How To Create Animation
Interviews by John Cawley



AUGUST 23, 1990

Back To Contents
Back To Books Page

Gary Goldman is one of the trio that forms the creative side of Sullivan Bluth in Ireland. Originally one of Disney's new hopes of the Seventies, he left the studio with Don Bluth to create one of the most discussed studios of the Eighties. Though now officially a producer, Goldman continues drawing almost on a daily basis in an attempt to maintain what he, Don Bluth and John Pomeroy have christened Classical Animation.
Gary had been Atlantic hopping, handling work in Ireland and voice direction in Los Angeles. We finally caught up with him via phone directly at his office in Ireland.

Q: Can you give a brief description of your career in the business, including studios you've worked at and productions you've worked on?
GG: After I graduated from art school in Hawaii and returned to the mainland, California, I went to see Lee Holly, the artist who does a cartoon strip called "Ponytail" that's nationally syndicated. He liked my portfolio but he thought what might help me in the area of cartooning would be to go to Los Angeles and get involved in animation. I didn't want to go to Los Angeles, but I did. I, as most young artists would, took my portfolio around to the different animation studios.
At DePatie-Freleng, the receptionist wouldn't let me in. She said everybody was on lay-off. I said, "Why don't you ask the producer if he'd look at my portfolio?" Ed Love was there and he looked at my portfolio and directed me to Disney. So I began, at Disney, as a trainee in February of 1972. I spent the next seven- and-a-half years of my animation career there. That is where I met Don [Bluth] and John Pomeroy.
I worked as an inbetweener and eventually as assistant to Frank Thomas on ROBIN HOOD. I worked as an animator on WINNIE THE POOH AND TIGGER TOO and on THE RESCUERS under the direction of the late John Lounsbery. I was directing animator on PETE'S DRAGON and THE SMALL ONE under Don Bluth's direction. Just before we left Disney, we were working on THE FOX AND THE HOUND as directing animators. We took no credit on that film. In 1979, we resigned our positions at Disney to start our own company, where I've worked as producer and directing animator, scene planner, cameraman, editor (wearing several hats) on BANJO THE WOODPILE CAT. We finished it in 1979 and it was released in two theaters (The Egyptian Theater, in Hollywood, and The Pine Tree Theater, in Northridge) for Academy Award consideration. It was licensed to NBC for two showings, but it was not aired until the summer of 1982.
I worked as a producer, directing animator, and scene planner on THE SECRET OF NIMH. I didn't animate, but I coordinated the work on XANADU as a scene planner and line producer for the XANADU animation. On DRAGON'S LAIR, SPACE ACE and DRAGON'S LAIR II, I actually worked as a producer. I did not animate on any one of those three projects.
In late 1984 we started AN AMERICAN TAIL. On that picture I worked as the co-direction producer and sort of a co-director, but we did not take credit. The same roles were assumed on THE LAND BEFORE TIME (1988). I was producer and co-director on ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN (1989) and ROCK-A-DOODLE (1990). We're currently completing ROCK-A-DOODLE and are also heavily into animation on A TROLL IN CENTRAL PARK.

Q: What art training did you have, if any?
GG: I went to Cabrillo Junior College in Northern California. My major was drawing and art. I went onto the University of Hawaii where I majored in life drawing and minored in art history. My major in life drawing was suggested by Warner Brothers' Animation Director Robert McKimson. I had gone to visit him after receiving an Associate of Arts Degree and showed him a portfolio. Warner Brothers Animation was on a lay-off period. He had advised me to continue my art training and come back with the same kind of portfolio, but with more life drawing experience.
He said, "Please do **not** bring me any cartoon drawings, don't bring me any designs, if you bring me back a strong drawing portfolio, I'll hire you and I'll train you how to do what we do." In 1969 it was difficult to find a school that would actually offer life drawing as a major, but I was accepted at six schools, including The Rhode Island School of Design, Oakland Arts and Crafts, and the University of Washington. I had also applied to Chouinard. It was before Cal Arts was formed. They were transferring the school from Chouinard, in downtown Los Angeles, out to Cal Arts, in Valencia, and were not taking any new applicants. The University of Hawaii was recommended to me by an artist whom I'd known since I was a child. She was a family friend and a very well-known oil painter living in the San Jose/San Francisco area. She felt that the school offered some really great training including professional painters, artists and sculptors who are making it in today's commercial world. Some made guest appearances at the school; Chagall, Wayne Thiebaud, just to name a couple. Chagall would set up printmaking. He would do printmaking for six weeks and the students could actually observe the way he approached it and ask questions while he was working. They did the same with Wayne Thiebaud in the painting department.
I went on a crash course to get through the last two years of art school in sixteen months. I came out with a fairly strong portfolio, the one I took to Ed Love. Out of six different studios, he was the only one that looked at my portfolio until I submitted it to Disney. I waited for three anxious days until they called and said I had won myself a position in their training program.
It was there, during that first week, that I met Don and formed a friendship and love for animation. It was a year later, almost to the day, that I met John as he walked through the door at Disney. I think both Don and I recognized that John had the same kind of fever for preserving that classical element which attracted us to Disney in the first place.

Q:What does a producer do in the big picture of animation?
GG: I don't really know. All I can talk about is our case. I would say, if you referred to the way that Don, John and I take that title, it's more like a line producer, in that we're totally active in the motion picture production. I still draw daily; not scenes that I've been assigned, but over the top of scenes that animators and directing animators are working on.
Our roles go from choosing the composer who will write the score for the picture, the song writers, approaching script writers, scripting a story that may have originated here, being involved with the story and selection of stories we're going to produce, approaching the actors and their agents and attending the voice sessions where we're directing the voices. We're sort of producers-cum-directors. We also maintain a teaching role. We're passing on many of the things we've learned how to do to younger artists and administrators within the company who will become producers or production supervisors, directing animators, department heads, etc.
I'd say our involvement is actually all the way through production. I'm still doing things like sweatboxing scenes as a director and approving scenes that are going to go to Xerox and approving final color; right on down to supervising the final dub with the supervising sound editor and color-correcting the picture.

Q:When you search for new property, what do you look for in that as a producer?
GG: I think that all three of us might end up saying the same thing. I think that number one is a strong story. We may have hit or missed in our past, but to us we're looking for a strong story with strong entertaining value. We're also looking for something with an interesting or different twist so it doesn't have someone pointing a finger at it saying, "It's just like SNOW WHITE," or one of the other classics created by Walt Disney which have been the hallmarks up to now.

Q:Once you've decided on a property, what are the first steps to starting up a production?
GG: We're currently a trained organization with four hundred and sixty people. But, if we were starting from scratch, as we did on THE SECRET OF NIMH, it was basically our very small crew of about 19 people, 19 key people whose skill levels we knew. You might even refer to it as kind of a nepotism because once you know them and you become friends with them, you find yourself counting on their skills and loyalty to help you do the production.
On NIMH we actually started an all out recruiting campaign. It wasn't anything we had to really work hard at because the publicity about our departure from Disney excited an awful lot of people in the animation industry and just about everybody came running to us. We have 21 departments, from storyboard all the way through color production camera. You need a certain amount of people in each of those departments to achieve your weekly quotas so as to meet your deadline and budget. So, the first thing, when you start a production, is to figure out what story you're going to do and how long you think it's going to be (the number of minutes). Then you get down to some mechanics about how much can 'x' number of animators produce, per week, to get the picture animated. Then you've got to find a specific number of animators that can do 'x' amount of footage per week.
Nowadays, animators average somewhere between seven and ten feet a week. At the time we did SECRET OF NIMH, those, whom eventually became key Directing Animators, Linda Miller, Lorna Pomeroy and Dan Kuenster were all animating somewhere between three and four feet per week. John [Pomeroy] was capable of animating consistently twelve to fifteen feet per week. If he was really burning the midnight oil, he could do as much as 30 feet a week. NIMH was animated by only 11 of us.
Don storyboarded the entire picture and he animated the two- minute fight sequence between Justin and Jenner. In fact, Don storyboarded, with the exception of two or three sequences in THE LAND BEFORE TIME, all of our pictures. It wasn't until ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN that he released a lot of the boarding to other people. Now we've got about a twelve-member storyboard team. Basically you need to fill pre-production and leadership roles. When you're wearing the Producer's hat you're looking at the first part of the production for ways of how you're going to get the production finished. You need to fill the leadership roles, in each department, with people who will inspire the crew, people whom you, as a producer, can depend on. Our struggle is to keep the crew happy and satisfied on a day-to-day basis. It's pretty much a hard-nosed drive all the way through. I've always looked at the director and the producer's jobs as servants to the crew. Even though the producer and director positions, at least to the crew, appear to be the Lord high Poobah [from Gilbert and Sullivan's MIKADO], when you're in those shoes, you'll find the job can get quite uncomfortable. But with the right leaders, production can run smoothly. It's finding the right people, with some or a lot of experience, that is difficult. We've found that training our own crew is best. We have a great Irish crew as well as an experienced American and Canadian animation staff.

Q: When you're gathering your staff, what sort of people do you look for?
GG: In our case I think we look for people who are artistically productive. We look for people who have flair. We're looking for people with strong drawing ability because an animator, a layout man, a storyboard artist or a background artist, are limited by their creative craft or skill level. They're limited by how well they can actually draw or paint. We're looking for both those who are experienced and for potential animation talent. Also people who want to do animation, it takes a lot of drive to conquer this medium and a lot of stamina.

Q:On an average day, what do you do at the studio?
GG: On an average day I come to the studio at between six and seven in the morning and I leave between seven thirty and nine at night. That's just **my** hours. We take a short break for lunch. I think all three of us are in the same boat. My day starts off usually on a steenback or a moviola and I try to spend those early morning hours, before the crew arrives at nine, doing, what I call, "sweatboxing." This is more wearing the director's hat. I will approve scenes to go into Clean-Up, or review scenes to be approved to go to Xerox (the final process after you've had clean-up and effects animated and shot on black and white film as a pencil test). I approve color scenes to be cut in and readied for negative assembly.
At nine o'clock the crew arrives. I am then heavily involved with the animators all day long. The animators need attention or approval on a video or to flip their scene. I give them approval to have their scenes completed by their assistants and inbetweeners. I may spend most of my morning and afternoon in a directional mode. There are story meetings and meetings where we're deciding on who's going to do what as voices, or song writers, etc. There is scheduling, working with the production manager and accountants on where we stand on the motion picture, what can we do to cut the costs, how can we inspire the crew, how can we meet our weekly deadline or it might be that we have eight weeks left to deliver the project. We're usually in meetings or on the phone together about how we might solve the problem in the production.
I've never seen any production without a daily problem in its schedule or meeting its budgetary requirements. In many cases, you end up making decisions where you have to cut either story content, production value, or eliminate a song you've already paid for. You have to wear two hats in this area, too. You have a "creative integrity" hat you have on and you also have a "marketing" hat that you must wear with your investor and the distributor of the film. You might want to hold your integrity to something you feel is quite beautiful on the screen, but you might have to alter it to achieve commercial success. Those are the hardest decisions to make because you have to answer to yourself, morally. You also have to answer those artists who have fallen in love with certain things in the motion picture. Since most of the artists are adults and we're creating a medium for the genre that spans from three-and-a-half year old to the grannies and grandpas out there, we have to acknowledge the fact that many of the audience are very, very young. Sometimes we show our dark side. Some of the most artful things to us are on the dark side.
I'd say my daily routine spans being a producer where I'm talking to an agent, a scriptwriter, a songwriter, or an actor. Securing an artist's interest in working with us on a film, actually drawing on an animated scene or going down to camera to see how a particular scene is coming along. Your interest in those scenes and those crew members who are doing those jobs is instrumental to creating inspiration to those facing daily quotas. It's important that people know you care, not just about the film but about what they are doing.

Q:How much freedom are you usually given on a production?
GG: We've been probably more fortunate than most people in an independent film production nature. The most limited I think we've ever been on freedom would probably be on LAND BEFORE TIME. But, on AMERICAN TAIL we actually had total freedom. All Steven asked for was approval of the storyboards and the script. He only requested a couple of changes. In most cases it was either accepted or he'd come back with an idea that might be a little bit better or different that he liked better. On SECRET OF NIMH, we basically had total creative control and freedom. As a producer or director, people think you have freedom because you can do it any way you want. But when you're actually standing in those shoes, you're limited by the twenty-four hour day. That's the biggest limitation on your freedom.
Money is freedom. However there's a moral aspect of how much money you're going to spend on a motion picture.

Q:How much freedom do you usually give on an average production?
GG: I would say that we've been pretty tight creatively. In the last year or two we've become quite generous with the animators. If it's a really top animator, we'll give plenty of room, but we still give plenty of direction or, at least, approvals. With the composer, we're pretty free, but most composers who have worked with us have liked the way we track the picture. The term tracking the picture, is the selection of music from other productions to give the film a mood, or the sequence a mood to inspire the animator.
Jerry Goldsmith, on SECRET OF NIMH, would not, at first, look at the film with it's tracking music. (He wanted to look at it with dialogue only.) When his music editor came, he called Jerry and said "I think you'll like what they've done, why don't you look at it with their tracking music." It's been basically the same throughout all five productions, including ROCK-A-DOODLE. We give enough information to the composer about what we want to hear in the music spotting sessions. We try to use synonyms and adjectives that give the composer an idea of what we're trying to convey to the audience in each sequence. Then we're basically stuck with whatever he brings back. There have only been two times in the five pictures, I can recall, where we've asked them to alter something. In both cases the composers made the changes in less than five minutes and altered the music cue significantly.
So, freedom-wise, for the crew it's pretty tight except for the storyboard artists and the key animators. The rest of the animators are usually anywhere from trainee to borderline journeymen. There are three to five what we refer to as "top animators," usually the directing animators, on a project. These top animators usually can tune into what you're trying to achieve and try to plus it. As the artists achieve higher skills they also receive more freedom.

Q:What project have you worked on that's given you the most professional enjoyment or satisfaction, and why?
GG: I'd have to say THE SECRET OF NIMH. I still think it's our best project, both for its artistic value and the sophisticated story that we tried to tell. But mostly for the enjoyment of that crew at that time. We were all young and we shared two-and-a-half years of absolute crusading, some hard times and some really good times that are extremely memorable to me. I can see scenes in that picture that still give me an emotional twinge. (I personally was involved with every single scene in the picture, either the scene planning, directing another animator, animating a scene myself, or actually shooting on the camera late night there in Studio City.) During the last six months of that picture we were averaging somewhere near a hundred and ten hours a week, from six in the morning until eleven at night. It took a big chunk out of our lives but the experience gave me so much as a learning experience and a people experience that, I find it was the most satisfying. On the other projects political negatives came along that made them not as enjoyable as THE SECRET OF NIMH was. Not that SECRET OF NIMH wasn't without it's problems, but it was a heck of a learning experience.

Q: If you were trying to break into the business today, how would you prepare yourself for that?
GG: I have children between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five and I'm watching them grow and watching them all at different levels. (They're in high school and college and the oldest one is actually one of the editors here at Sullivan Bluth.) You're so limited at that age with how much you have to offer, I would think I would concentrate on my education and on improving my drawing ability. If I wanted to be an animator, I would put everything I knew how to do and all of my hours into practicing drawing so that I conquered the skill. I think that your most prolific animators are your best draftsmen. The Linda Millers, the John Pomeroys, Don Bluth, himself. Lorna Pomeroy-Cook has got a complete command of that pencil and she can make it do what she wants to do. Dan Kuenster is very talented.
They're all going to be stars because they can make that pencil work for them. If I were to advise a young person who was fifteen or sixteen and looking at animation, I would push them to go to an art school. I'm not just talking about a well rounded education, but one that also made them draw. There are so many experiences in life that will help make a good animator. It's those experiences, the ups and down and jerks along the way that give you emotion to put in those scenes and bring those characters to life. But, you're not going to bring them to life if you can't draw.

Back To Contents
Back To Books Page
Back To Main Page