Zubby Newsletter – November 6, 2000 – Toon Up

It was the best.

My weekend trip to Los Angeles was one of the best times I’ve ever had. It was an adventure, but it also helped me further my drawing ability and my career. It was an incredible opportunity to make contact with the industry as a professional and really see what it’s all about. I’ve had an incredible year out here and this is just more proof of it.

So many times while I’ve been teaching, I’ve felt separated from the animation industry. Calgary’s not exactly an animation Mecca, and it’s easy to feel beyond the fringe of the real work out here. The weekend made me feel a part of the bigger picture and helped me to see that the animation community is small, tight-knit and very social with each other.

I’ll start at the beginning. Dashing from class on Friday to the airport was fun and frantic. A big dinner with my boss Bohdan and I boarded the plane. Bohdan joked that I should skip the conference and just look for the nude beaches, but that’s just his way. During the flight, I was excited but it hadn’t sunk in. I had a great conversation on the plane with a couple Calgarians who were heading for a holiday. Even though I was telling them about my job and career, the whole trip and heading to LA didn’t even feel real yet.

I stayed at the Radisson West Side hotel. It was on the outskirts of the city, so it was surrounded by more highways rather than actual city life. The hotel itself was quite nice. I’ve never traveled and had my own hotel room, so that was quite strange as well. Being called “Mr. Zubkavich” by all the hotel staff was kind of funny. Sometimes I would get this feeling of being a kid with way too much responsibility. Going to a conference at age 24 is quite strange.

Of course, Friday night I could barely sleep at all. It was 4:00 in the morning and I was totally wired and a bit nervous. Checking into the hotel made me realize where I was. Of course, the warm weather and smog was a good indicator as well. The air in LA had a texture to it and was slightly unpleasant. I appreciated the fact that I could wear shorts all the time, but the feeling of air pollution wasn’t so impressive.

Saturday morning, I stumbled awake at 7:00am and couldn’t get back to sleep. After a hot shower and some breakfast, I felt mostly human. A quick taxi ride and I was at the studio. Even though I got there half an hour early, there was already a few people waiting as well.

Almost any industry is based on what you can do and “who you know”. Entertainment is even more heavily based on connections. The nice thing about art and entertainment is that the people that work there usually have similar interests. Honestly, most of us are geeks at heart and we love talking shop. Although I was nervous introducing myself for the first little bit, once I got used to it, it was very easy. Everyone was eager to talk about what they did in the industry and what else was going on around us. It reminded me of that feeling I got at residence when I realized that there were a lot more people just like me. It felt right and I knew, once again, that animation is where I belong. And then, of course, there was Don Bluth…

If someone had asked me how I thought Don Bluth would act, I wouldn’t have had a clue. This is a man who has had his studio crumble underneath him three times. His career has been a strange series of twists and turns. In the mid-eighties, people wondered if Don Bluth would overtake Disney in the box office. You have to remember that this was long before The Little Mermaid and Disney’s animated domination of the nineties. How would he act? Would he be bitter and tired of the industry? Did he resent Disney or Fox for their treatment of him?

The answer was oddly simple. He was one of the nicest and most giving people I have ever met. He seemed incredibly calm and totally at peace with the many ups and downs he’s experienced. Don Bluth is 63 years old and has been a part of the animation industry for 45 of those years. He’s worked with some of the best this medium has ever seen and had the strength to leave Disney and strike out on his own. With all of these things, he’s still humble, down to Earth and reasonable. No ego, no fake Hollywood aura. He was incredibly real and totally inspiring.

Don Bluth teaching on stage.

I was surprised at how little he spoke about drawing theory. That may sound disappointing, but it wasn’t. All of the drawing theories he covered I knew for the most part, but the parts that really cut to the core were when he discussed attitude and the visualization process that takes place before you draw. It may have been zen-like and artsy, but it all made sense and really made me think. I watched him draw with phenomenal confidence and I knew that if I could understand the way he prepared for drawing, I would be one step further to drawing with that strength. Drawing isn’t just technical skills and we’re not just mechanics. The drawings have to have feeling. If I learned one thing this weekend, it was that. Even though I knew this before, he really brought the concept home and I felt like I had a real grasp on it.

Lunch was part of the conference. I figured we’d be eating hot dogs and hamburgers over a barbeque or something. Here’s a hint: in California, even casual meals have exotic salads and ingredients. Strange dips, prawn shrimps and fruit salads made up the meal. It was really nice, but a little warped.

Saturday night I needed to explore. Vegging out at the hotel (even though I was tired) was not an option. I grabbed a taxi and headed to West Hollywood. Some people may think that wandering Los Angeles is stupid, but I stuck to well lit areas. I had to see more, I had to take in the whole place. Strangely enough, it wasn’t as dramatic as I thought it would be. Take the stranger parts of Toronto, make it 40 blocks instead of 4 blocks, add in more grime and a couple more people swearing at each other. That’s about it. I knew there wouldn’t be stars everywhere or Hollywood perfection. I just figured it would be more impressive on some level. Maybe I just wasn’t in the right area…

After I got back to the hotel after midnight, my legs hurt and finally, I could sleep. Sunday morning was wonderful as I woke up well rested and got ready for the conference.

Sunday was about half drawing theory and half question and answer time with Don Bluth. Unbelievably, he’s preparing to start another feature film. He’s completely undaunted by previous short comings and is full speed ahead to create again. That in itself was an inspiration. Hearing the stories of his career and what he’s learned really set some things straight for me. I’ve got a clearer view of my goals and what I want to do.

Jim and Don Bluth

I met so many great people: A Disney animator who worked under Glenn Keane, several animators who work for Electronic Arts, a Sega video game animator, storyboard artists, special effects people, motion capture specialists and an animator from Japan who worked on some of my favorite Hayao Miyazaki films. The weirdest part was everyone there telling me I spoke with a strange accent…

After exchanging contact info with everyone, getting Don Bluth and Gary Goldman to sign my original Secret of NIMH poster and checking out of the hotel, I was on my way back home. The flight back went quickly and the only part I didn’t like was entering the chilly -8 Calgary climate.

And last night, I could barely sleep again. So, I’m typing this up in a giddy, sleepy haze. I’m heading home from work a little early today to grab some rest. I’m sure I’ve missed bits, but that’s the trip in a nutshell. I’ve got a roll of film to get processed and when I do, I’ll post the photos for everyone to check out.

November was originally going to be a lazy month. Now, it’s looking like one of the most exciting of the year. I’ll be in touch.

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