Sachi stopped halfway down the corridor.
“Well,” she said, turning to me. “Today’s your lucky day!”
“Oh yeah?” I answered hopefully. “I like the sound of that!”
I had just been interviewed and had shown my demo reel, hoping to land my first animation gig in New York with the company Sachi worked for, Broadcast Arts.
Now we stood chatting in the corridor.
Sachi said they had a problem, and maybe I could help. Nothing to do with White Cloud bathroom tissue, the job they had called me about which started next month. This was something else, an emergency, but if I did well, then the White Cloud job was as good as mine.
“An audition, eh?” I answered. “Sure, if I can help.”
What else was I going to say?
“Call it a chance to prove what you can do,” answered Sachi. She explained that the animator who had been working on the scene, after working more than two days and nights straight, told the boss (Wolf) to shove his deadline, and had gone home to get some sleep.
“I totally sympathize with the guy,” said Sachi. “The hours on this one were murder and getting worse! But, you know art directors, we had to change something at the last minute and now the schedule’s all screwed up! Wolf! He took this job knowing the deadline was crazy. Hope he’s charging them plenty.”
The problem was, said Sachi, they needed the scene now. Right now.
I nodded my head. Sounded like animation in America wasn’t any different from animation in New Zealand… a job fit for lunatics, optimists, geeks and dreamers.
I’ll let you decide which of those I might be.
“I want to ask you something,” I said to Sachi. “I wouldn’t want to steal someone’s job or anything like that. He went home to take a break, right? And here I am, in the right place at the right time. A miracle! You know, like those old movie musicals, where the star twists an ankle and the understudy, in this case me, gets his big chance!”
“Yeah,” laughed Sachi. “That’s pretty much it.”
My life wasn’t about making movies, I told Sachi, my life was becoming a movie!
“Let’s hope it’s not a tragedy, where we all die in the last act,” said Sachi, and we laughed together.
We had stopped in the middle of the corridor and people streamed past in either direction. The buzzy energy of the studio was very positive, and I felt myself becoming energized too, and swept up by the rightness of the moment.
Now was my chance, I must seize it!
“Don’t worry about John,” said Sachi. “You’re not taking his job, you’re helping him out.” She looked me straight in the eye for a moment, before adding, “If you can do the work like you say you can.”
“No worries there,” I bragged, trying not to look worried.
What else was I going to say?
“Hey! Sachi!” Up rushed a young man wearing lab coat and white gloves. He nodded to me before turning to Sachi, saying, “Wolf says where’s the polarizing filters for the big Mitchell? He was sure we had some and I can’t find them anywhere!”
He didn’t look very well, kind of clammy and quivering. But you see that a lot in the animation business. His gloved hands (he wore soft white gloves for handling cels) were trembling slightly and he had that odd, greenish cast one gets from lack of sleep and too much caffeine. He must have been a camera operator, I figured, because he was looking for polarizing filters for a Mitchell, which is a type of animation camera, and he had an X-sheet (exposure sheet, the guide to how a scene will be photographed) on a clipboard under his arm. With a deadline approaching he’d probably been working long hours, too, like everyone else. Maybe longer. Hours of tedium alone in the dark, adjusting the camera incrementally and photographing cel after cel, frame after frame, painstakingly building up a movie one-twenty-fourth-of-a-second at a time.
Camera operator. I’d done that too, when making my own films. You had to be crazy to do it. Crazy, and geeky because it requires an incredible amount of focus and accuracy.
“We need the polarizers for 18B!” he explained excitedly, adding, “It’s the scene with all the elves!” as if that made all the difference.
“Okay,” said Sachi. “Take it easy.”
He appeared to be a geek on the edge of exhaustion, green and trembling. Just wait till the rest of you starts twitching, I thought. Better ease up, brother, or curl up somewhere and get some sleep.
I recalled how my dad, exhausted after a ridiculous number of hours on the job, would curl up under his Disney animation desk and take himself a well earned snooze. (He had proudly hauled that desk from the Disney studio in Burbank, where he’d spent seven years animating, all the way to New Zealand when we immigrated there in the 1960s. Later, in one of life’s strange twists, at my dying mother’s request I became my father’s apprentice, and learned animation from him.) When, from exhaustion, his eyes could no longer see and his hands could no longer draw, dad would curl up in the spacious footwell of the giant desk, the chair rolled back out of the way, and have a nap.
“Call me at three o’clock, please, son,” he’d say before closing the door to his office. “I’m going to get a little shuteye.” Inside, he would lift the phone off the hook (purely habit, for who was going to call at three A.M.?) switch off the Luxo lamp above his drawing disc and lastly, turn off the music he always had playing as he worked.
He would pause for a few seconds with his hand at the recording machine, listening with pleasure, before turning the volume down and off with a soft click.
My father loved music. Country and western music, mostly.
You’d think that I, after listening to my father’s music all those years while I learned animation at his side, would love country and western music too, wouldn’t you?
Well, you’d be wrong.
It was a bittersweet day for me when for the first time I stayed awake and carried on while my father had to succumb to exhaustion and take to his desk for some sleep. Yes, I was proud of myself for having the strength to carry on where I saw my father stumble, but I was also sad because I had crossed an invisible line I knew I could never recross. For the first time in my life, my father seemed smaller than me.
I hadn’t seen the line or even noticed the crossing of it, but I knew I would never think of my father in the same way again.
“Okay,” said Sachi to the young cameraman. “Tell Wolf I’ll be right there.”
He hurried off. Sachi leaned against the wall and breathed a deep sigh. She was tired, too.
“There’s no business like show business,” I said, trying to indicate I understood.
“How would I know?” laughed Sachi. “I used to be a school teacher. Now I work in an insane asylum!”
To be continued…