#20. A Conversation with Dean Wellins
JA: Let's start with your work as a character breakdown artist for the 1994 film, The Pagemaster; how did you get involved with this film, what was it like to work with director Maurice Hunt , and what challenges did you face working on this film that took 3 1/2 years to complete?
DW: The Pagemaster was my first real job coming out of CalArts. Me and a handful of others from CalArts went into their internship program at Turner Features to ultimately become clean-up artists on the movie. I made some great friends at Turner and learned a lot from the artistic leadership at the studio, namely Maurice Hunt and Bruce Smith. Maurice was such a gentle and talented soul. His ideas on color and composition were beyond my comprehension. He was a genius! Bruce was our animation teacher, and until today, I have never met a more gifted and naturally talented artist in my whole life. I learned a lot from him about acting and appeal. He’s one of the very best!
JA: You were also a lead animator on Gargoyles: The Game in 1995, tell me about what other work you were involved in at Renegade Animation.
DW: I went to work at Renegade in 1994 and worked there for two or so years. Gargoyles was one of the first things I worked on there. Renegade was another training ground for me as I learned a lot form Darrell Van Citters and Ashley Postlewaite, the Director and Producer, respectively, there. Working in commercials is by far the most frantic world I’ve ever been in. Luckily for me, I worked fast. I could animate 20 to 30 feet in a week. Not because I wanted to, but because we had to. We sometimes had only five weeks to produce an entire animated commercial, when the ad agency had been working on it for over a year! But even though the deadlines loomed, we had a lot of fun.
JA: You worked as a directing animator and story artist for Brad Bird's The Iron Giant in 1999; this was the first traditionally-animated feature to have a major character who is fully computer-generated. Tell me about the challenges you faced while working on a film that would be recognized with 19 awards.
DW: I remember when we first started working on the story. We didn’t even have a script, just a four page treatment Brad had written. But it was all there. Even then, I think Brad knew that the Giant needed to be CG, but having the Giant be CG was done out of pragmatism, not innovation. It was just a lot easier for the computer to animate hard metal objects than a huge effects crew. In fact I remember talking to Steve Markowski (supervisor on the Giant), who was looking into what software they were going to use for the Giant, and being frustrated because every vendor wanted to show-off their skinning and musculature processes. It was stuff the Giant didn’t need. He just needed to be a simple, yet expressive, metal machine (that didn’t bend) to animate. The vendors would just sort of scratch their heads like: “that’s it?” The hardest part was giving the Giant a 2d look. The software guys at the time devised a way of rendering the Giant with what looked like a wobbly, hand drawn line so he would blend in with the 2d characters. In the end it really worked great.
Looking back on it, the only challenge I ever felt as an artist on Iron Giant, was to make the best movie possible; story-wise, animation-wise, however. I even did clean-up fixes to try and keep the quality up as much as possible. Working with Brad Bird, Jeff Lynch and Tony Fucile will always go down as my biggest education on the ins and outs of filmmaking and animation. It was hard, it was freeing, it was seemingly impossible sometimes, but all-in-all, one of the best experiences of my career. It was too bad so few saw it in the theater; so much of every artist that worked on it, is in that movie. I always likened having been a part of Iron Giant to climbing Everest at night when no one was looking. We came to the bottom of the mountain in the morning and said, “We did it! We made it the top last night!" But no one believed us... until they went up and saw it for themselves.
JA: Before moving on, let's talk about the time you spent at CalArts; what was your time spent at the school like, tell me about your senior project, and who was the first in your family to become involved in the entertainment industry?
DW: I went to CalArts from 1990 to 1992 with 65 or so other classmates. An illustrious class to be sure: John Ripa, Lou Romano, Craig McCracken, Gendy Tartakovsky, Randy Myers, Sergio Pablos, Mark Oftedal, Bryan Andrews, Rob Renzetti, Mark O’hare, Eric Stefani, Mike Mitchell and many others. We redefined self-motivated as we were the first freshman class in a long time that every single person had a finished film by the end of the year. Our parents had to sit through a four and a half hour student showcase. I can’t say my student film was noteworthy, although some were, like Gendy’s Dexter’s Laboratory and Craig’s The Whoop-Ass Girls (renamed later the Power-Puff Girls). I remember many late nights and many drunken escapades in Tony Stanley’s dorm room while trying to get our films done. Most of us didn’t get past our second year before being picked up by a studio. Some even did professional work while still at school! It was after my second year that I was hired into the Turner Feature Animation internship program. As far as family members, I was really the first to get into the business, although my brother Mike (6 years older), was right behind me as he’s been making films since I was six years old. He’s now a Director at Leica in Portland. My mother, Ellen Merino, was who my Brother and I got our artistic side from. She was a painter and musician, more-so a musician. She was a classically trained pianist and jazz keyboardist who made a real name for herself in the jazz circles of central California.
JA: You were a supervising animator for the 2001 Farrelly Brother's film, Osmosis Jones; tell me about your memories working on this film.
DW: Osmosis Jones was a weird time at Warners, because we had just come off of Iron Giant; and as artists, we were on a huge high, even though Iron Giant didn’t make much money. We knew we made a great film and so did Warner Bros, but Brad wasn’t around anymore. And although we had a great team, the Warner Bros. executives still didn’t really believe in us. I didn’t get into the story side of Osmosis Jones at all, as I was waiting to see what Brad would do next. Well, we all know what Brad did next. He went to Pixar. I had a life here with my wife and new baby and our freshly-bought house. So instead of following Brad and Tony up to Pixar, I decided to stay and animate on Osmosis Jones. I ended up Supervising the Villain: “Thrax” (voiced by Larry Fishburne). It was pretty fun, but I think at the end of the day, we all knew it was no Iron Giant and Warner Bros Animation’s days were numbered. So I left after that to work on Treasure Planet at Disney in August 0f 2000.
JA: In 2002 you were one of a the lead animators for “Jim Hawkins” under the supervision of John Ripa, as well as “Long John Silver” under Glen Keane for Treasure Planet; tell me what was it like to work with two of the great Walt Disney Animators, as well as with Ron Clements & John Musker, the directors.
DW: I was a little nervous, as Treasure Planet was my first job at Disney. But John and Glen welcomed me with open arms, and were great to work with. I especially enjoyed working with John Ripa, who I’ve known since our CalArts days. Neither one of them had any egos about the work, it was just all about the performance and getting into those characters’ heads. Ron and John were equally as welcoming and very open to ideas and thoughts about how to make the film as strong as it could be, even from the lowliest of artists. I think that’s what has made them so successful in the past. I think Treasure Planet ended up with some of the best animated performances seen in a Disney film in many decades.
JA: How were you involved in the 2003 television special Duck Dodgers?
DW: My involvement with Duck Dodgers started when I was still at Warners, between Iron Giant and Osmosis Jones. Somehow I had drifted into development and really thought; wouldn’t it be great to make a big sci-fi feature version of Duck Dodgers based on the Chuck Jones characters? The head of development thought it was a good idea and let me develop it, I had even cut together a mock-trailer on my own with Steve Schaffer (editor of The Incredibles). One day I was approached by Tony Cervone and Spike Brandt who had been working on their own TV series idea for Duck Dodgers. They really wanted to be a part of what I was doing, so they joined me and the three of us finished off the trailer I had started. We even animated it. In the end, we showed it to the executives who didn’t really believe a Warners Bros. character could carry a whole film. So they passed on the idea. I then left and went to Disney, while Tony and Spike continued to try and get a series of some sort going with Cartoon Network, but weren’t getting anywhere. They then showed them our trailer and Cartoon Network loved it. The rest is Cartoon Network history, so that’s why I have a credit there.
JA: What can you tell me about your reasons for leaving the production of Disney's Rapunzel?
DW: After Glen Keane stepped back, it was really the studio head's decision to retool the creative leadership on Rapunzel. It’s nothing I’m at all bitter about. Looking back, Rapunzel was always Glen’s movie and not really something that spoke to my sensibilities; although I tried to make it that way. In the end, it wasn’t what I wanted, and it was really not something the studio wanted. They want a princess movie. That’s their bread and butter. The direction now seems to be to revitalize the energy of the early nineties, by bringing back the big musical fairytale. We’re at a point at our studio where no missteps can be made. All of our films from here on out have to be huge blockbusters, to feed the many other arms of the Disney Corporation. Much like Pirates of the Caribbean has done. Our world teeters on success or failure, and the fulcrum of that fate seems to be resting solely on Rapunzel. And honestly I’m glad to be out from under it. Now I’m on my own, developing a CG short, to be made sometime soon. Then after that, a feature...hopefully.
JA: What one word of advice would you give to aspiring artists trying to break into the industry?
DW: Never stop learning. Never stop self-assessing your abilities both artistically and culturally. Over the years, very few are able to ride in that sweet spot of knowing what they can do and what they can't. It’s this knowledge and honesty with yourself that will give you the tools to succeed. If you truly are able to be objective about your art, you will know if you’re hirable. You will know when you need help and when you need to help yourself. The biggest pitfall is thinking you’ve learned all you need to learn. That state of being for a true artist doesn’t exist. There’s a moment when your looking at your own work and saying, “It’s pretty good, but I know I can do better.” That’s when you’re mentally at your best. Michael Jordan said hat he never noticed himself getting better at basketball, he just noticed the other players around him getting worse. That’s the sweet spot. Find it and live there. A word of warning: it sucks. Unless you’re Michael Jordan.
JA: Do you have an all-time favorite piece of animation?
DW: I’m a Chuck Jones fan. I think the animation in Bully for Bugs with him as the bullfighter lambasting the enraged bull, is some of the most awesome, appealing animation ever created. I’d also have to put Milt’s “Medusa” stuff at a close second. Third would be anything done by Rod Scribner under Clampett— weirdly genius.
JA: Thank you for interviewing with me, to close this out, what working artist should everyone reading this right now go check out?
DW: Temple of the Seven Golden Camels! Insightful! Informative! Mark’s got a great eye and is far more knowledgeable than I. Go Kennedy! Thanks Jason for the opportunity.