When I was a kid, my mother wasn't very impressed by most media. "Garbage!" she'd declare, snapping off the TV. "Pabulum."
She said we'd go to the movies, instead. Spielberg and Lucas were all the rage in child circles, but those pictures weren't my mother's cup of tea. So she'd take me down to the Bloor and we'd watch festivals of animation, motley programmes of independent shorts and experimental cartoons.
I thought to my smaller self: wouldn't it cool as ice cream to sit around all day making stuff like that? Wouldn't it be nice to be so silly and craftsy?
And I thought: I'd like to make a short cartoon shown in a festival like this.
So I did.
Er, so I did...seventeen years later.
What can I say? Things just kept coming up. For example:
The Wicked Witch of the West
First there was the Wicked Witch of the West, whose temple of craftsy disciplines admitted no animators. "Animation is not an art," she told us all -- quaking first years, visual art majors young and pimply.
Her hair was two cats tall, black and tentacled. She wore heavy makeup after an Egyptian motif. Her clothes were black and gold. She smoked like a factory, and her skin looked like naugahyde. She cried when she talked about art.
As second years we were granted our own wands, but we could only cast such spells as the West Witch ordained. I spent long hours rendering a music box out of charcoal, and then longer hours trying to coax a wooden Buddha out of wet paper.
Third year, fourth year -- still no fucking Quidditch.
By fifth year I was pretty convinced that the West Witch had no power over me. She prayed at a private altar of high art that wasn't of much interest to me (or anyone that had been laid within the last half-century, I'd wager). But instead of remembering my old interest in animation, I opted to experiment with performance and conceptual art.
Our final project: a sculpture based on theme of chair.
Some people made imitation Louis XIV wingbacks out of scrap-yard junk; others made garish chesterfield installations unaccommodating to the human form; still others made loveseats out of outlandish substances, or with unusual extensions and attachments.
Myself, I bought a beautifully tarnished rusted metal washbasin, filled with it water and labelled it in careful Letraset: ICE SCULPTURE OF CHAIR.
"Are you not entertained?"
She was not. The West Witch awarded me a zero. She cried. She said I'd turned my back on true art. She felt personally betrayed that I wasn't much interested in becoming her when I grew up. She told me my sculpture was a slap in the face to art itself, and to anyone who loved art.
The remainder of the department faculty, however, each gave me a perfect mark. The combined average was enough to win me a pass, despite the extra weight of the department head's vote.
"Delightfully Po-Mo!" cheered Mr Lolita, the cradle-robbing painting teacher. "A triumph!" croaked old Mr Queer, squinting and bobbing his head as he pulled his shawl around his bony shoulders. "Evidence of a maturing artistic vision," commented Ms Boulanger, an art historian with a chick-moustache.
I didn't have the heart to tell them that the Emperor wore no clothes.
After a brief interlude in Montreal involving a drug-crazed nymphomaniac (which is another story, and shall be told another time), I flew to Halifax to attend the prestigious Nova Scotia College of Art & Design in pursuit of a course of study designed to make this cheeseburger a Master of Fine Art.
One day during my second year, our drawing teacher was berating the unfettered inappropriate expressiveness of one particularly sensitive fop when he let loose the following pearl: "The world needs more insight into the emotional reality of a twentysomething like it needs a hole in the head."
In fact, insights into the emotional reality of a fiftysomething are in pretty low demand, too. Back home, the Wicked Witch of the West had spent every non-teaching hour hawking her abstract tableaux at the snootiest galleries, unable or unwilling to believe the stark truth: most "fans" of her work were using the paintings as investment vehicles, not as windows to sublimity.
LESSON LEARNED: if your artwork is so sophisticated and elevated that it can only be understood by other learned members of your field, your prime audience is of highly suspect value since they, like you, are but willing participants in a game where value is collaboratively hallucinated.
The next day I wrote a letter to the Wicked Witch of the West. I told her that I had finally realised what she'd been on about all those years. I told her that I now truly understood the value of fine art, and that had I finally grasped the true nature of art school.
The West Witch's reply came quickly in the owl post, seven words on golden paper: "Thank you for your gift to me."
Had I really finally grasped the true nature of art school? I had. I had indeed.
The next day I dropped out.
Of Rabbiting Age
Employment is, hands down, the single biggest obstacle to getting anything interesting done.
When I had a job, I got home by around seven o'clock each evening, but it was eight o'clock before I felt like I wasn't at work anymore. Decompressing from the day's demands took liquor and smoke, time and diversion -- by the time I was done, it was time for sensible people to sleep.
The first thing I had to jettison in order to score some decent free time was my girlfriend, a blue-eyed, giggling cowgirl from a fifteen thousand acre cattle farm in Alberta who had been working as the receptionist at the multimedia company where I worked. I was very fond her, which was one reason I wasn't willing to subject her to being ignored all the time.
"The big city really isn't your favourite place to be, anyway," I pointed out. She sat half-in and half-out of her robe, half-in and half-out of a shaft of dusty morning sunlight. She was beautiful when she was sad, that cowgirl was.
"That's true," she agreed, smiling despite tears. "I do miss the ranch."
I saved up my hard-rabbited cash and my father, ever a patron of the arts, matched me dollar for dollar. This is how I afforded my first box of animation software, a black cube decorated with a wireframe butterfly and a continuous scroll of white block letters:
WORK HARD - RENDER FAST - RETIRE YOUNG.Inside were sneak preview pictures from the upcoming digitally-muddled versions of the original Star Wars Trilogy, as well as various scenes of pixel-painted destruction from other fantasy franchises. Also, a compact disc. Also, about ten pounds of printed manuals, errata and appendices. I cracked open the first one, and browsed the first chapter which seemed, for the most part, to be written in a foreign language. "Mercy!"
In the small hours of the night I eeked along the learning curve. By day I drank coffee to keep myself from falling unconscious into the keyboard. On autopilot I would scan another photo of another homely executive, touch up the homeliest parts, resize it, send it creeping over the 10-Base-2 network to the monkeys assembling the speaker-support slides.
On the way home I rented animated movies, starting with the classics. Have you ever watched Bambi with adult eyes? It's a great movie. While I played with my computer I watched great movie after great movie, until my closed eyes bled with the details imprinted in my mind.
As the months went by the sleep deprivation and daily tedium started to get to me, and getting up in the morning became an insurmountable chore. It soon became clear having a job and spending hours making cartoons were mutually exclusive. I was making slow progress in my self-education, and my performance at my day-job was tanking. Nobody was winning.
LESSON LEARNED: You have to keep your priorities straight.
So, I quit my job.
How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?
Practise, practise, practise.
How many craptacular failures do you have to produce to get one quality short film? Myself, I had to go through about seventeen. Here is my complete and unabridged life filmography -- the entries marked with an asterisk I consider to be "solid." The rest are unadulterated guano.
1. Superball Strikes! (1 min., Claymation, 1984)
2. Attack of the Killer Amoeba (2 min., Live Action, 1985)
3. The Killer, And Polymorphable, Fly (1 min., Claymation, 1986)
4. A Long Time Ago... (3 min., Claymation, 1987)
5. The Unfriendly Killer Shark (2 min., Live Action, 1988)
6. The Adventures of Mikey & Ollie Spacey (1 hr. 9 min., Live Action, 1991)
7. L'Attaque de Capitaine Condome (30 sec., Live Action, 1992)
8. The Cult (4 min., Live Action, 1993)
9. Karma-Cola (14 min., Live Action, 1995)
10. Stories (4 min., Live Action, 1995)
11. Glum Kitchen (2 min., Live Action, 1996)
12. The Way of the Jazzman (12 min., Live Action, 1996)
13. Gabereau is Flirting (17 min., Live Action, 1997)
14. Five Dollars (1 min. 30 sec., Animation, 1998)
15. Gunther sucht die Windschutzscheibe Wischer von Magie (6 min., Animation, 1999)
16. The Bureaucrat (8 min., Animation, 1999)
17. Spacebird (30 min., Animation, 2000 - 2002)
18. The Wooden Vandal (1 min., Animation, 2001) *
17. Space Attack! (3 min., Animation, 2003) *
The lessons learned are too numerous to mention, but the gist can perhaps be summed up so: keep it simple, keep it funny, and keep it moving along. It has been nearly twenty year since I started trying, and my basket full of catastrophes is ripe with the funk of fuck-up -- but I have a good feeling about #17, I really do.
(That is: the flaws are truly minimal.)
Space Attack! is the one some other kid will see in a festival this year, and think: wouldn't it be cool as ice cream to sit around making stuff like that all day?
You know what that is, Simba? That's the fuckin' circle of life.
When Nature Attacks
I love my wife, and I love my daughter. They're good people.
And, resist as I might, I am drawn to spend oodles of time on them -- snuggling, kissing, cooing, chatting. I'm a mammal, and it shows.
I may have shoehorned the cowgirl out of my apartment with relative ease, but my wife is here to stay. She won't tolerate that sort of crap from me. She's always trying to better my person by making me put on clothes, go outside, come in contact with other human beings, and all sorts of other bothersome stuff. She has this nutty idea about creative obsessions being comingled with time off, in order to seek out some whack-ass thing she calls "balance." Women!
My daughter is no better. Just when I think I'm going to be left in peace to get up to no good in my laboratorium, my one-year-old waddles up to me and begins pulling on my pants. "Pa pa pa pa pa pa," she says.
She is clutching a nail-clipper with Hello Kitty on it, which she very generously offers to let me suck on. Her cuteness overwhelms me, and soon I'm on the floor wrestling with her. Her giggles are the fuel that fires procrastination.
In the evenings I poise myself at my computer, ready and willing to animate. "Are you coming to bed?" calls my wife from the next room.
I make an ambiguous noise, continuing to work.
"You're tired," she points out.
I mumble nothing in particular, continuing to work.
"I'm feeling...lonely," she calls, her voice dropping an octave. I know this tone of voice. I drop my mouse and bolt for the bedroom, removing my pants on the way.
There may be work to be done, but hey -- you can't fight nature.
LESSON LEARNED: Whenever possible, become a robot.
Jesus Murphy Brown
Only annoying people quote Murphy's Law, so suffice it to say that the production of Space Attack! experienced its share of temporary set-backs, which will not be detailed here due to my wish to forget them. For the record, here's a quick gloss of the production timeline for three minutes of broadcast animation with some bad luck and zero budget:
February 2002: Wrote script, saved it to a doomed drive.
March 2002: Rewrote script.
April 2002: First audio recording session, followed by accidental deletion.
July 2002: Second audio recording session, marred by a bad microphone.
August 2002: Third audio recording session.
September 2002: Fourth audio recording session, pick-ups and corrections.
November 2002: Voice track delivered to me. Sorting takes begins.
January 2003: Voice track edited and doped, ready for animation.
February 2003: Full-length rough animatic produced, to sketch out shots.
March 2003: Prototype digital puppet created. Lip-sync tests conducted.
April 2003: Prototype refined. Characters designed.
May 2003: Sets and exteriors modelled, painted.
July 2003: Animation production begins.
September 2003: Animation production complete.
October 2003: Music and foley post-production begins.
December 2003: Music and foley post-production complete.
January 2004: Master final programme, create press kits for distribution.
LESSON LEARNED: There will be no voices in my next cartoon.
Without Further Ado, CheeseburgerBrown Presents...
I eventually worked my way through all those manuals and animation books, and I eventually did get that high art monkey off my back about twentysomethings feeling pressured to create serious works. I fought off girlfriends, wives, babies and social obligations by the truckload. I have battled uncertainty and failure, poverty and erections -- the very hours, minutes and days themselves...
And I have three minutes of animation to show for it. Three minutes that I think are fairly tight. It has been invited to a couple of festivals already, and I'm submitting it to dozens more in countries all around the world (the first four tapes went out on Monday, to the Czech Republic, Austria, Latvia and the USA).
It ain't profound, but it may make you giggle. Wanna see?
SPACE ATTACK! (English / 3 min. / QuickTime Required)
And that's all I have to say about that.