Win, Lose or Draw: First jobs of animation sensations

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Think of the golden age of American animation, and the mind tends to go back to the days of Walt Disney and Steamboat Willie.

David Silverman, director nominated for Animated Short Film for "Maggie Simpson In The Longest Daycare" and Matt Groening (R) arrive at the 85th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California February 24, 2013 REUTERS/Adrees Latif

Yet with computer animation and the advent of storytelling powerhouses like Pixar, animators now are turning out some of the greatest works of art the field has even seen.

With that in mind, for the latest in Reuters’ “First Jobs” series, we talked to some of America’s best cartoonists and animators about entering the workforce – and it was not always at a drawing board.

Bob Mankoff

Cartoon editor; “Esquire”; former cartoon editor, “The New Yorker”

First job: Teaching speed reading

Back in the 1960s, there was a speed-reading craze. The idea was that we usually read one word at a time, but our eyes can actually see much more than that.

They even had a whole machine for it, with a dial and a bar that went down the page at a certain speed. You could actually train yourself to read faster. So I became a teacher at a school called Evelyn Wood, and had to schlep these horrible machines all around town.

I taught at a Catholic girls’ school. My standard joke was, ‘Read faster or you’ll burn in hell!’ But the worst thing I ever did was that when I wanted to stop teaching, I lied and told my bosses I had stomach cancer. That sure stopped the conversation. That was it, and I was out.

Marc Ceccarelli

Co-executive producer (with Vince Waller) of “SpongeBob SquarePants”

First job: Making Halloween masks

My first actual job was working at a mask company in North Hollywood. We made Halloween products, mostly masks and props. I got the job because I had made a sculpture of a rat standing on its hind legs.

Every year we would go to Halloween product conventions, and five of us had to figure out new ways of sculpting the usual masks like witches, skulls and Frankensteins. There are only so many different monsters you can do. But we also had licensed products, so we got to sculpt Star Wars masks like Yoda.

It was a very toxic job, because there are a lot of chemicals and resins and foam and fiberglass and clay dust. Unfortunately, this job set off my allergies, so I had snot pouring out of my nose every day.

That job did teach me about deadlines, though. You have to get things done by a certain time, and that is how you keep working in Hollywood. If you can handle deadlines in this business, then people will give you more work.

David Silverman

Director of 24 “The Simpsons” episodes and “The Simpsons Movie”

First job: L.A. Times cartoonist

In 1979 I started working for Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic Martin Bernheimer of the L.A. Times. He did little vignette stories of things that were happening in the world of music, and they wanted a cartoonist who had a feeling for musicians.

That led to other freelance work, like a line of piano books for Alfred’s Publishing. I did drawings related to the lessons, which I believe are still in existence. They would let me do pretty wacko stuff.

I didn’t get lot of money for those things, but it wasn’t really about how much they were paying me. I would still really go for it and try my best. Eventually I caught the eye of Disney animators. So looking back on my career, I wouldn’t have done anything different. It was all kind of happenstance.

Lee Unkrich

Director of multiple Pixar films including “Toy Story 3” and “Coco”

First job: Country club busboy

When I was 16, I worked briefly as a busboy at a fancy country club in northeast Ohio. Basically my job was to fill water glasses, put the butter pats out, and help serve the buffet.

The only reason I took the job was that I had just got a car, a ’63 Plymouth Valiant given to me by my Great Aunt Betty. I was a huge fan of Stanley Kubrick’s movie “The Shining,” and all I wanted in life was to own vanity plates that said ‘Redrum’. I thought it would be funny for drivers to look in their rear-view mirror and see ‘Murder’ approaching.

The day my plates came in the mail, I quit. That was my first and last time in the service industry. I drove away with my Redrum plates and never looked back.

Editing by Lauren Young; Editing by Lisa Shumaker