The day after Hilde and I acknowledged our desire to be together, I flew to the 2002 Ottawa International Animation Festival. I attended a screening of “Bike Ride” and afterwards an affable man approached me; he liked my film and asked if I had representation. “What is representation?” I responded, as if beginning a discussion in an undergraduate philosophy class. He suggested that we have a drink. In a bar, John explained that he worked for Klasky Csupo, the animation studio that was best known for the “Rugrats” television series and movies. The studio also had a commercial division called Ka-Chew which represented animation directors for work on music videos, title design and television ads, pitching the styles from independent films to advertising agencies. “People make a lot of money doing this sort of work. Want to make some commercials together?” John proposed.
I signed a contract with Ka-Chew and, shortly thereafter, clips from my films appeared on their website. I braced myself for the calls from the advertising agencies . . . and waited . . . and just at the point that I forgot I was waiting, the work arrived. In my first job, I directed a series of ten-second vignettes for a Los Angeles cable television provider. I nervously drew the animation in Minneapolis, submitted work-in-progress to the ad agency via the Internet and received feedback on conference calls. My sense of anxiety was twofold. First, I was entirely self-taught. I’d had no formal fine arts training. I hadn’t been to film school. I’d never even taken a figure drawing class. I suffered the classic imposter syndrome. As an independent animator, I had been working only to satisfy my own taste and now I was seeking approval from the agency art director. She, in turn, was trying to please the client for whom she was working. Everyone in the process was working under pressure.
I reassured myself that I had been hired to do what I was uniquely qualified to do: animate in the metamorphic Bike Ride style that I had created. The popularity of the film at festivals had generated a momentary market for my style. But the second source of my anxiety arose when the illustration style began to evolve away from the minimal contour line of “Bike Ride” toward something that was distinctly more Disneyesque. I protested, at one point of exasperation in trying to get approval on character designs, that I was being pushed out of my normal technical range. Over the course of a few weeks we negotiated, fiddled, fussed, compromised and revised. The producer at Klasky Csupo assured me that this was normal on a commercial job. I eventually finished the animation and flew to Los Angeles for the post-production session.
The success of the 1990’s had placed Klasky Csupo in a four-story building on Hollywood Boulevard near the Cinerama Theater. When I first arrived in 2004, however, there were already signs of decline. One floor of the studio was entirely empty except for the activities of Igor Kovalyov and the team of animators making his film “Milch.” Kovalyov is an Ukranian director who had moved to Los Angeles to work on “The Rugrats.” Gabor Csupo championed his oblique art films, bestowing upon Kovalyov a modern Hollywood equivalent of royal patronage: a crew and the full resources of a commercial animation studio. Klasy Csupo had produced Kovalyov’s previous short “Bird in the Window” as well.
Ka-Chew assigned me a small office in a remote corner on the second floor. During my first day at the studio, John introduced me to one of the commercial producers who said, “Ah, you’re the kid from the Midwest who made that bike picture,” although we seemed to be roughly the same age.
“Yes, I made “Bike Ride.”
“Well, welcome aboard,” he shook my hand, “You are money.” He started to turn away.
“Did you say I was money?” I asked.
He turned back, surprised, “Yeah, absolutely, money!”
“Does that mean I’m good? Or maybe that I’m going to get a lot of work for the studio?”
He laughed, “You are from the Midwest!”
I never did understand in exactly what regard I was money or what my actual standing was in the L.A. animation studio. The cues of social communication were dramatically different than in Minneapolis; I had difficulty distinguishing between sincerity and irony. But I quickly gathered that, as long as I stayed on schedule and didn’t alienate the client, I was money and I would get rewarded with a lot of money.
I spent the next day in the post-production suite with the ad agency’s art director, troubling over shades of green and the size of text, while production assistants brought us bagels, orange juice and coffee, then later sushi and sake. The job was finished; hugs of the deepest respect were exchanged. I left the room with an enormous relief that I’d survived my first test in the business and I looked forward to returning to Minneapolis to start working on a new independent film with the money I’d made. John called after me down a hallway from his office, “I just had a bite from the agency in San Francisco that handles Kashi cereal. You ready to jump in immediately on another job?”
A month later, having animated a thirty-second commercial for Kashi GoLean Crunch in a similar transformative line style, I was on a plane flying to San Francisco. A green screen shoot in 35mm had been scheduled to capture the photographic elements that would be composited into my drawn animation: the GoLean Crunch box and a nugget of the cereal itself. At the time that I was directing these jobs, I was also teaching at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. For the last two and a half months I had been teaching by day at MCAD, animating by night for Ka-Chew, and not working on my own movie at all. In addition, I had realized that my status as a filmmaker was only fully confirmed for many people when they saw my commercials on television. “Bike Ride” may have played at festivals all over the world, winning multiple awards, but the ultimate confirmation of the film’s value was that the commercials it inspired had entered the margins of the mainstream during breaks from “Friends” on television. Sleep-deprived and withdrawing into an increasingly dark state of mind, I began to question the ethics of what I was doing.
With a little online research, I had found that Kashi had originated as a grass roots, back-to-essential-foods concept from Southern California in the early 1980’s. By 2004, when I was drawing commercials for GoLean Crunch, the company had been purchased by breakfast cereal giant Kelloggs. One will never see the name Kelloggs on the Kashi packaging, because the parent company intends for the consumer to associate the brand with independence and health. The ad agency had appropriated my independent animation style and had hired me to manipulate a target demographic of physically fit, college educated, politically liberal, thirty-five to fifty-year-old women. In exchange for my complicity, I was paid a good deal of money.
“And what is the commodity that I’m selling?” I asked myself as I gazed down philosophically upon the scarred, mountainous landscape of central Wyoming. “Bike Ride” had originated when I asked a student at the Arts High School how his summer vacation had been. James told me the story of the film: riding his bike fifty miles to visit his girlfriend, getting dumped and then riding his bike home. When I first heard the story, I was in the middle of my divorce from Sayer and I thought, “That’s a story everyone can relate to in some way. Everyone has made that bike ride in one form or another.” I recorded James telling his story, recorded Dave King performing a percussion improvisation in response to the story and then drew the film in response to that audio.
During the production of the film, my youngest brother’s schizoaffective disorder manifested. He lived temporarily in my animation studio while making the transition from the psychiatric ward back to independence and I paid him to work on the animation with grant money that I had received from the Minnesota State Arts Board. He painted the thicker India ink lines over the original pencil drawings. But because his hands were unstable from the medication he was taking, I assigned him the second half of the film after the protagonist has been rejected and has lost his confidence. I was pleased to find an aesthetic application in the act of helping my brother through a difficult period in his life. “Bike Ride” represented for me a complex series of social relationships that were based upon sincere, hard-won respect, with my brother, with my friend and with my student. Presently I was exploiting this delicate web of interrelationship to sell breakfast cereal for Kashi, to lie for Kellogg’s. For what, I asked myself . . . for money, because I was momentarily money.
I arrived at the studio in San Francisco and walked through the front entrance. A woman approached me and said, “No, no, you can’t come in this way. The crew enters through the garage door in back.” I shrugged and turned to leave just as the art director from the agency recognized me and said, “Oh no, that’s Tom, he’s the director.” I was unshaven, disheveled and I’m sure my expression was colored by my four-hour ethical quandary on the plane. Apologies were made and bagels offered. They led me into the green screen room to a velvet cloth upon which were laid a dozen clusters of GoLean Crunch. I flicked one off the cloth with my finger, claiming disdainfully, “I can’t work with him.” The art director laughed nervously. I was introduced to the director of photography, the camera operator, lighting designer, grips and gaffers, production assistants and the man who operated the computerized armature that would rotate the box and clusters against the green backdrop. I slouched skeptically in a chair and supervised the slow, meticulous repetitions of box rotations left to right, box rotations top to bottom, box rotations obliquely at an angle, all of the movements that had been designed into the animation I’d already drawn. At the end of every shot, the director of photography turned toward me for approval. I gave a disinterested nod of the head or wave of the hand in response, indicating, “Yes, perfect, let’s move on.” My attitude of detachment was lending an even heavier atmosphere to the already grueling process.
During the lunch break, one member of lighting crew approached me and told me how much he liked “Bike Ride.” He related his own bike story of unrequited love and his unpretentious directness reminded me of my friend Dave Herr. I asked him about his job and he said he was grateful that he had been getting continuous work lately. He had finally established connections with enough producers that he didn’t have many worrying down times in his freelance life anymore. He had been working so regularly, in fact, that he’d bought a horse for his daughter. The horse was corralled outside the city and his daughter took equestrian jumping lessons on the weekends. As the break ended, we shook hands and he added that it was nice to work on a job for someone whose work he respected.
After lunch, I sat in my chair again with a cup of tea and a sense of remorse. I watched a GoLean cluster rotating on a mechanical arm like a “Star Wars” X-Wing fighter against the oversaturated green and I pictured the man’s daughter on her horse. I felt embarrassed by my self-absorbed petulance earlier in the day. All of our creative activities are expressed through a complex system of interwoven causes and effects: social, familial, psychological, aesthetic and . . . economic. My animation was inherently part of an economic system. I may have been lying for Kellogg’s, but I also had an indirect role in providing the man’s daughter with a horse to ride. And I was liberating money from the Kelloggs Corporation with which I would pay my former students to make another movie of my own. The currency of film production is interrelationship and mutual dependency; nothing exists in an isolated, unadulterated state. The ultimate goal I realized, as it was in teaching, should be to simply treat everyone as respectfully as possible.
A final note about the social/economic nature of that production: today, in 2016, a shoot like this, which involved a dozen people working a full day and probably cost twenty-thousand dollars to stage, wouldn’t exist. A single 3D animator on a personal computer would be sent a few high-resolution images. They would model the CG assets necessary to composite the photographic elements into the drawings. The evolution of the digital tools has put the means of production in more hands, but it has also altered the economy of making films. Many of the jobs, such as the one that bought the daughter her horse, probably don’t exist today.