What is your name and your current occupation?
Hi, I’m Paul Griffin and I’m currently an animation director. When I was seven, I was planning on being a firefighting astronaut who flew jets on the weekends, but animation director is pretty close. There is an element of firefighting some days, I get to fly spaceships and puppeteer aliens to pilot them, but weekends I mostly just kick back around the house.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
I used to work for this couple, one summer in Toronto, who ran a ceramics business out of their basement. They had a tortoise who would eat the leaves of the large marijuana plant growing in the back yard, then he would crash into the fence over and over as he stumbled around. That was entertaining. I guess the turtle was happy for the most part. I also painted structural I-beams for a summer and had one job where we were working next to the Welland Canal and could look down the smoke stacks of ships as they were passing several hundred feet below us on the water. That’s how I developed my Kung Fu Grip©. Man, the crazy, dangerous stuff you’ll do for $9/hour…
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
That’s a tough one. My favorite project is usually the one I’m currently working on, but have to say some of the memorable ones have been, The Fly, Magnolia, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, King Kong, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, four Superbowl commercials and the cinematics for Star Wars: Bounty Hunter (VG). Working with the gang at Dr D Studios in Sydney on Happy Feet Two last year was really a lot of fun.
How did you become interested in animation?
Growing up in Ontario Canada, before the advent of cable TV, the town we lived in had one single broadcast TV channel from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Every Saturday at 5 p.m. my family would gather around the TV and we’d watch the Bugs Bunny Road Runner Hour and it was one of my favorite experiences growing up. It was sponsored by Kraft and they would have these wacky commercials between the cartoons that would highlight recipes that combined things like mini-marshmallows with sandwich spread and served rolled up in luncheon meat. Anyways, I still think those old WB cartoons are the best and that’s the humor I gravitate towards. They weren’t dumbed down and were full of adult humor. The guys who made them, put stuff in that they found funny themselves. Anyhow, at the end of high school. I found my two greatest assets were drawing and class clowning so animation seemed to be a perfect fit. Doing some research, I found, Sheridan College, (one of the two best animation schools at the time, the other being CalArts) was about 45 minutes from where I lived. Once I got into the animation program, for the first time in my life I was started getting good marks, so I think high school really did prepare me for my career, even if it wasn’t through the prescribed curriculum.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I was born in Owen Sound, Ontario on the shores of Lake Huron and moved about 12 times before I was 18 years old, so art was the only consistent subject between the various schools I attended. When I was in the classical cartoon program at Sheridan College, I started doing some freelance effects for a short film that featured Santa Claus as superhero, animating to live footage under a downshooter. In 1983, my new bride and I moved to Long Island where I worked at Computer Graphics Laboratory (the place that spawned Pixar and ILM computer graphics) at the New York Institute of Technology. Back then I worked 40 hours a week in their 2D department as well as going to school an additional 40 hours a week. Those were long weeks. When we came back to Toronto, I jumped in with both feet into 3D computer animation at Vidmax/Syntavision. That was my start and its been 3D ever since.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
I usually get in a little early and check email, review shots that are ready for dailies and prepare for the day. I like to have dailies with all the animators first thing in the morning. That’s the place to get general information and guidelines out to everybody as well have everybody see how the shots are going and the show is progressing. I always look at shots in context of how they cut together and don’t review one shot over and over again — we’re making a movie, not a collection of shots. I review dailies notes from the production department before they go out to make sure they’re clear and they have the intent of what was discussed. If its a visual effects show, its good to attend vfx dailies and represent animation issues for the show and help prevent or solve problems down the line. In the early afternoon, there’s a block of time animators can call me up or bring me over to their desks to discuss any issues pertaining to their shots. This is also the time I’ll talk with R&D or rigging, or mocap about issues that effect the animation department. Then around 4 p.m. I like to do rounds, going artist to artist, not only to see how the shot is progressing, but just to touch base and take the ‘mental temperature’ of the show.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
I enjoy jamming on performance ideas with other artists. I like finding entertaining solutions for directors and its fun working at that level but I really have the best times when I get to riff with animators and the ideas go to a whole new level, beyond what any of us would have come up with on our own. When that happens, its kind of like magic.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
I really agonize when situations come up where I have to let an animator go from a show. Usually its for performance reasons of some sort and I always try to make sure I’ve exhausted every avenue to give them an opportunity in turn the situation around, but if one animator is taking up 50% of my time and its not getting better, I know its a problem that needs to be solved for the good of the production. Still, this is somebody’s livelihood and its really hard on me to cut them loose.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
Its all pretty typical stuff. An email reader, web browser, Photoshop for visual notes, and the animation software du jour (Maya, XSI, Houdini…). When directing, I’ve needed a pretty good working knowledge of non-linear editing software too ( Final Cut Pro, Avid ).
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
I think I’d have to say not being able to find long term continuous employment any more. Projects work is fine, but i miss the security of being with a studio for 10 years straight.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
Oh cool, is this the part where I get to drop names? Lets see… I’ve had dinner with Chuck and Marian Jones, and on another occasion with Ray Harryhausen and his wife Diana Bruce. (Did you know she’s a descendant of Dr. Livingstone as in “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”). I’ve met Disney animation greats, Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnson and Eric Larson. as well as Brad Bird and Richard Williams. And this is pretty cool: when I was a young animator, I got to work with Johnny Gentilella (Popeye animator), Earl James (Betty Boop animator) and Dante Barbetta, who was arguably the best animator on the east coast.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
We all have rough days at work, you know the ones where somebody utters the expensive words ‘ I’ll know what I want when I see it’? <Cha-ching> Those people who can’t make up their minds are really “choosers”, not directors. Or the times some VFX supervisor feels they’d much rather do the job of the animation director…. politics. Meh. But seriously folks, those things seems really minor when I realize that there are people in this world that have it way worse than any work experience. If I compared my little problems with families struggling in the sub-Sahara or Syria right now, I’d be embarrassed. I think my life has been pretty blessed by getting to entertain people as my job.
Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
I have five writing projects on the go ranging from an action adventure anthology to a suspense movie to fully animated family pic. The animated one has a simple character test and I’ll share a link with you — just a bit of dialogue to introduce a bratty dragon.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
Funny enough I can tie a cherry stem that way and I can also weld. NB: Don’t try to combine those two skills, but the stuff I like doing when I have a few hours is restoring old air cooled German cars. I have a red 1967 VW convertible with a black canvas top and a ’76 Porsche 912e. Both are unique in that they are “one year only” cars. They run beautifully after a lot of restoration and tuning, but are they ever finished? Oh no. There’s always something to fix/replace/upgrade. I also have baby grand piano I enjoy playing, and an upright bass, two fretted basses and a fretless. …and a Theramin, that I built from a Moog kit, so occasionally that eerie oooo-eeee-oo 1950’s sci-fi sound can be heard emanating from my house. Léon Theramin’s life story would make a great movie. Spy, inventor, disappearance. Spooky stuff. Look it up…
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
I have three kids who all decided to go into animation and here’s kind of what I told them: Breaking into animation is tough. Frankly. You’re trying to bust into show business and, as talented or enthusiastic as you may be, you might just not be in the right place at the right time. ( Sadly sometime the reverse is true and I end up with the rare occasion when I have somebody with minimal talent working on a difficult project and I wonder, “How the heck did you get on this show???”) You have to keep mining all those network contacts you have for work, expand your LinkedIn base. Even at my advanced age, I find its people I’ve worked with before that trust me and will seek me out in a pinch and hire me. Burn as few bridges as possible (sometimes its not possible if you stand your ground when you need to, but be as gentle as you can), be honest and always do the best work you can do within the context (i.e. budget) of a show. The best thing you can do is be so brilliant you can’t be ignored. I often hear career coaches talk about developing your ‘five year plan’. Um, sure. This is a business that changes so fast its often tough to set goals for five weeks let alone five years. So ok, now I’m taking off the gloves. Here’s the thing: set a realistic goal if you’re just starting out. If say, you’re trying to break into a job as an animator and you’ve kept improving your reel and bettering your knowledge, and after some time you’ve set, say 3 or 5 years, your not making headway, know when to move on or be willing to do something else: modeling, rigging, compositing, lighting, nuclear scientist, baker. The best thing you can have in your career is somebody who can honestly guide you and is willing to tell you, that you either have what it takes to make it or you don’t . Sound harsh? Yep, but that’s the reality. You might not have to quit, but you might have to change your focus or come back to it when the time is right — when you’re in that right place at the right time you’ll know it. And If you don’t have what it takes, its better to find out earlier rather than later. An attitude of perseverance is not enough, you have to be talented and in that right place sometimes. Another thing to prepare for is long periods where you might not work in animation. A month, 3 months, a year, 2 years… It happens all the time. A wise person told me when I was just getting started, to “try and live off half of everything you make”. That was good advice back in 1979 and I’m still doing this job today because I’ve been able to weather the down times by socking savings away when times are good. Of the 150 students in my first year class, 9 of us made it to graduation and I believe 4 of us are still in animation. I don’t mean to discourage anybody, but as I said, animation is tough and I want to be straight with you. Go in with your eyes wide open, and really, good luck out there. …and oh yah, don’t work overtime hours for free. It hurts both you and your employer who thinks you’re getting it all done in regular hours, won’t know how to bid the next show any better and will eventually go bust.
As usual, very forthright and informative. Always good to get inside the head and heart of this Griffin. The Fluff is off and the reality is open for the viewing.
Thanks again for a clear picture of the animator/supervisor/director experience showing both rewards and difficulties.
Another job well done.
You’d go a long way to find an animator as good as Paul Griffin. He’s a fun-loving, express1ive guy that enjoys life to the fullest and puts his heart and soul into his work. Long after he leaves a project his co-workers are still keeping in touch. They don’t work for him, they work with him.
I have had the pleasure of working with Paul on some of those projects. And shared in the struggles on others. I would recommend him to any producer in the business.