Sitting at El Capitan the other night watching Waking Sleeping Beauty, I was struck by how career paths often turn on a dime.
Up on the screen was the tale of Disney Feature Animation, struggling in the early eighties, triumphant in the early nineties, and starting to unravel even as it released its biggest hit, The Lion King, in 1994.
Down in the theater seats, a couple of thousand artists who had ridden the rocket sat watching their younger selves, remembering how they'd hit the heights ... only to get laid off half a dozen years later.
Most of the faces I saw, the crew members who made Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King and the others happen, aren't at Disney anymore. Rob Minkoff is doing live action and projects at DreamWorks Animation. Tom Sito is teaching college and working at Warner Bros. Don Hahn and Peter Schneider are most of the way out of the cartoon business, working on independent projects.
And others who once stood on various rungs of the Disney Feature ladder are now at television cartoon studios, visual effects houses, merchandising art, or looking for their next gig. A few work in the grocery business. (One artist I've known for decades came up and thanked me for helping her get dismissal pay from a foot-dragging studio, then admitted that jobs have recently been few and far between.)
Who could have guessed in 1994 that all those high-stepping careers would have been down-sized out of existence by 2002? As one artist said to me:
"We did everything they asked, and they still stopped making hand-drawn features ..."
After a couple of decades of observation, I've concluded the race goes to the talented and hard-working, but mainly the resilient and lucky. Because no matter how carefully you plan, no matter how many hours of labor you put in, at some point the career highway will ramp off in a direction you didn't expect, and you'll have to hang onto the steering wheel because a blowout is imminent.
(In other words: You could have been the most productive employee the Fleischers had at their Miami studio, and you still would have moved to California or New York looking for work 4 1/2 years later when the place closed down.)
That reality was on vivid display at the El Capitan last Monday night, both on the screen and in the audience, and has happened to almost everyone who's worked in animation in the last thirty years. Close to nobody finishes a career where they start it. Close to nobody ends up where they think they will. Like for instance this artist:
Born in Ecuador and raised in Albuquerque, NM, Mike Judge got a degree in physics at U.C. San Diego. Relocating to Texas, Judge worked as an engineer and also tried to forge a career as a musician, but found that animation was his preferred calling. After a Dallas animation festival, Judge's 1991 short Office Space was picked up by Comedy Central. His 1992 short Frog Baseball, featuring two sadistic teen cretins voiced by Judge, subsequently led to a 1993 MTV animated series revolving around the heavy metal-loving adolescents Beavis and Butthead ...
Or this gent ...
... [Simon Tofield's] five short films -- "Cat Man Do," "Let Me In," "TV Dinner," "Hot Spot" and "Fly Guy" -- depicting the misadventures of a demanding cat and his befuddled owner have scored more than 36 million hits [on the internet.] The first film, "Cat Man Do," in which the cat resorts to somewhat unorthodox methods to wake his master and get his breakfast, won best comedy in the British Animation Awards in 2008. Tofield wasn't planning on making a series or even releasing "Cat Man Do" when he made the cartoon. It was just an exercise to teach himself Flash, an animation program widely used in commercials ...
Like it? A career in animation by accident.
As always, there are a zillion different foot-paths into Animationland, and a whole lot fewer that zig-zag through it to the tippy top. I wish to God I knew what the ideal roadmap was, but I don't think it exists.
And if it does, I've never seen it.