#33. A Conversation with Tom Sito

JA: So let's start with your work as an assistant animator on the 1977 animated feature, Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure; how did you become involved in this production with director Richard Williams, who you would later work with again, and what are your memories of being involved on this film?

TS: I was completing my degree at the School of Visual Arts in NYC, but then this opportunity arose- Dick Williams, Academy Award winning director in New York, with all the money of IT&T, and using some of the greatest animators outside of Disney! It was too good to pass up. I took a sabbatical and started as night shift ink & paint. Raggedy Ann & Andy were painted with bold polka dots and plaids- red, white, and blue colors. Every night going home on the subway, I could still see the colored polka dots dancing around the inside of my eyes while I tried to sleep. I rose to inbetweener, then assistant. First in a room called The Taffy Pit, that focused on Emery Hawkins Greedy Monster, then on other sections of Andy Song and the Captain. For us young artists it was like going to Willie Wonka’s with a gold ticket! We had animation lessons and advice from all the top pros. Here I was at age 19, assisting a Grim Natwick scene, he was 87 then! The man who taught Chuck Jones and Marc Davis how to animate. I was in heaven!

JA: You also worked in television animation as a storyboard artist on shows like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, and Ghostbusters- in fact, you directed seven episodes of Ghostbusters. Tell me about your time spent in television animation, and what cartoons did you love as a child that inspired you to become an artist?

TS: In 1983, Hollywood animation had suffered a strike, a recession and high profile disappointments like The Black Cauldron. But the TV end was booming with syndication and toy tie-in shows. I segued into storyboards to do He-Man and Ghostbusters. I had learned to work fast on a deadline while doing commercials. There is a certain art to learn about how to make a show on a budget be entertaining. How to re-use old scenes and use cutting to make up for the lack of animation. I had one show about a circus coming to Eternia, so I took this stock scene of He Man, hands on hips, throwing his head back in laughter. I reused and reused it to the point of being obnoxious! There’s a certain perverse delight in making junk food that you know everyone will love anyway.

When I was a child I grew up in front of the TV. A classic tube-child the sociologists all warned us about. I loved Quick Draw McGraw, Auggie Doggie, Snooper & Blabb, and of course, all the Looney Tunes on TV. Yet, to the dismay of Child Psychologists and parents pressure groups, I still grew up to enjoy good books, grand opera, and can quote some Latin and Shakespeare. So, to all those children’s censorship advocates- KAABONNGGG!

JA: In 1988 you went to work as an animator for Richard Williams once again, this time for Who Framed Roger Rabbit; tell me about the work you did for this picture, what it was like being involved in the production as an animator, and what you thought about the final result of the film.

TS: Like Ann, Roger Rabbit was another time when all the wandering clans of animation gypsies gathered for what we see was a momentous project. This time it was in London, and the crew was like the Foreign Legion- Italians, Irish, Canadians, French mixed in with the British and Hollywood animators. Folks liked my New York accent because I sounded like Kojack, who was very popular on European TV then. We all became very close and hung out in the neighborhood pubs in our crew jackets, like some rival gang. We all worked extremely hard, even key animators like Andreas Deja and Simon Wells would not be above grabbing other people’s inbetween work to finish. We all wanted to see it be a hit, and we felt pride when it became the box office sensation of that year.

JA: You would animate yet another Roger Rabbit short, this time under the direction of Rob Minkoff, for Tummy Trouble in 1989; what was it like working for Rob Minkoff, and also, do you have a favorite animated short of all time?

TS: It was a chance to do some Roger Rabbit again. We always hoped we could do more with the character, he was so much fun to draw. Mark Kausler and Joe Ranft providing gags, and Rob himself was a very good animator. On Mermaid he had done some key early Ursula scenes before becoming a director. It was a great experience.

JA: You became a character animator for The Little Mermaid in 1989, under the direction of Ron Clements and John Musker; this was a big time for animation, especially at Disney- what was it like to be in the studio as an animator during this time, and what work did you do for this film?

TS: It was very exciting. Legend has it, that somewhere in the bowels of the Disney archives there was a yellow memo from Walt listing the stories that they should never make into films. Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast top the list.

Some of the more traditionally-mined Disney artists were still trying to figure out the "Jeffrey Katzenberg" regime and all the Broadway stage production people he brought in to fill out staff ranks. We wondered if there were rehearsal halls back on 52nd & 10th Ave. with confused dancers not knowing their schedules, because all their production people were in Burbank. But the Roy Disney, Wells, Eisner, Katzenberg team breathed a new dynamism into Feature Animation. Getting the team of Ashman & Menken to write the songs was inspired. Howard Ashman had a beautiful writing style to lyrics that didn’t stop the flow of the plot, yet remained poetic. And Duncan, Andreas, Mark Henn and Glen turned out such great work. No offense to the cleanup department, but I enjoyed the rough animation almost more than the finished look. It was fun to go to dailys.

JA: After animating The Prince and the Pauper, you are credited with character animator for Beast on the 1991 film, Beauty and the Beast; tell me about your work for this picture, and the responsibilities of being involved in bringing a main character to life for the big screen.

TS: I was on Beauty & the Beast with the early crew assembling research in France and London with Richard Perdum, then as an animator under Glen on the Beast. I remember watching Glen go through various designs, mingling man and animal. He just didn’t want a man with a dog nose, as had been done in some earlier live action versions. He tried a boar, buffalo, mandrill, wolf, then slowly started to blend elements of them together. He wanted the Beast's legs to be that of the hind legs of a quadruped, so again it could not possibly be a human in a mask. One of Glen’s animators, Bruce Johnson, used prosthetic legs since childhood. So for Halloween that year he had a set of Beasts legs made of high-grade aluminum in an aircraft machine shop. That Halloween he went as the Beast! Amazing looking.

Also there was a lot of preliminary characters done who didn’t make the final- at one time Belle had a cat, an evil stepmother, and a kid sister named Clarice. There was the music box that answered your questions with pop tunes, and footstool that acted like a dog. They remained in a bunch of scenes, meanwhile Chip emerged from the back ground to become a major character. It’s the reason why good animated films take years to develop, then months to create. The montage of Belle and the Beast learning to love one another (Something There), was a particular challenge.

JA: You would again work on a main character for another Disney animated film, 1992's Aladdin; you are credited with animating the Genie, tell me about the challenges you faced bringing a character like this one to life, and also about your thoughts on Disney's animation, and process, during this period.

TS: After Beast, I helped Eric Goldberg, my old friend from Raggedy Days, to animate the Genie. Eric and Duncan Marjoribanks had some very strong ideas about the film not being as the other Disney musicals had been, but this one would be more broad, based on Al Hirshfeld’s flowing design sense. Some purists sniffed that it was more like a Warner Cartoon than a Disney one, but the success speaks to it’s wisdom. Howard Ashman had died young, and had completed two or three songs in the film. Sir Tim Rice came in to do the rest with Alan Menken.
You see, from the outside, everyone saw Disney cranking out one hit after another, like they were effortless. But on the inside we were always worried, “how long will this streak of successes last? Will the next film be our Heaven’s Gate?” Was Roger a one-shot phenomenon? Belle seemed not as sympathetic as Ariel, will audiences like her? Aladdin seemed more broad comedy than a love story, will audiences come in the same numbers? But the hits just kept happening until after Tarzan, and by then I was at Dreamworks.

Many take credit for that streak, I think it was a happy collection of the right people at the right time, and an accepting audience. The Beauty and the Beast crew was one of the best I ever worked with. The NY Times in 1994 called animation the Noah’s Ark of the American Musical Theatre Tradition. Except for British imports like Les Mis, Broadway was in a slump. And no one had seen a Hollywood movie musical since Lost Horizons. But Animation had the right blend of escapist surrealism, so you could accept dramatic characters bursting into big song and dance numbers. And the feature animation boom made LA a vacuum, sucking the world’s most talented artists to our sun baked shores.

JA: A film that doesn't receive the attention it fully deserves is yet another you worked on with director Richard Williams, 1993's The Thief and the Cobbler.

TS: I actually didn’t work on it, although I see I am credited in some places.

JA: You have worked on too many films to mention in one interview, from Pocahontas to Dinosaur, The Prince of Egypt to Antz, and from Shrek to Osmosis Jones; let's jump to your work on the film Looney Tunes: Back in Action. What was it like to work for director Joe Dante, and also as an animator, for a film that attempted to revive the classic Warner Bros. characters- also, what are your thoughts on the final film, and do you have a favorite original Warner Bros. cartoon short?

TS: Getting the chance to draw Bugs and Daffy and work on live action shoots was great fun. Eric had me as a kind of Animation Liaison to be at the live action shoots, to make sure they allowed enough space for the animator's characters. Joe Dante is a great collaborator and a great student of cinema. In Back In Action’s sci-fi section we called Area 51, he had a chance to bring in a horde of classic sci-fi icons like Robby the Robot, The Brain from Planet Aurous, a Dalleck from Dr. Who and more.

I storyboarded a shot of Daffy emerging from Marvin the Martian’s crashed spaceship in the desert that was a play on the climatic scene from Kaufmann’s The Right Stuff, when Chuck Yeager emerged from his crashed aircraft. Imagine my surprise when I was on a location set, 50 miles from Las Vegas in 120 degree desert heat, shooting the live action plates for the scene, with eighty people managing propane tanks and Panavision cameras.

I have many favorite Warner Bros shorts. Among them The Great Piggybank Robbery, Hare Tonic, The Draft Horse and Back Alley Oproar. I recall walking past two young animators arguing over a test scene on Back in Action. I told them:” Dudes, just step back for a minute. You are in Hollywood, you are Warner Bros animators, animating Bugs Bunny for a movie audience. Does it get better than this? Savor this moment, because who knows when you will get another one like it again?”

JA: Your work has continued all the way up to 2008, working with Jerry Beck on Hornswiggle, which premiered on Nickelodeon's Random! Cartoons; what is next for you in your career, and what has been your fondest memory so far of working in the entertainment industry?

TS: I’ve written a history book Drawing the Line-The Untold Story of the Animation Unions from Bosko to Bart Simpson (univ press of Kentucky 2006), that’s been well received. I’ve caught the bug and I’m writing two more.

I have many good memories, The first time Chuck Jones called me by my first name, when Dick Williams laughed at seeing one of my scenes. One of my favorite recollections is when I animated a scene of the Beast eating his morning porridge, he horrifies Belle by gulping it up with his face in the bowl like a dog. The following year, a tour of kindergarten children were being shown through the studio. I was asked to speak to them about what an animator does. I asked them: Have you seen Beauty & the Beast? All their tiny hands shot up. Then I asked. Do you remember when the Beast was eating his oatmeal with Belle in the morning? And they didn’t say a word, but they all held their hands up to their faces and mimed his action of gulping his oatmeal. I teared up.

That’s what an animator does.