Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Art of Animaton, Eyvind Earle and childhood dreams

My dreams of being an artist can be traced back to my early childhood. As a somewhat sickly child, who seemed to be constantly sniffling or wheezing, I was often made to stay indoors or to come in before my cavorting in our backyard triggered an asthma attack.  My mom, whose dreams of being a commercial artist, I've written about in earlier posts, always encouraged me to draw. If I wasn't drawing, I was probably partaking in one of my other favorite activities - coloring in my coloring books (hmmm, that gives me an idea for another blog post).

When I was very young I knew I liked to draw, and as I got older, feeling incapable of following in my father's scientific footsteps, I began to feel that when I grew up, maybe I could be some sort of an artist. I think at some point, probably due to my mother's influence, I felt that maybe I would be a commercial artist and work in the world of advertising (now, after watching 'Mad Men, I'm glad I didn't pursue that path). But then probably around the time I was 13 or 14, I decided I wanted to be an animator and to work for Disney. I can trace my love for Disney films back to when I was 5 years old, the year that "Sleeping Beauty" was released. At that age, I didn't get to see it in the theater, I would have to wait until its rerelease during my high school years to do that, but I do remember seeing the advertisements for it on TV. I also remember all of the merchandise that was put out for the movie - a board game (which I received for Xmas as a child and which I still have), paper dolls (which I still have remnants of), storybooks (which I also have) and many other things. The thing that I remember most vividly about the advertisements though was the image of the handsome Prince. I think my first child-hood crush was on the Prince. But I'm digressing.

Being shy, I felt that being an animator would be the perfect career for me.  My image of an animator was someone who was allowed to sit alone all day at their drawing table, just drawing.  I had no idea at that time that an animator also needed to be something of an actor, a collaborator and maybe even a bit of a pitchman who had to sell his story ideas to the producer.  So, for many years I harbored my dream of working for Disney in my imagined world of what I thought of as the hermit-animator.

My idea of what an animator did and what the job consisted of began to change  after I bought a book called "The Art of Animation," by Bob Thomas. As I recall, I bought this book with my own money, off of a sale table at a Pickwick Bookstore.  My copy of this book (which has been revised over the years) has a copyright date of 1958 but I think I probably purchased it around 1967 or 68.  I remember how excited I was to find this book because it was written the year before "Sleeping Beauty" was released and the book used that film as a way of showing how an animated film was created.

It had sections on character design and development (I was especially fascinated to learn that the design for Princess Aurora was modeled after a young Audrey Hepburn, see sketches above left), storyboarding, background painting, layout, coloring, cel inking and painting, sound, in other words, just about everything that went into the creation of an animated motion picture.

One of my favorite sections was devoted to the artist Eyvind Earle who designed the backgrounds and the medieval look of the film.  Because of the stylized way in which he painted trees, the section devoted to him was titled: "Prelude: the man who likes square trees."  Earle explains his tree stylization in this paragraph, "I like trees to be square. This carries out the primitive technique, which is the style of the picture. You see, all primitive painting is done in horizontal and vertical lines. Only when you intellectualize do you get into diagonals and curves. . . The trees are squared, and everything else carries out the horizontal pattern. . . The hedges, the rocks, the lines of the horizon - all are horizontal.  The primitive style never tilts things." He later goes on to describe his many influences on creating the look of the film, Albrecht Durer to Botticelli, Persian to Japanese art all informed his artistic choices in creating the films distinctive look.  I think I may have also been fascinated by Earle's personal background - from the time he was about 18 years old, he had tried applying for jobs with Disney, being turned away each time. It wasn't until after he had given up and moved to New York for eleven years where he worked in commercial art, and then returned, that he was hired by Disney as a background painter.

My love for animated films never dimmed. In high school, in collaboration with a close friend, I made several animated films as extra credit projects. I guess it was after graduating from high school and facing the realities of competition and assertiveness that were needed to succeed, that I began to feel my dream fading.  After being turned down by Cal Arts (a school that had connections with Disney, and where attendance almost guaranteed you a job with them after graduation) and after unsuccessfully trying for a year and a half to get into USC's cinema production school, I began to ask myself, "did I really want to get a job somewhere where I would be required to sit at a table for hours on end drawing minute variations of someone else's character over and over again?" At least that's the way I rationalized my decision to no longer pursue my dream of being an animator. But I didn't give up entirely. During this time I did stay enrolled at USC and took classes in their cinema department with an undeclared major. Some of my fondest memories of my year and a half there were the hours I spent in an animation class taught by Bernie Gruver, a man who worked for Bill Melendez studios, the studio that created all of the "Peanuts" television specials.

A few years later, after entering graduate school (Otis/Parsons in L.A.), I continued to make films on my own, even getting two of my films accepted into Filmex the huge international film festival that existed in Los Angeles for many years. It was after graduating with my MFA that the harsh realities of making a living began to sink in. I tried in vain to get jobs at a few small animation studios, but ended up instead working for a company that produced computer generated business graphics for slide presentations. It wasn't what I had dreamed of, but it did provide me an opportunity to learn computer graphics (this was way back in 1982 when it was still in its infancy). It was good job experience which eventually led to an opportunity to work in Oslo, Norway for 4 months, but it never did lead to any jobs in animation, which was probably more a result of my own lack of assertiveness and drive than from any lack of experience.

I'm still fascinated by the art of animation and still love watching animated films. Now, at age 55 I guess my dreams really haven't changed that much. I still want to be able to sit and draw in isolation for a living. I still want a chance to be able to tell stories with my drawings. I sometimes get dismayed by all of the young talent out there, all of the kids graduating from art schools with impressive portfolios under their belts, but I've realized that it doesn't do one any good to compare oneself to others. Every talent is unique, you can only do the best that you can do. So, I'll keep plugging away, putting myself out there, and hope that one day, I'll get a book published.

I still have my copy of "The Art of Animation," it's one of my most cherished books. I still love looking at this book, it's filled with some wonderful images and every time I open it, I remember my childhood fantasies, not only of dancing with a handsome Prince, but of being an artist.

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