Hunchback Memories

This morning when I woke up, the first thought I had was of Hunchback of Notre Dame. The movie, by Disney. I thought of Esmerelda spinning and dancing in that red dress, Tom Hulse singing almost-opera over a hand-drawn cityscape of Paris, and those funny gargoyles that kept Quasimodo company in the bell tower. Then I thought up most of what you are about to read. Then I wondered exactly when that movie came out. In June of 1996 Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame was released in theaters. Four months earlier, I had been hired into my first real art job. By real, I mean, I was sitting at a computer instead of painting en plein air. Hey, I was four years out of my art degree, things looked differently then. Perhaps backwards from the way they do now. Then, I was a production artist for a small creative dev studio in Ann Arbor, which made Winnie the Pooh, Pocahontas and Lion King digital storybooks in no fewer than 22 languages. It was my job to creatively arrange Japanese, Hebrew and Greek words on the page, then make them highlight as the narrator spoke in that language. I will never forget the angst of installing a Hebrew operating system on my computer so we could set the type right to left digitally. They saw how easily we could crank the languages translations out, and they kept adding languages. By the end we joked, when they announced another set of languages, that we would be doing a Pocahontas storybook in Swahili. Six production artists including myself were packed into a windowless room, elbow to elbow at folding tables, creating translations word by word.

Within a few months, I was moved into a lead artist role for what would be the largest project that studio created. We were tasked with releasing a digital storybook version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame movie, almost in parallel with the movie – releasing just 5 months after the theater release, with a 15 month production schedule, if I remember right (which means we were creating content without having seen the movie, because it hadn’t come out yet). We received dailies from Hollywood shoots, some storyboards, pencil sketches and voice clips, and I remember learning a ton about movie production from that process. That’s when I cut my chops on Photoshop and Director. Back then Google wasn’t a thing yet, and the internet was used primarily for FTP and email, from my corner, anyway. But we partnered with Disney and made “Edutainment” – storybooks on CD-ROM (remember those!) where you put a CD in your 486 and the narrator reads the story  while text highlights, and the story characters come to life and talk to each other, and sometimes you, when you click on them. It was pretty novel at the time. Disney’s leads (the co-producers and the art director) would fly out and visit us every week or two to check on the status, because there was so much we couldn’t send them over FTP. And we definitely got into our projects neck deep. We personified them, became them. Chris was the audio director on Hunchback, so we saw a lot of each other, though we weren’t a thing yet. But he shared a room with Leslie, who would become our Maid of Honor a couple years later.

It was after hours when the studio was most interesting. The execs had mostly gone home, and the team, actually the whole staff, operated much like a college frat – no, not Animal House, just close, where we’d bust ass all day long, into the evening, in lock step, doing what needed done, then, as if we hadn’t spent all day together, we’d go out in the evenings. The art team was closer. After hours, from Todd’s office, the soundtrack of Hunchback would grow and grow until half the studio was dancing from cube to cube, operatically singing, gesturing right along with Tom Hulse, even on the high notes. There were stories about the Disney artists drawing Demi Moore while she was rehearsing for her next movie (which was Striptease – yeah, you’ll never see Hunchback the same way after you know that little tidbit). There were audio clips of Jason Alexander and Tim Hulse delivering their lines, and some pretty funny warm up audio that came along with recorded scripts, that Chris and the audio department received. We were working. All the time. Then we’d occasionally escape after dusk and gather on the patio at the best extension of college barlife I ever knew in Ann Arbor, Dominicks. Over sangria we’d hash out the next screen requirements, and talk shit about the execs. Then do it again tomorrow.

That was summer of ’96 and it was beautiful. Our art team made it an event to go see Hunchback when it released, and then several times following. It was R&D, of course. I was making art for Disney and I couldn’t have imagined that summer better if I had created it myself. Our art room often began with coffee and morning chats; we were close enough that we’d spin our chairs away from our “desks” and we’d be almost knee to knee, and since we spent the whole day back to back, we often began in a little coffee circle, while checking the progress on last night’s Bryce landscape rendering over our shoulder (we’d set them up after quitting time and let them render all night long).

The beauty was interrupted one morning in July when the art manager stepped into the doorway and asked me to come to his office. Still now, I remember the only thought going through my mind was, “Really, too good to last?” Really?” Ten minutes later, the last question he asked me was, “Do you want to gather your things now, or later?” I answered now, which I thought would give my roommates fair warning that something was wrong. Silently I sat at my computer, choked up, copying down my Bryce landscapes and a couple personal things, trying desperately to adhere to, “don’t say anything, just gather your things.” The manager stood in the doorway and everyone who noticed my demeanor began asking what was up. “I don’t work here anymore,” were the only words I could croak before tears filled my eyes too much to see my screen. They sucked the air out of the room, then I was escorted out the door.

That’s when I was given the best compliment I have received in my life, ever. My art director, Todd had followed me out the door, having heard enough to know what was going on – they were firing his staff out from under him during this largest project! We had been working nights and weekends to get to deadline, and they were taking staff away! He stopped me and said, “There are leaders and there are followers, and Erika, you are definitely not a follower. I can’t finish this project without you. We’ll get you back here.” He hugged me and I got to my car sobbing. Right next to me, the lead developer, full tears running down her face, had just reached her car as well. We exchanged red-faced, defeated looks, then I asked her if she wanted to go have coffee, and we cried together all the way to wherever we ended up.

All the artists in the art room were let go that day, except one. A lot of others, too. They gutted the studio staff. We all connected that evening at Dominicks, I think, shaking our heads in disbelief, crushed that such a beautiful thing had ended. I had a thought-a-day calendar that I had thrown in my bag upon leaving. I have kept that day’s page ever since. It said, “You do too much. Go and do nothing for a while.” For years every time I saw that, I would cry.

Less than three weeks later, I was at a fledgling website design company (yes, I was a web developer in 1996!) and working on the design for this thing called a “search engine” for mechanical and industrial companies (much like Angie’s List today). I remember loathing walking up the creaky stairs in a 150-year old farmhouse in Ypsilanti, that had been converted into this web startup. I was sitting at the window, trying to understand how character recognition software and this search engine might work together, hating every moment of this non-creative job, when my phone rang. Todd was on the other end, asking me back. I walked out that day, and the next, I was at my old desk. We shipped Hunchback and celebrated.

I was hired and fired three times by that creative studio. They couldn’t afford to keep the talent they needed. The last time they fired me, I had been the art director of a nine month project that we squeezed into five months. The project was Disney’s Hercules. Fitting. It was like that, it was good, hard work. We got to know the characters like family, and I remember that as the moment I became really fond of James Woods for his audio warm ups. He would scat and jive to get into character before recording, except they sent us the whole tapes. I just loved it! But it was that sort of effort; Herculean. Leslie was the audio director on that one, Aaron was the most amazing producer. We build a digital ink and paint system while crunching this hard, and I loved the moment Joslyn took the reigns on that and saved me from drowning. I flew to Toronto and back one day to hire the art team we outsourced some animation to. It was all still hand drawn, 2D art. Rick just had a tally list of beers on my white board. He was the lead programmer and every Herculean effort he achieved on my behalf, he earned another Dominicks beer from me. I regularly worked 80 hour weeks, and clocked 110 two weeks in a row in order to ship it in time to match the date the movie released in theaters. Not a month after Hercules shipped, they walked me out for the last time.

This morning when I woke up, the first thought I had was of Hunchback of Notre Dame. The movie, by Disney. Then I thought up most of what you just read. Then I wondered exactly when that movie came out. Chris and I talked about that project and fumbled over the dates. Did it ship in 1997? No. It was the vacation after shipping Hunchback, our second date – a week at Club Med Cancun, that Chris and I mark it by. That was December 1996 (and another story entirely). But the movie came out June 21, 1996. Exactly 21 years ago today. Google told me.