December 2005

 

I first met Derek Lamb in 1979 when he was the executive producer at the National Film Board of Canada in Montreal. I was a US citizen that had been awakened to the possibilities of “alternative” animation through the great works of the NFBC. In the US, it was Disney that dominated the animation world despite all the great work of UPA, Hanna Barbera and countless other production companies. As an animation student at the Rochester Institute of Technology my eyes were being opened and I wanted to participate in this “new” form of animation that was being celebrated and practiced in Canada. My film teachers, Erik Timmerman and Martin Reynolds had arranged a meeting for me and three other students to tour the Film Board. Rochester wasn’t too far from Montreal and even though we spoke English and the Quebecois were feeling their French identity and potential independence we felt that a trip to the NFB was worth any hassle we might experience as English speakers in Montreal.

When we entered the hallowed halls of the Film Board we were introduced to so many wonderful artists including Carolyn Leaf, Ishu Patel and Derek Lamb. We entered the office of Norman McClaren, my personal animation hero. I remembered that the office appeared to be more of a museum than a working space. I was so overwhelmed by the access to this wonderful animation hot spot that I don’t recall individual conversations. Being a visual person, I do recall seeing Carolyn Leaf’s animation stand and finding out that she had a technician help her set everything up and she had no deadlines. I won’t forget the beautifully under lit work of Ishu Patel and viewing the vibrant work in the film, “Walking” by Ryan Larkin. I don’t recall seeing much of Derek during that visit and as I think back I’m sure he was off behind the scenes running the “English” division of this Canadian animation utopia.

That first visit was so euphoric for me that I was determined to return to Montreal later on and really talk with people and see if I could offer myself as a “slave” in this great place. In 1979 I finished R.I.T. and my student film partner, Malcolm Spaull, and I won a Student Academy Award for a stop motion film based on Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter. I thought that this would be my ticket to getting into the Film Board once again. This time I arranged a meeting for myself in Montreal. I was greeted at the front desk of the NFB by a young smiling, bright and lanky man, who turned out to be Derek Lamb. He was an absolute gentleman and gracious host who led me around the Film Board and allowed me time to hang out with Co Hoedeman as he was finishing Sandcastle. Derek met me for lunch at the Film Board commissary and we sat with a gaggle of animators. At one point Derek poked me and asked me, in a whisper, if I recognized the man across from me at the table. He then introduced me to Norman McClaren. I was blown away and a bit embarrassed for not recognizing my idol. I knew McClaren by his work not his visage. McClaren looked at my work and complimented me on the variety and design and said that he was not doing much animation anymore. He looked in poor health but I was still in awe. Being the lovely host that Derek was, he excused us from the table and took me to a screening room where I was able to pick and choose anything I wanted to see. Later that afternoon Derek bid me farewell and that was the last I saw of him for 25 years. As a US citizen it was extremely difficult to land work at the nationally funded Canadian Film Board so I remained a fan and not an employee.

I did join the professional animation field and have worked in the US, England and even Canada in the last 25 years. As a professional, I am always aware of the industry that I work in and I have gotten to realize that it is a fairly small world. Having worked with, and gotten to know, people like Peter Lord, Joan Gratz, John Lasseter, Nick Park, Henry Selick and many many more I found that Derek’s name would crop up here and there. When I was working at Olive Jar Studios in the mid to late 90’s I met Janet Perlman who was partners with Derek for many years. I knew that Derek was often in the Cambridge area but I never really had the chance to follow through and see him again.

Then two years ago I decided to return to school in Boston and earn an MFA. I had entered a low-residency program at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University. They have a “mentor” program, which basically means each MFA student finds someone in their discipline that can teach them and guide them forward in their studies. Since I was a 25-year professional, there weren’t many people who would take me on as a student. During one of my residencies in Boston I went to a party and ran into an old friend and colleague, Flip Johnson. Flip recommended that I get a hold of Derek Lamb. I was developing a story for my animated film for my studies and Flip’s recommendation was perfect. I had forgotten that Derek lived in the Boston area (Cambridge) and had taught at Harvard for many years. I also knew that he would not remember me from 25 years earlier so I thought it would be a “long-shot.”  After procuring Derek’s e-mail from a friend of Flip, I dropped Derek a note explaining who I was. I received no answer, but after being in the commercial industry for so many years I knew that meant nothing. I then managed to get Derek’s number. I left several messages but still got no response. At one point I decided that there was not going to be a response so I opted for a different mentor. Quite literally, moments before I was about to call an alternative, my phone rings and it’s Derek. We spoke and he said he wasn’t quite sure what he could do for me but he was willing to listen. I asked if I could come see him and show him my project. I live in western Massachusetts and it was a 2-hour drive to Boston. We agreed to meet on a Saturday and I mentioned that I needed to bring my 13-year-old son, Ty, because my wife was working Saturday. That was no problem and so we renewed our acquaintance.

Derek lived in a congested but charming part of Cambridge, Massachusetts that was surrounded by buildings owned and operated by Harvard University. Although, Derek was not working at Harvard at the time, a semi-academic atmosphere surrounded him. When Ty and I entered Derek’s house I recognized him immediately. He looked a little older and a bit more frail but he was as warm and generous as the first time we met. He invited us in to his living room and I recalled our previous meeting 25 years earlier. He did not remember me, after all he had encounter hundreds of animators as was apparent from the pictures on his walls. I didn’t recognize many of the people but he was always surrounded by small groups of smiling people. Derek draped his large lean frame on the couch with some sort of healthy exotic looking liquid concoction in front of him and readied himself for my story. After explaining my situation to Derek and showing him my studies for my film we settled in for a little conversation. He loved the look of my film and was concerned about how my story was going to unfold. I knew I had made the right decision coming to visit Derek. He was going to be able to give me the right kind of genuine input to my story without being overbearing. He showed Ty and me a project that he was working on for a kid’s series called Peep and the Big Wide World that he was overseeing with Kai Pindal, the Canadian animator and creator. “Peep” was awarded an Emmy this past spring for “Outstanding Children’s Animated Program.” I was impressed with the simplicity and elegance of the design and story. Derek recognized and helped nurture good talent and understood the value of simple human stories that can teach. He also told us about the films he had made over the years with child authors from around the world. Derek had worked for several children’s organizations like Street Kids International and Unicef and had traveled to various parts of Asia to help teach kids about hygiene and aids prevention. He wanted kids to make films of their own that spoke to their own piers in their own culture. He was able to use animation as a beneficial tool for society, which gave great depth to his work in this field. Derek had a love for India and had been there numerous times to work at places like the National Institute of Design, which is based in Ahmedabad. Derek had been working on a short called The Last British Colonel in India. He laughed about the small Indian boy who approached him on a beach one day. It was extremely hot and Derek didn’t have his bathing suit. The young boy approached Derek and offered him a bathing for sale. Derek wasn’t so sure about this purchase on the beach but he acquiesced once the boy offered him a “lifetime guarantee” for the bathing suit. We talked about the colors of India, the culture of children and adults, films we loved including the works of Len Lye, his own “Every Child,” and a whole range of topics that had little and everything to do with animation and life in general. Derek’s wife, Tracie, was in the next room and was anxious to free Derek so they could go to Groton for an outing. We looked at our watches and realized that we had burned through a few hours and all of us, including my son, were totally engaged. I apologized to Tracie for dominating Derek’s Saturday morning and Ty and I went on our way back to the Berkshires.

On a subsequent visit with Ty to Derek’s home we settled on our couch as Derek took my script to read in the kitchen. He handed us a film that he had just received from an animator named Chris Landreth. Derek stepped out as we sat in awe of this amazing creation. We were speechless as Derek returned with his thoughts and my script. After our praise of this film based on the Canadian animator, Ryan Larkin, Derek gave us a little back-story. Naturally, Derek knew Ryan very well because he had been the director of the Film Board during Larkin’s tenure. The interview of Derek in the film revealed Derek’s concern for Ryan and Chris Landreth wanted Derek’s reaction before the final release of the film. “Ryan was a natural talent, an intuitive artist and not necessarily an intellectual” explained Derek. He had a way of expressing body motion that was simply unique and spot-on. But Ryan decided to go his own way leaving the fold of the Canadian Film Board. Derek was hard pressed to understand this decision and felt a certain sadness regarding the matter.

We moved on to my film script. Derek felt that my visuals were striking and he knew that they could carry the film in themselves. He wondered if I wanted to put the pressure of making an amazing film with many levels of understanding or if I wanted to make a film for myself. The former is intimidating and I realized that I didn’t want to take on such a responsibility. I wanted the freedom of making a film “for myself.” If there was something profound that arose then that would be fine but this was an opportunity to indulge myself. Once this was established, Derek urged me to keep a human element in my film that would lend a warmth that he wasn’t sure was there. I assured him that the animation of the components of my film would add a human quality to the film. His sense of warmth and humanity and clear storytelling guided our conversation. This helped keep me on track. Ultimately, the conversation we were involved in brought these qualities forward and I was able to keep a perspective on my work. I had promised Tracie that we wouldn’t take so much of Derek’s time this visit so soon we were departing company.

That was the last time I saw Derek. We did correspond by e-mail but those encounters were not as rich as sitting in the presence of this animation master. Derek knew how to work with people and how to bring the best out of them. His intentions and ideas were highly regarded by many people in the animation industry. Often Derek was the man behind the curtain of the man behind the curtain. Animators are often anonymous, but to work behind such anonymity and have such great influence spoke very highly of this kind, perceptive and talented man. He will be missed but his influence will be felt for a long time and lives on in other animators like myself. Cheers, Derek!

 

 

 

Tom Gasek is a twenty-five year professional director and animator whose credits include work for Will Vinton, Art Clokey, Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Aardman Animations and his own Out of Hand Animation. Last spring, Gasek joined some of the Aardman team to work on the Creature Comforts Christmas Special in Bristol. Presently, Tom is finishing his MFA while teaching at the Rochester Institute of Technology as a “Visiting Assistant Professor.” A “Quicktime” of Tom Gasek’s work can be seen at www.zanimation.tv  in the director’s menu. He can be reached at tom@outofhandanimation.com

 

Published on www.awn.com in December 2005

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