INTRODUCING JOHN POMEROY...
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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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