How To Create Animation
Interviews by John Cawley



JULY 28, 1990

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Mark Kausler, for almost two decades lived the life of a freelance animator. Based at no studio, he would pick up animation work wherever and whenever it was available. This meant he experienced working at more studios, with more variety of talent, than most people in the business his age. His resume includes some of the most famous animated characters in history from Daffy Duck to Tony the Tiger to Roger Rabbit. As he entered his third decade in the industry, he settled at the Disney studio working on such projects as ROLLER COASTER RABBIT and MICKEY'S PRINCE AND THE PAUPER.
We talked with Mark at his home, a veritable archive of animation. Mark is one of the most respected animation history authorities in the business. His name is found in the acknowledgements of almost every major book written on the history of animation. What makes Mark almost unique among animation historians is that he has made a bit of that history himself.

Q: Could you please give a brief description of your career, including the studios you've worked at, and the productions you've worked on?
MK: Well, let me see. I started in 1968, working at studios like Filmation and an old studio called Fred Calvert Productions, which no longer exists. He was doing freelance work for Jay Ward. We did a little segment of YELLOW SUBMARINE there. Then the next year I worked for John Wilson's company, Fine Arts Films, on SHINBONE ALLEY. And then shortly after that, after I graduated from school which was in 1970, I worked for Spungbuggy Works for two years as an animator. Learned a lot there about the nuts and bolts of the business and how to put together a commercial. I got to design and animate some, what we call, "animatics." They're like pose reels, really. We did some for Esso Gas that were the Krazy Kat, Herriman style. For those I got to work right on paper with a felt tip pen and do all the cross-hatching, cut them out and paste them on the cels and do all the coloring. Did the backgrounds. Did everything. Those were so much fun because I got to do the entire process. I even picked out the sound effects.
After a while I jumped out of Spungbuggy and freelanced. I worked at various shops for a year or two each, like Duck Soup, Pacific Motion Pictures (now called West Indigo) and Warner Brothers. All the standard Leo Burnett-type stuff: Tony the Tiger and dozens of Fruit Loops commercials.
I guess my favorite commercials that I ever worked on were Popeye Video games, for Pacific Motion Pictures. We got a chance to do the old Segar-type Popeye. It was against these live action sets and the result almost had the feel of the old Fleischer 3-D. That was really fun. Some of the last stuff that Jack Mercer voiced were for those spots. Those really stand out in my mind.
I'm forgetting a lot of stuff like Ralph Bakshi. I went in and picked up several segments of HEAVY TRAFFIC and COON SKIN and just did those at home and brought in the finished art. And it goes on and on. (Laugh) I should have looked at my old freelance record books. Lot of this stuff I'm happy to have forgotten! Oh, one special I worked on that I wonder if anybody remembers was CLERO WILSON AND THE MIRACLE OF P.S. 14, which was an early Flip Wilson show. Corny Cole directed it at DePatie-Freleng. I didn't like the results on that one at all.
Even if I worked in-house at a studio, I always made sure I was paid as self-employed. I was freelance for seventeen years. Then I got hired at Disney, actually by Amblin, to work on WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT [he helped board the film and among other things animated Droopy]. I'm now officially at Disney where I recently worked on TUMMY TROUBLE, ROLLER COASTER RABBIT and MICKEY'S PRINCE AND THE PAUPER.

Q: What, if any, actual art training do you have?
MK: I went four years to art schools. I went two years in Kansas City to Kansas City Art Institute. I thought I was going to be a painter. I was studying fine art and lithography. I love lithography. That was 1966, 1968. In 1968, I came out here and got a scholarship to Chouinard with the help of T. Hee [famous Disney storyman] and was there two years from 1968 to 1970. Then I graduated with a B.F.A. in 1970.

Q: How did you break into the business?
MK: Well, I didn't even think I could do it. I loved cartoons ever since I was eight, but my mother always said, "You'll never break in. Forget it."
I came out here [Los Angeles] to visit friends of mine, like Manon Washburn, who were in animation. Manon was an inker and she introduced me to a guy named Gary Mooney. He was an animator over at the old Quartet Films, which I think still exists. Gary said, "Well, if you really think you can do it I've got some rough in-betweens I want you to do." It was the Green Giant. I said, "Yeah, I'll try it." So I tried it and I thought they were horrible but he thought they were usable. So with those samples, just three inbetweens I did on the Green Giant, I went to Filmation. I Just walked in right off the street and showed them to Hal Sutherland. He said, "Start Monday." He didn't even want to talk at great length.
So I came in, I think they were paying eighty bucks a week in those days. I was called an assistant animator, but at Filmation you really were more of a Xerox machine operator. The shows that were going in Filmation then were AQUAMAN, BATMAN, a few episodes of SUPERMAN because they'd already done two years and these were just little additional episodes. Tons of "Archies" stuff. ARCHIE was the most fun. Everybody wanted to work on ARCHIE. Especially anything that had Hot Dog in it, because Hot Dog was a cartoony character. We enjoyed drawing Hot Dog. Everything else was an utter chore.
The only people who drew well at Filmation were the layout people. A lot of times you didn't even have time to draw Batman or Aquaman. You just took the layouts. Xeroxed two of them. Ripped off the legs, ripped off the arms and literally repositioned them, like cut-out animation. Make a new Xerox of that, strip it up and hand it in. We were under tremendous pressure.
Here I was totally green. It was my first summer out here, I didn't know what the heck I was doing and (chuckle) I had to turn out two hundred feet a week. One day, I was working really hard. I was really worried, "Am I going to survive here? What am I going to do?" [Norm] Prescott, Lou Scheimer, Hal Sutherland, the Terrible Threesome, walked into my room. They all pointed to me and said, "More footage," turned on their heels and walked out. I think they were probably just doing it for a gag. But it really made me nervous. I was really scared.
I was very glad to go back to school after that. They tried to talk me into staying at Filmation. I said, "No." T. Hee really encouraged me to go back to school. He said, "Don't just fall into the business right away. You should get schooling. You'll be better off in the long run." I think he was right.

Q: What does an animator do?
MK: An animator basically tells a story. He makes it work on film. Your raw material is storyboards or scripts that usually somebody else has written. But it's the animator's basic responsibility to make it work, to communicate to the audience through movement, or just through a single drawing, the attitude that the story is supposed to convey. I think that's the basic definition of what an animator's job is: communication!

Q: Can you give me some examples of what you think are films or TV shows or shorts that have good animation versus those that would have bad animation.
MK: I guess some of my favorite animation would be some of the old shorts, like some of the Warner Brothers stuff, of course Bob Clampett's cartoons. The Rod Scribner animation is great. He made the story points so funny by the way he moved the characters and by the way his drawing looks. His drawing is so funny. From the start you laugh just at the way it looks. And then the gags are there to support it. I think he did a wonderful job of taking the material that he was supplied with, which was probably pretty raw, judging from the storyboards I've seen from Clampett's cartoons, they're pretty rough, and just turning it into entertainment. So good at it.
And then Irv Spence on the Tom and Jerry's. that was great animation. The way he could take just very raw scribbly stuff that Joe Barbera did and make it live. The timing that he had was so precise, the way it worked with the music, everything else, it's a total package. It's very smooth, it's very easy to watch and a lot of fun. And I don't want to belittle Disney features either, because all those guys were expert storytellers: Thomas, Johnston, Tytla, Babbit, Milt Kahl, Glen Keane, all the greats.
I love so many animators, it's hard to put it all into a nutshell. But I guess what I admire basically is somebody who can take the raw material, the storyboards, the script, whatever, and turn it into something better. Plus make it more entertaining. And really make the story live. They probably had to rewrite some lines to make it flow smoother or ask the director to cut some words so that it would have a more natural feeling. A lot of times, as you're animating, you discover that the writer has overwritten and you really have to pare it down in order for the audience to not only hear the dialogue but see your images. There's just so much people can absorb. I think a good animator has to be a good editor as well as a storyteller.
Oh, I didn't say anything about bad animation. That was good animation. Okay, bad animation, I guess is, I'm trying to think of the worst stuff I ever got, a lot of the stuff at Filmation, I guess is some of the worst stuff ever done. Mainly because it's so cut and dried. And about ninety percent of the entertainment in Filmation's material is from the track, like the STAR TREK cartoons. They were such horrible animation, not even animation. It's a slide show. The only thing that makes it animated is they turn once in a while and their mouths move. I mean the only way it's entertaining is to listen. They actually make better radio shows than they would as cartoons.
Actually television shows, I guess have to be designed that way because a lot of the times people aren't even looking at the screen. They're serving dinner, they're running around the room, whatever. They're not really concentrating too hard. And television animation doesn't have to tell the story that much through the animation. It leans more heavily on the script and maybe just on a basic layout setup. If you have a good layout in television, that properly tells the story, it really doesn't have to move too much to put the point across. To me that's bad animation because the animation isn't helping tell the story or put the point across.
What else is bad animation? CLUTCH CARGO is pretty bad. That's everybody's classic example because they didn't even have the budget to animate the mouths, they had them filmed live action and superimposed over the heads. A lot of people think Terry Toons are examples of bad animation. Maybe the animation isn't as much the problem as it's the material the animator's have to work with. There were some very good animators at Terry Toons, like Jim Tyer, and some very creative people. But the material they had to work with was just third rate. It was just formula stuff. A lot of people complained about the Famous Studios' Casper the Ghost, and Baby Huey's. But Marty Taras, Dave Tendlar, some of those guys were excellent animators. Some of the best guys that ever worked. But their material was hackneyed, it was second rate Tom and Jerry scripts. Cookie cutter. They always had the same plot and just substituted different details. Which is essentially the way a lot of TV series are done today. Once you get a plot that works, just substitute the details and presto, you got another episode. We could talk for hours about this.

Q: As an animator, how do you approach animating a new character?
MK: With a new character you try to think of things that you might have seen before. Either in animation or live action or animals you know or people you know that might help you in getting characteristics for this character. If you're animating a new dog character, what kind of a dog is it? Is it a bulldog, is it a Chihuahua, light, heavy, vicious, kind? You have to get the basic character traits down. Then you try to particularize. You try to go from the general to the specific, to make a unique character out of it.
Like when we were working on OLIVER AND COMPANY. I thought Tito was an interesting and funny character. I thought he was kind of a fun character because of his voice and because he's a lot like the street gang members that roam around Los Angeles. He was sort of like a gang member, a little bit of a new wrinkle in animation. It made his character more interesting than just doing another Mexican Chihuahua, which is a stereotype. You're taking the stereotype and making it more interesting by making the caricature a specific person. I kind of enjoyed that aspect of the character.

Q: What about an established character that you're working on for the first time?
MK: Well, in the case of Daffy Duck, the first scene I ever got of him, I went to existing animation. I would get it out of the library and look at it a lot. I would make a lot of drawings, just exploration drawings, to see whether I could handle him or not. You make a lot of little sketches, just fooling around for shapes. See if you can draw the bill. What the attitudes are in the character. And that was a great help just looking at pre- existing stuff.
But then, you have the horrible responsibility of taking these great animators like McKimson, Scribner, Ben Washam and take their stuff and put your own experience on it too. You sort of re-interpret their stuff through your hands and your eyes. It's not easy to live up to. It's a very difficult task. I think maybe it's more satisfying to take something that's a new character nobody's ever seen and just try to animate it to the best of your ability, like Roger Rabbit. He was so much fun for me to do because he was a collection of bits and pieces of all characters and all experience. He's such a total idiot, a brainless idiot, that you don't have the complex personality problems you might have with another character. And for me, he was just a delight to do. I enjoyed working on him.

Q: Let's talk about the actual work. What is a daily routine for an animator?
MK: Well, you wake up in the morning. (laugh) You try to avoid eating as much as you can because you sit down all day at a desk. What is it? "A second on the lips, a lifetime on the hips!" You can get heavy real easy. So I have to watch what I eat. Usually just have a cup of coffee or something like that. You wake up, walk around a little bit and do a couple of exercises and go to work.
The first thing I would do is just look at the layouts a lot. If I'm starting on a new scene I listen to the track, if there's a track on cassette of the character's voice, thirty, forty times. Then I look at the exposure sheet I'm given and I circle words that seem to be the most important words to hit. That's your key. Usually the sound track will guide you, if there is one, to what's the most important points in the scene to hit. When I circle those words I know that's where I've got to make my emphasis.
Then I'll make thumbnail sketches, a lot of them. Usually they look like little storyboards but they're not really storyboards they're an animator's breakdown of the storyboard. Maybe you'll do a sketch for every frame, or every sixth frame. However many it takes to put the point across. That's maybe how I start a scene.
I'll talk to the director maybe every two to three days. I'll show him the thumbnails; he'll approve those. Then I'll work it up in rough. The way I work is I don't make my roughs like haystacks, like a lot of animators do. This is because, when I was an assistant, I had to clean up Duane Crowther's roughs. Duane's a great animator but his roughs were really hard to clean up, but a great training in how a good animator thinks. Sometimes he would draw with a felt tip pen, sometimes he'd draw with a magic marker, I never knew what I was going to get next. You would have to take that and make it look a lot more like a character with a HB or a B pencil. And, oh, it's hard. It's really hard to interpret. So I always think about what the next person's going to get when I'm working on a drawing. I want to make it as succinct as I can, as clear as I can. So I draw a little bit cleaner maybe than the average animator does. Then I will take those drawings and I'll either have somebody else do the rough inbetweens or if there's nobody around to do it, then I'll do it myself. Do all the rough inbetweens then I shoot it on video tape and I show it to the director. Then I usually have to redo it. (chuckle) Even though the thumbnails pretty much spell out how you're going to do the scene, and the director approved it, a lot of times the director can't visualize what it's going to look like even when you've done your level best to show it to this person.
So then you have to go and take out hunks and murder your darlings. You really like the scene, it looks great. You show it to the directors and he tears it apart. Then you have to make that psychological adjustment, which is sometimes not easy to do, and retool it, make it work, but not through your own brain. Somebody else's brain is controlling what you do. But it is a group effort, that's the big pain of animation and the pleasure of it. It's not something somebody can do all by themselves. You really have to work with other people, it's just part of the business.
So that's a pretty typical day, and hopefully it's a day that lasts about eight hours. If you have to do tremendous amount of overtime you get very, very tired. I think your time off in animation is just as important as your time on. A lot of times when you've worked around the house trying to clean stuff up or walk around the block or whatever, you're not even thinking about a scene, all of a sudden, "My God, why didn't I do it that way?" You think of a better thing to do, a better way to stage it, a better way to draw it, a word you should have hit, that you didn't hit in the track.
You'll go back to work the next day and throw out half your scene. But when you're always grinding away at it, working so hard trying to make the deadline, a lot of times you just settle for your second or third rate ideas because there's just no time to think. You just have to push out material.

Q: How much freedom are you given on an average production?
MK: Well, when I was working commercials and on TV shows we didn't have very much freedom. What we were given were very tight storyboards. Usually drawn on model with all the background details indicated. Sometimes they were so clean you could make layouts from them. You'd just blow them up on a Xerox machine. Just redraw the background and make it tighter and redraw the characters.
In commercials we were always under the gun from the agency. What has happened is the studios, I guess in the early days of commercials, 1949 and 1950 and so forth, had more creative control. The agency didn't know what a television commercial was. But now so much time has gone by, so much experience, so many thousands of commercials have been made, they figured it out. The agencies have total control. Like when we we're doing' Fruit Loops' Toucan Sam or Tony the Tiger, the agency supplies model sheets. You have to be very precise about the way Tony's nose is drawn, the shape of his head, the way the toucan's bill is drawn, how many stripes are on it. You can really get bogged down in that. And it's a shame because I think better commercials could be made if they'd loosen up a little bit.
If the animators had a little bit more of a free rein to be able to tell the story a little better, I think you'd get better spots. But it's just the nature of commercials and television that it has to be tightly controlled because there's no time really to do it, and to experiment with it, and kick it back and forth. You usually have only two weeks to do an average thirty second spot. And that's considered a good schedule these days. Sometimes you only have a week, so it has to be pretty well tied down.
Even then you're going to get changes, and it's frustrating. A lot of the time you get silly changes. I remember one spot I worked on at Spungbuggy for Motorcraft Automotive Parts. We (chuckle) we had this little dump truck that this guy named Bob Zoell designed. He used to be a pretty hot designer in the early seventies. And (laugh) he had a little baseball cap on this truck's head. We had to take it off after we had already animated the whole thing. It had been approved, but the agency said his baseball cap might offend gas station attendants. Who knows why? That was their edict, so we had to take it off and change it to a red light.
Another silly change, on the same picture was the hook on the back of the tow truck. It looked like a sickle. We had to change the design of the hook because the agency said it might offend people who had sickle-cell anemia. I said, "Boy, they really had to search for that one!" (Laugh) I couldn't believe it. So all that had to be redrawn.

Q: What would you say have been some of your favorite characters and least favorite characters to animate and why?
MK: Well, I guess my favorite character that I've ever done so far is Roger Rabbit. Just because I followed him from beginning to end. I had a little bit of a hand in his design. I helped design his eyes, and worked with Dick Williams pretty closely. I just had so much fun because it was the first time that I've really been able to be at the beginning of a new character. *That* I really enjoyed. I've designed some characters that I hate in commercials and stuff, but this was a new character who was supposed to entertain people, who was supposed to be funny. We hammered it out and it was a great joy for me. I just love to draw him. I don't know if people like him that much, but I really like him. That's the main thing.
I guess some of the pre-existing characters that I've done that I've enjoyed doing are mainly Popeye. That's because we got to draw him the old way and I love the old comic strip look. So that was a lot of fun working on that. Also, I enjoyed doing Daffy Duck. There was a little tiny sequence in QUACKBUSTERS that was really fun. We (Greg ford, Terry Lennon and I) were trying to match the old Rod Scribner look from PRIZE PEST for a sequence that was a bridge to the beginning of PRIZE PEST and I was pretty proud of that because I think we managed to come very close to that look: the big slurping tongues and the pin-headed Daffy with the long, tall eyes. We got the McKimson Porky pretty good too. He gets real puzzled and he's straining hard to think and he gets these wrinkly sort of eyebrows on his head. It was a lot of fun to draw. And that was a great joy to do.
I also really enjoyed doing the Maybelline sequence for Ralph [Bakshi] in HEAVY TRAFFIC. That was a case where I got a lot of design input. The original designer on it was a guy named Bob Dranko, who still works in the business. He did the original boards and then it was my job to take those and essentially make a pose reel out of it. I was under the impression when I was doing it that I was going to animate it later, but Ralph liked the pose reel so much he said, "Don't animate it. Put it in the way it is." I thought, "Oh, no. It'll never play." But a lot of people liked it, because it had a certain liveliness to it. It wasn't real smoothly animated, it was just bursts.
We had a new drawing every six frames, every twelve frames, it went with the beat of the music. It was very stereotyped characters, black characters, and it was very sexy. It was very violent. Something new. Something that I didn't associate with animation up to that time. It was sort of like almost anything you wanted to do. Any of your sexual fantasies or a guy shooting another guy or whatever. You could do anything and we did. And it all worked with the music.
At the time, maybe I didn't enjoy it as much as, say working on Roger or Popeye but in retrospect, I guess you'd have to say it was one of the high points because it was a creative shift. And I was responsible for three minutes worth of film. I had to come up with a lot of ideas for it. Just little bits like his car falls apart. The guy who's driving the car and one door comes off, his window hits his nose, finally the whole thing just falls apart. At one point I remember the car got wet and he had to wring it out like a dishrag. He just picked up the whole car and wrung it out. It was all done with a pose and yet the action read. You could see what he was doing. And that was a great lesson. Sometimes a single drawing can say as much or more than fifty million drawings. You can see it with a single drawing. That was a valuable lesson that I learned from that picture.

Q: How about characters you didn't enjoy animating, and why?
MK: Maybe, I guess the Fruit Loops toucan would've been one of the characters I least enjoyed doing. He was such a zero, I thought as a character. He's essentially Paul Frees, in the days when he was still alive, doing a very good vocal impression of Ronald Coleman. It's a very cool, sort of laid back character. But he never is a very active character except when somebody's hungry, then he helps them find the Fruit Loops. And he always says the same words in every spot. It's strictly to sell the product. He just didn't have much fascination on his own. Maybe he was better when they were first starting the campaign, when he was new; when he had his little nephews and stuff with him. I think maybe he was more fun then. But when I was working on it, it was not fun. It was just the same words by rote every time. And very dull. We always had to match a certain look and maybe it's not the way I naturally draw. I'd draw maybe a more bulbous nose, more big-foot style. It was not enjoyable.
Tony the Tiger was a challenge to do, but not an enjoyable character. The agency has him very set. Who he is, how many heads tall he is, how he's designed, how he acts. He always says the same stuff. Always the same. It's just labor to do something like that because you can't impose anything from your own imagination on him. You just have to take what everybody else does, and match what they've got and then they love it. But if you try and make Tony do a funny walk or maybe twirl his tail a little bit or try and come up with a new little piece of business, that you think helps the spot, they take it out.
Likewise with Snap, Crackle and Pop. They were fun when Vernon Grant designed them in the Thirties. They were really fun little guys with big ears, sort of dwarf-like. Over the years they got more and more blanded out to the point where I can't even look at them anymore. They are not fun for the same reasons I described on Tony and Toucan. You're always taking what somebody else has imagined and trying to duplicate it without adding any of your own to it. I could go on and on, I mean, a lot of commercial characters are that way.

Q: You probably mentioned these already, but just to re-cap, what project would you say you were most professionally pleased with? And which one did you feel was a failed project?
MK: Let me see. Most pleased with, I guess would be ROLLER COASTER RABBIT. We really rode that one all the way. I had to move to Florida to work on it. I had a little bit of input in the story when I was animating it, because we found a lot of things in the script didn't work or that the boards had to be amplified. I added a whole sequence to it that the director liked. I went through two directorial agendas on it. (They had a change of directors in the middle of the picture.) But it was a great joy to work on because I thought the roller coaster sequence was a lot of fun. It had a great feeling of movement and acceleration and Roger's character was consistent. He was really stupid (chuckle) and he may not have developed any but at least he stayed consistent with who he was. Probably the most fun I've ever had was on that picture. I don't know if anything is going to come as close to that for years to come.
Two projects I'd like to mention are SPORT GOOFY and FAMILY DOG (the original AMAZING STORIES episode). Darrell van Citters and SPORT GOOFY helped pull me out of commercials and off a plateau. Darrell really woke me up to a lot of things about timing. Likewise with Brad Bird and FAMILY DOG. Both Darrell and Brad are timing masters! They're two of my favorite directors. Other favorites would be Ralph Bakshi, Rob Minkoff and Jerry Rees.

Q: How about one you feel failed, even if it was a commercial success?
MK: I cover such a wide field, but I guess SHINBONE ALLEY might be a good example of something that should, that probably was a good idea but it could've been done so much better. I love the Don Marquis stories, "Archie and Mehitabel," always loved them. I love his free verse. I love a lot of the things that he said. I think a lot of the statements he made in that book were way ahead of his time. He talks about ecology, war, so many things. It's a great book. But they took this little off-Broadway musical, "Shinbone Alley," and some of the songs were not quite right, some of them were redundant, I mean some of the songs were good, but a lot of them should have been taken out. We should have made the picture more like George Herriman style. Because the illustrations in the book were just right. It was a very 1920's look.
They had other designers take it and make it sort of a quasi- Disney-Filmation-ish horror. Just awful. And we had to take and animate that and yet retain a little bit of Herriman's line. When I was cleaning up, I was an assistant animator and did a few scenes of animation on the picture, too, we had to take a felt tip pen and do the weighted line; a thick and thin line with a little shading. Everybody put shading on everything in those days. We always had little parallel lines to shade everything and that's the look that we had.
Corny Cole set a lot of the characters for it. Although, I don't think he was the ultimate designer. His designs were watered down by other people too. But I think that's a great example of a failed project. It just died in the theaters. It had to be recut three times, and it's too bad. A lot of young people worked on it, a lot of enthusiastic people, and I loved the material. It's just that we couldn't make it entertaining. The best sequence in it I thought was the one that came closest to Herriman, which was "Archie Declares War." But it comes out of left field. Here you've got these characters that are more of the Disney style and all of a sudden for no reason at all they change into the Herriman-style characters. It's just to appease whoever was a fan of that style and it stays that way for three minutes and then, pop, it goes back to the other style again. It was a fun sequence to work on, but it ruins the stylistic unity of the picture, and I think it confuses more than helps.

Q: Would you describe what you feel are the differences of working freelance as an animator versus working in studio?
MK: Sure. The basic difference in freelance is you're self- employed, and you can set your own hours. You are paid with no deductions. You are responsible for all your own taxes, keeping your own records, all your receipts. You have to get a sellers permit and a business license from the city. You have to do all the things that any business would do just to get set up. It's a great education in knowing what the ins and outs of the business are. Record keeping especially is so hard to do. It's just not enjoyable because it's the least interesting aspect of working freelance. But the great thing about freelance is once you get rolling, you can make a living.
It took me nearly a year. (chuckle) I had a pretty hard time when I left Spungbuggy because Spungbuggy resented my leaving. They didn't give me any freelance work and I was hoping that they would. What got me into freelance is that at Spungbuggy I was making barely a hundred and twenty bucks a week for working really hard and working a lot of evenings, weekends and trying to get these spots out. I remember one weekend I was helping a friend of mine do a spot for Spungbuggy. It was a freelance job. And that one weekend I think I made five hundred bucks. I thought, "Oh my God, what am I doing?" I mean (laugh) here I was making more in one weekend than I made in a whole month working for this place on staff. So I said, "Well, I've just got to go freelance." So I gave them appropriate notice and I said I was setting' myself up.
I think the first freelance job I did was on a picture called THE WAR BETWEEN MEN AND WOMEN (for Playhouse Pictures), and we were matching the Thurber style. I Had a lot of fun working on that. A lot of my stuff got cut out just because directorally they thought some of the animation had to be substituted for with live action. It was a directoral decision. But after that one job I hit a dry spell. I couldn't get work anywhere. And then Duck Soup was starting up. So I picked up some work from them. And then I started to branch out and picked up anywhere and everywhere that I could, mostly in commercials and a little feature work here and there. That's what got me started doing freelance.
I think the big advantage of working in-house over freelance is that you're concentrating hard to do one project or you're always working with the same people all the time. Which is great because you can't get away from it. Whether you're freelance or on staff, film is a collaborative art, especially animation. There is always somebody working with you whether you like it or not. And I think it's better if you know the people you're working with. It's the great advantage of working in-house. You feel more like everybody's pulling together. More of a unified feeling.
Sometime's it gets kind of lonely being a freelancer. And I think you can hit a plateau when you're freelancing. I think I grew for awhile and met a lot people who had a lot of experience but eventually in my animation I felt I was not developing any more. I had come to the limits of what I could do in that system. So the studio system's been helpful for me because it's made me focus more on the communication aspect of what I'm doing. Like, if something doesn't work in the story, speak up. If it's gotta be changed, it's gotta be changed because otherwise it's just going to die like a dog.
I've worked on so many projects where nobody bothered to analyze the story. Nobody cared. They just took whatever they were given and animated it. And that's not your job. Your job is to try and entertain people or sell them something or whatever you're supposed to do. It's communication. I think that's the big advantage of working within a studio system is that it makes you focus more on what your real job is.
Freelancing sometimes you're too concerned with how much money am I going to make this month? I got to hustle here. You're working a lot of nights and weekends. I used to work like four weekends out of five, most of the time, I did that for years and years. I don't know how I did it (chuckle) now I'm getting' so lazy. I enjoy being off nights and weekends. I think it's important, too, like what I said before. Because your time off is as important as your time on. So I think that's the basic differences.

Q: Finally, if you were to advise someone to get into the industry today, how would you tell them to prepare for animation?
MK: Hopefully I'd tell them to do it differently than I did. I think I would tell them to not just study art. I think the study of art is important, especially just good basic drawing, knowing how to draw anything. If you get a teapot, or a locomotive, or a person, or a dog, fat man, thin man, beautiful woman, an ugly woman, whatever, you have to be able to draw it. Just good basic drawing. Learning how to do it.
But along with that, study writers. Study not only good screenplays but, good novels, good non-fiction books, good biographies. I would say get exposed to a lot of ideas through writing. Writing, I think along with drawing, is the heart of animation and how you interpret one and the other. Maybe a good exercise is to take a paragraph or a poem or something from your favorite book and try to animate that. Try to interpret it. Just make it as a piece of entertainment, because that's what you're always running up against over and over again.
Take somebody's vision who may not know a thing about animation. Then you say, "This is a good idea, I can run with this. I know how to interpret it." Then I think that's what makes for a good animator. That's the best possible training, because it all comes down to communication.
I would say study. Get a journalism degree with a minor in art. I think in journalism you're forced to write in a clear succinct way. You learn newspaper style. It's a good clear way to write and I think that's good training. That might be a short cut rather than trying to get a degree in English lit, or something like that. Maybe a journalism degree is more practical because you're really learning just the nuts and bolts of good basic writing. That's what I would advise anybody who wants to be an animator, because being an animator is so many things. I mean, you can study acting, you can study theater design, you can study old movies, whatever it takes, it's all part of it. But I think the basic thing is drawing and writing. That's the two basic skills.

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