INTRODUCING PETE ALVARADO...
Pete Alvarado has been working in animation since the classic era
of the late Thirties. By the Forties he was at Warners working
on the Jones unit doing a variety of chores. He's done
animation, layouts and background paintings. (His backgrounds
graced the first Road Runner cartoon.) In the Fifties he began
doing comic books and kept busy for years. When TV animation
came along he was there doing not only layouts, but now
storyboards. Today he still keeps busy for numerous studios
providing storyboards, advice and a cheery spirit.
We caught up with Pete at his home via the phone. The current
boom in animation has put even more demand on his considerable
talents, and there didn't seem to be enough hours in the day for
a sit-down meeting. However even on the phone, Pete's love and
enthusiasm for the business was evident.
Q: Can you give me a brief description of your career including
studios you've worked for and specific productions you've worked
PA: Well, let me see. I might as well start with Disney because
that goes back to 1937 and the tail end of SNOW WHITE. I didn't
stick around Disney's too long. I went on to Warner Brothers and
other places. I went back to Disney briefly for a few months
during DUMBO, but it didn't seem to click. Then, there was a
period where I went with MGM.
I was doing basic animation like inbetweening and the nuts and
bolts; learning the thing from the ground up. Everyone, at that
time, had to pay their dues and put in their apprenticeship.
Some places had what they called "the bullpen." Everyone would
do basically the same things, clean up and inbetween or whatever
was required, and it was pretty tedious stuff, and I was very
happy to get out of it (laughs). Most of the guys were.
Anyway, that was something that everyone seemed to have to do, at
that time before they branched out into the other specialties.
Fundamentally, I was doing animation although I was always
leaning toward wherever I could try to find out where they were
doing the story sketches or backgrounds or more creative stuff
like character design... that kind of thing.
My training in art school was fine arts. It being the Depression,
most of us in the art school were thinking about making a living
with our art. At that time, Disney was the big employer in town.
And so that's why most of the talent in the art school ended up
with Disney's, at least for a while.
My first tour at Warner's was the black and white Bob Clampett
unit, doing the Porky Pigs and stuff like that. This is before
World War Two, of course. I then moved to MGM and worked with
Hanna and Barbera. They allowed me to do some assistant layout
work with Harvey Eisenberg (Jerry Eisenberg's father). He was
doing the Tom and Jerry's at that time. Hanna and Barbera were
looking around for artists that could replace him because Harvey
was thinking of moving to the Barney Google comic strip. The
strip's artist, Billy De Beck, was ill and the syndicate was
looking for artists. Harvey tried out, but he was eventually
turned down, although he was a superb artist. Actually, it was
very flattering to be thought of as a replacement for him.
Then I had a hiatus in the service for a couple of years, and
upon coming back, I decided I was going to try to really get into
the more creative end of the business. From that point, I really
slanted more toward layout, character design, that type of thing,
and background painting.
Then my second stint at Warner's began. It was interesting. I
happened to hit at a time when Chuck Jones was in a period where
he produced a lot of very, very good films. He had a lot of
talented people working for him at the time. I considered it
really a stroke of luck (laughs) to be with them. There were top
people like Tedd Pierce and Mike Maltese and Warren Foster;
animators like Ken Harris, Ben Washam, Abe Levitow. I really
enjoyed working with Chuck, and there were men like Bob Givens,
also. Well, I had known Bob before in the old days of black and
white, before World War Two, but we became reacquainted with the
We created a lot of new characters and it was just a very
prolific period for everybody. I'd say it was one of those
unique situations where people would spin off of one another.
Because the talent around you is so good, you have to hit for a
higher level of quality, and I think that had a lot to do with
it. We did a lot of films and things like the Road Runner and
Pepe Le Pew and, oh, you could name a slew of them.
I then heard that Western Publishing was coming out to the [West]
coast. They were setting up an office out in Beverly Hills, and
looking for artists. They had Carl Barks, one of the first ones
they hired, and then, Jesse Marsh from Disney. With Western
Publishing, I ran into an interesting thing. They offered
contracts which, at the time, were unheard of in the animation
business. So I grabbed it. I began to divide my time between
the studios and Western, doing books. They not only did comic
books, but the Little Golden Books and all kinds of games and
puzzles and you name it. I did that until Western went out of
business (laughs). Well, they're still in business, more or less.
But I do it by mail now to the East Coast. I guess you can say I
was just about the last contract artist Western had until they
closed their L.A. office.
I was soon doing a lot of work for Hanna-Barbera, particularly
layout and character drawing, stuff like that, for THE JETSONS,
YOGI BEAR, and FLINTSTONES. I would wear two hats (laughs). I had
six months at the studios and six months of books. I did that
for a lot of years. I also did a lot of burning the night oil.
But it worked out pretty well because of the way the television
season worked. The studios would phase out around September or
October, and that was just about the time I'd start doing my
I also worked at other studios. I worked for Bakshi-Krantz on the
daring FRITZ THE CAT, NINE LIVES OF FRITZ THE CAT. There were periods with DePatie-Freleng when they were doing different kinds
of shows like the Pink Panther and other things. I kind of
alternated between whoever was busiest. But I would basically
say Hanna-Barbera, for many years, was pretty much one of my base
studios that I did a lot of work for.
Q: When did you get into actual storyboarding?
PA: I guess I did some in the 50s. I really got into boarding
with television. I got my feet wet doing just spec stuff. I
began to board a little later on, after they'd run out of layout
work or something like that. Or maybe I'd start the boards and
then eventually work into the layout. When all the runaway
production stuff started, then I really seriously thought about
storyboarding to fill the gap. With all my training in layout and
other things, I figured that I should be able to handle boards.
Of course, comic books were good training, too, learning how to
stage stuff in a given area quickly and simply.
I always felt storyboarding was such a highly specialized type of
thing. The men I knew were men who worked on Disney features and
that kind of thing. I admired these guys. To be a good
animation story man, you have to have a special something, I
don't know what it is, besides being an artist or a writer. I
always felt frustrated. The ability to write and draw a
storyboard is more satisfying than just drawing it.
Q: What was your art training?
PA: I had a scholarship at Chouinard's at the time. They're no
longer in existence. I guess you could say CalArts was the
outgrowth of Chouinard. Mrs. Chouinard was a terrific woman,
[she] loved her students. During the period I was there, Disney
came in and assisted the school financially. It gave them an in
to her most talented students. It was a great way to find talent
when you think about it. And, of course, the students didn't
feel too badly because jobs were kind of scarce, and Disney's was
a good way to go.
Q: Is that basically how you broke in, by going that way?
PA: Yeah. Like I say, Chouinard taught an animation class, and a
lot, maybe 95% or more, of the students who went into the class
immediately went over to Disney's when they finished. So, it was
almost like a Disney training school. Then Disney, himself, had
classes going at his studio. So, we were constantly learning.
We were training on the job. It was kind of a good era, in a
way. Unlike a lot of the studios today, they actually considered
it very important. In order to have a pool of trained talent,
they would go to the expense of training them themselves if they
had to. So (laughs) that's unique. Disney paid people while they
learned. I don't know why one of the producers today doesn't
break out and do that. If you really want trained talent, train
them your way.
Q: What does a storyboard artist do?
PA: The way I approach it is you've got an animation script.
You've got a fundamental story line maybe with gags interspersed
or something like that. I think that I've always approached it
like an underlying story, and then try to put some acting into
the character. Make the characters act, make them breathe, if
you can. Like when you do layout and do characters, you try to
put a little life into the thing.
I think a lot of fellows just crank out panels. They don't mean
anything. And I think a lot of times, it's my belief anyway,
that if you put something into the board that has a lot of guts,
a good animator will pick up on it. I know this to be true
because of the fellows I've worked with. They've mentioned back
to me that they like the board I gave them because it kicked them
off on something. They had fun and stuff came out looking good,
better than it would have.
I'll never forget one time I was talking to Friz Freleng about
it. I said, "Gee, do you think we're wasting our time, making
nice looking drawings on the board?" He said, "Well, look at it
this way, in television, as it goes down the line, it loses. It
gets less and less. Everything you put in up front will mean
something." In other words, it'll be much better than it would
have been. It's a good philosophy, really.
I think, you should have a little fun or pride in what you do,
and maybe have a little fun with it. But, go at it with some
kind of pattern. Even if a lot of times you get a lousy script,
and you say, "Gee, this is terrible." The challenge is: what can
I do to make it better than it is, or better than it deserves
(laughs)? And sometimes, occasionally, you can come up with
something extremely funny. One little bit, out of a whole half
hour maybe, will be a belly laugh. People will remember it.
They'll say, "Gee, who did that funny thing?" It's just a few
seconds, but it's so well done, it comes like a shock (laughs).
It's the same with all other art work. Say an ad agency gives
you something, and it's a campaign that's dull. What can you do
to make it better than it is? Can you liven it up? What can you
do to get an audience to look at it? That's the whole thing.
How do you grab the audience? Or how do you make somebody stop
and look and listen. I don't think it's anything earth shaking.
I think we're entertaining. Maybe some day we'll get into
messages, I don't know (laughs). But, right now, I think we're
If you can inject a message painlessly, well, fine. That's good.
It doesn't hurt. But I think, to entertain, to try to take each
board you get and inject something into it that'll liven it up or
will grab the audience. There's a lot of things you can do, a
funny attitude or maybe the way you build up the personality of a
Q: When do you usually get involved with a project?
PA: Well, as a rule, they call you and they say, "We've got this
series coming up and we've got X number of shows," or whatever. They usually have their outlines, but most of the time, (laughs)
I don't pay too much attention to them. I wait until after I do
a few of the scripts, then I get a feel for the characters and
the story line and the flavor that they want. I think a lot of
times, they do them so fast, that the men that create them don't
realize, the potential until they actually see it on the air.
Q: How much assistance do you get from the director or the
PA: Well, it depends on the director, the writer. I've found in
recent years some of the fellows can be kind of hardnosed. They
have certain ways of doing things, and certain directors wanted
to see certain things. Every time, you'd have to prove yourself,
or something. Then, other directors were very good about letting
you have your freedom. They would hope you'd come up with
something clever, unique, or different, or new, or something like
that. Each one seemed to be a little bit different from the
other. So, I would say they really aren't all the same, they're
just (laughs) human beings that react. Some men in the business
don't find anything funny (laughs). Then, I know there are other
men who will laugh at every gag no matter how bad it is (laughs).
Q: What is your daily routine like as a storyboard artist?
PA: Well, I used to be a nine to five guy, but I've somehow
gotten into a lot of night work where things are quiet, so I just
shift my hours. I do, basically, the same number of hours, or
maybe even a few more. But, I find that a lot of times at night,
without any phones ringing or other things to interrupt, I get a
lot more done. I can operate on a very small amount of sleep, so
I'm fortunate that way.
I would say I put in my eight hours or more, at least eight
hours, and I sit there, and even when something doesn't feel like
it's going to work, I just sit there and keep drawing until it
does. I don't wait to be inspired. But, occasionally, there are
times when I'll go back and maybe look at some of my fine art
books or other things, or get a good novel or a good piece of
literature or something... get a little change a pace and then
come back to my work refreshed.
Q: Do you use any reference or a lot of reference in your work?
PA: Yes, I have my own personal file of my reference. Over the
years, I've had a lot of material that I've used, and I
constantly refer back to that. I do surround myself with a lot
of reference. So, that probably gets injected into the work too.
Q: One thing you hear a lot is that storyboards are sort of like
comic books or comic strips. That's often a simplified way of
describing it. You've worked in both. Can you say that it is an
PA: Well, one art director at Western mentioned that I could adapt easily, but I found that I thought of the two things as
separate media. A comic strip is a separate thing from an
animation storyboard. I always think of an animation storyboard
drawing from the standpoint of layout or animation, that kind of
thing. I'm always thinking: what will the animator do with this?
What will the layout person do with this? Can they take this and
can they build on it, or something like that?
The comic strips and comic books, I recall mainly: How can I
eliminate characters (laughs) and make close-ups? Or how many
silhouettes can I get to a page (laughs)? I think a lot of us in
the business had a few laughs about that. They finally did
restrict us to one silhouette a page (laughs). Contrary to what
you see today in comic books, where they're usually loaded, we
actually kept them relatively simple. We put in crowds and
things if it really helped the story, but not as a general rule.
We would try interesting angles, we didn't just load it up for
the sake of loading it up. I think that's why a lot of those old
Dell comics look so good. They were thought through from a story
I never treated a comic book script the same as I would an
animation script when I board them. They're just not the same.
They're two different media. There was an interesting
experiment. I can't recall the company that did it, but they
tried to blow up comic book panels, and thought they would save a
lot of drawing and work, just blowing them up. It just never
worked. No matter what they did, it just didn't blow up
properly. In other words, they're just two separate media,
Q: What project or film or show or something that you've worked
on, has given you the most professional enjoyment or satisfaction
PA: I would say my experience at Warner Brothers was kind of
special because of all the talented guys, even when we didn't
agree on everything. In fact, we did a lot of disagreeing. All
of us were really concerned with what was on the screen, and we
were all very professional. They did give us a certain kind of
freedom. We had a certain schedule to adhere to, but we could
adjust that to fit our own way of working. If you had a five
week schedule, that's about what we had roughly to do lay-outs or
background. And actually, we could do it much faster most of the
time. We'd use that extra time to put little things into the
film or maybe save it for another film we wanted to put a few
more hours of thinking on or try to improve it. But it was a
good time for me because it was one of the rare times when I
always looked forward to going to work (laughs). I guess it
wasn't all that perfect, but time's probably mellowed me
Q: A project, on the opposite side, that failed, in your opinion.
It may have been a commercial success, but you personally felt
did not live up to your expectations.
PA: Well, I was going to say ROCK ODYSSEY. I had a lot of hope
for that. I think we did a lot of nice work on that thing, but
it just never seemed to get off the ground. I think most of us in
the business are so close to these things, we don't really know
sometimes when we have something.
Q: And the final question now: if you were to start in the
business today, or to offer advice to someone starting in the
business today, what would you tell them?
PA: Well, by all means, I would say get as much art schooling as
you can, or expose yourself to as many good teachers, whether
they're animation people or otherwise. First of all, get
yourself a broad, well-rounded knowledge of art, generally, then
specialize, if you want, in animation.
Get the fundamentals under your belt. If you're self-taught, go
to the library and get lots of books. You can't lose by keeping
a lot of books for reference. They're always great to lift your
spirits and keep your level of quality up.
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