Monday, March 16, 2009

Tales of the Koko Lion, Part 7: Animated Memories


    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 (I was getting married, and seemed to have lots of work), 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 Brothers 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 really know what he meant.

    Corny was faculty at Cal Arts for many years, from what I understand. Frank retired as head of the department there, and passed away a couple years back. Duane shuffled off this coil just after the millenium. Until recently, Roger was still at his studio (called simply Duck now), and is still wonderfully creative. 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 lucky I've always been.


  1. Robert - maybe you also worked with some brilliantly influential future hedge-fund managers back then - your leftist eyeballs just never noticed! What about those fun guys, huh? Entertaining history to read, sir. You're like the Leonard Zelig of the animation world.

  2. One day I'll tell the barely believable story of having worked with JB Schmal, legendary animator and lavatory refurbisher!