Monday, January 28, 2013

Toaster Tales #2: A Letter to Mom and Chinese New Year

Toaster Crew in Taipei, 1986.  From left: Joe Ranft, Sanvy from Cuckoo's Nest, Steve Moore, Randy Cartwright, Brian McEntee, Jerry Rees, Chuck Richardson.    Photo by Rebecca Rees 
In January of 1986,  eleven Americans travelled to Taiwan to work on The Brave Little Toaster.  There was Jerry and Rebecca Rees, Chuck Richardson, Brian McEntee, Kevin Lima, Tanya Wilson, Chris Wahl, Ann Telnaes, Randy Cartwright, Joe Ranft, and 23 year-old me.  The studio was called Cuckoo's Nest, a cartoon factory which had been churning out miles of Saturday morning cartoons for Hanna-Barbera and Ruby-Spears.  The studio's owner, James Wang, paid to bring out about half of the American crew to shore up his talent pool.  Toaster raised the bar for his studio in every capacity.  Just compare Cuckoo's Nest productions such as The Smurfs to Toaster to get an idea of how far they were pushed.

 I recently found a letter I wrote to my parents from Taiwan, which unearthed some forgotten memories. So if you ever wondered what it was like to make a great American cartoon in the land of Chiang Kai-shek, read on!
The letter begins, and pardon my scrawl.....
Directing animator Rebecca Rees remembered the food too:

"When I first arrived in Taiwan, I didn't shit for a full week - at least a week. I thought I was going to explode. I felt like NoFace in Spirited Away. And the bicycle food carts were everywhere all the time, day and night; squid-on-a-stick 24 hours a day. I remember in the middle of the night lying in bed and being woken by the chant of the roving bicycle cart driver yelling something in Chinese that sounded like 'I saw a rabbit hole'.

About once a week, (animator) Ann Telnaes and I would go to get our hair washed at lunch time. We could get our hair washed, conditioned, trimmed and a shoulder and back massage, then blow dried our hair.....and it cost about 1$. But one time, they braided my hair and put ribbons in it. I was horrified but just smiled. Once we left and got into a taxi to go back to work, Ann had to take out all the ribbons in my hair before I got back to the studio. I was so embarrassed. She was cracking up."

Randy Cartwright joined them once, in need of a haircut.  He returned with a tall, poofy coif that elicited squeals and giggles among the Chinese crew.  And the Americans too, for that matter. 

The letter continues about a party held by Cuckoo's Nest Studio's owner, James Wang.
The banquet I mention in the letter occurred around the end of my first week in town.  I was still seeing everything as a scene from Blade Runner, but this party was more like Terry Gilliam's Brazil.  Imagine a gigantic, sepia tone parking garage but instead of cars, round, red cloth dining tables.   Add a brightly lit, white stage full of game show prizes, and an emcee speaking Chinese in a totally distorted microphone with six hundred young Chinese employees cheering madly.  The meal just kept coming, whole fish, whole prawn, eel, and other things not on the menu at the Panda Express.  Our tea cups kept being filled with truly nasty Taiwan rice wine, as they goaded us to "Kampai!".  By the end of the dinner, that swill had me placing prawn heads on my fingers as finger puppets, much to the horror of our Chinese table guests. 

I got into town just in time for Chinese New Year.   For about a week, there was an endless, citywide pyrotechnic party.  Rolls of firecrackers three stories long were draped down the sides of buildings and set off.  BAT-TA-TAT-TAT-TAT,  BAT-TAT-TAT!..... At night, you could hear blasts in the distance, like a war zone.   Men and boys would toss firecrackers into large bonfires,  then run through in a show of manliness.  Or madness.
Just another taxi ride view in Taipei.  Photo by Steve Moore
Production Designer Brian McEntee said, "I recall hearing what sounded like a real cannon go off in the street below our apartment... and that's exactly what it was. The puffed rice vendor! And during Chinese New Year kids in our neighborhood would take those boxes of sky rockets and have wars with the other kids in the apartments across from them. We had sky rockets ricocheting off of our windows.  And do you remember how many people came to Cuckoo's Nest during that season with eye patches and gauze covering nasty burns?"

Director Jerry Rees said, "Even though the New Years fireworks mayhem was dangerous as hell (and yes, Brian, I recall seeing many people wearing eye patches), it was wondrous! I swear, it was like the scene in Mary Poppins where they have the fireworks duel across the rooftops of London! For a couple weeks! I remember walking home during the explosions, and hearing a very loud BANG which I assume was an M-80 going off near my feet. I felt a whoosh of air pressure that for an instant, seemed to lift my foot off the sidewalk - like I was walking on the compressed air rather than the surface of the ground."

Production Manager Chuck Richardson added, "Don't forget the house full of fireworks they set off and was broadcast on TV."

When was the last time Blade Runner, Brazil, and Mary Poppins were used to describe the same place?

And read more Toaster tales in this post from 2012!

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