Ask For Help


Here is a beautifully written letter by Brenda Chapman, Director at DreamWorks Animation.

Chapman’s feature film credits include Brave (co-director and writer), The Prince of Egypt (co-director), Chicken Run, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, to name a few.

On February 1st, 2012, Chapman wrote a great blog post calling all animation artists to participate in The Animator Letters Project. Read it here.

letter-to-willie-final_page_1_editLetter to Willie final pg 2_edit Letter to Willie final_Page_3_edit Letter to Willie final_Page_4_editTranscript:

Oct. 28, 2013

Dear Willie,

I’ve tried to sit down & write this so many times, but I always feel that what I’m writing either makes no sense or it’s too much. I’ve been in the animation industry for nearly 30 years…and I still feel like I have so much to learn.

When I arrived at CalArts in 1984 (after being rejected when I tried for 1983), I didn’t really have a clue.  I hadn’t been an animation geek – that is…I didn’t know who the 9 Old Men were, I had never read an animation book nor had I tried to animate or make my own film. I just loved to draw and watch Bugs Bunny cartoons after school and see the old Disney animated films in the theater. So I was behind when I started at CalArts. Most of my classmates had an idea of how to animate already. So I asked a lot of questions – and I wasn’t afraid to ask for help with things I didn’t understand. I have a deep gratitude for the patience of the teachers – and the mentoring of the upperclassman (Steve Moore, Kevin Lima, Kirk Wise, Ron Hughart & Dale Macbeth – to name a few).

I was incredibly naive. Good was good. Bad was bad. I’m still learning to cope with all the shades of gray after all these years. I went into the animation world with eyes wide, a smile on my face and a determination to do what I loved to do.

DIC was my first job working the summers while I was still at CalArts. Then I made it into Disney when I graduated in 1987.

Again, I asked a lot of questions & sought help when I was out of my depth… which was often – and still is! I was incredibly fortunate to have wonderful mentors who didn’t see me as the token woman in story (for which I was hired by the exec in charge at the time), but as a new young story artist bringing my own ideas to the game. People like Joe Ranft, Roger Allers, Ed Gombert, Vance Gerry, Gary Trousdale and Burny Mattinson. I was truly very lucky.

But the main thing that I feel I’ve had in my corner for all these years is something my mother taught me… and I didn’t even realize it until lately. She taught me resilience. She taught me to get back up when I got knocked down. Giving up was just never an option. I know it has nothing directly to do with the craft/art of animation that we all love. But it’s a way to look at life, I suppose, that helps you make it through the hard stuff and achieve whatever your passion is. Things may change direction (sometimes by choice, sometimes out of our control) – and if you’re open to it – that change could lead you to a better place. Just don’t let the direction change so much that you end up going backwards.

Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Look for mentors from whom you can learn. Most importantly, be happy in doing what you love to do. Don’t let the struggles, the heartache or politics deter you. Look for the passion, the joy and the satisfaction of your own personal part of the bigger puzzle. Those 3 things combined with the struggle & heartache are what make us artists.

Wish you the best of luck in everything you try!

Brenda Chapman (signed)

P.S. The sad thing is, I don’t draw as much anymore – as you can tell by the little sketches. My change in direction has taken me more into writing…and I love that too!

Keep the Sails Pointed in the Direction of Your Goals

Here is a letter written by Jim Vanderkeyl, animator at DreamWorks Animation SKG.

Vanderkeyl’s feature film credits include Kung Fu Panda I & II, Flushed Away, Over The Hedge, Shak Tale, Stuart Little 2, The Iron Giant, and Space Jam to name a few. Be sure to check out his website where you can find some of his amazing caricature work!



To all aspiring animators

I thought I would write this letter, not so much as a letter of inspiration but perhaps more of a letter of persistance…

When you have a passion for something its more like a huge wave that carries you over the rough spots and keeps you going. Just having the passion alive and dreaming about it somehow leads you to where you want to go.

I always drew as a kid. My mother recognized the passion and encouraged it. My father, seeing this as positive, was sort of invisible in the background and provided the funds to allow this to happen. After all, this was childhood and all should explore during these years. I drew lots of cartoons, portraits, and everything that I saw. I loved the Disney cartoons- and so did my Dad. He was always enthusiastic when another Goofy short came on the television. His enjoyment always stuck with me and struck me that this art form could give so much pleasure to even adults. I would also have to say that being in Canada at that time, the school system was highly encouraging. I had the beingness of an artist according to my school, to my friends, and to my mother.

That is, until it was time to start seriously thinking of one’s career; one’s mode of making a living. I came from a family of engineers. My Dad and his brothers became engineers after the war (II), his friends became engineers and my brother followed in his footsteps.

So at 13, 14, it was time to put my crayons down and start thinking of getting real. We had moved to the states in Rhode Island. We were in a middle, upper middle class neighborhood and we were being prepared for the factories and corporations. Art was a luxury for the rich.

Meanwhile, I submitted a drawing to the Famous Artist School Course. If I was selected I could take their correspondence course. My father reluctantly agreed that he would pay for the course and enrolled me. Soon the books came in the mail and I was so excited! There in lay all the information about drawing and design that I wasn’t getting at school. I was itching to get at them, but my Dad said “Don’t open those yet, I have to make a phone call first.” I remember him talking to Rhode Island School of Design and asking them if this course would guarantee that I get into their school. The guy said that he could not make that promise. My Dad was disappointed. So he promptly packed up the books and sent them on their merry way back to the distribution center. I never got to open them.

It was my first set back.

I lost the desire to become an artist.   My art teacher was furious with me when I stopped trying…She gave me low grades and pulled me aside and asked me why I was not giving it my best. I felt so ashamed, that I started to try again and regrouped and got the grades that were expected of me. I was feeding off the energy of people who believed in me and I guess that was the first around people that encouraged you.   So I went to school, studied painting, but all the while my father and brother treated me as though I had abandoned the cause- the cause of ENGINEERING! I was now different than “them” and I was on my own. I had to somehow navigate my way through and try to make a living as an artist without the “support” from the male figures in my family.

So what happened was after I graduated from college somehow my ship sailed to better and better opportunities…because my goal was to be an artist- the carrier wave I was talking about. I landed a job as a caricature artist, first on the East coast then on the West coast in California. And while I was taking art extension classes at UCLA, I learned about animation classes with the animation union. I enrolled in that. Somehow because of good luck, timing and preperation, I was able to get into animation and a whole new world opened up. At the age of 32 I was working for Disney as an inbetweener! I was a cleanup artist! It was very difficult to be an animator because once you were in cleanup you were thought of as staying there- FOREVER! More obsticles! Well after 6 years of believeing this I tried my hand in animation and found out I could actually do it! An opportunity came at Warner Bros to become an animator and I took it.- started animating at the age of 39!

Soo guess what I am trying to say is…keep the sails pointed in the direction of your goals. You may detour and you may come across some storms, but eventually you reach your destination. Sometimes its a matter of your beliefe in yourself over riding what others think of you- until they see yourself as you so..the artist.

I ran out of room!

Jim Vanderkeyl


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