Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Tumbleweed Tex

You gotta have a portfolio when you go in to ask a total stranger for a job. If you're new out of school, it will most likely look pretty pathetic. Mine did. I had a bunch of drawings of naked models, some illustrations of faux advertising layouts and book covers and a small reel of 16mm film that contained all the animation I ever did. The owner of the studio I applied at never looked at any of it. He told me he wasn't sure if he wanted to take on a beginner and that I should try and get another job somewhere else. If I couldn't find anything elsewhere, I could come crawling back and he'd see what he could do. Nice guy. Listen, Pilgrim, they're all "nice" guys! Expect some serious abuse when you try and convince someone they should pay you professional wages for unproven labor.

I carried back all my unexamined stuff and put it in my car. As luck would have it, I put my film reel on top of the car when I went to unlock the door. I drove off leaving it right where I left it. The last I saw of my complete collection of animation is when I looked in my rear view mirror and saw it bouncing and unreeling down the Ventura Freeway. It made applying for any other job difficult. It's trying times like those that test your belief in a higher power. Luckily, the Big Guy in the Sky was looking over me. In my case, that guy was Tumbleweed Tex.

I wasn't always The Mad Animation Prophet. That took years of of struggle and survival. The wise ol' animation director, Tumbleweed Tex, wasn't always legendary either. On this day he was just another young pup looking for a square meal like I was. Attached to the Animation Farmhouse was a two story apartment complex used as a production facility. The second floor had a balcony along one side. On that balcony stood a young Tex. He saw me as I got in my car and drove off and, he recognized me! He recognized me from Art School where I was two years his senior. Tex rushed to the owner of the studio and asked if I was the same BFA graduate he remembered from those days. He was mightily impressed by my senior project; a music video of a Smothers Brothers song. He went on to exclaim that I was the best artist the school had! Now, if this information made the studio executive regret rejecting me, he didn't show it when I came back two days later to beg for a job. Instead he gave me a beginning job as an Inbetweener at the lowest pay possible, providing I came early, stayed late and worked Saturdays for no over-time. "Consider it on the job training." he said. I did. It was my start as a professional in the business and I owed it to Tumbleweed Tex.

Tex and I have remained friends and co-workers over the years. He was even my commanding officer during the Civil War. Still, to this day, I do not know what I did at school that so impressed him that he gave a positive reference about me at a critical moment. I'm glad he did, though. A key reference can make the difference when your portfolio fails you. Remember that, Pilgrim.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Kit Carson and John Fremont

In 1842, John C. Fremont, an enterprising adventurer with a wealthy father-in-law, decided to seek a way into California. He had no particular skills except the ability to draw a fairly good map and a military commission. He had never been to California but knew it was west...eventually. However, between him and the gold coast were insurmountable obstacles called the Rocky Mountains. Fremont's enterprise was imperiled before it had started because he had no idea how to get through those daunting, snow covered peaks. Then he met Kit Carson. The old fur trader was a veteran of those regions and knew of a pass through the mountains. He took the pilgrim Fremont under his wing and they went on to make three wildly successful journeys west.

I held this knowledge in my thoughts as I stared in wonderment at the little film my pilgrim financier had made. Two adjectives came to mind. The film was either disastrous or sincere, depending on how you were raised. My mother's voice whispered a selection and I planned my escape. I suggested that if this sincere film was what he had in mind to make, he didn't need me. I knew many a young student film maker that would love to take on this project, for a whole lot less. But this newcomer was a whole lot slipperier than he looked! He quickly barred my way to the door and assured me he wanted nothing but the best. As that was obviously me, we shook on it and I took the job. I started a studio, hired a crew and jumped into the enterprise with both feet. Now, most successful adventures are filled with hardships or they wouldn't be adventures. Carson and his group encountered frozen feet, starvation and outright war on their journeys. I encountered delays in funding, broken promises and decisions that came too late but I made thirteen successful journeys with this financier and an empire was built. Then he took on a wealthy partner and my services were no longer required.

Fremont's success with Carson put him on the path to military promotions and entry into politics as "the Great Pathfinder". But Fremont no longer had Carson and he bungled opportunity after promotion on his downhill slide to poverty struggling to live off his wife's waning fortune. Two years after I left a successful project, those thirteen successful episodes are all the legacy that remains of a crumbling empire on two coasts. It's not the money or the enthusiasm that makes the difference. It's the guide.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Educated and Unemployed

Right out of school with my portfolio and BFA in hand, I joined the ranks of the unemployed. I was educated but didn't know anything about getting a job. At this moment in time, I was a "non-professional" at everything. How does one go about getting someone to pay you for doing something you were paying others to teach you to do? Luckily, there always seems to be work for someone who is cheap, dumb, insecure and talented. On the other hand, being desperate for a job drives employment away. Desperate people suck the life out of you and every employer knows it. Don't go into a job looking desperate. Also, It is absolutely essential that you know somebody in Hollywood in order to find work. Even if that somebody is another starving artist. I called friends about where to look and I looked there. I found a studio behind schedule that desperately needed artists but had no place to put them. It was a perfect situation for an artist that had a work set-up at home. That wasn't me. I needed a studio job that provided the basic things, like a desk and supplies, in order to work. I heard about a small studio that sub-contracted work for a major animation studio. They call these small shops "farm houses" and extra work is "farmed out" to these places. The first place I worked professionally was, literally, a "farm house". I mean the building used to be a farm house! It's where I first learned about the "business" of Animation.

Let's digress a moment and talk about "the business". In the "old days" the entertainment experience at the movie houses consisted of a feature film preceded by a short film, like "Laurel and Hardy", a newsreel and a color cartoon. These seven minute cartoons, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Woody Woodpecker, Mr. McGoo, were all made by the major film studios in a cartoon shorts department. Prior to TV, many of these cartoons would end up at the local movie house on Saturday morning where all us kids would go and see two hours of cartoons, short subjects and serialized adventure shows like Flash Gordon, etc. The advent of Television changed the Saturday morning serials at the movie house into the Saturday morning cereals in front of the TV set. Sponsored by the major cereal companies, the shows on Saturday morning were almost all cartoons. Forty years ago the television industry was composed of three mighty networks. They all had a block of time on Saturday morning from eight to noon that was set aside for kid's entertainment. Originally they were produced by a motley collection of animation studios; TV Spots, Format, Pantomime Pictures, Friz Freleng, Filmation and, the biggest, Hanna-Barbera. These studios were all owned and staffed by the unemployed artists from the former cartoon departments of the major movie studios. These animation houses all competed for that Saturday morning block of time on the three networks selling sugary cereal. The first of those shows I worked on was "The Perils of Penelope Pitstop" and how I came to get that job is another story...

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Who You Gonna Call?

No one gets off the stage in Los Angeles thinking they're unprepared. They've got what they believe to be a good idea and a bag full of money. And they've done research! They've asked a friend if they know anyone in Hollywood. The friend has a friend who went to school with a kid that does something in the film industry, maybe even cartoons. The guy with the idea talks to the guy who does something involving the cartoon industry and offers him a bag full of money attached to an offer he can't refuse. (I have this horrible idea that this is really the way films are made! ) This particular story has a happy ending, however. The guy they contact actually does do something in the cartoon industry; he does voices for cartoons. He also knows he's in over his head but figures he's a quick study. He calls a friend who does voice directing and the two of them conspire to do something smart; they call someone they know who they have worked for before, liked working with and can trust. They call the Mad Animation Prophet.

Now, interested readers, I have been here before. I have been contacted by people who claim to have money and a good idea. They usually have only part of a bad idea and no money. They want you to do all the work, pay you no money and, if they are really good, get you to cover the cost of artists to develop drawings they also never pay for. It comes to nothing except sadder and wiser artists. The first meeting started well. There was the career professionals I had worked with, a live action producer, with heavy-weight credits, representing the board of directors and the two creator/producers. The creators were excited because they had a good idea they just didn't know what to do with. The voice talent were excited too, probably over the creators', supposed, bag of money. The live action producer seemed confused. What did he know about animation?

The Mad Animation Prophet was skeptical. Yet I was hopeful because the room reeked of sincerity. The creators did have a good idea. They wanted to do good. They had an idea to start a national program teaching children and family safety funded by altruistic corporations who would use the program to advertise their own participation. The representatives of this program would be adorable cartoon animal characters who showed the kids at home how they can keep themselves and their family safe. The purpose of the project was to create these marketable characters and introduce them via a free animated film the investing corporations would finance. Best of all, they already had the money! Wow. Could this be true? This deal had everything: professionals I knew, a famous live-action producer I trusted, a project that that will actually help kids and two sincere creators with a bag of money! I was convinced. I agreed to make their film but what did they want exactly? Fortunately, the creators had already produced a short film that spotlighted their characters and the information they wanted to highlight. All I needed to do was make a more "commercial" version of the idea. Then they showed me the film. My blood turned to ice! It was like discovering a hostile tribe's presence at a water hole AFTER you've unpacked your mule.