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Toon Thursday: Life lessons from the animation professionals

Toon Thursday: Life lessons from the animation professionals

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My animation friends & colleagues can pretty much tell the same story. All of us benefited greatly by having the opportunity to work side-by-side with seasoned veterans.Our careers were enriched by the tips and techniques they generously shared with us over the years. However, there was one other important benefit. a benefit rarely talked about.

"Old Timers" Don Griffith and Al Dempster. There was more to life than just cartoons.

You see, unlike most of us kids, these animation professionals were well up in years and had already lived full lives. Most had raised families, traveled the world and read extensively. They possessed a wealth of knowledge and experience that went well past a career in the cartoon business. They had learned lessons in life and they were gracious enough to share that knowledge with us.

I'll begin with a gentleman who had worked in the animation business in New York. I suppose the sudden demand for animators had enticed him to travel west and take a job at Walt Disney Studios. He seemed sophisticated and urban compared to us geeky kids. Unlike us, he had traveled extensively, was extremely well read, and often wore a suit and tie to work. Totally approachable, he often amused us with funny stories and his charming wit.

That's what I love about these old guys. Not only could they explain a run cycle on a cartoon bunny rabbit. They could also chat about literature, philosophy and history. When early development began on "The Jungle Book," it was this animator who brought in his collection of Ravi Shankar recordings because Frank Thomas considered using Indian music in the Disney film then in preproduction.

The way that Disney's "The Jungle Book" was
originally released on theaters in October of
1967. On a double bill with a live-action
featurette, "Charlie, the Lonesome
Cougar. " Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All
rights reserved

We gained a unique perspective of the Second World War by an another old gentleman who had the dubious distinction of having fought on both sides of the historical conflict. That's correct. He fought for Hitler's army as well as the Allies. Before the top of your head blows off, I'll need to explain. You see, this gentleman was faced with few options. When the German army invaded his small village in Europe all young men of a certain age were conscripted into Hitler's military. Your choice was simple. Join the German army or have a gun put to your head. Wear the German uniform or be shot dead on the spot. Luckily for this young man, fortunes turned against Hitler and his troops began to retreat. The old gentleman told us he was delighted take off the Nazi uniform and to finally be fighting on the right side of the war. Not wanting to returned to his devastated village after the war, he made his way to America to seek a new life and a new career.

Oddly enough, that career choice was the cartoon business. He often joked that working in animation was almost as dangerous as being a soldier. However, we loved this guys's perspective on life, and he made us young people aware that life is not always filled with easy answers and choices will sometimes be difficult and gut wrenching.

My final "old guy" worked at Walt Disney's Hyperion Studios in the thirties even though his lengthy career allowed him to spend time at a number of animation companies over the years. While strolling on the Disney studio lot some years ago he pointed out buildings he had worked in back in the thirties. These structures were actually trucked over from the original studio site in Silver Lake to the classy new Burbank facility. He spoke of the fun he and his pals had back in animation's early days.

One of my wonderful mentors, the legendary Joe Grant

Of course, he taught us all a thing or two about the cartoon business, but I was initially impressed by his lack of pretentiousness. Eschewing such lofty titles as screenwriter and story development artist, he simply described himself as "gag man." Unlike pretentious young story guys and gals who prattle on about story structure and character development, he simply knew what worked. It was always a delight to run a story past him because you knew you'd receive an honest evaluation free of the usual studio BS.

But, he also spoke of life in the cartoon business and what really mattered. The talented people you'd meet and work with, and the delight of coming to work each day to do a job you really loved. Cartoon making wasn't about amassing a personal fortune or being given gold plated statues. It wasn't about phony titles and shallow status. And, it sure as hell wasn't about subordinates kissing your oversize butt. Our good friend passed away not long ago in a manner all of us would envy. He suddenly collapsed while wrapping gifts on Christmas Eve. Man, if I have to go one day - I can't think of a better way.

There's much to lean from the old timers in this wonderful business. Sadly, there are fewer and fewer of the old guys and gals even around today. If you're a kid, and you're lucky enough to know an old veteran, take some time and talk with them. You just might learn a thing or two.

That's Woolie Reitherman, Larry Clemmons, Milt Kahl and Ken
Anderson seated. That's Vance Gerry doing the pitching.
Man, I learned a lot from these guys.

Did you enjoy today's column from Mr. Norman? If so, there's lots more where that came from.

Floyd's most recent effort - "Disk Drive: Animated Humor in the Digital Age" - is available for purchase through blurb.com. Mr. Norman's original collection of cartoons and stories -- "Faster! Cheaper! The Flip Side of the Art of Animation" - is still for sale over at John Cawley's Cataroo. And if you still haven't had your fill of Floyd at this point, feel free to move on over to Mr. Fun. Which is where Mr. Norman posts his musings when he's not writing for JHM.

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