with the daughters of my friends John & Carol, and last Sunday Anne introduced a group of us to the huge, yet lovely Huntington Gardens near Pasadena.

I am still trying to wrap my mind around what (or even where) Los Angeles actually is… but I have begun to see it as a group of smaller cities rather than one big one. This vast urban sprawl without a focal point is mostly bland and in many cases even downright ugly, but there is a lot of history and culture here if you know where to look. I am beginning to think that is a terrible place to visit but it might be not a bad place to stay, once the ground-rules have been figured out…

Jan 012006
 

Due to my special inside-track relationship with Tony Stacchi’s webmaster I have the hot tip of the week: There has been a BIG upload of new artwork onto Mr Stacchi’s website. The FOLIO section at www.STACCHI.com now contains about twice as many pics as before.

Tony is one of the directors on the forthcoming CG cartoon called OPEN SEASON, which will be SONY’s first foray into the world of feature animation. If you want a laugh, and can’t wait (till september 2006) for the movie then check out this thread on a hunting forum where a bunch of hunters get upset about the “anti-hunting propaganda” that they thought they saw in the trailer for this cartoon.

Oct 262005
 

Here are some images from OPEN SEASON, the upcoming (September 2006) animated film, which will be the first CG cartoon from Sony. There will be a rash of talking critter pix coming out over the next year, but I am looking forward to this one (in part) because of the goofy character design. The film is being directed by Jill Culton (ex-Pixar) and Tony Stacchi (ex-Colossal Pictures), The head of story is Dave Feiss (Mr Cow and Chicken no less) and the characters were designed by Carter Goodrich (concept guy on every animated movie… ever).

I am friends with some of the people working on the film so perhaps my sense of anticipation is somewhat heightened… but even so I think these screen captures from the movie (not photoshop touch-ups) show that the look and tone of the film is definately going to be a lot of fun. There are even more screen captures from Open Season on the JOBLO website. Animals hunting the hunters? Sounds like a pretty good story-arc to me…

Jan 012005
 

My old pal of many years, TONY STACCHi finally bowed to all the nagging, and now has a web presence, so drop by and have a look at his new website. The site isn’t completely built yet, but there is already a tasty sample of his work on there to look at. Though a long time resident of the Bay Area, he is one of many of my pals who has recently moved away. (I am suffering from a severe depletion of my posse lately *SNIFF*) Tony now lives in LA, where he is Co-Directing a CG film (with Jill Culton of PIXAR fame) for Sony Imageworks called OPEN SEASON. The crew also includes one of my all-time animation heroes; the Mighty DAVE FEISS, who is running the storyboard department. So brace yourself for lots of craziness, but in CG. Carter Goodrich is also involved in the character design, so what with one thing and another, there is certainly lots to look forward to in that project.

Jan 022002
 

This goofy Chihuahua/Giraffe critter is from the cancelled Frankenstein project, that I worked on at ILM in 1998. It was a great project with a stellar crew of all-stars, and I eventually gave up trying to design cool, tough and scary monsters, and left that to the many experts.

Instead, I went for goofy ideas in an attempt to make the directors LAUGH. My sensibilities were not the greatest fit for Frankenstein, but this silly critter was eventually used in “Work in Progress”, a short film that actually did get made and released.