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


Pia said...

Keep up the good work.

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