Long before Wayne Brejcha, the creative director of Chicago-based Calabash Animation, was animating commercials for such advertising icons as Lucky the Lucky Charms leprechaun and the Trix rabbit, he was an animation fan growing up in Michigan, where he made Super 8 films inspired by the legendary visual effects designer Ray Harryhausen. He also created his own comics for his high school newspaper.
Post recently spoke with him about his journey from enthusiast to professional.
POST: When did you first become aware of animation as career?
BREJCHA: "Somewhere in junior high. I had no idea how anyone actually went about making a career out of animation. There wasn’t an abundance of role models in Midland, Michigan in 1977. Sometime around 1980, visual effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull visited our local theater, screened the film Silent Running and talked about doing the special effects for it. That was probably the first time I saw an actual someone with a genuine career in film.
“I did have some real encouragement from teachers, and our school had Super 8 cameras available to interested students. A bit of a rarity at that time. I joined up with some friends to make a bunch of animated stuff, mostly stop-motion clay figures. Most of it was really terrible, but incredibly exciting to do.”
POST: What inspired you creatively as a young man?
BREJCHA: “Any and every Looney Tunes short I could watch; Ray Harryhausen films; the Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings; the magazines ‘Famous Monsters of Filmland’ and ‘Super 8 Filmmaker.’ I also recall a book from our junior high library called ‘Young Animators and Their Discoveries’ that told stories of various teenagers who made their own animated films using Super8 or 16mm film. It was pretty exciting to think, ‘I can do this.’ A lot of inspiration came from my friends, who were also fascinated with making movies. We batted ideas around for little clay animation bits and bizarre tableaus that we thought were hilariously Monty Python-esque.”
POST: Talk about your early filmmaking experiments.
BREJCHA: “I did make lots of flipbooks (doodles in the corners of pages that you flip to watch your doodles animate) and had a kind of epiphany experience when I was 10 or 11 and made a cardboard ‘Phenakistoscope,’ where you can draw little sequential pictures and spin them on this slotted wheel to watch them in motion. But Super 8 film was the coolest. I had a Minolta XL-400 that would allow you to shoot single frames on the film. I also drew a comic strip for the high school newspaper for a few years.”
POST: Where your parents supportive?
BREJCHA: “In every way. My mother and step-dad let me have the run of the basement, which I turned into my best guess at an animation studio. Since I seemed to be learning something and didn't appear to be ruining the value of the house any faster than the general economy was doing, they helped me acquire quite an enviable stash of equipment.”
POST: Who else helped develop your interest?
BREJCHA: “I had some great English and art teachers. I still keep in touch with my high school art teacher, Carol Lewin. The great teachers teach you how to be your own best teacher. They can open up and lure you into corridors of creativity to which you were entirely oblivious at 10am, but changed your life by 2pm. They'll allow, demand, encourage and critique your best efforts. They can give you some crucial perspective on what you need to improve, which is probably the one thing your friends and family can't reliably or knowledgeably offer you. To have your imagination valued, and to be given tools to unlock and develop your abilities, is one of the greatest things that can happen for an artistic soul.”
POST: How did you further your understanding beyond your own filmmaking experiments?
BREJCHA: “In high school, I read a lot of articles and books, and even made my own animation drawing board with sawed-off dowel rods for pegs to try my hand at animated drawings and cartoons. I copied — and expanded on — Preston Blair's famous ‘Cartoon Animation.’ I distinctly remember hunting down the arcane knowledge on how to build a good ball-and-socket stop-motion armature and read ‘The Making of King Kong.’”
POST: What were you earliest professional animation jobs?
BREJCHA: “Not exactly animation, but in 1985 I made props and painted on glass for some special effects shots in an independent feature film called Gold Through The Fire. The next summer I did some cel animation for a series called Teachin' Teddy, a kind of quiz-game that hooked up to your VCR, for a studio called Kinetics, here in Chicago. The next summer I freelanced for the original Calabash Animation founders, Ed and Monica Newman, which they'd launched two years earlier, and for the next several years until they hired me full time in 1990.”
POST: Did you go to art or film school? Did it prepare you well for your work today?
BREJCHA: “I went to Eastern Michigan University, and considered other careers in commercial art, but always kept one eye on animation. Eastern had a pretty good art program, but they dumped their film program after I enrolled. I decided I'd keep on with the fundamental art education, and learn more of the specific film stuff later.
“Along the way, I picked up a bunch of color theory and graphic design, and I minored in writing. All of it has come into play one way or another — even if it's just in having learned how to talk to the artists who can paint and draw exceedingly well. Grasping fundamentals will give you a leg up in the more creative side of a career. It's just a very long-term payoff to invest in learning a bunch of fundamentals, because you still obviously have to learn a lot of technical particulars to be useful to a studio. That's truer now than when I started. I sympathize with kids in college now who have to learn any number of computer programs just to be marketable, aside from learning design and composition basics, and all the universal underpinnings of communications.”
POST: When you look back on your journey to professional animator, does anything stand out as valuable lessons or teachable moments that helped shape your career?
BREJCHA: “There is something you get for having to make things up for yourself. You learn a kind of bare-knuckle initiative to get something done. You learn to define for yourself just what it is you want to see on the screen when you're done. For me, making the ball & socket armature for a stop-motion dinosaur showed me how tremendously specialized the different tasks in animation are. You come to appreciate the huge talents that people have that can do a lot different things very well.
“There is also something you get from working in a team of artists. Most lessons don't come at you in dramatic nugget-form that makes for a good story. I'm lucky to have a long accumulation of insights from being with and looking over the shoulders of a bunch of really jaw-droppingly talented and accomplished artists of every stripe. And when you're not the one who has to do all of the work in creating the art, it's much easier to come up with all the ambitious stuff that grim experience and a bunch of unfinished projects have taught you not to attempt on your own.”