John Kafka

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What is your name and your current occupation?
John Kafka; Supervising Director, Action Dad TV Series at Toonzone Studios

What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
I worked on a seed corn farm in Wisconsin, which grew different varieties of corn for various locations around the world. The soil was engineered to match the soil of parts of Africa, South America, Russia…lots of places. I detasselled ears of corn, which involved cutting off cornsilks one at a time off thousands of cornstalks…blisteringly hot, lots of bugs, and cornstalk leaves are sharp-edged enough to be used as weapons. I also stood in the bottom of a grain silo as a conveyor belt fed thousands of pounds of corn kernels through a hole in the top, which poured down onto me. I directed the torrent with a big double-handled metal disc held over my head which I kept turning so that the entire silo was filled levelly. The trick was to step up onto the gradually rising pile of corn until the silo was full. Every ten minutes or so, somebody would look down into the silo to make sure I hadn’t been buried alive or choked on the dust. Hot, no air, the noise was deafening as the corn fell 44 feet at first… Worst. Job. EVER. Staying up all night animating is an absolute piece of cake by comparison.

What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
I directed some of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, animated lots of pretty good commercials, animated on the Smurfs, produced music videos, directed a Disney Direct To DVD that did pretty well, co-directed a CG feature film out of Korea; worked at HBO, Universal, Warner Bros… lots o’ stuff.

How did you become interested in animation?
Don’t remember the A-HA! Moment, but I got a degree in oil painting and realized I liked movies. Seemed a natural lateral step.

Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I was born in Brooklyn but we moved all over. My dad was in the oil biz. I’m not really from anywhere, which makes me perfectly suited to the Migrant Worker aspect of the Kartoon Trade.

What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
Well, right now I’m wearing many hats. We are a small company so I do many jobs. Usually I sit in my office and ramble on about my own greatness and brilliance and artistic genius to an adoring audience that goes OOOOHHH! and AAAAAAAHH! at appropriate moments…Oh, wait, that doesn’t ever happen.

Lately I build animatics, give notes on designs and animation, and go to music sessions and recording sessions and mixes…and I design characters and props and BGs. It’s fun!

What part of your job do you like best?
Getting the absolute best out of a project and the people working on it with me. Animation is a communal effort. The people who work in this wacko business are the best in the world. I’ve worked in Japan, Korea, Hungary, England….and my Kartoon Kompadres in all those places are uniformly wonderful. I guess the trade just attracts funny and clever people, and I am endlessly humbled at the notion that I’m considered one of them.

See above…

What part of your job do you like least?
There are financial and managerial considerations that often put hurdles in the way of doing what we all want to do, which is Make A Good Project. Sometimes I have to be a badass mofo and I don’t like that part.

Because I don’t like that part. I’ve had to fire people who were really trying hard but they didn’t have the chops. Being the boss is not always great…I’ve lain awake at night worrying about the horrible psychic damage I did to an earnest young keener who couldn’t cut it. And I check my brake fluid cables every morning…

What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
Well, now you’re getting into the sensitive issues, aren’t you, Mr. Milo? Here it is:

When I started out, the animation studios in LA were owned by and run by animation professionals. Mike Lah, Gus Jekel, Fred Wolf, Duane Crowther, Bill & Joe… They knew exactly what they were asking you to do when you worked for them because they had done that job themselves. They knew how long it should take and what you should be paid for it, AND how difficult it was. Art Babbitt taught me how to animate, and he said to me once, “Never trust anyone who doesn’t draw. No matter how nice they are, they really don’t get it.” Clock wipe to today. We live in the world of The Blind Men And The Elephant. Many people in the business today have positions of authority that are not at all commensurate with their levels of experience. There are very few people in the industry who can see all the way to the edges of a production–the whole picture. This is partly because studios are run by people who haven’t done animation themselves and partly because the process has become very complicated ( CG has not helped at all!! Let me reiterate that- it ain’t no magic!!) and it’s increasingly difficult to even find anyone who understands all aspects of soup-to-nuts production.
I find myself saying the same things over and over again to clients and eager people who want to make a killing in animation in six months. That’s the hardest part; being the guy who’s been there before. But honestly, folks- do some research, okay?

What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
Well, I got me a blistering fast 4 processor baby with a Cintiq and lots o’ bells & whistles. Photoshop, Flash, Maya, all loaded onto my Commodore 64.

In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
Tons. I’m going to also include non-animators who were generous to me. The aforementioned Mr. Babbitt, Tex Avery, Vilmos Zsigmond, David Wilson, Gary Katona, Fred Wolf, Tom Ruzicka, Michael Webster, Chuck Swenson, Michael Patterson & Candice Rettinger, Jim Danforth, Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Carolyn Gair, H H Kang, Deborah Ross…it goes on and on! This is in no particular order and there are waaaaay too many to mention here. Sorry if I left you out-

Describe a tough situation you had in life.
Hey- I’m a grown-up; I’ve got wives, kids, siblings, parents, friends. There have been many tough situations.

Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
I’d have to kill you afterwards. Suffice it to say that I haven’t been convicted.

Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
I can order a beer in 17 languages.

Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Ask not what your possible employer can do for you; ask what you can do for your possible employer. That sounds vaguely familiar….(Brrrrrr- head shake noise) One of my jobs once was interviewing all the hopefuls trying to bust into the Glamorous World O’ Animation, to live the dream…the fast cars, the women… (Brrrr- the aforementioned head shake noise) Anyway, I lost count of the numbers of kids who told me they wanted to direct animated projects and here was their student film to show how qualified they were and where was their office going to be? Don’t be another one of those. I’ve never actually heard of ANY of them accomplishing their goal.

I got a fabulous break back there in 1976- I walked into FilmFair, art school resume in hand, and nobody gave a good goddam… but the receptionist said that the driver had just quit. I said, “I have a car!” I didn’t. She called someone, and said, “You can start tomorrow!” I begged a car from my drug addict next door neighbor.  3 years later I was the production manager for the entire studio. And I’ve never looked back. It’s all about what you can bring to the table- it’s not set for you.
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