Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Career Arcs

The frustrated artist who drew Nightmare Before Christmas on the side while working on "Fox and the Hound."

In the very recent past, during my afternoon stumble through one of our fine animation studios, I plunked down and talked to an artist/director who's worked in the business for twenty years (and I've known almost that long), who told me a story I hadn't heard before.

Like a lot of people in the biz, he had his share of scrabbling around getting a toe-hold. Today he is a pillar at one of the larger animation studios, doing well, with a fine career rolling out ahead of him. But he related how when he was in art school and had done a student film, some Disney mucky-mucks viewed his reel and tartly informed him, "you'll have a hard time getting work in the business with that."

He related how he was pretty stung by their critique, but persevered...and today is thriving. More than thriving.

As he talked, I flashed on some animation artists -- starting out around the same time this dude did -- who also got doused with cold water.

Like young, mouthy Brad Bird, getting fired from Disney for complaining about product (even though the complaints had merit).

Like Tim Burton, working on Fox and the Hound but developing Nightmare Before Christmas on the side and getting nowhere with Disney animation management...until a live-action exec took him under his wing and helped him take the first small steps into live action.

And young John Lasseter getting bounced out of the Disney Animation department in early '84 when management became disenchanted with him.

Or even --further back -- war veteran David Swift who returned from World War II, realized he wasn't going to go much of anywhere at Disney, and struck out into television.

I guess my only point here is that having passion and perseverence often overcomes early brusque rejections by studios who don't recognize genius when it comes knocking.


Anonymous said...

Thought provoking post!

My only question is: would Tim have had the creative output he's had so far had he stayed at Disney as an animator?
We can only speculate that his creativity might have been thwarted. So I think i'ts a good thing they left/let go.

After all, Disney has no new ideas. They keep regurgitating the same old stuff over and over. The humour is non existent in their movies, and the stories are no longer compelling as they used to be.

2 cents...


Anonymous said...

..."until a live-action exec took him under his wing and helped him take the first small steps into live action."

According to a Vanity Fair article written back when Burton had his breakout success with "Batman", the exec who took Tim under [his] wing was a woman and moreover was Tim's girlfriend. She was the live action development exec responsible for getting him an unprecedented one of a kind deal to do his own shorts within the studio in a style and technique no other artist for years ever was able to. Being as Burton was a fairly low level artist, she really had to work hard to get him a shot at developing Vincent and she succeeded.

Tim is obviously a super talent and talent is crucial when you get a break, but connections and access are the way to get the break in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Lord knows I wish were different, but in my experience I've come to realize it's not what you know -- it's WHO you know.

Some of the best gigs I've gotten in this crazy business has not been because of my "incredible talent," rather being in the right place at the right time, with the right person.

Anonymous said...

So the question then becomes, how does one find themselves associated with this so-called 'right person'?

Just curious!

Anonymous said...

The exec in question was Tom Wilhite, (not a woman)who went on to produce The Brave Little Toaster, among other projects.

Anonymous said...

So you're saying Tim Burton dated Tom Wilhite? Wow, this is a BIG story after all!!!

Anonymous said...

No, Tim's girlfriend presented Tim's proposal to Wilhite.
Look, this is the way it was reported back when it wasn't deemed a big deal and it's easy to believe.
How else do you think Wilhite picked Tim out of all those talented guys at features and gave him the special break to do his own thing? A famously inarticulate, introverted guy who is the polar opposite of the usual sort of person who gets the ear of an exec who can give him a leg up?

Anonymous said...

It wasn't through Wilhite but his then-girlfriend Julie Hickson that Tim got his big break. She was head of creative development at Disney at the time.

Robiscus said...

Its refreshing to read a post like this in a site that often(by design), must deal with executives and corporate glad-handing. Thanks for the post Steve.

Anonymous said... the best way to get ahead is to sleep with an executive?!
I've been going about this all wrong!!

Anonymous said...

Not necessarily sleep with. Also have kids who go to the same schools, hang out at the same places, have friends and relatives in common. Keeping in mind that the connections work best when the person has something to offer that's special or perceived as special on top of that. And once someone like Tim Burton gets a shot, what really puts him in the elite camp is having a hit, which no connections can guarantee you. This is true of all aspects of Hollywood from actors to directors to makeup people. The plain facts are that people tend to hire or consider people who they have a personal connection to instead of talented people off the street they have never heard of. There are just too many aspiring actors, directors, whatevers for everyone to have a fair shot. Friends hire friends, boyfriends/girlfriends of friends, and so on.
That doesn't mean that Tim Burton or anyone else is not worthy because of that kind of beginning break at all, though.

Anonymous said...

Nope...I'm sticking to the story that Tim Burton slept with someone to get where he is today. C'mon it couldn't have been his storytelling ability - right? Or maybe it was his enormous talent ;)

Anonymous said...

Or maybe his enormous talent wouldn't have taken the route it did if the girlfriend hadn't promoted him at the right time.

He did the work but she deserves some credit. Especially since she's never mentioned when his "amazing" career trajectory is written up and no one knows she existed.

Steve Hulett said...

It wasn't through Wilhite but his then-girlfriend Julie Hickson that Tim got his big break. She was head of creative development at Disney at the time.

Julie Hickson certainly had a hand in promoting Tim, but Wilhite (Julie's boss and studio head) was involved in the decisions.

Tim had some quirky ideas that got a less than enthusiastic reception by higher ups in the animation department. Tim was given time and a small budget to do his personal films. He also did some films for the Disney Channel (then a fledgling network.)

I had the office next to Tim on the third floor. I remember the boarding and spirited discussions that went on when "Frankenweenie" was getting developed.

Those early short films of Tim's led to the Pee Wee Herman features later on.

Anonymous said...

Or maybe it was his kung-fu version of "Hansel and Gretel" he did for the Disney Channel. WOW, that was amazing.

Anonymous said...

Or maybe it was his kung-fu version of "Hansel and Gretel" he did for the Disney Channel.

Everybody starts somewhere.

Anonymous said...

The reaction after his Hansel & Gretal screened for the animation dept was absolute least those that made it to the end were shocked. Most slunk out embarrassed for him.

Anonymous said...

You are right, Steve-those shorts did lead to the first feature gig, which lead to "Beetlejuice"($$$) which led to "Batman"($$$$$). The rest is well known.

But if there hadn't been a non-artist advocating for Tim to Wilhite, what was the likelihood that he would have been able to actually produce Vincent and Frankenweenie at Disney? Slim to none.
That doesn't mean a shot wasn't deserved, but no one else got that shot, so he must have had an exceptional leg up.

Hansel & Gretel is one of the worst things ever. Even 'geniuses' can't win em all.

Site Meter