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The WBAA:
How was it that you got your foot in the door of the animation industry?

File written by Adobe Photoshop¨ 5.0Jon McClenahan:
I had always loved drawing, from the time I was about 3 or 4. My older brother Dave (7 years older than me) was quite a skilled artist with a terrific sense of humor, and took me under his wing at an early age and taught me how to draw (unfortunately he never taught me how to hold the pencil properly, and as a result I still hold it like a left-handed monkey to this day). However, as I got older and started thinking about a career, he warned me that art is not a reliable career and I needed to learn a good profession, like medicine. As ever, I took his advice and majored in chemistry in college, with a view toward switching my major to medicine later, if I could get a scholarship (financially, our family was not very well off, and the tradition was that we had to work our way through college).

However, while my grades were good, after interning at an emergency room in a local hospital, I discovered I had a significant aversion to the sight of blood. Realizing this could be a serious obstacle to a career in medicine, I dropped out of college, took a job driving a truck, and tried to figure out what to do with the rest of my life.

During this time, I married my high school sweetheart, Christine Turner, and before long we had a couple of kids. A friend of ours had been an Australian named Graham Barker, in the U.S. studying for the ministry at Moody Bible Institute and who had run a Christian club for high school students (back when we were in high school). We kept in touch and I had commented to him that I felt a little lost in the universe, not being particularly happy as a truck-driver delivering meat in the south side ghettos of Chicago. He suggested I come out to Australia and look around, maybe get into an art field - I asked Chris, and she was OK with the idea.

To make a long story short, when I went to Australia (in 1980), I was eventually able to land a job as an inbetweener at Sydney's Hanna-Barbera studio. Fortunately, credentials weren't important to them - they had a heavy workload, some serious deadlines, and were looking for just about anybody who could hold a pencil. So I got the job and moved my little family from Chicago down to Sydney. I felt extremely fortunate to be in an industry I enjoyed, making about the same money as I had as a truck-driver.


The WBAA:
How were you trained as an animator?

Jon McClenahan:
While a truck-driver in Chicago, I did take some weekend and night courses in art fundamentals and life drawing at the American Academy of Art. Learned some good stuff there.

But with regards to animation, I got the best possible training: on-the-job. The beauty of the TV animation industry was that quality was not a big deal, so there was plenty of opportunity to learn, even if you made some mistakes. Ambitious young guys like myself could learn at our own pace, as long as we did our work. I think I learned pretty quickly, because I was just eating, breathing, and crapping animation (much to the chagrine of my wife who more or less lost her husband in those early years). After about three months, they could see I had some potential, and "promoted" me (sideways) to the position of "fix-up artist" who basically made the easy fixes for the animation checking department (unless the problems were too extreme, this allowed the animators to keep cranking out footage without stopping them). Learning how to correct animation mistakes taught me a lot about the finer points of animation mechanics and techniques.

As our director spent most of the time at the corner pub, I was beginning to wonder how he would ever notice me enough to promote me to animator. So after six months as a "fix-up artist" I conned the production assistant into giving me a sequence to animate. I did the sequence, handed it in, and took another. Nobody stopped me thereafter, and the director never protested, so in a way, I just promoted myself.

Later, for a high-quality special we were producing, I was "demoted" to "clean-up artist." They rightly judged that this would, in effect, make me an apprentice, working under a skilled, experienced animator (his name was Gerry Grabner). I did learn a hell of a lot under him. After another six months I was officially promoted to animator.


The WBAA:
What was the state of animation when you first began working?

Jon McClenahan:
I would call it the closing years of" The Dark Ages." There was a lot of TV animation being done, and it was awful stuff. I worked on some of the most dismal cartoon series ever produced; crap like "Private Olive Oyl", "Laverne & Shirley in the Army", and "The Mork & Mindy Show" (Robin Williams' first foray into animation voice-over - he was terribly dull).

On the feature side, Disney was not doing much. Their films had been steadily deteriorating in quality. "The Black Cauldron" was their biggest effort in the '80's and it was a disaster. They also came out with "Tron" which featured some of the first computer animation ever. Don Bluth left Disney at this time and started his own studio, and due to the lackluster films Disney was making, all of us animators were pretty excited about a possible revitalization coming from that quarter.

The WBAA:
Why set up shop in Chicago?

Jon McClenahan:
I was born there. Like the song says, "My kind of town, Chicago is."

The WBAA:
Is there an origin story for the Startoons studios?

Jon McClenahan:
Hanna-Barbera Sydney closed its doors in 1987. By that time I had risen to the position of studio director (in late 1985). All this time in Australia, working happily in an industry I loved and making more money than I ever had, I wondered why this kind of opportunity wasn't available in the U.S. So when the studio shut down, I felt a little uneasy being out of work on the other side of the planet, so I moved back to Chicago. I got a job with a small studio there, but the animation business was so bad there I was having trouble getting a weekly paycheck out of my employer. I decided to try opening my own studio. Originally, I wanted to call it Hot Dog Animation, but my sister-in-law, whose maiden name was Starr, convinced me to give it a more marketable name ... like "StarToons." The rest is history. I contacted some people I knew in Los Angeles (like Bill Hanna, Kay Wright and Scott Shaw) to get some storyboard work. I slowly built up the studio from there.

Also, I remember while I was in Sydney, the Los Angeles animators' union (MPSCA Local 839) went on strike ... and basically it resulted in a bonanza for us and other overseas studios. Big studios like Hanna-Barbera and Ruby-Spears found it better to send the work overseas because the cost was still less, even after paying huge union penalties.

That taught me something. Because really, I was quite happy working in Sydney for non-union piecework rates, and I always wondered why we couldn't have such a situation in the U.S.


The WBAA:
How did business go?

Jon McClenahan:
We opened in October, 1988 and basically did about $9,000 worth of "business" (storyboards for H-B's "The Incredibly Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley.") I was StarToons' only paid employee and Chris went out and made the contacts for no pay (and she was working as a waitress as well as raising our four kids - an amazing woman). The next year we did about $75,000 and I had hired a full-time assistant. In 1990 I had met the WB producer of "Tiny Toons", Tom Ruegger (by accident in an elevator) and we really built the studio on our WB contracts that resulted from that. From those shaky beginnings the workload gradually built up to about $2.5 million by 1993, when we did the equivalent of 9 half hours of "Animaniacs".

The next year, however, WB decided to start its own network, and its contracts with Fox (for whom they did "Tiny Toons", "Taz-Mania", and "Animaniacs") were severed. They spent about a year trying to figure out what they were going to do ... and in the mean time, our bread-n-butter was gone. I had to lay off most of my staff, many of which were subsequently snapped up by hungry West Coast studios (guys like Spike Brandt, Tony Cervone, Kirk Tingblad, Mary Hanley, T.J. House, Jeff Siergey, Doug Ninneman ... hell, even Genndy Tartakovsky had worked for me as an assistant animator and was my Teacher's Assistant when I taught animation at Columbia College). Our income dropped to less than a mill.

That was a tough blow, losing all those talented people, and the next few years at StarToons (1994-95) were pretty dismal (half a mill one year, 3/4 mill the next). We stayed alive with a few commercials and industrial productions, as well as some pre-production work (although without my best guys,we didn't do a very good job).

File written by Adobe Photoshop¨ 5.0By 1996, we were on the rise again, and WB did a few more "Animaniacs" which helped us get our footing. In 1997 we inked a strategic alliance deal with Heart Animation Studio in Hyderabad, India. We agreed to teach them how to set up an animation academy and a studio, and they are still the best in India. 1997-99 were good years, around $1.5 million.

With the advent of the internet, a change of executive management in the big studios, and incredibly naive rumors that Flash animation was going to somehow replace normal TV animation (it never will), plus a huge change in the industry's financial paradigm, we hit the wall in the year 2000. Everybody was nervous about doing animation "the old way" and so they only contracted out to the absolute cheapest studios. The popularity of Japanese cartoons like "Pokemon" also hurt us, because since these series had already made their money in Japan, they could sell them to the U.S. market for very low prices, and so our networks (rightly) began to question the need for spending $500,000 per half hour for an American series when they could get an equally - or more - popular series from Japan for $50,000 per episode - or less. Thus, prices for animation dropped over 90%.

We had anticipated this and it was the reason we entered into the strategic alliance with the Indian studio. We felt that with low-cost,well-trained Indian labor, plus American quality, experience and know-how, we would still offer better production value. However, as India was pretty much an unknown quantity, and producers were nervous about production to begin with, we weren't able to score the contracts we needed.

Hence, StarToons went bust in August, 2001. It was a sad day in Chicago.

The WBAA:
What are your opinions on foreign labor?


Jon McClenahan:
Foreign studios can provide less expensive labor, and you can't ignore that in a labor-intensive industry like animation. But at the same time, Americans have a rich heritage in the entertainment industry. We live it, breathe it. Entertainment, along with midwestern agricultural crops, should be one of our nation's chief exports. Unfortunately due to cost alone, it's becoming just another import. In the mean time skilled American entertainment workers will have to either change industries (to what?) or emigrate to countries that can use their expertise.

I realize there has never been any love lost between Hollywood and Republicans, but I think the Bush administration needs to put that all aside and begin to offer protective legislation (in the form of tax breaks and/or penalties), or America will continue to lose its grip on worldwide industrial participation.


The WBAA:
In what ways does TV animation differ from feature animation?

Jon McClenahan:
Budgets are low and deadlines are crazy, so you have to learn a lot of tricks, your directors have to be pretty liberal, and the animators have to learn how to draw a good held cel that looks good even when it's not moving. Footage rates are low, so you learn how to crank it out. People always suggest that this system discourages quality, but interestingly the best animation tended to come from those who were also the fastest.

The WBAA:
Given the popularity of CGI-animation and the box office failures of traditionally animated features (not to mention the recent layoffs at Walt Disney Animation) what needs to change to save traditional animation?

Jon McClenahan:
We gotta get the idiots out of the power positions. 3D animation is cool, it has a new look, and it will find its level. Right now it's flavor of the month, but good 2D animation will make a comeback, like it did in the late '80's. We just need to get accountants, lawyers, and politicians out of the decision-making process.

The WBAA:
What were the biggest successes at Startoons?

Jon McClenahan:
Spielberg said that "Thirteen-Something" was the best episode of "Tiny Toons" he had ever seen. Our work on that and "Animaniacs" won WB a lot of Emmy Awards. I got one myself as a director on "Animaniacs" in 1997. My favorite Animaniacs character was Slappy Squirrel, and my favorite cartoon was "Bumbie's Mom" which was sort of like an animation thesis about cartoon violence. We got to do the opening titles for "Taz-Mania" which was nice. We also worked on the 50th Anniversary Road Runner cartoon ("Little Go-Beep"), directed by ex-StarTooner Spike Brandt and even though that cartoon has never been released, I was really happy with the stuff we did for it. I also did rough animation for "Marvin the Martian in 3D", where they used our 2D drawings to help the 3D guys do the computer animation. That looked pretty cool. Also, our Cartoon Network short, "Fat Cats" was a hell of a lot of fun and I was quite happy with it even though Cartoon Network never seemed interested in it afterwards. We worked for a few other studios and agencies, but I always enjoyed the WB work best.

I also feel like many of our alumni were success stories in and of themselves. All they needed to succeed was a chance to work in the industry, and they got it at StarToons.

The WBAA:
Biggest failures?

Jon McClenahan:
Our work on "Road Rovers" was pretty bad. Also, we worked on a few Christian-market direct-to-video productions and got royally screwed by parties who shall remain nameless. Can't talk too much about that, other than to say I hope the parties in question burn in hell.

The failure that really killed us was the "Arthur" movie which we were bidding on when we closed. I met Marc Brown (creator of "Arthur") and they liked the numbers we proposed to them, but they kept putting off the decision to make the movie. Finally, when the world was shaken by the events of September 11, [it never came together].

The WBAA:
What became of the pilot projects Startoons worked on?

File written by Adobe Photoshop¨ 5.0Jon McClenahan:
If you're talking about our own properties, only one of them was ever picked up, and that was "Fat Cats." We could never break through the deal-making barriers with any of the others, although I'm still quite proud of them - properties like "Up With The Chickens", "Tuna Sammich", "The Kitchen Sink Gang", "M-7" (a one-minute pilot for a Japanese cartoon to be produced in Chicago), and "The Neverland Gnomes". They were all pretty awesome in their own way, but they died with the studio.



The WBAA:
Describe the animation scene these days.

Jon McClenahan:
It can't get any worse, so I have to think somebody is going to figure out how to proceed and things will get better ... my guess is we should start to experience a significant upsurge in the biz within three years. If they ever get anyone with brains to make the decisions, the next Golden Age could come sooner than that.

The WBAA:
Why the heck are you in Germany?

Jon McClenahan:
Currently I am serving as Animation Director and Head of Studio at Munich Animation here in Germany, working on a film called "Jester Till". It's a sad state of affairs when the animation job market is so tight in the U.S., but I have to feed my kids, and the opportunities in Europe are much better than in the U.S.

The WBAA:
What are your future prospects?

Jon McClenahan:
God knows, but He ain't telling. There's talk about doing a series here at Munich Animation. I have big plans for this studio, but "the end crowns all, and that old common arbitrator, time, will one day end it".

Also, with the shutdown of StarToons, I've learned some hard lessons about planning for the future. Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owner except to feast his eyes on them?"

The WBAA:
Thanks for your time, and best of luck with future endeavors!

 

Image Sources:

Animaniacs screen shot: http://utenti.tripod.it/angelina/stylesiblings.html
Tiny Toons screen shot: http://www.angelcities.com/members/juliebunny/save-tta.html

Interview by Archie on April 29th, 2002