Saturday, July 16, 2011

Animondays Interview: John R. Dilworth, Part I

In 2001, I asked John R. Dilworth, one of the finest animation directors, creators, and filmmakers in the business, to sit down for an interview to be published in the ASIFA-East newsletter. John was finishing up a four-season run of his popular Cartoon Network series "Courage the Cowardly Dog," and had recently completed another indie masterpiece in his short film "The Mousochist."

I arrived at this interview well prepared with a list of questions and a tape recorder. But, in typical Dilworth fashion, he had plans of his own and told me to put away the questions so we could just chat one-on-one and have a real conversation. Although that momentarily threw me off, it turned out to be a great thing. The looser approach allowed us both to relax and gave me the freedom to explore any interesting tangents that came up. I got about 4 hours on tape, only half of which I managed to transcribe for the newsletter. I still plan to go back and type up the second half, so consider this part one of my interview with John from 2001...

An Oscar Nomination. One hundred and four eleven minute Courage The Cowardly Dog cartoons for the Cartoon Network. Numerous pilots for MTV Animation and Nickleodeon. Six (and counting) independent animated films. Yes, I'm talking about multi award winning animator, designer, writer, director, producer, creator, and founder and president of Stretch Films, John R. Dilworth! John took a few hours out of his busy schedule to talk about all the above. Enjoy!

DL: Was there a key film in your childhood that pushed you towards a future in animation?
JRD: So many things contribute to who we are as a person...I can't just narrow it and say "Oh, I saw Steam Boat Willie"...though, they should have kept making those little rat movies...they were fabulous...that guy was nasty...he would abuse animals but, at the same time he was cowering under that huge guy.

There was a moment. I was looking at an illustration I made and I wanted to see it move. That was it.

DL: Can you describe what the industry was like in NY when you started in 1985?
JRD: When you went to school it was at the right got out of school just when there was a boom in animation (1995), so you came out of school and had a job! Most of us in 1985 did not. I had to go into advertising for two years and I also worked in printing. Disney was recruiting at the time, but, they didn't take me. I gave them my portfolio like everyone else in the school, but I'm not a Disney artist.

DL: Can you shed some light on why you've made your career in NY and not somewhere else, like LA for instance?
JRD: I need this city. It's a cynical place. It's a skeptical place....I guess I'm tuned into that. Of course I've had my love affairs with LA. I've always gone there with short films to do post production. The thing I don't like is you need a car out there. Think about Richard Williams, he's walking down the street! You look at characters! They way they walk...everyday you're looking at people.

DL: Is this 'observation stuff' something you can turn off or is it always going?
JRD: I can't shut if off. You'd really have to be in an emotional state to miss it. You know when you're so're looking down and you're just moving forward. You just want to get home. I get down. Those are the moments I can't look. I can't observe. The funny thing is that we record everything...then we can use it later.

DL: What were your work experiences before founding stretch films?
JRD: I interned with Howard Beckerman. Howard is a generous man. I was always working through school...working for whatever producer for 10 or 15 dollars an hour. It was amassing experience. I was painting cells with Janet Scagnelli at Chelsea Animation, which was fabulous. That doesn't even exist anymore. All painting cells with gloves on their hands.

At this time I was mostly assisting. I helped Janet to finish a job she was doing with doing with an animator who had passed away, John Gaug....a very talented animator, and I filled in and helped finish the commercial. You learned right there. Responsibility and production and delivering deadlines and finding ways to get things done. All your limitations come out at the same time. Then I got to animate with Michael Sporn. I fell in love with Michael's whole process. His style, the looseness of it...the stories. Michael's ability to find unconventional ways to communicate through animation. I was able to work on several films for Michael. Everything else get out more, you go to talk to people, and slowly you get more jobs. You went to studios and showed them your mostly got rejected...or there wasn't any work for you and you just kept going. We used to do all nighters...those things seem to be prerequisites for developing in Animation. I remember (MTV's) Liquid Television being a good thing to do at the time. MTV gave me two opportunities, "Smart Talk With Raisin" and "Angry Cabaret". "Smart Talk With Raisin" was for Liquid Television...that was their last season. It was supposed to be a two-parter. I did the first part, but then MTV cancelled Liquid Television.

"Smart Talk with Raisin" (1993)

DL: So "Smart Talk With Raisin" was a pilot?
JRD: I don't know if it was a pilot, but that's interesting. All these shorts were used as pilots! But, you weren't aware of it. You were just doing shorts. You were never told you were doing pilots. It's naive of the filmmaker to think "no" but, you were never told that. You were just given a small amount to produce it. "Smart Talk With Raisin" was done with Colossal pictures in San Francisco. Angry Cabaret... I don't know if that worked really well.

"Angry Cabaret" (1994)

DL: Was "Angry Cabaret" a vehicle to wrap music videos around, like Beavis and Butt-head?
JRD: Of course! They already had the Beavis and Butt-head experience. They had covered the music videos. I thought, we can do other things like show live action footage in a certain strange montage and just have music over that. But different kinds of music. We had a video DJ. MTV found a fantastic video editor. Ultimately I didn't want to do the series because they wanted me to do it there (at MTV's studio). Which means I would be an employee. I couldn't deal with that so it was a deal-breaker...and that was that. There was Nickelodeon as well...I met Linda (Simensky) there. They did beautiful things. I had a pilot there.

DL: Sniz & Fondu?
JRD: Then it was called "Psyched For Snuppa"....Masako Kanayama worked on it. They wanted me to the series too. I couldn't do that. I wasn't at all attracted to working with the was just too much. Mo (Willems) got a chance. I don't know what happened. Then they did those little shorts on Kablam! The one thing that always helped me out was my own conviction that I enjoyed making my own films. So throughout all of that, I was always making a film.

Sniz and Fondue, in their later incarnation post-Dilworth's involvement.

DL: Were these films like expensive business cards for you?
JRD: I just needed to do them.. I also wanted to be famous. I fell in love with the independent filmmakers from the 70s and the 80s. I really believed in the art. I believed that animation was a special vehicle in which to communicate ideas...and I still do. You make films to learn how to make films. I don't know how to do them still! (laughs). When you're making a film you're not deliberately saying 'this is what I'm going to explore.' But, there are serious symbols––the plane in Noodles and Ned is about freedom and being able to overcome something. It's very much like live action, nothing is by accident. You have a very active role in what your doing.

"Noodles and Ned" (1996)

The problem in my animation is that it is too attached to my own life. Of my commercial work, the only thing that I can say that is close to my life in a personal way is my Courage series. In Courage I was able to explore a lot of themes....and we did it so rapidly! How many short films can you make? What an opportunity. Most of my films are semi-autobiographical. My films tend to be about human feelings.

DL: What about something like The Dirdy Birdy, which on the surface, appears more like slapstick?
JRD: The surface. That film was about " Why are we attracted to things that are harmful to us? Why do we get into relationships that are so dysfunctional?"

"The Dirdy Birdy" (1994)

DL: It was functional for the Birdy.
JRD: Isn't it sad that there are people that only feel love through abuse or harsh behavior? (laughs) It's the only way they know that they're loved. Cartoons are perfect vehicles to express these things.

DL: Coyote and Road Runner.
JRD: We're they in love with each other?

DL: What would either of them have done without the other?
JRD: I know what you mean. Dirdy Birdy really fell in love with this cat. It turned out to be a codependent situation. They found something in common, you see? And what happens?...the Birdy fucks it up! Then the whole things starts again! It's a repetitive damaging cycle...anyway, it was funny.

DL: How would you define humor? What makes something funny in a cartoon?
JRD: That's a funny question. I like that question. I don't know what makes people laugh. I think I just do it subconsciously. You have to have some self control. You can't just put anything in. I also do things and show people. You can give 3 different people the same thing and you'll get 3 different opinions...but, something about a certain opinion will ring true to you and I don't know why, but, you'll explore that. Animation is such a collaborative thing...even if you do it yourself you're still working with some sound man, a camera man..and some assistant, and you can't help but become influenced.

DL: Courage, for the most part, is a non-verbal character. Were there any concerns with this limiting Courage's role as a lead character?
JRD: In the original short, "The Chicken From Outer Space", the dog didn't speak at all. In fact, nobody spoke. In the series, I wanted to have the dog talk...and we tried it. If you see the first half of Season one, Courage does a lot more talking then in the whole series and it really was the Cartoon Network that encouraged me not to have the dog talk. We limited his talking to screams, babbling and whines...and it works. That was a great call. I couldn't help but agree that it was better. These are no ordinary executives, at Cartoon Network. You know, I worked with some executives that don't have a clue. These are sharp characters...they believe in the art, the cartoons. Linda (Simensky), Mike (Lazzo) & Jay (Bastian)...we're very lucky.

The Oscar-nominated "The Chicken From Outer Space" (1995)

DL: You've had Armies of Eggplant, Handsome Duck Gods, Twisted hair-cutting relatives...
JRD: Eggplants were about accepting people that are different from you. (laughs). We got absurd, but the idea was there. Remember in the end? They all got along! It was team work. They all benefited.

DL: What about Freaky Fred?
JRD: We just invented that. I was talking to my head writer and he was telling me that he loved poetry. He loved writing it. Rhyme. I said, OK, why don't we do a story where the whole thing takes place in rhyme? That created this freaky barber. That's one of my favorite shows, Dave. You're just quoting old season one shows! You know Barbara Jean (Kearney) right? Well...she's Barbara, Freaky Fred's lover, you know when he goes back and he shaves all her head. You see the Dirdy Birdy with those monster faces? That's me! I'm the farmer (in Courage). Why do you think that character's so easy? I'm that cruel, bitter resentful man. (laughs) You know what? There's a real Muriel in Scotland. She's slightly modeled after that woman and a little bit after a friend of mine.

DL: You write most of the shows, correct?
JRD: I would say, yeah. 90% start with me and then we work with the team. It's an unusual way to work because some don't physically write. They sit with us and we write verbally. Our head writer, David Steven Cohen, assembles it all from the meeting.

DL: The backgrounds on Courage are among its most attractive features. They really set it apart from any other cartoons on television. How did the semi-photo realistic and highly textured BG style evolve from the simpler water color BGs of the pilot?
JRD: It's like that in the pilot too. It just evolved. Its the same soft ware. Painter and Photoshop. Is painter still used? What happened to it? Margaret Frey did all the BGs on the pilot. It just took off. After Season one we just kept building on was a natural evolution. That department has fulfilled all of my's one of my favorite departments to spend time in. The color, backgrounds and props... We can't really get the dimension I'm looking for...It's like CGI, but there is something about CGI that I can't accept. I'm exploring that now. Now I'm doing my first CGI independent film. I am trying to get a sense of how my influence on the media could work or how I could express myself. Physically I can't do it. I have to rely on artists that do it. It's a whole other way of working. For the backgrounds, on Courage, I wanted to create a real sense of time. Dramatic lighting (laughs).

DL: What is the most enjoyable and rewarding part of the showmaking process for you?
JRD: We've been very lucky on Courage. We've mixed medias. We did one episode with CGI. A big experiment. Courage goes through a computer and he turns into a CGI Courage. He went through a portal, he can's that looking glass. That was great fun and the Network just went with it.

DL: It is a paranormal show.
JRD: Oh, right! (LAUGHS) That is true.

DL: Do you do any of the animation on Courage at your studio?
JRD: We did walks...for all the main characters and maybe 30% of the rest.

DL: How did your rich history working for others effect the way you set up your studio?
JRD: I don't know...I just did whatever felt natural. I'm not a business man. We deliver our shows, they look great, the clients are happy, and we have a great relationship with our client. You have to be comfortable. You're a servant to the schedule when doing a series.

DL: Is the business hat something you wear for a certain amount of time each day?
JRD: You don't ever take it off.

DL: Is that a role you wanted to end up in?
JRD: I don't think you ever know until its on top of you...and then you swim. You just keep swimming. The biggest crisis you encounter is 'What's your next project?' or 'How many artists are you going to have to lay off?'

DL: What, if anything, on air now do you consider your competition?
JRD: I like SpongeBob. It happens sort of naturally.

DL: Did the Oscar Nomination for "The Chicken From Outerspace" (1996) open any doors for you?
JRD: That was a hundred years ago.

DL: Nominations don't expire.
JRD: You should talk to Nick Park. He's got three...if he gets one more he can put up a table. In 1996 we had the greatest year. We went all over the place. We met with everybody. The nomination lets you make appointments to see people at Amblin, WB... whether or not they are going to green light any projects is another thing all together. But, you go with it...and I wore my space suit to every meeting! With my silver boots! It's great're in La La Land! Ha! Ha! But, we didn't get any money. Eventually we knew we were going to do Courage. We just didn't want to do it with Hanna-Barbera. We waited for them to close. You knew something was happening. It took two years...

We did a series for CTW and CN called Ace & Avery. It was for young audiences. Three and under...some crazy thing, right? I'd never done that before. Noodles and Ned were wanted for this series, but I would have had to give up the rights to the characters...and I couldn't do I created Ace and Avery for them, because you have to stay in business. Also, it was a funding thing, it pays for movies. They were experts in child development...looking at everything like designs, color, story...everything had to get approved not just by executives, but by specialists....and you couldn't argue with them. They were the PHDs. They knew about child development. How do we become these politicians where we can just accept and continue to work this way? Don't you resent it at Nick? Aren't there conflicts? Or do you just except that 'Blue's Clues is a children's program, these are the parameters in which I need to work'...that's the challenge and you do it?

DL: It's no different than someone working on your Courage. They all work within parameters and have to support your vision. There is a world and a standard to maintain.
JRD: That's a good point. I can see it...but, we don't have child specialists... We have different kinds of know, that tell us not to make a character's skin too brown or it might get the attention of somebody who's skin looks like that. It's alright...Why are we being babies about it? A professional just does what they're told.

DL: That's the commercial nature of the business. That's why we do independent films outside of that.
JRD: I think it's all ego. We don't like to be told what to do. We don't like to have our ideas challenged. We want to be able to express ourselves...I think its all infantilism.

DL: Your films tend to be told with mainly visual storytelling techniques with little to no dialogue. What can you say about that?
JRD: I just think I'm reticent. I enjoy dialogue...but, I never feel comfortable doing it myself. I can express more just through expression...but, I can't say that we can just do that in an 80 minute picture. That would be something! (laughs). Would anybody sit through it?

DL: As an animator, how do you avoid the cliche and still make the actions and emotions clear?
JRD: You just THINK, right? You went to the Richard Williams master class. I have to tell you, I miss having tutors and mentors. That whole concept of someone older passing something down, some wisdom, to someone younger.

DL: In Richard Williams' book he says that when animators get older, their timing slows down.
JRD: I'm 39 28, I wasn't even touching the timing that I think I'm capable off. But, then at 33, 34 and 35 I really felt comfortable timing and I felt comfortable doing the art. I'm not very good at it. It's good that I believe so much in the individual way of drawing. No one should draw like Rembrandt. You draw your way...and that is the best way ever. But, timing? When do you start seeing the world slower? Did The Mouscochist seem slow to you?

DL: No.
JRD: No. So I don't know when It slows down. Maybe at 60, maybe at 70? Right? But, we don't know... I'm only now getting through the Richard Williams book...and its been a long time since I've sought out a book of such use.

DL: What was your animation book when you were starting out?
JRD: I think the book that had the most influence would be Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston's "The Illusion Of Life".

DL: How does your work style on your independent work differ from the way you work on Courage...or is it different?
JRD: On independent films you give yourself a could be flexible to some degree but, if you don't give yourself a deadline you could work forever on something...

DL: Or never start it.
JRD: Or never start it. Good point. But it's hard to finish. You can start something, but how do you keep going? That's one thing I'm proud of. I can do that.

DL: Are there any plans to put a collection of John Dilworth shorts together for home video?
JRD: I don't know... I don't think I have that many that I actually own. I did a lot that were financed by others...Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network. I also have a few that are unwatchable. They would just be under the category of early work, immature work. And then, mature work, QUESTION MARK.

DL: Is there any larger metaphorical or personal meaning behind your new film, "The Mousochist?"
JRD: It was about being a jurist at Annecy (2001) and how repulsive I found the whole experience. We had some members that were very acrimonious to the films...and I felt that it wasn't a celebration of creation, but a celebration of who could defeat the next person. Individuals intended to destroy someone's work. I was opposed to that. I realize we're in a society where competition is vital...its the only real way discern between great art or meaningful art and mediocrity...and would we ever get a Michealango if he wasn't a competitive soul? But.... I'm opposed to this idea of competition is all we should live for..(Who is better than the next person). It (The Mousochist) came at certain crosswords...falling in love with this false illusion of being a jurist in a festival that was going to celebrate art and creativity and find the good things in these everyone an opportunity to have their work be seen...and it's about doing the series, and its about personal relationships. For me it's 'You went after the things that you could, that you desired,' and there you can have it.. But, the thing is, you lose your head! I mean...Why do you go after these things that you know will harm you?!! It's naive.

"The Mousochist" (2001)

DL: The Mouse in "The Mousochist" may appear to be ignoring the cheese by reading a newspaper or exercising...but, it's really on his mind the whole time.

JRD: Right. But, also it's about going against his nature. I mean, how could he avoid the cheese? If there's something you desire it's going to be pretty hard to walk away from it. Why do we do the things (that at least on some level) we know is going to bring us harm? In the end, he got his cheese. Psychologically, it's fulfilling. But, how do you get out of it? I doubt he'll ever attach to his body again...and even if he does, is he going to be the same mouse? I don't think I executed the picture well enough...I'm not certain that people know that the mouse knows that the cheese is attached to a mouse trap. I've failed in that regard.

The Mousochist, we did in an island in Croatia on the Adriatic Sea. I was there and no one spoke English. I was staying at this beautiful place but, I wasn't talking to anyone and no one could talk to me. Between breakfast and lunch I would animate and then after lunch when everyone else was taking a siesta I would do it again and then go to the beach. It was just fabulous. It just worked out. The drawings are this big (gestures a 6 field). John pulls out a box of index card size drawings from The Mousochist. Including the mini BG.

DL: Did you corner register all the drawings?
JRD: Yeah, that's what I did. J. Stuart Blackton. The drawings are just shy of a 6 field. I had this metal straight edge that I held the drawings against. By the second week, I could flip five of these drawings! Talk about needing to draw and make something. I actually feel pretty comfortable doing little tiny drawings.

DL: What other creative endeavors do you have going on that people know least about?
JRD: Don't you feel that our lives should be creative in everything we do? As best that we can do? I mean, do I knit, do I cook? Yeah I do those things. I transplant trees. I sculpt. I paint. I do what you can. But, I don't know what else I'd be doing if there wasn't animation. Being in the service of other human beings would be a high thing for me. If I couldn't draw anymore, I'd be in some humanitarian field.

DL: What is the next big challenge for you? Any interest in working in feature films?
JRD: There's many things. I want to do this short CGI film. I'm also going to work on a new short film, something more substantial. We're waiting to hear word on a new pilot for Cartoon Network. I'd like to start development on a Courage feature. But, we'll see, I have to go down and start meeting with that Power Puffs has come around. Courage would look fantastic as a feature, visually. I have a story. I just have to get the momentum. Courage is winding down now. By August or end of July we deliver our last show. Then I can focus more on the pilot and the feature. It's what I'd love to do. Then I also want to do an independent feature.

DL: A la Bill Plympton?
JRD: God! Is he not our hero?

DL: What does the "R" stand for in John R. Dilworth?
JRD: Rumplestilskin. Raamses. Reticent.

Courage the Cowardly Dog, season one, is available on DVD.


Michael Sporn said...

A really fine interview. The looseness really paid off. Great work Dave.

However there were a couple of editorial errors I feel obligated to note:
The animator who worked with Janet Scagnell is not "John Garb" but John Gaug. He was someone I met in Ottawa and brought down to Raggedy Ann as an assitant animator. He went on to animate for Richard Williams, then back in the US, I introduced him to Bob Blechman where he worked until he died. He was an enormous talent. A very technical animator but a gifted artist.

You also let spellcheck have too much power. A couple of glaring wrong words transcribed. Most notable is "excepting" when it should be "accepting" and "we're" when it should be "were".

Otherwise great work.

David B. Levy said...

Thanks, Michael. Very glad you enjoyed the interview. I'm excited to see what's on the other half of the tape, so expect that soon.

Thanks for the corrections too... I jumped in and fixed it up a bit.

Caresse said...

Awesome article, Dave! It's interesting to see this side of Dilly. I had no idea he was in Advertising and Print for 2 years first - I'm 1 year out of school and working in Advertising, so it makes me happy to see an idol did something similar.

Anyway, keep up these posts, they are gold mines of information!

Brett W. Thompson said...

So amazing!! I'm a big Dilly fan and have you to thank for my meeting him, Dave.