Monday, April 13, 2015


Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to attend a breakfast/panel discussion with the Academy Award nominated producers of this years Best Picture nominees.
It's always fascinating, inspirational and riveting to listen to the unguarded and honest experiences of such incredibly talented people as Clint Eastwood, Richard Linklater and all of the other producers in attendance.

One of the producers in particular, Cean Chaffin, the producer of Gone Girl was brilliantly frank.  The question that the moderator had put to all of the producers was, how much has luck played a part in getting these movies made and in general in their movie making careers.
All the producers laughed and admitted that luck/timing was inevitably the underlying force which everyone's career is based.  But, Cean had the most honest observation, this is me paraphrasing;

" Luck plays a huge part in what we all do.  How else do you explain why so many chuckleheads have so much success in our business.  You can have talent up to your eyeballs, but if you don't have a bit of luck, you're fucked."

It was so refreshing to hear someone of her stature and caliber just saying it out loud and using the words chuckleheads and fucked in a sentence.

Luck, timing, the universe, the full moon, whatever; there is an intangible force that sometimes works for you sometimes against you, all you can do is keep on going.

She recounted how David Fincher's remake of Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea had fallen apart at the very last second as they were getting ready to film when a significant piece of casting fell through, and Disney just pulled the plug.  On David Fincher.  It was just a bit of bad luck, and on they went to try and make their next film, not having any idea what that would be.  Gone Girl.

It got me to thinking about my own career, such as it is thus far.  22 years into it and I know I've had bit of good and bad luck and also forced fates hand when I decided things weren't moving in the direction I wanted.  Getting off your ass and just making the choice to actively move toward your goal will almost always kick start some kind of movement of the universe.

Some of that luck for me has been in the form of mentors.

I've been extraordinarily fortunate to have many talented friends and colleague who inspire and show we ways of looking at our business of art and storytelling that i would never have been able to see on my own, but as I thought about it there have really been 3 significant people who have really forced me to approach life and art in different ways that still resonate with me today.

My first mentor is my high school art teacher, Marge Coyman.  Marge knew my love of comic books and animation and supported it, but at the same time challenged me to develop and consider many other art forms and artists.  Day trips she would organize to NYC to the museums to see all manner of art and design, having me work with oil paint, ceramics, having me focus on life drawing to the point of even having other students pose for gesture drawings, clothed of course, I mean it was high school!

One of the most ambitious and insane projects she had us do was to make marionettes.  Heads, feat and hands were sculpted in clay, glazed and fired, then the bodies and costumes had to be constructed and sewn.  I might have been the only person to see the project through.  I made a marionette of my favorite singer/celebrity, Dolly Parton.

It ended up being about 2 feet tall, with a ridiculously caricatured body, crazy blond wig and a dress so covered in sequins it looked like it came right off the rack of the real Dolly's insanely gaudy costumes.  Marge made me make the pattern for the dress, learn how to sew and build the entire puppet on my own.

Once it was finished she would routinely take the fully workable marionette for walks down the hallway during class period change and talk in a southern drawl and accost students as they went to their next classes as if the miniature country superstar were walking the halls of school.

She opened my eyes to the vast world of artistic possibilities and how they can all be of influence no matter the medium you finally choose to work in.  In broadening my scope of art, she set the tone for the fantastic college experience I had going to college in NYC and taking advantage of all the variety of art and inspiration that the city has to offer. And still to this day when I see someone working in a way I would never have thought to do myself, I'm not threatened or scared of it,  I go up and ask why that artistic choice was made always trying to understand and grow and be inspired.

My second mentor came when I was hired by Disney Feature Animation upon graduating college.

I was super excited to be working at Disney which was really in its second golden age.  Aladdin had just come out and The Lion King was in full production, which would become my first screen credit.

But, not coming from an animation background at all, I was a Fine Art Drawing major in college, I didn't understand the animation process or that being in the Animation Clean-Up Department was the entry level job for almost everyone.

Again not having any understanding of the process, I foolishly thought, oh everyone is an animator!  No, Darren, no they are not, nor should they be.

So in cleanup, you trace over the animators rough drawings to produce tied-down, clean versions for ink and paint to finish.  When you start, it's line between line.  Literally! The spacing so minimal between drawings that your only concentration is on making sure the line movement is imperceptible and that it is as mindless a task as it sounds.
When you started getting higher up in the ranks of cleanup, be it a breakdown artists or a lead key, there was more of a challenge, more choices to actively make.  But needless to say my misguided perception of the work led to my great disappointment.

But then I was fortunately assigned to work with Sam Ewing, mentor #2.

Sam's father worked at Disney back in Walt's day.  Pretty amazing.  Sam himself is a force of nature to put it mildly.  Extremely talented artist, wickedly funny, unpredictable and amazingly supportive and insightful.

We were working on Mulan and Sam's team was supporting the brilliant animator, Alex Kupershmidt who was the supervising animator of Mulan's horse, Khan and the character of the General, Shang's father.

I think Sam sensed my lack of enthusiasm for Clean-up in general.  Mind you I had actually become quite good at the gig, but artistically felt unsatisfied, mostly because of my own foolish notions of what the animation process was not.

After a bit of time together Sam literally pulled me aside and told me that he felt that I was someone who needed to be challenged.  I remember this so clearly.  He then put it to me to basically act as the lead on my first shot.  Alex's animation was a fucking dream to work on.  They drawings thoughtful, alive, inspiring and he was eccentric but a very generous artist.  

Sam shared with me his approach to starting a sequence, what he would do when handed a stack of animators roughs.  He said, flip through the entire scene, just live with it a while, look at the action the expressions, the timing the choices the animator made and then find that ONE drawing that truly defines the entire sequence.  There will ALWAYS be one drawing that is key, the key to the whole shot and that is the drawing you clean up first, that is your guide to everything else.  Then work backward from there to find and identify your breakdowns and in-betweens and so on.

Now that sounds simple, but it's actually quite profound and that is they way i've approached every sequence i've ever story boarded or every page I've written.  Find that one moment and that defines what the scene is about and then everything else is there to support that moment.

I've actually had other people in the industry that i work with ask me how I approach a sequence after certain pitches and ask for help with their sequence and I use the very approach that Sam taught me, despite all the other words, direction, action on the page, what is the scene truly about, because it really is only about one thing and once you've found that, the rest of the choices you have to make will all fall into place.

Sam not only challenged me to work above the expectations of my job, but he treated me as a contemporary, not someone beneath him and forced me to work up to his level of excellence.

Mentor #3 came just prior to starting at Dreamworks as a storyboard artist.

In 1999, my partner Jeff and I left Disney of our own initiative, both of us wanting to course correct our careers that we felt was impossible to do at Disney so we packed up and moved to California from Florida.

I wanted to be a storyboard artist and despite getting great review for tests i'd done at Disney they were dead set on keeping me where I was.

Jeff quickly landed a gig at Dreamworks Animation where he still works today and is a Producer on Kung Fu Panda 3.

I decided I really needed to learn how film boarding was done and set out studying film after film, mostly live action to understand cutting, montage, the cinematics of film and I decided I'd need to understand the writing of it also, so I set out to write a screenplay.

Over the course of about 2 years, I wrote 2 screenplays, and storyboarded full sequences from one of my original stories to use as sample work, since no one will hire you if you have no experience and if no one will hire you, how do you get experience.  Ah, LUCK had something to say.

Jeff had been working with director Kelly Asbury on one of Dreamworks last 2D films, Spirit.  Kelly really liked and respected Jeff and I had occasion to meet Kelly and his directing partner, Lorna Cook.

At one point well after Spirit had finished and Kelly was Co-Directing Shrek 2, which would become a monster hit, he asked Jeff why I'd never applied to Dreamworks.  Jeff explained the catch-22 of trying to become a board artist and Kelly asked if he could see some of my work.  Jeff shared with him the boards I'd drawn based on my own little animated screenplay and Kelly loved them.

He took my portfolio to the chief creative officer of Dreamworks and said they should hire me.


How amazingly lucky was that!  Dreamworks said yes, but that I'd have to do a story test and go through the story training program with a group of recent college graduates.  I was good with that!  Didn't matter to me that I'd been in the industry for a decade, I was happy to get the opportunity.

Kelly needed to reassure Dreamworks of his faith in me, he told them that he would mentor me, but that he didn't really think I needed anything more than the opportunity to do the work.  He told the powers that be,  "if Darren fails, it's on me, if he succeeds, it's ALL HIM."


Again, someone providing the chance for me to work above peoples expectations.

The group of students I was interning with have gone on to become some of my best friends and are an insanely talented group of artistic powerhouses themselves, JJ Villard, Maggie Kang, Liz Ito, David Derrick.

They all said after our internship that having me with them was a huge help, being that i'd been working in the studio system and they were all so new to the experience, so i guess I ended up being a bit of a mentor myself.

The motto for my college was, "Be true to your work and your work will be true to you."

The real takeaway for me, if you invest yourself in what you are really passionate about, the universe will reward you for that and put people in your life that will challenge, inspire and support you so that your goals have the best chance to become a reality.  But at the end of the day, regardless of the luck, good or bad, if you dedicate yourself to your passions it's a career and life well spent.

So, it seems about every decade someone has made their way into my life as a mentor and i'm about due for the next one.

Any takers?