How To Hollywood Chapter 07: "How to Handle Major Setbacks"
No career, in fact, nothing in the known world, exists in a constant “upwards” trajectory; at some point something that goes up has to come down, something that “is” becomes something that “isn’t.” Beginnings and endings are the stuff of a life well-lived and learning to accept the endings along with the beginnings is, I think, a noble part of personal evolution that often comes with age. It’s also an important key to maintaining perspective. I’ve known many people who lived as if the pleasant path they were on would last forever. These people were all the more shocked when that turned out to not be the case. I’ve known those who couldn’t see a future and frittered away the present worrying about what was coming; often I’ve known those who were buried so deeply in their past they lost their way. Healthier, probably, is the person who plans for the future while enjoying the moment and remembering the past.
I was contemplative as I was wrapping up my time at Disney. I wished I’d enjoyed my experience more even as I knew it was an important time that I’d never forget. In truth, as I drove off the Disney lot I didn’t even glance back over my shoulder. It had been a memorable, important, interesting and tumultuous time and, although it was entirely unlike me, I was unsentimental. I’ve become much more “backwards looking” since the two years I spent at Disney Feature Animation. I don’t think I had any idea at the time how much the place affected me while I was there, simply because of where I was in my life at the time, and because I was caught up in the moment.
Sam inspired me to take the opportunity to make some real changes. For starters, I got a popular lawyer to negotiate on my behalf. With this lawyer’s help I got the best possible salary for my new job at DreamWorks that I could navigate, and it did wonders for both my ego and my bank account to know I had gotten such a decent deal. I was glad to have this luxury because it was a time of great change in the business; if you aren’t a good negotiator, you may want to consider hiring one. I only used one twice but I know it made a difference.
Because I had worked so much overtime for so long and not had time to spend any money I had plenty of cash for the first time in my life. I got a brand new car and I moved to a beautiful apartment with big windows and a balcony on the top floor of a building in Toluca Lake, overlooking the whole of the valley. I got a complete makeover and bought new music equipment and even went on a cruise around Italy with Sam and her mother.
Another thing I did was come out of the closet.
I had lived in denial for 30 years. How that can have been possible has become a mystery to me, it has been so long ago. I know I grew up in a small-town world where being gay wasn’t even something definable let alone acceptable. I was late into my 20s before I even really understood what my “condition” was, how to define it and start to deal with it. Therapy eventually helped, as did (I felt) living on my own, keeping friends from getting too close, throwing myself into work so I didn’t have deal with the “demons” in my proverbial closet.
I had crushes on people at work and had just as many people—male, female, young old and every quality in-between, crush on me in an unwanted way right back. Most people have such crushes at some point or other, usually when they’re younger, and act on them in various ways from subtle to extreme, I even know some who consider themselves “official flirts.” It usually starts out innocently enough. Before the issue of sexual harassment in the work place became a recognizable subject to be dealt with appropriately there were plenty of work relationships that developed that were not particularly healthy. It makes sense: if work is where you spend all your time and the people you work with are your main social network, why wouldn’t you eventually become sort of “imprinted” on one of them now and then?
No one ever tells you what to do when you fall for someone who is not appropriate for you.
The answer is, of course, to stop it dead in its tracks, whether you are the object of the attraction or the one attracted...be disciplined and rational enough to make sure that work attractions stay just that: attractions that never progress beyond what is appropriate for a work relationship. If you happen to be the one who has caught someone’s eye in a way that you’re not comfortable with, the best solution is to ignore the person’s attentions—attractions and obsessions need to be fed or they eventually wither. Barring that, enlisting the help of others, including HR (although that’s an extreme measure and not to be taken lightly) might be necessary. Regardless, you should never encourage someone you are not interested in or who is making unwanted advances. Such advances have to be stopped, immediately; there is no way to “ease” out of such things.
On the other hand, if you find yourself with powerful feelings of attraction for someone at work, think it out carefully. Be your own parent and try to prevent yourself from doing anything that is likely to be unhealthy for yourself and, ultimately, not in line with being a good employee in a company. The important thing is to keep reminding yourself, despite what your heart can sometimes tell you, you are at work to work, not to fall in love.
There were no “gay” handbooks available to me when I was a young man, no guides or mentors to explain what I was going through and how to deal with it. I did the best I could do but it was a time of confusion, frustration and even ill will for myself and others concerned, including my dear friends Sam and Jeff.
That being said, leaving Disney meant I had the option to start over in many ways, and so I did, by having my first real dates with gay, willing and interested men. While I don’t miss the days of trying to figure out who I was I know, now, those days were part of my story and something I couldn’t leave out even if I wanted to, which I do not.
If you have unique, personal challenges (and who doesn’t, really?), whatever they are, you must deal with them. I’ve had to deal with plenty of unique personal challenges but I managed to keep a positive attitude and persevere, and whether it was my stubbornness or naivete, I survived and flourished. Resolve to do that with your own challenges and see what happens. It takes a lot of energy to come down on yourself for your perceived faults; why not spend that energy in an effort to own your challenges instead, and exalt in them?
The first few years I worked at DreamWorks were delightful. I loved the “European” vibe the studio had and enjoyed learning about the different cultures that were represented in the studio: there were plenty of people from France, many from London and the vicinity, Canada, Ireland, Spain, Italy, Germany, Brazil and elsewhere. I found these people endlessly fascinating and never tired of hearing about their lives and their countries and how different they found the United States. All of them were excited to be in Los Angeles and, particularly in the beginning when the studio was small enough that most of us knew each other, we got along like a big family. I only wish I could have gotten closer to some of them, but I enjoyed what I had.
Eventually the company built an enormous, beautiful, golden campus for us where we had comfortable offices, a cafeteria with free meals every day, places to gather, walk and engage in various activities and beautiful things to look at everywhere. We were allowed to bring in visitors and my family and friends were all impressed with the place.
I spent endless hours over the years exploring every nook and cranny of the place and relish the time when I called the Glendale DreamWorks campus my home—it really did feel like my second home anyway. It was one of the best times of my career, I have fantastic memories of it all and relish them. Occasionally I’ll look up pictures of the DreamWorks campus on-line and I’ll think fondly, “I was there, right at the beginning of it, I got to be a part of it and it was fantastic!” Sometimes a personal picture from that time will surface: groups of us smoking on the back balcony of the campus in the golden late afternoon sun of the summer of 1999, idealistic people from all over the world enjoying being young, unafraid of what the future held and excited about what we did for a living: making movies.
There really was only one problem in all of this, and that was the fact that none of the movies we made were successful, at least not initially, not financially. One by one the films we worked on came out and one by one they each failed to ignite at the box office: The Prince of Egypt, The Road to El Dorado, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas.
Each Monday after the latest disappointing premiere we’d come into work completely defeated, knowing it was likely we’d be facing layoffs soon. In truth, people did start to get laid off, slowly and steadily, but the company forged ahead nonetheless. I’ve always credited the fierce determination of Jeffrey Katzenberg, the man who formed the studio with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen in the first place. Katzenberg was, from my humble perspective, a dynamic, fierce individual committed to creating a successful company that would unseat Disney’s feature animation department and to his credit he did just that eventually, briefly anyway. He was not necessarily a polite or quiet person—who could be, in his position?—and I don’t know that he thought all that much of me, if he thought of me at all, but I couldn’t help but admire how he kept us all together for so long. I couldn’t believe how determined he was in the face of the lack of box office results, and finally began to have faith after a while that maybe “DreamWorks” wasn’t just a flash in the, that our “fearless leader” was committed to his vision and that included making interesting, quality films as well as treating us artists well.
It taught me something: persistence is essential to success. In fact, sometimes persistence might be the only way to measure success—do people “win” or do they just outlast the competition so that they are the ones who end up writing the history books? Regardless of what happened (or rather, did not happen) at the box office, I felt like a “winner” while working on the DreamWorks 2D animated films.
While the “golden era” of DreamWorks was happening something important was going on in the world: First Toy Story appeared in 1995, followed by A Bug’s Life, Toy Story and Monster’s Inc. DreamWorks countered with two films developed by their division in the Bay area called “PDI,” first Antz in 1998 and then Shrek in 2001. These films had two things in common: first, they were animated movies made with computers, aka, “CG Animation.” Second, they were successful—in the case of Toy Story and Shrek wildly so.
The impact of these films cannot be underestimated; it explains many things that are still in place as of this writing. People talk about the “renaissance era” of 90s animation but they’re actually only talking about a span of about ten years. Big-budget CG animated films first took off around 1995 and to date, some 25 years later, show no signs of slowing in product and popularity. My personal belief is that CG animation continues to evolve and so continues to surprise viewers, showing audiences things they’ve never seen before. The 90s era of 2D Feature Film animation came after the medium had already been in the process of dying out; it managed to get a brief revival. In order for 2D films to continue to succeed as a feature film medium with the kind of success CG animated films have attained it may be that the artistic merit would have to be sacrificed or the elemental aspects of it might have to change. In truth, “2D animation” as a medium never actually disappeared, it continues on in television and commercials and remains popular in countries outside of the US, particularly in the East. That being said, audiences clearly need something special to continue an on-going interest in paying to see big-budget animated films. 2D films are difficult to wrangle and require a lot of work and love to come into existence, and after so many of them failed to excite mass audiences it’s no surprise that the people bankrolling films opted to go with CG instead.
Change sometimes comes quickly, sometimes it creeps up on you, sometimes it comes with good news, often with bad. For me, the changes that affected my career creeped up on me, but that gave me enough time to plan. Nowadays more than ever technology can have an impact on an individual’s work, and it’s a good idea to have a general understanding of the technological side of one’s work. It is essential that you keep your eyes and ears open and react to change accordingly; perhaps you can weather the tides of such changes, maybe you can’t...if you’re paying attention you’ll at least see them coming.
While the world was watching CG animated movies and I was in overtime on “Spirit” I ended up losing my friendships with Sam, Jeff, my long-term officemate and others. This can happen when you’ve invested everything in your career; it can also happen as a result of change, which is inevitable. It takes two or more to make a relationship and when someone isn’t completely committed it can fall apart. I didn’t want to lose these friendships and reconciled (mostly) later, but it was tough to be doing this all while grinding away late into the night on a challenging film about a horse.
Finally, at the end of “Spirit” a lot of us were either laid off or were given an extended furlough. I was told I’d be given minimally-paid leave of six months. I stayed on “Spirit” longer than most of my co-workers and watched dozens of them walking out to the parking lot with boxes that held the things they’d had on their desks for years. Some of these artists were returning after the break, many were not; some were returning to Europe and I knew I’d never see them again. DreamWorks wanted to retain some of us but as there would be no work for several months and they didn’t want us hanging around being a liability they paid us a stipend and we were allowed to collect unemployment too. After initially being anxious about all of this I talked to my mom and she convinced me my time off would be like a sabbatical; I’d get to have six months, paid, to do whatever I wanted. I was going to be my own “patron.”
For over 10 years I’d worked steadily, barely even taking vacations. My whole life, indeed, my whole personality was bound up with what I “was”—a person who worked on high profile animated films. Suddenly all that was stripped away from me and I was sent out into the world to deal with “real” life, whatever that was. Remember to retain a sense of your inner “self” when you work on rigorous projects. You’ll need that “self” when the project is over.
“Spirit,” while wonderful in its artistry and personal for me in the amount of involvement I had on the film, was grueling. In my last weeks of work I put together a quick mental plan that involved not spending more money than necessary, keeping myself disciplined by engaging in healthy activities and setting about to finally get to a lot of projects I’d had on my mind for years but had never had time to attempt.
Most importantly I decided, after 10 years, it was time to quit smoking. I’d tried to quit before (as Mark Twain allegedly said, “Quitting smoking is easy, I’ve done it dozens of times”) but felt resolved at last. I wanted to quit, and that made all the difference.
I cannot reiterate enough what I learned from this: personal change happens because we want change to happen. I’m not sure there’s any other way. It was only after I stopped smoking that I realized how insidious the habit was, whether it was the chemical properties of nicotine or the habit and routine of it all. Quitting was one of the most important revelations of my life and I still shout it from any rooftop I can find—in the words of a doctor I once had, “If you smoke now, quit. If you haven’t started, don’t.” I would just amend that: quit as soon as you’re ready, but start thinking about it today.
My six-month furlough was a strange time filled with newfound freedom I wasn’t sure how to manage and personal challenges...having lost all my friends and given up smoking I was frequently restless so I busied myself trying to do new things...like learn “Maya,” the industry standard for computer animation. I figured why not? I was at least interested in it, and had the time. I also taught myself another industry-standard program, this one for 2D animation, something called “Flash.” In truth I didn’t enjoy them much at first and couldn’t wait to get back to the place I felt comfortable, which was “traditional” animation, but it was interesting. At least until I woke up one day with “shingles.”
My doctor informed me I had pushed myself too hard, worked my body too much on “Spirit” and was now reaping the results.
Here’s one of the most important tips I can offer, something I tell to anyone who will listen: Don’t overdo it. “Moderation in all things,” as they say. Nothing is worth pushing so hard that you hurt yourself. You have no idea how long you will need your body or what you will need it to do throughout the years; treat your body well and reap the dividends later in life.
The final test of whether or not I was resolved to stay healthy came on September 11, 2001, when I woke up like everyone else on the west coast to find that the twin towers had been attacked and destroyed.
Having this terrible event come after I’d lost the secure daily routine of work, after having a disturbing medical issue, losing my two best friends and right in the midst of my battle to give up cigarettes once and for all really tested my will.
I’m not sure how exactly...perhaps it was the feeling that things couldn’t possibly get any worse? Maybe I had just evolved. Regardless of the reason, I knew nothing had happened to me personally that I couldn’t overcome. I had become a “survivor” by happenstance, and, like many people, did not take this status for granted. I began to volunteer my time for organizations I was interested in and met some interesting, friendly people along the way. Then it was time to go back to work.
“Sinbad” was the last 2D film I worked on and it was memorable mostly for being un-memorable. I had a pleasant time on the production despite some hiccups with the crew I was initially assigned to. I ultimately ended up working on the lead character with the same woman I’d been with for years and we had a nice time. Disney was going through a “transitional” time (meaning, of course, layoffs) and DreamWorks picked up a lot of artists from the studio to help finish Sinbad, meaning there was very little overtime for those of us on staff.
I used the unexpected time I had to hone my skills with computer animation. CG animation was new, it was different, it was in front of me, and I resolved to “conquer” it. It was also, I might mention, fun. I don’t know that I was ever the best draftsperson despite how much I love to draw; animating with a preset character as you do in “Maya” freed me up to concentrate more on motion and less on drawing. It was as if I’d been given a new toy to create with and I was soon addicted to it.
Right on cue, or at least it seems that way when I remember it, we were informed by a representative of the studio that there would be massive layoffs after Sinbad was over...in fact, the 2D animation division would be “restructuring,” as they say in management speak. Most of the major studios that had done 2D animated films had already either shut down or consolidated and the smaller studios were all disappearing or were already gone, leaving few choices, if any, for artists suddenly out of work.
Disney feature animation, hard as it was to believe, was also planning layoffs. After the lackluster performance of some recent films and the outright failure of Treasure Planet the company was reportedly intending to shut down the entire 2D animation division completely and sell off all the studio’s animation desks and equipment, for good. There are many heart-breaking stories from artists, many of them long-term, who attended a full-studio meeting where the powers-that-be at Disney were compelled to tell everyone in attendance that their services would no longer be required.
After years of making millions for the company, the artists who had given their sweat and sometimes even blood to the cause of producing legendary animated works were going to be unceremoniously dismissed. After the parties and screenings and free giveaways and salaries that had skyrocketed to incredible highs, after many had gotten used to these (perhaps unrealistic) payouts and a standard of living that was exceptional, the artists were being told they were being booted out of the company with no recourse and no suggestion as to what to do next. In the end some animation artists would end up staying on for decades, some would come back for one last “hurrah” with Princess and the Frog at the end of the of the 2000s, but it was a harsh blow that sent shockwaves through the animation industry in ways that have not entirely been settled to this day. I have no doubt there are, even now, animation artists waiting to be able to come back to Disney Feature Animation and do what they loved doing, were trained to do and, in some cases, had sacrificed everything to be able to do.
DreamWorks seemed sympathetic to the plight of its family of artists. Many of these artists had been transplanted on Visas from their native countries and had not yet been granted citizenship. The company set up classes to teach any interested employees the “Maya” software program and granted access to computers so we could practice.
I took advantage of this offering and made the best use of it I could.
I worked to the point of exhaustion, knowing that it was a limited arrangement: while the current animators at DreamWorks would be moved automatically into the computer animation department and given training, the company was going to give employees in the clean-up department, where I resided, the opportunity to submit reels of their CG-animation work. These reels would be judged by senior animators and production staff, and the judging would be blind, meaning the entrants would be treated anonymously, eliminating any potential bias.
I went into the holiday break that year high with optimism and enthusiasm. There were no guarantees I’d be taken on as a CG animator at DreamWorks and I had few, if any, prospects outside the company, but I was confident I at least had a chance and I was glad for the opportunity. When I got back from making merry with my family in Oregon over the holidays I was faced with some chilling news: DreamWorks did not intend to invite many people from clean-up into the CG animation department. In fact, they were only going to invite a few. Eventually I found out that number had been reduced to only one.
Some time in January of 2003 I was having my current Sinbad scene looked over by my wonderful supervisor...she was practicing to get the CG animator position for herself if she could, just like we all were, and, being a supervisor, was in on many company meetings and secrets. As she looked over my Sinbad work she was smiling in a way that seemed unusual to me. I couldn’t help myself from asking, “So have you heard any updates about who is going to be moving into the CG animation department for the next film?”
My supervisor put down my work, turned to me with her odd smile, and said, “Yes, I have.”
“And...?” I said, my heart thudding in my chest.
“You haven’t heard?”
“No,” I said, “Have they decided yet who it’s going to be?”
“Yes,” my supervisor said.
“You know who it is?” I asked.
“Yes,” my supervisor said and smiled even wider. I felt sick inside. While I truly had thought I was qualified for the position and, based on my conversations with some senior animators I’d shown my work to, felt I had a good chance of being brought on, if not immediately then eventually, I knew there were no guarantees. I had faced rejection a number of times before. I knew I had to prepare myself.
“So can you tell me who got the job?” I asked, quaking inside.
My supervisor giggled, her eyes wide. “Well...it’s you!”
I nearly collapsed onto the floor.
I lived in a dream for a short period. I felt like I’d won the lottery, or perhaps a casino game, but it was different because I’d earned this position. I’d worked hard for it and my work paid off, and I was going to move on to the film Shark Tale, a project that I was genuinely interested in, at least in the beginning.
I became increasingly anxious as I realized I was the only person in the clean-up department who was going to move into CG animation and onto the next film...everyone else was going to be laid off. It was likely some of these artists who could do CG animation would be hired back when there was enough work to do on Shark Tale, including my wonderful supervisor, and that would eventually happen, but initially I was the only one in the department who was going to keep his job.
I kept a low profile. We still had to finish Sinbad. I felt the tension in my department, and that tension manifested in the actions of my co-workers in unpleasant ways occasionally.
It was a strange time and continued on that way for months.
Keep in mind, always, that everyone in a company is ultimately “expendable,” no one is immune. Yesterday’s intern could be tomorrow’s CEO. You have idea who is going to move up or down, when, where, why or how. It is always a good idea to be friends with everyone, and most of all be respectful of everyone. If you must have battles, pick them carefully.
My experience at “DreamWorks” changed immediately after Sinbad ended. All the artists I’d worked with for years were dismissed and I was tossed into the animation department with artists I didn’t know well, if at all. The company would never again, at least for me, feel as diverse, as funky, as earthy or approachable as it once had, nor would it ever again feel like a “family” for me.
The activity of computer animation seemed, at least initially, a cold, clinical process and the experiences I had on Shark Tale were not, unfortunately, all that pleasant for me. At one point I actually considered dropping everything and buying a house in Oregon. I know that part of it was driven by the fact that I had recently experienced “freedom.” After having six months to myself to set my own pace and time and commandeer my own projects, it was difficult to return to the daily grind.
Think of this when you’re facing a hiatus of your own some day: we all dream of taking great, extended vacations from the daily grind of steady unemployment, but it can be difficult to come back if you get such a hiatus.
The longer you are out of the routine of work the more difficult it can be to return. I know many artists who chose to take some form of sabbatical early on in their careers and they never truly recovered. I know people who have gotten married, bought houses, had children or any number of “distractions” from steady employment and often their perspective shifts from being work-centered to personal-life-centered. “Show business” is not conducive to a quiet, steady pace of life and that alone drives many people away from it ultimately.
I knew without having to be told that when I was young, single and still in the closet it was a time to devote everything I had to my career, and that is exactly what I did, and I have no regrets, or didn’t, for most of my career.
As I neared the age of 40 I felt completely disconnected from the rest of the employees on Shark Tale. My status as an openly, but still somehow closeted, gay man kept me at a distance despite the fact that no one ever purposefully treated me differently because of my status. I had never been assimilated into the core group of DreamWorks animators after a while I knew it was probably too late to start. There were also many new, young, fresh faces showing up, including two new roommates I acquired. I had gone from being “the kid” at every studio I worked at to being one of the resident “elders” without knowing how, or when, that had happened.
I reiterate: no one ever tells you how to “get older.” You just do it, one day at a time, and only realize when you take a good look around that your world, and how you view the world, has changed. You can embrace this process or try to run from it, but everybody (if they’re lucky) will have to go through it eventually. I listened to what the elders of my day told me when they talked about the process of aging, but maybe it’s just a testament to youth that I never really believed I’d one day be facing the age of 40...and beyond.
After Shark Tale ended I was put onto the film Flushed Away, and while I tried in earnest to change my attitude I had fallen out of love with my work, plain and simple.
Remember this: It is essential when you’re working on team-based projects that you be part of the team and participate in meetings and social events. It is generally a good idea to have an “advocate” or mentor or someone in a studio or production house who will vouch for you, speak up on your behalf, take you with them wherever they go while you make them look good and they benefit from your good work ethic.
If you don’t naturally bond with someone who will advocate for you, you need to make it your mission to create that relationship with someone well-connected in the studio or on the production. Big productions are often “cast” by doing a type of baseball-picking; senior artists will always want to work with artists they know, trust and will advocate for. If you don’t find a way to be a part of this phenomenon it can be like musical chairs...you might miss a seat and be out of the game before you know it. If no one knows you exist, if no one in power will speak up and “claim” you, you cannot expect to last long
I already knew I was under the watch of the studio by the time I was moved off of Flushed Away and onto Over the Hedge. The latter film was winding down and they needed help, and the former film was still gearing up. I was aware that my status as someone who could be moved around meant I was, at least theoretically, expendable. I wasn’t surprised to hear that this was exactly how things were from a flippant Production Manager who was more concerned with the business of the studio than the art that was being created.
If you are not a team player in an organization it is not unreasonable to expect you will one day be invited to leave that organization, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I’ve seen people stealing property from companies, sharing confidential information, lying about their hours (we worked on an honor system at most of the studios) or just not towing the line. There’s no room for people who don’t appreciate their position on a big-budget film, and, as one boss in college I had told me, “People generally fire themselves.”
I knew I wasn’t excited about my work anymore, but was I in the process of firing myself?
With house payments, a new car and no idea what I wanted to do next, I knew I couldn’t afford to take chances with my career. When I got a review from another impersonal production manager, I was informed that I was not “producing” and that my “numbers” were low. Initially I balked as I had never had such a review before, then flexed my muscles and decided to meet this new challenge, as I always had before.
I worked harder, faster, I forced myself to care more....
...and when the production was winding down, a day or so after my 40th birthday, I was informed by both production managers on the show that I was to be laid off after Over the Hedge ended.
End of story. I felt sick.
I saw my future before me—after 40 years of loving and toiling in animation, after 16 years of working on high-profile films for some of the best talents in the business, after attaining a reputation, attending celebrations and devoting my whole life to my career, I was now going to be scrambling to find a job to pay for my new house. I would soon be packing my humble things into a cardboard box as so many had done before me, and leaving the company that had been my home, for better or worse, for nearly ten years, while new young talent came in to take my place, blissfully unaware of what had come before.
I also felt a vague sense of relief. I hadn’t been happy ever since moving into the CG Animation department. Getting laid-off meant I didn’t have to work at it anymore. In truth, I had probably been subconsciously begging to be released.
In the meeting with the two impersonal Production Managers, I felt panic-stricken. I asked if there might be an alternative, any options where I could stay. Even as I made my case I watched the Production Managers smiling and shaking their heads. Nope, so sorry.
I thought about these Production Managers. Who were they, exactly? How did they get their jobs and why did they keep them? These people, who were becoming more numerous on each film, coordinated, counted numbers, talked a lot and were essentially there to keep us “crazy artists” on track so the movies made lots of money. Lest I sound overly judgmental, I know they were also human beings hired to do a job, one that could not have been easy if it included being involved in laying off staff. As I often say, there is no “they” out there; there are only people trying to get through the day. Certainly, in the case of my being laid off, there were multiple sides to the story. “People fire themselves,” my old boss had said. Maybe I was too afraid to actually let go.
By letting me go, “DreamWorks” forced me to do what I wanted to do but was too afraid to undertake.
As I got up from my layoff meeting the Production Managers smiled officiously and returned to examining their spreadsheets, preparing for the next employee layoff meeting which was, as it happened, for my officemate, another long-term veteran.
I actually had a great time after that, working on animation/live-action hybrid commercials for Over the Hedge—the characters were bouncing around in a burger restaurant. I started thinking about what I might like to do if I wasn’t going to be a character animator and wondered what life might be like on “creature” shows—animating live-action monsters and horror creatures and things.
I also truly enjoyed working on Hammy’s Big Adventure, a short that would accompany Over the Hedge on the DVD release. Those of us on the small crew had a lot of fun times on the short project and it was refreshing to be out of the pressure-cooker that the feature films were becoming. I remember on Shark Tale when I voiced some concern about something or other to a Producer, she said to me, “Relax—it’s just a cartoon after all!”
Was it, really though? These were expensive, big productions and, as of Shrek 2 anyway, profitable. This was big business, which I knew nothing about, and this was not cartoons, which I felt I knew a great deal about.
Everyone on Hammy’s Big Adventure was shocked when I told them my last day at the company was coming up. I saw it in their faces—it was the same expression people wear when they hear someone has a terminal disease. It says, “I’m so sorry” but also, “...and I’m so glad it’s not happening to me...and I don’t want to think about this any more than I have to.”
And so my time at DreamWorks, and in feature animation in general, came quietly to a close.
I packed up my belongings as I always dreaded I would do one day, said good-bye to the two or three people I thought would even notice I was going away, and walked across the beautiful DreamWorks campus in the warm spring air for what I suspected would be the last time.
I saw young people wandering about. I had no idea who they were, but they were clearly employees, full of life and vitality. I had known everyone at the studio once; I didn’t know anyone anymore. The person who gave me my exit interview neither knew, nor cared, who I was and asked me how my “experience” had been at the studio. I smiled and said it had been just fine.
I got in my car and drove away, brimming with a mixture of emotions. The overriding question was, naturally...what next? I had done it—I’d had a career in feature animation, I’d worked at Disney, worked at DreamWorks, my career had gone just as I always hoped it would and I had no real complaints, even the ending of it had been fairly dignified for all my bitterness about it.
I’d written things, even gotten small things published, even been paid for my writing. I’d created music and penned and recorded musicals. I’d traveled, loved and lost and loved again. I’d bought a house. I’d been up, down, and was even tapped into my status as a gay man at last. I had done so many things I had hoped to do.
I no longer felt the drive to push myself as an animator and knew instinctively that I was at my best when I was on my own and not at the mercy of an overbearing studio situation, working most of my life away. Still, I had grown accustomed to the perks of working on big-budget movies with the big-budget salaries and other benefits that came with that status, including the recognition I got for being a part of such high-profile work. I knew I neither wanted, nor needed, to start applying for jobs in grocery stores or coffee shops just yet.
What, then, did I want to do next?
I turned once last time to the DreamWorks campus complex, said a silent good-bye and drove home.