Animation Spotlight : Jerry Rees

Its time for another Animation Artist Spotlight! This month we'd like to introduce Jerry Rees, a talented animator and director who's work spans wide in the animation world. Read on to learn more...

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What first got you interested in Animation?

Cracker Jacks. Okay that’s not entirely accurate – “Bambi”, “Pinocchio” and Cracker Jacks.

As a kid, I remember being blown away by the pure artistry and vivid emotion of “Bambi”. Someone had rented a 16mm film print for a local church social event. Even with the projector clattering along in the same room as the audience, it thrilled me. I was amazed that such a complete and beautiful world of characters could be brought to life by any group of artists.

And “Pinocchio” – it washed over me like a tidal wave. I remember riding sleepily in the back seat of our car as my Dad drove us home from a family outing. We were ascending a freeway overpass and as we climbed higher and higher, a nearby drive-in theater screen rose up into view. Across that big screen, Monstro the whale was crashing through the waves – the unstoppable demon leviathan intent on devouring Pinocchio, Geppetto and their little friends. I pleaded for my Dad to pull over to the side of the road so I could see more. He reluctantly pulled over, illegally parking at the top of the overpass for a few moments – the moment when Monstro heaved all his tonnage in a last terrible attack – the moment when Pinocchio floated face down and lifeless in the shallows. In our idling car all went silent – except for my small voice, asking dad for one more favor. Our trip home was detoured as we entered the drive-in for the next showing – my first viewing of that astounding classic.

Oh yes, Cracker Jacks. I liked them a lot. Not only for their crunchy sweetness. Each box had a toy surprise inside. Sometimes I’d get a decoder ring or a fake tattoo. But one time I got a flipbook. This flipbook showed a fisherman casting his hook into a small bucket. And out of the small bucket, he pulled a LARGE fish! It wasn’t Monstro large, but it was worth bragging about. As I laughed and flipped it again and again, a realization began to sink in; this whole animation thing – the seemingly unattainable artistry of hundreds of people co-creating a classic vision – it wasn’t beyond mortal reach if you started right here, with drawings on paper that seemed to come alive. The surprise inside that particular Cracker Jack box was the message, “you can do this”.

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What was your first animation project/job?

For me - In elementary school, I convinced my science teacher that I should do an animated film instead of all that test stuff. Miraculously, he agreed. My friend Scott and I created a stop motion film entitled “Battle of the Bloodstream”.  It was my first taste of directing. Science was never the same.

For real ­–­ I spent an unforgettable summer going through the Disney Animation archives to prepare materials for the inaugural year of the Cal Arts Character Animation Program. I had been made Teacher’s Assistant for that “guinea pig” year and took it very seriously.

For pay – After two years attending Cal Arts, Disney asked four of us to bail out on the remainder of school and start working full time. John Musker, Brad Bird, Doug Lefler and I gladly accepted and said farewell to our classmates. When we arrived at the studio, “Pete’s Dragon” was in full post-production deadline crunch. My first paying animation gig inside Disney was doing cleanup on Elliott himself for the combo live-action/animation segments.

What were the biggest challenges for you to break into the industry?

Wow… it was a whole different era. I was dreaming of Disney before any Cal Arts Character Animation Program existed, and way before I was college age. There was only one studio of real quality and they weren’t hiring. There were no animation classes to take in my town. In fact people in my town were saying there was no future in animation as a job, period. They wondered why would I even try. And there were no user-friendly animation tools. I went halves with my parents (who were always supportive) on a Super-8 film camera with frame-by-frame capability. I tied weights to a tripod to make an animation stand and put yellow tape around it to indicate when it was a “hot set” (this was the family living room mind you). I ordered acme pegs for registration. Pre-punched paper cost too much, so I snuck into an audio-visual department at the local med school to use their industrial punch from time-to-time. On one of those clandestine visits, I was caught by the supervisor. He wondered what this kid was doing there – and why I even needed punched paper.  When I explained that I was doing animation at home, he bluntly said “you can’t do that.” He went on to explain all the equipment I didn’t have and all the knowledge I didn’t have. Later, when my Mom was driving me home, she wondered if my faith was shaken. As she tells it, I calmly turned to her and said, “That guy doesn’t know what he’s taking about” and left it at that.

Ironically the same “you can’t do that” guy changed my life.

He became curious and asked to see some of my animation. I carted my little projector over and showed him. He was impressed. He said he’d heard rumors that Disney might start recruiting since the veterans were heading toward retirement. He wrote something on a piece of paper, tore it off and handed it to me. It was the phone number of Ed Hansen the Production Manager of Disney Feature Animation – in case I was interested. I was interested.

My Dad drove me into the “big city” of Burbank and I showed my portfolio. Eric Larson (one of Walt Disney’s “Nine Old Men”) liked it. He showed me a desk, saying it would be mine whenever I had a chance to take a break from high school and drop in. He’d tutor me. I thought I was dreaming. I stopped in as often as possible.

As I graduated high school, Disney announced the new Cal Arts program and offered me the TA gig. Fortunately they also offered me a scholarship, since my family could never have paid my tuition at Cal Arts.

The takeaway lesson: always push yourself to be the best you can be, always keep the long view in sight, and always be ready to dance on off chance you get lucky.

What do you think the major differences in the animation industry today are from when you first got into the industry?

 There are more studios large and small doing quality work. And there are more storytelling formats than ever before, with games, features, television, web series, virtual reality experiences, etc. There are many more good animation classes and more user-friendly tools for creating animation. And there are more ways around the old distribution paradigms – a democratization of creativity if you will – allowing even one person with access to social media to get his or her idea seen the world over.

Conversely, there is much more competition for all these new potentials. But I’ve taken hope in seeing boutique-size and small indie teams co-exist with big industry studios. Groups of artists can effectively gather in virtual workspace, separated by geography, but united by shared vision, shared story and shared characters.

It’s a great time for non-purists. I happen to be one of them. I don’t have an allegiance to one style. I believe that style is born out of each new story. I celebrate stories giving birth to such different styles as “Kubo and the Two Strings”, “Moana”, “Anomalisa”, “Rick and Morty”, “The Simpsons” and even “Beyond: Two Souls” or “The Last of Us”.

I do believe that 2D animation will make a comeback. But instead of circling the wagons around a specific niche, I believe in pushing the boundaries for what may come next and blending old and emerging techniques for unpredictable flavors.

Let story be the driver. Find your soul mates.

What has been your favorite/most rewarding animation project you worked on thus far?

“The Brave Little Toaster”. Great team and the most creative freedom ever. No studio notes. Everyone cared about the characters and each other and wanted to be able to look back on it with pride. We only had slightly over two million for the entire 90 minutes and every day had to produce the same amount of animation that would have taken two weeks in the studio system. We are amazed and humbled by letters that come in saying that the film meant something special to quite a few audience members – even though we never got a theatrical release.

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Also dear to my heart is “Back to Neverland”, the live action / animation short I directed starring Robin Williams and Walter Cronkite. I was working with a dream team, expressing a subject I felt passionate about.

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Back to Neverland, Disney's demonstration of the process of animation that was originally hosted at Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney Hollywood Studios) until the Florida animation studio was shut down, where Walter Cronkite puts Robin Williams into a Peter Pan sequel as a Lost Boy.

Are there any little known fun facts about any of the films you've worked on?

“Back to Neverland” led directly to Robin Williams being cast as the genie in “Aladdin”. At first the studio was wary of my desire to cast Robin. They were worried that his edgy adult stage act wouldn’t allow him to fit with the family tradition of Disney animation. I cited Walt Disney’s casting of Cliff Edwards for the voice of Jiminy Cricket as a precedent, since Cliff worked “blue” as a nightclub performer back in the day. So they cautiously let me experiment with Robin on our short film. Robin was warm and wonderful and hilarious.  Audiences totally embraced him as a Disney animated character. We even had a metamorphosis scene where Robin improvised wildly, then Frans Vischer animated him transforming into everything he described. I think this was a particularly “ah-ha” moment regarding his appropriateness as a potential genie for “Aladdin”.  John Musker and Ron Clements surprised me by embedding a sweet tip-of-the-hat to our short film in their feature.  Near the end of “Aladdin” when the Genie gets his freedom, he time travels and comes back wearing a Goofy hat, a Hawaiian shirt and shorts – the same outfit that the live action Robin wore at the beginning of “Back to Neverland”.

f you are able to share, what projects are you currently working on?

All I can say is I’m restlessly, passionately pursuing every potential always.

What do you still want to achieve, or what do you want to work on next?

The list is long, including untold stories, imagined characters, immersive human sharing and empowering new tools. Top of the list is changing the world for the better in tangible ways. It’s totally possible.

Thanks for sharing your story with us, Jerry!

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