Animator, director, character designer, teacher, and writer Nancy Beiman shares her ‘would you believe it?’ path to the inaugural class of CalArts’ Character Animation Program back in September 1975, in the first of an ongoing series of articles – and eventual blog - she’s penning for AWN.
I’ve loved animation since I was a kid. My role model was Bugs Bunny. I admired his wit and his fashion sense. I learned how to apply lipstick from watching him do it, though even sixty years ago women no longer blotted it with a tissue.
I drew cartoons from an early age, mainly of dogs, because I desperately wanted one; squirrels, because they were there; and dragons, because they weren’t. My father, a classical musician who loved animated cartoons, offered to buy me the one-dollar Preston Blair animation book when I was eight years old. I said, “Oh no, I don’t want to make THOSE kinds of cartoons!”
Here is the story of how I changed my mind. What follows, however coincidental or improbable, really did happen.
I made my first 8mm animated film as a Media Project for my 11th grade English class because of a classmate who bragged about going to a deserted Atlantic City in the winter to film footprints in the sand. I didn’t have access to such glamourous locations, so I decided to make a hand drawn film instead. I made OH FOR THE GOOD OLD DAYS with cut paper puppets. It featured a Model T Ford that blew up when its tire overinflated. This impressed people. I got an A.
Dad would go to The Lodge, a little bar in Cranford, New Jersey, (remember the name), order Sicilian pizza and shoot pool with friends. He told one of them about this little animated film. Coincidentally, Dad’s friend worked for Exceptional Opticals, a special effects studio in New York City owned by a woman. I was invited to come visit. We drove to New York, and I was amazed by the strange looking optical printer that seemed to fill the entire room. “There’s a guy down the street who gives animation lessons,” I was told.
We visited Sunflower Films and met the owner, Ray Seti. He agreed to teach me, Dad agreed to pay for weekly lessons, and at age 16 I became Ray’s youngest student. I animated my assignments with magic marker, at first using my mother’s makeup mirror as a backlight. When Mom wanted the mirror back Dad built me an animation table of his own design. It was a sort of orange crate with a Plexiglas top and two circular fluorescent lights that lit up like a beacon, curled 10 sheets of animation paper and raised the room temperature by several degrees. Despite this the animation turned out pretty well.
After I finished Ray Seti’s course, I decided that I wanted to be an animator. I loved the UPA cartoon style, so I tried for Yale because John Hubley was teaching there. Unfortunately, my math scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test were too low to get me into Yale. I was accepted to New York University’s film program and given a small scholarship.
Now, here is where the long arm of coincidence is pulled out of its socket. But I say again, this all really happened.
High School Coincidental
Ed Roberts taught film history in my high school’s English department. Mr. Roberts hated animation. But somehow, he knew Zlatko Grgić, a Croatian animator with the Zagreb Animation Studio who had emigrated to Canada. When the Museum of Modern Art in New York had a retrospective of Zagreb Studio films, Mr. Roberts arranged to have Mr. Grgić stop over and do a presentation and screening at Cranford High School. I loved the show, especially Grgić’s Maxi Cat films.
The Walt Disney company had its East Coast office for the Educational Media division in – wait for it - Cranford, New Jersey. They shipped 16mm prints to schools and libraries all over the country and were located in Cranford because they liked the post office. (I did not make that up.) The Disney people came to the high school to see the Zagreb films. Afterwards, the manager, Vince Donnelly, asked Mr. Roberts, “Do you have any seniors who are interested in animation? There is something going on at the Disney Studio.” Mr. Roberts gave him my name. There were no others.
Dad drove me to the industrial park where the Disney office was located. He waited in the car, and I went in alone.
Mr. Donnelly liked my animation and the illustrations I did for Saki’s The Storyteller and told me to send a portfolio to Don Duckwall at the Walt Disney Studio.
Dad burst out laughing when I told him. “With a name like that, where else could he work?”
I did not send the Ray Seti pencil tests since I figured Disney would want to see animation in color. (The opposite was true). I somehow got my second film, Get a Horse, finished by Mr. Donnelly’s deadline and mailed it to the Disney studio along with some of the Storyteller illustrations and a few drawings of our dog.
I received a letter on impressive Disney stationery two weeks later. Mr. Duckwall wrote that it was wise for me to have a bit more “formal education and age” before applying to Disney. He mentioned a new animation program at a new school and said that I would hear from them.
Two days later we got a long-distance telephone call from Jack Hannah, who introduced himself as the director of the new Character Animation Program at the California Institute of the Arts. “I think we can get you a full scholarship,” he told me. “You need to hurry, since I have two weeks left to enroll in NYU,” I replied.
I was awarded a “Disney Fellowship” sponsored by Edna Disney and Roy Disney Jr. I accepted the scholarship and mailed a polite thank you letter to NYU. Lastly, I filled out the application to enroll at CalArts. I had never heard of the school. No one had.
Dad read the address on the forms. “Valencia, California.” He took out a huge World Book atlas and looked it up. All we saw was brown space. “I can’t seem to find it on the map,” he mused. “But that must be where those lovely oranges come from. You must send us a box of them.”
And that is the true story of how I became a student in the first class of the Character Animation Program at The California Institute of the Arts in September 1975 and discovered my life’s work, or most of it…
To be continued!