How Pixar Made Me a Better Photographer

 

Well, Happy Belated Birthday to me! 50 - a milestone.

Here’s another one.

This year, 2014, marks my 27th year of mostly gainful employment in the animation profession. It has been fun, frustrating, and difficult at times, and one cannot deny — exciting!

Animation has taken me from my home in Toronto to Los Angeles for several years working in Hollywood, overseas to India for a short stint, and because of the nature of the business, has given me the luxury of being able to work on international commercials and feature films from the confines of my desk at home. No passport required.  

Looking back on your own career you might discover a defining moment, something of consequence. Something that was responsible for altering the course of your life-path.  What form this “event”  took might not be readily obvious at the time. 

It could have manifested itself through advice, a chance connection in passing, a divorce, or a job offer.  Most of us will look for a positive moment, but in hindsight, it is the negative occurrences that are the real game changers. And that is the story here.


Reflecting on my own past, the job that got away is the one that came to define who I have become creatively today. Slowly revealing itself over the last decade, I have begun connecting the “dots” in my life. I refer back to Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement speech in 2005 for context.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

For every job I was awarded there are those I turned down. And there were many. Education positions in Costa Rica and India at their national universities. A medical animation position at a hospital in Saudi Arabia, and further education at NYIT back in the late '80's after graduating from Sheridan. It makes me wonder how different things could have been if I said yes to any of those offers.

For my own reasons I turned them all down, even when facing the prospect of unemployment. I chose instead to follow my gut, never regretting the decision.

It's one thing to be employed and looking actively to better your future. As artists we strive to get better, grow, work on better projects, push our skills, and hone our craft. But it’s another thing altogether when you are unemployed and the immediacy of needing to find work takes precedence over anything else, especially when you have bills to pay. The longer the wait the more you feel like your skills are deteriorating, and the harder it becomes to explain to people why are you not employed.

Seeing that “gap” on the resume and constantly reassuring yourself it will somehow all work out, the longer unemployment drags on, the more defeated you become.

Because of circumstances, the advent of the new millennium, year Y2K, was my year off, and while it was somewhat planned (money not really an issue) it was going to be a much tougher go than I imagined.  

My contract at Dreamworks Animation was finished at the end of 1999. Two films in the can, one great experience, one not so much.  When the studio at the time chose to “restructure” many of the employees hired when the doors first opened in 1995 would be gone, at least in the department I was apart of.

I was thankful to have been there at the beginning. It remains to this very day one of the most enriching times in my animation career. But at that point, as I had grown tired of the studio, it simply was not a fun place to work. DreamWorks animation to me, had lost its way, or as I have often said, "forgot their roots", as short as they were at that time.

Sitting in a room waiting for my fate, one door meant onto another film, the other door, as I found out, sent you on your way.

“There’s no place for you here.” And like that, my dream of working for a major Hollywood studio was over, and the long road ahead into the unknown was about to begin.

From my own life experience, I have always managed to turn a negative into a positive. 


All my years freelancing in Toronto taught me many things. It made me realize nothing was going to last forever, and I saw how the “Hollywood” money during the 90’s was changing people. Who needed three cars, a ridiculous oversized rental house and frivolous spending sprees? I bettered my skills, worked with some photographers, went to UCLA and the American Film Institute for journalism and screenwriting and did my first group photography exhibition in Venice Beach, The Black and White 100. (where my entry placed)

Essentially I was investing in myself.

The year 2000 closed and as 2001 descended, things got difficult. Work was piecemeal at best, and very sparse, the animation industry was changing. Computer generated (CG) films were the new flavour and dynamics were put in motion.

The year began, however, on a positive note, with a phone call from a colleague requesting that I submit a portfolio to Pixar. Not just any portfolio either, but a body of photographic work geared towards storytelling and shot design.

It was an interesting time for Pixar. Fresh off the success of Monster's Inc., CG animated films were still few, but story was the driving factor to their success. Pixar movies, like Disney in the early 90’s were events when they arrived at the theater. Dreamworks was still reeling from the success of Shrek and the animation business was again growing as the focus was definitely heading towards pixel over pencil.

I don't know what it’s like now at Pixar. Very different, I expect, now that Disney owns them. Interviewing at that time was no easy task. It seemed like countless interviews and phone calls.

After my initial portfolio submission, I understand ten were chosen to advance to the next round. Phone interviews soon followed (several actually). If you impressed in the phone interviews, it led to more follow-ups, very much like a casting call. Eventually, it came down to the "meet and greet" or what I refer to as the “nutbar test.” Let’s make sure we aren’t hiring some psychotic!  A quick flight to Oakland on my birthday (March 23), a cab to Emeryville and a half-day being interviewed by HR and some artists made for an exhausting and inspiring day at Pixar Headquarters.

I still to this day cannot forget one of the interview questions, which interestingly is the subject of many an article I have read online of late documenting the more unusual questions being asked.

 One artist asked me, “If you could have an unlimited amount of money to make a movie based on any artist’s painting, who would it be.”

Without batting an eye, I said “William Blake.”

Their response. “Who?’

So much for thinking outside the box.

 

Unknown to most people at the time, besides interviewing with Pixar I had applied to a hospital in Saudi Arabia, in Riyadh, to do medical animation and it was an equally long process. One-week things moved to another stage with Pixar, another week things moved along with the recruiter for the hospital overseas, and all the while, my bank account was draining dry.

It was now May 2001. The phone rang.

OH MY!!

OH MY!!

 An offer finally came from Pixar. A little back and forth with salary and benefits and soon after a deal memo arrived. One page. Far from the 40+ pages I had while at DreamWorks. With a signature on the dotted line, I was now a Pixar employee gearing up to work on a film called Finding Nemo and a start date in September.

 I celebrated.  Who wouldn't? I was ecstatic, proud; this was another kick at the can working for a benchmark studio in our industry. A leader. On top of the world!

So I did what most people would do, I went to Africa for a month. And just like that I was gone.

I was thankful. Someone put my foot in the door, and the rest was up to me. To this very day I do this for others, people sometimes need a break and I always remember what others have done for me.

It was the beginning of August 2001, back only four days from Africa, after a spectacular month of photography, I needed to begin plans to find a place and move north to San Francisco.

I rang Pixar to make arrangements but there was lots of confusion on the phone and I was transferred to someone else.

It has been more than a decade since that early morning call. I don't remember the exact words of the person I spoke with, but it was something to the effect of, "we're sorry but there's been a change in the studio’s pipeline and your position has been eliminated, but thank you."

It was like someone had died. I hung up.

I understood this was simply part of the business. But now what?

OH NO!!!

OH NO!!!


We all set goals for ourselves, sometimes-lofty ones. In animation, Disney, DreamWorks, Pixar, ILM were the benchmarks, the brass ring for most at the time.  They still are for many unsuspecting students who think this is the only way you will be accepted in your career. To achieve the status of working for the "big studios" can give you the sense of accomplishment, success. They open doors, the circle widens, but there is so much more out there if you let it come to you.

The position at the hospital in Saudi Arabia was awarded to me shortly after the Pixar job was gone, but when 9/11 hit, well the world changed forever, and being in the hot bed of the Middle East was not a place I wished to call home, even if it would be only temporary.

I regretfully said no to the job offer in Riyadh.

So there I was again. No job, no opportunities. It was a scary time.   

             Gary Owens, Fred Crippen and Blake Snyder at the release of the Roger Ramjet DVD set        photo by Paul A. Teolis

Just prior to the Pixar job offer, I had the pleasure of meeting Hollywood screenwriter Blake Snyder of Roger Ramjet fame, among other successes. I had read his live-action version of Roger Ramjet that was being pitched and he wanted a special effects breakdown. I was happy to do it. (The script by the way was fantastic.)

Now with no job prospects, I rang Blake up, broke to him the unfortunate news about Pixar and would then spend what would be my remaining six months in Los Angeles working with him. It was like taking a story development, pitching and writing boot camp rolled into one and from a very talented screenwriter. We remained close friends for many years afterwards, and I watched as Blake revived his own writing career, now as author of the incredibly successful Save The Cat series of books.  

Multiple projects with Blake were eventually put on hold, and with nothing else on the horizon, the clarity to leave happened early one morning in June of 2002.  I packed up and left Los Angeles for good and have never returned.

When news came of Blake's sudden death in the summer of 2009, it left a huge void among all of us who he shared so much of his writing and creative talent. He was 51.  He never gave up pursuing what he loved, reminding me years earlier the power of a 'hungry" artist.


I've worked now for DreamWorks, animated on films from Disney's Paris studio, and can even add Pixar to my resume without ever producing one pixel at the studio, because this experience proved to me that I had the stuff to work there. 

Over the past dozen years while I have reinvented myself within animation and from a photography standpoint, nothing would have happened if Pixar had panned out.  

As I can look back and connect all of my dots, I have had more than twenty-five solo and juried photography exhibitions since returning to Toronto in 2002. Gallery representation, my first major photography award in 2006, and four others within animation as part of a successful creative team. Now I am adding workshops, lecturing and my first awarded international artist residency in the Arctic in 2013 can be added to these accomplishments. Gear sponsorship for all my recent expeditions provided by Canon Canada. My first self-published book going to print this coming fall. It's been an incredible time.

In 2012 I launched the photographer-in-residency program on board a wonderful ship, the M/S Expedition, owned by a fantastic Canadian company, G Adventures that I discovered in 1993 and have stayed connected to ever since.  I return to Antarctica this fall again for my third season, and there is so much more still ahead.

People ask me if I want to return to Hollywood. The answer is easy. No. Because as I say to people, “This is my time!” 

So here I am at fifty. I just set foot in my fiftieth country this past April, and the irony is it was again in Africa, Sierra Leone of all places. The context was enjoying the role of working as an expedition photographer as I journeyed up the west coast of the continent. By mid May, I sit near sixty countries visited, but who's counting.


So what have I learned from all this?

Don't let that lost moment define you. Define that moment! Learn from it, don’t dwell, just move on. And most importantly don’t let others define you.

Find your own voice and define yourself!

 

                                                            King Penguin Colony - Salisbury Plain, South Georgia Island