How To Hollywood (Capstone Project Work in Progress)
Professor Jessica Gilpatrick and
September 8, 2020
Capstone Project, working title "How To Hollywood"
I had no reason to be anxious, it wasn’t my personal film that was up for an award, but I could barely sit still. I had been working in “the movies” for 20-plus years and in many ways “Life of Pi,” the 2013 film directed by Ang Lee, was just another movie to add to the list of the films on my resume. But for many reasons, “Pi” had the aura of something Truly Special about it from the beginning. Perhaps it was the budget...the director had told us all point-blank that “Pi” was going to be “the most expensive art film ever made.” Maybe it was the crew...we were all close and extraordinarily friendly with one another. Maybe it was the beauty of the design of the film, or the dignified air the project exhibited. Whatever the reasons, I had taken great pride in my work as one of the supervisors on the film, overseeing teams in India who were animating “Richard Parker,” a ferocious Bengal Tiger who is trapped on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean with a young man who survived a ship wreck. The work that had been done at the special effects studio where I was employed, Rhythm and Hues, was unprecedented, and had been honored with nominations for several awards, most of which it would eventually win. On this night I was in attendance at the “Annie” awards, and our team was up for best character animation in a live action motion picture. I had no idea that it would be the last official film of my animation career, that I would immediately change careers after the film premiered, and that it would be the crowning achievement of a fulfilling and exciting career in animation. I also didn’t know that one day I would make it my mission to help others to achieve their career goals and offer tips and tricks of the trade, in the form of a book that I would write among other things. Lots of people will tell you that you are likely to change careers over the course of your life; no one tells you how that can happen, or even why.
The day of the “Annie” (short for animation) awards had gone smoothly. A small group of us from the “R+H” studio (so named after founder John Hughes, no relation to the famous 80s film director) had been invited to attend the event and we were all excited. We were all exquisitely dressed and in a jovial, anticipatory mood. Someone had procured a limousine. I had spent a ridiculous amount of money on my tuxedo for the black-tie event and spent all afternoon getting ready. By the time we boarded the limousine and began the crawl up the 405 north to UCLA everyone was relaxed, making jokes and drinking wine. It isn’t that uncommon nowadays for people to rent limousines but I still find it unique and fun to be driven around while lounging with a drink in a long car. It is, perhaps, a quintessentially “LA” thing to do. It was a cool, overcast day in Los Angeles and I was finally able to sit back and enjoy the moment and forget about my others concerns, and so that is what I did.
The party that took place before the awards show began was pleasant and dignified, half indoors and half outdoors, located in the grand old Royce Hall in UCLA. I’ve had the pleasure of attending a handful of Hollywood parties with the opportunity of rubbing shoulders with incredibly talented, and sometimes even incredibly famous, people in my day. This time in particular, it all felt different. Aside from a general dream-like feeling, perhaps due to the gloomy January weather, the moment felt like a milestone. A door was either opening, or shutting, or perhaps both, but change was coming, and I embraced it. I had always believed there was glamor in the movie industry. I got to experience it first-hand, quite a few times, and it was as wonderful as I always pictured it, but I had long-since learned another thing no one ever tells you in life, when you’re just starting out—or if they do, few of us listen when we’re young: change comes, for good or ill, and usually when you’re least prepared for it.
I ran into many people I had known and worked with over the years at the pre-party. Some of the people I encountered were nominated for awards, some had gained entrance through a friend-of-a-friend, some were there because they had helped put the event on. I saw faces I had long forgotten about and as I wandered through the party with an old friend I bumped into, some appeared in front of me like magic. “Do you happen to remember me?” became something of a mantra, but it was done in a pleasant way. It made me think of just how many people I’d known in my time in “the business,” most of whom had fallen away for whatever reason, but most of whom I would also consider wonderful individuals. I have found that true animation people are, generally speaking, youthful in spirit, friendly by nature, sincere as it is possible to be and determined in skill; they make for interesting individuals, to say the least. I learned early in my career to make friends with everyone I met if possible; you don’t know when yesterday’s entry-level junior will be your boss (and vice versa). I also learned the dangers of making enemies, and to avoid doing so at all costs. I had been warned of these things by elders in the business when I was just starting out, but learned many of these things first-hand, on the job. I’m glad I listened to that advice, and it’s one of the things I am most emphatic about when I talk about “show business.” Be nice, to everyone, even (especially!) your enemies.
When our group first arrived at Royce Hall and we got out of the limo we were instructed to enter the “red carpet” area for press pictures. We had been warned ahead of time this was going to take place. I found the whole thing rather silly...the “Annie” awards show is not, perhaps, the most prestigious of awards events in the entertainment industry but it carries a great deal of weight in the animation community nonetheless. I had been told we’d have to stand around and get our pictures taken but didn’t quite believe it until it was happening. No one ever talks about how surreal and even confusing it is to be standing in place, smiling as cheerfully as one can for long minutes, while wrapped into a tight tuxedo, attempting to make sense of the chaos of a press moment. I only vaguely remember the red carpet part of the event as a series of flashing lights, noisy crowds and the way I stuck to my group like a small child huddling next to his parents at Disneyland. It all went by in a blur.
After pre-party drinks and an exquisite array of hors d'oeuvres, someone called out that the awards show was beginning. Our seats ended up being towards the back of the theater. The importance of a group of “effects” and “creature” animators and directors at the Annie awards was minimal, as it is generally a ceremony to honor cartoon-style animators and the like, not animators who make things look photo-realistic. Very few people outside “the industry” know the difference (or care) when it comes to animation and special effects categories, but it makes a tremendous difference to those who toil in the respective industries. I had long since left the world of character animation, and not entirely by choice, but was happily ensconced in my current career in creature effects, making fantastic, and realistic-looking creatures appear to live on screen through digital animation. The show had been going at least two hours before our nomination came up, and the anticipation had been both fun and terrible.
I had no idea the studio I worked for was on the eve of going bankrupt even though I knew the studio was in trouble financially; I could feel it in the atmosphere in the halls of the studio all week, for months there had been rumbling of layoffs and “restructuring.” Throughout the holidays of 2012 I’d been uneasy and dreaded the possibility I’d soon be out of a job once again, making for my fourth major layoff and second time being completely out of work with no idea whatsoever as to how to proceed. That’s something else no one tells you when you work in “the industry”—that you will be laid off eventually, that you certainly better have saved your money up for such times, and that under no circumstances should you panic. The night of the Annie awards show, thinking about what had led me to the place I currently occupied, I felt alternately resigned, sad, confused, excited...
...and incredibly nervous.
There were a few “names” at the event, as entertainers or presenters. Leonard Maltin hosted. Seth Green, Kristen Schaal and legendary voice actress June Foray, who had voiced classic Warner Brothers characters and “Cindy-Lou Who” among others, was given an honorary award. I’ve met a handful of entertainment celebrities during my time in the movie business, whether related to my work or not, and learned eventually that people who are famous end up being much the same as everyone else in the world, even when they live outsized lives...they just want the same things most of us do: security, happiness, occupation, love. You don’t hear that from the news and information that shows up in tabloid-style reporting.
Someone at the podium on stage listed off the names for the nominations for best character Animation in a Live Action film. We had two nominations and thus two chances to win: one for an animated, or “CG” (computer graphics) Orangutan and one for the tiger, who was named “Richard Parker” in the movie. I wasn’t listed as a recipient for the tiger award because policy only allowed for a certain number of names and the names were chosen with a lot of thought and care as to what would be most fair and appropriate for the entire studio. Another supervisor like myself was also not named, as well as many of the incredibly talented people I worked with who were essential in creating a realistic-looking tiger that never actually existed outside a computer. None of that mattered to me. Part of being in the entertainment industry is often accepting the status of “un-sung” hero; most artisans do what they do for the love of the craft as much any financial compensation. In the early days of Disney Feature Animation only “Uncle Walt” and a few of his lead animators got any credit at all; I grew up believing Walt made the films by himself, single-handedly, or at the least was solely responsible for the content. I don’t even understand myself, looking at long credit crawls for modern films, just how many people are employed on these films, how long they take to make, how much love often goes into them, how unlikely it is that films even get made in the first place.
I remembered one of the animation directors on “Life of Pi” liked me and had given me a key scene to supervise in the film (if you’ve seen the film, it’s the scene where the young man, named “Pi,” uses a white stick to train the tiger that is stuck on the boat with him so it doesn’t eat him), and he had told me in confidence that if the film was nominated for any awards for visual effects, the sequence I worked on would be one of the reasons. When you’re working on a big budget film, you forget that the film is going to be seen by a lot of people (even if it’s a flop) and will be around forever, whether anyone continues to watch it or not. It’s a huge responsibility and something those who work in the business often take lightly, particularly in “outsource” studios (studios that do effects work for hire), because no one talks about it that much—most people on a production are working too hard to even stop and consider what they’re doing and the impact it might all have some day, and a lot of employees are too young and ambitious to care all that much ultimately. Further, unless one travels the world attending screenings of a film, it’s difficult to see the impact first-hand. I couldn’t be more proud of the work I did on “Pi” and other films if I had commandeered the whole productions myself.
The names of each nominee were listed off and it was time to open the envelope.
I heard the words “Life of Pi” spoken on the loudspeaker and felt a balloon pop in my brain. Suddenly the people in the group I’d come in with were leaping to their feet, clapping and cheering. The two animation directors I was sitting next to, as well as the other named award winners, were pushing past everyone to run up the aisles to receive the award and deliver a speech. My heart was racing with a mixture of adrenaline and relief. I don’t remember what was said, but I know a lot of us were thanked, and that it was a wonderful rush. I’d be mentioned again in the back stage, post-award interview after “Pi” won at the Academy Awards when one of the directors (the one who seemed fond enough of me to give me a key scene in the film) would mention me (and others) by name as having been instrumental in the accomplishment of the film. And in a flash moment I realized I had “done” it. I’d been “successful,” at least on my own terms. That’s yet another thing “they” don’t tell you. “Success” is nebulous and means something different to everyone. For one person it’s an award, for someone else it’s a title, or cash, or an accomplishment. But what is success, really? In some ways it’s an ending, a culmination of things that marks the end of a progression with a statement: you did it, you accomplished your goal, congratulations. It certainly isn’t something that is always obvious to spot when it comes.
I had come from a small town in Oregon at the end of the 1980s with visions of someday “making it” in Hollywood, like many young people do every day. I had many hopes but not a lot of practical tools at my disposal yet somehow, still, everything managed to fall into place. The night of the awards show for “Life of Pi” was the end result of years of being employed in feature films created in Hollywood alongside hundreds of other talented, ambitious, eager lovers of the job of creating magic, in some cases animation in particular. It was validation for being part of the team that earned prestigious awards for the special effects character work on a major Hollywood release that would go on to win the award for best director and special effects of the year, and be nominated for others. It was the capping point to an exciting, fulfilling career in “show business.” While the award had not been directly for me, in a way it was the most personal award I’ve ever received. I had dreamed of being an animator all my life...this award not only proved I had accomplished the goal but stated emphatically I was part of the team that was being rewarded for outstanding work. I believed then, and still do, it doesn’t get much better than that, and it seemed like an obvious place to bow out of the industry as I knew it, and focus on different goals. No one ever tells you there is something to be said about quitting while you’re ahead, about not being greedy, about being wise enough to understand when you’ve “won” and step down.
Many years before “Life of Pi” I somehow managed to win two jackpots, both equalling a great deal of money, in Reno, in the same casino, two nights apart. I never gamble, but my family had convened in Reno to celebrate my brother’s birthday and I succumbed to the festive mood. I was astounded to win, both times, on very little money and it was exciting and crazy and a weekend I’ll never forget as long as I live...but it went by so fast. It also left me hungry for “more,” although more of what I couldn’t say precisely. In the end, “winning,” when I had done nothing more than plunk my hard-earned money into a cold, unfeeling slot-machine, left me empty inside, and hungry in an unpleasant, insatiable way. I felt something similar after the “Annie” awards show was over, after “Pi” had won: “rewards” are fleeting things. Earlier in my career mentors had taught me that it’s best to focus on the ride when it come to life and not worry too much about the destination. I understood how true that statement was as we gathered our things and left the award show auditorium after winning an “Annie,” and settled in for the after-party drinks and desserts.
After the show was over I became rather melancholy. It was a drizzly, cold night and I left the party building and walked around the UCLA campus wondering if I should call a cab. We had celebrated, we’d had a great night and it was everything I had hoped it would be...but I was cold, tired, a little inebriated, and I just wanted to go home. They don’t tell you that, as glamorous as “show business” can sometimes be, inevitably you return home, like “Cinderella” after the ball, and it’s a good idea to have a safe, comfortable, happy home to return to.
One of the animation directors had a car available and was going to drive back to the studio early. He let a couple of us go with him so we could pick up our cars at the studio, where we’d left them before the event. All the way back down the 405 to El Segundo we talked about how fun the night had been, how beautiful the movie had turned out, what a great feeling it was to have worked on such a remarkable project and get rewarded for it. The animation director told me about how he was preparing for the Academy Awards (he would eventually deliver a wonderful speech, which would be cut off for a commercial for some reason just as he was starting to talk about injustices in the world of the business of financing visual effects, when the film won the award for best visual effects a few weeks later). He also confirmed my fears that Rhythm and Hues, the studio where we all worked, was crumbling, quickly, probably without hope of recovery. I’d never considered what it might be like to be a director...while I was worried for my job, it really was just a job after all, and I was likely to find another one eventually, somewhere, if things folded. But what if you were an animation director? How would you apply for directing jobs? No on talks about how directors actually get jobs, let alone what they do between gigs.
Back at home I took off my stuffy tuxedo and hung it up, knowing I was unlikely to wear it again any time soon. I looked at the pictures I’d gotten with my phone and smiled—everyone looked so young, happy and excited. I placed the pamphlets and paraphernalia I’d gotten from the ceremony on my kitchen counter, thinking for the first time that a lot of people had coordinated to make the night of the awards go off successfully while the rest of us lounged about drinking, eating and visiting. One person who’d helped organize the show was a former fellow employee I hadn’t thought of in years, who still seemed besotted with the animation industry. How hard had she worked, how long had she toiled, to put on a show to celebrate all the work others had done for an industry she clearly loved? I just shook my head, amazed. Just as it was with the films I worked on, great masses of people were responsible for other elements of the entertainment industry as well, the things no one really thinks about, but that keep the whole “show” going.
I got into my “jammies” and watched something mindless on TV, thinking off-handedly about how much of the average person’s life is consumed by media-based entertainment, yet who really thinks about how much goes into it all, how much it affects our lives and the way we think about the world?
I was even more melancholy, later. It wasn’t that I had any reason to be disappointed, it wasn’t that I was remotely unhappy, but something seemed to be missing. I’d succeeded at just about everything I had set out to do professionally, I had been compensated well and had benefitted from myriad perks and wonderful, unforgettable relationships...but why did I have a nagging feeling that I’d missed something somewhere?
The next day I talked to my mom, who was eager to hear the details of my big night. She had always loved the idea of being in the limelight, had always longed to have some kind of celebrity status and was glamorous enough, at least when she was younger, to have attained it had she tried. She never understood how I shied away from the spot light and I’m afraid she was a bit disappointed when I told her the whole awards ceremony had been pleasant enough but nothing earth-shattering, and that was about it. Friends called, particularly after “Pi” won at the Academy Awards. Some were catty and jealous-seeming. Some were overwhelmed, confused, unable to understand what I had been through. Some blew it off as nothing. Most were genuinely proud and happy for me. No one ever tells you that when you attain some measure of success some people will find it difficult to cheer you on, while some will be inspired to work even harder, and others will prove to be genuinely in your corner, through success and failure, and that those are the ones who will matter most to you inevitably. I’ve always been lucky to have true, loyal friends both when I was up as well as down, although I like to think there was more than luck involved in my successes.
Still, I couldn’t figure out what it was that left me uneasy. When Rhythm and Hues announced bankruptcy and most of us were let go I actually felt relief...I wouldn’t have to go into the office that Monday! No more worrying about meeting deadlines, no more seven-day weeks or fourteen-hour days, no more fears that I’d not deliver for ambitious directors who sometimes (not on “Pi”, but other times) didn’t know what they wanted and forced us into grueling hours on thankless productions of films few would think were worth the effort to complete. The pressure was off. They don’t tell you that when you reach a certain point in a career, if you truly want to be “successful,” you’ll have to make some serious sacrifices. You’ll have to take your work home with you sometimes, and it will affect any relationships you have, even destroy some of them. You may have some physical problems as a result of working too hard, and you may not realize it until it’s too late. They’ll tell you “take care of yourself,” but they don’t tell you what that really means, or what the consequences of not doing so are when you don’t heed those warnings, because you’ve sacrificed everything for your career.
But after the bankruptcy and dismissal, I was free, and even though I was facing 50 soon, hardly a spring chicken in Hollywood’s eyes, I felt confident I could find a new path.
Doing what, though?
I put my hat in the ring for a few projects, got offers for others, was head-hunted on Linked-In by recruiters to go to Canada and other places to oversee high-profile films as an animation director myself, some fantastic opportunities. But something just wasn’t coming together, and I didn’t know what, and so I hunkered down in my apartment in West Hollywood for as long as I could.
I thought, and wrote, and painted and recorded music and thought, and thought some more and wrote some more. It’s incredible how quickly money that has been saved up can disappear when you’re “sedentary.”
At last it hit me, my new mission in life: to tell up and coming animators, artists, directors, musicians...anyone interested really, about my experiences in the business of entertainment; the joys, the pains, what to watch out for, what to ignore. I had been doing as much as a supervisor or “elder statesperson” of the animation industry for some time...but, I wondered, could I actually parlay the experiences I had gone through and the things I had learned along the way into some form of worthy engagement, something that might be of use to other entertainment industry hopefuls? Was what I had to say about things valuable, and would anyone be interested at all?
These were the questions I had on my mind in the wake of attending the awards ceremony for “Life of Pi,” and questioning in this way eventually led me, with the help of more wonderful friends, to speaking engagements and teaching assignments, and a new career as an instructor at some fantastic colleges in the Los Angeles area. The prospect of writing out the experiences I have had as something that could be read as pure entertainment by some or a kind of “how to” (and perhaps how not to) by others was intriguing. I learned so many things in my time in Hollywood about how to navigate the exciting, but often exasperating world of movies, commercials, theater, music and creativity as a business in the different jobs that employ thousands of people, often in Hollywood but elsewhere as well. Was there something on the subject, perhaps things that had never been said before, or even things that confirmed what others have offered already, that might benefit someone else?
One of my constant goals, first and foremost, is to entertain, whether I’m sharing a creation or speaking, teaching or writing, even when I’m visiting with friends and family. Writing a book on the entertainment industry in a style that is both informative and entertaining would be, I always felt, a valuable exercise for myself and something others might benefit from, if they chose to read it.
Second, I would be happy to think that some of the tips I offer in these pages might be of direct practical use to anyone who has attempted to make it as an employee of the Hollywood-based (and related) show business community, or even those who are interested in how it is done, or was done once. I had a lot of success in my career, some might even find the twists and turns my career-path took rather absurd from the outside looking in, a strange type of drama that wouldn’t play anywhere else but in real life. I’ve had incredible highs and soul-deadening lows. Every step along the way was necessary and I wouldn’t change a thing if I had the opportunity. I also believe in the old adage, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” I take full responsibility for my successes and failures, even as I accept that many things that happened along the way seemed inexplicable, or were predicated on pure chance. The one constant, I feel, has always been an unwavering determination to continue moving, preferably forward, and complete whatever it is I start.
I am a firm believer in “paying things forward” as well. There have been many people in my life who have done things, whether they did them intentionally or not, that changed the course of my career, usually for the better. Even the people who somehow had a detrimental effect on my career initially ended up doing me a favor, forcing me to work a little harder and take chances I might not have indulged otherwise.
In this book I will be listing many things I learned as a result of my time spent working in the entertainment industry, from practical advice to impractical anecdotes, the oddities, effronteries and idiocies that come from a world of adults producing cartoons for children, tips for success, pitfalls to avoid, specific lessons in tact, torment and timing, how to succeed when everything else fails and how to screw up while still winning. Along the way, I’ll be sharing specific anecdotes from my personal history, specifically my time at the Disney and DreamWorks studios, to support the findings I offer. You’ll find no slander or confidential trade secrets, no gossip-mongering or name-dropping. Part of the process of writing about my experiences is to mention, in passing ways at least, my gratitude to those people who made a difference in my life, regardless of whether it seemed like a positive impact at the time or not. By mentioning these things I hope to spin a tale that might be of interest, that might last, but ultimately might provide hope and inspiration. I can’t think of anything more noble I could hope for at this point anyway.