Sep 24, 2006
A Calarts Rumination
the cover of the Calarts brochure for the animation program; I've been told Disney would routinely send this to anyone asking how to get a job at the studio; I've also been told that the uncredited cover drawing is by Nancy Beiman, one of the earliest students
The main hallway of the character animation department, tidied up, cleared out and ready to start the fall semester of 1989
It's fall again; school is back in session. Although I haven't been back for years, lately several events have me thinking about CalArts: the Martha Baxton auction(Martha has been been den mother and stalwart backbone of the character animation program since before my time, when she also did duty in the film school proper); meeting up with some former classmates for a lively lunch; and my friend and colleague Dave Pimentel starting his first foray into teaching(story) there.
the interior spread of student work from the Calarts 70s-era brochure
At the time I went there, 1987-1990, there was nothing else in the country that offered what CalArts did: a course specifically geared for the art of character, "Disney" animation. Canada had Sheridan, as it still does, NYU had exactly one animation class until John Canemaker began his tenure there...UCLA had a well-known set of classes, even something known as a department, run back then by Dan McLaughlin, I believe. I'd occasionally haunt that area when visiting UCLA's Melnitz theatre for the open screenings of rare films they did and still do. The room held about a dozen animation desks and the usual ephemera of student work(stacks of animation paper, peg hole-puncher, a woody smell of pencil shavings), but its overall atmosphere was more akin to that of Jules Engel's excellent and unique Motion Graphics room at Calarts than it was to the buzzing, coffee-fueled ambiance of the two floors that encompassed the Character Animation department begun by Jack Hannah and Bob McCrea, at Disney's behest, in the mid-1970s. I went on a guided tour of the Calarts campus while in high school, returning afterwards on my own to prowl the rooms without the steely eye of whatever provost gave us a 20 second glimpse of real live animation students at work. This was a time when Hannah, Bill Moore(legendary design teacher of Chouinard), T. Hee and others of the original staff ran the program, and my memory is of gingerly and (I hoped) invisibly walking around the student rooms, accompanied by someone's record player set to 78 rpm, playing a helium-infused rendition of "I Wanna Be Like You" from the "Jungle Book" soundtrack...it was heaven No one took notice of me or busted me(it was a Saturday). I chatted with Bill Berg, who was working on a film about a young kid playing jazz; he was friendly and encouraging when I told him I wanted more than anything to someday get into the school, and be an animator. Bill was obviously older than the mostly 19-23 year olds scattered around the area, and I remember being impressed that someone would commit to CalArts to be an animator after having lived an already full life(he'd talked of his own son, and his music career). Bill went on to Disney's and a long animation career, and I've never heard anyone say a negative thing about the guy, which doesn't surprise me).
Even though no one but Bill ever spoke to me or took any notice, I was ever conscious of trespassing through an inner sanctum I didn't belong to--one that loomed large in my imagination. It wasn't until about 6 years later that I myself got into the department. By then the staff was mostly very young and new, headed by Chouinard graduate and former Imagineering kid Bob Winquist. Bob had retired from running his own design firm, and sort of defaulted into taking over the character Animation department, having subbed for his old friend Bill Moore as design teacher(Bill had been terminally ill). Bob believed in having young, dynamic instructors, and we as a result got Mike Giaimo for character design, Joe Ranft for story, and Chris Buck for animation. They were all old friends who'd gone to CalArts at the same time about 7-8 years earlier, and between the three of them we lucky students had exposure to just about the entire panoply of cartoon design, idea and possibility. Which brings me to a common misconception about my alma mater that persists in some quarters to this day: the idea that there's some sort of "Calarts style", approach or "look". That wasn't the case when I was there, and I seriously doubt it's the case now. While many of the eager young faces in the first-year chairs are (understandably) in love with the legacy of the Disney studio that helped start the place, many, many others love--or prefer--everything from Hanna Barbera to George Pal to Nick Park to Warner Bros' most insane output, to UPA, to the NFB of Canada to...well, you get the drift. There are as many "Calarts styles" as there are people who've gone there--hundreds. It's just a school like any other school; teachers come and go, have a strong influence or not, students listen, absorb or rebel--it's the same everywhere.
Calarts is privileged because of its close proximity to and association with the Los Angeles animation scene, but it's really "special" because of the individuals who learned there, who come from almost every corner of the word, and who bring along all kinds of different ideas and yes, "styles".
I don't believe the character animation program ever stamped out anyone in any kind of mold. That's just my own opinion, but I can easily back it up with the example of many living, breathing animation artists working all over the world today--now joined by the graduates of over a dozen other terrific schools--Gobelins, Sheridan, Ringling, RISD, Art Center, many others--yet still, a school is in the end nothing more a set of rooms to learn in, filled with various people--the true quality of the school is up to them. My school will always have a special place in my heart because of the people I met and learned from while there--as much from my fellow students as from the teachers, which is how Bob wanted it to be, and how it always works out. Far from being in any way elitist, I found Calarts to be a place where we learned to look around, experience more than we might on our own, and pass it on.
ADDENDUM: I couldn't think of a way to work it into this post, but a piece on CalArts wouldn't be complete without a reference somewhere to A 113. So there it is.
the swanky accommodations of CalArts' animation department, circa Fall of 1989: you got an ex-Filmation animation desk and a chair. The formcore dividers, sheets and other bric-a-brac were up to you. This is my 2nd year space, the back wall of the overlooking mezzanine above the design room. I've got a video printout of Daffy Duck in Bob Clampett's "Book Revue", Ernie Kovacs, a drawing Chris Buck did to help me, and some xeroxes of Colonel Haithi on the back wall there, among other things.