In the midst of lockdown floundering I absent-mindedly decided to see what was on the numerous external drives connected to my Mac – this prompted reflection on the literally hundreds of jobs I’ve worked on for various companies as a freelancer over the years – and these are only the jobs that survived due to digital archiving – most of what went before is lost for eternity.
All the pitches that went nowhere, the endless storyboards – enough to fill a room or two to the ceiling before I went digital – forgettable jobs that rarely resulted in my best work but for which I always gave 110 % – just the usual bread and butter assignments that fill a freelancers’ life.
It also reminded me of my less than auspicious entry into the world of animation in the dim and distant early 80’s in London.
I’d embarked on the requisite tramping around Soho after cold-calling studios and remember sitting with my heavy portfolio in Soho Square feeling utterly dejected – not at any rejections particularly, in fact the few studios that I had managed to gain entry to were generally quite welcoming to a recent graduate – but at the feeling that my work, 2 / 7 minute short films in film cans, just didn’t cut it.
I eventually landed a job with a tiny studio in Soho’s Gt.Windmill St whose work I had admired after seeing an exhibition of animation artwork in Neal Street in Covent Garden, a stones throw from the then new annex of St Martins School of Art where I was finishing my graduation film.
After speaking to the manager over the phone a warm feeling of acceptance washed over me and I felt hopeful – he was an Anglo-Indian from Mumbai and his name was Len Lewis and so a sense of a common heritage made me feel like my entry into London’s animation scene would be more hopeful.
I met Len in his studio lodged between 3 floors, below an editors and above the famous and now long-gone Carrolls Salt Beef restaurant – the studio was situated somewhat incongruously directly opposite both an infants school behind a high barred iron gate and the seedy clip-joints and snooker clubs that typified the Soho of the 80’s.
I arrived at the studio with my portfolio just as the occupier of the edit suite on the top floor rolled up on his bike and I asked him if the studio was in the building, just to make sure – without looking at me he answered in the affirmative, opened the door and I followed him in and up the narrow stairs to the studio on the second floor.
The pane of security glass in the door had been covered on the inside with a sheet of paper on which were numerous impressive cartoony doodles along with the studio name.
I knocked on the door and an accented voice that I had previously initially mistaken to be French on the phone, or at least not English-sounding said “It’s open, come in”.
Len Lewis, dressed casually and, I think, in bare feet, was leaning against a table looking down moodily with what I read to be a troubled expression on his face but this soon changed to a broad toothy grin in a chiseled face with prominent cheekbones, heavy lidded eyes and a mop of curly black hair and he took my offered hand and shook it.
The day that followed that initial meeting involved going to a viewing theatre where Len showed me the studio’s work – a mixture of his own work as a freelance director for other studios before he set up shop on his own, and the studios’ work, all relatively recent since he had only been in business for a year.
As we made our way back through Soho’s narrow and bustling streets Len gave me some background to his career up to that point – of arriving in London in the early 60’s and finding work at the few animation studios that existed in London at the time, the few highs and many lows and in Len’s words “all the crap jobs” he’d had to endure before deciding to open his own business – my overwhelming impression was of a man weighed down by the struggle to establish himself as a distinctive voice in amongst his lauded peers, many of whom he knew socially or had worked with and for.
Len also outlined his studio philosophy which seemed very democratic, but then, apart from stories I’d heard about Richard Williams studio, my hero at the time, I had no yardstick to compare with – Len was happy to encourage and nurture new talent and to even go as far as sidelining himself to young up and coming directors fresh out of college because he felt he could learn from them and improve his own animation.
This was a certainly the case with his discovery of Mike Smith whose distinctive style and astonishingly mature animation skills helped raise the profile of the fledgling studio – I realized then that what I’d seen in the gallery in Neal St was actually largely the work of Mike Smith, who flourished under Len’s guidance before being pulled away by other studios eager to capitalize on his talent.
So when I stepped into the frame I felt that a high bar had been set and I wanted to make sure I was an asset to a new studio keen to establish itself, not quite a replacement for Mike Smith although it was clear that a distinctive style and approach had been established, so the year that followed was a baptism of fire on several levels, as I’ll detail in part 2.