How To Hollywood Chapter 08: “Slow and Steady Wins the Race”
When facing times of strife the most important thing is not to panic. While I cannot say for certain there is (or is not) anything of a “grand design” to the universe, I do think there is cause and effect and that the experience of life, whatever you believe the ultimate goal may be, is to survive, strive, feel alive, and pass on as much good will as you can. As much as it is pleasurable to enjoy the rich things life has to offer everyone every single person has to learn to deal with adversity of one kind or another and struggle at times. As with all things, one key goal of a happy life seems to be finding balance.
My life seemed to be dipping about as low as it ever had on the week of my 40th birthday.
I had lost my job--my identity, how I defined myself. I had lost some of my most dear friends and no longer had a strong support group. I had had a series of unsuccessful romantic connections. I had reached a milestone age and was reflecting on where I’d been and where I was going. I needed to make a plan of some kind but first I had to deal with the emotions connected with being “rejected” by my career, the one constant I’d learned to base the security of my life on. As if to add insult to injury my therapist abruptly informed me he was quitting his practice and we were to end our relationship after nearly 10 years together.
I do believe a relationship with one’s work/job can be like any other and that when it ends, even if it was by choice, there has to be a time of grieving. I had spent too many years devoted to my career in animation to be able to just say, “Oh well” and move on.
For the first week after I was told I was being laid off I was completely numb. One important thing my therapist had taught me was that when something unpleasant happens you need to take care of yourself, and you need to do whatever you can for as long as necessary to work your feelings out. In the last weeks of my employment at DreamWorks I’d sleepwalk through the day, smiling at my co-workers, doing my best on the projects I was assigned to. I had no intention of letting anyone see how miserable I was. The minute I left work at the end of the day my mind would go blank and I couldn’t concentrate on anything. I went home and watched movies based on books by Stephen King, movies where the heroes are trapped and need to claw their way out of their miserable situations, like Shawshank Redemption and Delores Claiborne.
Another part of taking care of yourself is not wallowing in your despair too long. It’s an easy thing to do, feeling sorry for yourself, and to do so is part of the grieving process, but ultimately it isn’t productive. At some point—whether it’s after an illness, a break-up or loss of any kind, you have to take a deep breath and face the world again. You may find it’s easier than you thought. You just have to take one first step forward.
Eventually I sat down with a calculator and pad and wrote down what my expenses were, what it would cost to keep my “show” going. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to do this, and not just after you get laid off. To know how much it costs to “exist” each month, each year, is to understand how much one spends on frivolous things as well as how much absolute essentials really cost. Doing so allows you to adjust your life accordingly so you can relax and enjoy yourself with some measure of confidence when things are going well.
It seems like an inconvenient thing to do to analyze first and play later, but it makes a world of difference. It’s a simple matter in some ways: if you make x and spend less than x, you’ll save. Spend x exactly and you’ll stay in place financially. Spend more than x and you will lose money. As obvious as it sounds it does require careful consideration. By example, one of the things that helped me quit smoking was the realization that in 2001, the year I quit, I was spending roughly $2 on a pack and going through 3 packs a day. If you follow that through to the end it adds up to about $2,000 for the year.
Six dollars a day doesn’t sound like much but $2,000, if you have no income, can make a huge difference, particularly for something a person doesn’t actually need, like cigarettes.
After putting a bunch of numbers together I usually feel better...in February of 2006, making a list made me realize I was already living beyond my means even with my high-paying animation job, and if I didn’t get a similarly well-paying job, fast, I would likely burn through all my savings in a matter of months. I had little cash saved up and I had a lot of overhead. I knew something would have to give.
The next thing I did was talk to my realtor who was a friend of mine and had gotten me a good deal on a great house with little money down. He was surprised to find I was ready to give up on my house so easily but understood when I presented my case. Once he was certain I was serious and not just in a state of shock he put the wheels in motion. He believed it was likely we’d get a great sale price for the house and, if so, I’d come out of it all far ahead of where I’d been when I started, at least financially.
This cheered me up considerably. I had always been uneasy about getting into a house and some even thought me foolish for going for something well above my means as a single person living in LA. It was a time when mortgage companies were granting loans to people with little money down and, while I don’t know that I got “suckered” as some might claim, it was certainly unrealistic and I hadn’t properly done enough homework before going into it. I knew the moment I moved in to my house the idea was more complicated than I’d planned for but also knew before I even started that if I lost everything it would, at the age I was at, merely be another step in my evolution—I knew I’d survive it. I had no idea I might thrive.
My house went up for sale the weekend after my last day at work and, on my realtor’s suggestion, I went to stay with my parents at their home in Arizona. I had a long, sunny drive, buoyed by my realtor’s reassurance that we’d get a good sale price, and finally began to see a world outside the shock I’d suffered over the changes in my career path. I had a great time with my parents. They were empathetic to my situation and, at the time, had a second house for me to occupy where I could spend time by myself, processing what I’d been through. I was able to go through the entire grieving process quickly—anger, denial, depression, bargaining and acceptance—as well as rest up. I had no idea how exhausted I was until I spent a couple of 14-hour nights in blissful sleep. During the day I scribbled into a notepad I’d bought, jotting down notes and sketches and anything that came to my mind as a way of recapturing myself from the person I’d been, and determining who I wanted to be in the future.
My house sold immediately and I made a nice profit off it. I raced back from my parents’ house and started packing.
My plan, which I’d formed the minute I decided to sell my house, was to move to “West Hollywood.” This area had long been established as a “gay” neighborhood, a place where gay people and those who were sympathetic to LGBT (and related) concerns could live together in a relatively safe space and, in some ways, shut the rest of the world out. Having worked mostly in a world of straight people (with a few exceptions), I knew I needed to expose myself to the “gay world” more and become more comfortable in my own skin if I ever wanted to find someone to share my life with. The internet had opened up a lot of options but was still limiting, at least for my goal of finding a substantial relationship. I knew I needed to have a “trial by fire” time and get a lot of things out of my system that I had missed when I was younger, as I had been closeted for so many years. I was looking forward to the experience even as I was anxious as to how it would all pan out, particularly since I felt that at 40 I was a good deal older than the average median age of active gay men in the West Hollywood community. I had no idea how I’d get on in the heart of “gay Los Angeles” where looks, youth and cash are measures of success. I had visited often enough and had mixed feelings about the place but knew it would be a different experience, and something I needed to do. That being said I felt, and was always mistaken for, much younger than I actually was. Further, I needed a big change. At a certain point there was simply no turning back
With the money I eventually reaped from the house sale I had enough that I didn’t need to work for a long time if I lived conservatively. I had initially been devastated at the prospect of losing my house and the idea of packing my things and moving again a little over a year after I’d decided I was a home-owner and a responsible adult in the first place. Suddenly my depression and anxiety at losing my job and house turned into hopeful anticipation of what my new life might be like. I wasn’t going to have to work at all, at least for some time, and had the whole world in front of me to do whatever I wanted.
I jettisoned a lot of my belongings and found a small, comfortable apartment right in the middle of the busiest section of West Hollywood. It was tiny compared to what I was used to and even a plain, one-bedroom apartment was ridiculously expensive considering my income was unemployment paychecks when I moved, but I knew I’d have to make some sacrifices. While my move from the “valley” side of Los Angeles, a place I’d lived most of my life in at that point, was bittersweet and I spent a great deal of time reconciling the “good-bye” I was saying to my former life and the security I thought I’d known there, I was ready for change.
I immediately met someone down the street from my new apartment and though it didn’t work out ultimately it was a good sign; over ten years after I had come out to myself and the world I was finally able to have what I believed was a mature, positive dating experience with a working professional around my age who shared a lot of my interests—a first in my dating life.
I spent many summer afternoons wandering around the neighborhood and enjoying my days, sitting in the afternoon sun at friendly local establishments and meeting interesting people. It was an incredible feeling of release to find that I didn’t need to work all the time, that I could actually just live in, and enjoy, the moment, not define myself by what I did for a living.
I spent a lot of time at the gym getting myself in shape and that increased my self-esteem. I took a whole week “off” to re-connect with my friends and family back in Oregon, bought some musical equipment to help get myself into the digital age, worked briefly as a freelance writer for a small paper and sold some of my writing to the local gay magazines. I hung out with another friend who had been laid off from animation a few years before, someone older who was also gay and we had a lot of good times going to restaurants and bars or just hanging out. It was a beautiful summer, only marred by the undercurrent of uncertainty I had about how I had lost my job in the first place and what I was going to do in the future.
I read two books that had a great deal of impact on my choices. The first was John Steinbeck’s treatise on the terrible working conditions of the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath. At the time I was in love with Steinbeck’s hard-edged, unflinching style (I can barely endure it now, oddly) and the book was a cautionary tale to me. I knew I would work again eventually and work hard; I was lucky enough to not be stuck in anything like the Great Depression and I intended to revel in that fact every day.
The other book I read was the exhaustive, and exhausting, 12 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. Someone at DreamWorks had told me about it and I was intrigued—in part I wanted to understand “big business” better, in part I wanted to get some idea about how to be more successful in my own business dealings. As with Grapes of Wrath, Greene’s book is a devastating account of how cold and clinical the nature of power is and the merciless nature of the people caught up in power struggles, particularly the successful ones. A simple scan through the table of contents of Greene’s book tells you just about everything you need to know about how “power” works, but I read every word of the book itself. After reading about such extremes of power-grabbing and business manipulation I was weary and felt rather disillusioned in some ways, but I also felt I had a better grasp of how things work in the “real” world...in short, I resolved to not take things so seriously the future. While Greene’s book might be perceived as shining a negative light (and certainly, anyone who is capable of following all the laws of power illustrated in the book to succeed in life would have to be someone with a limited ability for compassion), it also freed me from taking future matters personally and helping me to resolve to enjoy my employments, whenever it came, as just that: work for which I was compensated. Hopefully I would enjoy and be fulfilled by the work as well, but I’d no longer make it my entire life.
I put off thinking about what I wanted to do next as long as I could, but by the end of summer 2006 I knew it was time to start looking for work in earnest, and I was actually getting restless having so much free time. I had paid to go see Over The Hedge in the spring and found it cute but unmemorable (I haven’t seen it since, I keep meaning to). I saw billboards around town advertising Flushed Away and they left me cold (and I still haven’t seen the entire film, although I’m glad when I hear people enjoyed it). I knew I wasn’t ready to go back into anything like Feature Animation, or at least as I had experienced it, but what was I going to do?
One of the friends I’d made at Disney had his own studio and implied I was welcome to come by and check it out. I did, and the studio was beautiful and I was honored to even be considered, but I was terrified. I didn’t want to lose the friendship I had with the animator and his wife and I knew I had fallen out of love with animation, at least for the time being. I needed something different, some place where I could start over. Another friend worked at another big studio and we had lunch and I felt uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, chief among them being that I had to use the lunch as an excuse to scout for work. I knew I needed a change of pace from the path I was on, whatever that meant.
Another friend set me up with a freelance job for a major film company doing “continuity scripts,” a detailed, fairly tedious task but it paid well and I could do it from home. I kept looking for other options, kept dating and enjoying the neighborhood.
The bottom line is this: I never stopped thinking about the fact that I had to eventually become a functioning member of society again. Short of inheriting a lifetime’s amount of money, which some people might find a way to squander anyway, I knew someday I’d have to go back to work, and the longer I put it off the more I risked losing the great packet of money I’d accrued from my house sale. That money had bought me freedom, and freedom—to be able to choose what I wanted to do next for a living, mainly—felt wonderful. I wanted to keep it.
You may find that you feel differently, that “things” matter very much in your world and you need to purchase them to be happy. While I’m not immune to this of course, in my world, buying things on the cheap or going without is worth it if it means I am comfortable, and comfortable generally means (to me) that I don’t owe anyone anything. I have no interest in impressing my peers or any onlookers, I just want to feel like my life, and time, is my own. I had never been in that position completely before my layoff from DreamWorks, and was reluctant to give it up once I had it. Still, I remember seeing a commercial for “Geico” auto insurance featuring their mascot at the time, a gecko. With all due respect to whoever animated the creature, seeing the commercial made me think, “I bet I could do that...and I bet I could do that better...” I was starting to “wake up” again, and starting to think about animation again.
I also saw the film Happy Feet. I’m not sure what compelled me to see a “kid’s movie,” and an animated one at that. To be frank, I’d grown a little bitter about animation and I was unsure if I wanted to see any more animated films at all, let alone work on any of them again. Still, I found myself intrigued. I remember showing up before the film started (I had days free, of course) and seeing a mom and her three kids racing to the theater door the minute the ticket-taker let them out of the line they were in. These people were honestly excited—thrilled, more like—to see an animated film, something I’d been once. Further, I found the film Happy Feet itself interesting...it was entertaining, compassionate, odd and technically marvelous. It was a departure from the sorts of films I felt I’d been working on of late.
I had fallen in love with “movies” again. So I looked for work.
I put together a list of things I hoped to find in a new job—I think it’s a good idea to do this. I’ve done it several times and it has worked out every time, for whatever reason.
I wanted a full-time job that would last at least a year and pay similar to what I’d made before (without having the overhead of an expensive house I’d rake in the cash, I figured). I hoped to find a place where they didn’t take the projects so seriously, where the films might be more adult in theme and more complex in style. I wanted to make sure I had some form of health plan. I wanted the people I worked with to be friendly and sincere and not in any way connected to the world of Feature Animation I’d just left behind. Lastly, I wanted to know I had a job locked in before the holidays so I could go up to Oregon and enjoy a nice Christmas vacation with friends and family.
There weren’t many options for someone with my job skills, but at that time there were still many studios to consider for someone at my level. I looked up a place online, a place I’d heard about before: “Rhythm and Hues.” Oddly, the website for “R+H” requested a VHS of my work reel—by 2006 VHS was well on its way out if it even still existed at all. I was happy to oblige, however, thinking it might be a good sign (I certainly had a reel of my work on VHS). I dropped my reel off in the mail and my friend and I went out drinking and I forgot about it.
Days, maybe weeks later my friend and I came home from another night out to find I had a message on my answering machine. My friend and I listened to it over and over...a woman with a pleasant voice said that the studio was interested in having me in for an interview to work on something called The Golden Compass and that I should come with my “particulars” ready.
“What on earth does that mean?” I asked my friend.
“I think it means you have a job.”
In the end, I interviewed with a friendly group at “R+H” (the studio had worked on Happy Feet, ironically) and drove away from the interview fairly certain I had the gig. I was wary of the long drive down the 405 freeway but encouraged by the atmosphere of the studio—familiar yet still fresh. Further, it was implied that I was being brought on precisely because I was a senior, or “more mature” animator, someone who had earned the right to a certain salary and a modicum of respect. The hope was that having me in the studio would be an asset to the younger animators who were hired for their low cost and enthusiasm. I was thrilled.
Think about this when you’re looking for work: imagine being hired not in spite of things like your age, sex, gender or physical appearance, but because you, as a unique individual, are a valuable asset to the team. It’s certainly something to strive for.
I was eventually offered a job at R+H and there was some talk of whether or not I might like to supervise, or even go to India to work with outsource teams. I was intrigued by the idea but nowhere near ready for such a challenge. I just wanted to see if I was even capable of working anymore at all, really.
I got everything on my wish list and, for the first time in nearly a year, felt hopeful about “work” again.
In truth things weren’t all rosy at R+H. I was increasingly wary of having to do overtime hours and we did a lot of them at the studio. I had never worked Sundays before and we did a lot of those too. There were times when I lost all hope—with an aching back and hand, staring at a bright screen in a dark room, working on films that were not always the cream of the crop, facing hours and hours until the day would end, only to have to get up and do it all over again the next day with no time at all in-between.
I was also no spring chicken anymore. Most of the people I worked with were considerably younger than I was. I had a vision of myself living a quiet, orderly, safe and “sane” “9-to-5” life in some domestic arrangement where I watched TV in the evening, had weekends off and generally had at least a balanced amount of time to myself in relationship to my work. But that wasn’t in the cards for me, not yet anyway. I would go on dates in-between films but generally kept to my routine of solitude, because I knew it would be possible to have a real relationship with the hours I kept—even hanging on to what friends I had made was difficult. After a few situations that didn’t work I didn’t even mind that I wasn’t dating much, and began to accept that I was probably going to be single forever. I had some great friends who understood my schedule and that helped, but I knew something was missing.
On the plus side, I have never known a more friendly, loyal and gregarious group of people than the artists I worked with at R+H. From the time I walked in the door I was treated as family and I didn’t have a single squabble with anyone in the seven years I was there. As I hoped, the animators didn’t take the films (which were all outsourced work anyway) too seriously, even as they had a reverence for the care we put into them. If I still felt removed from the closeness of the crew I saw around me it was the same old thing—being a gay man in a straight world—mixed with the fact that I was from another generation. There was an amusing moment when the young people around me questioned the odd “boombox” I’d carried around with me since the 90s and the tapes and CDs that went with it...didn’t I listen to “streaming” things like everybody else, they asked me? Someone even speculated that there wouldn’t be enough power in the local outlet to run the thing. I was stunned, but it was all done so innocently I couldn’t help but laugh.
Once again, no one ever says, “Now you are old.” Age creeps in, a wrinkle here, a gray hair there, a feeling that you’ve just kind of “been there/done that” and really just want to be quiet. I had always been respectful to people older than I was and have always been determined to be a respectful “mature” person myself, someone younger people might admire. To be fair, most of my peers at the studio were unaware of (or didn’t care about) my age, and were excited to have someone with my credentials in their midst.
I introduced myself as an openly gay man for the first time in a studio and was pleased to find I had no troubles with that at all. I initially had reservations with an outspoken animation director who acted homophobic in a meeting and wasn’t sure how to handle it.
This sort of thing has come up a lot in recent years and seems, at least on paper, to be fading a little. I can say without any ill will that I witnessed a lot of cruel humor over the years—when I was closeted I was privy to the sort of “locker room” talk that happened all the time and even the fact that I was used to it didn’t make it acceptable back then, but I had no clue how one was to handle such things. I was actually the butt of some inappropriate humor directed at males by women in ways that could certainly be described as harassment nowadays. I chalked it up as a learning experience; this was how a lot of women felt in a similar situation, at the mercy of their more-powerful male supervisors and such. I resolved to be more of an advocate for proper treatment of everyone in studios in the future.
A wonderful co-worker at R+H assured me she was appalled at the homophobic language of our animation director too and said she’d speak to him. In time that director became supportive of me and my work and I was glad to make a truce. He was hardly the brash person he appeared to be initially. He was outspoken and funny and said whatever he liked...but he didn’t mind if I said something back now and then too. It was just how he was wired and I accepted (some of) his behavior in that spirit.
I had a great time the first few years of R+H and loved that it was steady and comfortable. I was even allowed a hiatus when I begged off the first Alvin and the Chipmunks movie, which I had been told would be strenuous. I just knew I didn’t have the stamina for it and, for the first time in my career, felt I didn’t really need the money. The studio manager said she’d hire me back for the upcoming The Hulk so I got a nice break. I was thrilled to work on such an exciting, gritty and innovative project as The Hulk. I was working on that film with the other artists, the Sunday night The Golden Compass won the Oscar for best visual effects, which I was happy to feel I contributed to in however small a way. It was the first film I’d worked on that had won such an award. I was too busy working to even think about that until later, but I didn’t mind too much as I had nowhere more important to be, and all the other animators were at the studio with me.
I had a great time on Night at the Museum 2 animating an octopus and a dog-like T-Rex. One of my favorite projects was Cirque du Freak. I got to animate a small group of hideous, hooded little vampire-men eating disgusting chops of rotten meat out of a trough. Perhaps the high-point of those years was when I fought to work on Cabin in the Woods rather than Alvin and the Chipmunks 2 and got to spend a great, gloomy fall animating phantoms, monsters and bloody knives and things. I had a wonderful rapport with my supervisor, a brilliant animator who has gone on to do fantastic things at Industrial Light and Magic, the landmark studio established by George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars film. This supervisor raised my personal bar of quality with his work and under his mentorship I tried to maintain that quality; in return he kept an eye on me and made sure I was well-treated.
As I mentioned before, you must have someone stand up for you in your career, but I think I’d amend that to add that you can’t fake anything either. If you get along with someone naturally you’ll be just fine...if you try to force it, it probably won’t work. I had a great relationship with most of my supervisors at R+H but occasionally had some unpleasant experiences too. I don’t think it’s something you can fault anyone with and it isn’t helpful to place blame, nor do I think you can do much when you don’t mesh with someone. In some cases, like in other relationships, things are sometimes “meant to be” and other times they are not. I suppose I got lucky at R+H in that the studio and its employees respected me and treated me well from the start. I’d like to think it helped that I had a good work ethic, was dependable and had a modicum of talent.
At some point, after a few years at the studio, it occurred to me that I had enough money and confidence in my future to think about putting my musical project together, which would require a sizable chunk of the healthy amount of cash I’d saved up. The husband of a co-worker had self-produced his own live show and suggested it was pretty easy to do. I immediately started to think about how I might put my project on as a live show and then ran across a lively person who was a “theater planner”—like a wedding planner except she’d help you put your show on rather than your wedding. I had a fantastic time in 2009 planning and releasing my show with some of the most exciting talents in the theater world of Los Angeles. The show actually did pretty well all told, even if it didn’t actually make any money.
Here’s what I learned in this case: you must pursue your dreams. No, you shouldn’t bank everything you’ve got but you have to see your dreams through. My accountant shrugged when I told him what my show cost in relation to what it made. He said, “It wasn’t too good of an investment in the end, was it?”
That depends, I thought. If you mean in pure dollars, no, I guess not. In terms of life experience and memories I get to savor for the rest of my life, it was worth every penny and more.
Unfortunately the show, like every live show, eventually had to come to an end. As had happened whenever I’d been free of a regular working schedule, after having had the run of a complete theatrical musical production that I’d written, scored, produced, and helped to put up with more than just my money, the idea of going back to sitting for endless hours in front of a computer working on other peoples’ projects seemed like something of a bitter pill.
Just about that time one of my oldest and dearest friends from Oregon announced she had a terminal disease and only a few months to live. My mom had just barely made it through a bout with breast cancer. I had just wrapped up a dream project and was living the high life. But it was back to six-and-seven day weeks and 10-14 hour days on films that I would, for the most part, not even end up seeing.
2010 was one of the most grueling years of my existence. I was constantly on overtime and had no faith in the projects I was assigned to. I took an extended break to London and had an incredible time, including meeting one of my idols, legendary film director Ken Russell. Then I was back to work on Yogi Bear the Movie seven days a week.
I knew things weren’t working.
I actually submitted my reel to Disney on the off-chance they might hire me for an interesting project I heard they were hiring for (a project that would eventually be scrapped, so I shouldn’t feel bad), knowing full well I’d never be considered for a return to the studio, and I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t hear back from them at all. For the second time in my career (the first had been during Shark Tale) I considered dropping everything, cashing out my 401k and buying a cheap house somewhere in Oregon to live quietly, cheaply and on my own terms. I really hit a state of “rock bottom.” The only way I can describe what a toll working long hours on these animated films was like is to paint it like this: Imagine taking a long flight alone somewhere, someplace that takes at least 12 hours to arrive at on a plane or in an automobile. Now imagine the next day coming back on the plane to your original starting point. Now do that again the next day, set out on your 12-hour journey and come back the next. At that point you’re halfway through the week. Do it all again for three more days and you’ve completed an entire week. Now do it again for another week, without a break. Now another. And so on.
Some people ask why we would do it, claiming they couldn’t keep such hours even if they wanted to. The answer was, it was the job. Whether people do it for the money or the work or the prestige or a combination of those elements is not for me to say. I did it because it was my work, and once I signed on to a film I felt I owed the company my best, simply because it was what they were paying me to do.
I remember some of the animators getting really cynical on Yogi and some took it out on the animation director. I was feeling as cynical as anyone on the film—not only did we have to work every single day for extended hours on a film I didn’t care for (and still haven’t seen), the a/c never worked in our building so it was stiflingly hot. Yet I knew our animation director was doing his best and resolved to show him respect and be as helpful as I could whether I believed in the film itself or not. The animation Director was just doing his job and I was still glad to be employed. I remember one Sunday morning feeling at the end of my rope in the screening room watching dailies. I took a deep breath and told myself, “You’re here, making movies, sitting in a state-of-the-art screening room watching your work fly by, in the 3D no less. Things could be so much worse.”
As I’ve seen happen again and again, just about the time I thought it just couldn’t get any worse, things actually started to get better. Yogi Bear ended.
Here’s something else the experience taught me: No matter how miserable I have been about situations various and sundry, every situation has eventually come to an end. The same could be said for “happy” times as well, but as those are generally more welcome maybe it isn’t as noteworthy. I can say with certainty, however, that even the worst situations I’ve been in came to an end eventually, and the more times I got proof that this was true the easier it got to endure the things I didn’t enjoy. Next time you find yourself in a situation that you find unpleasant it might be helpful to remind yourself: it won’t last forever. One day the time you spent will be a distant memory. If you’re lucky, it won’t be so unpleasant you can’t get over it. You may have to work at it a little. You may find that, in the future, it’s helpful to re-frame what you remember about your past so that it seems full of mostly positive things and not as full of unpleasant things. The choice is yours. There is no one “truth” in this world, everything comes down to perspective. Choose to see only darkness and that will be what you see. You can also choose to see the lighter side.
After Yogi Bear a lot of us were exhausted and the studio took pity on us; we didn’t have to do any more overtime for a while, even though Hop, a cute movie about the Easter Bunny, was ramping up. There was a bit of an exodus after Yogi was over (a film called Hotel Transylvania was gearing up across town) and I was left alone in my office after having spent a pleasant year with three animators that were my peers. I eventually ended up in a room with three delightful young men, animators fresh out of college who were eager and excited to be working on actual big-budget films. Their enthusiasm inspired me and we had a lot of laughs in the year we were officemates.
Spending time with animators who were so much younger than I was felt “right” in some ways—I thoroughly enjoyed being a mentor and passing along some of the information I’d learned through the years about animation and the world of showbiz in general, but at the end of the day I was still a 40+ year old man sitting alongside people half my age who were in the same position I was.
I hadn’t thought about Disney and the world of feature animation much since I’d left DreamWorks. A friend took me to see Tangled at the Disney screening theater I’d spent many hours in in the 90s, and I eventually took one of my young roommates to visit the beautiful DreamWorks campus. Being back in these studios was like visiting a former family house; it might look the same and feel the same in many ways, but certainly became a “new” place, inhabited by people living in the present. Most of my original peers in the animation world had found new careers outside animation or maintained new careers inside of animation, but few of them had remained “just” animators. Some were supervisors, some were even directors at different levels. Some were teachers.
I knew it was time for me to move up or move on.
I talked to some of my co-workers at R+H about their position as supervising animators. When I had been hired I had been asked if I was interested in working as a supervisor overseeing teams in India but at that time I had not been ready. After talking to my co-workers who were already doing the job I became increasingly excited at the possibility that moving into a supervisory role, particularly with international teams, could be the best move I’d made in a long time.
Once again I think it’s important to note: you generally “get” things when you’re ready for them, or some time after. If you get some opportunities before you’re ready you’re likely to make poor use of them. It’s best to be over-qualified for something than underqualified.
I talked to our Production Manager, the person who was in charge of hiring, firing and assigning animators to productions. I wasn’t always sure how much this person liked me but she seemed like a straight-shooter and not someone I had to play games with to get what I wanted, or deal with what she wanted. When I mentioned I was interested in becoming a supervising animator for the India teams the Production Manager was thrilled and said to me, “I know you’re going to really be good at this. I think you were meant to do this sort of thing and your teams are going to love you.”
I was anxious at first about working with people from India, particularly via remote access, however excited I was. I had had some brief experiences with this on Flushed Away, and remote meetings with the Aardman team in the UK had seemed feasible if a bit odd. I needn’t have worried. With the technology available in 2011 working with India was like a dream come true.
I’m a night owl and the fact that I’d be working a later shift (2pm-11pm) suited me well. I’m also a bit of a loner and actually enjoyed how the studio would quiet down after 6pm when most people left. From 6-10 pm I’d take care of office business and prepare to meet my teams. I was assigned an excellent young animator I’d worked with before to assist me locally and his diligence, enthusiasm and talent made my job easy. I talked to some of the other supervisors and got tips on how to work with my teams, and I was off and running.
I remember the summer of 2011 as something like a “summer of love”—not in a romantic sense, as there was no romance in my life whatsoever. It just seemed a time when things seemed to “add up,” when just about everything felt “right” with the world. I had good friends, I got along well with my officemates, I enjoyed my job and the work itself was pleasant, interesting and rewarding.
I realized while working with the India teams how much I truly enjoy engaging with people and being of use to others while also being able to guide them. For years I’d operated merely as an employee, at the mercy of whomsoever I was working for. Even when my supervisors were excellent there was always the sense, whether it came from me or outside myself, that I was subordinate, that my will was not my own. At last I felt like the captain of my own ship, as I had in my personal projects, and I felt confidant that I was capable of the position.
I found the animators of India that I worked with wonderful, personable and sincerely talented. I was thrilled to learn about the people and customs of India and enjoyed being immersed in their kind, sensitive and always fascinating ways and wiles. I worked mostly with the same group for three films and particularly got to know the India-side lead animator, who was (and everyone was aware of it) my ace-in-the hole. She was not only one of the best animators I had worked with, she was able to take the lead of the teams locally in my absence during the day, keeping everything on track and organizing for when we’d all meet each night, Monday through Thursday, Pacific Time in the US (I’d occasionally check in on Sunday nights—Monday in India—or work on Fridays during the day).
We had a lot of fun on Alvin and the Chipmunks 3, a silly, commercial but truly demented entry in the popular “chipmunk” franchise. I also worked with my teams on Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters and, most importantly of all, Life of Pi.
It was rewarding to work on a film that concerned India while working with people from the country, and particularly to be working on such a thoughtful, thought-provoking film. As Ang Lee, the award-winning director said to everyone in the crew at one point, “We’re making the world’s most expensive art film.” It was work, sometimes hard work, but rewarding every day. I had a good rapport with one of the animation directors and he said to me upon handing me one of the prominent sequences to oversee in the film, “If this movie is nominated for the best special effects Oscar, which I’m pretty sure it will be, you can consider it largely because of you and your team’s work on this sequence.”
We were tasked with the awesome, but unbelievably satisfying, job of bringing a realistic animated tiger to life, of convincing audiences all around the world that our digital tiger had thoughts, feelings and needs, was menacing, sympathetic and mesmerizing all at once. We were doing it all in “3D” on top of everything. There were technical nightmares every day, but it was all done in a spirit of excitement, the knowledge we were doing something groundbreaking. Every now and then I’d pinch myself and think, “Wow...look at what we can do!” I didn’t even think that much about the final film and didn’t go to any of the work-in-progress screenings. I just enjoyed the moment, every day I was on the film.
It’s a shame, then, that this happy time was marred by the dawning realization that the studio wasn’t in the best of shape. Visual effects studios everywhere were facing the same dilemma: bidding for jobs was competitive, but bidding too low to get a job meant paying staff out of pocket, something that wasn’t sustainable. As I said before, “Hollywood” doesn’t know or care about the experience of the individual fighting to make a living or express her or him or itself; “Hollywood” is all about the bottom line. Whether the owners and operators of “Rhythm and Hues” studios made good choices or bad is a conversation outside the scope of this writing. The bitter truth was that the studio wasn’t doing well and the writing was on the wall; in fact, this time the chalk was out and the first words were being scratched in. We’d seen a massive layoff happen after Alvin 3 was over, including the dismissal of two of my officemates (the other would stay a little longer then leave by choice to find great success at other studios and with his own personal projects). It was difficult to face the studio after the bustle and chaos of a full house of eager young talent. Pi was a more sober project and when it was done Percy Jackson 2 was even moreso.
I took a long break in-between Pi and Percy and was not entirely sure I’d still have a job after my break was over. When I got back to work it was clear the studio was in serious trouble and layoffs started happening right and left. Information was confusing and scant and the atmosphere in the studio among the staff was tense and tumultuous.
Finally one Friday the production coordinator, a good friend who had been assigned to me, came into my beautiful office overlooking the pretty lights of the city of El Segundo and said to me, “I just found out that the studio is bankrupt, we’re not being paid now and we haven’t been paid for the last three weeks.”
“Now what indeed,” I thought to myself.