Sometimes the bad films we work on leave the greater mark, and it’s good to look back, infrequently, to assess the damages.
I’d just been layed off at the Hubley Studio, after completing the first 20 (of 60) episodes of Letterman. Officially, I had been categorized as an “inbetweener” in the u-nion. I’d done everything from animate to ink at Hubley’s, but that was my category. I received a call from Johnny Gentilella. We’d met through Hubley, and he was now working for NY Institute of Technology. They were in the early stages of production on their feature, Tubby The Tuba, and I was offered the job of Assistant Animator, a categorical promotion.
NYIT was the school I’d graduated from and received my BFA; it was located in Old Westbury, Long Island – about an hour’s drive from Manhattan. It’d be interesting, returning to my old school just to see how it had changed. By taking the Long Island Rail Road, I was able to cut down that ride by a few minutes and leave the driving to someone else. I was picked up at the station and driven to the animation building, a small cottage on the campus. Everyone was out to lunch except for Johnny Gent(ilella), and he drove me (about a couple hundred yards) to meet Sam Singer, the producer recently hired to do the film.
Singer had done all those Courageous Cat cartoons that had infested children’s programming back in the late 60s/early 70s. Oddly, I enjoyed them; I always was a glutton for bad animation. Love those cel flares, shadows, scratches and cel edges.
I was directed to his office. In there was another producer, Barry Yellin, who had broken his ankle and was on crutches. I got to meet the two of them and listen to them kibbitz around me, virtually ignoring me for a few minutes. Singer was chewing on a cigar, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the spittle that seemed to be moving down the cigar in his mouth. When I finally left to return to the animation building, I saw that Singer was also on crutches. He had a clubbed foot.
I sort of remembered that meeting as an omen of things to come. The entire place, while I was there, felt like it was on crutches.
I liked Johnny Gent a lot; we got along well at Hubley’s; on Letterman I got to mangle quite a few scenes by him as I learned how to inbetween properly.
There were only about 8 others at NYIT at the time. Other people I met included Walt Kubiak, another assistant who I enjoyed talking to; animator, Chuck Harriton, who I’d met at Hubley’s (and never really was crazy about); Lou Marcus who was filming the work on an Oxberry. Lou had gone back in animation for many years and had plenty of stories to tell. (See Andrew Marcus’ comment below.)
The person I most associated with was the editor of the film, Phillip Schopper. He was a young guy who took the LIRR everyday from Brooklyn to Old Westbury. We’d meet daily on the train and laugh over the events of the days out there. I’ve stayed friends with Phillip, who has become a first-rate filmmaker; we rarely talk about those days at NYIT.
It was not a fun place to work. At the time, everyone chatted over their cubicle walls. I was in the front of the studio with full view of the front door. I was constantly getting notes from Chuck Harriton who persistently altered the models of the characters in ways that no one else was drawing. I was forced to work his scenes off-model. Johnny Gent always had a beautiful drawing style and made it easy for assistants to follow and inbetween. He and I spent most of our lunch hours alone together in the studio. We were able to have quite a few conversations; I loved that part.
Everyone seemed to back talk everyone else as they walked out the front door. I couldn’t help wondering what they said about me when I left. Too much swiping makes for an unpleasant working condition.
At one point, Sam Singer brought in a number of his people from California. I’d already been there about four weeks so was glad to see some new blood. Many of the few people were ex-Disney people, so there was a lot for me to learn. Nino Carbe, was a good example of this. He had done some incredible work at Disney’s on Fantasia and other films. He was an artistic force and a nice guy to meet.
Howard Diettrich was a virtuoso assistant who had worked on Sleeping Beauty. Unfortunately, he was an alcoholic who had a big problem. Sam Singer took him under his wing and had decided to cure him. Hypnotherapy came in, and Howard went through the mill for Singer. It made a soap opera of a story for all of us working there, and it was hard for me to watch.
I decided to leave. They wouldn’t allow me to quit without going to Alexander Schure. He was the President of the school – yes, NYIT was still predominantly a school – and he was financing the whole thing. His idea, ultimately, was to introduce computer animation to the world, and he invested heavily there. Some of the brilliant people who grew out of this department moved on to develop Lucas and Pixar.
So I went to Alexander Schure, and he argued with me for about 30 minutes. I told him that the travel time was too much. He didn’t accept that. He liked the fact that I was an art school grad from his school and was working there. He offered to have his son pick me up and drive me.
I knew that there was no solid directorial voice coming from the top, and the film could never be good. My artless tactic was to say as much. He told me that he was going to take over from Sam Singer, and he would be the voice of clarity. Now I knew I really had to get out. He finally surrendered, and I left. Happily.
I was back with Hubley within two weeks. Even better.
I didn’t get to see the film until I borrowed a vhs copy from Dante Barbetta, who eventually joined their staff to animate when it got significantly larger.
That was not a good film, as a matter of fact it was incredibly bad. I’m not sorry I left, though I would have enjoyed more time with Johnny Gent; it was the last time I worked with him. I also still wonder what happened to Howard Diettrich.