After a screening of Bike Ride at the 2002 Ottawa International Animation Festival, an affable man approached me; he said that 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 best known for the Rugrats television series and movies. The studio also ran a commercial division called Ka-Chew which pitched animation directors for work on television ads. “Animators can make a lot of money. Want to make some commercials together?” John proposed.
I signed a contract with Ka-Chew and clips from my films appeared on their website. The first job arrived, a series of ten-second vignettes for a Los Angeles cable television provider. I drew the animation in Minneapolis, nervously submitted work-in-progress online and received feedback via conference calls with the Ka-Chew producer and the ad agency art director. My sense of anxiety was twofold. First, I was entirely self-taught and suffered classic imposter syndrome. I had no formal fine arts training; I’d never even taken a figure drawing class. 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 designed. The popularity of the film at festivals had created a momentary market for my individuality. But my anxiety returned when the illustration style began to evolve away from the minimal contour line of my film toward something distinctly more Disneyesque. Over the course of a few fraught weeks I fiddled, fussed, compromised and revised. The producer at Klasky Csupo assured me that this was normal. I eventually finished the animation and flew to Los Angeles for the post-production session.
After the success of the Rugrats 1990’s, the Klasky Csupo studio resided in a four-story building on Hollywood Boulevard near the Cinerama Theater. When I arrived in 2004, however, there were already signs of decline. One floor of the building was entirely empty except for the activities of Igor Kovalyov and the small 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 art films with the modern Hollywood equivalent of royal patronage: a crew and the 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 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 that I’m going to get a lot of work for the studio?”
He laughed, “You are from the Midwest!”
I spent the next day in the post-production suite with the agency art director, troubling over shades of green and the size of text, while production assistants brought us bagels, orange juice and tea, then later sushi and sake. The job was finished; hugs were exchanged. I walked out of the studio, found a shoe store a block away and bought an absurdly expensive pair of shoes to celebrate. Having survived my first test in the commercial business, I looked forward to returning to Minneapolis to start working on a new independent film with the money I’d made. When I returned to the studio to say goodbye to John, he said, “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, after drawing a thirty-second commercial for Kashi GoLean Crunch in a similar transformative line style, I sat on a plane to San Francisco. A 35mm film shoot had been scheduled to capture the photographic elements for the spot; the GoLean Crunch box and a nugget of the cereal itself. For the last two and a half months I had been teaching by day at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, animating by night for Ka-Chew and not working on my own animation at all. I also realized that I had become 'successful' in some people's eyes only when they'd seen my commercials on television. Bike Ride may have appealed to audiences all over the world because it effectively captured the feeling of unrequited love, but its value could be reduced to the commercials that resembled it, playing during breaks from Friends. Sleep-deprived and increasingly skeptical, I began to question the ethics of what I was doing.
With a little online research, I had found that Kashi began 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 wants the brand associated with independence and health. An ad agency, hired by Kelloggs, had appropriated my indie animation style and 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 lot of money.
“And what of myself am I selling?” I asked as I gazed down philosophically at the mountainous landscape of central Wyoming. The idea for Bike Ride originated when I asked then-student James Peterson how his summer vacation had been. James told me about riding his bike fifty miles to visit his girlfriend, getting dumped and then riding his bike home. At this moment, I was in the middle of my divorce from Sayer and I thought, “That’s something everyone can relate to. We all have made that bike ride in one form or another.” I recorded James telling his story, recorded drummer Dave King performing a percussion improvisation 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 hospital back to independence and I paid him to work on the animation with grant money 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 gratified to both help my brother through a difficult period in his life and to also find an appropriate aesthetic application for his work on the animation. Bike Ride represented for me a complex series of social relationships based upon sincere, hard-won respect: with my brother, with my friend Dave King and with my former student James Peterson. Presently, I was exploiting these personal connections 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, “That’s Tom, he’s the director.” I was unshaven, disheveled and my expression was likely colored by my four-hour ethical quandary on the plane. Apologies were made and they led me to a dozen clusters of GoLean Crunch on a velvet cloth. I flicked one away with my finger, saying, “I can’t work with him.” The art director laughed nervously and introduced me 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 move the box and clusters against the green screen backdrop. I slouched indifferently in a chair and supervised the slow, meticulous rotations of the cereal box left to right, top to bottom, obliquely at an angle - all of the movements that were designed into the animation I’d already drawn. At the end of every take, the director of photography turned toward me for approval. I gave a nod of the head or wave of the hand, indicating, “Yes, let’s move on.” My detachment created an even heavier atmosphere around the already over-determined process.
During the lunch break, one member of the lighting crew approached me and told me how much he liked Bike Ride. He told his own story of unrequited love and his unpretentious directness reminded me of my good friend Dave Herr. I asked him about his job and he said he was grateful that he had been getting regular work lately. He had finally established connections with enough producers that he didn’t have many down times in his freelance life anymore. He was doing so well, 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 this was a fun gig.
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 saturated green and I pictured the man’s daughter on her horse. I felt embarrassed by my attitude earlier in the day. All of our creative activities are expressed through a complex series of interwoven causes and effects: social, familial, psychological, aesthetic and . . . economic. My animation was here 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 that I would use to pay my former students as crew on another movie of my own. The currency of film production is interrelationship and mutual dependency; nothing exists in perfect isolation. The ultimate goal with this job I realized, as it was in teaching, should simply be to treat everyone as respectfully as possible.
A final note about the social/economic nature of that production: as I write this in 2016, a shoot involving a dozen people working a full day and probably costing twenty-thousand dollars to stage, wouldn’t occur. A single 3D animator on a personal computer would be sent high-resolution images of the box and the cereal clusters. They would model CG assets and composite them 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, likely don’t exist today.