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The Animated Scene: For You, Ryan

Joseph Gilland puts aside his usual column to reflect upon the recently departed Ryan Larkin, whom he considered a great friend and inspiration.

Joseph Gilland (left) with Ryan Larkin. Courtesy of Joseph Gilland.

Joseph Gilland (left) with Ryan Larkin. Courtesy of Joseph Gilland.

My inspiration, my mentor, my partner in crime, my friend, and my daily reminder. May your gentle soul rest in peace.

A lot has been written about Ryan since Chris Landreths amazing (and to some disturbing) film by the same name was shown in festivals around the world. Today, in Ryans honor, Id like to write about the profound effect that he had on my life. Partly out of my profound love and respect for the man, and partly because so much of what I have heard and read about him these last couple of years has seemed to completely miss the point of this gentle mans life story.

In 1966, at the ripe young age of eight years old, I saw a film that forever changed my life. That film was called Fantasia and, in particular, it was the Sorcerers Apprentice segment of that film that caught my imagination. Even at that tender age, it awoke within me a sense of awe, of magic and imagination, and animation had me thoroughly in its grip. I was destined to animate from that moment on. I knew it was what I wanted to do, but I knew very little about how I might go about it.

Then, in 1971, at the awkward age of 13 years old, I saw another animated film that would transform my life even more, and set me firmly on the course that I have followed to this day. That film was Ryan Larkins Walking. My high school art teacher rented a 16mm copy from the National Film Board of Canada, and screened it for us during our art class. As I watched the gorgeous images and movement unfold before my eyes, I knew I was seeing my destiny. Here was an animated film that, like Disneys Fantasia, entirely mesmerized me and brought me into a world of magic, but this time, the drawings and paintings that I was seeing looked like something I might actually be able to draw myself.

Now I could see the paper, feel the pencil, pen and brush strokes, and animation suddenly became something that was accessible to me. Unlike the deeply technical and almost staggeringly complex images in Fantasia, which for me at the time were impossible to recreate, Ryans Walking showed me an art form that I could dig right into, a world I could enter with the simple tools of the average artist, paper, ink, and paint.

I shared my excitement with my high school art teacher, and she told me that she would do whatever she could to find out how I might actually make an animated film. However, for the next four years, nothing ever really materialized. I created countless little animation flipbooks, but it wouldnt be until I got into the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, School of Art and Designs three-year animation course, that I was finally introduced to the light table, the pegbar and the paper flipping.

The year was 1975, and my life as an animator got off to a pretty good start. My first student film, completed in 1976, was so heavily influenced by Ryan Larkins work, that it was fairly obvious, at least to me. Like Ryans Walking, I riffed on a walk cycle I had created. Using cutout masks and various painting methods, I splattered and water colored, and sketched, and did simple camera tricks, to milk all I could get out of my one simple walk cycle, creating a strobing kaleidoscope of images, without much real story behind it. I did animate a kind of short intro to my walk cycle, introducing my character, who was a cartoony fellow with his brain popping out of the top of his head, and I called the effort, The Fool on the Hill.

So between Ryan and the Beatles I completed a strange little student film, that was the springboard into a long career in animation. Thankfully, the single 16mm copy I had of the film was long ago destroyed or lost, or something, and I havent had to see it or show it to anyone since. I do not even possess one scrap of artwork from the film. Only my teachers and colleagues from that time can actually vouch for me that such a film ever existed!

In Annecy 2004, the film Ryan by Chris Landreth was screened. All Ryan images © 1380098 Ontario Inc./National Film Board of Canada.

In Annecy 2004, the film Ryan by Chris Landreth was screened. All Ryan images © 1380098 Ontario Inc./National Film Board of Canada.

For the next four years, I worked on and off at the National Film Board of Canada in Montreal on several interesting short animated film projects, with some of Canadas top animation directors like Ron Tunis, Michel Hébert, Ishu Patel and Jacques Drouin. It was a wonderful period in my career, I was young and enthusiastic, and working on projects I loved and believed in. At the NFB at that time, Ryan Larkins name was spoken in hushed tones. There were all kinds of rumors about how he had lost it, or worse yet, that he never really had it to begin with. I heard so many stories, I didnt know what to believe. What was clear was that he had not been able to stay there, he had stopped making films, and he had developed a heavy dependency on alcohol and drugs.

In 1980, I was calling around my little animation community from the film board and my teachers at school, looking for new work. I was sent to an address in Old Montreal, where I met Gerry Potterton, who was a well-known animation director in Canada. Gerry had been hired to direct the feature film Heavy Metal, The Movie and was just beginning to get staffed up. Although my experience was relatively limited, I was in the right place at precisely the right time, and I began working on storyboards and designs for the film immediately.

Gerry was impressed with the fact that I just happened to have the entire collection of Heavy Metal magazine covering a three-year period, and I was completely familiar with the artists, stories and illustration styles of the magazine. At that time we were only two artists in a posh loft studio in the cobblestone backstreets of Old Montreal, working on what was going to turn into a massive feature film undertaking.

An undated early photo of Ryan Larkin at work. © National Film Board of Canada. All rights reserved.

An undated early photo of Ryan Larkin at work. © National Film Board of Canada. All rights reserved.

A couple of weeks later, Gerry asked me if I would be interested in working with Larkin on a storyboard he was doing for the Heavy Metal movie, for a segment of the film that Ryan was going to direct. Well, I was too excited to even react. In my world, Ryan was the most important animation filmmaker alive. And here I was, being given directions to his home, where I was to go at once and introduce myself to Ryan as his new storyboard assistant. Damn! I was excited beyond description, and nervous too. And then there I was at Ryans house, and he was just a very sweet, extremely gentle little guy, who put me at ease from the very first moment. There was no pretension in his manner or his tone, he addressed me as a fellow artist, and he seemed as humble as can be.

The story that Ryan was boarding and was to direct for the movie, was called Shells and was written and illustrated by the Belgian artists François and Luc Schuiten. It had appeared in the June 1977 edition of the Heavy Metal magazine, and I knew it well. It was one of my favorite stories I had ever read in the magazine. In it, a young couple living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where they have to wear protective shells over their entire bodies, decide to take off their shells to make love, and they are subsequently devoured by swarming insects. A lovely little yarn.

In the following weeks and months, I learned more about drawing, storyboarding, storytelling and filmmaking than I had in the previous five years. Ryan opened me up to a whole new way of seeing and thinking. His imagination was powerful and dynamic, and constantly shifting with ideas, firing off too fast to keep up with them. Ryan constantly tripped over his words, as if his brain was going faster than his tongue, and I was a captive and willing audience, eyes and ears opened. I was only 22 years old, Ryan was 14 years older than me, and I always felt I was in the company of a genius, albeit a madman of sorts too.

But if there was one thing I had learned in art school, it was to pay attention, and be ready when teachers and lessons appear. I was a captive student to Ryan, always enthusiastic, excited and at full attention, and this seemed to fire him up as well. Ryan and I worked closely together in his home for a couple of months, becoming lifelong friend in the process, and sharing a lot of our hopes, dreams, doubts and fears with each other.

Ryans Walking set Joseph Gilland on his journey to animation. © National Film Board of Canada. All rights reserved.

Ryans Walking set Joseph Gilland on his journey to animation. © National Film Board of Canada. All rights reserved.

We were also both hypersensitive artists, with easily pushed buttons. The wicked ways of the world shocked and baffled us, and we were both prone to seeking refuge in various forms of highly imaginative escapism. Unfortunately, the escape mechanisms of alcohol and drugs were all too accessible, and it was a bit of a problem from the get go. I had been warned that Ryan had a propensity to get into his drinking a little early in the day, but I didnt really mind too much. I came from a world filled with people who liked drinking early in the day, and I wasnt exempt from the temptation myself, although I was being a little more cautious than Ryan at the time. I became a sort of a babysitter for dear Ryan.

His common law wife, Jean, with whom he was living at the time, would tell me before leaving for work in the morning, not to get him any beer, what ever I do. But early in the afternoon, Ryan would broach the subject, and inevitably I would be sent to the corner store to pick up some beer. I would sip cautiously, feeling guilty and like there was too much at stake, but Ryan would get pretty buzzed, and frequently break into his angry rants about business and money, very similar to his outburst in the film that Chris Landreth would create some 25 years later. He had a frightening idea that the world was out to get him, and the drink fueled it badly, and I could see that he was trapped on a merry-go-round that wouldnt let him get off.

It all came to a strange ending, when Potterton called me one Monday morning before I left for Ryans house, and asked me to come in and see him. The artists who had created the original story it seemed, had decided not to allow the owners of Heavy Metal magazine (National Lampoon) to use their precious graphic novel for the film. And sadly, Gerry added, Ryan was not going to be kept on to work on the movie at all. He asked me to stay on board and continue working. In retrospect, I think I was just too young to know how to go about addressing the situation to Ryan. I felt awkward, extremely disappointed and confused. My hero, my teacher, my master, was being cast aside, and I was being handed a golden opportunity.

I spoke with Ryan frequently afterwards, but more often than not, he was angry and full of venom. All his worst fears had been realized; they were out to get him. They didnt appreciate or understand him. He became increasingly manic in our conversations, and slowly we drifted apart. I soldiered on in my career, but I had lost something and someone very dear to me. Just as it had taken my older brother, the demon illusion of addiction had taken my artistic master away, seemingly for good.

Two decades in the animation business passed quickly. I did well, always working somehow, although the 80s were brutal. I battled my own demons as well, particularly in the 80s, but they hung on to me into the 90s as well and in 1996, while working at Walt Disney Feature Animation, and doing incredibly well with my career, I found my self in a drug and alcohol treatment center, courtesy of the mouse!

Ryan stands in front of his work in this early, undated photo. © National Film Board of Canada. All rights reserved.

Ryan stands in front of his work in this early, undated photo. © National Film Board of Canada. All rights reserved.

That is a story worth telling, but some other time and place I think. Let it suffice to say that as I sit here writing this, it has been more than 10 years since a drop of alcohol, or any drug stronger than coffee has passed my lips.

Through those two decades, I would always hear from Ryan occasionally. He would track me down through the small animation community of Montreal and call me out of the blue, once even calling me in Ireland. He was usually trying to dig himself out, and get back on his feet, but always the insanity would speak louder than the genius. But his heart was always beautiful to behold, his soul somehow shone through, and I could always relate to him, and feel him, and care about him. I even heard a rumor once that he had died, and I searched frantically until I found out that he had just had some bizarre accident, but was alive and well, sort of.

In Annecy 2004, the film Ryan is screened. It floors me. For those of you who havent seen it, see it. It is a beautiful masterpiece, directed by an animation visionary. Not everyone agrees, but that is the beauty of true art, it gets us talking, and it got me talking to Landreth, and I told him about my experience through the years with Ryan, and the profound impact his film had on my psyche, addressing as it did, so much of the undercurrents of emotional pain running through Ryans life. The same sort of pain that had fueled my addictions, only by some bizarre twist of fate, or act of God, I had been spared living on the street and begging for a living.

Ryans Walking showed an art form that a novice could dig right into with the simple tools of the average artist: paper, ink, and paint. © National Film Board of Canada. All rights reserved.

Ryans Walking showed an art form that a novice could dig right into with the simple tools of the average artist: paper, ink, and paint. © National Film Board of Canada. All rights reserved.

In October of that year, the film was shown again at the animation festival in Ottawa, which I attended with my son Christophe, who was 12 years old at the time. As we entered a building in downtown Ottawa to pick up our festival passes, I was explaining to my son who Ryan was, and how I had worked with him. And then, suddenly there in front of me at the end of the hallway, was a strange, crooked looking little man with a cane. Bless his heart, it was Ryan.

I was amazed then, by his total recall and apparent sharpness, as he exclaimed, Hey, Joe man, how are you man? Well, it was so good to see him, regardless of the fact that he looked incredibly rough, he had stitches in his face, he was swollen, and looked weak. But there it was, his soul and spirit, shining through all the spirits, smiling and gaining a foothold in my heart and soul once again. In the following days, we had lots of time to talk. I told him of my own journey, and that I had been sober since 1996. He was delighted, amazed and inspired, or so he said. I implored him to work again, I insisted that he could have a positive impact on a lot of peoples lives if he could just pick up a pencil and draw again. I never once insisted that he quit drinking, but I insisted that he create, come hell or high water, because it is what we are put here to do. Like a rooster must crow in the morning, an artist must shake his fist at the world, and show it to itself.

And where does this story take us? Where did Ryan leave me? Well, I got to see him, with tears streaming down my face, stand and take a bow after his Oscar-nominated Walking was screened in Ottawa, and I got to see him stand and take a bow with Landreth after Ryan had been screened. And I got to find out that Ryan had decided to start working again, and was creatively active in his final days. I got a lifetime of memories, and a life in the animation world. I got to be part of the magic. I even got to work at Walt Disney Animation, and be a big part of a creative dream called Lilo & Stitch, the closest thing to a real old school Disney film with a heart and a soul that theyve made in a long time. That in itself was like touching Fantasia somehow!

Ryan Larkin 1943-2007 Courtesy of Copper Heart Ent. and the National Film Board of Canada. Photo credit: Liam Maloney.

Ryan Larkin 1943-2007 Courtesy of Copper Heart Ent. and the National Film Board of Canada. Photo credit: Liam Maloney.

Ryan, you played an enormous part in the shaping of this artist and in the shaping of my artists soul. You gave selflessly of your time and energy when I needed it most. You were my mentor, and my master. And beyond my little self-centered universe, you gave the entire international animation community a vision, a jolt of energy, a flash of pure genius and you gave them all something to think about when they felt slightly uncomfortable watching the film Ryan.

The artistic community and the animation community are full of excess, partying, drinking, etc, and we all know someone near and dear who struggles with addiction. With your life as your canvas Ryan, you have made a lot of people look at themselves, you have awoken subtle underlying fears about mortality, poverty, misery and depression and the frailty of the human condition. With your ability to smile and make a joke, and be frivolous in spite of your all pervading obsessions, you showed me a strength of character that few people will ever have to muster, in their comfortable safety zones, where they have to walk around the street people and avoid eye contact. A beggar on the street. It could be a Ryan. He or she might be a creative genius of staggering talent and vision who knows?

I know that you Ryan, had a sweet pure heart of gold, and I will never forget you. I will work and create animation tirelessly, in your shadow, in your light and in your honor. And hopefully, some integrity will shine through, and rather than just making animated films to pay the rent, some of us will make animated films to help raise our human frailty up out of the ashes, into the light, off of the street, and in front of a warm comforting fire fueled by brotherly and sisterly love.

This gentle mans life story need not ever be seen as tragic. In tragedy there is always rebirth and ultimately, growth. Pain is the corner stone of spiritual growth, and some people are destined to lead us down that path.

For you, Ryan.

In his 30-year animation career, Joseph Gilland has worked with studios as diverse as Walt Disney Feature Animation and the National Film Board of Canada. He has worked on all styles of animation, experimental films, television series, commercials, theatrical feature films, stop motion, title sequences, live-action films and documentaries. He is writing a passionate book about the art of animation.