What is your name and your current occupation?
Ken Pontac, animation writer.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?I was a bartender in a place called Roxanne’s in Arcadia, California. The guzzlery had gone through several incarnations before I worked there, when the new owner decided to make it a “New Wave” bar (whatever the hell that means). He had a big screen that played an Abba laserdisc on endless rotation and he made me dress as a clown while I poured beer and wine. Roxanne’s had been a motercycle bar in its previous life and on opening day a pack of bikers came in, happy to see that their old watering hole was back in business. They were the funniest bikers I’d ever seen, right out of Central Casting: furry vests and Prussian helmets and studded leather everywhere. They were like Get Smart bikers, and they came to the place every night. On New Years Eve I was dancing on the hood of my Gremlin in a jester suit, holding a sign that said “DRINK HERE!” A couple of cute girls pulled up and decided that they’d get the jester drunk, and they escorted me to the bar (somebody else was pouring that night). As midnight approached I had a babe on each arm, both holding a bottle of bubbly that they were pouring down my throat. The place was raucous and throbbing, full of high-volume Abba and drunken bikers and yuppie art students. In the midst of this bacchanal scene felt a sudden visceral compulsion to escape. I didn’t want to be in that bar at midnight, so I mumbled my apologies to the ladies and staggered out to my car. I weaved my Gremlin down the street for a couple of blocks before I decided I was too drunk to drive and pulled over to pass out. I woke up some time later and made my way to my pal’s house, where a party was still in progress. “There’s Ken!” was the last thing I heard before I toppled face down at the doorway. I woke up on the floor the next morning with a hangover and a dog licking the greasepaint from my face. This was ten years before the movie “Shakes the Clown” came out, so I consider myself something of a trailblazer. I found out the next morning that a couple of the bikers had taken out their pieces at midnight and shot up the joint, so chalk one up for visceral compulsion!
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
Creating, producing and directing my own show, Bump in the Night was a childhood dream come true. My mom called me the morning it aired and said, “Jesus, Ken, you’ve been drawing that thing since you were eight years old!” I (rather ungraciously) reminded her that in my youth she had admonished me to draw something nice instead of drawing monsters all the time (the star of the series, Mr. Bumpy, was a warty green monster who lived under the bed). Working on Happy Tree Friends resulted in some of the most painful laugh-cramps I’ve ever experienced (which seems very appropriate, pain-wise), and kids around the world are familiar with the show. HTF creators Rhode Montijo and Kenn Navarro are amazing guys, and I’m grateful they’ve allowed me to play in their sandbox for as long as I have. Going to Iceland to work on LazyTown was a crazy adventure, and while I was there I wrote a song called “You Are A Pirate” that’s become a huge meme on the Internets.
How did you become interested in animation?I watched cartoons obsessively as a kid and after I made my first stop-motion film and actually saw things coming alive because I touched them I was hooked.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I’m from the San Fernando Valley, so I should actually be in the PORN business (it’s the porn capital of the world, in case your readers are confused). I got into the animation business doing motion graphics in the Hollywood effects houses that were around in the 80’s (I have very little memory of those times). My big break came when I show Art Clokey, the creator of Gumby, a clay animation film I made at Art Center with two pals (David Ichioka and Kevin Mack). One thing led to another and I became the art director for the new Gumby series that was produced in the 80’s.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
There honestly isn’t such a thing as a typical day. As a contract writer I could be working on multiple projects in a single week or waiting for the phone to ring wondering what my next gig might be. I pretty decide my own hours and as long as I make my deadlines nobody cares how much I goof off. Last month I worked on a job where I had to read thousands of pages of comic books over a month-long period as research, while simultaneously developing a Chinese puppet show into a pre-school series, as well as coming up with pitches and scripts for two new action/adventure series. All that work really cut into my Facebook time!
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
I love the autonomy I described in the last answer, and I love the actual process of writing. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pre-school show or an adult-rated videogame like MadWorld, there’s always a point where a character will say or do something that makes me laugh out loud. Sometimes when I’m laughing at a character’s quip I’ll think, “I wish I’d thought of that.” And then I realize that of course I did think of it! That moment is the best part of the job. Although maybe getting a letter from a fan telling me that something I wrote changed their lives is what I like the best. No, wait! Getting paid! Getting paid is the best!
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
A writer should never have to wait longer for notes than the amount of time it took to do the work. If the notes are stupid that’s worse. If the deadline is unreasonable that’s even worse.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
Working at home I miss the human interactions that occur in the creative crucible of a production studio. Also, as a contract writer, there’s a certain amount of hustling required to keep the paychecks flowing. It helps to have an agent, but I spend a lot of time chasing down gigs.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?MacBook Pro running Word or Final Draft, an iPod full of movie soundtracks, and a Krups coffee maker.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
Plenty, but I don’t like to drop names.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
My earliest memory goes back to when I was around two or three years old. It was breakfast time, and my sister (who was about five or six) and I were sitting at the kitchen table eating cold cereal. My mother was talking to my grandmother on the phone, which was located on the wall next to the stove. On the stove a teakettle was just beginning to boil. It was early, and my mother was still in her nightgown, a thin garment of some kind of 50’s miracle-fiber: nylon or rayon, probably. All in all it was a peaceful domestic scene. Captain Kangaroo would be on TV soon. I happily brought another spoonful of soggy cereal to my mouth. In the next instant, my mother was a blazing human torch! While leaning against the stove, her nightgown had brushed against the burner and the flames had climbed up her back from her waist to her shoulders. She dropped the phone and jumped around the kitchen, burning and screaming. All my sister and I could do was scream along with her. My mother might have burned to death in front of us if my father hadn’t been home sick with the mumps. When a grown man gets the mumps it goes down into his balls and they swell up and ache with a dull steady pain. Any movement makes them throb. My father’s balls must have been throbbing pretty good after he jumped out of bed with the blankets in his hands and ran to the kitchen. He wrapped my mother in the blankets and smothered the flames. With us kids still screaming and crying, he whisked my mother out of the house and into the hospital. I didn’t see my mother for a couple of days after that, and I’ve never seen her bare back since. I guess it’s scarred pretty badly. I told this story years later in the writer’s room at Happy Tree Friends and it became the basis of the episode “Who’s To Flame.”
Any side projects you’re working on you’d like to share details of?
I’m working on a Young Adult fantasy novel that contains some of the best writing I’ve done.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business
The most important thing I would say is to reach out to others who inspire you. If there’s a writer you like, or an artist, or filmmaker or whatever whose work has touched you seek them out and contact them. And by “contact them” I don’t mean “stalk their ass.” If you don’t know the difference between those two things you probably shouldn’t contact them. Almost every major good thing in my career has come from me taking the initiative to reach out to someone who didn’t even know I existed. I wrote a fan letter to the creators of Happy Tree Friends and it turned out that they were fans of some of my work. One thing led to another and I ended up working on the series. This sort of thing can only happen if you take the first step. 99% of the time you’ll never hear back, but that 1% can be life-changing. I welcome anybody reading this to contact me (just Google my name and see if you can figure out how; social networking makes it easy). Don’t just send a friend request with no message, take a few lines to introduce yourself and explain why you initiated contact. The rest will happen or it won’t.