The Career I Didn’t Have in Animation

duet_ariel2

I remember exactly when I fell in love with animation. I remember it with the kind of clarity a person has when they lock eyes with the love of their lives across a crowded room.

The year is 1989. I am twelve years old and my family is going to see “The Little Mermaid” at the movie theatre. This in itself is not really an outstanding event for a family with two kids. During this time period there simply wasn’t a great deal of animation to be had. Disney’s own animation department had been decimated after years of neglect and had been producing fairly mediocre animated films since Walt Disney’s death in the late 1960s. This would all change with “The Little Mermaid” as it marked not only the Disney studio’s rebirth, but the spark that lit the fire that has become the vibrant, diverse animation industry in North America that we know today.

Twelve year old me however wasn’t aware of any of this. All I knew when Ariel began singing “Part of Your World” was that I’d never seen anything like it. It’s worth noting that the song almost didn’t make the final cut of the movie and was only saved after it was championed by animator Glen Keane, who would go on to animate Beast and Tarzan in later Disney films. He had his own vision for the sequence and almost everything in it—from Ariel’s soulful acting to the graceful way her hair floats around her head—is Keane’s artistry at work.

I suspect even the lyrics of the song struck a chord with a disabled girl who was only just starting to feel how the world was trying to pigeon-hole her into a person she had no desire to be.

What would I give if I could live out of these waters
What would I pay to spend a day warm on the sands
Bet you on land
They understand
Bet they don’t reprimand their daughters
Bright young women
Sick of swimming
Ready to stand
~ “Part of Your World”

It wasn’t so much that I wanted to grow myself a pair of strong legs and run along the beach—for whatever reason I’ve never had any particular longings around being a biped. It was just this desire to be part of a larger world, one that I was feeling increasingly cut off from as I grew older.

Yet here in this world of animation that I was suddenly seeing with new eyes was something remarkable. I knew these were drawings—just drawings—and yet they lived and breathed in a way that was magic.

I remember leaving that movie theatre feeling like someone had shot pure joy into my veins.

The Love Affair

Even after being floored by “The Little Mermaid” it would take me many, many years before I could articulate my desire to work in the animation industry.

I knew I enjoyed drawing and art. Since I couldn’t run around with the other kids, my parents had encouraged me to draw from a very young age. I wasn’t a prodigy by any means, but I had spent a lot of time practicing.

Still, my parents’ wanted me to take a balanced approach to my education. It wasn’t enough that I was good at art, I needed to balance that with the sciences to ensure I would always have a full array of options open to me. My father would say I needed to be a “renaissance woman,” noting that my skills in the sciences and particularly with computers indicated that I could develop a more Da Vinci-type array of interests rather than being just an artist. What this meant in practical terms was that for every art class I wanted to take, there always seemed to be a balancing science or computer-related element in my schedule as well. Certainly I was reasonably good in the sciences too, but I knew they just didn’t hold my interest the same way.

As for animation, it just kept sneaking in. When I went to a video summer camp with my cousin as a teenager, we ended up doing this stop-motion animated short using my medieval-themed Lego sets. I was still going by my nickname “Tina” back in those days and yes, the squeakiest voice you’re hearing on that soundtrack would be me.

In Gr. 12 I was put in charge of editing my high school’s video yearbook for that year, but spent a huge chunk of time creating animated title sequences in the computer to be used as month separators in the video. I never had any training in animation at this point and was simply playing with what tools I had in front of me.

It wasn’t until university that I began thinking more seriously about the possibility of animation as a career. I think the fact that computer animation was rapidly on the rise helped me justify the idea in my own mind. Video games, visual effects and, of course, animation studios working in film and television were all looking for animators and, since computers were involved, I could sell it to myself—and my parents—as an area where jobs and a successful career might be had.

Unfortunately, because it was such a new area, the path to becoming a computer animator wasn’t terribly clear. I knew I needed to graduate with some sort of university degree—my upbringing had made that a given—so I kept trying to shape my degree into something that would eventually get me into the animation industry.

I was briefly a visual arts major because I heard that the animation program at Sheridan College, which was considered the best in Canada at the time, would only take people who already had visual arts degrees. This scheme was short lived given that I couldn’t take the extraordinarily high “bullshit” skill that the program seemed to require. I simply didn’t have the ability to smear mud on paper and wax poetic about it. I then heard the university was launching a multimedia specialization in computer science that included one—ONE—computer animation course. My attempt to be a comp-sci major was even more disastrous as outright flunked two of the early math prerequisites just trying to get into the program. I never got anywhere near that single computer animation course and threw up my hands on the whole idea since by that point I’d decimated my GPA.

I would settle on a Communications degree—aka media studies—with focuses on mass media, digital video and the internet. The world wide web was the new whizbang thing back in those days and I’d been teaching myself web design and development by building an online database about (of course) animation. As I developed Keyframe – the Animation Resource, I hit on the idea that I would build websites after I finished university and then go to animation school once I had enough money. This scheme might’ve worked save for the fact that the dotcom crash hit the industry within months of my graduation. No one was getting a web job, particularly not some self-taught programmer.

In hindsight I wish I’d spent more time back in those days trying to teach myself animation rather than getting stuck in this obsession with going to animation school. It would not be until 2002, after a web client gave me time with a career coach as a Christmas present, that someone sat me down and asked what would I do if I could do anything…?

Animation.

Okay… so do it.

Around this time I also received an invite for an open house at the Centre for Digital Imaging and Sound (CDIS). The open house took people around to different classrooms to show off all of the school’s various programs. This would be my first encounter with a traditional 2D animation desk. We were asked to create two drawings and then complete the in-betweens that would morph one into the other.

I animated a hat into a lamp… and that was it. I had to go to animation school. It was no longer even a question.

sir_stumpyFINALSo I gambled everything. I was living on government disability benefits at the time with the occasional website job bringing in a bit of extra cash. I couldn’t afford to do the whole animation program—even the significantly cheaper version that CDIS was offering—so I sunk everything I had from my most recent web contract into two classes at CDIS… 2D animation and life drawing.

And when I learned that CDIS had a program where students could work for the school in exchange for more classes, I got myself a job in the Career Services department doing web stuff. It would actually be more accurate to say I created a job by planting the idea for a researcher / web administrator role into the mind of the careers manager and then pretended to study in the lounge outside her office for weeks until she hired me. I would pay for about half of my two years of animation training using the school’s work-for-classes program. After that, when the demands of building my demo reel started to conflict too strongly with working even part-time, I maxed out my student loan—already bloated from my time in university—in order to finish my program.

I was, in essence, all in.

More than anything though, I was happy. Stupidly, ridiculously happy and fulfilled. While there were certainly more gifted animation students than me, more technically proficient, I don’t think there was anyone who wanted it more and who had fought so long and so hard simply to be there.

The Loss

What would I give to live where you are
What would I pay to stay here beside you
What would I do to see you smiling at me
Where would we walk
Where would we run
If we could stay all day in the sun
Just you and me
And I could be
Part of your world
~ “Part of Your World” (reprise)

And after all of this, I’ve never worked as an animator.

Perhaps someday there will be a full blog post on the events that so thoroughly derailed my animation aspirations, but the short version is that I was hit by a car at a crosswalk and was never the same.

By the time I recovered physically and emotionally from the immediate aftermath of the accident, I found myself on a completely different career path. I’d been using my skills as a web designer and developer in order to pay for animation school, but after I graduated those skills became the core of my completely unintended career. This delighted my parents, of course, who saw the web work as a stable career path and one that had managed to even get me off disability benefits. The “renaissance woman” they had predicted had finally emerged and was making use of the most profitable skill in her toolkit.

animation deskWhile I was pleased to at last have some financial stability, the ghost of animation haunted me relentlessly for years. I could feel it like a shadow standing in the corner, staring me down with accusing eyes.

How dare you? How dare you?! I gave you purpose. I gave you the greatest love you’ve ever known and you squandered it. After everything you went through, you just quit! And for what? Money? Security? You were never worthy of that dream and now you’ll never know happiness and fulfillment like that again.

I felt like a coward. There was this part of me that wanted to completely up-end my life. Quit my job. Move back home with my parents for a time so I could rebuild my demo reel. Do whatever it took to get my path back to animation on track. I’d come so far and sacrificed so much, how could I just give up? On my darkest days even now I still feel this way… that the greater sin is not that I’ve never worked in the industry, but that I wasn’t strong enough to finish the journey and really chose an authentic life for myself.

But I was getting older and learning the harsh realities of the working world. I knew I didn’t want to work endless 16 hour days so typical of the animation industry—I wasn’t even sure I physically could anymore. I didn’t want the financial instability of a strictly contract existence which is another mainstay of the industry. Most of all though, I couldn’t handle paying for all my medical needs as a contractor. How could I possibly afford a $26,000 wheelchair every five years when I was likely barely pulling down $40,000 a year as an animator?

This last one bothered me immensely because I felt like if I didn’t pursue animation because of my disability, then it would eventually lead me to resent my disability in a way that I hadn’t up to that point.

Bit by bit though I was able to identify elements of this new life that I was building that I wasn’t prepared to give up. The ability to afford my own fairly wheelchair accessible apartment and head home from a “day job” at 5pm every night to my loving mutt. The fact that I could pursue my own artistic projects and interests without being constrained by the needs of clients or studios. Even just the knowledge that so many of the friends and experiences I’d had since animation school, I would’ve missed out on if I’d become an animator. It wasn’t the life I had so fiercely thought I wanted, but it was still a good life.

And so it was in 2014, fully ten years after I graduated from CDIS, I found myself feeling like I really needed to try and close this chapter of my life once and for all. It is perhaps for this reason that animation-related activities ended up resurfacing so strongly throughout the entire year.

SIGGRAPH 2014

goldteapotIn August I attended SIGGRAPH, a conference that brings together animation, visual effects and gaming companies with great academic minds looking to launch the next big thing in computer graphics. It’s the sort of place Pixar might come to tell the world about their next rendering engine or something along those lines.

Although I’d been to SIGGRAPH some years ago, this time around I found it very difficult for me. I walked the exhibition floor and found I couldn’t understand half the technology I was seeing. Obviously the tech side of animation had moved on without me in the decade since I’d been in school.

I briefly wandered into the area where all the major studios were recruiting eager young graduates. God, they were so young. In years past at events like this I would amuse myself by picking up studio swag to take home—stickers, pens, that sort of thing—but this time around I found that just being there hurt. I couldn’t look the recruiters in the eye. What would I say? I want you to hire me. There’s still this part of me that believes once I’m inside the four walls of your studio my heart will explode with joy as it did once upon a time. But you can’t hire me so I have nothing to offer you.

Eventually it became too much. I felt like I couldn’t breathe so I left the convention centre for a time. I sat in the nearby Blenz with my hot chocolate, staring at the golden walking teapot that was the prized bit of swag from the Pixar booth. I decided I wouldn’t go to another SIGGRAPH conference again. There was nothing there for me anymore.

Pixar Master Class for Story and Animation

masterclassIn September I attended a two-day workshop hosted by one of the local animation schools. They brought in a story supervisor and an animation supervisor from Pixar to tantalize us with all the secrets from the hallowed halls of their studio.

It was in fact the second time I had made a run at seeing this presentation. The first time was perhaps five years ago, but I ended up having to cancel at the last minute when I threw my back out. When I saw the announcement for this round I signed up almost out of reflex. This too was unfinished business.

I figured that the story talk was going to end up being the most useful of the two. I’d taken a children’s book illustration class in 2013, but was still having trouble distilling down a good story. In this Pixar’s story supervisor was very helpful in terms of the theories on story that he presented and the exercises he put us through.

The animation talk I was a little more ambivalent about. I knew that it was likely going to be harder for me to sit through and steeled myself, thinking I’d react in the same way as I had at SIGGRAPH. Working in animation at Pixar—this had pretty much been my entire vision when I was in school. How was I going to handle it when faced with someone who was the epitome of everything I had wanted?

As the talk progressed through the day though, I realized to my surprise that it didn’t hurt as much as I had expected it would. There were twinges of course, but his description of all the different techniques that the animators used to sculpt their characters’ performances within the computer left me cold. Where was the artistry? Where was the soul? What sort of satisfaction were the animators getting in moving a bunch of sliders around? Sure, I’d done this sort of thing back in school myself, but with time and distance I realized it was the hat and the lamp drawn by hand on a 2D animation desk that had been what really ignited my passion back then.

In fact, it occurred to me that the art that was really interesting to me right now was the acrylic painting work that I’d been doing more and more of over the past few years. I loved that when I put the brush to the canvas I didn’t always know what was going to happen. I loved the mistakes, the unpredictability. I think in some strange way it’s a better fit for the person I’d become. I had to be someone who not only accepted the messiness of life, but embraced it.

So, even if I wasn’t certain I was living my life as fully and authentically as I thought I should be, I could at least say that working as an animator wasn’t the authentic experience that I was seeking… not anymore.

At the after-party for the workshop I also finally came up with a way to speak to my past without it digging its talons into me. Previously I would go to these events and describe myself as an “ex-animation student who was never able to get a job in the industry”—all negatives. Now I found that I was introducing myself as someone who “trained as an animator but was currently working as a web developer.” Animation school had brought me such joy so I wanted to acknowledge that training and saying that I currently held a job outside the industry still held open the possibility that I might find my way there someday in some capacity.

Still there was one last thing I had left to do. I approached the Pixar animation supervisor at the after-party with my iPhone in hand. I asked him if he’d be willing to help me cross something off my bucket list by taking at look my Sir Stumpy animated short that I’d made in animation school ten years earlier. He looked baffled, but agreed. I watched his face closely as he viewed my reel off YouTube. I knew he’d thought me a Pixar groupie when I approached him, but his face got more sombre as the reel played out.

When he handed back my phone, he told me it was good—the action and the acting had been clear, something that’s not always true in student work. He then asked why I’d never pursued it and I told him truthfully that I needed medical benefits and so couldn’t do contract work. I thought saying this would hurt more too, but he nodded at the apparent truth in my statement and honestly I’m thankful he didn’t try to hide or sugarcoat this reality of the industry. He did say though that, based on what he’d seen, I could’ve been an animator.

It was a bittersweet, but it was enough.

Meeting Glen Keane

keane_arielLess than a week after the Pixar Master Class, I learned that Glen Keane would be doing a talk at the SPARK animation festival in October about his new short film, “Duet.” I had known Keane had left Disney to pursue his own passion projects, but I’d never dreamed I’d have the opportunity to hear him speak in person. It almost was too significant and extraordinary to my own journey through animation for me to quite wrap my head around.

It was bringing everything full circle.

I’d been so focused on the fact that it had been ten years since I’d graduated from animation school that I’d forgotten until Keane’s talk came along that it was also twenty-five years since I fell in love with animation in the first place. That had to be worth something too.

As I settled into the packed theatre, I worried a little that the man might not be able to live up to the idol I’d built up over the years in my mind. I certainly wasn’t the only one there to indulge in some hero worship as I saw many others of my generation alongside all the fresh-faced animation students.

Keane’s energy though was completely different. He spoke of how he loved to draw and, even after a forty year career at Disney, he was simply still excited to draw and see those drawings move. He told us of how he’d dreamed for years of being able to see his raw pencil work animated. Not the cleaned up lines you see in a polished animated film, but his own rough sketches living and breathing. The short film “Duet” is the result of that ambition and, just like Ariel, it’s a beautiful and soulful piece of work from an undeniable master of the craft.

He spoke of how he’d gotten to the point at Disney where he realized he needed to take the leap to pursue the creative work that was calling to him. It was scary at first because it required that he step out of the comfortable environment that he’d enjoyed for so long, but he also knew it had to be done. It was the next step for him and he needed to take it.

He spoke to us as one artist to another. He said that we were all equals because we were all on the same journey together. It was an extraordinary thing to say to a group of people who were all sitting there putting him on a pedestal. It was like he was reaching down and pulling us all up there with him.

At the end of the talk, I found that I wanted to say something to this man whose work had, after all, inspired in me one of the greatest passions in my life. Unfortunately Keane was still down on the stage at the front of the theatre being mobbed by students asking for autographs and photos. Before I’d heard him speak I had flirted with the idea of trying to get his autograph as well—to let that be the way I tried to commemorate his significance upon my life—but I’d ultimately discarded the notion. And now, sitting at the top of the theatre with a flight of stairs standing between me and him, it seemed a pretty shallow objective anyways.

Still I lingered. I waited in the lobby, trying to see if he were planning to stick around to speak further with his adoring fans. Some presenters at the festival had held court in this way in the past. I wasn’t surprised to see that this wasn’t his style. After extracting himself from the crowd and somewhat bashfully saying goodbye to all, he turned to leave the theatre through the back. This however brought him directly across my path.

I only had a moment. I met his eyes and said quietly and earnestly, “Thank you.”

I know he couldn’t possibly grasp the scope of what I was really thanking him for, but he touched my shoulder briefly as he passed and then he was gone.