Credit Where Credit Is Due (Or, don’t fear telling people you didn’t do something.) October 23, 2016 00:00
Today I want to talk about something that has been on my mind almost from the day I started work at Disney over twenty years ago – well, actually, from before that, all the way back to art class at Foster Elementary School in Arvada, Colorado. And that is the subject of crediting artists fairly. That is, being open to telling people who did what.
I’ll begin with a story. When I was a youngster in the fourth grade, we were all of us making clay pots in art class. Rather than make another clay pot, which we had all done before, I decided to do something different. I made a little blob of a figure, just a head, with a gaping open mouth and lolling tongue on which I placed a big vitamin capsule. It was bold, fun, and colorful. It was pop art and it stood out. It stood out right up until the kid next to me saw mine and made the very same thing that I made only not at all as nice-looking as mine and he got his placed in the case in the school’s lobby and mine wasn’t. He never said a word about where he got such a nifty idea and I’m sure never wondered later about what that all felt like to me as I walked into the front door of the school every day for the rest of the year and saw my fine idea with someone else’s name on it.
That stayed with me.
I’ve had and continue to have the wonderful privilege of working in feature animation. I’ve worked hard to get here – countless hours of storyboarding, pitching, rejection, notes; moments of despair, terror, elation, and pride. At the end of the process, we take press tours. If you like the sound of your own voice, this is your big chance to hear it. In a single day you might talk to a hundred or more reporters in almost as many interviews.
One of the things that I have learned is that many times different reporters are asking very similar questions. Sometimes identical questions. Needless to say, on questions you struggled to answer on your first stop in Denver, you are a whiz at answering by the time you land in Japan. And in many, many cities and many hours in a folding chair, I have noticed something: there is a decided tendency to want to boil a massive collaborative process down into a simple, singular droplet of credit. People will ask how in the world Dean Deblois and I made “How To Train Your Dragon,” or how we made “Lilo & Stitch,” etc. I used to think it was just a question, but as time passed I began to realize that sometimes they were actually wondering how we two did it. That is, just us.
What I learned from my press tours is that even if you do list off particular artists, animators, painters, engineers, producers, and the like that were the true muscle that got a movie made, their names rarely (if ever) make it into print. It’s either too tedious or perceived to be uninteresting, and the people I credited and the stories I told about them tended to vanish. So I made it a point in interviews to spend as much time as needed redirecting credit for particular moments, lines, designs, and story turns to the people that really deserved it. Again, it never really stuck. But that doesn’t mean I stopped doing it. I make it a full-time job.
This all comes to mind because, in this age of the internet, misinformation and the omission of information is widespread. And I came here to talk to not only artists, but to anyone who loves art, literature, film, etc. Recently it became clear that in a preponderance of internet chatter, and even several instances of meeting people in person, a book that I had the privilege to contribute to, “Rescue Sirens: The Search for the Atavist,” has wrongly been credited entirely to me. Not a couple of times, but in many of the posts about it. This isn’t just careless – at best it’s pretty hurtful – but, at worst, it actually changes the history of something that someone else worked hard to create. In the case of “Rescue Sirens,” I neither crafted the world and the story, nor drew the interior illustrations. Those credits belong, respectively, to my wife, Jessica Steele-Sanders, and to artist Genevieve Tsai.
Now, you might think this sort of thing is limited to casual postings on the internet. But it’s not. I was surprised recently to see that an “Art of” book somehow forgot that I worked on a film. And it was a film I actually co-wrote and co-directed. Reading about my non-self was like seeing me fade out of one of those photographs in a movie about a time-travel accident. This still wouldn’t be super-odd except when you consider that the book was actually published by the actual studio that I directed the film for. It is here that I must note that this sort of thing never happened at Disney. To contrast that, Pixar included me in a book about story even though I didn’t work there but was part of a punch-up session for “Toy Story.” They remembered something that happened twenty years ago and followed up with me. That’s class. And that’s what happens when artists look out for one another.
I should add that when someone does something for the first time, I think it’s especially important to get the story straight, and to do it right away. It was Jessica who invented “Rescue Sirens.” She first imagined the world, then created and wrote the mythology and the characters. After that, she outlined a strong story and wrote it. This is where I came in as a second writer. She and I wrote “Rescue Sirens” in tandem, just as Dean Deblois and I wrote “Lilo & Stitch” together. As for the interior illustrations, Genevieve Tsai created those based on a world that Jess saw very clearly and was able to transmit to Genevieve and myself. (And since I’m giving credit here, I must also note that my drawings on the front and back cover were colored by Edgar Delgado, while the Ocean Drive skyline was drawn by Teresa Martinez.) So if “Rescue Sirens” is anyone’s book, it is Jess’s book, indeed.
I seldom get on a soapbox, especially on the internet. But I’m not here to scold anyone; rather, I’m here to assure all of us who create things, and love things that someone else created, that it’s worth all our whiles to take the time and energy to credit people where it is due.
I’ve worked in cultures at Disney and Pixar where collaboration is celebrated. If you are young, just starting out, and something you did is getting attention, I can assure you that you can credit anyone that partnered with you till you’re blue in the face and it won’t detract a bit from your own accomplishment. It will do quite the opposite. We recently met with James Cameron at DreamWorks and one of the things I was impressed by was the sheer number of names he spilled as he discussed everything from camera rigs to animation to software development. He not only knew what everyone did, he spent a lot of time letting us know who did what.
As filmmakers and artists, we owe it to each other to get the story straight. If there are two or three or more writers’ names, don’t boil it down to one. The real story of how things like movies and books are made is far more interesting when the collaborations are revealed and individual talents celebrated. I have been quite fortunate to have worked with people who were confident in their own talents and never hesitated to throw credit and attention my way. Directors like Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff took the time to mention my contributions on “The Lion King” and made sure the illustrations in the “Art of” book were credited properly – that helped me immensely as I went forward.
Books, interviews, and articles become a history. We owe it to each other to not leave people behind.