An Interview with Instructor Gene Hamm
Former Academy instructor Gene Hamm has been drawing raves for his animation work of late. His
The Dream Hat, is a hit on the festival circuit. It seemed like a good time to chat with
him about his career and his tenure at the Academy:
How did you get involved in animation?
I started professionally in 1978 when I moved down to Los Angeles from Seaside, Oregon. Through
the Cartoonist Union, I was able to get a job on Ralph Bakshi's
The Lord of the Rings the second week after I moved to L.A.
When did you make the move from illustration to animation?
I always loved watching animation on TV. I loved Bugs Bunny and Popeye as a kid. I drew comic
books from childhood to college age. I loved acting. I was the class clown. I wrote songs. I found
I could combine the drawing, the acting, and the music if I put it all together as animation.
Around the age of 19, I bought a movie camera with a single frame shutter; I was hooked on all the
magic that I could produce.
How would you describe your animation to someone at a party?
I call myself the Robert Rodriguez of animation. I find ways of keeping the cost down and making
the films myself the way I want to do them. My films are mostly two-dimensional because I love to
draw. I have resisted falling into a style for so long that maybe the best way to describe my
animation is to let people go view my films on my Web site.
What is your artistic intent? Is it a one-man show, or is it collaborative?
My original animated films are one-man shows. I distrust art that comes out of a committee. I
write the script, I animate it, I compose the music, I perform the voices, I sing the songs. There
are less people to argue with if I do it all myself. If it's good, I take the credit. If it's bad,
I take the blame. Perhaps in both form and content, the underlying message in all my animation is
taking responsibility for your own life. I like to create animation that makes you laugh and gives
you something to think about. My art explores the truth that is buried beneath the surface.
Tell me about
Dream Hat, the feature you completed. What's it about?
The Dream Hat is the story of a little boy with a magic hat, who tries to save a village
where everyone works so hard, they have forgotten how to dream. It has nine original songs in a
unique structure where the songs can stand alone as music videos, but they also support the story
on another level. I was influenced by animated films such as
The Phantom Tollbooth, and
What has the response been at the festivals?
Audiences have given me positive feedback. One festival director phoned me the day they screened
it and told me it made their day.
Are there plans for distribution?
The way Bill Plympton distributes his films is my model. I will be going an alternative route to
art theaters that project video, art museums, and college film societies. I will also explore the
possibilities of new technologies for distribution, such as Google or iPod. I think
The Dream Hat is the kind of cult film that can build an audience by word of mouth. I'm
not trying to compete with the Disney/Pixar monopoly on movie screens. I don't like the current
blockbuster mentality that believes a movie has to make its money in the first weekend. I want my
film to have a long shelf life. It's what publishers call "a perennial."
Dream Hat got you an agent, and your agent got you some animation work... can you describe
what you've been working on?
Finishing a feature alone has helped me prove to myself that I can take on large projects for
hire. There are some large pending projects that I am not at liberty to talk about. But as soon as
they get the green light, I will probably need to hire some Academy of Art students.
It has also given me a forum to pitch ideas. I have one original script for a live action
Hitchcockian dark comedy-thriller that is being looked at by some production companies. I have a
couple more scripts that she likes. She is very honest. When she likes one of my ideas, she tells
me. When she thinks it stinks, she tells me. She also tells me how to fix things to make them
Can you describe your book,
How to Get a Job in Animation (And Keep It)?
It's hard won practical advice about surviving in this industry. It grew out of answers to
questions my Academy of Art students asked me. I contacted Heinemann, the publisher of Acting For
Animators by Ed Hooks, and they liked the idea and had me expand on it. Ed Hooks wrote the
introduction to my book.
Part 1 is about how to get a job in a Hollywood studio, what to learn in school, what to put on
your reel, how to track down leads, how to change a "no" to a "yes" (or at least a "maybe"), how to
deal with the union and how to live in L.A.
Part 2 deals with running your own small (or one-man) studio. It includes such topics as how to
price a job, dealing with difficult clients, copyrighting your work, and how to win a film
Along the way are funny stories about meeting such legends as Ralph Bakshi, Tex Avery, Ray
Harryhausen, Art Clokey, Roger Corman, and James Cameron.
Until recently you were an instructor at the Academy. How did you get involved with the
My teaching began the same year as my career in animation. As I learned more, I would pass it on
to my students. I started teaching on site at Academy of Art University about five years ago. I
liked the fact that Academy didn't let students touch a computer until they knew how to draw. I
just recently took time off from teaching to finish my book and
The Dream Hat. What I learn about distribution I can pass on when I teach again.
What classes did you teach?
I taught 2D animation, storyboards, and effects animation. When the online department started, I
was the first 2D animation teacher. I designed the first online 2D animation syllabus. Using Flash,
the students could post their work on a bulletin board that was the virtual equivalent of showing
their work in the front of the room. I downloaded their Flash files, added corrections on another
layer, and posted them back on the bulletin board. The process worked pretty well. We had students
posting their work from all over the world.
What are your plans for the future of your art?
It's a brand new adventure in my life right now, with the book coming out and films making the
festival circuit. I am hoping the personal and the professional will merge. I want to make a living
off my own ideas. I am animating what will be a proposed pilot for a TV series. If that works out,
I have another idea for a series that I am scripting right now.
Lots of ideas have been percolating for years. I'm throwing ideas against the wall now to see
what sticks. When one idea pays off, it will prime the pump and trigger a lot more ideas.