How flunking out of animation at Sheridan was the best thing that ever happened to me

Back in the early to mid 90’s, animated movies were hot.  Disney had just come out with a string of hits, each one was bigger than the last.  Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and then the biggest of them all, The Lion King.  At the time, The Lion King made $300 million at the domestic box office, which would be huge today, let alone back in 1995.  Animation was a big deal, and Disney’s success was noticed by every major studio.  As a result, lots of other studios started opening up Animation departments, including Warner Brothers and Fox.  

Anyone who could animate was being recruited by these big studios.  It was at that time when I was accepted to Sheridan College, for their animation program.

For me, this was a huge deal, the biggest thing that could have happened in my life.  I had spent an extra year in high school to work on my art portfolio.  I figured at the time that I could have taken an art fundamentals course, but my high school’s art program wasn’t bad, so I stayed an extra year to save the cash.  If my plan wouldn’t have worked, if I didn’t get into Sheridan, then it would have been a waste of a year, and a huge embarrassment to stay in high school so long.

At the time, there were only two animation schools in North America that had any type of reputation.  One was Cal Arts, which was on the other side of the continent, and Sheridan College, which was a 30 minute drive from my house in Brampton.

When I was accepted, I vowed to work as hard as I could.  I knew that this was it, my chance to reach my dreams, my ticket out.  I put everything I had into it.  I worked around the clock, I give it my all.

I flunked out at the end of my second year.

I was crushed.  Absolutely floored.

For years after, I had a well crafted list of excuses as to why I failed out.  All the good teachers left, snapped up by a hungry industry that needed animators.  Why would an awesome animator stay at a college in Oakville Ontario when they could be animating the next big thing at Disney?  The teachers that were there, didn’t care.  They would accept 120 students knowing that they would cull it down to about 40 or 30 at the end.  Instead of teaching, they mostly just gave out assignments and if you passed, great, and if you didn’t, then tough.  I had several different explanations that I would tell my parents, my friends and myself.

A few months ago, I was clearing out space in my closet, and I found a lot of my old work.  Looking at it with fresh eyes, the truth hit me like a ton of bricks.  I just wasn’t that good.

After I failed, I was back at home with no prospects, no job, no anything.  I was very frustrated, very angry, and had nothing going on in my life.  I went to an employment agency, and would show up at whatever menial job they were handing out that day.  That’s when things got real, really quick.

I worked at a steel mill/machine shop, punching inch thick steel plates all day.

I showed up to a food processing plant, and I unloaded their trucks all day.  The best story from there was the truck full of lamb carcasses that I had to unload.  By the end of the day I was covered in lamb’s blood, and got several odd looks on the bus ride home.

I worked at another steel shop.  A guy showed me how to shave down a centimetre long screw with this huge milling machine.  It was comical, this huge machine would have to be fired up to shave the top of this teeny-tiny screw.  It would take about a minute to do one screw.  I had hundreds, if not thousands of screws to shave down.  That was a very long, very boring day.

There was a place called Polybottle, which made and recycled plastic bottles.  I think I saw about 16 fires from the faulty machines in the 8 weeks I was there.

All the while that I was working in those places, I felt ‘the fear’.  I was thinking that this is it, this is my life.  I was petrified.  I was no stranger to working hard, or working manual labour.  I had worked jobs all through high school.  But this was different.  These jobs were rougher, tougher, and I couldn’t really see any way out.  I had vague plans for my future.  In the back of my mind, I thought maybe I could go back to Sheridan for TV and Film.  But I wasn’t really looking into it.  I was mostly just trying to get a better dead-end job than the one I was currently in.

It was my mother’s constant reminders, that I started looking into the TV and Film program.  To my shock, the due date for the application and portfolio was the next week.  I snapped into action, and frantically assembled a portfolio.  To my relief, a few months later I got the news that I was accepted.

When I got back into Sheridan, I was a different guy.  I had worked hard before, but now I was focused.  I was driven.  I was also very scared.  For me, I was thinking that this was my last, best shot at building a career for myself.  I was now 23 and would be 26 when I finished.  At the time, I was thinking that I was too old to start fresh if this was another failure.

Luckily, this story has (so far) had a happier ending.  I did well in TV and Film.  It had a small visual effects component to the program, which was enough to build a demo reel.  With that demo reel I was able to find a job as a junior compositor, and have been working in the industry ever since.  Once I started working, I heard of a teacher’s assistant position at Seneca, which turned into a teaching job, which turned into a coordinator’s job.  I’ve been lucky.

But something that has stuck with me through the years is the memory of the frustration, aimlessness and anger that I had through those rough times.  The feeling that I had nothing to offer any company.  I firmly believe that it was my failure at Sheridan that fuelled me in the years that followed.  The first time you meet someone at a party, unavoidably one of the subjects that’s brought up is ‘so what do you do?’  I clearly remember the feeling I had when I had nothing good to answer that question with.  It doesn’t feel good, and that feeling still drives me to this day.