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How To Hollywood Chapter 06: "How to Measure Success”


I believe it is obvious: if you stick to your goals, you will succeed at some of them. It depends on how you’ve framed your goals and what “sticking” to them means, of course. Further, things might not look the way you pictured when you arrive at whatever destination you’ve chosen, but you will be there all the same. As with most things in life, it all depends on how you look at it...one person’s success might be another person’s failure, and vice versa.

In the fall of 1995 I began work as an assistant clean-up artist on “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” I was assigned to the character of “Frollo,” the villain of the film. I had been told I’d be given a choice of which character I could work on but by the time I came on the film most of the teams had already been set. In truth, all the characters in “Hunchback” were complicated; the Disney company was determined to do something big, beautiful and different now that it had attained an unprecedented level of success. There was a sense that after the epic performance of “The Lion King” the company could take chances with their films and reach a wider demographic.

“Hunchback” was incredibly dark when I saw the initial work-in-progress. Even after it was toned down a bit during production it was still a heavy, serious film that tackled issues of obsession, identity and, most daring of all, religion. The film, based on the classic Victor Hugo novel, very nearly got a PG rating and the ad campaign was eventually spruced up with the tagline “Join the Party!” to entice family audiences. It continues to be one of the films I worked on that I enjoy watching regularly. It is a dense, multi-layered film filled with gorgeous art, incredible detail and thought-provoking themes handled in a (mostly) sensitive, serious manner.

I settled into a regular routine of bouncing from one lead clean-up lead to the next as I had done on “Pocahontas.” The supervising clean-up person was someone I’d worked with at my first studio. She ran the team with humor and compassion, drive, rational decision-making and endless donuts at our weekly meetings. I was rather in awe of her ability to keep things together and do her own work, and she always seemed to be the first one in and the last one out without ever seeming tired.

Another person I was in awe of was the lead animator on “Frollo.” At the beginning of the production she gave a lecture to everyone on the character on how to draw the difficult three-pointed hat Frollo wears, how to capture the folds of the character’s thick robes properly and how to construct the rings on the character’s fingers. She also gave us tips on how to draw the character’s face, which was designed to be about as far from a traditional “Disney” look as possible. Because Frollo’s face was so distinctive (and because I drew it so many times) I can still draw the character to this day. I was excited to be working on the team of someone so passionate about her art and I am proud to be able to call her a friend today.

The production was fairly subdued; I was moved into an office with two other clean-up artists, both also on the “Frollo” team, and we laughed about the fact that we had actually been placed in a literal broom closet—there were not enough offices for all the artists in the building and people were being put wherever there was a modicum of space, including the basement that was designed to store film negatives. None of us minded too much—we were there to bury our heads in the work after all.

I worked, and worked, and worked. I remember one Saturday evening dropping off a scene to one of my supervisors and letting him know I was going home for the evening. He smiled and said to me, only half-joking, “Really? How are we going to finish this movie if you don’t stay here and help me tonight?” We were months away from the deadline and already doing overtime. I had no intention of burning myself out too soon.

My personal life was non-existent, other than some unpleasant experiences I’d had recently that I preferred not to think about, so I appreciated having work to throw myself into. I continued to meet with Jeff for our weekly coffee evenings whenever I had any free time. I envied Jeff’s carefree ways. He was a few years younger than me, had no interest in making his work his life as I did and, I felt, seemed much happier than I was. I knew I was where I wanted to be but was unsure why I couldn’t be as easy-going as Jeff. Was it even possible for me to be as free and easy-going as Jeff seemed to be? Or was it Jeff who was missing out on the joy of being passionate about your career?

I made a lot of money on “Hunchback.” I moved to a new, beautiful apartment, my car had been stolen and so I got another one without even hesitating. I decided that when “Hunchback” was over I was going to travel, possibly to Europe.

Meanwhile, I worked.

I got pretty depressed at times. It rained a lot that year and I didn’t get any exercise besides afternoon walks around the main lot, a serene, idyllic place to lose myself for a half hour here and there. Our dinners were catered and everyone ate the high-carb free food we were offered every night (including some of the most scrumptious cakes I’ve ever tasted). I barely saw the sun, particularly since it was fall and then winter, when the days are shorter, but I had never been a “sun person” anyway. I smoked on every break I had, before work, after work, and chain-smoked on weekends or when I was out with Jeff. If it was nice out on Sundays, my day off, I’d ride my bike and go to record stores to look for more things to listen to at work. And so the film continued on, and on.

One thing few people talk about is that “routine” can be both joy and pain. There’s something satisfying about knowing where you’re going to be for months at a time, particularly if you’re not miserable. Most of the artists I knew at Disney had signed long-term contracts, believing that it gave them tenure and they could then feel confident making major investments. Many people bought houses, several got married, some had children. I just stuck to my routine, which included reading books on my lunch hour outside the old animation building and feeding the gregarious squirrels that frequented the area (they did not, however, sing or assist in designing dresses for princesses as one might think a Disney squirrel might do).

I grew lonely. I had no local friends other than Jeff. Despite my love of solitude I believe humans are social animals and need companionship. I remember wanting a friend so badly I fairly ached.

I was sitting in one of our weekly meetings with the rest of the team when I noticed a woman sitting at the end of the table, someone I’d seen before but never paid much attention to, inward-looking as I was most of the time. This woman had big, dark glasses and fiery red hair and seemed lively and funny. Her irascible nature was so endearing I introduced myself to her after the meeting saying, point-blank, “I really, really need a friend. Would you be my friend?”

Sam, who was 12 years older than me and had a lifetime of broad (and often wild) experiences was both surprised and bemused at my direct “proposal” and we became instant best friends. Many people eventually would speculate that we were romantically entangled but we never were, we just cared for one another in a deep way that constituted an “intimate friendship,” one that would stay active for seven great years.

“Hunchback” seemed like it would go on forever, to the point I could barely remember a time when I wasn’t on the project, and then one day the clean-up supervisor said to me, “The film is almost done, most people are rolling off it and you will too soon. You’ve been under-utilized on this movie so I’m giving you most of the final ‘fight’ scene.”

It was exciting and fun to have this new responsibility. “Action” scenes are almost always easier than intense acting scenes since the characters are moving around so much. It was also fun to be a bit more in charge of the scenes in question and have some freedom, divvying the work up to other team members, making choices about how the work should be handled. Whenever I watch the final scenes of Frollo in “Hunchback” I take a personal pride in my participation in how it all looks.

Just to be clear: it isn’t often that someone will “award” an employee with a title or increase in pay or even more responsibility out of the blue. I learned early in my career such things are usually awarded when someone has been going above and beyond, doing more than is required, working above her or his abilities. I used to tell people who worked on my teams, “Don’t expect anyone to hand you a promotion...when you get a chance to prove yourself, do so, then start asking for things with the understanding that you’ve already shown you can do it.” I’ve known people who insist they be compensated immediately for whatever skills they are demonstrating; I always caution that it’s best to earn a position. My immediate supervisor on “Frollo,” while happy to help me along by setting me up with more substantial work as long as it increased production, cautioned that there was a danger in rising too high too quickly, suggesting that at a certain point there was only one way to go if things didn’t work out.

When “Hunchback” ended it was another case of something going out with a whimper instead of a bang. Our supervisor took us to a big lunch at Universal Studios and we had a fun afternoon. While there had been occasional squabbles and misunderstandings on the film we had generally been a cohesive and pleasant group and I felt comfortable, if a little bored sometimes.

After a week or so off I was informed I was going onto “Hercules.” There were some scuffles at first about whether I’d be on the actual character of “Hercules” or his girlfriend Meg. It was the first time I got involved in office politics and I was completely out of my element.

Here’s some advice: when it comes to getting passionate about office politics just don’t do it!

Nothing is worth jeopardizing your peace of mind when it comes to work. If you maintain a healthy balance of home life, supportive relationships and outside interests, these things are unlikely to come up anyway, but when you have taken up the habit of devoting most of your time and energy to your job, as the majority of us did in the 1990s at Disney, your world gets smaller and little things start to take on an unrealistic sense of importance. In my case, I had some friends at Disney I had fallen out with but despite our differences we still had to work together. I had never experienced this before and was unsure how to proceed. It was impossible for us to not have strong feelings about the things that had driven us apart in the first place, yet it was even more important that we overcome all of that and concentrate on the work at hand: participating as a unified team to finish a major project.

In the end, as sometimes happens, I tried to participate in some political games in response to what I saw as personal attacks and ended up feeling frustrated. My “maneuverings,” if that’s what they were, also began to get noticed.

The truth is, while the confrontations I was involved in did not result in what I thought I wanted in the moment I probably ended up with what I actually needed. I felt I was being neglected in comparison to others who seemed to be leap-frogging their way to success, money and comfort, but I was hardly in a bad situation and, of course, unaware of the actual paths of my competitors. In fact, I had been told I was the object of scorn to others who had not moved up as much as I had. I was beginning to learn even then that it’s never a good idea to compare your success to that of others, you have to consider your own story first.

I was assigned to the “Meg” crew and was thrilled to be part of yet another lead character, and this one was different; Meg was a break from the typical Disney “princess” type in that she was sassy, strong, seductive and cynical. She was also beautiful, but designed differently, based on Grecian urns and pillars, as all the characters in “Hercules” were. I was excited to be working with a lead animator who was immensely talented and genuine, and even more happy when I ended up being friends with him. I also befriend his wife, who was also at Disney, later. These friendships may even have helped to influence my future success ultimately, and that might not have happened had I followed my initial determination to try to compete with my co-workers and gone a different route.

I resolved, as one must do inevitably, to let go of any unpleasant feelings I had after going through the turmoil I’d experienced with my co-workers and resolved to let the people I’d been involved with pursue their own paths in life. I had begun seeing a therapist again and he had approved of my choice to accept that there was no “winning,” that the only thing I could do was take care of myself and let others do the same.

It was new to me to have “enemies,” whether in the workplace or elsewhere. A great deal of tension came from the fact we were working so many hours. Some of it was the perception that there were high stakes at the Disney company, and some of it comes down to the realities of the business of “art,” which attracts sensitive individuals, generally speaking. I will say that for some years I followed the paths of several people who I either fell out with or otherwise grew to disrespect. I have no desire to see anyone fail, I wish no one ill and I take no joy in watching someone journey down a path that is dark. I don’t believe in karma and I’m not spiritual in any traditional sense; I think people work towards what they want in life, whether it’s something that is healthy for them or not. I also believe that people do the best that they can with what they have. No one ever intends to “fail,” and most people make choices based on what they think is best. I will only offer up that my choices seemed to lead to continuous success and a long, satisfying career without any regrets or major missteps.

After a couple weeks off I was still recuperating from “Hunchback,” which hadn’t even premiered yet, but I knew I had another big journey ahead. “Hercules” was drawn in a style that required a lot of thick and thin lines and the characters were all heavily stylized, which meant it took longer to draw them than it might otherwise. Further, there had been a small “exodus” after “Hunchback” and some important, key artists had left to go to other studios like the small upstart company across town that called itself “DreamWorks.”

I was also intrigued by a new film that taken the world by storm. It was called “Toy Story” and was made by a company out of the Bay area named “Pixar.” I had known about the studio for years and I’d seen shorts like “Luxo Jr.,” created at Pixar in 1986. Some of my friends went to work for Pixar after “The Swan Princess” wrapped and I even had a friend suggest I apply to work there, but I wasn’t interested in leaving LA at the time.

There had been a lot of talk over the years about “computers” and everyone in the animation world had seen how these machines had displaced a lot of ink and paint people when computers took over that side of the business. None of us truly believed computers would ever replace animators and the hand-rendered work that we all loved so much, but there was no question that “Toy Story” was a smart, fun and very successful film. The writing wasn’t necessarily “on the wall” just yet, but it seemed the chalk was out and poised to begin to scribe, if one was taking note.

Everyone was invited to the “Hunchback” premiere party and it was even bigger than the “Pocahontas” event had been. I felt much more connected to “Hunchback” and was thrilled to see it on the big screen and see my name in the credits associated with it. The party took place in the expo hall of the immense Shrine Auditorium south of downtown Los Angeles and everyone dressed up like celebrities. Some were even in costume. There were two floors of festivities with everything festooned in 15th century “festival” décor. There were tables of food and drink, sumptuous outlays of finely-crafted hors d’oeuvres, drinks and desserts. The immense building was packed, including a dance floor area. Periodically there would be an eruption of confetti from the ceiling high overhead and everyone would cheer and laugh. I brought Jeff to the party as my guest since he knew many people at Disney and we ended up having a great time. Tony Jay, the voice of “Frollo,” attended the party and he talked to everyone on the Frollo crew. I bumped into many of my co-workers and they all seemed to be in a jovial, friendly mood, celebrating the end result of a lot of hard work that had paid off in a beautiful film.

I wandered around by myself taking in the splendor of the event, bumping into friends from each of the productions I’d worked on at Disney. I spent some time with Sam and her mother, her guest for the night, and both of them were giggling at the opulence of the evening. By the end of the night Jeff and I were exhausted and joined the line of people leaving the venue. We were all given gift bags as we left the party. I don’t know that I’ve ever been to such a gala before and don’t imagine I ever will again. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I’ll always treasure, even though it all went by in a blur. I was reminded of my casino winnings in Reno once again; as much as the rewards of making these films were fun and exciting, it was the time working on them I’d remember.

“Hunchback” came out and was successful but mired in troublesome press. Some objected to the heavy tone of the material and the adult themes and some were displeased about what appeared to be barely-concealed “liberal” messages concerning issues of immigration, gender and sexual orientation (One of the key songs from the film is a plea by the main character for acceptance from the world at large, a piece called “Out There”).

None of this mattered much to me, to be honest; I was already deep into “Hercules,” my seventh feature film in as many years. The film was notably lighter and brighter in both tone and visual style and a welcome relief from the heaviness of “Hunchback.”

Another thing that I was aware of was that I had turned 30, a milestone birthday. I was no longer a “kid” anymore, though I had no idea how the transfer from one stage of life to the other had happened.

This is not uncommon; I talk about it a lot and often liken it to an analog clock...if you look closely at an old clock you can see the minute hand moving, but most of us don’t tend to look so closely; we look away, look back, look away again and every time we look back things have changed. I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with doing that and in some ways I think it might be a better idea to not pay strict attention to the passage of time. While I firmly believe an examined life is preferable to one that is unexamined, I also have come to believe it’s important to live and experience the moment, and not fritter away one’s life with nothing but thought.

My 30th birthday was humble, even as it was memorable. Jeff and his girlfriend took me out to a quick dinner on one of the rainiest night LA had seen in months. Another night Mary and I had a pleasant dinner somewhere and raced back to the studio to keep working. On the actual day itself I got a small, packaged cake out of one of the studio vending machines and ate it on my lunchbreak, sitting right outside the back door of the studio in a quiet driveway where I knew I could sit in solitude. It wasn’t that I was lonely or depressed. I’m a loner by nature and relished the time to be quiet and thoughtful on the eve of a new decade opening up in my existence. Just seven years earlier when I was a driver I’d been in the habit of eating my cheap bag lunch on the curbs of Hollywood.

I did get a great present from “the universe,” however. Periodically Disney Feature animation would hold special events and presentations for employees. On my birthday there happened to be a display of some of the original artwork from the classic film “Alice in Wonderland,” one of my favorites, and there was also a presentation with two voice actors from classic Disney films. Ilene Woods, the voice of “Cinderella,” told us how she got the job because she convinced Walt Disney she could sing three-part harmony with herself, something that was uncommon at the time. Also on hand was “Alice” herself (Kathryn Beaumont, who was the voice of Alice and also the voice of Wendy in Peter Pan). Ms. Beaumont told the gathered audience a fun story. At the time of the presentation she was a grade school teacher in nearby Toluca Lake. One day one of her students apparently had approached her and said, “My dad just showed me ‘Alice in Wonderland’ last night and he says you’re the voice of Alice, is it true?” Without missing a beat Ms. Beaumont said, with Alice’s perfect diction and inflection, “Oh Mister Reh-bbit!” just as she does so often in the film. Apparently the kid ran out of the classroom, absolutely terrified!

Soon enough it was time for my vacation in England. It was one of the cornerstone moments of my life. I spent three weeks in Oxford studying Arthurian legends through an exchange program set up by UC Berkeley. Many people were confused when I told them I was going to spend my vacation studying ancient texts in gray, cold, ancient Oxford. I saw it as a chance to take my first international trip with some sense of structure and security—at least the people putting on the program would be expecting my arrival and would be able to help me acclimate. It worked like a charm and I ended up doing the program two more times over the next several years. I cannot stress enough that it’s important to travel when you’re young, if you can. Every year it gets a little more difficult to travel, and it’s likely to become a little less exciting and a lot more wearying as you mature. Traveling when you’re young means the whole world is open to you and when you’re young you can have no idea how such experiences will expand your horizons and help you evolve.

One important thing I learned after traveling around the world a lot is this: try not to mix vacations and work. If you must mix work and play, try not to make your vacation destination a “work” place. You’ll always need somewhere to escape to.

After my incredible time in Oxford it was hard to come back to the daily routine of “Hercules” but I was also excited about the project. The character supervisor on the “Meg” team was a cheerful, friendly and luminously beautiful woman who was an absolute dream to work for. Unfortunately I was placed with a lead supervisor who, while an outstanding artist, was difficult to warm up to, did not seem to respect my abilities and was not, in my opinion, a good match. Despite that, I couldn’t help but respect her work and did my best to learn from her and try to make the relationship successful. Things reached a head at one point and I felt compelled to speak to my supervisor. I hated to make waves but working conditions were making me miserable. I asked if I might be repositioned somehow so I wouldn’t have to feel so uncomfortable all the time. The problem was, there was simply no “wiggle” room and things were already tight on the show with the people who had left and the high artistic demands of the film and schedule. I was going to have to grin and bear it.

I’ve learned since then that this “happens,” and if there’s a way around it I’ve never learned it.

Eventually it’s likely you will find yourself working with someone who, for whatever reason, you simply do not mesh well with. Sometimes there are simple solutions, often there are not. I have always considered myself easy-going but more and more as I evolved as an artist and employee I found I wasn’t able to just sit back and have someone tell me what to do or criticize my work without questioning it. It’s possible I’m not as easy-going as I think and that I simply mask my true feelings, which isn’t the healthiest way to live. I’ve seen people who appear to get along with everyone around them, something that is always my goal but sometimes doesn’t seem possible. As I said, I think it’s likely it will happen to everyone at some point. I even brought it up with my therapist a few years later when I faced a similar situation. He said to me, smiling in a hopeful manner that he knew wasn’t convincing to me, “Sometimes you just have to go through things, there’s no way around them. You just have to look forward to when it’s over, knowing that nothing lasts forever.”

It certainly did taint my experience on “Hercules” however, and made for a long, often unhappy production. Eventually I was put in charge of dealing with all the artists on our branch of the team so my immediate lead wouldn’t have to be bothered with divvying up work, and I found I was delighted with this new arrangement. I loved dealing with the people on the team and meeting and greeting them each day as they brought me their work was the highlight of my day. I began to realize I was really missing out on human interaction, something I hadn’t done much of since starting at Disney—aside from Sam I’d made many acquaintances but no actual friends.

This thought, the fact that I didn’t enjoy the relationship I had with my lead, and maybe the knowledge that artists were abandoning Disney for other studios, got me thinking. My contract would be up at the end of “Hercules,” as well as the two years I’d signed on for. There was nothing preventing me from looking for work elsewhere. I began to not only get excited at the prospect of moving on, I started to feel it was essential that I do so. It was like a light came on in my head, a literal sign blinking on and off, saying, “Now Is The Time.”

I’ve lived much of my life by intuition, trusting “the universe” to give me signs when it’s time to move or time to retreat. It has worked for me consistently and I’ve grown to trust my intuition emphatically.

I talked to Sam about my new thoughts. She seemed concerned. We had gotten close and spent a great deal of time together and we both knew if I left Disney it would mean our relationship would change. When I mentioned the possibility of leaving Disney to friends, family or co-workers I often encountered a sense of “mob mentality” or whatever one chooses to call it—the natural instinct to believe that it’s better to run with the pack than go solo. I told a few people I trusted that I was considering jumping ship and the response was universal: “Don’t do it.” I also heard, “You’ll never find a company as stable as Disney” and “I’m locked into a 10-year contract here, don’t you want that stability?” The fact that I was exposed to these views, yet still wanted to go, told me something. My friend Jeff was one of the few who said, “You need to go where you feel comfortable, even if it’s less secure.”

Sam knew some prominent people in the industry, and one of them, conveniently, happened to be the head of clean-up at DreamWorks Feature Animation. The studio was officially in production on their first film, “The Prince of Egypt,” and they were hiring. It’s worth reiterating that being friends with everyone is a good rule of thumb, no matter what business you happen to be in.

The minute Sam mentioned her friend I knew the clock was ticking and it was only a matter of time. I was going to leave Disney, regardless of where I ended up, no matter what the outcome was, and it became all I could think about.

It’s one of the strangest feelings...I think they used to call it “short timing,” the idea that you know you’re going to leave a current gig for another one and so begin to neglect the current position.

I took a day off to test at DreamWorks, claiming I was sick. At the last minute DreamWorks had to reschedule and I had to take another sick day off, and then several more days when I actually did get a horrible case of the flu. The sweet character supervisor I worked for, checking my work one day during this time, said to me with a sly wink, “Do you think you can manage to not be sick next week? We have a big deadline coming up.” I’ve always wondered if she was somehow clued in to what I was up to.

I eventually tested at DreamWorks. I had a fever and no voice at all and truly felt miserable, but it went well. I got a job offer shortly after that and prepared to give my notice at Disney. For better or worse, the ball was in motion and I couldn’t stop it even if wanted to: I was leaping into new terrain, heading for an uncertain but exciting future that I couldn’t wait to explore.

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