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The Animated Scene: A New Journey

In his last "The Animated Scene" column, Joseph Gilland ruminates on the last year, his new book and some big changes.

Joseph Gilland.

Joseph Gilland.

Well, here I sit at my computer keyboard, truly at a crossroads in my life. This new year started with both triumph and tragedy for me, and there is something in the air that smells like massive change. Not only for me, but also for the whole world, and especially the United States of America. My small world still revolves almost entirely around the art of animation, but I am as touched by world events as anyone, and before I leave my column here at Animation World Network, I would like to weave a tapestry of animation and worldly events, as well as the profound personal journey that we all embark upon, simply by being alive at this time, on this planet.

Late last summer, I began a new journey in my animation career, as I was working around the clock to finish my book about special effects animation. For the first time in almost 30 years, I found myself out of work, with no immediate prospects for a new job in plain sight. It was a perfect time to throw myself into the final difficult stages of finishing my book, an undertaking that proved to be far more complicated and challenging than I had ever imagined. I was completely strapped financially, and there was quite a bit of stress related to that, me being a single parent with a healthy and extremely active teenage boy to provide for. But I applied myself 100 percent to the task at hand. My book, Elemental Magic: The Art of Special Effects Animation, had been in the works for more than four years at that point. Lucky for me, I had a real deadline to meet this time, and that was just the incentive I needed. (My apologies to the editors at AWN for not quite making my column deadlines on multiple occasions) So the book got finished, right around the same time that I found a small independent animation studio in the Vancouver area, looking for a visual effects supervisor with the kind of experience I could bring to the table. Whew! It was a close call. I was still finishing the last touches of the book, working 'till the wee hours of the morning, when I first started designing and planning the special effects elements for the new Thomas the Tank Engine series being produced at Nitrogen Studios.

This was the first step in a new direction of massive change in my life. Actually finishing the book was one thing, but now I was also going into my first animation production that would be completely CGI, besides a small stint I did helping out with special effects for the CGI television series Viva Piñata. Certainly I had a great deal of experience working with CGI elements on several Disney feature films, as well as way back at Don Bluth studios in Ireland. But as many of us in the industry today know, 100% CGI is a whole different kettle of fish than working on a 2D-3D hybrid, and at a relatively small studio like Nitrogen, one does not have a team of the world's best technical directors at one's beck and call to come up with magic solutions to the endless challenges that a program like Maya consistently throws at you. Now I have to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty, wrestling this obese sibling of all programs... (thanks Nayt!) It is incredibly challenging, to say the least. But while I may not be surrounded by the kind of technical directors I worked with at Disney, we have a wonderful, tight crew of dedicated pros, and we all pull together to work out solutions.

So that was where I found myself going into the autumn of 2008. I was immensely excited at the prospect of my book being sent off to the printer, knowing that I would actually be holding a real hard copy before too long. And I was immensely happy to be working at Nitrogen Studios, where I found myself really looking forward to going into work every morning, as excited and passionate about the animation business as I have ever been. Another wonderful aspect of this new job, is my affinity for Thomas the Tank Engine, the whimsical British hit series that has always been done with real live-action 3D sets in the past, whose toys and books are wildly popular, not only in the U.K., but around the world and increasingly in North America as well. After a rough couple of seasons working on a tacky and extremely commercial television series that I didn't really like at all, (the 4Kids trading card-based series Chaotic, to be more specific) with an insanely small budget and tight deadlines, it was fantastic to be working on a product that I could feel good about again.

Which brings me to Christmas of 2008. It was spent warmly, with family on beautiful Vancouver Island. My parents, both in their 80s, and married for 56 years, had all of their children there, and it was one of the nicer Christmases in my memory. However, two days later, my father passed away quietly, sitting peacefully in his favorite La-Z-Boy chair.

Of course, it is always difficult to lose a close family member. It is my first experience of this kind. Aunts and uncles and grandparents never rocked me quite this hard. This rocked us all to the core. But I have to take this opportunity to be as positive as I can possibly be about the experience. First of all, my father lived as full a life as one could ever hope to live. As a young man, he fought in World War II, as a fighter pilot, flying Hurricanes and Typhoons. He was shot down dramatically out of the sky and spent two years in a Nazi prisoner of war camp. After the war, he got his degree in engineering, but then chose to continue flying, at first flying the fastest propeller planes in the world, maxed out, polished P-51 Mustangs, and then breaking into the world of supersonic jet fighters. He flew all over the world as a fighter jockey, helping sell the world's fastest jet ever, the legendary F-104 Starfighter, to air forces around the globe.

And he married a woman he loved with all his heart, and stayed with her to his final days.

So, am I to mourn this man's passing with grief and heartbreak? He lived past the life expectancy of the average man, never mind a man who lived on the very edge of danger every single day, just as a job!

Thomas the Tank Engine (seen here in its original iteration), will soon debut as an all-CGI series. © 2005 Gullane (Thomas) Limited. A HIT Ent. Co.

Thomas the Tank Engine (seen here in its original iteration), will soon debut as an all-CGI series. © 2005 Gullane (Thomas) Limited. A HIT Ent. Co.

No, now that the shock has settled, and I have cried the tears I had to cry, I can only celebrate what a cool guy he really was, in spite of his shortcomings, which were may, as the war left him with deep emotional scars that never fully healed.

I dedicated my book, Elemental Magic to my mother and father. Three weeks after my father passed away, I held my first copy in my hands. He never got to see it. Missed it by that much. And that really hit me hard in the gut. I cannot think of anything I have ever wanted more, than for my father to see that book. To actually hold it in his hands, see its reality, its enormity, and see his name in the dedication: "To my parents, Frank and Tommy." Of course, I had told him about the book, and he knew it was being published, but hell, it never really sank in for me until I actually held it in my hands, and that's after working on it for four years! Yes, he knew in a way, but his memory wasn't what it used to be either, and there's no telling how clear an idea he actually had of what I was doing with my life.

And here I get to the meat of it.

Ever since I decided on a career in animation, I have struggled to somehow live up to my father's expectation of what kind of a man I should be. He thought that I should learn a "real" trade, or be a pilot, or an engineer, or anything except an artist. His reaction when I told him that I was going to take a college level course in animation was incredulous. He felt that I was sadly deluded if I ever thought I was going to make a decent living or gain any kind of success or respect making cartoons! He laughed at the idea. But boy, was he ever wrong. I made more money than he ever dreamed of making cartoons! But did he ever really acknowledge it? Not really, not to my immediate knowledge.

Of course he was somewhat impressed that I was working for a great big corporation like Disney, and that I was able to buy a beautiful four bedroom home with a swimming pool in Florida, with the fishing boat, the SUV, the mini-van, the dogs and cats, the whole enchilada. But try as I might, I never really heard a word out of him that reflected any real respect for what I had done, which was making cartoons.

But you know what? My mother told me, shortly after he passed away, that when I wasn't there, (which was most of the time) he spoke about me and the wonderful things I had accomplished MAKING CARTOONS, with glowing pride and admiration. He bragged about his "successful" son to his friends. He was a proud as a father could possibly be, he simply didn't know how to express it directly to my face, bless his broken heart.

So wherever you are Dad, this is for you, on top of my book, I want to dedicate this moment to you, this little place in cyberspace that you never even experienced, (my father never owned or used a computer or even glimpsed the internet). Like I did with my little ode to you on my Facebook page, I want to honor you here, in my final installation of "The Animated Scene," my humble little animation column that I have been writing for three years now. I want you to know that I sewed your Royal Canadian Air Force wings and captain's stripes on my motorcycle vest, and that every time I fly down the highway on my Valkyrie, I will be flying with you.

And I want you to know that animation is an absolutely magical, wonderful, inspiring art form, and that I am extremely proud to be a part of its history.

And to all of you who have responded to me, supported me, or even criticized me while I have been writing this column, thank you for being a part of it. Good luck in this momentous new year. We have our work cut out for us, but change, no matter how difficult, it a wonderful thing, and God knows, we need to change...

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. His book, Elemental Magic, is now out.