He has also published many books on animation, the most recent being The Alchemy of Animation, and he also found time to direct Waking Sleeping Beauty, a documentary about Disney and the creative process. FLIP asked Don to reveal the secret of juggling so many interesting and varied projects.
FLIP: You have a prodigious output of published work on animation, including, in the last few years, The Alchemy of Animation, Drawn To Life - The Walt Stanchfield Lectures, and Brain Storm. What is your favourite book and why?
Don: About a decade ago I got interested in writing about animation and the creative process. I've been really fortunate to work with some of the best artists and musicians on the planet and wanted to describe how they worked and what we did to make films at Disney.
The result of this impulse was three books and a documentary. The books, Alchemy of Animation, Drawn to Life - The Walt Stanchfield Lectures, and Brain Storm each approached the issue of creativity from a different direction.
Alchemy was for the kid who wanted to know how animated films were made. The Stanchfield Lectures were detailed and masterful, made for the serious student or professional, and Brainstorm was for any reader, especially people who didn't care about Disney (or animation for that matter).
Waking Sleeping Beauty was a documentary I directed, in an attempt to show how chaotic the creative process can be, and to put a face on the people we call "Disney." The truth is that there is no literal "Disney", but rather a small group of people who show up each day and try to tell stories in a collaborative complex way. I was trying to demystify the process and just get it boiled down to the basics.
FLIP: How do you find time to write books as well as Producing Films?
Don: I've always liked writing at the same time i'm working on films. Maybe I have Attention Defecit Disorder, but the contrast between a day of working with people, and then an evening working by myself on something entirely different, is really theraputic for me.
FLIP: You have worked on many of the finest animated films ever made. What is the secret to selecting excellent projects?
Don: I've been lucky to work on some great projects and people wonder if i have a secret. Well yes I do: it's about the people. I work really hard to put groups of people together who can collaborate and tell a story together, then I stay out of their way.
Great people can take an "okay" story and make it great, and weak people can take an amazing idea and kill it fast. That's always been my job, put together a great team, and then stand back and make sure they have a safe environment to create.
FLIP: What advice would you give to someone trying to break into the animation business?
Don: I get so many people who want to break into the film business as animators, writer, directors or producers and want to know how. Here's a checklist:
- Have strong work in your portfolio and clip reel, or strong writing samples.
- Be yourself, know who you are and what you do best
- Work harder than anyone else
- Be relevant, make sure your skills are up to date
- Send studios with your resume and follow up with a call
- Find a mentor in the industry
- Stay flexible, and be willing to move if you get an opportunity.
- Get into the culture: it is easier to get hired if you live in LA or NYC or London and can intern or get an entry level job at the studio you want. It is hard to get hired if you live in Kansas and don't want to move.
- Stay positive, stay persistent, stay in contact
- Don't let the obstacles scare you away. Each studio has firewalls built up in order to keep the hobbyists and fan boys out. As a serious artist, it's part of the rights of passage to get beyond those firewalls with your talent and persistence. If they don't return your call, don't like your reel, can't talk to you unless you have an agent, or don't have anything for you, see these for what they are...obstacles to keep the amateurs out. If you want to be professional, you'll find a way to break past these with time and persistence.
(Editor's note: for more interviews with animation producers, see our interview with Zahra Dowlatabadi (who literally wrote the book), read what Claus Toksvig has to say about producing independent animated films, hear Nathan Erasmus explain how to get your project off the ground, and see what Paul Harrison has to say about financing animated TV Series....)