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From School to Success: School of Visual Arts’ Famed Alumni Speak

Joe Strike checked in with a host of School of Visual Arts famed alumni at a recent Animation Summit to find out how independent animators have thrived own their own and at the studios.

Speaking at SVA’s animation summit, “Which Way Did They Go?” were alumni John Dilworth, Tom Sito, Yvette Kaplan, Chris Prynoski and Alex Kupershmidt. Photo credit: Joe Strike.

As 2005 drew to a close, Salvatore Petrosino, the director of operations for the School of Visual Arts Film, Video & Animation Department went to his boss with an idea: honoring a handful of their most successful animation graduates with a gallery show saluting their accomplishments. The idea was to give the students a sense of reality that what theyre looking to accomplish is attainable, Petrosino explained. When you bring in the level of professional talent that graduated here, it becomes much more tangible, it demystifies the goal they want to achieve. Hopefully it will inspire them to continue on their chosen road.

Reeves Lehmann, the departments chair said yes. The result was a show called Which Way Did They Go? highlighting the achievements of:

  • John Dilworth, a 1985 alumnus best known for his Cartoon Network series Courage the Cowardly Dog;

  • Yvette Kaplan, an animator and director from the class of 1976, whose work has been seen everywhere from Beavis and Butthead Do America to PBS;

  • 1982 graduate Alex Kupershmidt, a 15-year Disney veteran with a hand in almost every one of the studios late 80s early 90s features;

  • Chris Prynoski, the youngster of the bunch, who after leaving SVA in 1994 created Megas XLR for Cartoon Network;

  • And 1977s Tom Sito, whose 30-year Hollywood career has put him at the center of the traditional feature animation business.

Which Way Did They Go? premiered days before Christmas with a one-two punch. On Dec. 15, the show opened with the traditional wine, cheese and schmoozing reception. The next evening the artists participated in a panel discussion moderated by veteran SVA animation teacher Howard Beckerman. The purported subject was East Meets West Animation, wherein the participants were supposed to consider the art of animation as it has evolved over the past three decades and explore the similarities and differences between east- and west-coast animation.

As it worked out, the subject of coastal rivalry got short shrift as the SVA alumni compared notes on their career paths, and discussed both the business and the art of their chosen profession.

Beckerman began by offering his reminiscences of the 1970s when he began teaching, and of the honorees when they were his students. In the 70s people were still doing animated TV commercials [in New York], some feature work and educational films. [Richard Williams] Raggedy Ann and Andy was made in New York; Sesame Street gave a lot of people a chance to make a living.

Bambi was cited a couple of times by the alumni as a seminal film and an inspiration to them. © Disney. All rights reserved.

All of them were very versatile. They did storyboards, animation layouts, drawing; their talent was obvious when they were here. Yvette always went beyond the assignment; Tom was interested in the history of animation; I could tell Alex was going in the right direction by how well he animated a standard exercise of a soldier crouching to get through a small doorway; John was always excited about the work, always asking questions; and Chris was already animating, directing and producing while he was in school he had five guys painting cels in class.

Sito recalled the 1977 animation world as pretty sucky and some of the SVA faculty as less than encouraging. When we graduated we wanted to do Tex Avery, we wanted to do Bambi, but the old timers said, youll never see it come back. He pointed out that the Disney studios only hired 21 people between 1958 and 1975, not exactly the sign of a thriving industry. However, by the late 1970s, the studio realized its talent pool was on the verge of retiring and began reaching out to Sitos generation, people who had a fire in the belly to make these cartoons. Sito pointed to the amazing lifespans enjoyed by many animators. Chuck Jones lived to be 90, Grim Natwick made it to 100. Joe Barbera is still alive at 94 and [Disney animator] Joe Grant died this past spring at 97. If you dont do yourself in by 30 youll make it to 100.

Kaplan looked back at the Saturday morning cartoon schedules of her childhood, awash in Looney Tunes and Fleischer animation, the products of a world that didnt exist any more. Howard used to tell me dont go into animation, become a dentist, she joked. In the late 70s and early 80s TV animation was very limited. It was mostly superheroes and it wasnt creator-driven. Looking at any opportunity to animate as a step forward, Kaplan worked in low-paying jobs in small New York City studios before joining Williams Raggedy Ann and Andy crew and, later, working on projects like R.O. Blechmans made-for-PBS A Soldiers Tale. I retired in 1984, she related. Seven years later I got a call from Tony Eastman: Jim Jinkins is doing a pilot for Nickelodeon. That was 1991 and everything changed. There are so many more opportunities now. Every time it seems bleak you never know whats around the corner.

Kupershmidt told a quite different story of his animation roots. I was raised in Eastern Europe. My father saw Bambi when he was a kid, but I never saw a Disney cartoon until I came to SVA my first one was The Three Caballeros, and it was in this room. As one of those people to whom animation = Disney, Kupershmidt submitted his portfolio to the studio and was turned down the first time. He persevered and eventually interned at the studio before returning to New York and finishing his studies. He rejoined Disney after graduating, eventually spending five years designing characters for the companys Orlando-based marketing department.

For Kupershmidt, Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a seminal event. It changed everything. The feeling had been, the old guys are gone and the new guys cant do anything; now it was its not lost. The movie raised the bar and it made money. When Disney opened up its Orlando animation studio, Kupershmidt came aboard and stayed there until the studio closed in 2004, then relocated to Disneys Burbank operation (where according to Beckerman, the best part of the job is that you can get into Disneyland for free).

After leaving SVA, John Dilworth found he had no mentors and had to do it his own way. His role models were the independent and the maverick artists.

Dilworth had a succinct, one-word answer when he was asked what happened to him after leaving SVA in the mid-1980s: Nothing. He went on to explain that there were no mentors. I had to do it my way. Dilworths role models were, the independents, the mavericks. If you have to rely on someone to give you a living you were at a disadvantage. He complained about producers and entrepreneurs who try to get free work out of animators, prompting Sito to crack that, animation will make anyone into a raving communist, except for Alex who was born one.

Dilworth confessed that in his younger days, my whole perspective [on animation] was Disney. Little did we know about the rat shop. When the studio turned him down, I took it personally. But it helps you build character. If you fall, what good are you going to be tomorrow? He pointed to the work being commissioned for broadband distribution as a new opportunity, but cautioned that budgets are 50% less in the new medium.

The animation industry was on a major upswing when Prynoski left SVA in the mid 90s. Prynoski recalled watching Ren & Stimpy episodes in Beckermans class and, getting calls for jobs while we were in school. He recounted an offer to work for Ralph Bakshi that vanished when Bakshi skipped town before his job was to have begun. Prynoski spent the next five years working for Kaplan on MTV projects and taught for a year at SVA before giving up the east coast for in Los Angeles. I told my kids to quit school now, take some cheap classes at the Art Students League and get a job someplace. Either that or stay here and make an independent film, then decide what you want to do next.

Tom Sito gave a detailed recounting of the behind-the-scenes history of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. © Buena Vista Home Ent. Inc. All rights reserved.

The panel fielded questions from the SVA audience. Dilworth answered a query about getting ones personal project off the ground by referring to big networks out to capture and exploit talent. He described going to L.A. to pitch [his Oscar-nominated short] The Chicken from Outer Space to a roomful of executives. You leave, they deliberate like 12 Angry Executives. Theyre doing it the same way today. Theres always the promise and glamour of a series but you dont own it. Youre working for someone else, not yourself.

Kupershmidt was asked about the gap between being a good soldier and doing personally meaningful work. It helps if you dont have opinions of your own. If Im working on a piece that came down the sieve from one million people, for that short period its mine, even if it goes to someone else. If youre working for Disney, its not going to be your own. You have to surrender and welcome other peoples views and questions from the suits: why do his hands look like that? Other people have opinions and you have to be prepared and find out whats bothering them. Kupershmidts east European collectivist roots might be showing when he added, the audience is never wrong. Everyones feeling is valid and has as much right to participate in the film as you have making it.

Prynoskis take on the subject was philosophical in its own way. A lot of people in animation pretend to be jaded, but even the shittiest day of making cartoons is better than a regular job. If youre digging what youre doing and getting into the scene theres nothing like it.

Sito answered a question on why Roger Rabbit was done as a live-action/animation hybrid with a detailed recounting of the films behind-the-scenes history. According to Sito, Disney bought and buried the original novel, Who Censored Roger Rabbit? to make sure it wouldnt get produced. The work was discovered by Lucas and Spielberg who, as part of their deal to create Star Tours for the Disney theme parks, were allowed to look through the Disney vaults. An Amblin/Disney partnership was created to produce the film, followed by a battle over where it would be produced. Sito said, Spielberg wanted to do it at Paramount without Disney, Disney said only we can do it, on our lot, Lucas wanted to do it, but no one wanted to move to Marin County to work on one picture. The compromise solution was to bring in someone from neutral territory Englands Richard Williams.

Sito had a yen to do animation since junior high school and learned about SVA while at NYC’s High School of Art and Design. The SVA brochure promising up to $1,000 a week for animators lured him in.

An audience member raised the issue of New York vs. L.A. production. Once again Sito answered, calling New York more independent and very graphic-oriented, while Hollywood has the old studio tradition. This heritage is handed to you like an antique glass ball and they say no ones ever dropped it. Animation in Hollywood is very aware of its legacy. I come from being a complete Hollywood whore and I feel like Im part of that legacy, helping to push it on.

Yvette Kaplan had relocated to L.A. in mid-2004 and was still struggling with the transition. I miss New York, my entire career was here. Theres a fine line between being a good soldier and being true to your vision I had a hard time doing that.

Nowadays I do less art, she said. Im doing more story, direction and dealing with executives, listening to their comments. Sometimes it gets hard, but Im always moving onto the next thing, always searching.

The panelists next compared notes on what brought them to SVA. For Dilworth, it was the fact that, Parsons rejected me twice. I went around the corner and there was SVA.

Sito had a yen to do animation since junior high school and learned about SVA while at NYCs High School of Art and Design. There was an SVA brochure that said animators can make up to $1,000 a week. I said, Yeah, that sounds good.

Kaplan grew up in a neighborhood where everyone went to Brooklyn College, but learned about SVA from a college day speaker at her high school.

Prynoski credited SVAs great PR department I knew about the school in eighth grade. Im glad I went there and not to CalArts. They teach the L.A. house style; here you can do what you want.

The alumni frequently mentioned Richard Williams, his work and advice throughout the evening.

Kupershmidts tongue-in-cheek answer was that, I walked in and they took my pulse. He praised the school for the almost experimental feel of learning there, an observation seconded by Dilworth who added that, the school has a bohemian style even now after 25 years they encourage individual identity.

The next question focused on the difference between animating and directing. Sito, the most seasoned professional on the panel offered that directing has nothing to do with how well you draw. Its directing anywhere from 10 to 400 people with just your personality, and making it look like one person did the film. A good director is like a general in the battlefield. Dilworth offered the seemingly counter-intuitive opinion that you have to have less ego to be a director. Sito eagerly agreed, saying, Not everyone is going to animate the way you would. The real question is is this good or bad for the film? Richard Williams once said, its more fun to create an environment for other to do their best than for you to do your own work.

From Prynoskis perspective, one difference between New York and L.A. production is that, you can animate out of your own facility in New York, while on the west coast a project will more than likely be based at the networks facilities. Theres more going on with independent studios now, he added. The networks want weird shit again and they realize they have to find more weirdo people.

When asked about museums exhibiting animation cels and original art, Kupershmidt responded with a question of his own: Who decides whether its art or not? I consider myself a filmmaker, not an artist. Claiming that 1980s and 1990s-vintage cels have sold for $100,000, he advised that drawings make better investments they last way longer.

Near the end someone finally asked the why question: Why did you become an animator? Several of the panelists talked about moments from cartoons that made a primal impression on them. For Kaplan, it was a scene in a Fleischer cartoon where two impoverished children go to sleep under blankets that are more hole than fabric while Sito cited, The Great Piggy Bank Robbery, a surrealistic Dick Tracy send-up from Bob Clampett starring Daffy Duck. Alex Kupershmidt mentioned receiving a copy of the Preston Blair-authored Walter Foster book on animation, a staple of art store bookracks in the years before animation became a staple of film school curricula.

John Dilworth, creator of Courage the Cowardly Dog, finds it difficult to articulate on the source of inspiration. When it comes to dispensing advice to aspiring animators, he demurs. © Turner Broadcasting System Inc.

Dilworths reasons for becoming an animator were somewhat different from his peers. Where inspiration comes from is unknown, there are no words to describe it. For me, its the autobiographical impulse. Youre not going to be the same person a year from now.

When asked what their advice would be to aspiring animators, each panelist offered a different perspective:

Dilworth: Im sorry sir, Im not a pedagogue.

Sito: Success goes to the stubborn; you have to have a thick skin. I was turned down at Disney three times and got in the fourth time. Be strong and dont take no for an answer a no is not forever.

Kaplan: Work from your heart, be true to yourself and try for perfection in your own voice.

Prynoski: Draw each day and have a sense of humor.

Kuperschmidt: Dont be timid, animation is not for timid people. Trust your instincts and stay flexible. What might seem terrible may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

The panel ended, but the room stayed crowded as people lingered for one on one chats with SVAs celebrity alumni. When asked, all save Dilworth shared their idea of what their dream project would be.

Kaplan: It would be a childrens book that I adored. I actually optioned it when my son was little. If I had the money I would make it myself. Its called The Legend of the Flying Hot Dog. It has a humor, but its a redemption story. I want to make people cry instead of make them laugh.

Sito: Any project Im directing that gets me back in the game is my dream project. Give me my percentage and Im a happy man.

Prynoski: Probably some weirdo shit that nobody would understand. You know what it would be? Drawing in my sketchbook 24/7 and not having to show it to anybody but my friends.

Kupershmidt: I would try to do something that catches people off guard. I think traditional animation kind of hit a dead wall in terms of storytelling. Not necessarily do something incomprehensible, but do something entertaining and popular with a little monkey wrench thrown into it.

SVAs Petrosino looked around the still crowded room with satisfaction. An event like this helps the students realize the spirit that drove these folks to success is still part of who they are, he explained. You have to follow a passion. Nothing thats worth obtaining should be easily obtained.

Joe Strike lives in New York City and writes for and about animation. He has recently completed a childrens novel.

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Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.