Thursday, March 26, 2009
Monday, March 16, 2009
Many moons ago when I was 18, I sat on a planter in front of my sister's little hippy boutique, "Satin Rainbow," in the (then) sleepy seaside hippy hamlet of Del Mar, California, sketching in a pad just for fun, when a lovely blonde came by and took an interest in what I was drawing. She got her father, a prominent California Designer/Art Director named Don McQuiston to come and look. He asked me to do a group of drawings and bring them to his office the next week. That was how I got started professionally.
He hired me to do some drawings for textbooks he was designing, and sent me to a class at a local junior college that was being taught by an up-and-coming young illustrator named Everett Peck. Everett and I became good friends, and during the course of his class, I assembled a portfolio of sorts. Eventually, I submitted it to Art Center College, and was accepted.
After my second term, I needed work badly, and Everett referred me to a fellow named Frank Terry, a popular animation director who worked out of a studio in Venice, Calif. I walked into his studio with my student portfolio under my arm, and met Frank, sketching at a long table across from another guy, named Ed Koren. They were both nice guys.
Being from out in the coyote canyons, I wasn't really familiar with The New Yorker magazine, or with the quirky, elegant cocktail party "hairy monsters" Mr. Koren created for the comics in that august publication. They hired me to report to Duck Soup Produckions in Santa Monica, and go to work inking a pair of animated commercials that featured Mr. Koren's characters sipping Lancer's Rose. I was about to get my first big lesson in animation.
Inking any character for fluid animation is a challenge, but particularly those dang hairy monsters- each of them constructed of hundreds of wobbly dip-pen lines. A certain amount of "crawl" was unavoidable, but the client hit the ceiling watching our first samples flutter and bristle like some kind of wild pen-and-ink mitosis. After a while, I got the hang of it, creating a series of "anchor lines" that rode the action of Frank's rough animation sketches (I got to do the pencil clean-ups first, of course). In the end, the crawl was kept to a minimum, and I had my first taste of that unique gratification that comes from seeing animation that you've contributed to up alive on the screen.
I quit school halfway, and for the next couple years I did backgrounds, in-betweens, and development art for Duck Soup, for the wonderfully creative Roger Chouinard, and his wise and funny partner, Duane Crowther. I didn't know what UPA was at the time, and it took years for me to realize that Duane was one of the founders of that whole school of brilliantly influential, "Cartoon Modern," that so much of my work since has been based on. I sat by an old-timer named Amby Paliwoda a lot, a veteran of Disney's Golden Age, who regaled me with stories of the Disney days, and his best buddy, Grim Natwick (a good friend of Duane's, as well). I'm afraid I drove him a little crazy with my "left-wing" politics at the time. He loved him some Ronald Reagan. We worked with a great background artist named Toby Bluth, who's brother Don was just starting up a feature studio at the time. And every once and a while, a remarkable artist and character, Cornelius Cole, came into work on projects, mostly Froot Loop commercials; but I recall staying late a couple nights to help Corny with his section of Heavy Metal-- a brilliant piece of "limited" animation that was eventually cut from the final picture, because it didn't "fit-in" with the rest of the anthology. I understand there are versions of the film that have his section restored.
Corny was a gas, not just because of his incredible talent, or his wonderfully kind nature, but also because he was a guy who generated great apocryphal stories, some of which I know were true. He dressed kind of like Gilligan but with a ragged "Panama" hat, and carried a big broken-handled vinyl suitcase full of hundreds of pencil-ends and blobby ball-points that he'd dig through until he found just the right ones; then he blew up a big beach ball, and laid on top of it (to save wear-and-tear on his back), drawing genius stuff on the floor. My favorite Corny story was that while he was working on all those Warner Bros. cartoonys (that kept me glued to the TV as a kid), he'd lost the forward gears in his transmission, and so drove in reverse from Coldwater Canyon to Burbank every day to work, mostly along the shoulder of the road. Though I'm not sure if that one's true...
Once, when I was doing b.g.s for a series of "Mrs. Smith's Pies" commercials, I had to lay out and paint views of Pottstown (home of Mrs. Smith) ablaze in fall colors. I was from the Southern California outback. I had never seen fall colors. So I got a National Geographic for reference, and proceeded to paint everything yellow and orange. Duane looked over my shoulder at my work-in-progress and wryly asked, "Have you ever heard of 'Impressionism'?" Of course, I said yes, but I didn't know what he meant.
Corny is faculty at Cal Arts now, from what I understand. Frank recently retired as head of the department there. Duane passed away about ten years ago. Roger is still at his studio, called simply Duck now. I went on to many years of illustration, never looking back, or realizing how great all those people really were, until I got back into animation in 1999. I was quite unconscious way back in those days. I didn't get there because I'd been such a fan of it all, I was just doing my best to pay my rent. When I look back, I know how lucky I was, and though I still often find myself "between projects," I realize that by drawing for a living...how lucky I've always been.
Sunday, March 8, 2009
...this 3/4 rear drawing is by the very talented Kevin Kobasic, who did the original turn-arounds of the cat character, as well as a lot of other characters on the show.
The shed room was was full of bad taxidermy and mysterious tools. Old pictures and obscure signage. Switches and bricks and rifles on a rack. It was like a form of heaven to me, the crazy stuffed raccoons and antiquated firearms ranking well above angels' wings, harps, and cherubs.
My eyes lit upon a fascinating device on the old wooden everything-table near me, as Cy lowered the needle on a spinning LP. A shuffling western guitar started as I picked up the odd contraption to examine it. It was about a foot long, aluminum tube bent around like a folded infinity sign. There were long, orangy rubber surgical tubes dangling off of it, meeting at a leather pouch gripped by a clothespin. It was a super-powerful slingshot extraordinaire. A "Wrist Rocket."
"I hear that train a-rollin', it's comin' 'round the bend..." Cy snuck the volume up a little as he lifted his his great eyebrows and widened his eyes. He gestured "quiet" with his finger over his pursed lips as he held the album up for me to see the picture of a handsome, dangerous man with black shiny hair looking down at me from the cover. It was "Johnny Cash- Live at Folsom Prison." Cy smiled broadly, his bottom teeth jutting out.
"...Well, I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die." Hoots and hollers from the audience of inmates, as I slipped my slender arm through the slingshot loop and grasped the handle with my left hand, slightly pulling up the clothespin with my right.
"There's ball bearins' in that, fer when them rabbits and dogs git in my bean patch, Bobby." Cy whispered.
I gingerly tested the pull on the wrist-rocket, going deeper and deeper into the elastic potential as Cy tapped his foot and grinned. I pulled it back hard to my cheek, and as Mr. Cash hollered "My name is SUE---HOW DO YOU DO? NOW YOU'RE GONNA DIE!!" and Cy's eyes widened with glee, the clothespin released and the air was shattered by the whip-snapping surgical tubes, and splintering crunch and crash of ball-bearings violently ricocheting around the room! Uncle Cy quick turned the music down, his eyes wide as saucers. We traced the trajectory of the slingshot to where the ball-bearings had torn a large, ragged chunk from the heavy table leg just an inch or two from Cy's shin. His startled eyes slowly scanned up from the damage, huge eyebrows aloft, and met mine.
"Why Bobby!" he said, chin curled up to meet his nose," ...you damn near took my leg off!"
The door flew open, and there stood Mildred red-faced, fists clenched.
"Cyrus Fletcher! What do you think you're doin'- fillin' that poor little boy's head with that prison-house pison! You get outta there this minute!"
"Why Mildred, we wuz just..."
"Save yer excuses fer someone who don't know any better! Now you come with me right this minute, Bobby!" It was the most I'd ever heard her say at one time. She stood resolute, pointing back down the hall, and I shuffled out past her, looking back to see Cy, sheepishly sliding the black record back into it's sleeve. Our eyes met again, and we both looked at the damaged table leg, and then back in silent agreement. He smiled a little because he knew that getting caught by Mildred had been worth it. There could've been no better introduction to The Man in Black, Mr. Johnny Cash, who, to this day, rides with me wherever I go.
"The ancient masters were profound and subtle. Their wisdom was unfathomable. There is no way to describe it: all we can describe is their appearance."
The Tao Te Ching, 15
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Each summer, my mother would pile us into the white Impala station wagon, and head north to visit her sisters in L.A. and Oakland; then proceed with us up the coast through Northern California and into Oregon, to her family's hometowns: Grant's Pass, Coos Bay, Eugene, sometimes stopping to gather agates, or search for signs of Bigfoot. In Coos Bay, we'd visit my wonderfully authentic (and eccentric) Uncle Cy, and his wife, Mildred.
As a teenager in Oregon, Cyrus Fletcher sported patent-leather hair, in the style of Rudolph Valentino and John Gilbert. He'd split the legs of his denims up the side, and sew leather triangles into them to make his own vaquero-style boot jeans. He jumped on his belt-driven motorcycle, made mostly of wood, and rode it from Oregon down the San Joaquin Valley to Hollywood, to become a moving-picture star in the days before "talkies." He never became a star, though he was one of a "cast of thousands" in the original Ben-Hur, and went on to do a stint as chauffeur to a famous silent-film comedian, Ben Turpin, best known for his very crossed eyes.
Cy and his wife, Mildred, seemed to have little in common, he being gregarious in the extreme, and she as stoic and taciturn as the old gal in "American Gothic." They possessed one notably obvious complement that may have explained their long, successful marriage. Cy had a remarkably entertaining underbite, and yin to his yang, Mildred had an overbite that could only be described as Simpsons-like. In profile, if not from any other angle, they were a perfect fit.
It wasn't just Cy's overbite that was entertaining. He was an amazing natural storyteller. When he entered "Critter-Callin'" competitions in local fairs, the tales he spun immediately before beginning his wooden whistle critter-call repetoire so delighted the crowds, that he became a sought-after Storyteller, engaged by oral history buffs from town to town, just to sit and tell his stories.
As a kid, I liked him because he was funny, and he had lots and lots of cool stuff. Railroad sets, compound bows, "critter-callin'" whistles, dagguereotypes, and a very interesting record collection. (With an older brother and sister who were part of the Surf Explosion and English Invasion, a mom who loved Broadway show tunes and Sinatra, and my favorite themes from cartoon and cowboy TV shows, music had already become a big part of my young life.)
In the evenings we would struggle through another of Mildred's afternoon-early and impossibly bland "suppertimes." She was a cook in an elementary school cafeteria, and had made "creative" dishes that the kids would like. For example, she put scoops of cottage cheese on slices of baloney, criss-crossed them with strips of individually-wrapped cheese slices, and baked them until the baloney edges curled up around the bubbling blob. Ironically, she called them "Flying Saucers." She served them with catsup and bread-and-butter pickles.
After supper, Cy gave me the secret up-and-down signal with his overgrown eyebrows that meant I was supposed to wait a bit, and then follow him, because he had something to show me that Mildred might not approve of. He patted the arms of his easy chair, thrust out his lower jaw, raised his great eyebrows again and hoisted himself up, dawdling down the hallway towards his workshop. I waited awhile, and innocently followed. Cy cautiously peeked through the cracked door of his workshop, opened the door, and hurried me in.
"We're gonna have to keep this quiet, Bobby. Mildred'd have a tizzy if she caught on." I greedily scanned the room, letting the amazing contents flood my little boy's eyes as Cy lifted the lid on his little record player, and reached into his wooden milk crate full of records.
...to be continued