Thursday, September 9, 2021

The Freshman

  
CalArts I.D., 1981


40 years ago this week, my journey in character animation began.  I've been thinking about it recently, like looking through a dusty box of memories in the attic.  

I went to CalArts right out of high school, sight-unseen, putting full faith in my decision to become an animator; a decision not exactly met with enthusiasm back home in southern New Jersey.  Back there, dreamers and artists are kooks, so I was a double-whammy.  My high school guidance counselor strongly advised against pursuing animation (yeah you, Fr. Nick).   But I had been dreaming and working toward this for years, and at last it had all fallen into place. 

On the long drive to the Philadelphia airport, I nearly chickened out.   The reality that I was about to leave everyone I knew, go to a place I'd never been and fend for myself, chilled me to the bone in the back seat of Mom's car.  I came very close to telling her to turn back, but I did not want to give the naysayers the satisfaction of being right (yeah you, Fr. Nick). 

I clearly recall the drive up the 5 freeway to Valencia and seeing the school for the first time.  Then the intense joy and nausea I felt as we turned off on McBean Parkway, turning right into the driveway just past a round concrete planter with "California Institute of the Arts" emblazoned across its front.  In the movie version, this scene will be in slow motion with very cool acoustical music.

We parked in the dorm lot, then wandered around until we found the office, where we met Liz McColl - a beautiful Scottish woman (think Stevie Nicks) who ran the office and truly loved the students.  There, we got the key to my room - 251, right off the main lobby.  It came with modular furniture from 1971.  The bed had groovy chrome pipes that supported a sheet of plywood with a mattress on top.  I remember the smell of the air,  a mix of sage and smog; dry air that gave me nose bleeds for the first couple of months.  

We dropped off my suitcases, then drove around town. Pre-Google, you may recall that the way to find things in a strange town was either through the yellow pages of a phone book or by just driving around.  Fortunately, in 1981 Valencia, there wasn't much town to be seen.  We found the K-Mart, where Mom filled a cart with the necessities; a pot, pan, knife, fork, spoon, plate, bowl, cup,  a small black and white TV, a pillow, sheets, a comforter, and, to top it off, a mini fridge.  

Shopped out - we looked for a place for lunch.   There were taco places around - but what was a taco?  I'd heard of them in Speedy Gonzales cartoons, but what were they?  Tacos were not a thing in South Jersey,  just like subs were not a thing in Southern California  (still aren't, really).  We settled on a small hot dog joint.  Looking out the window, the reality that Mom would be leaving me soon chilled my bones once again. 

After meeting with the financial aid office and taking a tour of the school, we returned to room 251, where I met my roommate, Dan Jeup.  Dan was from Michigan, and with his mid-western friendliness, we hit it off right away.  Dan invited me to tag along as he and a few other classmates went to open bank accounts at Security Pacific (remember them?). That was Mom's cue to leave, and we said goodbye - quickly, the South Jersey way.  Many years later, she told me she cried on the freeway back.  I had done the same when I had a moment alone.  Dan caught me, and I made up an excuse about my contacts bothering me. 

During the next four months I would learn as much about character animation from Dan as I did my teachers, many of whom had worked with Walt Disney personally.  Unfortunately, Dan was just as clueless as me when it came to nutrition.  We ate crap food; canned, frozen, plastic wrapped, processed garbage.  Just what was in those salisbury steaks?  Eating became a bit of a sport.  We would cruise the art shows around campus, filling up on their hors d'oeuvres and Almaden wine. And when our bi-weekly work-study checks arrived (eighty buckaroos!), we'd treat ourselves to Shakey's all-you-can-eat buffet.  On my weekly calls to Mom from the pay phone in the dorm lobby, she'd always ask if I was homesick, and I always answered "No."  Being at CalArts was a dream come true.  I had found my people. 

Five years ago, I moved back to the area, where it all started. Mom's gone now, as is the K-Mart.  The hotdog joint is now, ironically, a taco joint.  The trees around CalArts have grown so you can no longer see it from the freeway.  Whenever I drive past the round planter out front, I think about that first time, with Mom, and get an urge to pull in.  I see Dan on occasion, and it's like old times - though I've learned how to cook real food since then.  And 40 years on, those CalArtians are still my people. 

-Steve

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The Ogre, the Mogul, and Me

 By Kirk Wise

Was it the incessantly farting ogre that first tipped me off? Or the flat plywood sets that looked like a poorly-lit episode of H.R. Pufnstuf, minus the whimsy and imagination? Perhaps it was TV funnyman Howie Mandel, capering and lisping his way through his role as a glitter encrusted genie? I suppose if I had to choose, I’d say the penny dropped when the head of the production company went to prison.

But I’m getting ahead of myself...this the story of my ill-fated, almost-debut in the world of live-action.

In early 2002, I left Walt Disney Feature Animation after a 16-year run. Though I loved my friends and colleagues there like a second family, 10+ years of directing big-budget animated features had left me exhausted. I was ready for a sabbatical. And I was ready for a new challenge once I felt rested and my creative engines were re-engaged. Other animation directors had successfully transitioned into live-action filmmaking, so why not me?

My newly hired and well-meaning agents booked dozens of general meetings which consisted of me sweatily twiddling my thumbs in a series of fancy (and not-so-fancy) production company lobbies, and engaging in vapid chitchat with a series of smiley (and not- so-smiley) studio execs. Eventually, all the meetings began to blur together like carnival spin-art. But still, I soldiered on. Apparently, this was how things were done.

I soon learned that my extensive animation experience wasn’t a surefire ticket to live-action fame and fortune. Far from it, in fact. A music video or TV commercial on your resume opened a lot of doors. An Academy Award-nominated 2D animated feature from ten years ago? Not so much. And plenty of live-action execs weren’t the least bit shy about offering this somewhat belated bit of career advice.

Then I had a meeting at a tiny production company just down the road from Universal’s fabled Black Tower. I’d grown so accustomed to rejection at that point that I was floored when they expressed what seemed like actual enthusiasm for my work. It made it easy to look past the cheap looking Photoshopped posters on the walls; family-friendly fare with unfamiliar titles, featuring a roster of C and D-list celebs. One did catch my eye: a live-action Hansel and Gretel starring Delta “Designing Women” Burke and Gerald “Major Dad” McRaney. Alrighty then, I thought.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

LinkedIn Coyotes

 My old pal Jeff texted me last week, asking if I'd heard of a certain boutique animation studio, one that Wile E. Coyote might hire to make his commercials.  Jeff had applied for a marketing director position at this studio through a post on the LinkedIn site.  He was then contacted via e-mail, congratulating him for getting the job, and when could he start.

Surprised by the incredible leap of faith this company seemed to be taking - they had not so much as spoken on the phone, Jeff asked for more details about the job.  This person, who exists on the company website, wrote back they would be sending Jeff a check to set up an office, then give him daily asssignments.  Now, Jeff has worked in advertising for 35 years, none of this made sense.  His wife believed it to be a scam, so he reached out to me.  

"The number for the studio's owner is on the site, give them a call."  I suggested. 

Jeff e-mailed instead, and sure enough, his wife was correct.  The owner explained that one of their employees had been hacked and their profile 'spoofed' - someone pretended to be them.  The owner said they were trying to get LinkedIn to do something about it, apparently not having much luck yet.  

Fortunately for Jeff, he had not shared any information that was not already available on the site.  Imagine had he filled out an I-9 form.  Eek!

So be warned, FLiP friends, the coyotes have LurkedIn!

-Steve

Saturday, April 10, 2021

For Ralph's Sake

Here's a brilliant short that is bound to make you question your choice of eye drops.  Produced by the Humane Society International, "Save Ralph" features the voice of Taika Waititi as Ralph, a laboratory rabbit who tries to be positive about his job while sporting visible scars of the torture he has endured in the name of product testing.   The resulting film is both darkly hilarious and heartbreaking.  

From the short's YouTube page, director Spencer Susser says, “It's so important that Ralph feels real because he represents countless real animals who suffer every day.”   By anthropomorphizing the rabbit, Susser invites us to relate to Ralph's predicament, driving home the horrible absurdity of animal testing.  Brilliantly, the short makes us want to help Ralph, and by extension lab animals.  

I seriously switched shampoos after watching this.  Check your products.  If they test on guys like Ralph, do him a favor and give them the heave ho. And join the cause by clicking here.

-Steve

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Introducing....PeaceTime

After two years of working in fits and starts, I am very pleased to present "PeaceTime: A Royal Frog". 

I got this idea a while back (2017-ish?) as an answer to the loud and obnoxious programming that is fed to kids, ad nauseum, through 24-hour cable and streaming video - yes, the stuff that pays my mortgage.  I wrote the idea down in a sketchbook and let it ferment.   

At some point, I talked about it with my old friend Winter Reign, a far-out progressive gal with two small kids and no TV.  She loved it, somewhat surprised it came from such a Three Stooges loving, blue collar guy.  She invited me to a Kundalini yoga class deep in the heart of Topanga Canyon.  It seemed like a dare, and so I went. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

And Now, A FLiP Editorial Cartoon

Since the election ended, I've had this idea rolling around in my head. Rolling, rolling, in perpetual motion. The only way to stop it was to let it out.  It has been a very long time since I've done caricatures, something I prided myself on back in my school days and early career.  Finding that place in my mind that interprets someone's looks into odd shapes was like finding a long lost favorite toy.  

Once I finished the cartoon, of course I had to find an audience, however small.  And so I post FLiP's first ever editorial cartoon. Hopefully it makes you laugh (unless you're part of the problem, then by all means gnash your teeth in ire). 

-Steve

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Seeing Tony Bennett

Reading that Tony Bennett has Alzheimer's Disease turned my thoughts to Long Beach, where I saw him perform one year ago today.  I had seen him twice before at the Hollywood Bowl, in 1993 and 1995.  He was getting up in age back then, so I was surprised to find he was still at it and jumped at the chance to see him for what would likely be the last time. 

Tony Bennett and his band at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, February 2, 2020
 This was a smaller, more intimate venue than The Bowl, and once Tony stepped on stage, it was a love fest with his largely white-haired audience.  I wasn't sure what kind of show to expect.  I had seen Peggy Lee and John Lee Hooker (not together, but that would have been awesome) near the end of their lives and it was sad to watch as their skills were shot.  Would Tony still be able to sing?

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Speaking of What Worms Leave Behind...

Worms composting.  If you stare at this image long enough, you will see the pouting face of Donald Trump.

I can think of no better way to personally commemorate the end of Donald Trump's presidency than to write about worms and their poo.  Last summer, I sought to buy a composter for my vegetable garden.  While looking online, I discovered worm composting.  

It seemed simple enough:

1. Put worms in a bin of garbage. 

2. Worms eat garbage. 

3. Worms excrete castings as compost.  

After much browsing, I bought a 'worm hotel' - a series of stackable tray bins with mesh bottoms which I furnished NOT with casting couches, but with garbage and shredded paper.  One hundred hotel guests arrived by mail in a sack from Uncle Jim's Worm Farm in Pennsylvania.   I made a little sign, "The Wiggle Inn", and waited for compost to happen.