How To Hollywood Chapter 05: “How to Know When You’ve ‘Made It’”
There’s something wonderful about reaching a comfortable place in life. Not having to worry about money, having a strong support group, conquering fears, enjoying the things that occupy your days and attaining the goals one has set for oneself...these are things many people aspire to attain and some are constantly working towards.
It didn’t take me long to realize that one of the secrets to happiness is always having a goal in mind, something that forces you to evolve, something that is within reach but maybe just a little bit outside of one’s reach too. While the feeling of “happy ever after” is wonderful in the moment, real life doesn’t come in episodes the way television shows do. Once one goal has been attained it’s best to have another one waiting in the wings. For me, the only thing worse than passionately desiring a thing that seems beyond my grasp is not having any passion at all. I personally feel as if “stasis” might be one of the biggest enemies of the artist, perhaps even humanity in general. It seems as if a nice, comfortable place where things stay even is a great goal to shoot for, but ultimately it can be a trap. The bottom line is, if you don’t embrace change, change will find you anyway, and it will appear to be your enemy. Run from change and find yourself in constant motion; accept and welcome change and you’ll always have a foundation of trust and security inside.
I had a break before my next job started, so I went to Reno to visit with my parents and my brother, who had just turned 21. On the Saturday night I arrived from LA I sat down at a slot machine and won $400 in about 20 minutes, playing on a single game with about five dollars’ worth of quarters. My parents had always been fond of gambling but I had never taken to it. I worked hard for my quarters and, aside from chucking them into “Dragon’s Lair” games now and then, found them too precious to squander. While in Reno I figured, why not? So I played, I won, then I stopped. The next night we went to a show and I didn’t gamble at all; the night after that I returned to the casino where I’d won, chose another machine, put a few quarters into the machine and watched, dumbstruck as three clown faces popped onto the readout window. The machine went silent and started flashing. I had won another jackpot: $1600.00.
This experience taught me something interesting: Don’t Gamble.
I didn’t enjoy playing the slot machine “game.” I certainly had no idea when, why or most importantly how I had “won,” and for all the excitement I felt when I won the game(s), an hour later I was playing some more, on the chance that for some reason I had hit a lucky streak.
Needless to say I did not win another jackpot and, thankfully, lost the urge for the whole thing quickly. Again, I am of a belief that there is no such thing as a “happy ending”...there were no credits rolling after my big casino win, no music swelling, no bows...there was simply one event that led to another. Later in the night after I’d won I contracted a stomach bug of some kind that was so awful I thought I was not going to survive it. I ended up having to get up early the next morning and drive for hours, with a fever, to get home and get ready for work the next day. I spent the next week rolling around in agony on the couch and I’d have given back every penny I’d won in the casino to not feel so rotten anymore, even for a little while. So it goes—things get dark for awhile then they get light again, and it’s all an elemental part of being alive.
Things got good at work for me again. I was hired onto a film called “The Swan Princess” and found the studio that was making the film comfortable. The employees were professional, pleasant and friendly. The studio was owned and run by “Rick Rich,” an animation director who had left Disney studios to established a company based on a successful line of direct-to-video animated religious stories. He had secured financing to produce and direct his first animated feature film at his own studio. The employees were a mix of people from different studios around town and I had great conversations with people who had been part of some of my favorite films. “The Swan Princess” itself was shaping up to be a sincere, gentle film with a good heart and on top of everything else I was given a small promotion. I was tasked with working for the head animator on the entire project, on one of his characters, and eventually took over as a secondary character lead for the main villain, which was an honor. I made a lot of friends who I am still in contact with today and had a pleasant year on a fun film.
Maybe it was all too pleasant.
One of the bi-products of having an easy time of it at work was that I found it harder to ignore my personal life, which wasn’t progressing at all. I was still in “work-a-holic” mode but found I was caring less and less about the work. I fought hard to become an official animator on the lead male character on “Swan Princess” but it didn’t happen. I was disappointed, but I realized I was doing so well in the clean-up department I might as well acknowledge my good fortune and embrace my current life. I was well-regarded in the studio and well-paid. I attained a modicum of respect for my work and it would be my drawings that would be seen on the screen, even if I wasn’t responsible for the animation itself. It was an easy life in many ways, listening to music and stories on my portable stereo while I sat drawing all day (and sometimes into the night), hanging with some of my friends from work, going out with my good friend John for coffee every Thursday night at the local Jerry’s Deli, and renting a lot of movies.
I finished my short animated film at last. I tried submitting it to festivals; by this time there were a lot of animation film festivals but most of them, in the wake of “Beavis and Butthead” premiering, were focused on gross-out humor. My film, while subversive (it dealt with a guy who had lost his job and kept trying to kill himself but ended up killing everyone around him instead, ho ho) was not over-the-top enough, and it certainly wasn’t well animated, since I’d done it all myself, quickly and cheaply. Oddly enough, the film was shot on 35mm. I did some freelance work for my old studio when they re-formed, after I was already re-employed. The work wasn’t very interesting, it didn’t pay well and it wasn’t much fun to work on weekends when I had a steady job, but I felt it was the right thing to do since I was using donated paper, paint, film and equipment from the place for my short film. When my film was finished my relationship with my old studio was pretty much finished too, and I lost track of the place. I know they stayed in business for some years after, getting smaller and smaller each year, and I’m not sure exactly when it all stopped.
No one was much interested in my short film and the general consensus was that it was depressing and I might need an “attitude adjustment.” I actually did go to a therapist briefly; they came with our union benefits and I’d always wanted to try it out. After a few sessions I began to unearth things that I wasn’t comfortable thinking about and ended the sessions, “so I’d have more time for work.”
My time on “The Swan Princess” was memorable for many reasons and may be one of the most formative years of my career simply because it was so nice. I particularly remember the warm summer night we all went to the newly-refurbished Disney movie theater in Hollywood, the “El Capitan,” to see the newly-released “The Lion King.” We were all blown away by the look and feel of the movie. From the opening credits we knew it was going to be something enormous. How big it would eventually be was impossible to predict. It changed everything. From the moment the film became a certified hit, everyone was buzzing with talk of how Disney had hit it “out of the park” again, how many companies (Warner Brothers, Ted Turner, digital animation house Pixar) were in the planning stages to create films that could compete with, or perhaps even unseat, Disney’s landmark works and reign as the premiere studio for animated family films.
By the end of summer 1994 however, a little more than a year after we’d started, the “Swan Princess” was winding down. There was talk of another film in the works but we saw no evidence of anything coming.
I learned this, then: if you’re working in a studio that relies on projects and you see no evidence that projects are forthcoming, you should prepare for things to change, including the possibility that employees will be laid off. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, just a good rule of thumb. Keep your eyes and ears open for what is “happening” in a studio. It’s also not a bad idea to befriend the person who sits at the front desk in the lobby and answers the phones, if there is one. This person will always know what’s happening in the studio and will sometimes share that information.
In the case of my new studio, the receptionist was laid off in the fall a year after I’d arrived, the first of many unfortunate signs. The next was that the film came out over the Thanksgiving holiday and was not just unsuccessful, it was a non-event all around. Disney had opted to pull “The Lion King” from theaters around the time kids were expected to return to school in the fall, and then re-released it over Thanksgiving. The word on the street was that this was a move to appeal to families looking for something to do over the holidays, and re-fresh everyone’s interest in the property. That the box office for “The Swan Princess” suffered as a result could be attributed to the competition of the Disney film, but suggesting there was any competition could also be likened to the idea of someone sending an army of ants out to battle an army of tigers; whether the re-release was done to squelch competition or not, Disney, and “The Lion King,” were unstoppable. Another film that fell by the wayside was “The Pagemaster” from Turner, also released on the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. This one starred Macaulay Culkin, coming off his success in the “Home Alone movies.” If Culkin, albeit in a fantasy film about books, couldn’t compete with Disney’s proud “Lion,” the humble, sweet and old-fashioned “Swan Princess,” with its relatively small budget and smaller advertising campaign, didn’t stand a chance.
We came into work the Monday after the Thanksgiving holiday prepared for the worst, and the worst came; shortly after it was clear “Swan Princess” wouldn’t even make enough money to pay for itself we were given notice that after the Christmas/New Year holidays we’d be let go, at least most of us. Oddly enough, I was invited to a 25th anniversary screening of “The Swan Princess” in 2019, commemorating the release of new sequels, of which there had been several. While I never again crossed paths with anyone connected directly to the creation of these films, I knew people who stayed on staff for the company for many years after the rest of us were let go and had to tip my hat to the company for continuing to produce content over they years.
I went home for the holidays and felt at peace somehow; on the one hand, I was incredibly sad to see the loss of a studio I had been comfortable at for over a year; I was nearing 30 and starting to feel like an “adult,” whatever that is, and enjoyed the comfort I’d had making good money and having my life set in a sometimes predictable, but otherwise pleasant routine of work. On the other hand, I knew I had plateaued, that I wasn’t progressing. I had intended originally to become an animator and had since given up on that idea, but I’d also reached a bit of a ceiling in my clean-up work too. I had met several elders in the business, and began to see a trend; if you didn’t move up, eventually you moved out, that is, were kicked out of the industry, when you got too old and worn out to keep up with the pace. I had no intention of becoming someone who withered away in the industry.
Right on cue, about a week before our last day on the job, one of the production managers, a nice guy I’d always liked and who seemed to like me, approached me with a clipboard. “I’m putting a list together,” he said. “Disney is hiring and I’m making a list of people who are qualified and available to work there...are you interested?”
It was an odd feeling to say the least. I was being offered a position at the prestigious Disney Feature Animation studios, something I’d wanted my whole life, without even having to apply, after I’d been turned down twice before. Now that it was being handed to me on a platter, however, I was hesitant. Why? Maybe it was because I knew I could get a job at another studio, one that was, as my recent experiences had been, full of kind, dedicated, talented people who loved what they did but were not, perhaps, as driven as it seemed those who dwelled in the Disney company were. Maybe it was because I was somewhat soured on Disney after hearing stories about how hard the company worked the staff, and how they had seemed intent on being the biggest kids on the “family film” playground, to the point they’d bully “smaller” kids like my studio, and Turner Animation. Or maybe I just wanted a break. I knew the film Disney was hiring for was “Pocahontas,” and that it was entering the final phase of production. I wasn’t alone—others on the list the Production manager had compiled had similar reservations. Once again, a job—no matter how fun—is still “work,” or they wouldn’t have to pay you to do it.
I gave my consent to be on the list my production manager put together and forgot about it for a while. The big group of us being laid had a grand, sad, final dinner for the company and I woke up the following morning unemployed again. I spent a quiet week wandering around in the gray, cold February weather, going to the library, taking long drives and feeling contemplative as I considered my various options. When Disney called the next Friday, I had already determined I’d take the job. Imagine: suddenly working for Disney seemed the “lesser of evils.” I was to report to work that Monday. I was happy, but it was bittersweet. I would be stepping down a notch in job categories, from an “Assistant” to “Breakdown Artist.” The distinction was small, but my progress had still been hard-won. With this change would also come a union-mandated change to less pay. I wasn’t thrilled that I’d be going from near the top of the food chain to one of its middle rungs, and I knew it was going to be a lot of intense work, but since it was only for a couple months I thought it would be OK.
I remember showing up for my first day of work at Disney Feature Animation. I was to report to a warehouse on Flower Street in Glendale for my first day. The receptionist who greeted me in the small lobby was in an advanced state of pregnancy and looked uncomfortable. She told me she was getting ready for her leave. I was, oddly, envious. I knew I was at the beginning of something, and that it was most likely a long term of working hard. I knew Disney was likely to make my career, but also would require a level of commitment I wasn’t sure I was ready for. I also knew it would be more money than I’d ever made before. A lot of my friends were in the habit of taking breaks after getting laid off, some even took vacations to Europe and Hawaii and such. I could never imagine that...how could I ever relax and enjoy myself knowing I faced an uncertain future?
People have often suggested my ability to see into the future and make predictions about how to proceed in advance of things happening is somehow supernatural. I tell them that for one thing, I’m not always right and second, I just use common sense. I was raised to believe one should always “make hay while the sun shines” (an old farming expression). I was raised to believe it’s important to make money while money is available to be made; I could always go on vacation later, knowing I had the resources to support such a thing once I had them. By contrast, preparing and waiting results in lost time and missed opportunities, and that you should enjoy each day as if it’s your last. I think “moderation” is probably the key.
There was no moderation on my first day at Disney; I was immediately assigned to work on the character of Pocahontas, directly reporting to the character lead who was something of a legend in the business. I was nervous as a schoolkid working on my first drawing of the character, which was from a pivotal final scene. The drawing took me most of the afternoon. I prided myself on my line and my speed but I was in awe at the work I saw happening in the studio. It was exciting to be challenged in this way.
I got to know the character lead better eventually and found her to be kind, strong, beautiful and as much as anything, talented. She had been in the animation business many years and had worked on several of the films that had gotten me interested in animation in the first place. She had also been at Disney since before the new “golden age” began in the 90s. She was no nonsense, and let me know right away she needed someone strong, talented and dedicated to work on the lead character in “Pocahontas,” particularly with such a tight deadline. I met and worked for other supervisors as needed and never ceased to be amazed at the work ethic of these artists, and their incredible talent.
It was not easy work, however. If you want to have an idea what it was like to work in the clean-up department, try to find the most high-quality image of “Pocahontas” you can acquire, use a mechanical pencil, thick, white drawing paper and a light table and trace over the lines of the character precisely, exactly mimicking the line quality and style. Then copy it again only move the whole drawing over slightly. Now draw a third copy on another sheet of paper, this time drawing a line in-between the lines of the first two drawings, while still matching the exact quality and styler of the lines of the first two drawings. Try to do each drawing (assuming the page is at least 12” by 12” in size) in under an hour. Now do this every hour for 8-10 hours a day, 6 days a week, for about six months.
My supervisor told me overtime was “unlimited” on this film, and I was inspired to stay late and come in early every day. After my second day on the job my elbow hurt so much it was hard to sleep. After a week my back and neck started to throb. Two weeks in and my hand turned into a claw. And most of the people on the film had been at it for months, I thought.
Still, it wasn’t all work. On my second day I was sent through an orientation process that included a tour of the main lot, which I had first visited a few years earlier. I took a lot of pride in the fact that I had set out to work on Disney films and here I was, right at the heart of the place where all the beloved films I’d grown up with were originally made. The Disney lot included a nice store full of high-end, but discounted, Disney merchandise and there was a cafeteria with several restaurants featuring a wide variety of cuisine offered but since this location was far from where I was working in Glendale I didn’t go there often. I was welcome to stop by as often as I pleased, however, and I went every chance I got. The lot included scenic destinations such as a pool that reflected a huge office building with characters from Snow White on it, a small “archives” room with artifacts from old Disney films on display, and working studio warehouses where shows and movies were being created right under our noses. I particularly enjoyed the props and costumes building, a repository that was stuffed to the gills with paraphernalia from old films and shows. It looked like a gigantic antique store. Last on the tour was a small office where my friend John’s sister worked inking and painting special cel art for sale to collectors.
One afternoon my supervisor instructed me to go to a special room in tour building to see “Pocahontas” in progress. It was exciting to see the film at this stage, including some material that wouldn’t be in the final film (but would be released eventually anyway). The amount of work that had gone into the film was staggering, and the screening left me both exhausted and inspired.
Perhaps the most memorable afternoon was when master animator Glenn Keane, who had studied with the original animation masters, stopped by to talk to the “Pocahontas” character clean-up crew about the work we were doing to complete the film. He acted out the entire end sequence for us, and he did such a good job everyone was moved. My supervisor stood up, wiped her eyes and laughed, saying “God, I feel so stupid,” embarrassed that Mr. Keane’s interpretation of the moving end of the film had affected her so much, but I knew what she meant. These films had stopped being “just cartoons” at some point and were becoming expressions of some of the highest (and lowest) elements of being human, expressed in a medium that was pure art. They were epic struggles on the part of hundreds of artists with the unifying goal of sharing emotional engagement, creating waking universal dreams that made people laugh, cry and, of course, spend money. It was impossible to not be moved by Mr. Keane’s speech and I left feeling excited and eager to contribute my small part to what was shaping up to be a once-in-a-lifetime film event.
I was on the film for about eight weeks. I was set up with a small, rickety desk near an exit door in a forlorn area near a coffee machine. It wasn’t that I was neglected, it was mostly that the project was immense and had been going for a long time—I was coming in at the end of the “party” as it were, helping to “sweep up” as it was. I did my best work and tried not to make too much of a fuss about anything—I knew that that was what my boss needed most of all. Her job including coordinating work for twenty or more artists with varying degrees of skills and unique personalities and needs. I only barely got to know most of these artists with the relatively short time I was on the film and was eventually assigned to one lead for the last weeks of the show. I had to remind myself now and then that while what I was doing was generally “grunt” work it was still on the main character, in some of the most high-profile scenes of the film. I hoped that my enthusiasm and effort, and of course any talent I had, would be noticed.
My hopes paid off. Everyone I worked for told me that when the film was over I should ask for an increase in pay and promotion in job title, to the point where the supervisor of the entire character told me exactly what to say when I had the meeting to sign a contract for future work. Apparently there was no question I’d be asked to stay on. I knew some other people from my last studio who were also at the company and they had either already signed on or were prepared to sign when asked. Most of them had taken a step backwards in pay and title to work at the studio but didn’t mind given the prestige of working for the Disney company. Some people I knew had actually made some important connections on “Pocahontas” and were going to fight for promotions.
I thought for a long time about what I wanted, and what I believed I was due. This is always a tricky area, and when I advise people who are in a similar situation, I tell them to spend some serious time in thought before deciding anything.
You must know your worth, and you must fight for your worth, to whatever extent that means to you personally. No one will ever fight as hard for your cause as you will. You can hire people to fight on your behalf (namely, lawyers) and I eventually would do just that, but even a lawyer is a “hired hand.” No one knows your worth but you, and unless you fully believe in yourself you cannot convince others to believe in you. At some point you will be asked to name your “price.” It may be someone asking you to list your salary expectations, your qualifications or talents. It may happen when you are pitching something, selling yourself during an interview or even in a personal situation (a date, marriage proposal or separation, for example). Whenever you are asked to explain your “worth” you must be prepared to back up your statements with the intrinsic belief that you are certain your statements are valid. If you have any doubts, it will show. I always tell my students not to try to “bluff” their way through anything; either stand up for yourself with complete confidence or admit you’re not ready or don’t have all the information, and wait for the time when you’ve built your confidence up enough that you can stand with conviction.
More than anything it’s important to remember that never, under any circumstances, do you have to make an important decision without first spending some time thinking all your options through. Anyone who tries to force you to do otherwise is trying to manipulate, trick or just get the best of you. At the least, don’t let them do that in the moment. Take as much time as you can reasonably allow, think things through and respond in a way that supports who you know you are and what you are capable of being.
When “Pocahontas” wrapped it was with a whimper and not a bang. One day we were told there were no more drawings to distribute, the next day someone said we had a big end-of-show luncheon, and people were already talking about the huge premiere bash that was going to take place when the film premiered at the end of June. There were also plans to start a move of all employees to the new animation building in Burbank. I was dizzy, disoriented and not feeling my best physically, and one afternoon when I was told I was free to go home, even though I was still on the clock, I did...and slept for two days solid. I’d never done anything like that before, and haven’t since, which makes me wonder just how really tired I was.
In truth, I was prepared to leave after my contract was up on “Pocahontas.” I hadn’t particularly enjoyed the experience—it had been more work than I’d ever imagined, and some had even said to me, “Oh, this was nothing compared to some of the others.” I thought the film was beautiful but felt no personal connection to the material. I liked all of the leads I worked with but wasn’t sure I liked everyone on their individual teams. There was an atmosphere of fierce competition among the artists who were on their way up (and even among those who were already where they wanted to be). There was a sense that there was gold to be mined in the studio and most people wanted a piece of it. Usually that meant trying to get higher and higher on the ladder of job categories until you were a supervisor of some sort, which meant more money, more prestige and (sometimes) less actual drawing. It also meant you had to fight to get that position, and fight to keep it, which made the competitive atmosphere even worse. There is, in my opinion, nothing more desperate than a tired, eager, passionate artist, and I know because I was one once.
I knew I could get a job at another studio, even as I knew those studios didn’t have the presence Disney did. I knew I had the endorsement of some of the best character leads on the “Pocahontas” crew. One of these leads heard I was unsure if I wanted to stay at the studio and so she took me to the interesting new building that was being constructed just for animation, closer to the original Disney lot, on Riverside Drive in Burbank. She showed me all the pre-production paintings hanging on the walls of the studio in preparation for the upcoming “Hercules” film and I fell in love with the huge vistas of pink and blue clouds and the strong design style. Another supervisor suggested I go to the building where an upcoming sequel to “Fantasia” was being worked on. The atmosphere in this building seemed more low-key; there was less pressure to get this film done than the others, and more time was spent on making something artistic. It was also less likely to be a “tent pole” summer film as “Pocahontas” was. I was interested in the project but not overwhelmed enough to pursue it.
I got to see an early screening of the work-in-progress reels of “Hunchback of Notre Dame.” The movie was, at least when I first saw it, gritty, heavy and dark, and a real departure from the typical fare of the studio. I was told that if I stayed at Disney this would likely be the film I’d be assigned to, and I was certainly interested.
Finally, one of the leads I worked with suggested that if I needed a break from the grueling schedules of feature films I should talk to one of her friends who was the head of the “Consumer Products” division in nearby Burbank. This department, an entity separate from Feature Animation but still within the Disney company, was responsible for all the tie-in products that were related to the films—toys, bed and kitchenware, books and recordings. I was given a tour by a genuine, friendly person who showed me a beautiful office I might work in, and some of the exciting material I might help to develop if I worked for the Consumer Products department. She made a great case for why I might like the change of pace, how it was more like an advertising firm, and how the company would benefit from having someone who had worked on animated films. I strongly considered pursuing a position in Consumer Products but I also knew it would take me out of production, and doing so might make it difficult for me to go back, for any number of reasons. At the least it would mean interrupting my union membership. It seemed like a risky move for some reason. I still thought it might be better to try another studio and interviewed at Warner Brother’s and Turner Animation.
I’m a firm believer that a job is like any other relationship; forged with care, invested in, requiring work to make it successful and not easily separated from once it’s in place. Anyone who has ever gone through the end of a relationship knows it is not something to take lightly. I had a lot to consider and knew the clock was ticking, but slowly I began to see that my best bet was to stay with the Disney company if they wanted me. I had an opportunity, I seemed to be appreciated or at least in demand, and I was already “in.”
I was finally contacted by the Human Resources department to meet with someone to talk about my future. I convey this story with the caveat that I have nothing but respect for people who are in a position to negotiate contracts and work out the details of employee salaries and situations; they work for the company and their job is to represent the needs of the company first and foremost, which must get complicated at times. That being said, the first time I negotiated a major contract for myself I knew that my first concern was that I was an employee, and my main responsibility was to take care of myself. I was tired from work and other things happening in my personal life, I knew I had the endorsement of some of the best people in the studio and I believed that my skills were strong enough, and my personality pleasant enough, that I could work somewhere else if I chose to.
So when the person conducting my contract meeting told me he wanted me to sign on for three years/three movies, at the same rate and position I was currently at, I said, “I’d actually like to be promoted to Assistant, the position I had before I came to Disney, with the pay that goes with that title, and I’d like to renegotiate after two films or two years, whichever is soonest, instead of a three-year contract.”
The contract person balked at this, of course, and said with a tone of condescension, “I’m sorry, but this is Disney Studios and we don’t give people promotions after one film. Some people have been working here for years waiting for promotions and it wouldn’t be fair to them, and we just don’t do that.”
I took a deep breath, knowing I had nothing to lose, and said, “OK, fine...so are we done here?”
The contract person, used to dealing with such situations I’m sure, said, “Now just hold on...what is it you want again?”
I told him.
He smiled. “I’m sorry, but we just don’t do that here...”
“Funny,” I said, smiling myself and trying not to sound too snide, “But the people I worked with on ‘Pocahontas’ disagree...in fact, they’re the ones who told me to come in here and ask for these things.”
I listed off the names of the leads who had endorsed me and watched as the contract person’s face grew slightly crimson. “What were those names again?” he asked, turning to his keyboard and clattering away.
I listed the names again.
“Well,” the contract person said, “I certainly can’t promise you anything but I’ll look into it. Meanwhile, you can go back to your desk. We’ll contact you when we have an answer.”
I went back to my desk at the warehouse in Glendale.
The warehouse where I sat was emptying out more every day as employees were moved. One of my friends took me on a tour of the new building and I was impressed with how it was designed with its crooked walls, long hallways and tall windows—very avant garde, to say the least.
I proceeded to wait for a call all through the weeks, and then months, of spring.
Eventually everyone was moved out of the warehouse I was in and the only people I saw all day were from the custodial staff and payroll department. Eventually the nice woman I knew in payroll handed me a check and said, “I’m moving out today, I guess we’ll have your checks messengered out here to you from now on.”
By May all that was left in the dark, empty warehouse was my small, rickety desk, my chair and phone.
Some days I’d entertain myself by drawing Disney characters or working on my own projects. I spent a lot of time on the phone talking to John, who was incredulous that I was being paid to sit around in an empty warehouse. I would get a call now and then from HR saying, “Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten you, just hang tight.”
I hung tight.
I finally figured out that I wasn’t required to sit in the empty warehouse all day since I was fairly certain no one actually knew, or at least cared, I was there (the phone on my desk had a message system I could call into from other locations) so I started taking long walks, then long drives.
I’m not sure exactly how long my time alone in the warehouse lasted because it seems like a blur now, but eventually someone called me and said, “I’m sorry, you can’t stay out in the warehouse anymore because we’re shutting it down, we’re setting you up in the new building next week.”
I was set up in a ground-floor office off the area where all the clerical people were in the new animation building. I was paired with a roommate, another artist I vaguely knew from “Pocahontas” who was also waiting to sign his contract and get assigned to a team.
The day of the wrap party for “Pocahontas” arrived. The screening was held at the Dorothy Chandler pavilion with the party taking place at the grand old Union Station building nearby. It was all huge and bustling, everyone was dressed up and some people arrived in limousines. I brought a friend who had moved to LA from Oregon, someone I’d gone to college with, and we enjoyed the film and the party, but I couldn’t help but feel disconnected from it all, particularly during the speeches before the film. For all the opulence of the film and the party later, I did not feel I’d been an intrinsic part of the experience of making the film, and I’d only been on it two months. While I had worked on some of the most important scenes in the film and was incredibly proud of my work, it all felt a bit surreal somehow, as if it wasn’t really happening, or wasn’t happening to me in any case. I enjoyed the food, the drink and the general atmosphere, but I was still confused about where I was going next, and still hadn’t made any good friends at the company, leading to a lot of feelings of being disconnected. My college friend asked me if I’d be offended if she mentioned she wanted to leave the party and I told her not at all, and we got in my car and that was that.
Eventually I was called back into the office of the contract person. “Well,” he said to me with a curt smile, “you were certainly right about your endorsements...congratulations, we have decided to promote you to an assistant, with the associated pay increase. Once you sign you will be on the next three films starting with ‘Hunchback,’ and you also get a ‘Disneyland silver pass,’ allowing you to go to the park whenever you like.”
I smiled. For a great number of reasons I was feeling a clarity and confidence I’d never known before. I think part of it was my conviction that, after all I’d been through at that stage of my life, if I didn’t stand up for what I believed and wanted I’d never be able to live with myself. My contract, like all contracts, was for the benefit of my employer; it ensured I couldn’t suddenly decide to leave but also stated that I could be dismissed at any time under the right circumstances. The contract also locked me into a pay rate and position at a time when things were changing rapidly in the business. I knew I had to keep my options as open as possible while not destroying the good thing I currently had.
I took a deep breath and said, “I’m sorry, maybe you misunderstood. I said I wanted to only be locked into this contract for two films or two years, whichever comes up first. I need that to be corrected on my contract, then I’ll be happy to sign.”
I saw the contract person’s face flush red and he squinted behind his glasses. I am fairly certain he was unused to employees, particularly at my level, making such demands. He didn’t even respond to me, he just turned to his computer and said, “Let me make a note of that,” then said to me quietly, “I’ll get back to you.”
I returned to my desk. By now I was being visited by people who were leads on the “Hunchback” film, bearing work for me, drawings to do. It was intriguing and a little off-putting to know that upstairs from where I sat whole teams had been formed and were in progress on a movie. People who knew my situation and were possibly awaiting my arrival were deciding my fate while I sat with my officemate in a dark, quiet room with little to do but wait to find out what would happen next.
I didn’t wait long; in a day or so I got a nice basket with flowers in it, a note saying “welcome to Disney,” a contract with everything I’d asked for...and a “silver pass” so I could go to Disneyland whenever I wanted (assuming I was ever going to be not working—“Hunchback” was already fully underway, I’d heard).
I signed the contract and sat back, relieved. I went to Oregon to visit my family, promptly got a cold and spent most of the visit sleeping and trying to recover. Despite my cold it felt good to know I was set for the time being, even as I knew I had a lot more work ahead. I was officially part of the Disney company, something I’d dreamed of all my life. If it didn’t quite feel like the “movie moment” I’d always envisioned it had more to do with where I was personally than the actual reality of the situation. None of that mattered, however, at least for a while. I had done it...I’d achieved my goals and was ready to dive into the next film.
The only question that kept running through my mind then was, “Now that I’ve arrived, now that my dreams have come true...what happens next?”