Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Strange Origins of the Animation Workshop

There's the official history, which I have no doubt is all quite true. And then there's the untold story...

Yesterday, I finally got someone sat down long enough to tell me how all of this got started. "This" being the Animation Workshop, the school where I'm currently lucky enough to be teaching, and the "someone" being Michelle Nardone, the Director of the Bachelor Program here at the school. I've mentioned Michelle before... she's an American who grew up on the East Coast, spent time in Berkley and San Francisco, and a few different parts of Europe before landing here about 5 years ago.

I asked her over a Saturday afternoon beer how this began, and I think now that her part of the story starts somewhere in the middle of that official version. I'd say roughly 10 years ago, but I'm not sure. What I am sure of, is that the official telling doesn't mention British carpet baggers or the game squash. It also doesn't mention Morton Thorning.

Morton is the general director of the Animation Workshop. I haven't gotten a chance to get to know him much, but he seems like a very intelligent man, and very interesting too, though I think a lot of people back in Dallas would call him eccentric. At that screening party the other night, the topic came up of topless sunbathing, and the fact that some parts of Europe (Denmark included) see nothing strange about it, but that other parts might be a little shocked to see a bra coming off in a public park on a nice summer day. Morton seemed to think about it for a minute and then grabbed a small Danish flag off the table and fairly urgently said, "And this! This is the difference." Well put. He was pointing out the strange way that a border and a flag affect the way people live their lives and what's considered acceptable, and what's not. I mention this little episode to give you an idea what Morton is like. Or at least as good an idea as I have.

I knew Morton had a key role in the creation of this school, so I asked Michelle, "So, how did this all start? Morton?"

"Yes," she said, "So here's what happened..."

She went on to tell me that Morton had been a musician and a pretty successful one. He'd made a lot of money performing and touring, and things were going well. Then somewhere along the way, he had a disagreement with the Danish equivalent of the IRS. Sounds like they nailed him pretty hard for unpaid taxes, and following that he decided it was time to find a line of work that might be a little more stable for him. He started writing, and ended up on Danish radio reading stories he'd written. Don't you wish there was more of that in the U.S.?

Around this time the British boys enter the scene. Viborg is governed by something like a city council, and a pair of British "entrepreneurs" lobbied this council very persuasively that what Viborg, Denmark really needed was Squash courts.

(To be honest, she wasn't sure if it was Squash or maybe Racketball, or American Handball, but it was one of those sports with an small enclosed court. For the purpose of the story, let's say it was Squash, OK?)

The Brits convinced the City leaders to begin using some available property in Viborg to build these courts, and got a sizeable grant from them in the process. Then they promptly disappeared with the money. Obviously, the Danes weren't happy about this. They'd already built a bunch of small cube-like rooms for the courts and last fucking thing on earth they were going to use them for now was SQUASH!

Around this same time, I think someone must've been campaigning for more development of this Animation program that was still struggling to find space, and these Viborg officials decided those little square rooms would be perfect for animation! Of course!

Let me say again... they decided to give this space to the Animation Workshop because.... the rooms were the right size. (!?)

Now they needed someone to head up this school. Apparently some of them really enjoyed the on-air stylings of Mr. Morton Thorning. I imagine the conversation like this...

"Mr. Thorning? Yes, this is the King of Viborg."

"Hello your Majesty!"

"Listen, Morton, we here in V-town all really enjoy your radio stories, and we'd like you to come be the head of a new animation program here."

"But your highness, I don't know anything about animation!"

"Even so, you write very well, and you have a nice voice and we think you're the man for the job, what do you say?"

"But sir..."

"You'll be fine. Come around next week and we'll talk out the details."

I've gotten jobs I wasn't expecting to get before (including this teaching gig) but that had to be a strange feeling.

So Morton says 'Fuck it!' and heads for Viborg. He has enough sense to surround himself with a lot of good people who do know a thing or two about animation, eventually including Michelle and my benefactor in this adventure, David Tart. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I wanted to tell this story because the chain of events is so bizarre, but also because chains of events so often are. If this version of the story is true, then it seems fair to say that I wouldn't be halfway across the world having these great experiences if it weren't for some greedy British squash players, a hard-nosed Danish tax assessor, the adventurous spirit of a Danish musician and the strange logic of the King of Viborg.

Thing is, these kinds of random events happen all the time and have huge impacts on people's lives. I think people just don't acknowledge them unless it's really bad luck. Then there's a need for something to blame... some freak occurance that disrupted their otherwise well crafted life. I guess people also just look for rational reasons why things happen. I could just as easily say that my hard work in animation and my willingness to take a risk and come out here were the reason I'm here, but I know that's only half the truth. In the same way, I know that a lot of my successes and failures are part luck and part intent.

I'm understanding more and more that the only thing you can really do is try to make a good life for yourself, and be willing to take the good with the bad, knowing you don't have total control of your own life.

"When the world takes your money and gives you half-built Squash courts, make an art school out of them!" - The King of Viborg.


p.s. There is no King of Viborg

Monday, January 15, 2007

Insight Short and Boukha

(click me!)

I had a chance last night to attend a nice little party with some of the other animators that are working here at the Animation Workshop. Some are here to teach, like me. Others are here to work in the Open Workshop. That's another part of this school I haven't mentioned yet, and one of the most interesting parts. They've set up fairly nice facilities for people to come and work on personal projects, as well as living space while they're here. There are a certain number of spaces available, and there's an application process to be allowed to come and work here. It's a really great resource for a lot of independent artists.

But back to the party...

The reason for celebration was the screening of a short film one by an animator named Salvador Simo called Insight. It's a very nice piece about an old woman who lives on the street and the little girl who befriends her. I'm not sure when it will be available to watch, but there are a couple of render tests. Just follow the link.

The thing about this little party that was new for me was the multinational flavor of it. I've now worked with people from many places... from Peru, Korea, Holland, Australia, Brazil, Spain, Jordan, France, etc. But I usually don't end up interacting with all of them at once.

There's a certain kind of mental gear shifting that has to be done when you talk with someone from another culture, and another primary language. Talking with 20 students that are all from Scandinavia, is one thing. At least you have a common context of possible misunderstanding. I get a little exhausted making conversation at house parties and dinner parties anyway, but night had my head spinning.

My hosts were an Israeli couple named Uri and Mikal who are working in the open workshop on a 2d project (Mikal also has family ties in the U.S.). Michelle Nardone was to my right, she's an American who's been living in Denmark for a number of years now and is the Director of Bachelor Education. There was a girl named Maria who I believe is from Russia, or at least speaks Russian and is going there for school soon, a Swedish animator named Henrik who's here for the open workshop, another one of the directors of the school, Tim Leborgne, who's French, but who lived in Belgium for some time and his young daughter, another American animator named Todd who's here teaching but has lived in Turkey and other parts of Europe, the film maker himself Salvador who's from Barcelona, and another Spaniard who's a student here, two or three Danes from the school including the father of it all, Morton Thorning, and a couple of other people who showed up late and who's origins are still a mystery to me.

I felt a little like shutting up all night just so I wouldn't say something stupid in the midst of this little United Nations of Animation, and cause some miniature international incident. But everyone was really friendly, and it was a really nice evening. I got this feeling like I was looking around the table at representatives of the industry worldwide. It gives you a good sense that there's a big community out there in this little industry, and a lot of common ground all over the world.

We had Tahini, and wine and cake (I forgot to mention there were a couple of birthdays being celebrated as well). And I was introduced to something called Boukha. It's from Tunisia, and is probably best compared to ouzo, the Greek liqueur. Boukha is made from figs, and is not to be entered into lightly or on an empty stomach.

I hope to have more nights like that, and maybe one day I'll be a charter member of the UNoA!

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Philosophy I Can Love

At the beginning of my trip, I started through my first reading of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig. It's my father's copy and it's a book I've wanted to read for a long time.

I didn't know much about the book, except that it's really more about philosophy than motorcycles, and that it was a 'journey' story, it seemed appropriate to me to read it on this trip. It also seemed to fit since I just bought my first old bike of my own. Well... it's an old scooter, but still.

Now that I'm about halfway through, it seems like an even better choice than I could've hoped. This is the longest amount of time I've ever spent away from home, and I'm expecting it'll change me a little... or a lot. I'm hoping it does.

I think I'll re-read this book many times before I die.

The New Vikings


I'm back in Viborg, Denmark to teach animation students at a small school here called The Animation Workshop. The school is a fantastically fresh and nurturing artistic environment. All week I've the feeling I had last time... wishing I'd had a chance to work or go to school at a place like this. All of the animation studios I've seen or heard about with these great laid back environments seem propped up... forced, and almost cult-like compared with the natural way that people seem to come together here. And my own Alma Mater The Art Institute of Dallas? That place might as well have been a cubical farm!

Part of it is the actual structure of place. There are work spaces for the students of course. Most are big, well appointed stations with animation drawing tables, flat screen monitors and digitizer tablets. But the communing happens in places like the big lounge/dining hall at the end of the building in which I'm teaching. They cook together and drink together and listen to music and even dance here.

The other thing that produces this feeling of community seems to be distinctly Danish... or maybe Scandinavian. Over and over I've heard people use the word cozy in a very positive tone, referring to bars they like, or maybe a party. I have in mind that it must be a result of having to escape the weather and darkness of the north and huddle together, getting along and making the most of the closeness. It feels good.

It's only 8 months after my first trip here, but it feels like a reunion for me. The first was in May, and lasted only a week. This time I'm here for over 8 weeks (6 weeks of actually teaching) and feel like it will be a much richer experience. I have time enough to get comfortable with my surroundings, which has never really happened in any of my other international trips (few as they've been).

Last night at that dinner with the students was the most insightful feeling yet. They're smart and open people. Even at their young ages (most of this class is still in their early 20s), they challenge me on the things I say, and they're hugely curious. They have strong opinions about the world, and are perfectly willing to share them.

It's stupid, but I can't help but think of them as the Vikings the Danes once were. I wonder if it's the same curiosity that made the Vikings such big time explorers. It also seems like these kids are a lot different than their parents. They're more connected to the rest of the world and they're ready to go see it and challenge it.

I hope they do.

How not to get to Denmark

Normally I'd say a flight across the Atlantic wasn't worth retelling, but my trip over was both the worst I've ever had, and a somewhat rewarding experience.

My plane was supposed to leave Dallas for Chicago at 6:13pm on the 4th of January, but due to weather in Chicago (heavy fog I think they said), our plane wasn't allowed to leave Dallas until close to 8pm. By the time we hit Chi town my connecting flight to Copenhagen was probably almost out over the water. This meant trying to find a new flight, and eventually meant sleeping on the floor of Chicago O'Hare International Airport Terminal A (It's more comfortable the benches for a guy my height, trust me).

In trying to find out what my options were, I ended up very naturally bonded to a young Guatemalan lady named Maria, and a middle aged Danish couple whose names I was told, but couldn't possibly remember. They had all three missed the same flight out, and shared my fate of sleeping at O'Hare. Maria, at least is a petite little thing and was able to curl up on a bench, but the others got the floor treatment, just like I did.

It's a situation wherein you've done nothing wrong, but can't help feeling like there's more you should do to try and get out of it, even when you've reached the logical end of what you can do. No one is really able to help you much and, at least the way things work right now, there's no accommodation for someone in this pinch. It sucks. And the only thing to do about it is wait, keep trying and try to laugh about it.

We did, and by morning we all had solutions to our travel woes of one kind or another. Mine would take me through Newark, while Maria ended up in Boston and Munich before getting back to Copenhagen and back to her studies at business school.

Spending this time with a sweet, cute little Guatemalan certainly made everything a lot easier to bear, and trying to help her figure out how to get past her own traveling troubles seemed to take my mind off my own... at least enough to take the stress off a little. Before I head back to the U.S. I'll spend a weekend in Copenhagen, and we're supposed to get together for a beer. I look forward to it!

Once I got to Newark Liberty Int'l, I was pretty much on my way, although, as anyone who's ever taken a transcontinental flight knows, 8 hours sharing an armrest and recycled air with a stranger in an uncomfortable seat leaves you with a special kind of gross, stiff, tired feeling that's hard to love. I was boarding the plane already covered with that particular layer of badness. I had no change of clothes or access to a shower. Not feeling my best.

I got to Copenhagen, and was rewarded with a fantastic cup of coffee and a croissant for 65 Danish Kroner (around $8). Much better than the fare offered by O'Hare or Liberty. I had this feeling of accomplishment, even though all I'd done was suffer for the decisions of some Air Traffic Control official. Still, I felt like I'd paid my dues getting to Europe this time around.

All I had left was a few hours in the Copenhagen Airport (a beautiful facility), a short hop to Karup, and a 20 minute taxi ride to my final destination - Viborg, Denmark where I was scheduled to teach 2nd year animation students for the next 8 weeks. Aside from one last hitch that caused my luggage to be 3 or 4 hours behind me, I was through it.

All told, my planned 18 hour trip to Viborg took about 40 hours and left me a memorable experience and a new friend. I don't regret any of it, but I do hope the story of the trip home isn't worth telling.