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Domestic Is Better: StarToons' Jon McClenahan Gets Interviewed

Star Farm LogoRecently I interviewed Jon McClenahan, the founder of StarToons, one of the few fully American animation studios of the 1990s. His studio’s work included Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain, Histeria!, and other smaller projects. Here’s what the talented animator, director, and former truck driver (yes, it’s true!) revealed.

Your name, age, current occupation

Jon McClenahan, 50, Animation Director, Star Farm Productions. (http://www.starfarmproductions.com/)

How did you get started in the animation industry? Did it require any special training at a college or did you just jump right in?

I did take some art courses at the American Academy of Art in Chicago, but what I liked about the animation industry (in Australia, when I started) was that no college “pedigree” was required, only the ability and willingness to do the required work. The courses I took, which were definitely helpful, were Life Drawing and Art Fundamentals (composition, color, perspective).

I got started by applying to Hanna-Barbera’s studio in Sydney Australia. They had so much work to do that they were willing to train on the job.

(For more details see Martian Invader’s interview.)

Did you have any jobs before starting StarToons? Were any of them useful for breaking into animation? What did it take for you to get your “foot in the door” of Hollywood, despite being based out of Chicago?

Before entering the animation industry, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I always loved the idea of animating but I didn’t think there were any realistic hopes of breaking into it. So out of high school, I figured I would be a doctor. I did a school internship at a local hospital emergency room, while taking appropriate college courses (chemistry, zoology, physiology), but soon realized I didn’t handle wounds and blood too well. So then I dropped out of college and took odd jobs. I was a janitor at an old folks’ home for about a year, then did truck deliveries for a pottery warehouse for a year or so, and then was a meat truck driver/salesman for about four years.

Originally I had no intention of starting my own studio. It’s much easier to simply work for a company. But when I got back to Chicago (from Sydney, Australia), I needed a job fast, and worked for a year at a small local studio before realizing that there just weren’t really any viable studios in Chicago.

Luckily while in Australia I had met Bill Hanna, who would come out to Sydney about once a year. He was really a likeable, personable guy and was very willing to help and teach. When I decided to start my own studio, I called him and he put me in touch with the right people. Whenever I traveled to LA, Bill Hanna’s office was home base for me. His secretary Ginger was a very nice lady, and they were always very accommodating. I was very much blessed in that way.

Tiny Toon AdventuresWhen you began working on Tiny Toons, your studio animated specific sections that were farmed out from Kennedy Cartoons, another studio. Was there a lot of communication about what they specifically wanted from a scene, or was it mostly independent work?

No actually, we were given very little direction. Alan Kennedy (Glen’s brother) organized the work and sent it out to us, and we never knew what we were getting. They always sent storyboards so we could understand the context of the action, plus the necessary voice tapes and models, but we were then expected to know what to do and how to execute. That’s kind of the way it has to be with TV series work. The deadlines are so crazy and the budgets are so low that special care was taken to make everything more or less self-explanatory.

This is one reason why I always loved working on TV series. It allowed for a lot of creative interpretation. When you work on commercials, it gets nitpicked to death because the client is always paying a lot of money for the spots. And with feature films, the pace is slower so it needs the careful, meticulous guidance of a director. But with TV shows, the productions are faster-paced and thus the animator gets more input. If you can’t trust your animator to execute within a certain range, you’re screwed. So you have to trust him.

And Kennedy trusted me.

What made Warner Bros. decide to start using StarToons as an animation studio in 1991? Did it have something to do with WB dropping Kennedy Cartoons?

Yes. I never wanted to go around Kennedy – that wouldn’t be right. But when Ruegger and Kennedy had a falling out, I went directly to LA to meet with Warner Bros. There, by happy accident, I met Tom Ruegger in an elevator. We spoke about what I had done for Kennedy Cartoons, and he was familiar with those sequences and liked them.

He tested us first with short animated endings for the credits. We passed the test, and so our first half-hour was “Henny Youngman Day.”

Again, you can catch more details in the other interview (same link).

Roughly how many people did you have on staff at StarToons when it was open?

Originally it was my wife (unpaid), a part-time secretary, a freelance inbetweener, and me. Later we grew to four full-timers and stayed that way for about a year. When we got the first WB episode, we grew to 17.

Then when Animaniacs started, we grew to 39. That was around 1993. That was the most we ever had.

Did StarToons have a philosophy about how the animation should look? For example, I know that Kennedy Cartoons was heavily influenced in Bob Clampett, and Tokyo Movie Shinsa was into large amounts of inbetween animation and detail, especially for TV series’.

I don’t know that TMS used more inbetweens than anybody else. Their animators were good and professional. More inbetweens usually just slows down a motion, and their motion wasn’t particularly slow.

I always tried to stress (in my work and in my other animators’ work) good strong poses, and proper contrast of emotions. To be sure that the audience sees the difference between a tired character and an energized character, between a bored character and an excited character, between a happy character and a frustrated character. To not move characters around for the sake of moving them, to move them with purpose. Then, find good strong poses they can work from! It takes a little longer to make a good pose better, but when you do, you don’t have to move the characters’ bodies as much, so you save work in the long run.

I was always concerned with ‘bang for buck.’ I didn’t see the point of struggling with a lot of movement if it wasn’t really going to help move the cartoon forward.

AnimaniacsWhat did a typical schedule look like for producing a short for Tiny Toons or Animaniacs? (i.e. how long did it take to complete an episode or short and what steps were involved?)

From storyboard to finished work print, average (for us) was about sixteen weeks – almost four months. Overlapping the production cycles, that meant we could do about ten half-hour cartoons a year.

What’s the easiest part of the animation process for you?

For me the easiest part was timing (“slugging”) a show. Bill Hanna taught me to time it according to musical rhythm. Whereas many directors took four days to a week to time a show (trying to account for each frame), I was able to achieve better timing using the “rhythm method,” and it only took me about eight hours to time a half-hour show.

How about the hardest part?

The hardest part is undoubtedly inbetweening. It requires you to keep the spirit of the animators’ rough key drawings, but apply a good, slick, and PRECISE pencil line to the paper. It requires such steady, controlled activity from the various hand muscles that beginners always get hand cramps the first few days. You’d see the poor bastards massaging their hands and complaining about “Carpal Tunnel Syndrome” or whatnot, but inevitably after working at it for a week, the pains go away. It’s basically like giving your hand muscles an intense workout. So you take some Advil and keep working.

What about the most fun part of animation for you?

The most fun (for me) was always animating. Planning out actions with confidence and then seeing your work come to life. It always helps to have a good script and a good voice delivery. But assuming those, animation was a joy!

Who have been your major animation influences and why?

Without consciously knowing it, Chuck Jones’ cartoons were the ones that influenced my style the most. That said, I always enjoyed doing a nice Tex Avery take wherever appropriate! Back in the early 90’s at Warner Bros, there was kind of a rivalry between the Clampett fans and the Jones fans and the Avery devotees. I always liked Avery’s style although he wasn’t very ‘deep’. I often found Clampett’s cartoons annoying, but generally still fun. But Chuck Jones’ work really did it for me. His stuff got weird in the early 60’s onward. But back in the 50’s, I don’t think there was a better animation director. His work always made you believe there was something going on between the ears of the characters. He helped you to get to know the characters, and get to LIKE the characters too.

What were the biggest challenges with running an American animation studio when so much work is being sent overseas? How do you see the situation of completely domestic animation developing in the coming years?

Reviving the American animation is going to require one or both of two things: either laws to protect American jobs, or TV/film executives take their heads out of their asses and let animators do what they’re good at.

New legislation, I think, to protect American workers, could work… but you have to be careful, because you don’t want America to turn into a socialist country. Free trade is a good thing. But animation is a labor-intense business, and American labor is the most expensive in the world. What most people fail to take into account is the American animators’ inborn cultural understanding, which can add so much more to their work than an equally talented Asian animator.

But most importantly, TV execs have become too important for their own good. They become ‘experts’ and love telling animators how to do their work. It justifies their position. Somehow, their positions need to be reevaluated… which will allow artists be more creative.

Unfortunately, they have guaranteed their own survival, at the expense of the artists’. It’s only short-term thinking, though. Eventually they will run the industry into the ground, and then future animators will have the opportunity of bringing it back to life.

Edgar and Ellen, a Star Farms ProductionWhat factors contributed to the unfortunate demise of StarToons? If you could do it all over again, would you do anything differently so that the closing might not happen?

I really don’t know what I could have done, myself. StarToons was always run on a shoestring. We never had a lot of money to work with. We literally built the studio from the ground up, with no investors. Maybe I needed a wider network of rich, influential friends, but I’m not the kind of person who could make friends just for financial gain. For instance, Tom Ruegger and I are still good buddies and our friendship helped StarToons significantly, but that friendship evolved out of our business relationship, not vice versa.

Remember, when StarToons went down, it wasn’t alone. Many studios bit the dust during those years in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

The fact is, I did not study business as a major, and a strong business plan might have saved us. However, I was/am an artist and not a businessman.

The studio I’m working for now—Star Farm Productions—has a terrific business plan. I think I’m going to enjoy working for them. They have followed a very logical, very sound plan to achieve their success. It didn’t start with animation, it started with a plan. In today’s world, it’s very hard for American artists to do what Walt Disney or Walter Lantz or Max Fleischer did, i.e. start a successful artist-driven animation studio. I wish the world was different, but since it is what it is, I just need to find my niche.

Who was your favorite cartoon character to draw and animate for the WB shows?

I enjoyed Slappy Squirrel’s personality—kindred spirits, I guess.

But I really enjoyed animating Babs Bunny.

Favorite episode or short you ever worked on, whether it be TTA, Animaniacs, P&TB, or other?

TTA: “Thirteensomething”

Animaniacs: “Bumbie’s Mom”

Feature: “Footrot Flats – The Dog’s Tale”

Were there any shorts or episodes that gave you at StarToons trouble, whether it be tons of retakes or timing issues, or censorship from WB or whatever?

WB was our biggest client, and because their people knew animation, they didn’t generally give us much trouble. We spoke the same language. I do recall in one episode of Histeria where series director Bob Doucette, who wasn’t really an animator, made us change a storyboard sequence despite my protests. It involved one of the opening shots in the cartoon where DaVinci and Michelangelo are fighting it out for best heavyweight artist of the Renaissance, and two huge marble blocks are to be lowered into the ring. I had the blocks drop into frame quickly (to accentuate their weight) from a high angle looking down, but Bob insisted on doing it from a low angle looking up, and having the blocks lower very slowly, and pan with them as they are lowered from the ceiling. Now that would be great if we were working in Maya, because these blocks had this marble texture on them and they had to change size and perspective, and because it’s panning, it has to be done on single frames instead of double frames, to avoid strobing, which (alone) meant twice as many drawings, and then the fact that they had to move slowly meant ten times as many drawings, and then the fact that all these drawings would look terrible because the marble texture would be crawling all over the place … anyway we gave it to him the way he wanted it, and it made him happy, no matter how bad it looked, and in the end the customer is always right. Except when they’re wrong.

We also did some work for TLC Entertainment who did the McGee & Me video series and some other direct-to-video releases. Because they were “creative” but not animators, they were a challenge to work with. The Crippled Lamb comes to mind. They kept wanting it to be like Prince of Egypt but had an animation production budget of just over $200,000 (about $10,000/minute), whereas Prince of Egypt cost about $700,000/minute… in other words, one minute of Prince of Egypt cost three times more than the entire cost of The Crippled Lamb. This didn’t seem to make much difference to them, they kept pushing for that kind of visual quality, and as a result, [i]The Crippled Lamb[i/] was a terrible drain for the studio. And frankly I was not happy with the end result. When you have a budget like that, you need to concentrate on proper stylization of the art, not more bells and whistles. And it didn’t matter that I had years of experience behind me, they wouldn’t hear any of my arguments. As a result I turned the project over to another director in the studio, and started working on commercials to try and keep the studio afloat.

Then there was Tommy Nelson Publishing which released a series of videos called Little Dogs on the Prairie. We finished our first video and I was pretty proud of the ‘take-one’ version… when I reviewed it I found about 5% of the shots needed fixing. Those would normally be called “reshoots,” when the studio fails to execute a shot properly for whatever reasons—most of the time (with us) it would be paint errors, but occasionally you’d get a few animation errors or inbetweening errors or camera errors and the studio is expected to fix those for free (and rightly so). But when Tommy Nelson’s people started to review it, they started coming up with a long list of what I call “wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if” reshoots. These are not really reshoots but creative revisions. Like if the client has approved a character’s color model where he’s wearing a blue shirt, and we paint it blue on 5,000 cels and then show the finished product to the client, and suddenly the client says, “Wouldn’t it be cool if he was wearing a red shirt?” To which my answer is, “It would’ve been even cooler if you approved the color model with a red shirt, because now we’ve painted his shirt blue on 5,000 cels and you’re going to have to pay us an additional fee to paint those 5,000 cels over with a red shirt.” That’s when they usually decide it isn’t really that cool of an idea. Same as when a storyboard depicts a character chopping down a tree in a shot, and they approve the storyboard and you animate it and then they look at it and say, “Wouldn’t it be cool if he chopped down a telephone pole instead?” Then I say, “No, what would really be cool is if you decide WHAT you want chopped down BEFORE we animate it, because now it’s going to cost you extra to reanimate it with a telephone pole instead of a tree.”

So I tell all this to the Tommy Nelson guy, and he says, “Oh come on, I heard 25% reshoots is standard!” I said, “Well, it is, with MOST studios, because most studios aren’t as meticulous as we are. Now if you can show me how we failed to properly execute the plan, we’ll be happy to fix it, but we cannot make new cartoons to suit all new ideas for free.”

This sort of crap is why I’m glad just to be an employee again.

If you could give advice to animation enthusiasts who want to break into the field, what would it be?

Make sure you have a Plan B. Right now the whole global economy thing makes it hard for Americans to get labor jobs. Animation is a labor-intensive industry and American labor is considered too expensive. Sad but true.

Because 2D animation has been legally declared dead by most Hollywood execs, nobody is really teaching it much any more. Vancouver Film School, Cal Arts, and Sheridan College (Toronto) were the best schools ten years ago, but those schools have more or less abandoned their 2D programs. There’s a very good school in Denmark, the Viborg Animation Workshop, but you need to be a member of the EU to take advantage of that school.

Personally I never thought there any better way to learn animation than by being in a studio. Entry-level jobs like cel-painting and inbetweening were available, and you could learn so much just by working with good animators’ drawings, but frankly those opportunities don’t exist any more. Hopefully another big 2D studio will pop up. There’s speculation that Pixar might do it!

In the mean time, life drawing is important, so if you can get a good life drawing instructor, that’s great. Practice sketching, experiment, have fun. Draw, draw, draw.

Final question: Ever meet Steven Spielberg? If so, what was he like?

Never did meet him. My wife did, and got her picture taken with him. She used to do a lot of the legwork for me, God bless her! Apparently Spielberg thought that “thirteensomething” was his favorite episode of Tiny Toons, and asked that WB pass their congratulations on to me, which was nice. But I have no idea what he’s like as a person.

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