From Filmmaking to Writing: How the Heck Did I Get There?

Transitioning from filmmaking to writing A career path is rarely straight and simple. And as I ponder my own professional journey, I realize the title of this post is misleading. I should have said from drawing to filmmaking to writing… I’m still baffled at the path my career life has taken.

When I was old enough to hold a crayon, I was drawing. Years after I had moved out of the house, my mom gave away our old coffee table. It was round, and as it was being rolled out the door, she saw years worth of my drawings on the underside of it for the first time. In the winter, when I couldn’t play outside, I’d make a “fort” by covering the table with a quilt, and I’d lie on my back and draw, all the while making up stories in my head about the drawings.

When I went to CalArts, I discovered the ability to use my drawing to tell stories “outside” of my head. I became a story artist and thought I’d found my niche. But then I found that I wanted to have more of a voice in the stories that were being told as a whole. Story artists can give their opinions, but they are limited to the scenes that they are given to storyboard—small parts of the whole.

So I became a director. And I loved it. But there was a downside: I didn’t draw anymore. Now don’t get me wrong; directing is great. It’s the perfect job for a control freak. But it’s also exhausting! Everyone needs an answer from you! You’re constantly fielding questions from every department: story (plot, character arcs, themes, is it funny enough? is it dramatic enough?), color (color keys, emotional color arcs, what color is that door? what color is that shoe? what color is that rock? what color is the inside of her nostril? – omg!), sets and props (design of shapes, where does that window go? how many trees do we need on that hill? how tall is that blade of grass? – OMG!), camera angles and moves, animation (who is the character? what is her motivation? why does she say that? how does she move? can we open up this scene another 563 frames? – OMG!!), character designs (how skinny is she? is she too fat? is she pretty enough? are her boobs too small? do her shapes work with that other character? have we made her too milk-toast? shouldn’t we make her more like that other character in that other movie? – OMG!!!)

It takes years to make an animated film, and director-driven or not, it usually ends up being a film created by committee. The story is always, always compromised, because there are so many voices clamoring to be heard. The director’s vision is usually compromised by the end of a film. Only a favored few can get their vision across the finish line unscathed. But depending on the film and the studio, a lot of those films are still fun to watch and successful— others… well… maybe not so much.

After my last stint at directing, I decided I wanted to tell a story that I could protect as my own. I am the only one asking the questions and giving the answers—for better or worse. Doesn’t matter. It’ll just be mine. If it’s something people want to read or see, great. If it’s not, great. It’s still mine. And when that’s done, maybe I’ll jump back on the directing horse. After all, it was pretty fun… and despite the questions and the compromises, I love working with a bunch of talented, crazy people!

Has your own career path been filled with as many twists and turns? Sure, things tend to be more complicated, but looking back, I think a few swerves make things a lot more interesting.

Image courtesy of  SPDP via Creative Commons

  • Val

    beautiful and inspiring! 🙂

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Val. xo

  • Hamish Downie

    Careers are impossible to predict. I went from illustrator to drag queen and graphic artist. Then country town high school teacher, telemarketing, now teaching english in Japan – where I wanted to write for Anime. On the way to making my dream come true, I’ve co-directed a music video, which led to co-writing/producing a short horror film. Now, I’ve written a short WW2 film, and might get the chance to co-write a short 3D sci-fi film.

    Brenda, just follow your bliss! Looking forward to Brave!

    • Anonymous

      Ooo! You’ve had an incredibly fascinating career path!! Wow! If that was following your bliss, Hamish, then I’m definitely following mine and just hope that I have as much fun!
      Thanks for the moral support – and taking the time to offer it.

  • Cia Court

    I started out as a radio DJ while studying performing arts thinking I wanted to be the next Meryl Streep. Along the way, I’ve worked as a security officer, bartender, administrative assistant promoted to office manager and now, finally, I’ve found my ultimate career challenge and happiness as a voice actor. On the one hand, I feel like I found my career later than most, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t trade any of my life experiences so far. They make me better at what I do and who I am today. I think I’ve learned more on my windy road than I ever would have walking a straight line. 🙂

    • Anonymous

      It’s so fascinating to learn about other people’s career paths. It’s funny how so many start out with a passion for a creative career, then they go off track and do other things, and eventually end up in a creative role, again. I guess when you have that passion, you can’t ignore it forever. I’m so glad you found your thing that makes you happy. “Good on ya!” as my Australian friend always says. 🙂

  • Thanks for sharing your story with us. It is incredible to read about career paths and how they change from what people originally wanted. I’m still too young… my career is just starting to develop so I can’t really offer up a fascinating life story. However, reading stories like yours, and the ones in you comments, I know that I’ll just have to go with the flow and see how it turns out eventually. Thanks for sharing again! 😀

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for taking the time to check in!
      Ahh… youth! Have a wonderful journey! And the best of luck to you! 🙂

  • Thanks for sharing your story with us. Quite interesting to see where life takes us. Rarely is ever how we thought. I never thought I’d be working in game design, but here I am starting my career animating at a mobile game studio. Curious to see where the rest of my journey will take me!

    Is the story you want to tell going to be in the form of a book? I know you mentioned writing in one of your previous posts. Or in film form? No matter how it comes into fruition, I look forward it reading/watching it!

    • Anonymous

      Hey! The game industry is a big deal! Congratulations! I hope you enjoy the twists and turns along the way. Good luck!
      Right now it’s a book… and another one is a children’s book, another is just some paintings. And who knows where that will lead me… 🙂

      • Thanks! It’s been a wonderful learning experience. It feels like a whole different world as I’ve always focused on film/animation. It’s fun!
        Oh cool! Good luck to you as well!

        • Anonymous


  • Frank Abney

    Wow! Thanks for that! I played a whole montage in my head as I was reading your post. Mission accomplished on your end! haha… My career path has had some turns, but has been steady as of late. Like you, I have been drawing since I can hold something to draw with. I loved it. I loved cartoons and good stories, that grabbed me in some way (I watched “The Lion King” EVERY DAY for quite a while) So I knew I wanted to be involved in animation. I took art classes throughout High school, and in 9th grade I started riding bikes and doing stunts for fun. I started getting really good at it and wanted to do this for my career. I rode everyday after school (I built some big ramps in our front yard). My drawing started leaning towards BMX tricks, designing skateparks, etc.

    As high school was nearing its end, and people were talking about college, I began thinking about animation again, and what I wanted to do. I loved animation, and I figured I could incorporate BMX in some ways- maybe work on a BMX game, or something. So I went to a school for “multimedia”. Transferred from there to an actual art school, since I didn’t get to do much animation. Then ended up going to an actual Animation school, since the art school wasn’t as focused on animation, as I needed it to be, lol.

    Throughout that time I’ve competed in BMX contests, even competed PRO a few years ago. But my love for animation and storytelling outweighs it all, so I animate as my career,work on stories in my spare time, and still find time to ride my bike when the weather is good. A good balance!

    I’m not sure where my career will take me, but I’m glad to be riding along!

    • Anonymous

      An athletic animation guy! That was practically unheard of in my early days! But when I started at Pixar I noticed the trend toward biking and swimming and… a bunch of healthy stuff like that. 🙂
      Good luck on your path. I hope someday that you are able to combine your two loves – could be a fun combo.
      Thanks for contributing your story. 🙂

  • My story is a little unusual animation wise. I always drew as a child. It was something that was so effortless and part of me I didn’t see the value of it. My brother was very cleverl while I did great at school I have dyscalculia (number dyslexia) that made me believe I was stupid. I spent years trying to keep up with my brother and overcome thins part of me that can’t be overcome. I followed the intellectual route. With much effort maths wise I became a primary school teacher because I liked children. I liked the teaching part but teaching maths was a daily struggle of teaching myself first to teach it correctly. Luckily I only taught the younger children. All this time I felt like something was missing. I found myself incorporating drawing into my lessons and during art lessons I would sit down and join in which was the most fun. Ultimately I knew teaching didn’t make me happy even if the individual kiddies did.
    Then I had my own babies. I gave up teaching to be a mummy thinking I would work out hat I wanted to do with my life later. I knew I loved photography but did I want to be a photographer? I wasn’t sure. One day I was feeding the baby while blurry eyed from being up all night and I stumbled across The Pixar Story on TV. I had always loved Disney (since I visited as a child) and Pixar movies so I thought I would watch it. As I was watching it I kept thinking that would be my dream job. As John Lassiter was talking about his realisation ‘people get paid to draw cartoons!’ I was realising Oh God this is what I should have done. I almost wanted to cry (remember no sleep, new baby) I’m 28 it’s too late. But it stuck with me. 4 years later I still have this crazy dream of getting into animation somehow. I’m starting slowly while still being mummy (most important job). But I’m reading, taking art lessons. I’m taking a Maya course next month. I’m intimidated but the difficulty that lies ahead but interesting I don’t feel like something is missing anymore xxxx

    If you are interested and feel stalky check out my other photography/family blog

    • Anonymous

      We each have our own journeys, don’t we? I’m so glad that you are heading in the right direction – the one that makes you feel complete.
      Okay… so I felt “stalky”… Your photos are wonderful. You have a really great eye for lighting and composition. And your children are absolutely adorable!! Yep. The most important job…
      Thanks so much for sharing your story. xo

      • hahaha It makes me laugh that I made you feel stalky. Thank you so much for taking a peek, once again I feel so encouraged. x

        • Anonymous

          🙂 xox

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  • Marisa

    It’s interesting, because even though I’m only 18 now, and am reading this post as a freshman in college completely in awe of your talent and your work, I don’t feel like I’ve ever read a story I think is so similar to mine. 10 short years ago I was drawing and re-drawing Simba, Nala, Pongo and all the Dalmatians, dying to do what you’ve done again and again, and yet, here I am, at Tisch School of the Arts for Screenwriting. It’s like I’m some imperfect hybrid–some sort of mix of storyteller and artist, and even as I pledged to commit myself to writing and really focus here at school, I’ve been slowly drawn back to my roots as an artist. My screenwriting peers don’t get me (So many little doodles and out-of-this-world stories), and studio artists find me annoying (What? You’re done? That’s just a sketch!)… I think my path is somewhere in between, kind of like you. I really hope your children’s book works out and that eventually you can return to directing all my favorite movies!

    • Brenda Chapman

      Aw… thank you for that, Marisa. Even though we do have our own journeys, it’s kind of comforting to know we’re not alone, isn’t it? Even if we’re in the minority. 🙂

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