The Positive Work Place

I was reading a business book this morning and it inspired these thoughts. The focus was on the work environment and how a particular work space can help or hinder creativity. This idea resonated with me because I've had an interest in the places people do their work and I've always considered it significant. However, some businessmen and women might find these concerns trivial. They’re not, actually. The design of a workspace can be critical to the success or failure of a company.

Following this train of thought, I remembered the planning room down the hall from my office at Pixar Animation Studios. This is where our boss, Steve Jobs did his planning for the new facility that would soon be under construction in Emeryville. At the time I was so focused on my work and the film in production I barely took notice how Steve obsessed over every detail in the new structure. Of course, this was typical of Steve Jobs to sweat every detail. Looking back on that time in Point Richmond, I realize how much the new Pixar facility was truly the brain child of Steve Jobs. The building was more than just a space for the increasing number of Pixar employees, but Steve envisioned the space as a dynamic creative center where fantastic new ideas would be tried and tested. Much the same way he created the spaces for Apple and Next, Inc., the Pixar Animation Studio facility would truly be a reflection of it's creator, Steve Jobs.

We've recently opened new space here at Disney's Creative Campus in Glendale and I've been exploring the six floor facility trying to get a sense of the building's vibe. This is a work space after all, and it's important it be an effective one. Although I've heard a few complaints the overall reaction to the facility has been good and I feel a positive energy on all six floors of the building. This is in direct contrast to the facilities constructed a decade ago during the previous management. Disney's Animation Building on Riverside Drive is the most blatant example. The structure has always reminded me of the management's nineteen nineties arrogance. It's little wonder the premiere animation unit began to flounder once moving into the ill conceived building.

Fortunately, the vibe here in Glendale is a positive one and a stroll around the Disney campus truly reminds one of a university. This is important of course. Even in a work environment we should always be learning. Like a university there should be an abundance of outdoor spaces where one can sit with colleagues for an impromptu meeting or find some time alone for reflection. When I think back to my time on the Walt Disney Studio lot I recall doing some of my best work while casually strolling around the campus. Sometimes stepping away from your desk and going for a walk is often time the best way to solve problems or come up with fresh ideas. As a kid back in the nineteen sixties I remember our boss, Walt Disney walking around the studio lot deep in thought. I’m willing to bet the Old Maestro probably came up with his best ideas while making his rounds on a sunny California afternoon.
If you’re still part of the work force I hope you’ve been given a nice place to work. That doesn’t necessarily mean an opulent facility with classy offices complete with wall to wall carpeting and custom made drapery. Rather, it’s place conducive to creativity and collaboration. An environment that’s pleasant, comfortable and where employees actually enjoy coming to work each day. It’s hardly a surprise that both Walt Disney and Steve Jobs understood the importance and value of a positive work environment.

Could any animation artist find a better place to work? I don't think so.

Could any animation artist find a better place to work? I don't think so.

Famous Again

I'm old enough to remember going to the movies in the early fifties and hearing the applause from audiences when a Bugs Bunny cartoon burst on screen. People were becoming more sophisticated about animation and practically anyone you talked to could tell you an actor named Mel Blanc provided the distinctive voice of Bugs Bunny. In time, audiences became aware of other names. Directors such as Tex Avery, Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng were becoming recognized by the general public. However, unless you were a kid in art school with the hopes of a cartooning career no one knew the name of a single Warner Bros. animator. Today, the public knows just a little bit more about animation. They may have heard about Disney's “Nine Old Men,” or that Richard Williams directed the animation in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” but that's as far as it goes. Mention Pixar, they'll say John Lasseter. Talk about “Ice Age” and Blue Sky, they might have heard the name Chris Wedge, but I doubt it. Can you and name one animator from “How to Train Your Dragon?” Okay, Simon Otto immediately comes to mind but that’s because we’re geeks. I’m willing to bet audiences could not name one animator from “Frozen.” That’s because in todays animation world animators are anonymous.

When Disney Feature Animation under the leadership of Jeffrey Katzenberg started churning out hit after hit in the early nineties our unique art form was enjoying incredible fame and success. Talented animators were highly valued and sought after. For the first time in animation's history top animators were represented by agents, lawyers and more than a few commanded a salary commiserate with their talents. It was the age of the animator as super star. A six figure income was becoming almost standard in the industry. A gifted few could even ask for a million or more. Movie buffs began to know the names of Glen Keane, Andreas Deja, Mark Henn and Eric Goldberg. The “Making of books” put a face on the animation artists and people became aware of Tom and Tony Bancroft, Aaron Blaise and others. Studios needed good animators and the animators knew it. Something had to be done. Animators had become valuable and from the corporate point of view this was intolerable.

Back in 1994, I had the opportunity to watch a story reel of a new animated film. I had no idea what I was watching yet I was impressed by the inspired story telling. Not knowing what I was viewing I simply assumed this was a traditionally animated film in the Disney Studio pipe line - but I was wrong. The movie was Pixar Animation Studios “Toy Story.” Up to this point I had only known Pixar as a software company. But somewhere along the way they had morphed into a movie company and they used their cutting edge technology to produce a successful animated film. However, Studio bosses are dense. Top level managers failed to see why this particular movie worked. We didn't love Buzz and Woody because they were digital. We loved them because they were real. Yet, the success of Pixar, DreamWorks, Blue Sky, and a handful of others launched a digital revolution. Soon, every major player in Hollywood had to have their own digital studio. Not surprisingly, the word went out across movie land proclaiming traditional hand drawn animation dead.

Do producers really believe every digital animated film will be a hit? Of course not. Even they know there's no fool proof guarantee for a hit movie. Producers do watch the bottom line however, and that’s the point of this conversation. Remember those faceless, anonymous young animators toiling away at their drawing boards back in the thirties? Now, replace those drawing boards with computer work stations and I think you'll get the picture. Can you imagine Walt Disney replacing Milt Kahl in his prime? What about Frank Thomas or Freddy Moore? Today, rows of young digital animators sit toiling away at identical work stations. Should any one of these young digital hotshots get too big for their britches another tyro animator just out of art school will easily replace them. Learning how to “pull the strings” of the digital puppet will take a few months, perhaps. Maybe less if the kid shows real skill as a digital animator. The public won't even know the difference because the animators are as faceless as the digital warriors in George Lucas' “Attack of the Clones.” 

Now you know why traditional animation has been proclaimed dead. Now you know why computer animation has become the default medium in cartoon making. Now you know why an animator's talent has been devalued by an industry that cares more about commerce than about art. A truly talented animator has to toil at least a decade before becoming a veteran. Make that another two decades before becoming a master. When you consider what they do - what they add to the bottom line of a studio - most animators are woefully underpaid. Yet, studios continually look for ways to cut costs. That means the talent - the artists - are the first to go.

Yet, the future of the animation artist is not totally bleak. Independent film makers continue to keep the medium of traditional hand drawn animation alive. Of course, their efforts often fail to garner the impressive box office numbers of their 3D counterpart. It may take a while but the current digital fascination will wane. Much like George Pal's 3D-ish “PuppetToons” back in the forties, audiences will eventually grow weary of the artificial plastic puppet show and want a good deal more. Impressive as todays digital tools may appear, we’re still taking baby steps. When the technology truly matures - when it has the functionality of a pencil or a paintbrush - the real artists will be welcomed back. And, who knows? Animators - real animators - may just become famous again.

Becoming a Disney animator was a daunting challenge in years past. Even after years of school, you faced another decade of training at Disney before you might be considered ready.

Becoming a Disney animator was a daunting challenge in years past. Even after years of school, you faced another decade of training at Disney before you might be considered ready.

My Brief Meeting With Leonard Nimoy

I suppose it was a big deal but I didn’t think so at the time. I had just been added to the writing staff of a new network television show. The show could be described as sketch comedy and it dealt with topics of the day. Though our show could hardly be called successful, it paved the way for a good many other successful television shows such as “Saturday Night Live,” “In Living Color” and the like. We usually had our writers meeting each Monday morning so I decided to arrive early. Most of the offices on the studio lot were still vacant and employees were slow getting into work this particular day. With time to kill, I decided to head out to our sound stage where the show was being filmed. I’m not sure why, but I’ve always loved musty, dusty sound stages. They’re magical places where movies are made and in a strange way it’s always felt like home. It was a good size stage filled with multiple sets still under construction for the upcoming show. Off to one side was a food cart loaded with coffee, orange juice and a wide selection of donuts and rolls. Since I had nothing else to do I considered having a cup of coffee to pass the time.

As I poured my coffee I suddenly heard a rich, deep voice behind me. “Is this cofffee for us?” he inquired. I turned to see a tall, gaunt gentleman looming over me. I was momentarily taken aback when I realized the gentleman was the actor Leonard Nimoy. “Yes, of course, it is,” I managed to blurt out. “Please help yourself.” And, with those words, I quickly scurried off to my writers meeting. Naturally, I couldn’t wait to tell anyone who would listen about my close encounter with Leonard Nimoy. I also remembered being grateful that we had made a very important correction on the cover of this week’s script. It would appear someone had misspelled Mr. Nimoy’s name and I was certainly glad they had made the correction before he arrived on set.

However, what I remember most about this brief meeting with Leonard Nimoy was what a gentleman he was. I found it incredulous that an actor of his stature would ask permission before pouring a cup of coffee or taking a donut. Leonard Nimoy was a star of considerable stature when he agreed to appear on our show. The fact that he arrived on stage with none of the usual Hollywood bombast or bravado that seems to infect most of tinsel town’s thespians was something I’ll never forget. There’s one final thing I’m glad I did not do that early morning on stage. Not once did I mention Star Trek or Mr. Spock. I can’t help feeling Mr. Nimoy was grateful for that.

Leonard Nimoy. He was such a gentleman. I don't think I'll ever forget our first meeting in Hollywood.

Leonard Nimoy. He was such a gentleman. I don't think I'll ever forget our first meeting in Hollywood.

You Should Know Gerry Geronimi

As I sat at my drawing board wildly sketching away on a new feature film idea, I suddenly glanced up to see two visitors in the room. It seems they were scrutinizing the sketches, models and story boards in my cluttered office. The two older gentleman were wearing the pastel colored garb usually sported by retirees living in the nearby beach community. But, who were these codgers, I wondered? And, why would they have any interest in an obscure little cartoon studio in Newport Beach?

I could tell by their comments the two men were hardly novices when it came to the production of animated films. Could they have worked in the cartoon business at one time, I wondered? And, what would prompt their interest in our little animated venture? Since two gentlemen appeared low key and soft spoken, it took me a few minutes before I recognized the Disney veteran who had once been my boss at Walt’s mouse factory many years ago. His name was Clyde Geronimi, but friends and colleagues knew him by the nick name, “Gerry.” Gerry Geronimi wasn’t just another Disney employee, in case you’re wondering. He had been a major player in Walt’s animation department for decades and directed many of the classic Disney films I saw as a child.

It had easily been two decades since I last saw Gerry Geronimi at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. In the sixties, I remember Geronimi had traveled to Europe on a live-action film assignment for the old Maestro. Though Gerry had spent most of his career directing animated projects, Walt Disney had decided to trust his supervising director with a live-action project this time around. I never did see the completed television show Gerry supervised for Walt, and I was somewhat surprised that the Disney veteran suddenly departed the studio where he had spent so much of his career. Not long after Gerry’s departure, Walt Disney passed away and the studio had been changed forever.

However, the kids in the studio had no idea who the old gentleman was and the incredible accomplishments he had achieved while working for Disney. I still kick myself for not grabbing a tape recorder and asking the animation veteran and few hundred questions. However, we still had a job to do and I was reluctant to impose on our visitor’s time. Perhaps he had a golf game to get to - or whatever retirees do with their leisure time. After the two gentleman said their goodbyes and headed out the door I felt it was important to inform my studio colleagues who they had just met.

Gerry Geronimi was born in Italy and emigrated to the United States in 1908. He began his cartoon career in New York City working as an animator for the Hearst Studios  before heading to Southern California in 1931 to join a scrappy little cartoon studio known as Walt Disney Productions. Walt Disney had a knack for spotting potential leaders, so Gerry was told to put down his animation pencil and take on a new role as a director of Walt’s cartoon shorts. Geronimi eventually directed several shorts, and even took home an Academy Award for “The Ugly Duckling.” Before long, Gerry Geronimi had become one of Walt Disney’s trusted feature film directors along with Wilfred Jackson, Ham Luske and others. You’ll see Gerry’s name on darn near every Disney classic animated film produced in the forties and fifties. His credits, to name a few, include, “Cinderella,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Peter Pan” and Lady and the Tramp. When I arrived at the Walt Disney Studios in the fifties just beginning my animation career, Gerry was the big boss in the animation department. He was our supervising director on the Disney classic, “Sleeping Beauty,” and often his was the final word on what went into the final film. Of course, Walt Disney had the final say when it came to story, but he trusted Gerry to make the right calls when other duties had the Old Maestro’s attention.

As so often happens, Gerry Geronimi was sadly forgotten once he left the Walt Disney Studios and began his retirement. There were no awards or accolades given to the departing Disney Master for his many years of service. Although he did receive the Windsor McKay Award some years later. Adding icing to the cake, the coveted award was presented to Gerry by Cartoon legend, Walter Lantz.

Clyde “Gerry” Geronimi passed away in Newport Beach California at the age of eighty seven. His stellar career in the cartoon business reached back to the thirties and he wrapped up his Disney career in the sixties after completing work on “Sleeping Beauty.” Ironically, it was the same decade the Old Maestro left us. If you’ve ever seen a Walt Disney feature animated film it’s more than likely you’ve seen a film directed by Gerry Geronimi. The quiet, aging gentleman that stopped in my Newport Beach office that morning many years ago was a Disney veteran and pioneer. Sadly, few people besides myself were even aware we had been visited by a true Disney Legend.

The dapper gentleman speaking to his actors is our boss, Gerry Geronimi. A one time Walt Disney Studios animation director, few people even know his name today.

The dapper gentleman speaking to his actors is our boss, Gerry Geronimi. A one time Walt Disney Studios animation director, few people even know his name today.