#26. A Conversation with John Sanford

JA: So let's start with your involvement in Walt Disney Pictures The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1996; you are credited as being involved in the story department, how did you become involved with Disney, this film, and what had you done before this project that got you hired?

JS: I attended CalArts in the Character Animation department from 1990 to 1993. At the end of every school year, the faculty chooses the best student films for a special show called the Producer’s Showcase. All the animation industry bigwigs are invited. Anyway, my film was in the 1993 show and caught the eye, or eyes, of then Disney directors Gary Trousedale and Kirk Wise who had just directed Beauty and the Beast and were crewing up for their new film, which happened to be Hunchback. They asked me to submit a portfolio and called me for an interview. They told me they liked the way I thought, and thought the way I drew was perfect for feature animation boarding. They hired me as a story trainee, and eventually promoted me to a full story artist. This was a great experience. I got to work with Will Finn for the first time, as he was Head of Story on the film. We became great friends.

JA: You would continue to work with Disney's Feature Animation department with the 1998 film Mulan; tell me about your memories working on the 36th Disney animated feature, the first to openly deal with warfare, and also the first Disney cartoon to feature an Asian heroine.

JS: Mulan was fun, but a real challenge. We knew we were dealing with war, but I don’t think we really worried about it too much. We used the war story as a backdrop for the story of this young girl who selflessly takes her father’s place in the army. This was the thing that I liked best about the film, and that, I think, has been largely overlooked. Mulan is not your standard Disney heroine. She is totally, and completely selfless. She is also flawed. She’s clumsy, she says dumb things, and looks messy in the morning. And she fights! She’s one of the most fully realized Disney characters ever, and it can all be credited to Chris Sanders who fought to make her an atypical three-dimensional character. Working with Chris was great. He has so much energy. He is truly an amazing talent, and totally inspiring. I was still very young and learned a lot from Chris about drawing, writing, and character.

One of the things that people probably don’t know is that it was a huge deal to have Mulan physically confront the villain, Shan-Yu. I remember the script has Mulan trick him in some girly way and then he tripped and fell in a giant fire pit. Yawn. Chris was scheduled to do this sequence and decided that he wanted to do something different than what was expected. We ran into each other in the late Tempo records in Valencia and started talking about the sequence. We talked about how cool it would be to have Mulan actually have to face this monster and even exchange a few blows with him. Then we somehow decided, right there in the record store; that Shan-yu should be blown to pieces and that Mulan should be responsible. You see, Chris and I have a huge pet peeve about animated movies and how the villain is dispatched: most of the time, the villain does himself in. For some namby-pamby, PC, “Free to be You and Me” mealy mouthed reason, people always think that if the hero does the villain in intentionally, it somehow detracts from his or her heroism. That is a load of garbage. If anything, having the villain die by his own hand weakens the hero for the obvious reasons. We fought long and hard to ensure that Mulan was the one responsible for ridding China of this heinous monster.

I really loved working on that movie. I got to work with some of the coolest people I’ve ever worked with like Chris, Chris Williams, Dean DeBlois, and Tim Hodge. I grew to love these guys and stayed friends with all of them to this day. I probably learned more working on Mulan than any other movie.

JA: In 2001 you became the artistic supervisor for the story department of Atlantis: The Lost Empire; this was the first Disney animated film to be given a PG rating by the MPAA, what were some of the challenges you faced as you took on more responsibility with Disney for this film, and how did the work you had done so far prepare you to take on directing?

JS: The head of story position varies from film to film. Some Heads do a lot of boarding, some just supervise the artists, while others get very involved in the writing. I was kind of an amalgam. I did quite a bit of boarding, but I also worked a lot with the other guys on the crew, jamming on ideas and things like that. I was also involved in polishing dialogue and working with the directors to solve story problems. More than ever, I had to try to keep the whole movie in my head, and was constantly trying to make sure all the other story artists were on the same page in terms of tone and character. After that, I thought “hmm, maybe I should try to get into directing.” The challenge was to convince management that I was ready.

JA: In 2004, you would write, direct, and even act in Disney's animated feature film, Home on the Range; this would be the 44th and final traditionally animated film project for Disney at the time, and yet another to obtain a PG rating. Tell me about pitching the original idea for the film being based on the myth of the Pied Piper, alongside writer and director Will Finn, and also about the challenges you faced having so much control over a major motion picture.

JS: Well, we didn’t pitch that idea. Home on the Range was a movie we were asked to direct after they had removed the original directors. The idea of three cows who become bounty hunters in order to save their farm from foreclosure was already in place when we took over, as well as the Pied Piper idea. Here is how Will and I got involved: In 1999, story on Atlantis was winding down, so I began thinking about what I’d do next., Don Hahn suggested that I try pitching my own idea to direct, kind of like the way Chris pitched Lilo and Stitch. Well, I always loved superheroes and decided I’d try to pitch a superhero movie. I had an idea that I kind of jammed with Sanders on, so I wrote a treatment and turned it into Leo Chu, who was vice president of development at Disney at the time.

Leo was super cool. He’s a comic book fan himself, so he gave me some great notes and guidance. We gave the revised treatment to then Feature Animation President, Tom Schumacher, and he liked it a lot. Tom told me to work up a beat board presentation, but cautioned me that they had a similar project up at Pixar (The Incredibles) and that I should try my best to my project away from theirs. This was difficult as all I knew about The Incredibles at that time was that it was about a family of superheroes, focusing on the Father, and that they were in a sort of witness protection program and that they lived in the suburbs. Well, I only had one hero, a girl, and was focusing on the relationship between the girl and her mother with the superhero story being a framing device, much the same way we used the war story in Mulan. I worked on the project for about 4 months. Man, that was fun. I got Jeff Ranjo and Joe Mosier to do rough character designs and got to work with Chris Williams for a few weeks to hammer out some structure issues. This whole time, I was working with Leo, who was great. I got to write and draw superheroes for four months at Disney, and got paid for it! Anyway, at the end of the four months, we made a big presentation to Tom and Pam Coats, the head of development. Tom said “This is great. I can’t believe how well you’ve thought this out. It’s got the right tone, it’s emotional, the relationships are fun. It’s great. Unfortunately, it is still too close to The Incredibles. This would be our 2004 release, and I cannot see releasing two superhero movies this similar in the same year.” Later, I’d see The Incredibles and see that he was right. There were story beats in both that were identical! Anyway, Tom liked it so much, he told me to go try again with a different idea.

I went back to my office and tried to come up with different feature ideas.

Meanwhile, they were having trouble with feature number 44, then titled Sweating Bullets, which was being directed by Mike Gabriel and Mike Giaimo. The film had been through countless iterations. It started as a sort of Captains Courageous in the old West where this rich kid learns how to be a cowboy, to the story of a little bull on a cattle drive who encounters a ghost town, to ultimately, the story of three cows trying to save their farm. They were still struggling just to get the movies up on reels. Management finally decided that Mike and Mike weren’t a good fit for the film, and so they had to be replaced. Will Finn had been working in story on the movie and was scheduled to be the supervising animator on Maggie. They went to Will and asked him to take over as director. When asked who he’d like as a co-director, Will suggested me. The rest, I believe you know.

This movie was challenging for a number of reasons. One, it was a musical, and I don’t like musicals. Never have, never will. The second is that I particularly struggled with the juvenile tone of the film. At this time, the studio felt that we should be aiming our films at very young children as a reaction to the relatively poor box office reception that Atlantis received. Now, I have always believed that when writing for animation, you should first write something that would amuse you and your friends. You see, the kids are there just because it’s animated. The tough thing is to hook the grown-ups. This is why the Warner Bros. cartoons endure to this day. They wrote those things to amuse themselves. Kids just happen to like them because they are animated, and they laugh at the slapstick. The adults laugh at the character interaction and the word play. This is not the way we were directed on HOtR. We were told to play to the little kids first and then the adults will come. Backwards!

We’d have screenings with the crew, and we’d have gags and jokes that got big laughs. Then, we’d have a screening for a bunch of school kids and the kids wouldn’t laugh, so we’d cut the jokes! Horribly frustrating! There is a lot of stuff in the movie I like, but for the most part, it bores the shit out of me. I can’t watch it. If it’s on cable, I turn the channel. We were also constantly at the mercy of these songs! Ugh! The cool thing about directing HOtR was that I got to work with Will again and that I got to meet and work with a lot of cool people.

JA: You would also direct the short A Dairy Tale for home video release, which would bring back many of the voice talents from the film; what are you favorite memories working for Walt Disney Feature Animation?

JS: Yeah, Dairy Tale was fun. They were planning to do a whole series of those, so we boarded a bunch that never got made. Sam Levine boarded one with the Willy brothers (Alameda Slim’s idiot nephews) where they are in jail and are telling their version of how they wound up in jail. You get to see the story from their point of view. It is only three minutes long, and is about a million times funnier and more entertaining than the movie. Will boarded one that was a parody of the Wise Little Hen with Audrey the Chicken that was also a lot of fun. I boarded one that was a parody of the Ugly Duckling. It was the story of the Duck on the farm. I made him a miniature Don Rickles, constantly insulting everyone. Everybody but management thought it was funny. Then the movie tanked, and they cancelled everything.

My favorite memories? Oh man, let’s see, I loved working on Mulan in Florida with the guys. Some of my favorite memories are from when we were on Atlantis, just working in the common area with the story crew on our sequences. That was a great time, hanging with Chris Ure, Kevin Harkey, Kirk and Gary. We had a lot of fun.

JA: Let's talk about your creation, Chippy & Loopus; where did the idea come from, and where do you see it going?

JS: Chippy and Loopus was an accident that was born of a lot of influences and circumstances. In June of 2005, I started working at Sony with an entirely new group of people. After 11 years of working at Disney, I found myself at a new company and thus free of the “Disney influence”. Friend and fellow story artist, Jeff Ranjo, started a blog called Story Boredom, and got a bunch of us involved, so I got into posting my artwork online for the first time, which was fun. At the same time, I started listening to both the Ricky Gervais Podcast, with Karl Pilkington, the most amazingly stupid person in the world, and The Howard Stern Show on Sirius, where Howard was completely uncensored for the first time. It was amazing to hear just how funny he and his crew could be when they could say anything they wanted to.

Then, one day, Jeff Ranjo drew a little comic strip on one of the little strips of paper that we usually use to write in dialogue on a story board, or used to use when we drew them on paper. He immediately posted in on the blog with an explanation of how he did it. He started by just drawing blank panels on the strip, and then just filling them in with images, making them up as he went. It was like improv on paper. I decided to try my own. I drew a panel, and then drew a little rabbit and a wolf in the panel and proceeded from there. When I got to panel four or five, I discovered I had a punch line that just happened to contain the f-bomb. I shrugged and filled it in. At that moment, fellow story artist Jack Hsu walked in to see what I was up to. I showed him the strip and he laughed.

“That’s genius!’ he exclaimed in his Jack Hsu-like way. “You think I should post this on the blog?” I asked. “Of course!” he said. Everyone else at work loved it too. Jeff Ranjo challenged me to draw one a day for a year, using the same method. I accepted. It was fun. It was a great way to exercise my brain and get out a little surplus creative energy. I continued to draw them on those little scaps of paper measuring 2”x8”. Eventually, I had to start my own blog and began to develop a little following. One of the things I tried to do with the strip is what Charles Schulz suggested, which was to begin with characters with no pre-concieved personalities and to let the personalities develop through the gags and the business, and that is exactly what I did. Slowly but surely, Chippy emerged as an ill-tempered but loyal scrapper with incredible strength and amazing fighting skills, Loopus developed into a character that is so remarkably stupid that you could probably categorize him as legally retarded. The other characters followed in a similar fashion.

I think I’m actually better known as "The Chippy and Loopus guy” than for Home on the Range, which is just fine with me. I was told that when I applied at Pixar, someone heard my name and said “Oh, isn’t that the guy who does Chippy and Loopus?” I think I was hired there almost purely based on my work on the strip. I’ve recently had to take a little hiatus from the strip due to some personal and professional issues, but I’m still writing and plan to bring the strip back soon on it’s own dedicated website.

I’ve been working hard to develop the strip into a full-fledged webcomic. I’m drawing them bigger, on nice paper and making an attempt to learn how to ink. The scribbly little drawings with the illegible lettering are gone. I’m trying to make it a feature that you can read and enjoy everyday with your coffee, just like PVP or Penny Arcade, and part of that is making it look like a legitimate comic strip. What will not change is the characters, which will continue to change and grow, and the tone of the humor and storytelling (ie yes, the characters will still swear like long shoremen). I did toy with the idea of toning down the language and submitting the strip to newspaper syndicates, but I looked at what Scott Kurtz and others were doing with web comics, and the editorial freedom they enjoyed and I thought, “Why not just stay on the internet and keep doing what I’m doing”. My focus is to put it on a site where you can more easily access the archives and eventually sell books and merchandise.

Why do I do it? I love comic strips, particularly old comic strips like Pogo, Popeye, Peanuts, Krazy Kat and Calvin and Hobbes. Comics used to not only be funny, but they used to tell stories at the same time. I haven’t seen a comic worth reading in the newspaper since Calvin and Hobbes ended. I’m basically drawing the comic strip I wish I could see. It’s fun, I have complete freedom, and to be honest, I hope to eventually make a little money with it. We’ll see. First, I have to get it going again!

JA: Do you have a favorite cartoon of all time?

JS: I have too many favorites to name. I love Magical Maestro by Tex Avery. There is also a Frank Tashlin Daffy cartoon, I always forget the name of. The one where he’s a little girl’s pet and the girl’s father is trying to get rid of him. What Makes Daffy Duck by Chuck Jones. Rubber Nipple Salesmen by John K. These are just the cartoons that keep popping into my head as I answer this question. Lambert the Sheepish Lion is good. I love the old Warner Cartoons, I love the old Tom and Jerry cartoons. Mostly old stuff.

JA: What originally inspired you to become an artist, and what does it take to make it in the entertainment industry as a working professional?

JS: I loved drawing as a little kid. I’d copy Peanuts, B.C., and Popeye. When I was 12, my Mom bought us a book called The Art of Professional Cartooning by Jack Sidebotham. That book inspired me. It was then that I decided I would be a cartoonist, and no one could talk me out of it. I was obsessed. Then I got the Preston Blair book and my fate was sealed. To make it in this business, I believe you must be a skilled artist, and you have to draw well, but you also have to have a point of view and a unique way of seeing things. However, you must also be ready to compromise. You must be flexible, amiable. You have to know when to stand up and fight for something, and when to compromise, and when you do fight, you must do so in the most diplomatic way possible. Diplomacy and tact are very important skills in this business.

JA: You also have worked for Pixar, and are also employed by Dreamworks; tell me about the work you have done for these companies.

JS: At Pixar, I was doing story boards, which in Pixar terms, means basically making incredibly articulated animatics with camera moves and tons of drawings. They practically animate the boards up there. You work on a Cintiq in Photoshop, and the average sequence has between 800 and 1200 drawings. You do very little writing as a story artist up there these days, you pretty much just stick to the script. You basically make lots of pretty drawings with perfect layouts in a ridiculously short amount of time. It used to be different, the story artists used to write more and contribute more ideas, but these days, the story artist at Pixar is just a technician. That’s okay, it’s just not my cup of tea, so I wound up leaving.

At Dreamworks, they are far less precious about the drawings. The story artists contribute business, dialogue, acting, and ideas. The story crew is a lot more involved in developing the story. The boards are just a tool to get the story right, very often drawn quickly, and just as easily thrown out in favor of a better idea. I love it here. There is a lot of exciting stuff going on here. People like to knock Dreamworks, but I feel the studio showed it’s true potential with Kung Fu Panda. There is a lot of incredible talent here. It’s an exciting place to work.

JA: If you had to sum up your career in one word, what would it be?

JS: Umm, I hate questions like this. I’ve had a lot of fun. Can I say “Fun”?