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Review of 'An Animated Death in Burbank' by Michael Joens

Bill Desowitz sits down with Ted Rae, the visual effects supervisor and 2nd unit director on The Passion of the Christ, to discuss the digital challenges of Mel Gibsons surprising biblical blockbuster.

A word to animation artists who like mystery novels if you have ever wanted to kill someone at your studio, you can read this well-written police procedural instead and save your rep. Written from the perspective of Detectives Rigby and Cameron, who know nothing about the industry, it quickly gets into the lives of animation people from ceos to writers. The people in this book are right out of half the studios youve worked for, and you can almost guess who the characters are modeled on but not quite. The fun is in the guessing.

The animation details are correct throughout, from the description of a drawings pegs holes and slugging, to the animators bookcase filled with toys. There is a secretary (pardon me, assistant) in a studio that takes up 10 stories, who shrugs off animators with On the second floor The work is done overseas mostly so we dont need many artists. From the producer in that same building: There are no bad ideas or good ideas there are ideas that make money and ideas that dont. Joens describes the brightly colored 50s furniture of another studio in an old run down building that sounds a great deal like one that used to be in Hollywood. The woman exec there urges her storyboard artists on with Edgier, guys! Edgier!

The Author is in Animation

Joens skewers the current attitude of corporate animation bosses while still keeping his obvious admiration for the talent of the artists themselves. Even the ones that are jerks. And, in chapter eight he gives you a pretty good synopsis of what has happened to the industry since the days when artists were in charge. He, or perhaps just his characters, doesnt like the changes.

The author knows his venue well. Joens heads up his own studio, Stillwater Production Co., where he has done commercials for Hasbro, Milton Bradley, Kenner and Playskool and award-winning videos. He directed My Little Pony for Sunbow. An ex-Marine, he lives with his wife Cathy and family on a horse ranch in Agua Dulce, California. If youve got Flash, you can view his Website at Joens, who started out at Hanna-Barbera, has been an animator, storyboard artist, character designer, director and producer. He writes scripts, both animated and live action, and this is his fifth novel. His novel, Triumph of the Soul, was a 2000 Christie Award finalist.

Author Michael Joens at an appearance at the Los Angeles Times Book Festival last month. Photo by Sarah Baisley.

He captures the flavors of deadline, pressure and zaniness that we all know and love as well as the artists dedication to the work. He leads you on a fast paced tour from Burbank to Canyon Country to a marina with lots of L.A. details thrown in.

The atmosphere of a location is sometimes not as rich in this novel as mystery writers like the Kellermans or Patricia Cornwall offer, but Joens is good with descriptions of people and the way they feel. He uses phrases like sipping the wine, feeling the light fruity liquid sliding refreshingly down through the worn stem of her body and gray-haired old men in the water on longboards, sitting off the point like a pride of old sea lions. Or the melancholy He was a creature of beauty like a butterfly. People touched the magic dust on his wings until he couldnt fly any longer.

First of a New Series

Aside from all the animation details, Joens plots a good detective novel. The bloody scene of the crime in loving detail, scenes in the morgue, intimate personal lives of the detectives, gathering of technical evidence that mystery readers have always expected (and TV has belatedly caught on to) are all there. The book is the start of a series. Detective Sergeant Sandy Cameron works out of the Santa Clarita Sheriffs office and Detective Sergeant Tom Rigby is with the Burbank Police Dept. They dont have much use for each other at first; he thinks shes messing in his case and shes pissed off at his attitude, but guess what happens?

The primary characters are well drawn, although it is disappointing in a book this well written that the secondary character policemen are sketchy. When one gets killed it would have more punch if you had the feeling that you knew him better. The two main characters both have internal demons to wrestle with, ones you can relate to. Sandys musings in her diary make for an interesting plot device and looks like it will be used as a basis for another book in the series.

The plot Joens directs? His detectives come up with three bodies with no apparent connection except that they all worked in the animation biz. A main clue? Drawing #5 of a missing pitch that was turned down as too soft. Motive enough; only its the artist who is dead, not the studio head. Thats the animation business for you.

An Animated Death in Burbank by Michael Joens. New York, NY: Thomas Dunne Books, 2004. 338 pages. ISBN: 0-312-30716-0 ($24.95).

Libby Reed, an avid reader of both procedural and cozy type mysteries, started out at Walt Disney Studios in the 50s on Sleeping Beauty as a painter. She has worked at numerous commercial studios, spent 16 years as a fashion illustrator and wound up at Film Roman as a color designer under Phyllis Craig. Libby has two children (one is Alex Reed, animation producer at Entertainment Arts). A founding member of Women In Animation, she has her own studio where she does animal portraits.