How To Hollywood Chapter 04
4) “The First Hit Is Free”
I had heard the phrase “the first ‘hit’ is free” many times before someone told me it described a situation in which a person who sells addictive chemicals offers drugs for free to try to get someone hooked so they’ll then be forced to buy more. The phrase had been bandied about by the people I encountered when I was getting my start in Hollywood and I didn’t understand why they used the expression. It is a fairly nasty idea to suggest that “Hollywood” is a kind of pusher and success is the drug, mostly because I don’t believe “Hollywood” can be pinned down to any single entity; there’s no single person to “blame” for the existence of the Hollywood machine ultimately, and whatever anyone says, “Hollywood” itself doesn’t discriminate. It exists for one reason: to make money. There’s a lot more to it than that, but ultimately what is at the end of the Hollywood rainbow that is colored with money, celebrity, glitz, creativity and entertainment is something elusive and intangible: the desires that people who come to Hollywood bring with them. These desires can be summed up essentially in a vague, alluring idea of “Hollywood success.” For that reason, I balk at the idea that anyone, or anything, about Hollywood, in a general sense anyway, is attempting to lure anyone into a trap. Those who walk through the doors of the world of show business do so willingly and most learn of the perils early on. Some decide to stay, some don’t. The 1970s music group The Eagles suggested in a famous song that the success you often find in show business is like a hotel you can check out from but never truly leave. Again, this assumes there’s someone attending the desk.
Yet I’ve seen it happen time and again, fresh-faced young people with stars in their eyes come directly from out of town (and most people who want to get into show business are transplants from other places) or graduate from whatever school or job situation they were in, manage their way into an exciting show business gig making good money or attain some measure of exposure right away and cannot believe their good fortune. Some people spend the rest of their lives trying to regain the early success they had, some settle into a long, disciplined career, and some run away screaming for their very lives after their fortune turns.
I think part of this phenomenon has to do with the draw of young energy; People hunger for youthful energy and fresh, new, exciting visual stimuli, and this can be turned into cash in a variety of ways if one is an enterprising individual. Young people also tend to be more eager, less attached to the ties that take more experienced people away from being workaholics and, of course, generally cost less than their more seasoned elders. When paying audiences lose interest in the latest crop of faces and personalities the crowd turns to the next batch and the “old” group has to prove whether it has staying power. As my grandma once said about an attractive, but not particularly nice relative, “I hope that one begins to develop a personality before the looks go.” There have been tragic stories of people who were chewed up and spit out by “Hollywood,” but just as many who have had long, fulfilling careers, finding it all a good match for their temperament, working with people who value integrity and a solid work ethic. As with anything, you can’t know until you try.
I knew my fortunes had turned on my first day in the animation studio I’d just been hired to work at. I was only a “lowly” driver, but the first thing I was assigned to do was consolidate some boxes of old artwork in a forgotten attic chamber of the office building where we were housed in Studio City. These boxes contained treasures beyond my imagining: original artwork, both pre-production and actual production art, from famous Disney films. There were animation cels from “Sleeping Beauty,” wide plastic sheets with delicate, detailed depictions of Aurora and Maleficent painted on them. There were whole boxes of complete scenes from the “Toontown” section of “Roger Rabbit.” I found background paintings, character design setups, color tests...boxes and boxes of beautiful artwork. I couldn’t help but think, “How would anyone even know if some of this stuff went missing...?” I was a kid in a candy store, a person living in a dream, surrounded by the elements of the magic I was so in love with. I resisted the temptation to commit office theft and I’m not sorry. Years later I’d hear stories of people who tried to confiscate original artwork from the movies we worked on, including some who got away with it and some who did not. I understood the draw of trying to keep the beautiful works of art we were surrounded by every day but in truth, with all this art around me I felt like I already “owned” it, I didn’t need to possess it.
Part of my job was to do some light custodial work. While emptying garbage cans around the studio for the artists I got to know most of the studio staff and found them to be generally sincere, friendly and enthusiastic. The studio was working on a Mickey Mouse short called “The Prince and the Pauper” but also doing commercials that blended live-action and animation. There was talk of doing some outsource work on upcoming feature films, and everyone in the studio seemed optimistic and satisfied with how things were going.
I learned about the different departments, including the difference between “animation,” which was rough drawings done by animators, “clean-up,” which were clean drawings made from roughs by skilled artisans, ink and paint, a department that transferred clean drawings to plastic sheets called “cels,” where they were inked and painted and the “effects” department, which was responsible for doing things like fire, water and smoke, and also drawing tones and highlights on characters that were placed into a live-action scene in the style of “Roger Rabbit.”
I spent a lot of time in the tiny copy room near the lobby of the studio. One of my tasks, along with the young man who had helped to hire me, was to copy the animator’s rough drawings onto plastic sheets with a specially-outfitted Xerox machine, then align these sheets with a hole punch and stickers that would make the holes snug when they were placed on pegs while being painted, then placed under a camera. I eventually became good friends with the guy I worked with, whose name was John. I was enthralled that he was from an “animation family”—his dad was an animation camera operator, his sister created art cels of frames from Disney films to sell to collectors and his mom was head of the ink and paint department.
In fact, John’s mom was the person I had talked to on the phone, the one who had rejected me for a job.
Oddly enough John and his mom became my good friends and we spent a lot of great times together over the years. The three of us went out to lunch right after I got hired and I mentioned the phone call I’d made where John’s mom rejected me outright, and John’s mom chuckled, slightly embarrassed but with a good-natured shrug. “Listen,” she said, when you called I was in the middle of trying to finish my work and field an avalanche of new hires...we really needed strong painters and I was just getting inundated with amateurs. We needed people right away and I had to not only do my own job but find someone who would be right for the department, I was very frustrated.”
The more we talked the more I saw her point and I thought about it for a long time after; here I was, someone who was absolutely un-skilled but applying for a job anyway, hoping to be taken seriously when I was neither prepared for the job at hand nor qualified, and on top of that I was hoping to get career advice. I had done no preparation whatsoever and expected to be taken seriously as a job candidate, simply because I wanted to get in the studio. To be fair, I didn’t know any better at the time, but it was still a good lesson to learn.
I tell my students all the time today, when you get your “big chance” be ready for it...continue to work on your skills, always, preparing for the moment when you’ll get your opportunity so you’ll be ready when it comes. There may be such things as “luck” in the world or even good fortune, but better to have everything in place when your time arrives. I’ve had many people attempt to work whatever success I’ve had into something they could use for their own advantage, basically trying to use my position and the work I’ve done in my career/life for their own gain. I don’t think they do it maliciously, I think everyone is—and should be--looking for opportunities and it isn’t “wrong” to try to get in on a good thing. It’s so much more satisfying, however, when good fortune is earned.
After a couple of months working at the animation studio I felt “in.” I was still a driver but I was practicing my drawing skills so I could be an inbetweener on “Prince and the Pauper,” basically a junior artist learning on the job doing the easiest drawings in a scene. Once again someone stepped in and intervened on my behalf, for reasons I can only guess at. The receptionist at the studio was a funny, gregarious woman and she sat near the room John and I worked in. She had been nice to me from the first time I met her and she looked out for John and I in a motherly way. She was married to one of the clean-up artists and sent me to him to get advice about how to become an inbetweener. In no time at all, her husband had set me up with a portable desk I could take home, gave me some drawings and paper to practice on and checked the work I’d do each weekend. In a matter of weeks I was given the opportunity to do clean-up drawings for commercials and even the Mickey Mouse short, which was going into full production and required a lot of artists to complete.
By summer I was set up with an actual desk upstairs in the studio and drawing full-time and I was ecstatic. I knew things were going well when they actually hired someone to replace me as the driver. I bought my first portable “boom box” to listen to tapes and CDs while I worked, the first sign I had really “made it”...I had my own desk and my own space to get comfortable in.
That was a grand, glorious summer, my first as a full-time resident of Los Angeles, and I was living comfortably, making my own way, proud of my accomplishments but even more glad to just be able to enjoy every day as it came. I continued to live near LAX and the drive was long, but I didn’t mind too much. My brother and the friend I had stayed with the year before came down to visit for the whole summer and we spent days in the sun frolicking in the surf at Playa del Rey and nights going to restaurants, going out to movies or just hanging out. It was like I was living in a kind of dream and I was happy every single day.
I remember talking to a friend from back home about “work” and said, with all sincerity, “I love what I do for a living.” I never believed that was going to be possible if I even thought about it at all. In truth, I always secretly wanted to be able to say it but never dreamed it would come to pass.
My new status as an inbetweener came with a small increase in pay, but it didn’t stop there. Eventually someone in HR approached me and said I’d have to join the “union.” I had no idea what that meant and it sounded cryptic.
The cartoonist’s union was created in the late 30s and early 40s to represent animation artists who felt working conditions weren’t optimal. There were strikes and walkouts and there was a lot of unrest, but it all eventually led to the creation of The Animation Guild, I.A.T.S.E 839, which still exists today. This union encompasses all the major animation studios, including Disney and DreamWorks.
Initially I found the union inconvenient as there was a hefty price tag to join, but I was making a lot more money as a result of being in the union so I didn’t even notice. Eventually all I had to do was pay monthly dues, which were reasonable and something the average artist didn’t even think about. In return, we got an incredible health package that I wish I still had today, a standardized pay scale and limits to how many hours/days the studios could work us without being penalized for unrealistic overages. Much has been said about the fact that motion picture special effects, which I worked in for the second half of my career in the movies, does not have a union representing the artists and I can say first hand it is a great misfortune. While working in the union I always felt more secure, I was never over-worked beyond reasonable expectations, had excellent medical service (even though I hardly used it when I was younger) and was compensated handsomely for my work. I remember the head of the union popping by unexpectedly every now and then to check on us in the work place and I always appreciated that we were being looked out for. There are, perhaps, many pros and cons on both sides concerning labor unions; I, for one, can only say I benefited greatly from the things that came with union membership and missed them when I no longer had them.
Soon I was officially an inbetweener and could say without a doubt I was getting paid to draw all day. One of the down-sides of my having only just gotten into the union was that I had not officially been on the Mickey Mouse short all summer, I was only helping out really, and so I was told I wasn’t going to get a credit on the film. I wouldn’t be in the cast photo, and I wasn’t going to be invited to the cast party and screening. I was deeply disappointed by this, not so much because of the kudos I might expect to receive but because of the status of the project. I didn’t know if I’d ever be attached to a Disney film again and was fairly vocal about it all.
The man who owned the animation company, an animator who had attained legend status but was still incredibly humble and approachable, saw me moping in the studio kitchen one evening. When I told him my story he was sorry on my behalf but smiled and said, “Don’t worry, there will be others.”
“I don’t know that for sure though,” I said.
“I do,” he said. “You wait and see...one day you’ll have so many films under your belt you won’t even remember some of them. Trust me, you’re going to get your chance.”
I never forgot that conversation, just one of many I was fortunate enough to have with this legend in the business. Aside from being an incredible animator and a genuinely friendly, caring person, it turned out he had worked on some of my favorite films. He told me not only about his work on Disney films but how he had loved “Wizards” (the Bakshi film I loved so much) and how he was such a fan he went to work for the Bakshi studio on “Lord of the Rings.”
It really was a dream-like time. I remember Disney re-released “Fantasia” in the fall of 1990, around the time I joined the union and became an “official” animation artist. The film played in the heart of Hollywood at the famous Cinerama dome, a huge, half-circle-shaped theater that was created to play films in “Cinerama,” an old wide-screen film technique. Even though Cinerama didn’t take of, the theater became well-known for premiering epic films like Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and still does retrospectives of classic epic films to this day. I’d seen several retrospective films at this theater and, of course, “Roger Rabbit” had played there two years earlier. I went to “Fantasia” several times and gloried in it while it lasted. At one screening someone, while the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” section of the film with Mickey Mouse playing, shouted out, “Go Uncle Walt!” in joy. I got all warm inside. I was officially part of the legacy of Mickey, and Disney, having contributed dozens of drawings to “The Prince and The Pauper” over the summer.
After the Mickey short was done the studio started doing outsource work for a feature film that another studio was working on, “Rover Dangerfield.” I was amazed at my continuing good fortune...a senior clean-up person took me under his wing and passed along his work over-seeing clean-up on one of the main characters when he was up for a promotion. Without even blinking I’d gone from being a junior clean-up person to a character lead, and it was all happening so fast.
“Too fast,” the receptionist said to me with a wink and a cautionary look on her face, one late afternoon before I left for the day. I was puzzled by her comment but too excited to care much. Later I’d commit some gaffes and began to understand the perils of being a “green” supervisor. I’ve long maintained “power” is not something that is, or should be, handed over to someone, it should be earned. Get it when you aren’t ready or haven’t earned it and you won’t handle it properly; attain a measure of power when you’ve worked your way into it and it will be a natural progression into a comfortable fit.
I finally moved to a new apartment. I found a pleasant place with a balcony in Studio City, right along the strip that the guy from the editing studio had recommended to me. I fell in love with my place, where I could see the sun set clearly over the mountains and I’d often drop everything I was doing to watch it. I rode my bike to work every day, had lunch breaks at home and was healthy and got plenty of sun. I had more money in my bank account than I ever thought I would, and it was all money I had earned. I started thinking about paying my mom back for the money she’d loaned me to come down to LA but first I had some dreams to fulfil...
I got an actual bed (I’d been sleeping on a glorified cot), some furniture and my first TV (at 32” it was considered a luxury at the time). I even got a car—the epitome of late 80s hip in LA, a white convertible VW Cabriolet that I enjoyed for several years. I already had a nice electronic keyboard that I’d been using to plunk around on but knew if I wanted to really create the music I had in mind I’d need more. I bought a 4-track recorder, drum machine and other equipment, slowly building up my resources and spending endless hours recording. It was fun and relatively cheap entertainment in the final analysis...I certainly wasn’t going out much. In fact, I didn’t really go out at all. I only had a couple friends...John, who had his own life out in the San Fernando valley and my friend Kris who I’d worked with at Disneyland, but she lived in Orange County, which was far from where I was located. I saw the truth in what someone had said to me about how it was hard to make friends in Los Angeles, because everything was so spread out. I was also still insecure, and still not tapped into “who I was,” whatever that meant. I found myself spending a lot of time alone, making music or watching movies, but not having a great time in my social life. So I devoted my time to work.
When “The Prince and the Pauper” came out over the holidays I felt a real sense of accomplishment. Even though my name wasn’t in the credits, I knew I’d worked on the film and every time I saw it I could see my work, on the screen, and would feel proud that it was going to be on screens all over the world. I felt like a real celebrity when I went home for Christmas that year and my whole family bundled into a car and went out into the cold to watch the movie with me. The happy times just kept going and going and I began to wonder if I’d somehow become the luckiest person in the world.
Alas, reality always intervenes, and maybe that’s actually what is meant by “the first hit is always free.” Maybe it’s just that sometimes you aren’t aware of what you’ve got going when you have a good thing, and maybe it’s better that way, so you’ll enjoy it while it lasts and not worry too much about it going away. While I was working on projects I could bury myself in the work and forget about everything else, but in doing so I neglected to pay attention to what was going on around me.
The first thing that happened was that the “Rover Dangerfield” feature ended and all the work we had dried up, immediately. The second thing was the revelation that we had nothing substantial to work on in the wake of that project, and nothing coming down the pipeline. The third thing was that people started to get laid off.
It was all done quietly, perhaps for the sake of company morale, but it became a bit of a (dark-humored) joke...employees of the studio liked to walk together in the afternoons, it was a great time to get some air and do some bonding outside the studio. We began to notice, however, that when we got back some of the employees had “pink slips” (layoff notices) on their desks. People eventually stopped walking in the afternoon for fear that when they came back from the walk they’d find themselves without a job.
I have since come to accept that layoffs are a part of the “feast or famine” aspect of art-as-commerce, that in the movies, or commercials, or even commercial art, there are times when there’s more work than resources to complete it, and other times there is nothing to be done at all. In fact, I had been told this was the nature of the world of animation from the first day I’d walked into the studio, but being young and naïve I suppose I never actually thought it might happen, at least to me.
This is, in fact, one of the reasons I’m writing about my experiences, so I can help others avoid some of the mistakes I made.
The first time I was involved in layoffs I didn’t get a notice, which was a good thing, because I had about $5 in my bank account, one package of Top Ramen, some Kool-Aid and four Oreos in my kitchen. Instead I was given a type of “furlough,” basically banked hours, paid when I got back after some time off. The people in the front office who delivered this news were sorry to have to do it all, and I believed they didn’t want to have to do it, but all I could really think was, “Hey, it was one thing when it was happening to others but now it’s happening to me? What am I supposed to do?”
This would happen to me again a few more times over the next couple years, and a few times throughout the rest of my career, and while I grew to accept that it was part of the ebb and flow of the business, I never got used to it. My second short animated film, which I dreamed up with my co-worker John, was based in my resentment of the process of layoffs, even though I wasn’t personally laid off from the company (I was probably cheap enough that they could afford to keep me). It just seemed so cold and ruthless that people who were gainfully employed would suddenly be uprooted and tossed to the winds when a project was over. I saw people who had been in the business for many years, people who were getting on in age and artists who were incredibly talented forced to pack their things and, one by one, leave an increasingly empty studio for an unknown future.
At one point I was “demoted” from being an artist because there was nothing for us to do, and rather than laying me off the company sent me back to the “Xerox” room to do cel copying for the films “Cool World” and an interesting, but mostly forgotten animated film called “Bebe’s Kids.” It was a big blow to my ego to have to go “back,” and I made a big fuss about it. At one point one of the HR people who was friendly with me said to me, with little emotion, “If you’re that unhappy here you might want to seek work elsewhere. You’re good, you could probably get hired at Disney and no offence, but right now the company wouldn’t probably miss you too much if you left.”
I think that comment stunned me almost as much as the idea of being let go in the first place. I’ve always been loyal to the places I worked, even the trailer factory and lumber mill, it just seems like the “right” thing to do. I never considered I had every right to look for other work and didn’t need to stay in a studio that was getting increasingly claustrophobic, particularly if I was no longer appreciated.
I eventually contacted the Disney studio and they told me I was welcome to apply for an inbetweening job. I turned in my portfolio and was invited to come to the warehouse studio on Flower Street in Glendale and do a test. I would eventually test at Disney twice, once for Aladdin and once for The Lion King. I remember thinking the test was fairly easy but the atmosphere in the testing room was tense. The procedure of testing was formal and not terribly friendly. The other candidates I tested with were making snide jokes and being cavalier and I felt no kinship with them. The whole thing had a strange aura about it, as if I were cheating on my spouse or something, and I was glad to return to the comfort and familiarity of my own studio, even with all the tension that was building there. I didn’t get hired at Disney but in both cases when I applied I got a form letter that said the company was pleased with my work and while they didn’t have any positions at the moment they’d keep me on file for future placement.
For the first time I began to consider that I might not be as excited to work for Disney as I had been a few years before. A lot of the artists I knew had worked for Disney, either in an official capacity or on loan while the studio was finishing “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.” They had some amazing stories and while they generally seemed to enjoy the experience of the place, they talked about the corporate environment, the tense deadlines, the difficulty of the work and many, many hours over overtime. “You’re probably better off staying at a small studio like the one you’re at than a big, sprawling place like Disney,” I was told, often, “but it would be a good credit to get on your resume—once you’ve worked at Disney you can more or less write your own ticket.”
“Beauty and the Beast” came out and I truly loved the film, but I realized right away something had already been planted in me...I loved the film, but I wasn’t obsessed with it, not like I had been with other films, like “Roger Rabbit” and “Little Mermaid.” Further, I remember one of the HR people playing the soundtrack in the lobby of our studio one afternoon and thinking that, for all the great music and the plot and the look of the movie, I was not enjoying the film the same way others were. I was looking at the animation and effects, I hardly cared about the content of the film itself. Meanwhile, “Rover Dangerfield” came out, and while I got my first credit on the film it went direct to video and not many people saw it. It did, however, play in a theater near my home town in Oregon, and I did get to go to a crew screening attended by Rodney Dangerfield, who had produced the film. “Tom and Jerry: The Movie” also came and went. I had little invested in the film; it was the first time I worked on a project that was being shipped overseas to be finished and I was struck by the lack of care that seemed to go into the movie in general. Still, it kept a lot of us (mostly) busy at a time when the animation industry hit a small slump in the early 90s.
Other films came out... “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” knocked our socks off with the first extensive, and imaginative, use of digital, or “CG” animation. “An American Tail 2: Fievel Goes West” was a respectable sequel released by the newly-formed “Amblimation,” an animation company formed by Steven Spielberg in Europe. “Ferngully: The Last Rainforest” came out with little fanfare but did fairly well in the home video-and-cable market eventually. After some modest success with “All Dogs Go To Heaven” Don Bluth released the unfortunate “Rock-a-Doodle Doo,” but also released the long-awaited sequel to the animated video game “Dragon’s Lair,” this one titled “Dragon’s Lair II: Timewarp,” and I spent long, wonderful hours at the arcade gleefully tossing my earnings into the game, trying to learn it and basking in the lively visuals which would have a great influence on my work.
Things didn’t improve for the animation studio as 1992 drew to a close. I began to get nervous every time a project started to near completion...who was going to get the axe next? And how long until it was my turn? We worked on a project featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, then at the peak of his name-power, but the film wasn’t a hit...in fact, “The Last Action Hero” was a notorious flop. Aside from the layoffs, some employees were leaving on their own. John and his mom left to start their own ink and paint department and I was sad to lose my good friends. The atmosphere around the studio turned a little sour and cynical. Secrets, rumors, relationship problems and ill-will began to surface. I remember during the holidays trying to come up with silly incentives like Halloween and Christmas decorations to try to foster some good will in the employees who remained at the studio, but it was beginning to feel like a lost cause.
Finally we got some good news. Disney Feature Animation was interested in doing a series of shorts starring Mickey Mouse and, with the resources of the studio tapped out with the hit animated films they were producing year after year, they turned to our studio to work on the shorts. Even better for me, I talked to the animator who owned our studio and he said if I could prove I was up to the task he would consider making me a full-fledged animator on the shorts, animating Mickey himself. It was great to have some good news, and better still to have something to work towards.
I practiced every day after my work was done, and solicited the help of some of the experienced animators who were still employed by the studio. I tried to fit in with the animators; at one point we were holding life-drawing classes with live models at the house of whoever was willing to host on a regular basis, other times I was invited to parties or lunches. I have never been fond of groups or social events and it was tough for me to try to make it all work, but I was so excited about becoming an animator, and having my debut be on a Disney project, with Mickey Mouse, where I’d begun. I took a deep breath and went for every chance I got to fit in. I even turned down a job...someone who had left my studio for another gig across town called to offer me a job, but I turned it down—rather smugly, too, I’m sorry to say—because I was going to be animating Mickey Mouse!
It was a warm, pleasant spring with a lot of hope in the air. I began to feel more comfortable in my own skin and started hanging out with John at coffee shops after work. We continued to come up with ideas for short films, animated or otherwise, and spent hours talking into the night about all the things we planned to do. I hadn’t yet finished my animated short film about layoffs and so I spent a lot of hours in front of the TV painting or drawing individual frames. On warm evenings I would take long walks around the pretty suburban neighborhoods of Studio City (where “The Brady Bunch” house was filmed) and on weekends I spent a lot of time going to used book and CD stores.
One day, the HR department announced the studio was going to have a “beach” day. It was clear morale had slipped in the studio and we all needed a bit of a boost of good faith, some bonding time and some good-old-fashioned fun.
We spent all day on a remote patch of beach near El Segundo and romped around like kids, and I felt close to everyone. I’d been at the studio three years and much had changed for me personally, and though I hardly paid any attention, things were changing in the world too. More than anything however, I was eager to get back to the studio and continue my work in preparation to be an animator on Mickey Mouse.
How devastated I was, then, when we were called into the front office of the studio and informed, by the dour-faced HR people, that Disney had pulled the Mickey Mouse shorts, and had decided not to do them. Michael Eisner, who ran Disney, had apparently decided the shorts weren’t funny and weren’t going to make money, so there was no reason to do them. Some felt it was a political move on the part of the Disney studio, an attempt to squelch any competition. I personally didn’t see the connection as Disney was an empire and our studio was small and humble, but it wouldn’t be the last time I’d see such maneuvers. Again, Hollywood is about money, nothing is ever really personal in the end.
The long and the short of it was, our studio had banked all their resources on the Mickey shorts and now that they were pulled there was not a thing left to do “in house.” We were all to be let go, at least for an unknown amount of time, and when the people who ran the studio reconvened they’d probably turn the place into a non-union shop, which meant less pay (assuming they could bring any of us back at all). This message was delivered to us tearfully, with the reassurance that all of us were considered family and it was a terrible thing to have to break us up in this way.
I was struck numb. A part of me had gotten used to the idea that such things were possible after seeing the ups and downs I’d witnessed for the last couple years, but again, I had never thought it was something that was going to happen to me. I’d had such great luck, I thought I might actually be immune. I guess that’s how you evolve.
But that was it. There would be no Mickey Mouse, no promotion to animator, I would no longer have a steady gig with health insurance...my beloved apartment, in fact, my whole life, was at risk. I’d devoted everything to my career—I didn’t even really have a social life and didn’t have much in the way of a support group. And now my career was going to go away, in a flash.
From this period if my life I learned some important things, which I’m always eager to share.
When you get your first job out of college, continue to act like you’re still in college. If you’re used to Top Ramen and Kool-Aid, keep at it for a while. You won’t have to do it forever, but while you’re still living “on the cheap” you can save up any money you make. If you have money saved you can weather periods of unemployment easily, or perhaps invest in the “toys” you’ve always dreamed of when it’s clear your income is going to stay steady for some time. Just remember that under no circumstances must you be lulled into thinking that cash flow is endless. Historically, it never has been, so there’s no reason for that to change. Save your money, live like you’re still just getting by and reap the long-term benefits. By contrast, go out and spend everything you earn on flashy, momentarily-satisfying “toys” and end up with handfuls of air at the end of the proverbial day. It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy money when you make it, it only means be smart about it. Look down the road, look around you as you go on your journey, be realistic with yourself about what your assets and prospects are. If you really are set for life when it comes to money, health and support, lucky you. For the rest of us, a little planning, a little caution, can make a world of difference.
Second, no one is ever completely “safe” or “untouchable.” I’ve seen some of the best artists in the business tossed aside as soon as their use was rendered unnecessary. It’s almost never personal, it’s as impersonal as it gets: there’s no more work, so the artist is not needed. In fact, the legendary animator who ran our studio joked with some of us when he took us out to dinner one night after the layoff announcement, saying, “Hey, don’t feel bad, I’m getting laid off too!” In fact, eventually he would find himself back at the Disney studio where he had been employed before, and where I believe he would spend many happy years on a lot of exciting projects.
Remember this much: while you are working for a studio you owe it to the people who are paying you to do the best job you can, but it doesn’t mean you owe them your entire life. A healthy balance of work life and home life leads to a happy mixture of work, fun and personal evolution. Dedicate everything you have to your job and you are likely to be surprised at some point when your job doesn’t prove to love you back as much as you love it. Again, it isn’t as if there’s an individual to blame (at least, most of the time), the world of commerce is a machine, and the machine continues to grind away whether you’re there to see it or not. For some people that thought is terrifying but it was always comforting to me, as if it took the pressure off.
I remember going to the “Jungle Cruise” ride many years after I worked at Disneyland and noting that the jokes hadn’t changed at all. I had worked there 30 years after the place had opened, and 20 years after I’d left it was still going, without me. My time at the park was like a small blip on a huge radar, it was if I’d never been there at all for all the cares and woes I’d suffered while working at the park a couple summers in the late 80s. It didn’t make me feel bad to think this, it was actually something positive; the show didn’t need me to go on, but it certainly welcomed me when it was my turn on the stage, and I reveled in it, making wonderful memories and touching a lot of lives in the process while it all was happening.
I have felt that way about employment. My contribution to some very memorable films was miniscule in some ways, large in others, but it gave me a great deal of satisfaction while it lasted, and long after the projects ended. I also got paid well. That’s more than enough for me.
Finally, at some point you must learn to rely on yourself. This means you have to be honest with yourself, and trust that you will take care of yourself when things get rough in ways no one else can ever be expected to do. I certainly got better at handling my finances and personal business while working my first job in animation, and I got better at priming myself for future jobs. If I neglected my personal life, I still had that to look forward to, and was building a strong foundation on which to secure my future in that area. Further, I was as yet unaware of why my personal life wasn’t working out anyway. It was a good time to ply my trade, earn money, work a little too much, make a name for myself and enjoy the process of the work I’d chosen, which I loved very much.
That being said, I found myself without a job in June of 1993, and went home from my last day on the job feeling numb and confused as I considered my options. I talked to my dad and he gave me some words of comfort; he had been laid off in a similar way only he’d had a wife, three children and a house to support, none of which I had to worry about—and it had all worked out OK. He assured me I’d find my path. I believed him.
I called the studio that had offered me a job and, thankfully, they hadn’t taken offense that I’d turned them down because I was going to work on Mickey Mouse shorts.In fact, if I wanted the job, I had to do a perfunctory test, but the gig was essentially mine.This studio in Burbank was doing an animated version of “Swan Lake” and some of the friends I’d made in the business were there already.Once again it seemed fate was guiding me, and friends, who had put in a good word on my behalf, were working the kind of magic I had seen before, when people do things for no other reason than because it’s the right thing to do and might help someone else.I put my portfolio together and prepared to launch into a new journey