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An Interview with UCLA Educator/Indie Filmmaker Dan McLaughlin

Upon his retirement from UCLA, Professor Dan McLaughlin speaks with student Chris Mais about his 50-year career as an independent animator and educator of the next generation of filmmakers.

Dan McLaughlin (center) celebrates his retirement as chair of the UCLA Animation Workshop with former students (l to r) Stuart Allan (back), Glenn Hanna, and Bill and Michelle Tessier. Courtesy of Maija Burnett.

Dan McLaughlin, renowned animation filmmaker and chair of the UCLA Animation Workshop, is set to retire after a career spanning more than 50 years at UCLA.

Dan began his career at UCLA in 1956 when he entered the Animation Workshop as a student. He graduated in 1958 and began working for the Workshop the same year. Since 1970 he has been Chair of the UCLA MFA Program in Animation. Under his leadership, the Animation Workshop has consistently been one of the top animation programs in the world, counting among its alumni Shane Acker (9), Doug Chiang (Beowulf), Gil Kenan (Monster House), David Silverman (The Simpsons), and VFX luminaries Bob Abel, Con Pederson and Hoyt Yeatman, among many others.

As an independent filmmaker Dan has made over 20 animated films, ranging from the traditional to the experimental, which have won both national and international awards. God is Dog Spelled Backwards (1963) started the style and technique of Photokinesis, and Claude (1963) was the winner of the Chicago International Film Festival. His professional activities have also included animation for Sesame Street, the Amnesty International "Human Rights Now" 1988 world tour, legal expert witness work, and titles for features.

Throughout his teaching career, Dan has had an incalculable influence on the animation industry. He has taught animation to an estimated 800 students and been an advisor on nearly 700 animated films. In his teaching, Dan always sought to lead students through the three stages of education: information, knowledge, and wisdom.

Chris Mais: Of the many different animation courses you have taught at UCLA, which have been your favorites and why?

Dan McLaughlin: I teach [three introductory classes], 181 A, B and C, and they're all good classes. I like the A class because students make their first film, a 15-second piece, and they shoot it on film. It's a good experience because they shoot it themselves, so they have an understanding of the entire process and they understand why it is necessary. I also like the C class, where I get to see students make their first longer sound film. We're all project-based, so we always make something -- it's not dry book learning. [This way] you put your vision, your view of the world, and your philosophy onto film -- it's creative.

Of course, the class I like best is Storyboarding. In this class you deal with ideas, and create four different storyboards and revise each one twice. I like it because you can see how people improve from their first board to their final board. You notice a big jump in understanding.

McLaughlin greets well-wishers at his recent retirement party. Unless noted, all images courtesy of Celia Mercer.

CM: Who or what were your major influences as you pursued a career in animation?

DM: My major influences were Bob Mitchell, who introduced me to animation, and Bill Shull, a former Disney animator who led the Animation Workshop from its start in 1948 until his retirement in 1970. Bob Mitchell and I were students together and used to shoot marbles over at Dickson Hall and one day he said, "Dan, you should take the animation class. It's easy and it's at night and it is a sure B."

I liked the way Bill Shull set up the program with the philosophy of "one person, one film." You got to do the whole thing and it was a very creative environment, which meant a lot because, most of the time in school, you go hear a lecture or you go read a book, and it is sort of removed, it's not right there, live in front of you.

CM: What aspects of the UCLA Animation Workshop have remained the same throughout your career and what has changed?

DM: Well, the basic principle of "one person, one film," and putting your own vision or philosophy onto film -- that has remained the same and it has been expanded with the computer. Also, the spirit of community in the workshop is the same and I constantly try to keep the shit of the administration from raining down on the students and try to be an umbrella, so students are free to work. Our department has a reputation for being very stand-offish. We want everyone to take animation, but we want to keep the integrity of the students and the workshop. We don't want the program compromised by some flash-in-the-pan administrator who has a great idea to make the program all gaming or something.

I did start an MFA program in the early '70s. It was only a BA program before, two classes two nights a week, one class each night.

CM: What is your favorite memory or high point from your career at UCLA?

DM: There have been a lot of them; there have been low points too. Maybe my high point will come when I retire, so I can get back to my own stuff. I guess getting the job was a highlight, then going into the teaching aspect, and then getting my associate professorship. In 1977, I got tenure. Until you get tenure, you really can't do as much as you want, you have to watch yourself. I would say the high points are seeing the students going out and accomplishing what they want in their filmmaking; directing in Hollywood or independently and leading fairly successful, happy lives.

UCLA Animation Workshop alumnus Neil Richmond (l) shares a moment with McLaughlin. McLaughlin taught the basic principle of

CM: What would you like your legacy to be once you leave UCLA?

DM: I would like people to remember that I was always honest. Also, I would like the workshop to continue to grow, and that people will always make their own films and put their own personal vision on films, and not become a trade school where we are turning out layout people for a TV series or something like that. We train people not for the first job they have, but for the last job they have, as long as it is not the same job!

CM: What are your hopes for the next 50 years of the workshop?

DM: I would like there to be a four-year undergraduate program added. We always have the handicap of trying to teach six years of information in three years. We need to get people in younger, while they are still enthused. It is good to have life experience, but you can still have that and come in as a graduate. I think that structurally it would be good.

I would also like more support from the administration. I especially would like to see it go back to costing $35 a semester, as it was when I started here, and have no more professional fees. It was a public education and I would like to see that come back. I think one of the major problems is the privatization of school and making the students pay. I think a lot of students are being denied an education because of the cost, or they hurry up their education to get out, so I would like to see more state support.

CM: In your experience, what do you consider to be the most important components of a successful education in animation?

DM: I think the components of a successful education in animation are to make a complete film yourself, and put yourself out there, see your ideas, your vision, and your film. I think the most important thing is an idea, then, after that, in the making of the film, good timing and good character. This is for making animation. There is a difference between making a good animated film and being a good character animator. CalArts is a feeder school for Disney, so they develop character animators. You can learn character animation here too, but you also get to learn the whole process of filmmaking. I think the most important thing is to know what you want to do. Know if you want to be an independent filmmaker, studio filmmaker, director, character animator, background painter, etc. Know what you want to do and concentrate on it. Work in depth and really get good at it.

Former student Mike B. Anderson (r) and McLaughlin. One of McLaughlin's core beliefs is,

CM: What character traits and habits do you consider to be the most important for a student animator to be successful?

DM: I often tell my students that if you want to make animated films, the best thing is to be born rich or marry rich. In addition, belief in yourself and a strong work ethic, committing to something and finishing. Honesty is very important too, being able to look at something objectively and judge if it is good or not. Vision, see your work finished and know what you want to do with it. Following the rules of animation and working hard and keeping at it, working eight to 12 hours a day. I would say intelligence is very important too. People with high GREs have done well here. I think being smart and being imaginative and having a background in literature or art. Being sort of an iconoclast or an outsider can lead to success too.

CM: Now that you are retiring, what are your plans for the future?

DM: Well, I plan to finish my book, which is all my teaching, so I can quit teaching. I think it is important because it is based on all my years of experience of young people coming in and not knowing that much. I am familiar with their questions and concerns. So, finishing my book and getting back to painting and poetry and making my own animated short films.

CM: What parting wisdom/advice would you give student animators today?

DM: Work hard and invest time thinking about your work. Think animation, and do drawing if you are going to do character animation. Focus on the work intellectually; ask what makes certain films work. See a lot of animation, be enthused about [it and] just do it. Animation finds you -- you do not find animation. Gil Kenan, who directed Monster House, told an interviewer that the one thing I said that would keep him lying awake at night, and it is very important, is, "If you can do it in live action, do it in live action." I believe if your idea could be done in live action, don't do it as an animation film. Find some reason to use the medium, the magic and the wonder, the fantastic potential of animation. So he would lie awake at night thinking about that. The funny thing is, Gil is now doing live action. I guess he wanted to get away from that statement. Now he can say, "It is live action, damn it!"

Chris Mais is a multi-award-winning animation writer/director and is currently pursuing a master of fine arts degree in animation at the UCLA Animation Workshop. Chris can be reached at