Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Lorax Anecdote Not from the Publicity Dept

I started working for Illumination Entertainment four years ago, when they were just starting out.  I work from my studio in New Jersey, in my hometown of Port Norris.  I used to live in L.A., worked there for over 20 years.  What a hell-hole.  With my wife, Donna, I bought a 120 year old commercial building, which we renovated and set up shop.  I have a half-mile commute to work.  I do storyboards on a Cintiq, which are uploaded to Illumination HQ in Santa Monica.

I started on "Despicable Me", then rolled right over onto "The Lorax", and now "Despicable Me 2".  Some California colleagues have bad-mouthed Illumination for not giving Americans jobs.  Because America ends at the San Gabriel Valley.  

"The Lorax" director Chris Renaud and me near Mac Guff Studio in Paris.
A Pixar friend who's drunk on the company Kool-Ade accused Illumination of using sweatshop labor.   He's referring to Mac Guff, the CG studio stuck in that horrible third world city of Paris, a stone's throw from the slums of the Eiffel Tower.  I visited it with my family in 2010.  They pay their animators in cigarettes!  Well, they smoke a lot, anyway.  

Right after our Paris trip, my wife started having stomach pains.  She was running for local election (and won!) and figured it was a stress-related ulcer.  At the end of December, after a series of tests, she was diagnosed with colon cancer.  It was bad. 

In January 2011, she began chemotherapy at Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. Every other week, we would make the fifty mile trek northwest to the city .  At a cubicle-like infusion station, I would plug in my Cintiq and do Lorax storyboards while my wife sat in a recliner for six hours, having toxic chemicals fed into her bloodstream to save her life.

At first, nurses would stop in their tracks, fascinated by what I was doing.  "Are you drawing?"  they would ask.  "Amazing!" they would say.  My work never saved anyone's life.  After a few months, they got used to seeing me.  Now I'm just "that Despicable Me guy".  Donna has the same nurse each time, Annette.  I can't understate how incredibly kind she had been.  Beyond administering chemo, she will sit and chat and make a stressful experience not so stressful, all while getting her own work done.   That's a whole different kind of talent. 
Nurse Annette and me with my Cintiq at Infusion Studios.
We kept Donna's condition quiet for a long time, because some people FREAK OUT when you mention cancer.  But I did tell Illumination.  Dave Rosenbaum, the story supervisor, and Chris Renaud, the director, could not have been more understanding and supportive.  We were in the midst of production on "The Lorax". With all the production madness going on on THEIR end, they never had a problem with my wacky schedule.  That meant a lot to me.    

So when I see trailers for "The Lorax", I think of Jefferson Hospital.  Parts of every sequence I did were done during chemotherapy, in what I now call "Infusion Studios".  That big, sweeping shot when we first see the Truffala Valley? Infusion Studios.
The massive animal exodus?  Infusion Studios.
Ted's escape from Thneedville?  Infusion Studios.  
Ted visits Audrey and gets flipped?  Infusion Studios.
And so on.

Two major surgeries and a year of chemo later, Donna's doing great.  I couldn't board a better ending.
Donna loves Paris.