Great Read: Vision disease can’t stop Paul Demeyer, animation director
At first blush, Paul Demeyer’s office in Burbank is what you might expect for any animation director. The walls are decorated with prints of Disney’s classic “Pinocchio” and images from the film “Rugrats in Paris: The Movie,” which he directed. There’s a plastic toy ostrich character from his latest show, the top-rated TV series “Miles From Tomorrowland.”
But the office also offers subtle clues that something is different: the large magnifying glass in a pen holder, the small telescope, usually fastened around Demeyer’s neck.
The 62-year-old Belgian director uses the magnifying glass to help him see small or especially detailed images. The telescope zooms in on scenes he can’t make out on a screen. He can’t see well enough to drive. In a crowd, faces sometimes appear as impressionistic paintings. Colleagues have to keep the aisles clear so he won’t trip over boxes.
Demeyer suffers from diabetic retinopathy, a disease that causes damage to the blood vessels in the retina and is a leading cause of blindness in American adults. He came close to losing his sight completely; today, he’s legally blind in one eye and has no peripheral vision.
Demeyer describes his world as “life through a keyhole.” But he has managed to defy the odds, forging a successful career in Hollywood as an award-winning director of animated movies and TV shows.
“I always tell people if they knew what I see, they wouldn’t give me the job I have,” said Demeyer, a soft-spoken man with a boyish face and an impish smile.
But Demeyer says his disability has actually made him a better director. “The narrowing of my view,” he said, “has made me look at the broader picture.”
Twenty-five years ago, Demeyer’s career was taking off. He was living in London and animating commercials for TV and had just finished a short animated movie.
He was reading a book on the subway when he noticed he couldn’t make out the words — a sentence he was trying to read appeared as a big black line.
He visited an ophthalmologist, who gave him the bad news that he had advanced diabetic retinopathy in the left eye. Blood vessels in his eye were bleeding, clouding his vision.
Demeyer had been diagnosed with diabetes as a boy growing up in the Belgian city of Bruges and had learned to live with daily insulin injections and watching his diet. For someone whose career was in the visual arts, it was a particularly alarming complication.
“The sense of beauty we get though the eyes is something I always relied on for drawing and painting,” he said. “It was like the rug under my feet was being pulled away.”
He needed immediate laser treatment to stop the bleeding. After the treatment, the vision problems persisted and his right eye began to hemorrhage as well. His vision would clear and then get cloudy again.
At one point, his vision was so cloudy that he couldn’t even see the food on his plate. He could barely read the numbers on his syringe when preparing his daily insulin injections. And he would wake up in the middle of the night with panic attacks, wondering about his future.
Then, months after his initial diagnosis, he got even worse news: A doctor warned him that he might go blind.
Unable to work and drive, Demeyer moved back to Belgium to live with his parents and began making contingency plans. He thought about giving up his career in animation to become a massage therapist. He recalls listening to a program for the blind on the BBC. He turned to holistic healers for help.
“I was on the road to blindness,” he said. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’”
The number of Americans with diabetic retinopathy nearly doubled in the last decade to 7.69 million people, reflecting the sharp increase in diabetes nationwide, according to a 2012 study by Prevent Blindness America and the National Eye Institute.
Among the more famous people with the condition is actress Mary Tyler Moore, who has helped support juvenile diabetes research.
After a year and a half and seven surgeries, Demeyer was able to recover much of his sight. The laser treatment, however, damaged his peripheral vision and left him with other permanent visual problems, such as the inability to see fine details.
Unable to do anything but rough sketches, Demeyer switched from drawing cartoons to directing them.
A graduate of the California Institute of the Arts, Demeyer returned to the Los Angeles area in 1993 and joined the independent animation studio Klasky Csupo, where he directed award-winning episodes of the “Duckman” TV series and the Paramount/Nickelodeon movie “Rugrats in Paris.”
He now works as a supervising director at Wild Canary, an animation studio in Burbank founded in 2008 that produces “Miles From Tomorrowland” with Disney Junior.
Demeyer’s ophthalmologist, Joseph Caprioli, says his patients have included painters, sculptors and musicians but no other directors.
“He has been able to compensate for his visual disabilities in a remarkable way,” said Caprioli, chief of the glaucoma division at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute.
To explain his view of the world, Demeyer uses the medium he knows best — cartoons. One shows him walking his dog and waving to a neighbor whose image is so blurred he looks like a cactus. Other drawings show him facing a class full of students, their smiley faces all identical, and tripping over a bench as he walks toward a painting.
That actually happened at his office recently when he stumbled into a stack of paintings that had been left in the hallway.
“He went down pretty hard,” said Carmen Italia, chief executive of Wild Canary. “I turned around and said, ‘Oh, my God! Paul went down.’ He gets up and says, ‘Geez, I didn’t see that stuff.’”
Only his close associates know he has diabetic retinopathy.
“What’s so amazing is that I didn’t know about his visual limitations for a long time,” said Sascha Paladino, creator of “Miles From Tomorrowland,” a popular show on the Disney Junior channel that was recently picked up for a second season.
“He’s so good at what he does and has such a great visual sense that I didn’t even know about the impairment for the first year. It wasn’t an issue. I thought it was an affectation, that little telescope, until I realized he actually needed it.”
Aside from the telescope, Demeyer does rely on the eyes of his colleagues to spot small glitches in animation scenes. And he can’t direct actors doing voice-overs. “I couldn’t see their faces,” he said. “It was so frustrating. I did it for months and said, ‘It’s not working. Let’s just hire somebody else.’”
But he doesn’t view his visual impairment as a liability. Because he can’t see the fine details of each frame of animation, he tends to concentrate on the overall flow and look of scenes and characters, giving them a distinctive cinematic quality.
And he says his tunnel vision actually makes it easier for him to focus on what is immediately in front of him and not be distracted by too much extraneous background information.
Colleagues agree that Demeyer brings a unique perspective to his work.
“Because of his limited eyesight, he gets a better visual image,” Italia said. “He concentrates so much on the overall scene ... he has that cinematic sense.”
Demeyer’s optimistic outlook and calm demeanor also make him a popular presence at Wild Canary.
“I’ve been in the business for 35 years, and this guy is one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met,” Italia said. “If I feel uptight about something, I’ll come and talk to Paul for a few minutes.”
Demeyer credits the support of his wife and parents and his religious faith for giving him strength to cope with his vision challenges. In an account of his life story he wrote for his Catholic church group, he recalled his reaction after a breakthrough surgery restored much of his sight.
“The first time I sat at my desk to write or draw, I felt this peace come over me like a blanket,” Demeyer wrote. “What a blessing, what a gratitude I felt to life, to God, to all who helped me through these few years of struggle.”