Bluer Skies Ahead

Closing Time

It has been a while. When I decided to take this site offline for a bit to redo the whole thing, I wasn’t expecting it to happen when some of the biggest news hit me and so many of my friends. Blue Sky Studios, which was acquired by Disney as part of their buyout of 20th Century Fox, was shut down at the beginning of February. I wrote about it a bit at Cartoon Brew, but beyond that and some day-of tweets, I haven’t written anything about it. Exactly two months later and I still haven’t fully processed the news.

My partner, who was still an employee, lost his job, and all of our optimism that, “Hey, maybe we are actually gonna be lucky enough to get through the pandemic without anything bad happening to us!” went right down the toilet. (For the record I’d left BSS in 2018.) Of course, this isn’t the worst thing that could happen in this crisis, but I’m not going to pretend it didn’t affect our lives and that it didn’t/doesn’t hurt. It was and has been a searing, deep pain that this place will just be gone and these people will never be in the same place together again. I and so many suffered the gigantic loss of knowing. Knowing the next paycheck was coming, knowing I could afford therapy, that we had insurance and doctors we love and have good relationships with, that we were building our savings, looking to buy property in the area soon, looking for a “forever home” or something like that. Knowing, knowing, knowing. Not having everything figured out, but having a reliable framework in place, a foundation I guess, to build from.

Then, all those plans were just gone, and we were struggling and losing sleep over all of the unknowns.

My partner and so many others have been finding new jobs, moving across the country or globe (or starting remotely if able). People are selling houses, trying to find full time work, navigating healthcare and whatnot. It’s been nice seeing so many people bouncing back at big studios like Pixar, Disney, and Netflix, as well as game studios and other known vfx houses. But each announcement is a weird sensation: joy at them regaining some ‘knowns’ in their life (or I guess just being closer to making unknowns more clear), but also a little stab of pain as the reality of the situation becomes more absolute. It’s properly death by a thousand cuts, even as I tell myself that I’ll have friends at so many studios to visit.

I’m truly happy for people. Every ‘job update’ post I see on LinkedIn or Instagram makes me want to give that person the biggest hug and ugly cry at them.

And I have to give the recruiting team at Blue Sky major props for setting up a TON of “reverse” recruiting events, and really helping a lot of people. There’s always an outpouring of support from other studios when one goes under, partly because everyone at this point has been through at least one shutdown, let’s be real, but also because that talent ought to go somewhere. Similarly, in my experience, co-workers have been nothing but supportive and helpful towards each other, even when you know logically you’re likely at odds with everyone in your department for work.

I’m very mindful that while I’m seeing a lot of new job announcements, I’m sure there are people still struggling. Struggling to find full time work, or work that will let them stay permanently on the east coast, or with visa issues or trying to pivot to a different role. I’m thinking about those people in all of this, seeing so many colleagues sharing exciting news. I’m thinking about families with kids who have already had so many disruptions now possibly facing other major ones down the road. Even for my partner and I, the road ahead includes many massive changes I was not mentally prepared to deal with on top of the stressful, chaotic, traumatic time we’ve all collectively shared these last two years…

So if you’re a Blue Skier, I’m thinking of you. I’m rooting for you. I’m feeling for you.

I tend to not post too publicly on social media. I share things, but they’re usually pretty safe and infrequent. During the pandemic, I’ve gone pretty silent. The social anxiety I had pre-pandemic has only gotten worse. When my Blue Sky article on Cartoon Brew went out, I received well over 100 messages across text, social media, email, comments. I was overwhelmed, but in the best way possible. It wasn’t expected at all, and the outpouring of love I received has been humbling.

I feel like I’m at the end (spoilers I guess?) of Inside Out, where the yellow and blue orbs were evolving into mixed ones as Riley understood her emotional complexity and capacity on a new level. All of the blue sad orbs I’d accumulated while I had my struggles at Blue Sky turned a bit yellow knowing those memories were the last I’d have in that studio, and the yellow joyous orbs were permanently tinged blue with grief. And red with anger, because Disney just didn’t need to do this.

Where That Leaves Us

This isn’t the Animation Complex essay I want to be writing right now, but I really can’t move on until I acknowledge this chapter on this blog. Blue Sky was a big part of the US animation history books, and the biggest part of my animation career so far. So at the very least I’ve gotta mention it. I’m obviously not a news site, nor am I trying to be, but this is part of my history. I’ve certainly struggled with the ‘voice’ I’ve wanted for Animation Complex in the past, trying hard to make it sound super academic and formal until I realized and am still working on accepting that I am what makes this blog. Not quite the galaxy brain revelation we hoped for, but rather a dull, “No duh, Jen.” I’ll always struggle and work towards finding a balance between my informal style of writing and trying to channel that academic (but accessible) flare. I’ll struggle with how much to share, whether any idea I have is ever good enough to hit publish on, of why I’m so worried and self-conscious when I have been gifted the reminder so many times that I need to just go for things because nothing is guaranteed in life.

I’m very tempted to end this waxing poetically about how we’ll all still be under the same big blue sky together, and this cop-out of a sentence does that a little! But it’s challenging to say that sincerely when everyone is going through such stress. Even the good news comes with new stresses: navigating new healthcare and finding new doctors, possibly moving now or later and all that comes with that, starting a new job, etc., and doing this all while the pandemic is still major problem.

Good Problems

Something my Buddhist-raised partner reminds me a lot of is the notion that all life is suffering.

Bleak, I know.

Let me try again.

In life, problems are inevitable. It is impossible to go through life without problems, and any attempt to avoid them is futile. Biggie was right: mo money mo problems. Obviously less money = more problems. Money = problems. Existing = problems. That sounds super pro-capitalism, but I’m talking beyond money here too of course. Connections with other humans creates problems, as does not having them. Making choices about your life and career create problems, good and bad. You get it.

What you want our good problems. We had a bad problem: partner lost job. It was solved, but that created new problems, but better, good problems (i.e. moving across the country, new health insurance, new job experiences, new budget). These things are all annoying as heck to deal with, and will be a terrible slog to navigate, but we will in time. And then if we’re lucky we can have newer good problems like finding our new favorite restaurant in our new town, looking into getting a dog (and all the wonderful problems that come with dogs), and be stable enough to work on our next film for a consistent period of time vs the stop-and-go nature brought on by the existential dread of pretending to be functioning well in a pandemic amid societal upheaval. Ya know! Life! 

…I swear we’ll get back to the cartoons soon…

But until then, I wish you all blue skies and good problems.

Joanna Quinn Interview

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of interviewing Cardiff-based filmmakers Joanna Quinn and Les Mills! The interview was part of les Sommets du Cinema d’animation, an annual international film festival based in Montreal. Cartoon Brew, who I freelance for on occasion, is a sponsor of the festival, which lead to them asking if I’d be interested in the opportunity.

Ummmm. Obviously!

So a big thank you particularly to Marco de Blois and Michael Fukushima for allowing me to be involved, and for the festival’s technical team for running such a smooth event.

Before you watch the interview, it would really help to at the very least watch the three existing Beryl shorts, which I’ve got listed below. While we do show some clips from the films, as well as some sneak-peaks from the new, fourth film, it’d certainly be more enjoyable with a full picture.

Here is a trailer of the new film:

Beryl Productions’ latest film, Affairs of the Art is due out in 2021 and I cannot wait for everyone to see it!

Past Beryl Shorts

These and more of Joanna’s films and commercial work can be found on her site.

10,000 Hour Rule

While not specific to animation, the concept of the 10,000 hour rule certainly makes its way through the community, from students, masters, and everyone in between. It’s a perpetual topic for creatives.

The rule, popularized by writer Malcolm Gladwell (my high school art teacher used to read to us from Blink while we mediated…), argues that it takes 10,000 hours for someone to achieve mastery over a particular skill or subject. It’s also often referred to as the ’10 year rule.’ Like any sort of vague creative rule of thumb, there’s plenty of writing both condemning and condoning the idea, and generally its interpretation is simplified and/or misinterpreted to the point of being incorrect. At the same time, I think with a bit of aforementioned context, it’s still a great jumping off point to discuss bettering oneself.

10,000 Drawings

There is a popular quote in the animation industry that certainly runs adjacent to this sentiment:

We all have 10,000 bad drawings in us. The sooner we get them out the better.

Walt Stanchfield

Walt Stanchfield is most famous for his time as a Disney animator, teaching others. He, along with Eric Larson were responsible for creating the training program at the studios in the 70s that brought up many of the artists who went on to play pivotal roles at Pixar and Disney during the 90s. For the longest time, the bulk of Stanchfield’s lectures were passed around as photocopies, but later were bundled into two published volumes, Drawn to Life Volumes 1 and Volume 2, that have become staples of any animation student’s library.

The same mix of condemning and condoning apply here as well. But let’s take what we need from this concept, ok?

The Deciding Factor

It all boils down to intent.

Now, the actual ten thousand hours of practice spread (most realistically) over ten years is a rough average of course, not meant for everyone and every situation. I don’t think it was ever intended to, to be clear.

And intent–the most important factor of this–tends to get lost in conversations. Its core stresses quality time over quantity of time–not just more time on task, but better time on task. Experts may not log any more hours than you, but they practice differently than your average person, doing what cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson calls deliberate practice.

In Angela Duckworth’s book Grit, she cites the original researcher, Ericsson, who, as she put it “is the world expert on world experts.”

From Duckworth’s book:

First, they set a stretch goal, zeroing in on just one narrow aspect of their overall performance. Rather than focus on what they already do well, experts strive to improve specific weaknesses. They intentionally seek out challenges they can’t yet meet…Virtuoso violinist Roberto Diaz describes “working to find your Achilles’ heel–the specific aspect of the music that needs problem solving.” Then, with undivided attention and great effort, experts strive to reach their stretch goal.

Intent is arguably more important, or at least, could undermine any well-intended but mild effort.

I try to stress to my students the importance of active practice over passive practice. That an hour of focused daily practice will put you miles ahead of a few hours of passive, mindless work, say, throwing a movie on in the background and working while watching that. Now, to be clear, I’m not opposed to having music or something on in the background, but you need to be honest with yourself about how well you personally focus or are distracted by external things like that and your phone. I’ve definitely seen professional artists work with ample distractions around them and still get quality work out, and I’d argue that’s because they’re actually ‘masters’ of their craft or are well on their way. But if you’re still a student in the academic sense (because we’re all students forever, right?), you’re at the very start of your journey. It’s especially important to get started on the right foot.

I’ve heard stories of artists who recognized a certain aspect was a weakness of theirs, like drawing hands or cars, and focusing on that and excelling in that particular area. I remember attending a talk with animator Aya Suzuki years ago and her mentioning having to pass on an opportunity to work on the rebooted Neon Genesis Evangelion films because she’d had limited experience with more mechanical and hard surface designs, and city elements. Looking at her body of work, it’s clear that she opted to focus on more organic elements and character animation, and mastered this area.

Active Vs Passive

What exactly does that look like?

Have you ever read a book or an article and found that you couldn’t recall any of the information you just read? Maybe you got to the end of a paragraph and realized you hadn’t actually read it–you just went through the motions of reading it. But you weren’t actually engaging with and retaining the text.

Or what about watching a film while scrolling on social media? Are you really actively engaged with either screen if your brain is divided between them? In this world of hustle culture and constantly optimizing and hacking our productivity, I can understand where this might seem more beneficial. But in the long run, you’re better off giving each task and skill you want to learn your undivided attention.

Deliberate Practice

It’s about knowing what areas you do want to delve into. As I quoted earlier, it’s about knowing the weaknesses you want to improve.

Ten thousand drawings aren’t helpful if half of them were mindlessly done, if you aren’t learning from each one and cumulatively bringing that knowledge and experience into the next one.

If you’re trying to do this as a career, or just anything beyond a fun hobby, I encourage you to try to be deliberate in your art practice. Practice doesn’t make perfect–perfect practice makes perfect. ‘Perfect’ here is relative and a bit hyperbolic of course, so don’t fixate on that as much as recognizing how you practice is way more important than what we give it credit for.

Ruminating on Toshio Suzuki’s Studio Ghibli Memoir

Happy Birthday, Suzuki-san! たんじょうび おめでとう!!

Today marks film producer Toshio Suzuki’s 72nd birthday. Suzuki is best known as the producer of the majority of the films made by Studio Ghibli. (For the first several features, he was credited as being on the production committee–it wasn’t until 1991’s Only Yesterday did he first receive a credit as producer, and would do so on every film (some times with a co-producer) until The Wind Rises (2013).

And I just so happen to finish reading his 2014 memoir yesterday, titled Mixing Work with Pleasure: My Life at Studio Ghibli, only to learn his birthday is today (August 19, 1948). I picked this book up on a whim, as I’ve been in a Studio Ghibli rewatch mood lately (if my last blog post is any indication), and was pleasantly surprised by it.

While I knew about Suzuki was before this through other books and articles, and documentaries, such as The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013), this was the first thing I read centered on him (and of course written by him). Normally, of course, the spotlight with regards to Ghibli is most often on Hayao Miyazaki and the late Isao Takahata, the two directors the studio was set up solely to accommodate.

That singular goal–to create a studio specifically for these two artists to make films–is one of the obvious but so startlingly impressive things I learned in this book. While it was clear that that was the studio’s goal after each film was hit after hit, it was amazing to learn that this idea was at the very core of its founding. Having worked at a US feature studio that was very much filmmaking by committee and none of the ideas were original stories created by the directors, it was refreshing to hear about this truly artist-driven endeavor.

It was also interesting to see how their business model had to change when both directors made what were presumably their last films. (Takahata passed away in 2018; his last film was The Tale of the Princes Kaguya (2013). Miyazaki’s last feature was 2013’s The Wind Rises, but is reportedly working on another feature.) It’s been largely Suzuki who has shepherded the studio though its decades and these newer and larger changes.

A Brief Career Recap

After graduating from university, his first job was at Tokuma Shoten Publishing, where he worked in various departments and magazines before being given the impossible task of launching a monthly animation magazine in 3 weeks. His research and quest for experts (he knew nothing about animation when given this assignment) put him in contact with Takahata and Miyazaki, who were working together at Toei Animation. He strikes up an honestly bizarre yet charming friendship with them both. It was really fun to read about this early part of their relationship, and how trust was slowly built. Suzuki commissioned Miyazaki to produce a serialized manga in the animation magazine, called Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, which of course became the basis for his second feature film of the same name.

With each new film, Suzuki became more involved as Studio Ghibli took shape as a subsidiary of Tokuma Shoten, with Suzuki quitting his job there to come on to Ghibli full time as company director in 1990. He was there for all the ups and downs, the development and opening of the Ghibli Museum, their decision to break away from Tokuma Shoten in 2005 and become independent, and everything in between and beyond. It’s absolutely amazing to learn about so much of these stories, developments, and various relationships that formed and grew over these decades.

Studio Ghibli Could Never Be Replicated

As a massive Studio Ghibli fan, this book is of course a must-read. There are so many funny stories and anecdotes that had me chuckling into the book, so many moments that felt like inside jokes based on what we know about characters like Miyazaki and Takahata and hearing things being confirmed by someone who worked so closely with them for so long.

As someone in the animation industry, and who has worked in production management with intent to be a producer, it is also a worthwhile (if not frustrating) read. It’s only frustrating because of how much…freedom isn’t really the right word, but freedom Suzuki had in his career and decisions. That’s not to say he wasn’t constantly answering to other people and stressing about budgets and deadlines and what not. I was jealous of his career of course. I was jealous of his mindset and the studio’s overall mindset which I mentioned earlier. Suzuki is very clear about the things he feels are his role as a producer, and they are the total opposite of Western ones. Towards the end of the book, he himself ruminates on this difference, citing American producers as the head honchos and often involved too much creatively compared to his role that while having many creative elements, he stressed was secondary to the director. That’s how it should be, but in my limited experience this is often not the case. And that’s also just the difference between a place like Ghibli and a big US feature studio–that creator-driven storytelling vs project-driven. Usually, it’s a producer that has an IP–a script or a graphic novel and they find suitable writers and directors. Even at a studio like Pixar which one might argue as the US equivalent has had a significant number of their films replace their directors partway through the productions (i.e. Brave, Ratatouille, The Good Dinosaur, Toy Story 2 and 4, Cars 2). It can happen, and there were times it happened or almost happened at Ghibli too, as Suzuki discusses throughout the book.

It would be remiss of me to acknowledge of course that these films need to make money. And if a story isn’t working, there are times where replacing a director is the right call. Creator-driven filmmaking can only truly work if the creator is given the time and freedom, and that usually unfortunately isn’t as feasible in this day and age.

I’m just trying to say it’s more complicated than I am explaining of course. That I am not even saying that one style is better than the other. And that there are so many factors with filmmaking and earning back the budget–marketing and distribution partners (as detailed by Suzuki) can play a big role.

Another big difference between Ghibli and the US is the development period and process, that also of course affects the overall production, budget and timeline. The general MO at Ghibli was having the directors boarding their films, (some times there’s a script written before that). But the boards are what guide the film. Once the first 20 minutes of the film are boarded out, production started. And again, that sort of trust and thinking I feel are the result of that implicit creator-driven filmmaking we just don’t see in animation.

And that’s because animation is expensive! And time consuming! Most studios are not set up specifically to fund two creators films. That sort of patronage is rare. It’s rare to find a US feature animation director who’s made more than 5 films–again Pixar is the closest example we have to this with people like John Lasseter (gross, sorry), and Andrew Stanton and Brad Bird (including their live-action films). (Also, also, consider this a tiny content warning in the book: Suzuki mentions Lasseter a few times in positive ways as a supporter of their work (this book was first published in 2008, with an extra chapter in 2014). It was bittersweet as it was Lasseter’s admiration and persistence that really helped put Ghibli on the map stateside for many people, but he had to go and be a creep.

Because animation is expensive and time consuming, feature films tend to get watered down so they are appealing to the widest audience. We’re talking all four quadrants (boys, girls, men, women–I know, super heteronormative, I didn’t make the dumb box office rules), and not too specific so it appeals to these quadrants on a global level. That, inherently, sounds incredibly illogical to me. To quote Hamilton, “if you stand for nothing, what’ll you fall for?” If you try to appeal to everyone, you end up with these cookie-cutter stale things with basic themes like “believe in yourself.” Even though like half of Ghibli’s films take place in fictitious European places, they are 1000% Japanese. They reflect the feelings of the director, when the film was made. They are not made by a massive committee and focus grouped to death and they have an actual point of view. They take risks, and do something different each time.

We are seeing that more and more over here, with films like Wall-E (2008), and more recently, Spider-Man: Into the SpiderVerse (2018). We are seeing studios take more risks, and create more nuanced stories. Because the fun thing about having a point of view is that even if I’m not the “target” demographic, I can still identify with aspects of any film, be it a character, theme, etc. Miyazaki is someone who always says that he makes films specifically for children (with The Wind Rises being a departure), and yet they have achieved massive appeal by people of all ages globally. His characters have a depth to them, they feel like they were going about their business before the film and continue to live long after the credits roll.

In general, a lot of Suzuki’s personal philosophy just sounds wonderful. It’s nice how he weaves little lessons and advice throughout his career. While a lot of it is pretty obvious or pretty unique to Ghibli’s unique situation, it was fun to hear his experiences. It was fun to hear him learning as he went, be it is various changing and expanding roles at the studio and how it was all in service to the films.

Because at the end of the day, Studio Ghibli’s model is not one that can be replicated. And that’s a problem they themselves went through after 2013 when the two men the studio was made for stepped down. That was when we saw them have to shift to being content-driven and find the right people for their projects. The first two examples we saw of that were The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) and From Up on Poppy Hill (2011). These are both based on pre-existing works, which is pretty common for Ghibli (i.e. Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), Whisper of the Heart (1995). The big difference I am referring to was the projects being decided upon first and then them finding suitable directors for them, as well as the handling of the adaptation and development.

In Conclusion

I don’t really have a nice way to wrap this up. I could definitely keep rambling about everything in this book. Again, it was just a really fun read for me as a Studio Ghibli fan, someone interested in animation development and producing, and an animation history fan. There were lots of great stories and nuggets of information and wisdom. It really humanized him, a welcome departure from the stereotypes of film producers we often see.

It made me sad too–again the overall philosophy Suzuki embodies is what makes Ghibli Ghibli, and knowing it will never be like it was again makes me sad. Hearing his words made me forlorn for an animation industry that was better. Animation is more accessible to watch and create than ever before though, so I know I have to remain optimistic that there are so many artists like me who have been influenced by these films in so many ways. We need more execs and financiers to be inspired by them too. In so many ways the business has to change, and a leader like Toshio Suzuki is the perfect role model.

Kiki’s Delivery Service at 30

Last Wednesday marks the 30th anniversary of one of my favorite films, and the film I default to whenever twitter asks to post your favorite or just *a* film from the year you were born. Thirty looks good on us, Kiki.

Kiki’s Delivery Service is a film directed by Hayao Miyazaki through Studio Ghibli. I remember when this movie first came to the US (in 1998), my tía bought it for my cousin, whose nickname was Kiki. She’d always make us watch it to the point that I avoided it for YEARS until I revisited it again in college and I was furious at all of the wasted years I could have been internalizing the messages of this film. So while it was technically my first Ghibli film, I wasn’t cognisant of that for a while.

Kiki is a film that gets more meaningful to me the older I get and the more I struggle to get back to who I was when I was…honestly, Kiki’s age.

The premise and overall plot of this film is simple enough. Kiki, having recently turned 13, is excited to now continue the tradition of witches like her mother, who leave their home for a year in order to hone their particular skill within witchcraft. Her mother, for example, is a potion master, and is seen in the film making medicine for a neighbor. Kiki moves to a new town with only one skill–flying–and she is admittedly not even that good at it. Through some lucky encounters with kind strangers, she’s able to start up a delivery service, and deals with the ups and downs of working, and of monetizing the thing you love. Eventually, she burns out and temporarily loses her powers. It’s through friends helping her through what is essentially her art block, that she pushes through and regains her abilities just in time to use her flying to rescue a friend in danger.

If you haven’t seen it and don’t want specifics spoiled, be warned.

Because I grew up with a lot of them, I’m used to and prefer the dubs for a couple of older Ghibli films. I will note that there are some lines changes and localization choices that alter the sentiment or tone of some lines between the Japanese and English. The English dubs always take some liberties extra jokes or slightly changing the tone or personality of some minor characters/lines. Jiji’s a big example in this film. Nonetheless, the dub is what is seared into my soul, and what I default to when watching this film.

So, let’s talk about watching Kiki’s Delivery Service on its 30th birthday as a 30 year old who recently started down a new largely freelance career path.

Or better yet, let’s talk about all the moments this movie made me cry on this most recent revisit, or brought me pretty damn close:

Attacked By a 13-Year-Old

I set a new record for how quickly I started tearing up, because the waterworks started like 6 minutes into the damn movie. When Kiki decides tonight is the night she’s leaving home, she asks her dad to hold her and spin her around like he did when she was younger. He laments at how quickly she’s growing up, adding that if things are too rough out there that she can always come back home.

“And come back a failure!? Bleh!” she says, sticking her tongue out in disgust.

You sweet, sweet, beautiful child.

I am simultaneously in awe of Kiki and immensely wary on her behalf at the start of the film. This is a me problem though, and not Kiki’s problem. Yes, she is naive, and that’s ok–she’s thirteen. But she is also venturing out into the real world, so I want her to be a little more cautious. That’s also 30-year-old Jen talking.

As much as this film is about Kiki, it is also about community. And I live in a country, and in a point in time that is very distrusting and cynical about the individualism that exists in the place they live. Kiki would not have gotten as far as she did had it not been for the people she met, but also they would not have been such big supporters of her if she wasn’t the optimistic, honest, hard-working, kind young woman she was.

That she already was wary of “failing” despite having no skillset or life experience outside her small town, makes me sad. We of course live in a world that looks at failures as deeply shameful and embarrassing, and not trying new things and/or solving problems.

Kiki Crashes Into Multiple Trees As Soon As She Leaves

I love this scene because it’s one that I didn’t…understand for so long watching this film. And then I think once I was in college taking film classes and properly starting to observe films more, it sort of clicked. Not that this particular moment in the film is so complex that it requires film studies, merely that I was just a bit oblivious. I liked movies but I hadn’t realized how much I wasn’t aware of them. I always was just like, “Aw how cute they hung bells in their trees, maybe like wind chimes?” But at some point I realized that they were basically warning bells so her parents would know when Kiki crashed into any of the nearby. And to warn Kiki she needed to focus more.

That she does so on the night she’s leaving, causing her parents to have those worrisome faces after expressing concern multiple times is just the cherry on top.

I love this scene because Kiki doesn’t have a skill that she’s been specializing in. Her mom expresses guilt at not teaching Kiki her own. Kiki doesn’t have a clear-cut skill to build a stable life with, but she decides she wants to leave and figure things out. Older me knows this is naïve, but younger me was all about this. We’re always so eager to grow up when we have no idea what adult life actually encompasses.

Her first small taste of this is when she’s flying and encounters another witch who is at the tail-end of her first year away. She seems much more mature and grown up than Kiki, and Kiki’s made insecure, and aware she doesn’t really have a specialty (this girl’s is fortune telling).

Kiki's First Customer

While the baker Asano is the first one to help Kiki get settled, it’s their neighbor (Maki) with the white cat (Lilly) that is her first true customer.

Kiki has no marketing strategy lol. She decides she’s going to use her flying skill set and start a delivery business after a fateful encounter with Asano, realizing that flying is a skill she sort of has, but can work with. She shares this with Asano, who cuts a deal with her for some help at the bakery, and Kiki gets setup with a room, a phone, and Asano’s word of mouth to her own established customer base.

Asano has clearly been talking, because word gets out somehow and she slowly starts to see some customers.

I love this scene because she’s so excited. She’d just bought a map of the area from the store, and when the woman asks about the price, she doesn’t even know. The woman gives her an amount that Kiki excitedly reacts to. As an adult, I wonder if it was actually a high amount or if Kiki would have been excited about seeing any money.

Later in the film, we see her weighing a product and using the cash register to calculate a rate based on that and the address, so now we at least know she’s got some kind of process.

"Work is Work"

Kiki Work is Work 1/3
Kiki Work is Work 2/3
Kiki Work is Work 3/3

Thus far into her career, Kiki has been met with nothing but kindness and appreciation. She returns that kindness several times over when she takes extra time to help an old woman prepare a pie that Kiki is meant to deliver.

While the setback of a broken oven makes her run late, Kiki arrives at the granddaughter’s house, who, upon seeing the herring and pumpkin pie, remarks:

“I hate Grandma’s stupid pies!” as she begrudgingly signs Kiki’s receipt book.

She takes the basket and slams the door before Kiki even has a chance to react. Dazed, she begins to leave for home, only to be caught in the heavy rainstorm.

Miyazaki addresses the sentiment perfectly in the art book:

In her line of work, Kiki's experience is hardly unusual. Kiki learns the hard way how naive she's been. She thought she;s be appreciated. But that's not how the real world works. She has to deliver the goods because she's getting paid. You're lucky if you have a nice client. Of course, she doesn't say this in the movie [laughs]. I like the way the potpie girl talks. It's very honest.

Hayao Miyazaki, The Art of Kiki's Delivery Service, pg 118 Tweet

Monetizing Your Passion

Through some more thoughtful meddling by Asano, Kiki is tricked into delivering something to her would-be-friend Tombo’s home. They have a short adventure as they bike to the beach, giving Kiki her first real laugh in a while. While sitting with Tombo, he expresses jealousy and awe at Kiki’s natural ability to fly, because lord help us if Miyazaki ever makes a film that doesn’t explore this obsession. Kiki sadly responds that she used to love flying, but ever since she started doing it as a job, she hasn’t enjoyed it.

Flying used to be fun…until I started doing it for a living.

Cue the tears!

I think this is especially something that applies for people who pursue careers in the arts, but of course applies everywhere. You spend your childhood obsessed with the thing, it becomes your passion, you probably become skilled at it and/or it becomes a big part of your identity, you likely study it in school, and you get your “dream job” doing the thing.

I know so many people like this in animation, who have the dream job at the big studio, and the last thing they want to do with their free time is look at anything to do with animation. I see that passion sucked out of so many people. Not everyone of course, but enough people. Or I see people trying to turn things they did for fun into a job and their relationship with the thing totally changes.

I’ve been very mindful of that for myself as an adult for sure. To not let bad experiences taint a thing I love, or to not take this site for example, too seriously, or else I’ll be paralyzed by perfectionism (still working on that). So this one hit home very much so for both my husband and I, as people who got into animation out of love and are doing what we can to continue to love it the deeper we get.

This was also something I was accidentally doing with hobbies. I’ve always been an arts and crafts type, but at some point in my life, I stopped doing a lot of things if I didn’t feel like I was good enough and that it wouldn’t lead to anything “more” beyond me just enjoying the thing. This is such a toxic thing, and a side effect of hustle culture and just a very uncertain time for people my age crippled with student debt, an unreachable housing market, etc.

It’s been on my mind as I navigate what I want my life and career to look like, and I’m so grateful to Kiki for being an early access point to this dialog.

Kiki Loses Her Magic

After returning home angry from her projecting her own insecurities onto Tombo, she laments to Jiji how bad she is at making friends. Jiji replies with meows instead of words. Fearfully, she grabs her broom and makes several attempts to fly, with no success. Her magic is gone. It happened so gradually that she didn’t realize it until it was too late.

My concept of 'magic' in this film departed from the traditional approach to magic stories. I only wanted it to be a limited talent. So at times she won't be able to fly. It would've been pointless to explain, for example, how she couldn't fly because of her fight with Tombo. I thought that girls watching this would understand the film on its own terms. We sometimes aren't able to draw something that once game so easily. We might even forget how we learned to draw it in the first place. I really don't know how this happens.

Hayao Miyazaki, The Art of Kiki's Delivery Service, pg 128 Tweet

Burnout is real, y’all. Kiki is at her lowest low.

Ursula's Advice*

Ursula, a friend Kiki makes earlier in the film, is in town getting supplies. After hearing Kiki’s dilemma, she invites Kiki to tag along with her back to her cabin in the woods.

There, Kiki sees the painting Ursula’s been working on, and how Kiki was the inspiration for it. Ursula shares that it gave her trouble though, that she almost gave up on it a bunch. Ursula compares her skill as a painter with Kiki’s magic–something Miyazaki stresses a lot. That her magic is like that of an artisan or craftsman. It’s a skill that has to be honed. It’s a passion that can lead to burnout and artist’s or writer’s block.

Ursula encourages Kiki that when this happens, you don’t think about it. You do other things, since the more you think about it, the more you’ll stress about being unable to create and the problem we’ll worsen.

Understanding that, Kiki also realizes that she’d never really thought about why she flies. And yet this thing was so integral to her identity: if she can’t fly, she can’t be a witch, and if she can’t be a witch, then who is she?

Kiki: Without even thinking about it, I used to be able to fly. Now I’m trying to look inside myself and find out how I did it. But I just can’t figure it out…

Ursula: Then stop trying. Take long walks. Look at the scenery. Doze off at noon. Don’t even think about flying. And then pretty soon, you’ll be flying again.

This was the artist retreat Kiki didn’t know she needed.

She is understanding her relationship to her art. She is seeing herself as an artist, and has to further understand her relationship with her work, and how to protect herself from it. Maybe she’s recognizing that too much of her identity is tied into this thing. And not for nothing, embracing the people who have reached out to her in friendship will also help her learn about and explore new things. Ursula is already a great friend and mentor.

Ursula: When I was your age, I’d already decided to become an artist. I loved to paint so much. I’d paint all day until I fell asleep right at my easel. And then one day, for some reason, I just couldn’t paint anymore. I tried and tried, but nothing I did seemed any good. They were copies of paintings I’d seen somewhere before… and not very good copies either. I just felt like I’d lost my ability… It’s exactly the same, but then I found the answer. You see, I hadn’t figured out what or why I wanted to paint. I had to discover my own style. When you fly, you rely on what’s inside of you, don’t you?

Kiki: We fly with our spirit.

Ursula: Trusting your spirit! Yes, yes! That’s exactly what I’m talking about. That same spirit is what makes me paint and makes your friend bake. But we each need to find our own inspiration, Kiki. Sometimes it’s not easy.

Kiki: I guess I never gave much thought to why I wanted to do this. I got so caught up in all the training and stuff. Maybe I have to find my own inspiration

Does this not just slap you in the face? DOESN’T IT?

After this. she returns home and takes some time off. She decides to continue staying in the town (rather than going home) and trying to be more open to meeting people.

A Letter to Mom and Dad

A mid-credit scene has Kiki’s parents receiving a letter from her, updating them about her life. She’s honest in saying it’s not always easy, but she loves her town. Her parents can breathe a sigh of relief that Kiki has landed on her two feet.

Miyazaki mentions in the artbook how he didn’t want the climax and resolution of the film to center on her job or becoming a town celebrity, but rather leaving audiences “…with the impression that no matter how dispirited she gets…she’ll always rise above.” (pg.143)

In that vein, I also do love that there’s no antagonist in this film, nor is there really anyone explicitly mean to her.

He Made a Movie About Himself

While watching this film, it struck me that Miyazaki made a movie about being an animator. I thought, he made a movie about himself. Maybe a younger self…and to be fair, there’s an argument that all of his movies are about himself considering how much creative control and influence he has on them. Regardless, it is still clear he had artists in mind. He shares a similar sentiment in the opening of the artbook:

“The issues of independence girls have to confront now are in some ways more difficult since they must discover, develop, and then actualize their talents. There are girls, for example, who move to Tokyo hoping to pursue a career in the manga industry…One can even make a living at it. The real challenge occurs when it becomes a routine part of your life…Kiki experiences loneliness–a yearning to connect with others. She represents every girl who is drawn to the glamour of the big city but find themselves struggling with their newfound independence…today’s girls also share Kiki’s naivete and lack of awareness.”

Learning a craft like animation–any aspect of it–is extremely isolating when working on your own skill. Of course, its crucial that you build a network and learn to work on a team to create things.

Knowing Miyazaki tends to board his films straight through from beginning to end by himself, I wonder how aware he was that he was sharing these parts of himself with us. While it is based on a pre-existing work, he changed it when writing the screenplay, knowing she needed to struggle for the story to work as a film. From various readings and documentaries about him, he’s definitely someone who develops a lot in his head, and he himself has said he doesn’t actively think about messaging so much as making sure it’s entertaining, and yet he always manages both.


Failure is a natural part of the creative process. It is also temporary. These are difficult things to remember, personally. These are difficult things to accept when you’ve developed taste that your skills don’t match. When you’re online all the time being bombarded by people’s highly curated work and lives.

There are clear-cut moments in my career and my artistic journey where I absolutely lost my magic. I think it’s up and disappeared right now, to be honest, and that was why my brain kept telling me to make some time to watch this film uninterrupted. It was some medicine my heart needed. And when I’d learned on twitter that that day was its 30th birthday? Talk about a sign from the universe.

I’ve had so many ups on my journey that end up being fleeting moments before I want more and strive for the next one, and so many lows that, without even realizing it, made me scared to keep trying to soar higher and higher. You remember the pain more clearly than you remember the victories. You set the bar so high in the sky that you can’t see it anymore, so what’s the point in trying to clear it? It’s like Kiki and Ursula said, one day you just forget how to do it. You hit a wall. Some times its drawing, or filming or writing. Some times it’s being creative in general and then I really feel like a failure. It’s something I still struggle with and am working through. I’m learning to trust myself again bit by bit, and get back to being that self-assured witch-in-training I was.

ARRAY 101 and the Power of Film Literacy

With all of the recent news in the US–particularly the disproportionate rates that black Americans experience police violence (3.5 times more likely to be killed by police when they’re not attacking or even have a weapon), it can be strange to write about film and animation.

But I’ve always felt that media is an important tool for helping people understand others. For building empathy, or at least teaching tolerance.

For Example, Accents

Let’s shift gears for a second with a quick example. There are studies that show a disproportionate number of villains in animated shows and films have foreign accents, or had American accents associated with low socioeconomic status.

Accent signaling is also a more subtle form of ethnic stereotyping that can coexist with improvements to the ways in which children’s shows depict the world and the people who occupy it…

Why Do Cartoon Villains Speak in Foreign Accents? by Isabel Fattal for The Atlantic

I’m sure there are people who argue that such things are a stretch or don’t impact people as much as we think, and while we’re still learning about these impacts, we already seem them played out. We already know the gender disparity on screen negatively affects young women, with studies showing girls as young as 6 already have gendered beliefs about intelligence. Think about how much we rely on representations in media to fill in knowledge gaps when it comes to other cultures we’ve never encountered? Think about the tropes you see played out for different subsets of characters and differing identities. Animation Complex’s first video covered this a bit too.

People are not born racist or sexist. These things are taught implicitly or explicitly. Absorbed from their surroundings, the systems and society they exist in, the culture they are a part of and consume.

One trope that became a harmful stereotype that I can recall from my childhood is how gay men were portrayed in US media in the 90s. I hadn’t befriended any LGBT+ people until high school, so I remember up until that point, the only things I could associate with them were the color pink and the flamboyant gestures and very specific speech patterns I’d seen portrayed (either parodied, mocked, or with attempted sincerity). An entire group of people, watered down to a few things, and even one ethnicity (white) and body type (thin). It wasn’t an ah-ha moment when I got to high school and was friends with gay men who were white, black, Filipino, as well as a gender fluid friend who later identified as transgender, but it was clear that media was failing me, and more importantly, them.

Often these ideas aren’t ill-intended–they’re just what’s been done before. I’ve seen this again and again with creators adding onto existing stereotypes, refusing to acknowledge their place in these larger cultural conversations. They become part of the problem but plead ignorance, or insist they’re an isolated incident. But no one is. When we can name the number of Indian-American characters in Western animated film and TV shows, we need to be aware of what those characters are collectively saying. That can be frustrating for sure, because I also don’t want to imply that any given character speaks for all of that demographic, because that’s tokenism, and we don’t like that! But until we have more, that these stories are the norm and each one not a cause for celebration but an accepted everyday occurrence, we continue to unfairly rely on a handful of characters to represent huge facets of culture.

Language tropes can have far-reaching consequences, both for kids’ perceptions of those around them and their understandings of themselves. Research has shown that kids use TV as a key source of information about other ethnic groups, as well as about their own ethnic and racial identities. Linguists have also found that not only do people make judgements about their peers’ intelligence and education levels based on language characteristics (with those who speak standard dialects usually being viewed as smarter and better-looking), but also that those judgments often shape how a person or group of people is treated. These patterns imply that when children see a correlation between evil and foreignness, or between evil and low socioeconomic status, there’s a good chance they are internalizing negative perceptions of themselves or other groups.

Why Do Cartoon Villains Speak in Foreign Accents? by Isabel Fattal for The Atlantic

All of this to say that film–animated and live-action–is an important tool for media literacy in both kids and adults. The idea of teaching film studies through the lens of media literacy is something I feel is crucial for a more critically engaged society. Creating lessons plans to accompany films is something I’ve been interested in pursuing as a resource on this site, largely inspired by AFI Silver’s Screen Education programs.

Array launched a new series of lessons today though, and it couldn’t be more timely.


Director Ava DuVernay founded her distribution company Array ten years ago, and it has served as a much needed platform and resource for filmmakers of color.

Today, Array launched Array 101, a free curriculum to use along with viewing DuVernay’s 2019 When They See Us, a 4-part miniseries based on the true events of the Central Park 5 case from 1989. It sounds like the plan is to release more lessons surrounding more films in the future.

There’s a learning companion, available either as a downloadable PDF or interactive flipbook with 110 pages of information (ONE HUNDRED AND TEN WOW), and a Field Study Lesson about media bias and data analysis. You can just scroll through the website and explore it all through each of the series’ four episodes.

From the site:

  • Episode One explores how the arrest and interrogation process denied The Exonerated Five their rights and humanity.
  • Episode Two examines how inequities and limited access to resources affected their ability to mount a defense.
  • Episode Three uncovers the many ways their imprisonment harmed their families and communities.
  • Episode Four chronicles the hardships inherent in the prison, parole and reentry systems.

“The episodes highlight the devastating effects of wrongful incarceration and underscore the unjust systems and structures that make such overt brutality in America possible.”


Each section of the guide contains:

  • Episodic Themes
  • Episode Recap
  • Objectives and Key Points
  • Essential Questions
  • Classroom Activities
  • Resources for Self-Reflection and Deeper Learning

Participants will be encouraged to:

  • Explore systemic injustice
  • Reflect on individual, institutional and systemic practices
  • Take action to change themselves, institutions and systems

Honestly, the amount of information, resources, and different topics covered is completely overwhelming. There’s so much. I’m so, so impressed.

The works cited PDF alone is 23 pages long!

I encourage anyone to take a look at this resource, regardless of demographic, regardless of if you’ve seen When They See Us yet.

Film Sparks the Conversations

Of course, we don’t need a guide for every film to be able to talk about overt or sub-textual themes present in them. I understand and respect their decision to create this resource to address a systemic problem in the US. This resource is a generous bonus packed with information that I wish would only be used in a classroom or conversation, but could very well help protect someone. And that’s partly why she made this film too, I imagine. This was a known story already. But DuVernay recognizes the power of film of course, to push these stories out wider. To extend their lifespans. To keep the conversation, the outrage, the demands for change going.

Filmmakers want to say things with their films. That’s clear of course. And I think there’s a value in helping people see some of that. Of course, interpretations will always vary, people may run in the complete opposite direction of the creator. Authorial intent comes in to play. But part of this too is learning how to have these discussions, analyzing and interpreting things. I feel a series like When They See Us is straightforward with its intentions. But it might take some extra discussions for someone to understand the systemic issues at play here, someone who may never have heard of the concept of the school-to-prison pipeline. (I didn’t really see a grade or age recommendation for the Array 101 material, but it is rated TV-MA, so, skip this one for the younger ones.)

Maybe a kid watching Inside Out (2015) or Zootopia (2016) might not pick up on the lessons about mental health and prejudice present in each respectively. So then what would that conversation look like? Can you imagine trying to help a young person along in thinking through the stories critically? In seeing them in a new light? Seeing more layers to the stories they love? How would I broach my essay about environmentalism in Wall-E (2008) and Princess Mononoke (1997) with an eight year old? A fourteen year old? A peer? I think the main differences would be the give and take, where with younger people I’d probably be talking at them more, trying to get responses, whereas the older we get the more I’ve expect independent ideas and opinions, more of a neutral discussion.

I remember as a kid I absolutely adored this type of conversation, spurring me to seek out comparative literature and film studies classes in uni. But in grade school, I was all about trying to see the story beneath the story, to understand the true meaning. I loved parables from the Bible for that reason, and fairy tales, and adored shorts written by Ray Bradbury and O. Henry. These turned stories into a game, into a puzzle to solve and understand, to translate. To find the secret message, the hidden meanings, the subtle (or not so subtle) lessons.

It’s because the subject matter of When They See Us is so upsetting and relevant that we owe it to others to engage with it, along with many other resources to help us learn and unlearn things as American citizens. It’s that much more important that we challenge ourselves with difficult concepts, and text, learn other experiences, and learn how we can help improve society. This is just one way to do that, and as a film blog, I wanted to spotlight it specifically.

Short Stack 6

Welcome to another week of Short Stack. These three in particular are pretty influential for me in terms of the how far people can push the medium. We have a gorgeous stop-motion music video, a solo CG project, and an amazing motion piece made by a team that is constantly pushing boundaries.

Continue reading “Short Stack 6”

Interview with Scoob Director Tony Cervone and Anim Sup Bill Haller

For Cartoon Brew, I had the chance to interview the director Tony Cervone and the animation supervisor Bill Haller of the film Scoob. Scoob is the newest adaptation of Scooby-Doo and the Mystery Inc. gang.

Feel free to find it on your favorite podcasting platform, or listen right here:

Talking to them reminded me a lot about many of the struggles Blue Sky Studios faced when working on The Peanuts Movie. While I hadn’t worked on the film early enough to experience it first hand, I remember learning about and seeing the various versions of Charlie Brown–the some times nightmare-inducing attempts at getting his look right, including attempts with eyeballs and pupils and what not. Like Tony said, they went around the world to get to Scooby, and I heard that, man.

It was a similar situation too, of having to adapt these beloved 2D properties to cg, and figuring out the animation style(s), and level of detail. Story is also a struggle for these older IPs too, in my opinion. Before these features, the stories had never been quite as long, or needed to be a big enough story to capture the attention of a 2016/2020 audience. The stakes had to be higher but still exist within this universe.

Like I say in the podcast, making a movie is an effort. It’s a damn miracle that any movie gets made, and I just love learning about the process.