The Prism: A Profile of Dave Master

Animator/historian Tom Sito illuminates the singular career of a major figure in animation education.

Dave Master, one of America's foremost animation educators, as drawn by his mentor Chuck Jones. Courtesy of Dave Master.

Dave Master, one of America's foremost animation educators, as drawn by his mentor Chuck Jones. Courtesy of Dave Master.

For over 30 years, Dave Master has been in the business of educating people, bringing the collective wisdom of animation professionals to a broad cross-section of young artists. Whether at a low-income high school on the outskirts of Los Angeles, as manager of a Warner Bros. training program, or as an Internet pioneer, Dave has made it his mission to give everyone a shot at becoming an animator.

How did a bearded hippie radical hospital workers union organizer become one of the foremost animation educators in the USA?

One night, in the early 1990s, I was driving out of Los Angeles on the 60 freeway. The glitz of Hollywood and the glass towers of downtown L.A. gave way to low-level suburban malls, brown hills dotted with sagebrush and dipping oil pumps. It looked like a scene out of There Will Be Blood.

Where the heck was I?

I was headed for an animation class at a place called Rowland High School. I had met the instructor Dave Master, who had invited me. But the real impetus came from Chuck Jones, who even called me at home to make sure I was definitely going. He said June Foray, Bill Scott, Steve Bosustow and Disney's Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston had already visited there.

If there was anything I learned from my years as an animator, it was when Chuck Jones told you to go some place, you went!

So I arrived at Rowland High School. I was ushered past the usual municipal high school playground fields and classrooms to a converted metal-working shop way in the back. Once there I discovered an oasis of animation. A workshop with light tables and discs and computers and 3D setups and dozens of eager, talented students. I had a wonderful time that night talking and critiquing their work. And many of them told me later it was very inspiring to their own development.

What was it that made this out-of-the-way high school so different from all others?

It had Dave Master.

Dave Master was born in the New York City borough of Queens, and spent his teen years in the shadow of Shea Stadium, where the #7 train to Flushing rumbles overhead. He was not the usual type you would expect to dedicate his life to teaching cartoon animation. "When my father was in the military, he was turned off by the rampant racial inequality he saw black soldiers experience. He taught me, 'There should be a level playing field. Everyone should have an equal opportunity to achieve.'"

Dave's dad worked for the Dept. of Real Estate for the City of New York, and he would take Dave to tenements in some of the most underserved areas to show him how people in less fortunate circumstances lived. This affected Dave in the deepest way. He was proud that his dad did everything he could to make sure the buildings he supervised had heat in the winter and plumbing that worked. One of his dad's proudest moments was participating in the March on Washington in 1963 and hearing Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. His dad instilled in him a strong sense of fairness and activism.

Master worked as a union organizer before landing a job teaching arts at a Southern California high school. His enthusiasm about using animation in the curriculum helped get him in.

Master worked as a union organizer before landing a job teaching arts at a Southern California high school. His enthusiasm about using animation in the curriculum helped get him in.

Dave could draw and was an arts major in college, but the call of social justice was louder then. He grew up in the 1960s as a student radical in the antiwar movement and, while working his way through college, became a grass roots labor union organizer under his mentor Elliot Godoff. His greatest achievement was helping to organize the forgotten service workers in a big Staten Island hospital. "Everyone told us it was impossible and you can't win. But in the end we got 85% voting for the union."

In the mid-1970s, a friend who was a television producer convinced Dave to move to California and get into set design. He did some commercial art, but his interest in teaching was stronger, and he soon went back to school to get his teaching credential.

As a child, Dave had been enthralled by cartoons like Crusader Rabbit and later, as a bored student, he used every textbook page and margin as a flip-book. This long-dormant interest was reawakened when he became a student teacher and was fortunate enough to have a master teacher who showed him the basics of animation. He thought it would be fun to give kids a chance to explore animation, an opportunity he wished he had had while in school. So it was with this new inspiration that he donned his '70s leisure suit and went to a job interview for a new teaching position in Rowland Heights. "Out of 35 applicants, I was the only one excited about using animation as part of my arts program, and it was on that basis I got the job."

Dave filled his classroom with desks and overhead video shooters and Preston Blair books. In 1978 he went to the FILMEX film festival in Century City and attended a lecture by Stephen Leiva called "The Animator as an Actor." At the time, Steve Leiva was Chuck Jones' publicist and he introduced the two men. Chuck looked at Dave's students' primitive early work and, in his endearing and straightforward way said, "I love your enthusiasm, but you don't know what the hell you are doing!"

Jones took Dave under his wing. He taught him in detail about the intricacies of animation and introduced him to other Jedi masters like Bosustow, Foray, Scott and Bill Littlejohn. Later that same year, at a student film festival, Frank and Ollie viewed some of Dave's students' films and they invited Dave to come on the Disney lot periodically with Super-8 reels of his kids' work so they could add their notes. These greats of animation spread the word about Rowland Animation among their friends in the biz.

Chuck Jones (above) was introduced to Master's work with high school students and immediately took the teacher under his wing.

Chuck Jones (above) was introduced to Master's work with high school students and immediately took the teacher under his wing.

Soon many of them made that same trek I did out to Rowland to talk to Dave's young charges firsthand. Dave's little high school course turned out some great animation artists and technicians active in the animation field today, including Bert Klein, Jennifer Cardon-Klein, Clay Kaytis, Mike Belzer, Edwin Rosell, Brian Kesinger, John Ramirez, Chris Clements, and even Dave's son Brian, who is an animation editor. "By the time I left teaching to go to Warner Bros., we had a couple of hundred get employed from this least likely of places."

In 1994 Dave left Rowland High to organize the training efforts of Warner Bros. Animation Studio. "I lost sleep making that decision. But I knew the animation renaissance was under way and I wanted to be part of it." Dave was director of artist development there for seven-and-a-half years. He enjoyed visiting schools and helping communicate what the studio was looking for in their portfolio reviews. At the same time, he was dismayed about the overwhelming number of portfolios that were rejected for not meeting studio expectations.

Dave thought that the studio should do more than the periodic school visitations and "dog and pony shows," and he suggested using teleconferencing to sustain contact with students and teachers throughout the school year. The concept was new, but simple: Have artists look at student work in far-flung classrooms each week and give feedback about what they should revise if they wanted to make the work portfolio-ready. The pilot included two high schools, three colleges, a junior college and an adult education program. Dave called it ACME, with the blessing of his mentor Chuck Jones, and unlike every other ACME product employed by Jones' Wile E. Coyote, this one actually worked. Students from the underserved high schools began to graduate and attend university arts and animation programs. The most talented and hardworking college students began to get hired by the studios.

At Warner Bros., Master was instrumental in creating ACME, a program where professionals gave feedback to underserved students. He also worked on The Iron Giant (above) and Osmosis Jones. Courtesy of and © 1999 Warner Bros.

At Warner Bros., Master was instrumental in creating ACME, a program where professionals gave feedback to underserved students. He also worked on The Iron Giant (above) and Osmosis Jones. Courtesy of and © 1999 Warner Bros.

In 2002, following the release of Iron Giant and Osmosis Jones, Dave left Warner Bros. and dedicated himself to developing ACME Animation on a national scale. The network now disseminates arts education through the medium of animation to schools around the U.S. "We were a social network before MySpace and YouTube," says Dave. "But what was important was that ACME put real animation professionals in front of students in out-of-the-way schools in urban areas like Los Angeles, and Birmingham, Alabama, or rural areas in Wyoming, who otherwise would never dream of a career in the arts.

"Many people think ACME is a merely an online training program, when in reality ACME is a nonprofit educational organization. We use animation to engage students in the arts as young as sixth graders. Most of the ACME students are middle and high school students in underserved communities. I think the reason many people think of us as a college animation program is because that is who the professional artists mentor online. But, ACME employs a pay-it-forward-type system where pros mentor college students online, yet the college students earn that professional feedback by mentoring scores of middle and high school kids across the country.

"In effect, we've created a sort of Peace Corps of college-level animation students. The professionals' feedback cascades into classrooms in every corner of the country and reaches places where students really need the mentoring and encouragement. It's about leveling the playing field. Sure, not everyone we reach will become a professional, but many go to college and most have a chance to engage in an expressive arts experience they might not have ever enjoyed. All of these kids will at least have the opportunity to give it a shot."

Shea Stadium is being rebuilt, Dave's black beard is now snow white. The old Jedi Masters like Chuck have moved off into memory. But Dave Master's energy and passion for his mission remains undimmed.

In the 1700s, scientist Sir Isaac Newton went to Stourbridge Faire and bought a crystal stone called a prism. When he directed sunlight at it, the stone broke up the light and displayed it as a series of colors that he called the spectrum.

"The Ol' Perfesser" Dave Master is a prism. He takes the white light of animation professionals' knowledge and turns it into a multicolor spectrum of information for students in the least likely of places.

Pretty good for an old hippie.

Tom Sito is an animator, teacher and author. His book Drawing The Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions from Bosko to Bart Simpson is still on shelves, and his upcoming show Click & Clack's As The Wrench Turns will debut on July 9th at 8:00 pm on PBS.

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