by Amanda Bennett
If Trever Stewart runs into a room and says to you, “Quick, play dead.” You might just unthinkingly throw yourself on the ground and imagine that there are big, black Xs covering your eye sockets.
He’s that persuasive.
And, since moving to Portland from Los Angeles, Mr. Stewart (Associate Producer of Special Projects, Bent Image Labs) has learned to use his impressive powers for good, specifically, for the good of local animation.
It has taken some doing, though. He arrived in Portland after working on live-action productions, and initially attempted to approach animation in a similar fashion. He soon realized he was dealing with something entirely different. From the production process to the perspective of the crew, everything here was askew from work as he knew it. “I think the thing about working in Oregon, specifically comparing it to Los Angeles, is that everyone is carrying a really sensitive bullshit detector here. In Los Angeles, the art of the deal and the art of the sale, is as important if not more important than the actual story or project that you’re trying to set-up and if you’re really good at selling something or sensationalizing something, you can get ahead. Now comparing that to Portland, when it comes to selling something or sizzle, nobody here gives a shit about that. Up here, it really is about the work. And there’s a level of seriousness applied to the work that I find refreshing.”
Not only that, he seems to also find it inspiring and humbling. More than once he referred to himself as a guest in the industry here, not like he’s an honored guest that should be showered with adulation, but like he’s someone who feels fortunate to have been invited into a home. “When I talk to anyone involved in the animation process at Bent, I feel like I need to wipe my feet at the door and be very mindful. It’s really cool. It reminds you of what you’re doing. You’re doing animation, you’re doing art.”
This is especially notable because he arrived in Portland with a common Hollywood prejudice, that animation is a sort of second-class citizen within the film industry, but working on “Coraline,” Mr. Stewart came to see animation quite differently. He identifies viewing the animatic for that film as the pivotal point for him. “I was not in love with animation when I first started working with it, I don’t think I fully understood how unique animation is, but when I saw how the animatic began to really breathe life into the project, that’s really when I became sold. At that point, the guessing is gone and you get to see what your really have so far. You can see what you have, but you’re not locked-in. It’s really magical in that it’s like a time-machine, you can go into the future and see what your end product is going to look like.”
In this way, he came to appreciate working in animation in Portland. Which is kind of the thing about Mr. Stewart, he’s willing to use his powers of persuasion on himself as well. He entered a new industry, he studied it, discovered he liked it, and then he chose to evolve. “I’m inherently a douche-bag. I used to beg, borrow, steal, or stomp and crush anybody in the way of what I wanted, which made me perfect as a producer. But animation has given me back my humanity, and made me more responsible and socially conscious. If I’d stayed in L.A., my douche-baggery would have increased a hundred fold. I would have just continued on that route, because there it’s encouraged and rewarded. I think animation has really taught me the foolishness of believing your work is who you are.”
Talk to Mr. Stewart about his work for any amount of time, and the topic will inevitably veer toward storytelling, and animation has even given him a fresh perspective on this topic, “I’m still a firm believer in character and plot being the delivery system for a story, but the level of responsibility the visuals carry for the storytelling in animation. I think there are more possibilities in animation, to really view things in a different way. And, really, the sky is the limit with animation. It literally is. Whatever the limitation of your imagination is, that is going to be the limit of your animated project.”
His fondness for that kind of wide-ranging possibility, makes him well suited for working at Bent Image Labs, a place he finds to be full of “opportunities for different forms of creative expression.” Mr. Stewart is proud to talk about Bent’s solid commercial production pipeline, as well as its current growth phase where it has established a VFX pipeline (currently handling Grimm), and a long form pipeline for television specials (like the recently completed stop-mo special Jingle All the Way).
That holiday special marked a new and different kind of growth for Bent, because they participated in the development of the show. The results definitely made spirits bright, of all the new holiday specials in 2011, the New York Times proclaimed Jingle All the Way the “best of the bunch” due to its “charming art and pleasantly low-key storytelling” (“Kicking Off an Animated Holiday Season,” November 23, 2011).
This review is notable because it highlights both the storytelling and the look of the show, confirming that Bent is very good at what it has been doing (top-notch animation) and encouraging them with their new effort (story development).
Mr. Stewart observes that with this holiday special, “we were able to prove that we could run the creative,” and he is optimistic about the future that is now possible. “It’s going to be really interesting to see what the end of 2012 and into 2013 is going to look like. As we do more of these long form projects, we – in tandem – are developing our own projects, and will be poised to go out and be at the beginning of the supply chain, and be able to solicit networks and film studios for our own in-house projects.”
Still, as much as he looks forward to more opportunities to contribute to story development, he has other goals too. He is eager to help Bent continue to refine its unique position in Portland, as well as the larger animation community. And he’d like it to be commonplace that crews of 100+ animation professionals are employed for 8 – 9 months on a single television special. All things he’s very optimistic about given how much is going on in the city right now. “Portland is the new Austin. There’s Portlandia, and we just did some stop-mo animation for them. Grimm, an NBC show, takes place in Portland. And now Leverage, which had been set in Boston, is rumored to be moving the story to Portland next season. It is so wild, this media fire, and I hope it’s not short lived. It’s just amazing here right now.”
And, when he says it, it feels like it could be true.
About the Author – Amanda Bennett:
I’ve spent some time working in animation in Portland. Not as much as some, but more than others. The posts I contribute to the Oregon Film Animation blog will highlight some of the accomplished individuals I crossed paths with over the years – from Production Assistant to Director.