So....you started out working at Hanna-Barbera's Sydney animation studio in the 80's. How'd you wind up there?
In 1980, I had been a meat
truck-driver in Chicago for four years. I was married with two
beautiful daughters at the time, and my first responsibility had
always been to keep them fed and sheltered. My older brother Dave
had taught me about drawing at a very young age, but had warned
me there was no future in art: I needed to get a real career. But
at 25 yrs old, I still had no idea what I wanted to be when I
grew up ... so while truck-driving was hard on the back, it was
easy on the mind, and it kept a paycheck coming in.
About that time, Graham Barker, an Australian student studying at Moody Bible Institute, who had been a Christian youth worker in my high school - well, he was pretty much my spiritual mentor ... and his wife Alexis likewise had mentored my wife ... so the two of us felt strongly about them when they left Chicago and went back home to Sydney. And about that same time, I was getting a little disillusioned with the meat industry. Another guy who worked at a big packing house in Chicago had offered me a partnership in a meat business, and it seemed like a good opportunity ... and my wife said, "Jon, I didn't marry a meat man. God gave you too many other talents." When your woman tells you that, you better listen.
The long and the short of it is, I visited Sydney that summer and found they had a thriving animation industry, and by December I was able to move my little family to Sydney. I got a job at Hanna-Barbera as an inbetweener. I didn't have much of a portfolio, but they needed stuff done, so basically if you could hold a pencil, you were hired.
The first show I worked on was called "Drak Pack." I don't remember much about that show other than it was about some teenage monsters (I think). Inbetweeners didn't look at storyboards or scripts, they just inbetweened.
The cool thing was, the more you did, the more you got paid. It was a system set up to motivate artists to work their asses off. It worked for me, and I loved it. I never forgot at any time that I could be back in Chicago humping crates of chitlins to ghetto grocery stores - this was like being in heaven, to sit at a desk, listen to music, and draw, draw, draw. And I was making more money doing this than when I was breaking my back on the meat truck.
The director of the studio was a guy named Chris Cuddington. I think he lives in Manila now. At the time you would rarely see him around the studio; his modus operandi seemed to be: spend most of the week down the street at the pub, occasionally come in and spend a day slugging storyboards or timing dope sheets (he really had an excellent sense of timing), and then show up when all the rushes (dailies) had been edited together, at which time he'd call reshoots, and spend three or four days executing a series of cheap & easy fixes, they'd ship the show, and he'd go back to the pub.
So the animators were more or less expected to work independently. Guys like Gerry Grabner, Peter Eastman, Jean Tych, Don MacKinnon, Peter Gardiner, John Berge, Chris Hauge, Simon O'Leary, Paul Maron, Greg Ingram, Arthur Filloy, Michael Stapleton, Helen McAdam, Dick Dunn ... they knew the routine, and they cranked out the footage. Dick Dunn's cynical motto was, "If you're enjoying yourself, you're not making money." Nonetheless those guys did some pretty nice stuff, all things considered.
The shows? "Drak Pack," "Popeye" (the worst ones ever made), and oh yeah, "Kwicky Koala" which was the last series Tex Avery had anything to do with ... he died mid-series.
Tex's last show was "Kwicky Koala"?? That makes me wonder if his death was really of natural causes.
Those were what I would call "The Dark Ages" of animation. The shows were badly designed and poorly conceived. There was this sense that kids would watch anything. There was no inspiration behind them. And they got worse.
You can't avoid talking about "Laverne and Shirley in the Army" now. You're on THIS website and you just gave testimony to working on the studio that created the thing. Spill!
Yes, "Laverne & Shirley in the Army." When we heard that was going to be our next project, everybody just rolled their eyes.
So after being there
only six months, I figured I could animate. I asked Chris
Cuddington, "What do I need to do to get some
animation?" Kinda cocky, I guess, for an inbetweener. He
just smiled at me and winked and said, "You oughta learn how
to draw first."
That hurt. That really stung. But I started to practice my drawing, to try and draw as slickly as the other animators. It was a real crisis time in my life: Cuddington thought I couldn't draw!
One day while Cuddington was out of the studio (which of course was most of the time), I went to Lynette McLean, the control girl, and asked her to give me a section to animate. I guess she thought that was kind of a cute request, and so she let me take about 50 feet back to my desk. It was for that favorite cartoon series of yours: Laverne & Shirley in the Army. I turned the 50 feet in after a week, and she gave me another section. Cuddington had no idea who was animating what, and I guess he didn't care, because it helped get shows done.
I hate to do this to you, but...recognize any of these shots?
Ouch! The pain ...
Maybe the first or second pictures were mine, but it wasn't really a good series to show off with. Plus I was really a fledgling animator at that time, barely knew my way around the exposure sheets.
For the next series ("Private
Olive Oyl" ... this was just after "Private
Benjamin" had come out, so the idea of women in the army
was, I guess, hot stuff in 1980) I was assigned to be Gerry
Grabner's personal animation assistant, and I learned tons from
him. It was kind of like a demotion, since I had already done
some animation, but really it was a good experience. Later I
learned some of the great animation techniques from Don
MacKinnon, who was a true student of the art. I remember doing
frame-by-frame analysis of Chuck Jones cartoons with him and
learning tons from that.
Over the course of the next seven years, I climbed the ladder and worked on some of the worst TV series ever produced: "The Mork & Mindy Show," "The Pink Panther & Sons," some others that I've probably blotted out of my memory .... and eventually "The Berenstain Bears" and "Teen Wolf" both of which I directed.
Did you run into any animation bigwigs down under?
Bill Hanna used to come out to visit
us in Sydney on a regular basis, and he taught me the basics of
animation timing. With his musical background, he timed
everything with a metronome. After that I understood why those
Tom & Jerry cartoons were so magical. All the action was
timed out to a beat. As an animator, none of that had ever
occurred to me, but now it clicked, since I had a little musical
training, and I made good use of rhythm timing after that. Bill
was a great guy and worked hard pretty much right up to the end
of his life.
I got to meet Mel Blanc once too, and June Foray pinched my ass once (she was Teen Wolf's grandmother). Charming old broad. And I got to meet Walter Lantz when he sold his cartoon library to Universal, which was also tied up with Hanna-Barbera, and as studio director at the time I got to go to lunch with him and some of the studio big-shots, and he told me I was the tallest animator he had ever met! I take that pretty seriously, because Walter Lantz was animating cartoons back in 1918, so he's seen a lot of animators since then!
If there was anything good about that period of animation history, it was that animation was so bad that it allowed inexperienced truck-drivers from Chicago to try their animation wings. You almost couldn't ruin the stuff, it was so bad anyway, and so it was a tremendous opportunity to learn, for those of us who wanted to take advantage of it.
There are probably tons more things I could say about Sydney, so don't encourage me.
Right then. Moving on, what happened in between H-B and Tiny Toons?
The bottom line was, one day in July
or August, 1987, Wayne Dearing, the general manager at H-B
Australia, called me into his office and told me they were
folding up the studio. It was my "duty" to lay off the
layout artists (abouit 20 of them), the animators (about 45 of
them), and the inbetweeners (50 of them). I remember getting
angry and misty eyed at the same time. I told Wayne I didn't
think I could do it. Wayne was a businessman - even though he was
younger than me, he knew how to do things in a businesslike
manner. So I called the meeting - 100+ people in a big room - and
Wayne attended and basically made the announcement while I sat
there scowling. It was a hard thing to do, and I was too weak to
do it. That always stuck in my craw.
By then I had added two sons to my family, so of course the pressure was on us to survive somehow. Not having Hanna-Barbera to fall back on made me very nervous. Everybody else started making arrangements to "get on the dole" (unemployment) while I made arrangements to get the hell back to Chicago. If I wasn't going to have a job, I wanted to at least be close to family. The studio lingered until the end of the year, but I left in October (my family had gone ahead of me to Chicago in September). I didn't want to wait around to be fired.
The rest of them hung around until 1989 or 1990, I believe, when Disney set up their Australian studio. Don MacKinnon (again, a great animator) became the general manager (a strange move, we all thought) and he had a staff of solid veteran animators (the guys I mentioned before) plus some really talented new guys like Kevin Peaty, Lianne Hughes, Steven Taylor, Glenn Kirkpatrick, Murray Debus, Ian Harrelson, Bob Baxter, Chris Bradley, Carol Seidl, and young Steve Trenbirth, who had just started animation for H-B when it closed. Steve eventually became one of their most talented directors.
Meanwhile I landed back in Chicago. My wife had done some scouting, and the pickings in Chicago were really slim. There was one studio (Sinnott & Associates) doing Cap'n Crunch TV commercials, and they had an animation staff of 4 full-timers, plus temporary freelancers on an as-needed basis. Then there were a few other studios: Kinetics, Calabash (at the time just starting and doing film festival stuff), Cioni Artworks, and a few others. Sinnott was the biggest one. I went there first. There was a cute little redhead at the front desk, and she asked if I had an appointment, and I said I didn't ... so she asked if I had a demo reel. and I said I didn't ... and she looked at me like, "Well what the hell do you want then?" I asked if I could speak with Mr. Sinnott. She basically told me to go away.
Strike one. So next I went to Cioni Artworks. Ray Cioni had a staff of three (including himself) and some two-bit jobs for Golden Books going on. He met with me and after finding out what I had done, he hired me.
I spent a year at Cioni Artworks, and then Ray ran into some financial shortages, and by that time the whole Chicago animation industry was looking pretty suspect to me, so I thought I should try opening my own studio. At first I was going to call it Hotdog Animation, because I love hotdogs and because I fancied myself as something of a hotdog animator. I had established a reputation as a guy who could work fast and also produce nice-looking stuff. Later my sister-in-law Karen, a former bank manager whose maiden name was Starr, was tring to help me with my business plan (I didn't have one), and she really didn't like the Hotdog thing (maybe too phallic or something). She said, "What about Starr-Toons?" I liked the sound of it - I just dropped one of the R's.
In October 1988 I rented a loft apartment across the street from Cioni and StarToons was born. I took some freelance work from Cioni, a few other low-budget local jobs, plus I started hitting up some of my LA contacts. Bill Hanna put me in touch with Kay Wright who was one of his producers. Kay was working with Scott Shaw(!) on a new series called "The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley." They needed storyboard artists. Having been in Australia throughout the 80's, I had no idea who Ed Grimley or Martin Short was, but the scripts were hilarious - very quirky, which I loved. I had never done storyboards back at Hanna-Barbera, but I didn't tell Kay that. Scott Shaw would check my boards, and at first I had a lot of corrections to do, but they liked my style. Sometimes I'd receive home video tapes of Martin Short describing what he was looking for in a script, and he would act everything out. Those were fun to watch and really inspiring ... although sometimes I'd ignore them.
Did you get to keep the tapes from Short or did you have to give them back (or did they self-destruct)? I hadn't figured he had that much of an influence on the show.
I might have one or two of the Short tapes stuck away somewhere in my attic. Some day after I die, people will probably find a buncha interesting old stuff up there.
Ed Grimley kept food on my table in 1988. In 1989, it was Camp Candy. I guess John Candy saw what Short was doing and decided he wanted to do a cartoon series ... but I gotta say, that series really sucked. Nothing funny about them. Still, the work kept me out of jail.
How much influence did John Candy have on HIS show?
Although I understood he was a really nice guy, he nonetheless had very little to do with his show ... he may have become disillusioned with it early after NBC turned the series into a piece o' crap, perhaps trying to validate their later decision to stop doing Saturday morning cartoons. Imagine Lydia Karaoke, Network Censor, working at NBC as a childrens programming exec before she got her job as a censor, and you can imagine how lame Camp Candy was. A shame, because John Candy was a funny guy. Funnier than Louie Anderson anyway, whose cartoon series lasted four seasons.
We also did our first Dudley the
Dinosaur then for the American Dental Association. We were up
against Calabash for that and we were asked to submit character
designs. Calabash did a walk-cycle with a cool musical
sound-track, we just submitted a framed cel set-up. Calabash had
some duck-billed dinosaur character with a baseball cap, but I
figured if it was going to be about teeth, then Dudley had to be
a Tyrannosaurus Rex, because maintenance of their teeth would
have been a really important issue. Plus I was always intrigued
with T-Rexes because they have those ridiculously short arms.
The ADA chose our design, and Dudley PSA's became a great source of additional income for us.
I hate to say it, but Dudley the Dinosaur (I didn't even know he had a name; this might be the first time his name was mentioned in public) may be your most famous creation to date. Since I was a schoolboy, I can tell you the ad caught on, and there were countless kids who would deliberately annoy others by squeaking out "KEEP THOSE CHOMPERS LOOKIN' AWESOME! BRUSH 'EM TWICE A DAY AND FLOSS 'EM! YEEEEEAAAAHHHHH!!!!" That thing's not dead yet...just wait; he'll show up in a Family Guy cutaway soon enough.
Nice to know that people are
familiar with Dudley (even if they don't know his name)!
I always cringed a little at the scripts for those PSA's, because they really took the "bite" out of the Tyrannosaurus. They want him to eat apples and celery as snacks. I guess somehow he's supposed to be a role model for kids ... but I always imagined the only dinosaur that was safe from a Tyrannosaurus would be his dentist - since he had to keep his teeth and gums clean and strong. Any other dinosaurs would be fair game. Friends? How could you have friends when you're a Tyrannosaurus? But I guess he had to be kid-friendly.
BTW, I'm working on another Dudley PSA on my weekends. Should be finished end of October.
Anyway, from what I've heard, Dudley passed up Smokey the Bear as the most viewed animated PSA spokesperson. Apparently somebody counts these things.
Coming up next: the Jetsons movie, and the beginning of Tiny Toons!