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!

Practice, Practice, Practice


Here is a letter written by Merlin Crossingham, Creative Director at Aardman Animations.

Crossingham’s feature film credits include Chicken Run, Wallace and Gromit- Curse of the Ware Rabbit and Wallace and Gromit- A Matter of Loaf and Death to name a few.








The Animator Letters Project

I stumbled into animation completely by accident, I gate crashed an afternoon animation seminar a pal of mine was attending, I was 18. It lit all my fires, it gave me focus, I had stumbled upon something quite amazing, something that inspired me, something that I enjoyed doing and something that I could see myself doing for ever. Which is handy as, as we all know animation does seem to take ‘forever’.

I transformed my bedroom into a makeshift studio, saved up and bought a Bolex 16mm camera, and started experimenting. I drew, I animated with sand, pixilated my friends and messed around with stopmotion. I got a place on one of the few film schools with an animation course, and immersed myself in study.

Another happy accident saw me land a runners job at Aardman, on Nick Parks ‘A Close Shave’. This lead to me getting an animation apprentice ship within the studio. The main purpose of this was to allow Aardman to expand its animation crew in advance of filming its first feature, Chicken Run.

So heres the thing, at this point I had been ‘animating’ for several years, been through collage, and was on the first step in the industry, but creatively I was lost. I could animate, in as much as I could skilfully make something move from A-B, I could do a technically proficient walk. But of course this is not enough. I remember the day clearly, I was animating a punk vomiting, on hands and knees, puke squirting through his fingers…..I had my epiphany. Lots of established animators had said act it through, so I had, but if I was honest I was just going through the motions. This time I stopped, I got on my hands and knees; I concentrated on where the tension was in my body, I imagined myself feeling so horribly ill, I started to think about it as a performance. Not once was I contemplating how the animation should be done.

Now Years later as a director I can see young animators taking the same journey, I look for the day they forget about the animation. I often ask brilliant animators how they did a shot and the answer usually goes along the lines of, ‘Oh, I don’t know, I just did it’. They have mastered the craft, to an extent that it is a natural extension of themselves, its intuitive, where the character and its performance is front of mind.  The result is not something that moves nicely, that is easy peasy, its when we see an independent, living breathing, THINKING character on screen, that is the animation gold!

So if I have any advice, it is to practice practice practice, make mistakes, learn from them, learn the craft inside out and with time you will forget about the process. Your animation will be an extension of you and your characters will live.

But most of all have fun!


Emotional Creatures

Here is a letter written by Steve Anderson, director at Walt Disney Animation Studios.

Anderson’s feature film credits include Winnie the Pooh, Meet the Robinsons, Bolt, and Tarzan, to name a few.

Listen to Anderson read his letter on the air with KCRW’s the Business:





Artists are emotional creatures. We feel things deeply. We see the world around us, react to it and base our work off of those reactions. Our work represents ourselves. It’s us. Not just what our bodies can produce but what our minds and hearts have to say.

We want people to like what we do. If we didn’t, we’d just draw, paint, sculpt, dance, act and write in our own living room with no documentation or recording of it. But we don’t do that because we want our work to be seen. We want to express ourselves to people and, in turn, produce a reaction in them. Our emotions create the art and our art creates emotions.

But there are days when our emotions get the best of us. They let us down. They didn’t give us the strength and motivation that we need when we’re discouraged or struggling. They convince us that we are “no good”. That we have no talent. Or that the talent we do have us not as much as, or as good as, the talent of another person.

Ultimately, the struggles that we have- the creative blocks we all face- come from comparing ourselves to others. I’m not as good as that person. I’m not as successful as that person. That person is at the level I want to be at and I don’t have it in me to get there. I do this constantly. But I realized a few years ago that what I SHOULD be doing is comparing myself to myself. I find that when I step back and evaluate where I’ve come from, and where I am in relation to that. I feel much healthier. Block out all those other people and focus on YOUR work. Are you better today than you were yesterday? Were you better yesterday than you were the day before? Better than you were six months ago? A year ago? Twenty years ago? If the answer is “yes”, then you’re on the right path. If the answer is “no” you’ve got work to do. But the only person you have to be better than is yourself. That constant growth, improvement and evolution is the mark of a healthy artist. Instead of looking around the room to see what everyone else is doing, keep your eyes on your own paper. YOU have to be the best artist you can be and the only person that can drive that evolution is YOU!

Steve Anderson


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