Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Our Story Thus Far

I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains, far, far away from civilization as we know it. The experience of a boy, a collie, and miles of surrounding mountain forest ignited my imagination.
I began writing comic books at the age of four. I couldn’t read or write yet so they were picture-books. My Mom still has several of them. I’ll scan them for a website some day – it’ll be a hoot. One was about a giant monster that looked like a walking mound of hair that attacked an army base. Another was about an Octopus in a bathtub. A bit later, I learned how to write a little, and word-balloons made their debut. At this point, I started a bi-monthly serial called Halloween Funnies. The cast consisted of a skeleton, a mummy, a vampire, a witch, a Frankenstein-monster, a bat, a spider and a werewolf. It was pure slapstick – a disjoint series of sight-gags and puns. I was around five then. By six, I had matured to the point of having a serial strip that involved an actual plot. Animal Club was a monthly comic book I did for quite a few years. They were a group of forest animals that protected the herbivores from the carnivores. Kind of a forest police squad. Their captain was Baldie Eagle (I had yet to realize eagles are quite carnivorous). Also in the Club: Harvey Hare, Sammy Skunk, Mort Mouse (and his Hispanic friend, Rico Rat), Porky Porcupine, Barry Beaver and a bunch of other crazies. Later I killed Baldie off and they were led by a tough-talking, cigar-chomping Gnome named Gned. It was a blast, but the only audience was the neighbor boy and myself (and sometimes my Mom). Eventually I did a graphic novel that was a space opera in the Star Wars vein, called Galactica. Strangely, all the space-heroes were also forest creatures (the Stormtroopers looked like an army of robot rabbits). Eventually I was writing more than drawing. An example of my pre-teen novels was Behind the Black Hole, a wacky land of shmoos and fauns and shoefly pie in the spirit of Alice in Wonderland or Phantom Tollbooth. These novellas were mostly script, handwritten longhand in print (not cursive) across sheets of typing paper (without rules – I became a natural at creating straight lines of text freehand). There were never re-writes: it would have been too much erasing. To this day I try to make my first draft my final draft (to the horror of probably every writing teacher that ever lived). So the pictures I drew appeared only every other page or so, appearing “inline” in the page of text (much as in the original Alice editions). Soon these pictures, too, disappeared and my books began to consist entirely of handwritten text. Notable works from this period were of the high fantasy and space opera genres, with a couple of dystopian future tales I would later find out belonged to the Cyberpunk genre.
This all happened before fifth grade. Around this time, I discovered Dungeons and Dragons, and for a few years all my creative energies were channeled into Dungeon-Mastering and writing ridiculously elaborate campaigns in role-playing fantasy worlds.
I came out of this period a cynical little punk, too cool to write or draw for a few years. This took me through my oh-so-cool high school years. Much wasted time.
Then something wonderful happened. I made a few enlightened friends, experimented with altered states of consciousness, and by the time I was starting college my zest for life had returned in a big way. And with it, the creative spirit. I suddenly found so much beauty in the world that I dropped everything and became a visual artist, creating hundreds of wild paintings and drawings, assemblages, found objects, installations, and orchestrating happenings and performances / public spectacles. I began writing again, mostly beat poetry, and reading e.e.cummings and Omar Khayyam (remember that for later). Anyway, I was doing poetry slams, group shows with other neo-surrealists (we called ourselves the New Epicureans) and cofounded the epicenter (little e), which was sort of an artist community but sort of nothing at all. It defied description, but all the local papers liked to write about it, caricaturing it as a generation X / slacker thing. Actually, all of us would have probably preferred having jobs, but they weren’t handing them out back then. It’s a GenX thing. We all had to wait for our thirties to get in on the game. Looking back, I don’t mind, because there was nothing more liberating that being poor, ungrounded, and free to emote.
Still I knew I had to be a storyteller, but no idea how to make it pay. Some of my friends tried to get serious about the gallery thing (we were told that was the only option for us artist types) but I couldn’t stand the thought of spending the rest of my life around all the conceptual snobs that ruled that scene. I found more inspiration in animated films and graphic novels than in the stuffy soundproof vacuum of a white-walled gallery, but still it never occurred to me that one could BE an animator.
I went to Graduate School in Savannah because they were reputed to have a great Computer Art program. I thought the challenge of using high-end software might add some more dimension to my artwork. And I wanted to see it move. It took a long time to get familiar with all the tools and processes, but finally I felt I was ready to go to Hollywood and try my hand at being a grunt in a special effects house. Instead, I ended up working at a startup video game company for a few years. I learned a lot, but it wasn’t where I wanted to be. Then it dawned on me: I wasn’t going to be truly fulfilled until I came full circle and got back to storytelling. Not that games don’t have that, but there are so many layers of technical process you never really feel like it’s creative at all. I knew films were where I needed to go. Ideally, animated films. Ideally, Pixar. I went to SIGGRAPH in 2004 to shmooze Pixar. The throng around their booth was so massive I couldn’t get near them, so I wandered over to a nearly booth: Disney. I had no idea Disney was experimenting with CG animation, so I hadn’t even considered them. But I saw a couple images: one from the ill-fated American Dog and one from Rapunzel Unbraided ... these caught my attention. They were CG all right, but they looked so ... painterly ... the painter in me suddenly felt a connection. When I got home I sent out only one demo reel: to Disney. (Don’t worry – I did my time – I had previously sent out hundreds of demo reels to game companies, not fully realizing my cartoon style was NOT a desired trait in that industry). Shockingly, this demo reel brought me a series of phone interviews, followed by a series of in-person interviews, followed by my being brought to LA to help make animated movies! In retrospect, the obvious culmination of my previous exploits, yet I had always considered it too far-fetched to be an option.
Starting in Graduate School, I began developing the storyboards for my current short, The Ballad of Sinister, based on an epic poem I had written during a single stream-of conscious sitting some ten years earlier. It’s a sort of homage to my high-fantasy beginnings, but also to Omar Khayyam, and works as a parable for the human condition. I decided to take the job at Disney based on their track record for supporting employees in the making of personal short films. About a year after starting at Disney, I fell into a ragtag bunch called Shorts Club, which is an attempt by Disney Management to formalize this independent movie-making. This has proven to be both a blessing and a curse, but the blessings outweigh the curses, and I feel lucky to be in an environment of such unbounded creative energy. I’ve got a self-imposed deadline of 2010 to finish Ballad of Sinister; mainly so that I can get busy on bigger, even more grandiose films. The hardest part for me was learning how to stay focused on one project for so many years, with all these other potential projects constantly running around in my head. I keep reminding myself that the difference between the dreamers and the doers is finishing something.

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