katzen-talk katzen-talk

How Jeffrey Katzenberg Convinced Me To Drop Out of CalArts

Jeffrey Katzenberg
Katzenberg (left) speaking at CalArts last October (Photo via 24700 blog)

Good read: a delightfully bizarre blog post from last October by Stephen M. Levinson. He was accepted into CalArts and started attending last fall. After Jeffrey Katzenberg came to speak at the school, he was inspired to drop out of CalArts just four weeks into his freshman year. Nobody but Stephen will know whether it was the right decision, and he probably won’t know himself until many years down the line, but I can appreciate his ballsy, gut-instinct decision making. Best of all, if things don’t pan out, he can always blame Jeffrey:

After his visit, I emailed Jeffrey Katzenberg and thanked him for all of his time, for coming down to CalArts and for speaking to us, telling him how he’s had a huge impact on my life. I sincerely thanked him for his visit. His response, “:-). Best of luck to you.”

  • Stephen M. Levinson

    Wow, thanks for blogging about this! I just want to make it clear, Jeffrey didn’t convince me to leave, but after hearing about his life and career path, I knew it was the path I wanted to go down! :)

  • Gerard de Souza

    Somehow I think this guy will be a success in what he pursues. Seems like a calling if he has been entrepreneurial since a young age.

  • Whew! What a driven guy! I’ll keep an eye out for him!

  • Milo Thatch

    A bold move, absolutely! But I can relate: while I’m not out to be a producer, simply becoming an animator was my bold move — given my previously achieved bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field and a lifetime spent NOT pursuing art or animation specifically. It’s been 4 years since that decision was made, and so far I’ve worked in video games and hope to work in feature films or TV animation very soon!

    So cheers to you Stephen! I’ll be very curious to see where I find your name in the coming years :)

  • [Comment removed by editors. Per our commenting guidelines, “It is OK to post with a nickname or alias, but your email address (which we will NEVER share publicly), must be a real, permanent email address. Comments with fake or non-permanent emails will be deleted.”]

  • I wish I had dropped out of Art School. Dope story.

  • Ron

    I wish I’d thought of that when I was in school! Too late. I already got the degree and I can’t give it back :( What Stephen described in his blog is exactly what I’ve always wanted. I just didn’t think to act on it back then. Bravo young man! I hope you succeed. You’ve inspired me to follow in your footsteps just as Jeffrey inspired you to follow in his. :)

  • Shawn’s Bro

    Too bad the session wasn’t put on youtube. :(

  • Good on ya Stephen ;)

  • djm

    I commend him on his ballsy move, but his idea of a producer scares me. He wants his voice to shine through the talent, not their’s. That’s never a good thing.

    • Dig

      Actually it could be a great thing. It all depends on what he has to say. No one can deny that Jeffrey’s voice was one of the strongest at Disney in the late 80s early 90s. And now the films speak for themselves.

      • Mark

        Katzenberg’s contribution to animation was getting people to stop making animated by boarding sequences and sticking them together. It wasn’t because he was brilliant, but rather because he came from a background in live action film and that’s how things are done in live action. Other than that, his contributions have been largely negative.

  • Here’s hoping that he didn’t screw up his life.

    It’s an even 30 years after I washed out of college and it’s still a blood boiling sore point with me.

    • Doug,

      Curious as to what you mean by this? Can you elaborate?

  • Another businessman, great.-_-
    (J/k, I hope he succeeds.)

  • Ariel

    Good on you Stephen.

    Better to realize that you’re a business man now rather than later. CalArts won’t teach you to sell shoes.

    Though I’m curious why you would say that you’d rather lead a group of talented artists than actually “doing” animation. Wouldn’t you want to be skilled at what animation is about, to be able to manage it?

    Maybe I’m wrong, maybe there are people that are better at “teaching” (*or manage) rather than “doing”. This could be the case here.

    Thanks for sharing and best of luck.

    • Ki Innis

      A shark is born.

    • Hi Ariel,

      Thanks for your comment and you make a really great point. I’ve actually been animating for several years so now that I have that experience I have a great approach to producing because I understand what goes into making an animated piece. Click my name, I put a link there to my latest animation reel.


      • red pill junkie

        Well, I think I’m one of many thirty-somethings who felt inspired by your courage.

        The reason you’re probably going to become a great producer, is that you actually *understand* the business of animation, and what good animation needs —talented people assembled toward a unified goal.

      • Hey Steve, thanks for your sincerity in understanding my comment above.
        I looked at your Demo recently and I gotta say, there really isn’t much there to assume you’d be a successful producer. Maybe cause there’s no real traditional animation skills shown(*just 2d symbol Flash animation) Sorry, I’m being overly harsh, but as honest as i can be.
        I’ve studied traditional animation and been working in the biz for over 12 years as a television designer. I can’t see design or animation skills on this Demo BUT you may be an exceptional “leader” with artists. That i can give you credit for, if that’s what your resume states as “experience”. But i can’t honestly say, based on your work, that you’d make a decent producer. Maybe there’s other skills you can display that’d state this? Previous supervising or leadership roles?? All the best..

  • Ted

    “Why Ted Convinced Me To Change My Headline”: because he was an English major who didactically encourages things to read properly.
    “How Ted Convinced Me To Change My Headline”: by pointing out that “why” has to do with the subject’s motivations for an action, and that “how” has to do with the action itself.

    • Iago

      Oh, brother!

  • A.C.

    I’ve been at the AI for starting on my third year now and it feels like a dead end. The only animation I do is outside of the classes (or working my way AROUND the loopholes in more open classes to be able to do 2-d animation, i.e. I turned my Digital Compositing class into a second 2-d animation one for myself.) All that’s left is 3-d (which I didn’t come for, and respect, but it’s just not my kind of animation and I DID give it a try) and gen ed. in my curriculum. I pass about one class a quarter. My GPA is dropping by the minute and my motivation is crazy low.

    Only thing keeping me in is how badly my family doesn’t want me to leave. You could say I’ve still been in from “running from” the problem and not wanting to be painted as a “dropout” to my mom. As of my writing this I owe about $2,000 from not filling out loan information for the last quarter. It stresses me out to no end to think about it. I keep lieing to EVERYONE. I’m 21, and people say do what makes YOU happy but she makes me feel so damn guilty about wanting to drop out every time I bring it up (hence why I’m STILL here as of 2011).

    Then they tell me stay onboard because you’re almost through anyways. True, but my ICR (that’s incremental completion rate) is at a dangerously low level (the kind that gets you kicked out, which I think I might be doing on purpose subconsciously)

    I just feel SO damn trapped. Good at animation, bad at school. What to do in life really? Right now I’ve been enjoying break and pretending the school doesn’t exist.

    I wish I had the guts to call my leave early (I first wanted to leave my third quarter and it’s been downhill with it’s certain spikes of happiness from there on.) Most people have left their second or third quarters and have been much happier with what they’ve been doing.

    However I am deadset on leaving after I take the last 2-d animation class they have available here. Which has been hard to obtain as I’m not on a good page with about 70% of the faculty here.

    Whew! Probably followup on this later. Just needed to vent. Help appreciated. :-(

    • Stephen M. Levinson

      Leave dude, just leave. It’s your life, not your moms. The only thing that matters in the business is if you’re good. It doesn’t matter where you went as long as you can do the work.

    • Ron

      A.C. TRUST ME ON THIS- You do NOT need a degree to do what you want to do. All you need is the proper training. People will hire you for your skill set, not for your degree. NOBODY GIVES A F&*@ if you have one at all let along from what school. I have 2 college degrees and neither one has done me any good whatsoever. If I could return them and get my money back, I would in a second! (See my comment above.) That said, what opens doors for me is the fact that I WENT to Cal Arts. Not the fact that I graduated from there. In fact, that even would’ve hurt someone in the not too distant past- because studios would hire people before they graudated. One of my teachers when I was at CalArts was 2 years younger than me and never went to college at all! He was so good, he’d been working in the biz since graduating from High School. That path is not for everyone but I think what you can learn from Stephen is if you KNOW what you want to do and you trust yourself enough to find a more direct path to what you want then the one you’re currently on, go for it! Go for it with Gusto while you’re still young and never look back. If you put your heart and soul in to it you won’t regret it. Even if you fail. Good luck to you man and thanks again Stephen for sharing with everyone what you did. I hope both of you (and I) become huge successes and laugh about this one day. :) Happy New Year!

    • Some of my most talented friends and people I admire dropped out of school. You gotta do what’s right for you.

    • Get out of there NOW!!!

      When I graduated high school, I was given a full-ride scholarship to Missouri State University, which is in my hometown. I cried on the day that I went and toured the campus, because I wanted to go to art school so bad, but I hadn’t applied to those schools on time to get financial aid, and it was a FULL RIDE. In fact, when I lived at home, I got PAID to go there.

      The problem, of course, was that I hated it. It’s not a bad school by any means. But it wasn’t anywhere near the path I wanted to be on.

      I struggled through two years, trying like you to dredge up the motivation to do well enough in my classes to keep my scholarship. I understand EXACTLY how you feel about subconsciously wanting to do badly so you would have an excuse for dropping out. Because at the end of that fourth semester, my grades were low enough so that my scholarship would get cut in half. And it was SUCH A RELIEF. I felt SO FREE.

      So what did I do? I dropped out, moved to Florida, and worked at Disney World for two years. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

      During that two years, I worked on my portfolio, and then I applied to the art schools I’d always dreamed about. Since I had 5 years of experience on all the poor high school seniors applying, I got some really kickass scholarships.

      I’m in my second year at SVA now and I love it SO much. It’s an absolutely incredible feeling to be finally, finally working towards what I have always wanted to do. So, I’m sorry if this post seems a little spastic, but your situation is so very much like mine was five years ago I felt I just had to let you know that it CAN work out. You can do it!!!!

  • I love this. A kid figures out he’s on the wrong career path through a speech Jeffery gave at CalArts, and yet you somehow made it sound like Jeffery did something wrong. All he did was give a speech that caused someone to re-think a few things. You make it sound like he did something irresponsible. It’s interesting that you bend over backwards to make it seem like Jefferey did something wrong, and then report it, and then keep quiet about something like this:
    And you wonder why I think you have an anti-DW bias.

    • Karl Hungus

      I don’t think an opinion on Katzenberg is necessarily an opinion on Dreamworks. Katzenberg is bigger than Dreamworks. Even he will tell you that.

  • Hermes

    I spent 8 years in college (Central Washington State University, Ellensburg, WA and Evergreen State College, Olympia WA) trying to learn art skills and they didn’t teach anything– they literally sneered at the idea of knowledge. By a fluke I got hired at Disney and that was the school where I learned everything I know, including how to look for classes at small academies where I can learn the specific skills I need (and which “Fine Art” teachers in state-supported schools scoff at, like perspective, composition, design, anatomy and figure sketching).

    • Ron

      It’s good to know that it was a common experience Hermes. Just out of curiosity, what are some those small academy classes you took? Any of them still around that you can recommend?

  • Scarabim

    So does CalArts make you take liberal-arts classes like Ecology and Sociology, just to make sure you’re a well-rounded person? My school did. May I say that I got bupkus from the school I went to – that, and a huge student loan bill. If I could do it over again, I’d work on my own and take individual classes in the arts – NOT enroll in a college. I’m starting – really STARTING – my art career now and I’m not so young (chronologically) anymore. All school did was put me in debt and get me out of waiting tables for 3 years. Oh, and I made the Dean’s List too. Big whoop. I wish you luck, Stephen. Wish me luck too.

  • Reinvent 2D

    Stephen was definitely near the bottom of his class in terms of draftsmanship and design, and his animation experience was not even worth mentioning, even though he did mention it alot. He might have persevered longer than two months and made something of himself as an artist, but it’s no big loss.

    I hope he can overcome his complete lack of self awareness or social sense, as he comes off as arrogant and aloof to most of his class and the upperclassmen. He wrote “reinvent 2D” all over the place, so even though he’s gone he’s a big joke among the students here.

    • Milo Thatch

      I think what people are gravitating towards here is an overwhelming dose of spirit and passion. Read any of the comments from people who oppose Mr. Levinson’s choice (as thought it somehow affects THEIR life..), and you’ll most likely find someone who gave up on their passion a long time ago. People want to feel a passion for life, whether they do right now and stand beside Stephen in that fashion.. or they hear Stephen’s story and remember a passion they USED to have and want it back again. That’s just human nature.

      But does Stephen come off as youthful, naive, and maybe even arrogant? Sure, I won’t deny that much. He IS only 18 after all! At 18 we all thought we would rule the world in some small way. What we’re cheering for is not his self-praising ego, but rather his purity of passion and clear vision for his future. Whether naive or not, we all want that clarity for ourselves too.

      How many billionaires and people labeled modern geniuses did NOT come off as arrogant or aloof in their younger days? Stephen may get a few “real world” punches to the stomach over the coming years, but if his passion never dies and he truly DOES do something good for the industry, well, then it’s a win for everyone :)

    • Charlie

      I feel Stephen is on his way to becoming a big producer. He is already off to a great start by commenting heavily on other posts such as ““The Good Little Bunny with the Big Bad Teeth” by Jessica Borutski”. Getting his name out there and is seemingly a veteran and expert on animation and film making in his own opinion “I no longer want to do the actual animation. It’s an incredible skill to have and I’ve already been doing animation for many years.”(from his blog). The fact that I was curious enough to check his website proves he is great for taking as much attention as possible which is a key asset for any producer. Though his animation is poor but not totally excusable for today’s market.
      I am glad he has made his decision because his attitude suggests he that he believes he knows it all and that would indeed make him hard to teach and even harder for him to learn. So bravo Stephen! May you go on and to conquer every field, discipline and whim that holds your attention(at least for a few years till you become an expert at it).

    • Stephen M. Levinson

      Hi Reinvent 2D,

      I can’t disagree with both Charlie and Milo’s comments as they make some great points. But if you were a class mate of mine and have to comment anonymously on a blog to speak your mind, that say’s more about your character than what you’re saying about mine.

  • The guy that also didn’t quit.. until now

    Good for him, I too had goals at one point… to go overseas to Canada , study and get a job there… saved $10000 over 4 years for 1 year worth of study,worked my ass off , did more effort than anyone in my class, the money ran out, no one would hire me on a student visa even though i had experience in an animation company, and i spent the next 6 months doing animation under the table to get enough money to pay my plane ticket home. Giving you the short version by the way…

    Things are much much easier when you live in a country like the US or Canada where there are a ton of studios where you can apply at, but as for my story, untill the day i can save another 10000 and beg every studio in Canada for an internship( which they probably wont without a work visa) Im not going anywhere.

    So in short hurray for you for living in a country where you get to act like you’re better than the biggest animation school in the world, for not putting the effort in using the resources you have and improving your draftsmanship and skills, for saying you’d rather hire the best and demand they do your bidding and for people to still respect you after that.

    To be honest I definitely dont. Call it bitterness for not succeeding myself or because i get annoyed when kids think they’re better than the system and think they’ll change the world. 99% of my animation friends thought that at 18, 50% at 19 and by 21-22 most just wanted a job even if it wasnt in animation and settled with being happy with an ok job and a girlfriend for the rest of their lifes.

    Good luck though
    God bless and all that jazz

    • Jorge Garrido

      Maybe nobody should be allowed to switch career or educational streams anymore… c’mon, man, the lad decided he didn’t want to be an animator anymore, I don’t see why you’re so angry.

      Maybe he’ll turn out to be the best animation producer ever. Who knows?

  • Just what we need. Another Jeffrey Katzenberg.

  • Papa

    I respect his decision but I gotta say, going at least a little further (one semester?) might have been really beneficial to him in the long run, especially if he plans to make a career in the business, I’ve been a designer/animator and director of animation for 12 years now and I can tell you that the producers I’ve worked with that have real artistic talent, vision and understanding are the ones I respect the most. Not that this guy doesn’t have that, but wouldn’t a few more months in such an esteemed school provide a wealth of valuable experience and discipline that could be applied to a ‘producer’ role down the road? I have a University degree in a totally unrelated field and I knew before I graduated I wasn’t going to pursue what I went to school for, but I stuck with it for the experience and discipline it gave me, and I don’t regret it a bit. Anyhow, just riffing here. Stephen sounds pretty driven and successful with whatever he chooses to do already, so who am I to question his motivations, really?

  • Abooboo

    Well the saying goes something like: if you’re good enough to get into Calarts then you don’t need to be there, so now you know that know how to animate you can go enjoy life and make money! Am lucky enough to be doing a masters at prestigious film school and will definitely going al the way with it but you have sparked an interest in producing films! I hope you do re-invent 2D (for the better.. just make sure it’s not that tweened business!)

  • Philip

    You don’t have to be Sammy Glick to be happy, unless you’re Sammy Glick.