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. 



  1. I was there right behind you, one year later. However, there wasn't a millisecond of trepidation or sadness. I was SO over the moon to be THERE and not back at home, where there was nothing but rot and ruin. I never looked back. Best time of my life. (Ken Bruce)

  2. Great post Steve. I too (sort of) began my animation journey in September 1981 when I got to try out as an inbetweener at Hanna-Barbera's Sydney studio.

    1. Thanks Jamie! You could write a book on the HB studio in Australia.

  3. I just dropped my child off last week to start her journey as a CalArts character animation student. I know she is going to love it there because as you said, they are her people.

    P.S The modular furniture has long been replaced, but they just started to replace the black and white tile dorm floors.

  4. We just left our son yesterday so this made me tear up again. He found his people in high school (an Arts Magnet school), and seems to have found them again. I hope he'll have a story like this to share one day.

  5. Awesome! I am forwarding to my freshman animator Maya who is right now missing all of us and her dog especially! Great story. Thank you.

    1. Thank you, Loreta. And best of luck to Maya - welcome to the animation world!

  6. Steve, I don't know if I would have been as well adjusted as you coming directly from high school. Wow! I see that a few new CalArts parents are seeing this. That's great. CalArts can look a bit scary at first glance, but it was a great place to start an arts career. Artists aren't scary individuals, but throw them all into a pot and stir it around a couple of times...that's the beginnings of scary:D Thanks for the memories, Steve!

  7. I was a Experimeantal Animator in 1979 just down the corridor though I graduated in 1981 MFA.
    I still have friends from there and whenever I get to lA I try to pop in.
    It was a wild place for a downunderland person.

  8. Great story and great memories of the 80's! I wasn't good enough to get into Cal Arts in 1981. I ended up at Otis/ Parsons with a similar experiences. I'd finally met my 'people', the art school screwballs! I met a fantastic artist, Van Arno who would go on to be my best friend for 37 years. Sadly, he passed away earlier this year (2021). I still have terrific memories and oddly enough, I am now an animator working on my own projects.