Friday, July 25, 2008

Those At the Top

This from comments below:

Nearly all of the the greatest artists of the industry are those who bucked the system, whether its Brad Bird storming out of Disney or Nick Park washing his hands of Katzenberg's meddling and walking out to pursue his own vision (the man has garnered more Academy Awards than the entire Dreamworks studio).

And it got me pondering. It's true that big talents sometimes rise to the top ... but it's equally true that many don't ...

So why is that the gifted, the special, and the very good don't always end up running their own studios or directing their own films or becoming the Big Cheeses (just look at the various people who are. Do all of them rate as geniuses? Half? I don't think so).

It isn't just talent and hard work that cause people to rise through the ranks of other talented hard-working creatives and reach the pinnacle of success. There's also ambition, drive and the right circumstances (otherwise known as luck).

Take for instance an artist I've blathered about before: Vance Gerry. Vance could do a lot of things well. He could storyboard, he could write, he could design. He could draw layouts with the best of them and work in color. Years back I watched him board a first story pass for The Black Cauldron that was lilting, imaginative, and funny. But little of anything he did for BC found its way into the final picture.

Most everything Vance created in those early months of development got swallowed up in a tug of war between the picture's directors and the story crew. And Vance, never one to fight, yell and scream, went off to work on personal projects outside the studio.

I've seen other examples of tall talent that didn't reach the highest crest, and it's nothing new. Mark Twain wrote about it in "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven" over a century ago, when he had an angel explain the pure meritocracy for the deserving that waited up beyond the Pearly Gates:

... "That is the heavenly justice of it. They warn't rewarded according to their deserts, on earth. But here they get their rightful rank. That tailor ... from Tennessee wrote poetry that Homer and Shakespeare couldn't come up to; but nobody would print it, nobody would read it but his neighbors, an ignorant lot.

Whenever the village had a drunken frolic and a dance, they would drag him in and crown him with cabbage leaves, and pretend to bow down to him; and one night when he was sick and nearly starved to death, they had him out and crowned him and then they rode him on a rail about the village, and everybody followed along, beating tin pans and yelling.

Well, he died before morning. He wasn't ever expecting to go to heaven, much less any fuss made over him, so I reckon he was a good deal surprised when the reception broke on him."

Some talented souls -- such as Brad Bird and Joe Ranft -- reach artistic heaven on this temporal plane, but others, equally talented, often miss the Golden Door by a country mile. Maybe they're not in the right place at the right time, or maybe they don't have the bulldog tenacity or political skill to land at the top of the studio heap. Whatever the magic ingredient is, they lack it.

Planet Earth, unlike Mark Twain's Heaven, does not necessarily lift up only the pure-of-heart and deserving.


Anonymous said...

Ah-men to that brutha and pass the hat!

Yes, of course Brad is a genious. All hail Brad. Yes, Joe was brilliant, All hail Joe. Walt, well, what can you say about Unky Walt that has not been said before? I dare say that 95% of the readers of this blog can tip their hats Walt's way for inspiring them to get into this illogical industry. But these bright burning lights are rare. Most of the heroes of this industry are in the rank and file, the in-the-trenches artists. The ones who get beat up by their productions for not capturing their performances within the alloted bid days. The ones that struggle to incorporate director's notes while still keeping a bit of their own performance ideas in the shot. The ones who come in on weekends or stay late at night to polish a shot - to give it that extra something that seperates it from the others - that makes it theirs.

Yes, we need firebrands to break the rules, storm the gates and keep that pesky little executive who thinks he knows better at arms length, but just as much as we need them they need the army of foot soliders to actually DO THE WORK!

Anonymous said...

Yay? Try and relax, there, Gilda the wonder cheerleader. Steve, that convo that you took the Brad Bird bit from wasn't really tooting the was highlighting the lameness of the dreamworks imagination and what a shame it is that these gifted artists have to spend their talents on such crap. So, rather than have ANOTHER string where we all get fuzzy and say it's ok to be feed the kids...why don't we figure out how, not as a single ambitious superstar but as a supremely talented mob, to storm the gates at a studio and demand compelling stories. IT CAN BE DONE, I say.

PS...You may feed your kids...but will you teach them to sacrifice their integrity to the great corporate blah? Hmmm...maybe we're broaching the reason why America is going down the turd tunnel fast.

Anonymous said...

There are also plenty of brilliant, multi-talented artists who, for reasons of their own, are simply content to do what they're doing.

Maybe raising a family is a higher priority than taking on a role with more responsibility and daily doing battle with executives and prima donnas. Maybe they actually like doing what they're doing and don't want to move up, despite their capacity to do so.

The arc of a person's career involves so much more than ability alone. Everyone's goals are different, and what's right or desirable for one may not be for the guy in the cubicle next door.

Anonymous said...

Hey, anonymous #2,

Choosing to feed your kids does not equal mediocrity, nor does it mean you're sacrificing integrity. But you'll figure that out once you're out of school and actually have to earn a living rather than having mommy and daddy pay for your lifestyle.

Anonymous said...

but what do you teach your kids? Just shut up and do it? That's why the U.S. is predominantly lame fat asses who are doomed to overseas talent. You've got to get a broader scope and learn how to be competitive via quality.

Anonymous said...

"but what do you teach your kids? Just shut up and do it?"

Well, it's obvious that that's the only possibility you see, so it's pointless to discuss it with you. The reality is far more nuanced than that (as it frequently is), but you have to be able to grasp the subtleties to understand. Not something that's in your wheelhouse.

Yeah, the "quality" argument always carries so much weight with bottom-line executives. Good luck with that.

Anonymous said...

I'm the one that wrote the quote that Steve features in this post, and I think that I could have been more specific. Lots of people have very rewarding careers at major studios like Dreamworks and Disney - I don't want to denigrate them. I'm simply railing against being complacent with their position there. Its my opinion, one that I've admittedly appropriated from the great artists throughout the years, that if you aren't seeing your own vision through then you really have stopped being an artist and are simply working a craft.

Make no mistake, its an achievement to find a position where you get paid well to draw pictures or animate or dream up designs, but when they get digested by the company into the global product - you aren't left with anything. You might think you are. You might like seeing your name go by at the end of the credits, but stop and step back and think about it. When its all said and done there are hundreds or even thousands of people with the same accomplishments of you.

Do your own work. Completely outside the system, or while working at studios. See your own ideas through in your free time. THERE IS NOTHING MORE IMPORTANT THAN THAT.

I could not disagree more with the statement above by the first poster:
"The ones that struggle to incorporate director's notes while still keeping a bit of their own performance ideas in the shot. The ones who come in on weekends or stay late at night to polish a shot - to give it that extra something that seperates it from the others - that makes it theirs."

I'm sorry but thats so fricking wrong I get nauseous just reading it. Don't do that to yourself! Value your vision and your independent work outside the studio. The studio has plenty of resources and is more than capable of getting a film done with regular hours, but the cost to the animation community is immeasurable when the great artists working at studios are kept from working on their own pieces because they invest ALL their time working on weekends and with huge overtime.

If you commit to making your own work everyone benefits: you do, other artists do, and yes - even the studios do because it raises the bar on the whole scene.

Yes, Brad Bird left a big studio but i don't think he did it because he had dreams of becoming the best animation director he just wasn't going to let his vision get stifled anymore. You don't have to leave a studio for that(but you can if you must) as long as you don't invest all of your efforts into the corporate job.

It parallels Steve's prudent investing advice: diversify, or you'll be sorry. You are really going to regret it down the road when you look back and all of your creativity was dumped into a measly half dozen movies.

Anonymous said...

Animated films are the most important things in the world. Animators, it's up to you to fight the evil executives and save America! Bad stories in animated films ARE the reason for obesity and outsourcing!

CAN you do it? WILL you do it!?!?!


Anonymous said...

I guess we animators ARE at the bottom of the barrel after all...


Anonymous said...

Maybe, just maybe, I enjoy being a complacent animator for a visionary (or not) director...we all cant be leaders. What's wrong with just doing your part? And whats wrong with having the same achievement as hundreds of others? I mean, thats true for EVERYONE, even for the president of the united states. I dont place MY self worth on how well the film I'm working on is critically received. Sure, I'm proud of it if it does well, but if it doesnt, I'm still proud of it because I know what it took to make. Either way, my life does not hinge on it. I have more important things to worry about.

And what do you mean "we arent left wth anything?" Im left with the animation I created for people to see. What the hell is wrong with that?

The more I read your comments, the more I realize either:

A) You're young and inexperienced


B) Old, bitter, and unachieved.

Anonymous said...

I certainly don't have to make work "outside" the system to feel good about the work I do "inside" the system. That work alone speaks for itself.

You obviously dont have a family.

Anonymous said...

If you want to be defined by what a major studio's output is, then fine. Good luck to yourself and your career. I'm hard pressed to call you an artist though.

Sorry, but if those are your aspirations then you are just like a factory worker. There's nothing interesting about you and everything you create has been processed by a corporation. I think thats sad, but even sadder is that I write a post out that is positive with the intention of broadening your view of what you do - and you insult me.

Its truly disheartening that there are sentiments like yours in the industry. Complacent, myopic, and lazy.

You realize you have NO guarantee of a job? You could be cut loose tomorrow. Dreamworks could go under in 4 months. They could change from CGI to traditional. They are COMPLETELY out of your control... which is why the one thing you can control is your own vision. Trust me, you want to develop that outside of the studio. Look no further than the traditional animators at Disney who were all let loose years ago. Many of them(and i know a few) had the same view that you had. That they invest their efforts in the beloved company and they'll be taken care of, but they weren't. Whats more, the skills they developed singularly at Disney didn't translate that well outside of that studio. I worked with one at another studio and we were happy to have him - until evry single drawing he did was in the bouncy, round, wide eyed, Disney style. Three weeks of the rest of the crew redrawing parts of his boards was enough for him to be let go, because he could only really draw in that Disney style. He had no voice of his own.

Thats what happens when you put all of your eggs in one basket. Thats what you get for being a company man. The company does not care for you - thats not "bitter" thats a fact. Ask ANY stalwarts of the industry and they'll agree. Spend a little time caring for yourself and making your own art and you'll develop your own vision, establish your own name, and actually OWN something that you created.

You could work thirty years at a major studio and if thats the only work you made then you own NOTHING. There isn't a single thing that is your property.

So think about some of that before you buck some sound advice. I'm not attacking you, I'm telling you that you are better than a cog in one big machine. Everyone in the industry benefits from there being a vibrant scene of animation artists who produce their own stuff.

Anonymous said...

Dude, unless you are Bill Plympton or Don Hertzfelt, you're just talking out of your @ss. You admit to working in at least one studio yourself, so at best your chiding of others rings hollow without anything to back it up.

I usually hate it when someone resorts to "well then, show us your work," but in this case I think it's justified. Give us a link and dazzle us with your singular vision. Prove that you're not just a blowhard parroting what you've heard elsewhere. Should be easy enough for you; if you believe that strongly in what you said, then you MUST have created a body of independent work by now, right?

Anonymous said...

Almost everyone I know in animation has a sketchbook out or is part of a group comic. A lot of them have art shows. to say that these are not artists is an amazingly obtuse view of the world. One need look no further then the recent proliferation of fantastic art blogs by these "factory workers". Enjoy your "pure vision" while it lasts...

Anonymous said...

"I'm hard pressed to call you an artist though."

"Sorry, but if those are your aspirations then you are just like a factory worker."

Dude, how do you know you're not talking to an AMAZING animator? How do you know you're not talking to someone who's won 4 Annies or something? You dont HAVE to be the singular producer of your own independent work to feel rewarded as an artist.

I think my problem with your opinion is that you assume being a major feature animator is easy, brainless, and thankless. Lazy? Dude, please.

PS) Ive worked at several major studios, and I know how fickle the industry is and that I can be let go at any time. Know what I do (and have done several times) when that happens? Get a new job. Pretty easy. Good times. I love my life actually.

I understand your overall point, but you've taken it so far to the extreme that you've lost your credibility.

I think it's time to pull out the sage old advice on this one: "Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference."

Anonymous said...

The wisest men follow their own direction.


Anonymous said...

Just like homeless people.

Anonymous said...

"Almost everyone I know in animation has a sketchbook out or is part of a group comic. A lot of them have art shows. to say that these are not artists is an amazingly obtuse view of the world. "

I didn't say they weren't artists. I never directed my post at them at all. I have the same people in my circle of friends - but there are many more people in the industry that simply subsist on the work at the studio and that encapsulates all of their creative output. You work in the industry. You know those people are all over.

I'm not speaking in the absolute here, so please stop bringing up isolated example after isolated example(how many people win an Annie every year vs. how many people are in the industry - give that a rest).

Too often the community here in Los Angeles... we ARE a community of artists right? We all work in the same field and belong to the same union after all. Too often we rise and fall with the slightest twinkle of trouble form the studios. Its shouldn't be like that. It should be the other way around. As long as artists completely invest all of their effort and hours into their work at the studio, the studio doesn't compete for artists. Its a static field to them,

When you work outside the system(when you can) you make a mark for yourself. You could be featured in the LA Times because of a gallery show. You could win an award at the Ottawa Animation Festival(or Annecy, or Platform). That creates increased interest from studios - that makes wages go up.

If the majority of artists are content to suckle at the teet of the major studios wuithout exercising their voice outside of the system, well then the studios are MORE to you than your job aren't they? They kind of become your identity. You put them in control.

Dude, unless you are Bill Plympton or Don Hertzfelt, "

Thank you for proving my point. I'll even add Mike Judge to the mix. Take a long look at the first shorts of any of those guys and tell me what major studio would hire them from those. NONE of them. Their drawings are not masterful compared to the median talent level of the Dreamworks or Disney artist. Yet those simple, efforts reaped HUGE rewards for those guys. Its well within any studio artists means to contribute immensely to the collective animation scene here in LA from very minimal effort.

Anonymous said...

You obviously dont have a family."

Oh My God!! You have a FAMILY! Cry me a river!
Newsflash - People all over the world have families. What do you want, a cookie because you have one? Should we cue the violin music now? You're caught between the company and your family! What to do!
And they say animators have no balls...

Steve Hulett said...

diversify, or you'll be sorry. You are really going to regret it down the road when you look back and all of your creativity was dumped into a measly half dozen movies.

Look, everybody has to survive. But there are a lot of various roads by which you can follow your muse.

Some blaze their own trail and work outside the system.

Some manage to find satisfaction inside the corporate structure. They're happy being a director, animator, whatever.

Some -- like my old man, for instance -- gave the studio its forty hours and did the stuff they really cared about on their own time.

And some (there should be more folks in this category, but people have a tendency to spend the money they make) socked away their big salaries when animation -- and the different skill sets inside it -- were hot. And now those blessed creators work only on the things that excite them, be it personal projects, studio projects, or whatever.

Like I say. There are a million different roads to salvation. You just have to find the one that suits you ... but understand that many travelers don't end up exactly where they intended.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a pious art student who's been listening to his life drawing teachers a little too long. There's a whole bunch of them at CalArts who get brainwashed by a couple of the curmudgeons there.

Most of them I knew are now working in landscaping jobs and the like.

Floyd Norman said...

I say travel the road. When you're young, then do it all. I have, and it's made for a rich and rewarding career.

I worked inside big, bloated, corporate studios. I've worked for small independent studios, and I've even launched my own company. I never got rich by doing any of these things, but, the work was usually fun and fulfilling even when it wasn't always that great.

When you're old, don't look back on your life with regret. Do it now!

Anonymous said...

Floyd you couldn't be more right. I have worked on a dozen blockbuster films but the most rewarding times have been choosing the projects i want to work on as an independent or through my own companies. I wish I would of broke out sooner because the younger you are when you do it the better it is.

however it is never to late to go for it and at least when your 75 you never have to say I should of tried. Life goes by fast, enjoy it and create your own chapters.

some times the hardest thing to do is to walk away from the golden handcuff just to follow a dream.

If it doesn't work out, guess what? The industry will always be there and the corporations will always be having their annual turn over for you to get back in the trenches of the machine.

No harm done for trying. However, if you do try and find the rewards of stepping out, then you most likely will never go back to the old routine.

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