New York City. Winter, 1987.
What I like to call, with a laugh at fate, my starving artist period. You know… no work and no money… when things look black and you’re wondering if you can hold on…
When it’s art for art’s sake because that’s all there is.
Yes, at times it’s tough to be an artist! Don’t worry, though, we weren’t actually starving all those years ago.
But we did go to bed hungry a lot.
Punctually at ten o’clock on a Tuesday morning, I passed through the elevator doors of the sixth floor and stood before the reception desk of Broadcast Arts, 632 Broadway, New York, New York.
I finally had an appointment to introduce myself and show my animation reel to someone.
Who knows? Maybe I’d finally get a job.
“Yes? May I help you?” enquired the receptionist.
“I’m here to see Sachi,” I said.
“Please have a seat.”
It was a relief to sit down. My leg was sore again. To make a few dollars I’d been working as a messenger for Empire Messenger Service, and all the walking I did delivering packages up and down Manhattan had aggravated an injury I’d sustained in a motorcycle crash years before. It didn’t help that I’d arrived downtown early and wanting to waste time had idled along Bleeker Street, looking at the store windows and nervously smoking cigarettes.
I rubbed my knee and tried to forget my nervousness. Or should I call it stage fright? At last, I thought, a chance to show my work… my first break in America!
But what if they didn’t like my work? Or didn’t like me?
What if I flopped?
I’d shown my demo reel (or versions of it, for one must keep it up to date) hundreds of times over the years, on three different continents, but never had it seemed so important as now.
Relax, Rusty, I said to myself, don’t get excited. What’s the worst that can happen? You’re already penniless and hungry and out of work.
I looked around at the unusual reception area. It was gaily painted in primary colors giving a childlike effect. Oversized toy soldiers stood at attention along the wall and giant teddy bears dozed in the corner. One of Pee-Wee Herman’s customized bicycles [the original Pee-Wee’s Playhouse was produced at Broadcast Arts] leaned against a papier-mâché tree whose boughs held cotton candy clouds and cardboard birds…
“Hello. I’m Sachi.”
Up strode a small woman with a big smile and wild, raven hair. We shook hands and she led me into a nearby conference room. Inside, four other people were already seated at a large table.
I shook hands with everyone. Upon the table were stacks of drawings and storyboards, ashtrays and coffee cups, attesting to their morning’s work. I relaxed a bit. It felt natural to be in a film studio’s conference room again, with its atmosphere of artistic commerce, crushed egos and deadline hysteria.
“We’ve got some thirty-second spots coming up where we might be able to use you,” said Sachi. “They start next month. Are you free?”
“I’m free right now,” I answered.
“Tell us about yourself.”
I told them about myself.
“Let’s see what your work looks like,” said Sachi when I’d finished. As she inserted the tape into the bulky player, we turned in our chairs and faced the large TV at the end of the table. Up flickered my work.
This was the part I hated. Sitting there in silence as my tape played. Your demo reel must speak for itself. Anything you say will only sound like an excuse. There’s nothing for you to do but sit there silently smiling like an idiot, yet somehow projecting plenty of self-confidence.
So I sat there smiling, trying not to look as if I’d seen the thing ten thousand times before. I always saw its flaws. They laughed at the appropriate places, I noticed, a good sign.
It’s when they laugh at inappropriate places you begin to feel the flop sweat forming…
As the tape played, I surreptitiously looked at Sachi. The expression on her face was hardly uncontrolled admiration, more like preoccupation, as if behind her eyes she had larger things on her mind. I tried to peek at the others to see their reactions, but the angle was bad and I couldn’t see. I didn’t want to be obvious, although I don’t know why. I felt like shouting out, “I did that! Me! What do you think?”
My demo reel was patterned after a music video. I had edited about fifty pieces of film together, mostly from TV commercials I’d made, to match some non-copyrighted, up tempo music. Nothing was in context and the whole thing was only two-and-a-half-minutes long. I spent weeks editing it to the music. Then I’d transferred it to high quality video. It was quite professional looking.
“Yah. Okay. I see enough,” said Wolf, who had been introduced to me as the production manager, about a minute into my tape. Perhaps it was his accent, but I couldn’t tell from his comment whether he liked what he had seen enough of, or not.
It’s true, though, it only takes a few seconds for a professional to tell if your work is any good.
Ask any animator.
After pronouncing that he’d seen enough, Wolf turned his attention back to the pad of storyboard blanks on the table in front of him, doodling with a soft pencil. He looked up now and then at my work on the TV screen.
No one else said a thing, and after what seemed like an hour, my two-and-a-half-minute demo reel came to an end.
“Whataya think?” asked Sachi to the table. “Wanna see it again?”
“No need,” said Wolf as he doodled.
“Pretty good,” said Diane, a director. She smiled and asked, “You do all that yourself?”
“My father did the backgrounds and we shared animation duties… but it’s my work,” I explained.
“It’s nicely edited,” said the editor.
“What harm can he do?” came from an assistant director. “If he’s as good as his tape?”
“What about this other thing?” said Sachi. “We’ve got to have it by tomorrow morning or camera will freak out! I say give him a chance.”
“I repeat, what harm can he do?” said the assistant director. “If his work’s no good, we don’t have to use it.”
“And we’re no worse off than we were before!” added the editor.
“Yah. Okay. Do it.” said Wolf. He looked at his watch, stood up and held out his hand. We shook. “Tanks for coming,” he said and disappeared through a side door.
The others wished me luck in an offhanded yet not unfriendly way and bent down to their work.
“Follow me,” said Sachi, handing me back my tape.
We exited the conference room and walked down a corridor, passing cubicles where stressed-out occupants sat drawing at animation desks or jabbering furtively into telephones.
You could feel the tension in the air.
A deadline was looming.
To be continued…