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An Interview with Stephen Anderson, and holding dear to happy nostalgia

I recently wrote about Richard Amsel’s fondness for Disney, and his unfulfilled dreams of becoming an animator. I also did a recent interview with Gary Goldman, who spoke firsthand of his experience at Disney, and the state of animation in the late 70’s/early 80’s – the very period when Amsel tried to get his foot in the door. It was one of the reasons Amsel eventually moved from New York to Los Angeles in the summer of 1985. Tragically, his health rapidly declined soon after, and he died the following November. Some dreams, it seems, were not to be.

One might consider this to be little more than a footnote when examining Amsel’s career, but I felt the subject warranted further discussion. And so I turned to Stephen Anderson, a longtime animator, writer, and director behind such wondrous, charming films as MEET THE ROBINSONS (2007) and WINNIE THE POOH (2011), as well as TV’s MONSTERS AT WORK.

I’d only become personally acquainted with Anderson very recently through a mutual friend. But even with that connection, it took me a bit of time to muster the courage to reach out to him.

In full disclosure, my first conversation with Anderson was not about Richard Amsel but career advice. Being unemployed, approaching 50, and feeling at a professional impasse, I was feeling rather despondent about the state of things. That’s a hard thing to articulate without swallowing a lot of pride. I’m also often crippled by extraordinary shyness – a lousy trait to have, especially in an industry that demands you continually market yourself. So when Anderson agreed to a Zoom call, I was both thrilled and a bit nervous.

Fortunately all my fears were quickly allayed within the first few minutes of our talk. Steve was soft-spoken, but gracious. We chatted about our respective careers, our mutual love of certain films, personal hopes and frustrations, animation…and, of course, the life and work of Richard Amsel.

When we ended the conversation, I was quite touched by Steve’s kindness. His personality reminded me of my first conversation with artist David Byrd so many years ago – exuding both a strong sense of empathy and humility, without ever putting on airs or resorting to condescension. (And with all their talent and creative achievements, David and Steve certainly have every right to brag.)

I reconnected with Steve a few weeks later, asking him if he’d be interested in interviewing for the documentary. He enthusiastically agreed, and invited me into his beautiful home to film the interview.

“To me, when I think about Richard's work, the first thing that really stands out to me are the eyes of his characters…the actors that he's painting in those posters. There's something about the way he approaches drawing eyes and painting the eyes that I think is really compelling. Thinking about that Judy Garland piece or the Lucille Ball TV Guide piece … or “The Return of the Great Adventure” poster, the Indiana Jones, the Raiders of the Lost Ark with Harrison Ford right in the middle of the composition with his whip back. The face is so appealing to me. That's one of the things that really struck me when I was a kid when I first saw it, and there's a look in those eyes…those eyes just are very penetrating and very appealing to me. …

“He got into a period where he was using, everything was painted very beautifully, but he also had a very distinct outline around his characters. A lot of the posters from that time period, he sort of began using that technique of rendered interior, but a very bold outline. I think that was something I hadn't really seen before…”

Steve explained how Amsel’s strong sense of composition and bold outlines would have served him well as an animator. “I would love to see that his pencil test for the Edith Ann Short, I guess, or test whatever format it was in. … I would love to know an amazing draftsperson and painter that Richard was, to see how that translates into animation. I would just love to see that the backgrounds that I've seen that he had done, obviously were gorgeous and perfect. I mean, again, no question. He would've made a perfect background painter. Absolutely. I mean, and those work in progress backgrounds that I've seen are just amazing.”

Steve mentioned Amsel’s unused concepts for THE JEWEL OF THE NILE, which I had recently posted online. “I am surprised at the amount of unused work that Richard had done,” he said. “Obviously being at the forefront of poster art in his time, it's hard to believe that someone would've hired him to come on work through the comp stage and kind of come up with ideas, some even fully executing the finished pieces and then not use them. … it's really hard to believe that one would not use the artwork of someone working at that, the height of their potential and just his sense of composition, his sense of being able to encapsulate the tone and the feel of a particular movie.”

After over an hour or two of chatting, I eventually broached the subject of Amsel’s death, and the extraordinary creative loss that came in its wake. “I think I just assumed at the time, I don't think his death was widely discussed or covered, let's say, in whatever news or whatever,” Steve said. “So I think I must've just assumed that he retired or moved on to other things. And it wasn't until years later hearing a little bit more about his story, not a lot of detail, but just realizing, oh, he had passed away and died of AIDS, and the tragedy of that.

“And I think anytime, and maybe it's just me, I get very sentimental about the things that I grew up with, very nostalgic, and the people that made me happy, whether they don't know that they made me happy, obviously, they just did their work, whatever. But the people that made me happy, I hold very dear to, and when you lose them and when there's a sadness to the way they were lost, that makes a big impact on me. And so finding out that his life and his career was cut so short, with such unfortunate circumstances was really tough, because again, the amount of joy that I got out of his work was hard to even put into words, movie posters, movies, these were my passions. And Richard was such a huge part of that.”

My heartfelt thanks and gratitude to Stephen Anderson for his time and insight.


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