15 April 2016

The Story Of My Failed Animation Dream


I started drawing as a very young child. A perfectionist from day one, I was absorbed for hours on end, and only hand cramps stopped me. It was a positive outlet for my anxieties and helped build some confidence. My parents however, were dismayed at the endless sketches of monsters, dinosaurs and comic book characters. They believed top school grades were the only way to succeed in life, and here I was creating flip books. There were many arguments. But I was determined to pursue a career in animation, and continued drawing obsessively until I was 16 years old. Then a couple of things happened that derailed my dream. 

Working with professionals

One day my high school created a work experience initiative to help students prepare for the real world. I seized the opportunity. Must have called every studio and production company in town, practically begging them to take me on. Finally, a place named Catflap Animation accepted me for a two week stint. Their studio was a cosy space that housed shelves of pencil drawings, animation desks, known as lightboxes, and hand-painted acetate cells. Computers had yet to take over the industry.

They gave me free use of a spare desk and drawing materials. The studio did commercials, logos and visual effects. There was an advertising agency next door, and I was invited along to meetings. They were the smartest people I'd ever met. The biggest thrill, however, was visiting an effects house to see how an optical printer composited images. It was a delicate and complex machine, worth millions of dollars. Lucasfilm's ILM was the only place selling them. Before digital, this was cutting edge.

Beneath the excitement, I quickly discovered that my drawing ability was average at best. The animators taught me using various exercises on character poses, in-betweening and key frames. The owner and lead animator, a Frenchman named Maurice, had mastered his craft. He was highly respected in the industry and considered one of the best animators in the world. I'll never forget the look on his face the first time I showed him my drawings. A gentle giant with a sharp wit, he was patient but also quite blunt with his assessment of my work. He often shared his wisdom, but I was too stupid to appreciate it. 

The other animators also gave me their time and answered my silly questions. They opened up about their lives. One was a cool rocker dude who drank bottles of coke all day. His name was Marc. A real maverick who lived by his talent, he boasted that he'd never had to sit through a job interview. Needless to say, I thought he was awesome. He took me under his wing and taught me about animation, and more importantly, how to navigate through an industry that exploited its artists. Marc wisely steered me towards visual effects when he saw my lacklustre drawings, and trusted me to work on real projects. I did some rotoscoping of a glowing humanoid alien for a Toyota ad. It remains my only professional animation credit to date.

In all my teen years, I had never experienced such kindness as I did during those two weeks. Afterwards I was invigorated, but also disheartened. Part of me acknowledged the huge step towards adulthood. But for the first time, I experienced the terrible fear of not being good enough to make it. It’s harsh business, and only the top 10% get through the door. 

I was ashamed that my enthusiasm was undone by a lack of talent, and assumed my mentors looked at me with disappointment. Aware of my personality defects, they tactfully recommended I work on becoming more sociable and collaborative. In terms of professional advice, they urged me take up life drawing classes. Instead of listening, I went home and sulked. I visited the Catflap crew one or two times afterwards, but they treated me as a nuisance. I probably was, but felt rejected and never returned. 

A cruel encounter with fate

High school was difficult but I was hanging in there. I was a bit of an outcast, and struggled to maintain my grades.  Girls ignored me, but the bullies too left me alone, so at least there wasn't much violence. A few months after my work experience at Catflap, the second of my fateful events took place. A mutual friend knew a guy who was 'mad about drawing' and they suggested we hang out.

I'll call him Nikolai. We hit it off straight away. It was inevitable, as we both idolised James Cameron and had seen his film Aliens a hundred times. He was a funny character with a strange lisp. He persuaded our group of oddballs to stop complaining about not having girlfriends, and put our energy into creating a comic book instead. So we organised to meet up and share our ideas. I'll never forget that day. We sat around a table in the school library. I brought along my best drawings. Unfortunately for me, he did too.

Nikolai's work was amazing. After all these years, he remains the most gifted artist I have ever met. I sat there dumbfounded and could not believe such effortless talent was possible. His portfolio, housed in a ring binder, started with celebrity portraits. The ones I remember are Mel Gibson and Michelle Pfeiffer. There were intricate drawings of tigers, one the most difficult animals to draw. His collection rounded out with more wildlife, sports cars and a series of comic book panels. If that wasn't enough, he was very fast and rattled off sketches as he talked. He used pens instead of pencils. Small errors made him angry, causing him to start again from scratch.

Compared to his efforts, my work was absolute rubbish. My friends realised it too. Their drawings were far worse than mine, but I was supposed to be 'the artist.' In that instant, my bubble burst. I wanted to cry, but sat quietly and stared at my hands as if they belonged to an ape. I pretended to be cool and joined in planning the comic book. 

A few weeks later it was ready for a print run. We called it Violent Comix 1. A collection of short stories, it's best described as a crude homage to 1980s action movies. I came up with a Robocop rip off. It featured a detective seeking revenge against a gang of drug dealers. After surviving an ambush, he built a mecha suit and hunted them down. For some reason, I thought it would be cool if the hero's name was Make instead of Jake, and was surprised when it confused everyone. My segment looked badly drawn, probably as a result of trying too hard. 

There was a lot of angst in the group around sharing our progress. One guy was so overcome he broke down crying after showing us his drawings. Our leader however, was enthusiastic about what we came up with. He encouraged us to keep going, and waited for everyone to finish before unveiling his contribution. It was a crazy Die Hard story about Arab terrorists who hijacked a plane. They shot passengers and grabbed women's breasts, until a heroic FBI agent saved the day in a vicious gun battle. It was impactful, gruesome and superbly drawn. The rest of our comic book didn't even come close. We stapled it together and showed it to our classmates. Nikolai's story was the only one that anyone liked. It left the team demoralised. Fearing no sales, we decided not to print any copies.

Giving up

It was awesome and inspiring to be around an exceptionally gifted individual. Already reeling from my experience at Catflap however, this latest episode broke my spirit. It seems ridiculous now, but at the time I was devastated. My perceived talent was exposed as an illusion. At first I worked as hard as possible to improve, but repeatedly hit an artistic brick wall that collapsed on me. Lacking whatever it is that separates prodigies from the masses, I simply failed by default. 

Already burdened by low self esteem, I lost my purpose in life and slowly gave up drawing. My life became a daily ordeal of being ridiculed at school and going home to argue with my parents. When not wasting time playing basketball, I escaped by sitting in my room watching the same sci-fi movies over and over again. Then I fell into booze and drugs. My grades went down the toilet. I was a complete mess and predictably, high school ended badly. I made pathetic attempts to get into art colleges, and shopped an embarrassingly inept portfolio to graphic design studios. Unemployed for over a year, I ended up stacking shelves in a library to get by. Somehow I picked picked myself up and began applying for film schools.

A door closes

Back to my time at high school and the final twist in my story. I was sharing a couple of classes with Nikolai, who was unhappy and threatened to drop out. I encouraged him to put together a portfolio and seek work as an illustrator or animator. He already matched the professional artists at Catflap. I offered to make an introduction. He was unmoved, but did seriously consider applying to work for Disney. They had an excellent recruitment program, and were committed to attracting and nurturing talent. I had given up on the idea for myself, but honestly believed Nikolai could make it.  

He'd started to become increasingly volatile. It was triggered by something to do with his father. He didn't open up about what troubled him. Instead he put on a psycho act and started carrying a knife. He was also drinking heavily. We drifted apart. By the end of high school, he was downing a bottle of vodka a day and his hands trembled. 

I never found out what happened to him. 

1 comment:

  1. I want to become 3d animator can i become 3d animator after 10th?