How To Create Animation
Interviews by John Cawley



AUGUST 21, 1990

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John Pomeroy is one of the top draftsman in the animation field today. His control of the pencil is well known within the industry, as is his speed. John's work is much in evidence in the features produced with his two associates, Don Bluth and Gary Goldman. A fan of both classical Disney animation and the broad caricatures of Chuck Jones, John blends the two into a striking style of his own.
We talked with John at his office in the Sullivan Bluth U.S. division studio. There he oversees a small staff of artists who not only contribute to the various Sullivan Bluth features, but also handle a number of smaller, less publicized, projects.

Q: Could you please give a brief description of your career in animation, including studios you've worked for and specific productions you've worked on?
JP: My first encounter with a professional animation studio was at age fourteen. I took a portfolio of my work to the Disney Studios. They had no training program and they were not hiring any new artists. However, the guard at the gate really liked my work.
I was discouraged, but just the fact that I got to step on the very ground where the animation mecca of the world was, prompted me to continue in trying to get a job there. My whole being was concentrated on getting a job in the animation department there. Funny, what I wanted to do and what I ended up doing were two different things.
I wanted to be background painter. I painted portraits and landscapes and still lifes, and anything else to earn the money to go to art school. Finally, after three portfolios and three failures, I was accepted. February 7th, 1973, was my first day and I was almost hyperventilating with excitement. I had earned my way.
That same day, I met Gary Goldman, my partner. He came sniffing around, looking at my drawings, giving me encouragement, and a slap on the back. He was my first friend at the studio. It was an interesting period. I wanted to paint backgrounds. They said, "You'll become a better background artist if you work in animation for a while, get your feet wet, and then you can learn how to paint backgrounds for animated movies. The painted background can't be a piece of art on its own. It must yield and glorify the animation, not dominate it." I agreed and said, "Okay, I'll give it a shot."
I created my first personal test, which was a little stupid animated frog with a little assistant turtle. He had a magical hat which grows so large that it eats the frog. It was awful. But when I saw the first pencil test and the frames going by of the graphic drawings that I had created, and the movement... something that I had drawn was actually moving. It was like no thrill I had ever had in all my artistic life. I threw away the paint brushes and I decided I was going to become an animator. I haven't painted since. That was eighteen years ago.
I think it was the right choice, because, on an esthetic level, I get no thrill greater than to create something from nothing on paper. I was put under the supervision of Frank Thomas, who was one of the "nine old men." I worked with him on 120 feet of running continuity at the end of WINNIE THE POOH AND TIGGER TOO when they tell Tigger he can't bounce anymore. They gave me a sequence with pathos! I couldn't believe that they would give me, a fledgling rookie, a sequence with that kind of acting in it.
It was then that I experienced one of my most frustrating initiations into animation. I was animating a walk of Tigger going away from the audience very sadly in the snow. The scene was going to be used three times, so Frank wanted to make sure it was right. He had me re-animate that walk seventeen times. It was excruciating. By the eighth try, you burn out on the scene. By the twelfth try, you're ready to go look for work elsewhere. But, no matter how many times I was down and discouraged, there seemed to be some little flicker of hope that the next attempt at the walk would make it that much better.
It was all worthwhile once I saw the pencil test on the screen. There was a small impromptu audience in one of the screening rooms, and they were actually either crying or laughing. When Tigger walked away in the snow, I could hear some of the audience sniffing. It's that moment that makes the animator so delighted with that which he creates that it keeps him going. An animator may be involved with an animation project for a year, maybe five years, but after that, he gets to sit in the theater and watch his work being appreciated by the audience.
Animation does it better than live action, for some reason. The memory is fixed and it stays with you longer, from childhood all the way up to old age. It's fixed. It's like your own dreams have come to reality. It's hard for live action to compete with that. After Winnie the Pooh, I worked on THE RESCUERS.
I started hearing small bits of complimentary dialogue. "Did you see that walk?" "That looked terrific." "Did you see John's scene?" It was a high point in my career to be able to hear about your work and how it's appreciated by your mentors and your colleagues. It was a wonderful honor. Again, it prompts you into doing the extra bit of work that maybe needed on a scene. If you feel that the scene isn't turning out the way you want, it's worth the extra investment of time to sweat and make that scene work, because it'll be that much more entertaining on the screen.
After RESCUERS I worked as a directing animator on PETE'S DRAGON along with Don Bluth and Gary Goldman. It was a combination of live action and animation. That was a challenge in itself. After that, I became directing animator on THE SMALL ONE, a Christmas featurette. THE FOX AND THE HOUND was next. It was a time when I wasn't very happy with the creative direction in which the studio was going. My enthusiasm for working at the Disney Studios had faded because, one, Walt was not there, and, two, the regime that had taken over, wasn't listening to the needs of the artists. There was a line up of stories and features that they were getting ready for production. None of them really excited me.
So Don and Gary and I started to prepare to leave. We knew we would be leaving, but we didn't know when or where. It all depended on something we were developing on the outside called BANJO THE WOODPILE CAT, a little thirty-minute animated TV featurette that we had been working on for three years. It started out to be a training film for us to increase our knowledge of the production of animation. Then it turned out to be our exodus film. We were able to raise money based on it for a feature film that we would produce on our own, independently, as a company.
In mid-September of 1979, we did receive financial backing for the feature THE SECRET OF NIMH, and we left September 13th, 1979. Once we finished BANJO, we began to work on THE SECRET OF NIMH which took us almost two years to produce. It was released in the summer of 1982. We had poured our hearts out into that picture. After two years of work, we were disappointed because it never really went into full release.
I don't think THE SECRET OF NIMH was ever played in more than 600 theaters. So no one knows how well it could have done had it had a full release in, say, eighteen hundred theaters. It might have done a lot better than it did. I think it has broken even with cassettes, with foreign release and all other ancillaries. I still hear people commenting on THE SECRET OF NIMH. They come up to me and say, "that's one of the best films you've ever done." We then got involved with arcade games. We produced DRAGON'S LAIR, SPACE ACE, and then a sequel to DRAGON'S LAIR which was called TIME WARP. The reasons for doing that were financial. We didn't have enough money to sustain ourselves on a feature budget. So this was a way to keep our artists in-house and keep our enthusiasm alive for the art form. The games were very popular. Even today, we are still able to generate some excitement on a commercial level to try to get those games back in circulation again. I'm hopeful that one day we'll be able to produce a DRAGON'S LAIR movie.
Following the arcade games, we became involved with Steven Spielberg. He wanted to meet the people who produced and directed NIMH because he thought that style of art form, that type of intricacy and attention to detail and effects had disappeared from the face of the earth. Our meeting went very well. We sat there for about two and a half hours and just talked about animation. He wanted to find a story that he thought would be worthy. A couple years after the games, he found a property that was called AN AMERICAN TAIL.
We had an idea that it was going to do well, but we had no idea how incredibly well it was going to do. It earned well over fifty million dollars on its first release, which was beyond anybody's expectations. It was an interesting time because our studio was leaving the U.S. to go to Dublin, Ireland. The week AN AMERICAN TAIL premiered here in the United States, we were packing and getting ready to go to Dublin. We really couldn't feel the whole impact or the excitement of what was happening here.
I got a little glimmer of it when I went to a Sears department store where they had a huge exhibit of nothing but Fievel dolls, posters, and objects from the movie. There were kids and mothers and tons of people who were buying these dolls and T-shirts and pajamas and pillow cases. I could hear people talking about the movie, about going back and seeing it again, and taking their friends. I was just wowed by all of this. So I had a feeling that we truly had a success.
AN AMERICAN TAIL was, I think, the first film that kind of gave animation a kick in the pants. No film had done that kind of box office business. It was breaking all previous animation records. I think it was the beginning of the animation renaissance. It had been a long time since an animated film had gone up there and done that kind of business in competition with all the great live action pictures.
After that, we began work in Ireland on our next feature, THE LAND BEFORE TIME, which was released in November, 1988. It, too, was very successful. Right now, it's hectic because I'm sort of like in the middle of air traffic control. We have one feature taking off called ROCK-A-DOODLE. We are in production on a movie called A TROLL IN CENTRAL PARK. And, we have three or four other properties lined up on the runway ready for take-off into production. We definitely have our hands full.

Q:What art schooling have you had?
JP: My formal art education was at the Art Center College of Design. I went there for two semesters. I was trying to get enough work to show an animation studio what I could do. I had planned and I had written letters to the California Institute of the Arts at the point when they were converting over from Chouniard to Cal Arts. What they wrote back was a turn-down of my portfolio simply because it was too real. They wanted more abstract art work in their applications. But I was accepted over at the Art Center. Maybe that was for the best.
Prior to that, I attended Riverside City College where I was in their art department for about two and a half years. Until then, my only art education was anything that I could do on my own, from age three to eighteen or nineteen. I was sculpting. Painting. Making marionettes, string puppets and hand puppets. Carving. Doing everything I could to find out what my best expression of art was. I knew it had something to do with my hands because I loved to draw and I loved to sculpt. But as far back as I can remember, I always got a thrill out of making inanimate objects move.
I remember seeing THE TIME MACHINE, H.G. Wells' novel made into a movie. And I went home and I duplicated the inside of a morlock's cave, sculpted the morlocks and moved them around in the setting. My subconscious was telling me something. Even though I liked to draw, something was coming up to surface that I really didn't know how to express, or how to harness, or address it, until I started working with puppets.
I was making a replica of the Pinocchio puppet and needed references. I wanted to make it look just like the puppet that was in the movie, because it had so much charm. I went to the library and told the librarian, "I need a reference on Pinocchio." She gave me a book called **The Art of Walt Disney** that was written back in 1943 by a man named Robert Feilds. He wrote it while they were working on FANTASIA, BAMBI and DUMBO.
I became less and less interested in making a marionette, and more and more interested in this book. I read it five times. I started to draw the figures. It was profusely illustrated with many drawings and many photographs. I started drawing Mickey Mouse. I started drawing Donald Duck and the dwarfs. I started finding out what cels were about and painting the backgrounds. I wanted to duplicate a cel set-up. And the way I did this was by taking the wrapper off a loaf of Roman Meal bread, because I didn't have cels. I didn't even know what they were. I took the wrapper, and with a brush, I outlined a drawing that I had done in paint. I then painted it on the same side, and put it against the painted background and framed it. (Laughs) I had no idea what I was doing, but all of these feelings were now really coming up to the surface strongly, and they were telling me animation. Go into animation.

Q: How did you finally break in?
JP: I thought perhaps if I wrote letters to the Disney Studio, they would encourage me and give me information as to how I could get admittance. So I started writing letters to the supervisor there in 1964. Later when I was finally working there, they showed me a two-foot stack of letters they had saved from this nut named John Pomeroy! I wrote every week. I wrote, "Please tell me about your Xerox processing." "Please tell me about what type of cardboard you do your illustrations and background art on." "Please tell me what kind of watercolor paint you use." "Please tell me which library and where I can get good books on animation."
I got lots of letters. One particular letter said, "Please, do not write us anymore unless you have something intelligent to ask us." The letters I got most often all say the same thing, "Thank you for your interest that prompted you into writing us. However, we are fully staffed for the 1965-66," onward, "years. However, it is encouraging to note that you are interested in animation. Best of luck." Blah-blah-blah. But I continued.
I had done some personal tests up to that point. If you look at my first test, it would be encouraging to anybody young or old who was just entering animation. My first test was horrible. As a matter of fact, I have it right up there [indicates a shelf]. It's in that little plastic bag. I keep it here to keep me humble. If I get too outrageously critical with any of the trainee animators with whom I'm working, I can always pull that out and look at where I was.

Q:What does an animator do?
JP: An animator brings life to an otherwise still or lifeless object. However, the object that he's bringing life to is all inside his head. He has to imagine a living, breathing personality, what it's going to do or how it's going to act, how it's going to move and entertain. And then realize that thought, analyze it and duplicate it graphically on paper in drawings that give you the illusion of movement. That's the rudimentary analytical explanation. Every animator has his or her own style or approach. It's like every actor who goes on stage; they all have their own little insights, their own little tools, their own little secrets that they usually don't share with anybody else, unless they have a protege.
What I do is get inside my head and imagine I'm seeing a screen. I'm imagining myself in a theater. Let's take a scene from the past on NIMH. I had an assignment with a character called the Great Owl. I had never animated an owl. I had never animated a bird in my life. Certainly, I had never animated anything so dignified as the voice of John Carradine, who voiced the owl. So what I had to do was visualize it in my head and then improve the visualization from my head with any good practical references, like live action footage of birds flying, of what it was like recording a voice like John Carradine. He had got quite a presence when you were in front of him. You didn't direct him. You simply asked him to do something, and what he gave you was it.
Remembering how he walked onto the stage left an impression on me that gave me the idea of how to animate this owl. It was a particular scene where he says, "It is night. I have to go." He walks out on the end of the limb of the tree, opens his wings, and lifts himself up into the night. John Carradine was wracked and riddled with arthritis. He could barely walk. He held a cigarette in the most impossible way, with his arm and hand scrunched. His bones were fused together. He could barely hold a cigarette and yet he was able to smoke. He walked with a limp in a sort of hunchback fashion.
At first, it was a sad-looking impression. Afterwards, after you put the man together with his physical appearance, suddenly he's very majestic in some strange, supernatural way. I wanted to put all of these qualities in this scene. The mechanical, physical of how he walked, and then trying to analyze that walk. I shot footage of myself mimicking that walk so I could get something that looked authentic, because there is a certain dramatic feeling that you want to put into the paper that you want the audience to feel. Yet, there are the basics of physics that it has to adhere to. It has to have weight. It has to have power. It has to look like there's flesh and bones beneath feathers. It can't move like a mechanical man made out of tin.
All of these intricate little details put flesh and bone into the scene and make it radiate off the screen and make it believable. There's one thing that animators are always thinking of, and that is the suspension of disbelief. In other words, you want the audience to sit before these painted images and forget that they're paint, forget that they're animated, forget that they're created on paper, and accept them as if they are real living beings. That's what I was hoping to do with this character. I put a lot of work into this one scene where he walked out on the limb. Constantly, all the way through the scene, I'm remembering John Carradine. He was a great influence on me animating that scene. The way he held his cigarette and the way he walked is what the Great Owl was.
When you animate a body, when you animate a fish or a cat or a dog or an owl, you want it to be different from anything else you've ever seen. You want to put your signature on the canvass. Yet you don't want people to see the brush strokes. You don't want to remind people that it's drawn. You want to say to them, "this really exists."

Q:Can you give me an example of a film that has good animation and a film that has bad animation?
JP: Badly animated films I always associate with a lot of the highly commercial types of film. A film that goes out there just to sell candy or books or games or product is a badly animated film.
I've seen one film that I don't much care for. It was a version of the book THE LAST UNICORN. I don't remember where it was done, but it was badly animated. They were cardboard, cut-out figures that radiated no life, that were flat, undimensional, uninspiring. It was a torture of an animated story to sit through for an hour and a half. That to me represents bad animation; taking all the shortcuts, putting no love into the product, using it as a commercial vehicle to sell merchandise, and not really taking full advantage of the story.
There are so many examples of good animation. One of my favorites is [Disney's] PETER PAN. On an esthetic level, it represents the very best. It represents the best of how they were able to make human characters move and how to make fantasy characters. The quality of the animation was some of their [Disney] finest. It was like they were stepping out of the early era of DUMBO and PINOCCHIO and they were entering into the more sophisticated worlds of SLEEPING BEAUTY and LADY AND THE TRAMP.
At that time they still retained all of their cartoony feelings and their cartoony aspects, of doing stretch and squash and doing impossible things with animation. Yet getting a beauty and a reality that had never existed before, and amalgamating the two feelings together.
One of my favorite animated characters was in the film, Captain Hook. Although he's a villain and he radiates evil, he also has many different levels. He's frightful. He's frightening. He's comedic. He's stupid. He's grand. He's imposing. He's sniveling. He's so many different things. He radiates so many different facets of his personality and they're all done and animated with extreme exactness. It's one of the characters that I keep referring to and which inspires me to do what I do simply because he's so real. And he reminds me of people whom I know. I don't think I can recall a character that, in animation, expresses moods and feelings as well as he does.

Q:What do you do as an animator on a day-to-day basis?
Well, if I'm wearing my producer's hat, Monday morning I have to come in and see how the work in progress is moving. Because of my responsibility, the production end, I am given a sum of money and I have to turn that into a product. I have only so much time in which to accomplish that. This means I am engaged in charts, reports, averages, figures, data day-to-day, every kind of report imaginable. Plus making sure that work is always flowing; that everyone has up-to-date information concerning the script, model sheets and dialogue. It's a huge task. I review the previous week and all the work that had to be done. All footages have to be counted Monday, before noon, so I try to get all footages out and then get everyone started on new footage coming in. It gets pretty hectic.
Then there's the animation hat. After the excitement dies down, maybe late in the evening, about six o'clock, I'll get inspired to animate a scene. Everyone's gone home. The kids are put to bed. And, I decide to go and raid the refrigerator of animation. What I'll do is I'll sit for a moment, for a long time, and try to visualize my scene. Hopefully, no one will disturb me, because, at least with me, the animation process is very fickle. You have to conceive of a thought before you animate it. You have to think about it and see what you are doing before you can put it down on paper. If someone disturbs that thought process...
It's sort of like being a pearl diver. Imagine yourself diving off the edge of the boat going down a hundred feet to look for a pearl. While you're looking for one someone wants you to come up to answer a question. They tug on your air line. You swim up a hundred feet, you take off your helmet and you say yes? "Did you want me to shine your shoes?" "No." Then you put on the helmet, you go back down a hundred feet, and you begin the process all over again. You can't remember where you last looked for that pearl, so you have to start all over again, looking constantly. Then somebody else tugs on your air line. You have to do the whole thing over again.
When someone interrupts my thoughts, it takes me about twenty minutes, even a day, to get back into thinking and feeling the impression, or getting the inspiration on how to animate a scene. But once I get that, I close the door, I answer no questions and I go into a time warp. I can look at the clock and it'll be maybe three in the afternoon. The next time I look at it, it may be nine or twelve. Sometimes it'll be two or three in the morning. But, activity happens. I can see the scene and I am hell bent to get it on paper.
I begin drawing graphic symbols as fast as I can. Throwing drawings out as fast as I can. Replacing them with new ones. And I'm not even really involved with the drawing. I could care less about what the drawing looks like. What I'm looking for is an impression that I can flip that looks like action, that looks like the life force is on the paper. Once I get that, then I can draw.
You become totally detached to time. You are totally oblivious to everything around you. My memory suffers. I can't remember things. All I'm doing is being in tune to creating this life force. And by the time the late hour rolls around, I'll have a stack of drawings in my hand that I can look at. And, hopefully, it is a living, breathing thing that's entertaining.

Q:How much freedom are you given on an average production?
JP: Well, you can do just about anything you want to, as long as it's entertaining and sells the idea and advances the story. I tell my animators to, "challenge me." If I give you an idea and concept of how this should be acted, you don't have to accept it. But I hope that whatever you do will either top or equal the idea I'm giving you.
If you go below that, then I'm going to impose my ideas on you to get that scene finished and get it completed, because I have to work as a producer, too. Once they know the parameters they have to work with, the amount of action, the mood of the scene, the footage and the acting, they can do just about anything they want. They have complete freedom to do whatever it takes to sell that idea. It's up to them.

Q:What are the favorite characters of yours that you animate? And why?
JP: I love to animate funny people and I really love to animate villains. Villains radiate this inner fire inside that most other characters in a movie don't share or don't have. They're moody, they're awesome, they're fearsome. Yet they're crying inside. They're also frightened. I have two favorite characters, and both of them are in our first feature, THE SECRET OF NIMH. I really enjoyed working on the characters Jenner and the Great Owl.
But, I've had an enjoyment that I never had before. It was on ALL DOGS GO TO HEAVEN. I got a sequence to animate that was recorded live with Dom Deluise and Burt Reynolds. It was a confrontation when they're arguing. It takes place towards the end of the picture. An animator rarely ever gets a dramatic showpiece to do; say six scenes in continuity, maybe a half a minute's worth of running animation that gets executed. That was really a juicy treat. It was probably one of the most tedious yet one of the most enjoyable pieces that I ever got to animate simply because I wanted it to work more than anything I ever wanted to work before.
Drama is a hard thing to put down graphically. Humor is easy. I can pinch my cheeks, I can scratch my face, I can make faces, I can mug, I can do takes. I can do all sorts of great graphic things that have been done before in animation that'll make you laugh. But drama is very, very difficult, because I'm trying to captivate an audience and have them buy into an emotion that they're going to discount right off the bat, because it's animation. You're supposed to make me laugh with animation. I can make you cry, maybe, and I can make you laugh. But to make you feel tension inside because of the situation existing between two companions, two characters that love each other and are in conflict, that is difficult.
I had a great track to work from. Very seldom do we ever get to put two actors in the room together and have them record live, without editing or cutting any tape back, lay it into the tracks, and then animate directly from that. That's rare. You seldom get to do that. But these two actors, Dom Deluise and Burt Reynolds, had worked so many times before, they knew each other's habits and chemistry. And they put the magic into the sound track. So taking that magic off the sound track and putting it in drawing form was an incredible challenge. I can't think of too many other areas where I was as enthused or as excited about animating.

Q:What was a character you didn't enjoy animating?
JP: I'm glad you asked that. If you would analyze what I said before -- villains being my favorite characters -- what do you think would be the one character that I would hate to animate? A saint.
One of the most boring assignments I ever got was Don asking me to animate St. Joseph in THE SMALL ONE. St. Joseph was a very, very nice man. But in animation, he was boring. All I could think of was that he radiated goodness and fatherliness. I couldn't understand where he was coming from. I couldn't get into the mode of imagining what he would think or feel. I couldn't get inside of his character. All I did was imagine. I animated a piece of waxwork on wheels that moved around and smiled. It was inane. It was not my favorite assignment.

Q:What project have you worked on that gave you the most professional satisfaction?
JP: As far as personal satisfaction in regards to esthetics, me personally as an artist and an animator, I have none I can think of. I've named some characters that I've really enjoyed working on, but as a total tapestry, when I look at all the works that I have done, I don't know which one gave me the most satisfaction. I wish I could.
Maybe that's because it's coming up. I'm enjoying working on our current picture, TROLL IN CENTRAL PARK, I think because I am thoroughly involved in the story, thoroughly involved in the characters, thoroughly involved in the animation, and probably more involved in different aspects of the picture and the production more so than any other picture I've ever been associated with.
Most of the time in the past, it's just been me and animation. Tunnel vision between me and the paper. This is giving me a chance to sort of spread my wings, so to speak, and get involved with a lot of areas that I've never been involved with. You can get involved with story and become involved with a character design and the animation, the color, everything through the final work print. I'm getting to see my ideas work on a wider range.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to get into the business today?
JP: It's a lot easier now than it was 20 years ago when I was trying to get in. There are more training programs. There are more school programs. There are more colleges that have animation classes. It's a hard thing to pinpoint the areas of artistic experience which one needs. Good drawing is first and foremost. Whether it's through figure drawing or drawing landscapes or whatever. To be able to quickly and convincingly put down your thoughts, graphically, so that they are understood by someone else. It's the language by which we all speak. If you can't draw, then you'll be eternally tongue tied. You have to be able to draw. Getting drawing experience, that's first. Stimulating your inside expression, or your inside ability to project entertainment that will cause sadness, happiness, love, tenderness is another thing that has to be developed. I'm trying to get our animators to get used to the idea of attending an acting class. The thought that animators are actors with pencils is not new. It's one that few people in the business understand or appreciate. You have to be able to act, then draw it. You have to be able to conceive the gestures, the words, the expressions and all of the movements that are going to make a performance happen on paper.

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