The creative path with Tony White

We are on the quest to interview business owners over the age of 60.  This week we head to the United States and chat with Tony White who is an British Academy Award-winning animation director, animator, author, educator and consultant.


What motivates you to keep working after 60?

I think it is a question of life accomplishment.

The worst thing we can do with our lives is not seek to fulfil all the promise and potential we have. Things like this are not handed to us on a plate and we have to work and strive for them if our life is to mean anything. I know full well that at my age I am standing in the ‘exit line’ of life, although I don’t know how close to the door I am right now.

With this in mind I have to ask myself two things,

Have I achieved everything that I wish to do with this gift of life?

Have I given back to the world the best of the things I’ve received, in order that others might benefit?

When I closed my animation studio in London in 1998 to move to the United States to seek the funding of a full-length animated movie. My life had changed at that time in the UK and my children had all grown up and flown the nest. So it was a ‘now or never’ moment for me.

So carrying two suitcases, and little else, I traveled to the United States in search of a new beginning. It didn’t work out career-wise unfortunately, as within a couple of years of my arriving the Walt Disney Corporation closed down their traditional hand-drawn animation studio and the industry died in the States overnight! I was stranded and facing a new challenge. I had to transform myself, looking hard at what assets I had and re-inventing myself around them. I had a great deal of knowledge about animation and although my lack of degree was an additional challenge, I have found ways of teaching what I know to others.

However more recently, when I was within six days of my 70th birthday, I was given four days notice of the termination of my teaching contract – due to budget cuts. Clearly I faced another huge dilemma. What do I do now?

I refused to picture myself as a victim of this situation, as being full of life and inner ambition, I still needed to find a way of giving back something from the knowledge and experience I had and reinvent myself around that. But my comfort areas of animation, and teaching animation, were now closed to me. So what next?

Way back in my life I had learned many great inner truths that had transformed my life, setting me on a true path of self-understanding and life management. I had always dreamed of sharing this knowledge with the world in a way that suited my abilities and my skills. But I never did, finding that I was needing to devote all my time to my ‘day job’ activities. Now I realised this had all changed. So I jumped at the opportunity of realising this old dream. I immediately launched ‘STAR*TOONZ’ and find I am now working harder than I’d ever done before!

What do you like most about having your own business? There are plusses and minuses in terms of running your own business, as I had already learned back in the UK when establishing my award-winning London animation studio from 1978 to 1998. There was always a great cycle of where there was either too much work to cope with or not enough to survive. The cycle seemed never-ending.

However, the one thing that kept me going is the knowledge that you have the individual freedom to work in accordance with doing what you love to do and in the manner that you want to do it. As I see it, if you don’t do this you will never be in a position to explore the unique voice that is within you, or reach your full potential.

What are some tips you have for those thinking about pursuing a creative career?

First of all be realistic. Us artistic types tend to live in a different mindset to the rest of the world and therefore its very easy to get things wrong and live in an unproductive dream. It is so easy to be lazy as a creative person, thinking that the world owes us a living and that we will only work when the muse takes us. Its not at all like that in the creative professions however.

The first big lesson I learned in the animation industry is its really hard work to achieve what is up there on the screen. This was a huge eye-opener when I left the cozy world of college and hit the real world of production and commerce. I still see this misnomer in the young people who attend my classes today. They are all captivated by the video games industry and want desperately to work in it. They believe it must be cool to earn money, playing games each day. However, if they ever get a job in that industry they learn very fast the hard work to create video games, so much in fact that many of my ex-students tell me they are exhausted by the end of the day that they hardly play video games at all any more!

There is also temptation to believe these days the digital revolution means that, as a creative person, you just need to learn the software and the computer will do all the work for you. This is the biggest myth of all.

Computers and technologies do speed up some of the processes and allow the creative mind to reach visual realms never before possible. However, the huge reality is you need the traditional skills and creative experience to bring to the party as well.

Consequently, I urge all my students to study the traditional skills or their art first, before taking advantage of what the computer can do for them. I am talking here of course in terms of the animation industry, where I have direct knowledge of the techniques and processes required. However, I suspect that any creative field that requires artistry via technology, requires that the artist driving the machine has to have conventional knowledge and skills under their belt before they do so.

My biggest successes right now are teaching Drawing for Animation classes at art and animation schools. These are where students learn all the traditional principles of pose and motion through observational gesture drawing. Indeed, my most recently successful book is called ‘The Animator’s Sketchbook’ (Focal Press) which does exactly that. It offers up almost 70 specific, animation-related, drawing exercises that teach students the foundations of form and movement in a way that will enhance their animation skills, in whatever form of animation they may be interested in.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learnt in life?

Have expectations and ambitions, but set your sights on achievable goals. Then, we can re-set our sights higher if we achieve our first goal. Perhaps in the wisdom and learning we acquire along the way to the first goal, we realise that our true direction is elsewhere anyway? There is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that we will be eternally disappointed, and even feel depressed or defeated, if we set ourselves an impossible goal from the outset.

In my experience, unhappiness always comes from having unrealistic expectations of life, or of ourselves.

What advice would you give to the younger generation?

Know yourself! Way back, the ancient temple of Delphi had an inscription above the door. It effectively said, ‘KNOW THYSELF’. If only we heeded that advice today.

For me, life is another day at school. I have come to believe that the real ‘I’, the one that we feel inside, actually existed before we entered this physical existence and will continue to do so after we vacate it. For whatever reason, that unique ‘I’ is the real us – our ‘soul’ if you like. It has chosen this current lifetime as an opportunity to either learn further lessons it requires, or else to bring to others skills and knowledge we have learned already. It is most probably both of those things at once if we’re truly realistic.

If you could jump into a time machine what era would you visit and why?

I would simply return to that time when I studied astrology with the late, Samuel H. Weir who was a herbalist and astrologer that transformed my life when I was younger. Over a period of two or more years I used to sit with him, between patient appointments every Saturday afternoon, and he would teach me things about astrology, herbs and medical diagnosis. Much of it has now faded from my memory, as I never took it any further at the time. But it would be so great to go back and relive those times with him and this time take a tape recorder with me, so that nothing shared was lost to time or memory.