Em, I really enjoyed my time in Ireland and we accomplished some wonderful things. When I first went over there, I went over there without a job. I was going over to do some directing over there on the ‘Turtles’. I had a studio called the ‘Animation House Incorporated’ (to which Michael Lowry worked for me) out in Washington DC and I had done everything I could do in DC, so I was looking for new adventures so that’s how I got started thinking about Ireland.
I was going to go over there, to direct for six months and come back. I had some other teaching gigs planned so I couldn’t go straight away. But when it came time to go, the company lost their distribution contract and told us to hold on in the states. But we had sold our house and gave away our cars, so my wife and my three kids and I actually ended up going over there with just duffle bags.
We weren’t doing it for financial reasons, I mean the whole Ireland thing wasn’t a financial windfall for us, because when I first got there I was being paid as a second level teacher and when I moved to Dun Laoghaire, it was like a third level teacher, so it wasn’t like ‘oh my god, here’s an American on an American salary’, we were living on the Irish economy when we got there. We were doing it for the adventure and we thought it would be great for the kids to see the United States from the other side of the pond type thing.
So when we got over there, there was this fellow Dave Brain, who was working for the Disney programme in Dun Laoghaire at the time. Disney got a bit ancy because of the Gulf War and pulled out of Ireland. So we came over there, and I was talking to Dave (to which we had a mutual friend, June Foray, who was the voice of Rocky the flying squirrel). She told me that Dave was in Ireland, I gave Dave a call, and it must have been 2 o’clock in the morning in Ireland time, and he answered and said, I’m leaving in 3 weeks how would you like to come and replace me.
So we went over and Roisin Hogan, who was running the Dun Laoghaire programme, was on vacation and I wouldn’t have a job until she came back. We just thought we’d go over there for a month and if it doesn’t work out, then we’ve had this great vacation. Because we sold the house and everything, and had a bit of cash, we said ‘what the hey’. We were very much in our adventure stage to which we haven’t really gotten out of it since then.
As far as what we accomplished in Ireland, when I left the programme in Dun Laoghaire was going to be a filmmakers programme and I think that’s where Roisin Hogan wanted to take it. The one in Ballyfermot was really training people for the industry because of Don Bluth studios because Don Bluth needed so many people. He had a staff of over 300 so. I met Jerome Morrissey at the Annecy Animation Festival and it just happened, I told him I was looking for a job as I found out that I couldn’t get Dun Laoghaire, so it was do something else or go home. And we really wanted to stay in Ireland. So this other opening came up and I went up to coordinate on the Ballyfermot Course and when I left it was one of the top 3 courses in the world. Warner Bros said they would pick it as number one because of all the animation training and all the layout training. I think our big secret was we did a lot of life drawing.
I was teaching at a school here in the States and I left them a couple of weeks ago because they took life drawing out of their programme. They had some animation and layout drawing classes but they had no real drawing in the programme. So I said it was time to go from that school.
When you left Ireland, how did you come about to get work in Walt Disney and did you enjoy your time there?Em, yeah when I left, well, I only had to make one phone call to get the job. I knew it was time to come back and my kids were about to start high school and my dad had passed away. Even though I had two brothers and two sisters, four other siblings in the states, my mom really depended on me, or really wanted me back in the states. I felt like I really wanted to be back in the states even though my mother was west coast. I called Disney, I called Frank Gladstone and he basically said ‘where do you want to work?’. See, he had been over in Ireland and had seen the work and he knew what I could do. He said ‘do you want to work in LA, do you want to work in Paris or do you want to work in Orlando?’ I thought to myself ‘Paris, why didn’t ask me that years ago, that would’ve been great!’
He told me about the ‘Disney Institute’ and that they basically wanted someone like himself and I told him that ‘I was him’, someone who had an animation background and a teaching background. They were putting a resort together, and it was funny from a teaching stand point because you never knew who was going to walk in the door. It could be someone coming out of a theme park wanting to animate, or there where times where I would have a special class with 8 to 10 professionals coming in. So there was a really wide range, but luckily we had a diverse staff force to cover that.
You created the first Irish American Disney character, ‘Squash McStretch’, what was the inspiration to create him?I think it was kind of like a homage, after being in Ireland for 5 years, my kids grew up there. A lot of things that my kids did over there, where transported back over here. My sons an actor now, and he took his first acting classes over in Ireland. My daughter is a horse trainer and she started horse riding when she was in Ireland. And my other daughter is a great scholar and loves books and literature and loves all the Irish literature so it was just Ireland really affected them and the whole family. It was great. There wasn’t any character that was an Irish character in Disney and they needed a universal character for learning with at the Disney Institute, so what we did was we came up with a few designs and I designed Squash and we ended up using him in a lot of exercises and then ended up putting him on pins and then making jackets for the staff with him on them.
We started selling Cell Painting kits with him and people would make different series with him and people would come back looking for the next series with Squash on them so. It was going really cool with him. Originally I was going to use him for a gaming character in Ireland, there was a fella there ‘Steve Macken’, he was head of the digital programme and we were going to do some work together. I think it was just my little tribute to Ireland and my 5 years there. The only thing I wish I would’ve done was painting, I’m really into painting now, and I wish I could’ve started my painting back then, when I was over there.
A lot of the associations in Ireland that you worked for, have gotten a recent reputation for being less animation accomidating than in the past. In the early 90s, how easy or hard was it to get animation projects off their feet?
I had the idea for ‘animagic’ and Eina McHugh was really the one who put it together. I had gone up to the cinemagic festival in Belfast and also they sent me up to Derry to do workshops. And the people up in Derry were asking me ‘why are you here?’, and the people were lovely. I would come back and people would ask me ‘Whats it like up in Belfast?’ and I was thinking ‘what do you mean, its not that far away’. It was amazing to me that people had never been up the North and in Belfast. And there was a lot of misconceptions on both sides to what each other were like.So I had this idea and presented it to Drew Mauricey, who was head of Senior College Ballyfermot at that point, and to Eina McHugh who was head of the Northern Ireland Film Council. Enid put it together with Jerome, she got funding from the North, he got funding from the South and the project got started. It took about a year to put together and the same day the project was announced, the peace accord was also announced. And the peace held all the way through the project and the project ended in Decemeber and the peace broke that February.
We took all these kids from the south, and went up to the North and talked about everything, the problems, talked about animation and the animation was just an excuse to get them talking about social issues. So I said if everyone does 30seconds then we’ll be fine, we’ll have an 16 minute film. And we were really hoping the kids would do at least ten seconds of animation and we got back 30 seconds from everyone which we ended up having a 16 minute film about cultural aspects of Ireland. It was kind of like an ‘animajam’, where we took the last drawings off people and that was the next persons first drawing to start off their own sequence.
So when we came together to in a function room above a pub up the North (to which I found out later that there were two recent shootings in the pub) and when we put everything up on the walls we had this natural flow through everything. The project was great, its still the proudest thing, I’ve ever done, It was amazing because we had these kids who didn’t want to talk to each other and by the third day we had them jamming out ideas on how to solve conflicts together. They found out they were the same and had the same concerns as each other.
With the development in technology changing animation world wide, do you see any aspects or innovative ideas that animators and studios are going to have to adapt to in order to survive.
I like to look at Gobelin’s stuff because they have a great combination of 2d and 3d and look at their designs, they have great design. I think the Europeans do a better job at design styles and are of a higher quality in maybe being that little bit out there than just main stream western styles.I’m not a big motion capture guy, thinking about technology here, I know lots of people who use it. Richy Baneham was one of the kids who came out of Ballyfermot, I say kid but he’s a big time supervisor in animation doing Lord of the Rings and Narnia. Maybe I shouldn’t say this but the actor was brilliant but without the animator to go in there and put in the weight and exaggerate the performance and have all that. I personally haven’t moved over to CG and I don’t think you have to be jockey on a computer to be a director of animation.
I don’t think Brad Bird is up to date on his computers but if you go and see his films and they’re all CG but all the animation seems to be 2d based and he knows how to tell a story and uses 3d the exact same way it would be animated in 2d. And that’s what makes his films stand out. When I saw the animation in ‘Enchanted’ and it was only a few snippets from James Baxters ‘Enchanted’, it seems so life like and so wonderful. And I think because it was made by hand by humans that it touches a few of the heart strings when you look at it.
I probably sound like an old fart but there is something about that goes inside you and pulls something extraordinary out of the audience. Until I saw the animation of someone like Nick Park, I never thought that those indepth emotions could be attached to clay animation. But going back to the technology thing, I think if you have the basics right then you can adapt it and bring those skills into any medium. People can watch feature animations on their cell phones, someday people will be able to watch animations in their belly buttons for all I know and I think tutors and animators are just going to flow and adapt as long as they have the basics.
Going back to your teaching career, and Larry’s Toon Institute that you have set up over the internet, what was the initiative for you to begin that project?After the Disney Institute, in 1998, I decided I should have a website. As I started making it, it felt weird that I was just making a website for myself, so I thought because I’m a teacher and an animator I should put up some lessons as well. I started doing lessons and I guess the website became popular and I was fortunate enough at that time to talk to the folks at Animation World Network and in their interest they came to me and said they’d host the website if I would be a moderator on one of their forums.
I’ve been with them for like nine years now. So with the website, I just kept on putting down lessons and I think theres about a dozen lessons and then what came from that is a project called ‘animation fundamentals’ in collaberation with Digicell and myself. Its basically getting affordable lessons out there for the whole world to see. I know there’s thousands of people who pay 3 – 6 grand for tuition in animation. I just put down a number of lessons for 20 bucks each and within the lessons you get 2 or 3 videos and 4 or 5 handouts and then you can buy extra tuition with me. Like I get paid a thousand dollars every talk I do, but I’m not trying to do that here, I’m trying to get affordable lessons out there so that folks around the world can have the animation basics. I’m trying to start with Junior High and then get into High School and then College. And because there are so many people working with computers now I don’t want them to forget about the artistry behind animation and get the basics in them.
All I can say is they’re lovely and basic lessons that apply to everything in animation and also affordable so that my thing. So its http://digicelinc.com/