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This Sweater is for You!
Celebrating the Creative Process in Film and Art with the Animator and Illustrator of "The Hockey Sweater"
By Sheldon Cohen, David Caron
ECW PRESS Copyright © 2012 Sheldon Cohen
All rights reserved.
1967 BY THE SKIN OF MY TEETH
IT WAS TIME to pick a career. Fresh out of high school, I was asking myself the only real question a nice Jewish boy growing up in Montreal should be asking:
"Are my grades good enough to get into McGill University's dental school?"
Medicine seemed out of my league, but dentistry — that felt less daunting. And, of course, there was always orthodontics (if I really wanted to dream high). Regardless of my ultimate calling, I was thoroughly convinced that the sciences were for me.
The sciences, as it turned out, were thoroughly convinced otherwise. Physics, chemistry, biology — they nearly killed me. Even though I received that coveted Bachelor of Science degree after four grueling years at McGill, I knew I would never have a shiny brass nameplate outside a plush antiseptic-smelling office, engraved with the esteemed title, Dr. Sheldon Cohen, DDS.
Over the next few years, however, and to my great relief, I found myself steering away from root canals and into a vast new realm where I could truly thrive: the arts.
I ALWAYS LOVED drawing. It came naturally to me; any skill carried over from my childhood was self-taught. I remember as a kid copying famous artwork from the Books of Knowledge, a popular household encyclopaedia sold door-to-door by travelling salesmen. They brought the treasures of past civilizations to our two-bedroom apartment on Van Horne Avenue. I was able to copy, for example, the Mona Lisa, a sixteenth-century painting created by the great Leonardo da Vinci. I read in one of the volumes that some historians believed it took the artist as long as fourteen years to complete his masterpiece.
And to think, I finished mine in twenty minutes (although, truth be told, my Mona Lisa looked more like Jack Benny).
With dental school now out of the picture, an unexpected floodgate opened up. My old love of drawing resurfaced like a forgotten friend. I didn't quite know how to greet it ... until the day Pinocchio came to town.
The film was being re-released by Disney and I decided to ask a girl I knew if she wanted to see it.
That date was to change my life forever — not only because I ended up marrying that girl (a union ordained as soon as she agreed to see Pinocchio), but also because of something she whispered to me during the movie: "Do you realize we're watching a bunch of drawings? Isn't it fascinating?"
I looked back up at the screen. Right there and then it clicked! I knew what I would do with my art.
1971 DRAWING 101
WITH THIS NEW PASSION leading the way, there was only one route ahead for me: learning to animate.
In the early 1970s, a new college was gaining ground in Oakville, Ontario. I was impressed by its official name: Sheridan College of Applied Arts and Technology. The course options included everything from Sandal Making and Truck Driving to Animation.
Here was a school for me! I wasn't sure about driving trucks, but where else could you learn how to animate and make your own sandals? Imagine the disappointment when my application was denied.
"Sorry," the instructor said. "We can't let you into the animation program. You don't have enough art background."
I got the feeling he thought shoes or vehicles might be more my speed, but I persisted and received a hesitant concession: if I took one year of what they called "Art Fundamentals," I would be reconsidered for the animation program the following year.
Although it wasn't to last very long, my basic art training formally began with this new course, and for the first time in my life, I felt the power that can be created on a sheet of paper.
There was a growing force behind every piece of artwork as I developed my skill from class to class.
More importantly, I was experiencing the pure fun of it all. I just really loved to draw.
My sketchbook became a constant companion and I relished filling its pages with observations of life around me. School breaks didn't deter my obsession. On trips back home, I greeted family members with my pad and pencil, recording them with what felt like a new toy — this ability to draw.
Nothing escaped my attention and some subjects were irresistible, as if calling out: "You must draw me."
Two portraits from that time stand out for me. One is of my mother, who, without really knowing it, understood the essence of art and the artist: honouring what is real and taking pure delight in it. There was not an ounce of vanity in her when those stack of curlers on top of her head called out: "You must draw me."
On the contrary, my incredibly beautiful grandmother — my father's mother — a very vain, wonderful woman, served as a glowing subject for another portrait that I framed for the walls of her apartment.
During one of my subsequent visits, I noticed her portrait out of the corner of my eye. Something about it caught my attention. No, it couldn't be!
"Bubbie, did you add lipstick to your picture?"
"Yeh," she said coyly in her thick Yiddish accent, "and a little rouge. I thought you made me look too pale."
God love this precious woman! She made it crystal clear that no artist in the world was going to play around with her reality.
1972 HIGHWAY 401
SUMMER WAS FAST approaching. I had now completed a full year at Sheridan College and returned to the same instructor with a fresh batch of drawings at the end of the semester. I was hoping to impress him with all the Fundamentals of Art I had learned.
"Sir, I have a request, if I may."
On my best behaviour, I explained that the Animation Department at the National Film Board of Canada was recruiting summer students in Montreal.
"I'm wondering if you could please put in a good word for me. It would really help to have a letter of recommendation from an animation teacher."
"Sorry," he said again, "there are other students I would send before you. Why don't you sign up for the full animation program next year and we'll take it from there."
I politely thanked him for his consideration, collected my drawings and ... bought a bag of chips.
"Ah, the hell with him," I muttered to myself, wiping the salty crumbs from my face.
The following week I showed up at the NFB interview in Montreal with a very thin portfolio and no letter of recommendation (but wearing, if I might brag, a fine pair of personally handmade leather sandals).
I will be eternally grateful to Wolf Koenig, the executive producer in charge at the time. He didn't immediately turn me away as he very well could have, but said he saw something in my work. He told me to find a desk and think of a short film I'd like to animate over the summer.
I felt I had entered Animation Heaven where that Great Editor above could not have assembled a happier sequence of events for me. All I needed now was a soundtrack of angels singing in the background and the scene would have been complete.
I was stepping into a period at the NFB, often referred to as its "Golden Years," when Norman McLaren was directing dancers for his Ballet Adagio, Ryan Larkin was wrapping up his Street Music, and Caroline Leaf was raking grains of sand for her Inuit film.
You couldn't help bumping into award winners around every corner. Walking down the long corridors on the way to my desk, I'd peer into rooms and see Jacques Drouin creating landscapes on Pinscreen, Ishu Patel playing with beads under the camera, Co Hoedeman painting big wooden blocks for his stop-action Tchou-Tchou, and John Weldon, well, just being John Weldon — wildly funny, delivering something special as he animated his way towards the Oscars.
Alongside me, a growing number of newcomers were joining the NFB: Lynn Smith, Yossi Abolafia, Janet Perlman, Joyce Borenstein, Ellen Besen, and Veronika Soul.
In a strange way, I soon felt we were all part of a special family. It wasn't like now, when it seems that everyone and his brother is an animator. (Actually, my brother is a lawyer, but three of my cousins have since worked in animation.) Today most local schools and colleges offer Media Arts courses that teach anyone so inspired to create animated films on ordinary computers at home. Back then, however, we were a small community practising a unique craft. Each of us was intensely tied to our own projects, but we shared a common bond of excitement for everyone else's.
As for Sheridan College, I waved goodbye with my art diploma in hand and never looked back. It went on to become one of the finest animation schools in North America, specializing in classical training, while — unbeknownst to me — I would be remaining at the NFB, off and on, for the next three decades. At the time, however, there was no need to look very far ahead. My fortune was opening up right in front of me and I was ready to take on the world.
1973 STARTING WITH A JUMP
MY EARLIEST FILM was made using a pack of grease pencils, similar to crayons. I am referring to Bossa Bop, which ran a full two minutes and three seconds from beginning to end.
I like to think that I invented the first music video, long before MTV made this art form popular (even if mine was for the preschool set).
There was no rhyme or reason to the film, just three gangly characters choreographed to the beats and flow of an obscure soundtrack that I found in the NFB archives. Perky elevator music is what it sounded like, and yet for some reason, it jump-started my imagination.
I used its pulsating rhythm to experiment with the synchronization of picture and sound, as well as to understand the mechanics of movement.
How do I propel those three little characters through space? This was my first animation task, one that would eventually lead to a much bigger job of animating kids on a skating rink.
But for now, I was at the very beginning of a unique education for an animator. The National Film Board of Canada was offering me the best combination for innovative discovery: technical support for whatever film I wanted to make, with no preconceived ideas about what animation should be.
From where I sat in one of the little cubicles assigned to NFB summer students, I could see the clouds sailing past my window over a river of cars roaring below. Here, along the concrete expressway of the Metropolitan Boulevard, I was figuring out how to be a sorcerer. To my surprise, it was a sobering apprenticeship as I learned the cold, hard physics behind the magic.
Any true-blooded animator quickly becomes obsessed with an inescapable fixation on detail. But what really captivated me was the illusion itself: that first vivid moment of seeing the shapes and colours of my drawings radiate on screen. I was hooked! There was nothing I wanted to do more than to animate!
1974 ME AND ALFRED
I NEVER IMAGINED that those three dancing figures would rebound so quickly into another project. At the same time as Bossa Bop was wrapping up, the NFB Studio decided to produce an extensive series devoted to Canadian literature. It was called Poets on Film, designed as a compilation of short clips, and quite a number of them.
Therefore, newcomers like me were in a position to pitch fresh ideas to the Animation Department. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of poetry anthologies to choose from.
I had to take a deep breath. I asked myself: What process do I follow that will bring me to the right poem — the one that I ought to be working with?
And here is what I consider one of the most essential challenges for an artist. Amongst everything out there, how can we connect with what is meant for us?
In this particular case, it popped off the page, as simple as that! I saw the title of the poem and knew it was for me.
Death by Streetcar
by Raymond Souster
The old lady crushed to death by the Bathurst streetcar
had one cent left in her purse.
Which could mean only
one of two things: either she was wary of purse-snatchers
or all her money was gone.
If the latter,
she must have known her luck must very soon change,
for better or for worse:
which this day has decided.
It only took one reading. By the last line, the whole film had unfolded in my mind's eye: an arthritic character, hunched over with age, slowly putting on her coat as she prepares to leave her one-room apartment.
I would show the audience nothing more than this — just another morning in an old woman's life — except, when she leaves her house, it will be for the very last time. She has no idea of the streetcar waiting for her ... but we do.
I got shivers. It was suspenseful, like a two-minute movie by Alfred Hitchcock (my favourite director).
The NFB liked my storyboard and signed me up to animate the film. I was sent to Toronto where I could meet the poet in person and discuss the project.
"Why that one? I have another poem. It's much better for animation." Raymond Souster tried to convince me to read some verses he wrote about a spider. "It's a natural for children."
Not wanting to appear rude, I politely resisted.
"Sorry," I told him, "I'm not really interested in that one."
"You're sure about 'Death by Streetcar'?"
How could I blame him? A film with "Death" and "Streetcar" in the same title — there could be nothing cute about this cartoon.
It didn't matter, though. I was learning something that all artists must learn, and it went far beyond the study of technique. I was approaching the very core of creativity — that fertile ground where the birth takes place, in a thought, an idea, a vision. Only the creator has that first flicker of its life and, ultimately, can choose to stand by it — or not. That is why I could say to Raymond Souster, "I'm sure."
To clarify, it wasn't stubbornness on my part; it was a simple "knowing" and a decision to honour what I knew.
From that early time on, the way was clear: the only reliability one can abide by is an inner compass, and the only direction one can trust is from the inside out.
For this reason, like all artists working out of a void, I am constantly listening within in order to stay on course.
1976 IN-BETWEEN JOBS
I'M LIVING IN New York City now. How did this happen? I have to thank Death by Streetcar. Although the film didn't win any prizes at the Ottawa International Film Festival, just the fact that it was accepted for competition gave me enough clout to have landed a job in the Big Apple.
It's my first day. I'm sitting at my desk waiting for instructions.
"Raggedy Ann and Andy. One moooo-ment please."
"Raggedy Ann and Andy. One moooo-ment please."
"Raggedy Ann and Andy. One moooo-ment please."
The receptionist's throaty mantra drones on in the background as she puts a continuous stream of callers on hold. She's a tough, stocky, bleached-blonde New Yorker whose gravelly vocal cords, I imagine, have been worn down by years of cigarettes and alcohol.
We're way up high in a midtown Manhattan skyscraper, the whole floor devoted to a multi-million-dollar animated feature gearing into full production. A little tin bell suddenly dings frantically from the marbled hallway and throws me out of my trance. It's not a fire alarm because the others around me are walking calmly out the door. I join the civilized line that has formed in front of a mobile snack cart offering beverages, pastries, and pre-packaged sandwiches. I haven't yet received my assignment and I'm already on my first official coffee break.
It hasn't quite sunk in. I'm actually here in New York City with a job, a working visa, and a place of my own. Out of the three, the most difficult, by far, has been finding an apartment. I grabbed it as soon as the landlady's squinting face peered out from behind the thin crack of her basement door, eyeing me suspiciously but finally deciding it was okay to make the offer. "There's one flat upstairs; it's not very big."
Excerpted from This Sweater is for You! by Sheldon Cohen, David Caron. Copyright © 2012 Sheldon Cohen. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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