The past 5 decades have taken me from Cleveland to China, with plenty of mileage in between. My CV is available on LinkedIn. Here is my STORY…
THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE
Growing up in Ohio, I dreamed of being an artist or a scientist, and my eventual career in animation proved a hybrid of both. As a kid I loved reading, drawing, making comics, creating puppet shows and participating in role-playing games.
My parents encouraged my interests, but were a bit concerned when I decided to pursue the arts as a career. My guidance counselors at St. Ignatius High School were more than concerned, and did their level best to convince me to enroll in Yale, Harvard or Stanford instead of the Cleveland Institute of Art.
I was accepted into the CIA on a talent scholarship in 1984, and won every award available to a Painting major – including a traveling scholarship upon graduation.
Then I stepped face-first into the real world and began my career as a starving artist – initially in Houston as an artist-in-residence at the Glassell School, and back in Cleveland after the Texas heat became unbearable.
Working days painting houses and cleaning basements while trying to squeeze art-making into the evenings got old fast. Law graduates became lawyers, medical graduates became doctors, but art graduates supported their “hobbies” like drug habits. There had to be a way to earn a living from the visual and conceptual skills acquired at art school. Teaching seemed like a viable option until I saw my resume placed at the bottom of a pile of applicants with master’s degrees.
A NEW DIMENSION
I had seen Pixar’s LUXO JR. in film festivals and was blown away. But it seemed more on the order of rocket science than something I could do. On the advice of a friend, I took a class in Photoshop at Cuyahoga Community College. I loved it: it was accessible, and the computer-mediated processes appealed to my art-making approach.
In short order, I evacuated my painting studio in Cleveland and applied the rent money to an Amiga 3000 running Imagine 1.0 (an early 3D animation package). I remember the thrill of creating and rendering my first surface-of-revolution. Suddenly, this new medium that I was seeing in film festivals and in mouthwash commercials didn’t seem so inaccessible. As I watched THE MAKING OF TERMINATOR 2 on TV one night, I saw the ILM artists collaborating on the digital effects and thought to myself: “I have to be a part of this.”
I began looking into graduate schools. A former instructor from the CIA suggested the Ohio State University. As a native Ohioan, I associated three things with the words “Ohio State”: football, corn and cows. But it turned out OSU also had one of the world’s first (and best) interdisciplinary digital media facilities: The Advanced Computing Center for the Arts & Design, founded by CGI pioneer Chuck Csuri.
My visit to ACCAD was overwhelming and invigorating. The interdisciplinary environment literally buzzed with energy, and viewing the student demo reel was equivalent to watching a moon landing. Things were happening at ACCAD that I hadn’t seen anywhere else. I was determined to get in.
I returned to Cleveland under advice to learn the C programming language, and signed up for a course at Tri-C. The instructor bluntly explained that I must learn Basic first, but I told him there wasn’t time: I was applying for graduate study in computer animation. He snorted and admitted me (and then felt vindicated when I began the first class with my floppy disk inserted backwards).
I got an “A” in the class and prepared my graduate school applications. My top two choices were Ohio State and Cal Arts. I also applied to two “safety” schools. My portfolio consisted almost entirely of traditional artwork, accompanied by a personal statement explaining my ongoing transition into digital media. Ohio State and Cal Arts accepted me, while my safety schools rejected me.
Cal Arts extended no financial aid but OSU offered a full ride, so I began graduate studies at ACCAD through the OSU School of Art as a Graduate Teaching Assistant. I was one of the first two Art students admitted into ACCAD, and given wide latitude in structuring my own course of study. To the delight of some and the chagrin of others, I sequestered myself in the ACCAD facility and absorbed everything I could about computer-generated imagery & animation. I extended the standard two-year course of study to three in order to finish my MFA thesis film, and left OSU as the second Art School candidate in its history to receive a Graduate Teaching Award for outstanding classroom instruction.
GO WEST, YOUNG MAN
I attended my first SIGGRAPH as a student volunteer in 1993. The conference was yet another eye-opener, and I pinched myself because I was now looking at this cutting-edge community of artists, technicians, researchers & academics from the inside out instead of the outside in. I returned to SIGGRAPH in 1994 – demo reel in hand – and emerged with an offer to work as a Technical Director at Boss Film Studios in Los Angeles. (Incredibly, I asked if they could wait a few months while I completed my degree, and the job was still waiting for me when I finished.)
My stint at Boss was short but sweet. I worked on digital creature effects for SPECIES (starring the first CG character to be directed in real-time) under the mentorship of VFX legend Richard Edlund. The shop was still creating a mix of digital and practical effects, and I loved to check out what was going on in the water tank or with the motion control camera.
The industry-wide shift from practical to digital ultimately did Boss Film in, as millions of dollars of optical equipment sat under wraps with payments due. Boss laid off half its staff in late 1995. Being at-will and not looking forward to the other shoe, I signed on with Walt Disney Feature Animation.
My years at WDFA were nothing short of incredible. I started out modeling & rigging Disney’s first CG lead character on “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” sequence of FANTASIA 2000 and worked my way up to CG supervisor on its first full-CG feature, CHICKEN LITTLE. Along the way, I spent time in visual development, contributed to Disney’s digital human initiative, and created creature VFX for DINOSAUR and REIGN OF FIRE. The opportunity to go from cartoony to photoreal and back under the same roof (figuratively speaking) was remarkable. I loved the creative atmosphere, the pervasive artwork and the sometime fitful, always fruitful collaboration of traditional & digital artists.
Major shifts continued across the industry and at The Walt Disney Company during my 12 years there. Disney bought ABC. Pixar started a revolution with TOY STORY and was eventually acquired by Disney. Katzenberg started DreamWorks. Feature Animation Northside came and went. Circle 7 came and went. Disney shuttered its animation facilities in Paris, Australia and Florida and re-trenched in Burbank, where WDFA shrank to 600 employees. The traditional animators were hit hard as hand-drawn features fell by the wayside. I saw four different Feature Animation presidents and two Disney CEOs. Interesting times, indeed.
When I arrived at Disney back in 1995, I embarked upon an informal self-education program: visiting different artists, CG modelers & technical directors and asking how they did what they do. As CHICKEN LITTLE wrapped in 2005, I did the same thing “above the line”: making a list of every producer, director and executive I could think of and asking them to lunch – starting with producer Don Hahn and ending one year later with executive Dick Cook. I began each conversation with two basic questions: “What in your background helped your career the most?” and “What aspect of your job do people understand the least?” The education I received from these generous folks could fill a book.
I had a purpose in mind: I wanted to produce my own animated features. During my 12 years at Disney, I was also teaching evening classes at Cal Arts, co-creating animated short films (such as the award-winning HENRY’S GARDEN) and running the non-profit Animation Co-op. The scope of these activities expanded my appetite and my aspirations.
GO EAST, OLD MAN
Under the auspices of my Animation Options startup, I spent the following year as an international animation consultant – traveling (more than I would recommend) throughout Europe, Asia and parts in-between. The ability to think on my feet was more important than ever, and my year of classes at Bang Improv Studio proved quite useful on this front. Most significantly, I got a direct view into the so-called “emerging markets” and their associated emerging industries. A wave was coming, and I thought better to surf it than be hit by it.
Accordingly, when speaking engagements in Taiwan & mainland China led to an invitation to teach at the Beijing Film Academy and consult on an animated feature film, I took the plunge and moved wholesale to Beijing in the fall of 2008. In Chinese, the words for “crisis” and “opportunity” are closely related, and this certainly characterized my first few years in China’s animation industry. In many ways it is the new “Wild West”: complete chaos filled with crackling energy and endless possibilities. Never a dull moment, to say the least.
I co-founded Magic Dumpling Entertainment with my Chinese colleagues Yi Yan and Wen Feng in 2009, focusing on original Chinese IP development at a time when it was little understood or respected in mainland China (and watching that attitude change in just three short years as the Chinese film & animation industries barreled ahead). I spoke at conferences across China, pitched projects such as STONE COLD LION and TOFU BOY in venues ranging from Kidscreen to the American Film Market, and was gratified to see that cross-cultural resonance was truly possible. (Indeed, Magic Dumpling received more foreign press than Chinese press in its formative years.)
In addition to my company’s own developments, I continued my consulting: most notably on Africa’s first stereoscopic animated feature ZAMBEZIA and China’s first stereoscopic animated feature LEGEND OF KUNG FU RABBIT. In 2011, I received the Beijing Great Wall Friendship Award for my service as the first foreign guest professor in the Animation School of the Beijing Film Academy.
With 2012 designated as China’s “Culture Year”, interest in Magic Dumpling’s approach to content continued to grow. Each day brought something new and unexpected, culminating in…
THE CIRCLE OF LIFE
…my return to The Walt Disney Company in November 2012 as VP & Head of Creative, Local Content, Greater China: a hybrid of Disney magic and China energy. Over the next few years we assembled a world-class Chinese content development team in Beijing, introduced Disney creative processes & standards, spoke at Chinese media conferences, engaged in community outreach with Chinese schools & institutions, consulted on local productions, developed ten original & adapted local animation & live-action properties and produced four popular local broadcast series including STONE COLD LION, which was released as Disney’s first original TV Chinese co-production: BAN JIN BA LIANG. It was a mad dash with a stellar team, and I loved (almost) every crazy minute of it!
A NEW REALITY
Of course, interests converge and diverge. All good things must come to an end, to make room for new paths to bigger and better things. In the summer of 2015, I left Disney for the second time to resume my independent ventures in China. My growing interest in immersive media led to my bi-weekly blog on Animation World Network, REALITY BITES, and a return engagement with the Beijing Film Academy as Founder & Executive Director of the International Animation & Virtual Reality Research Center and Distinguished Professor & Acting Vice Dean of the BFA’s new Digital Media School.
My new round of adventures in the Middle Kingdom were profiled in a segment on Tianjin TV’s CHINA RIGHT HERE program.
In 2017, I left academia to spend more time in the field, developing animated features and immersive media as a founding Partner of the new Magic Dumpling Entertainment. Concurrently, late-life fatherhood inspired the creation of children’s books under my Peewee Frog shingle. My first books, THE EARLY BIRD GETS THE WORM and BONNY BUNNY’S BABY BROTHER were published in 2018, with two more following in 2019.
I’m currently producing, executive producing and consulting on a variety of projects – from the animated feature film HIDDEN IN THE PEACH BLOSSOM GARDEN, to the live-action feature film MY FAVORITE SEASON, and the WALK IN CHINA interactive VR series – while exploring the future of AI entertainment. Whether the printed page or virtual reality, the common thread is my love of storytelling.
Creativity has never been a job for me, but a passion. I’ve enjoyed an eclectic career that has taken me around the world in various roles as artist, animator, technician, teacher, consultant, entrepreneur, producer, executive and author.
I can’t wait to see what’s next. 🙂