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_desk

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.

Aug 212011
 

Many of the most-fun projects I work on never actually get made, like this one for example, a very fun project directed by Phil Robinson at Wild Brain in San Francisco.

These sketches were done for a re-telling of all the classic FAIRY TALES where the BIG BAD WOLF is the baddie, BUT this time told from his point of view. We learn that he was set-up in the LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD story, and RED was actually his girlfriend. The poor wolf is framed by the 3 LITTLE PIGS, who were 3 horrible little THUGS in our version. It was funny.


We were having a lot of fun developing this idea but the needle-scratch moment came when we found out that a film called HOODWINKED was already in production elsewhere. Clearly our timing was bad and therefore the project was shelved.

Jul 042011
 

A fun project I worked on a few years ago was HUBERT’s BRAIN; a quirky short CG film produced by Wild Brain (the original, San Francisco branch) and directed by Phil Robinson & Gordon Clark. Starring Peter Falk (Columbo) Jonathan Harris (Lost in Space) and Bruce Campbell (Evil Dead) the film won an Outstanding Achievement in an Animated Short Subject Annie Award for Wild Brain in 2001.


In addition to my usual role as storyboard artist, I did some of the character designs, including this one; an annoying yappy dog. It is always fun for me to design a character that is not supposed to be cute. Apart from a typical cranky lap-dog I was thinking of a creepy hybrid of pug, piranha, crab and bat as I drew him. The modelers and animators did a fantastic job bringing this character to life.


This is my fave design contribution to the project, but I have more model sheets for some of the other characters I designed for HUBERT’s BRAIN that I’ll post later.

Jan 302008
 

Gordon Clark and the guys at Wild Brain recently made an entertaining in-flight safety-video for Virgin America Airlines. I really like the pencil-testy look of it. Gordon styled the spot and designed most of the characters that made me laugh (I checked) and he also did the voice-over narration. I recently took a flight to LA and decided to fly Virgin just to see this amusing movie in action, but unfortunately the little TV monitors were not working on that particular flight. DOH!

Mar 252002
 

A lot of the the projects that I’ve worked on in the past few years are still in production, or are in some weird political limbo. Either way it means that I can’t show any work that I’ve done on them.

A rare example of some recent storyboard work that I can actually show because the project has been finished, is a sequence of boards from the CG short film Huberts Brain which has been added to the “Storyboard” section.

I’ve also added some new stuff to the Design section. Most of it is conceptual character design done when I went freelance a few years ago.