How To Create Animation
Interviews by John Cawley



AUGUST 27, 1990

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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 on?
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 Jones unit.
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 books.
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 entertaining.
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 character.

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 writer?
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 accurate description?
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 standpoint.
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, really.

Q: What project or film or show or something that you've worked on, has given you the most professional enjoyment or satisfaction and why?
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 (laughs).

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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