What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Tom Sito and I am an animator, storyboard artist and animation historian. My screen credits include Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Beauty and the Beast, Shrek, and Osmosis Jones. I am the author of four books on animation. Currently I am a Professor of Animation at the cinema school of the University of Southern California.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I am from Brooklyn New York, the son of a fireman. As a child I always liked to draw cartoons and at first I thought I’d want to make comic strips. Then I attended the High School of Art & Design in Manhattan where I was shown how to make my characters move. I fell in love and continued studying animation and drawing at the School of Visual Arts, and the Art Student’s League. I got my first jobs in New York doing films for schools on nutrition and Sesame Street, but my first big break was to get on the musical The Adventures of Raggedy Ann & Andy directed by Richard Williams. I moved to Los Angeles and after doing TV shows like HeMan and SheRa I got into Walt Disney Studios in 1987. But no matter how many Oscar-winning movies I contributed to, my parents were more impressed when I started teaching at a university. Go figure!
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
Back when I was a high school student, I spent some summers working for a florist planting flowers in a Flatbush cemetery. It was quiet, fresh air and sunshine, your hands in fresh soil. No eye strain and the clients never complained- the complete opposite of animation! People would stop you and ask the location of the cemeteries few celebrities- a pirate from 1839, a mafia don who got whacked in 1959, and the manager of the 1969 champion New York Mets.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) was one of one of my favorites. We worked in London with artists from around the world who came to work again under Richard Williams. The character was fun to draw and the film came out great. I also enjoyed Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994). When we first saw the completed opening sequence of Lion King, the Circle of Life song in stereo, it left all us artists speechless. Early on the film had struggled with story problems, but after that song, we all knew then we had something really special on our hands. A film doesn’t have to be a big box-office success to be memorable. In 2003 I was at Warner Bros doing storyboarding and animation under Eric Goldberg on the Joe Dante film Looney Tunes Back in Action. The script was weak, but the animation was a blast to work on, and Eric had me be the liaison with the live action crew. So I traveled on location with the movie crew and got to hob-nobb with Steve Martin and Brendan Fraser.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
I begin and end my day by answering a lot of e-mail. Animation is done around the world, and we animators all know each other. So we have a pretty tight-knit social community. You’ll get a job more through them than sending your links to jobsites. I work through the morning, lunch, then teach a class in the afternoon. After dinner and Stewart & Colbert, I go back to do a little more work before emails for overseas before retiring.
What part of your job do you like best?
I like seeing the bright smile on a child’s face when I tell them I drew The Little Mermaid. And I like being in a theater of people I’ll never know and hear them laugh at my gags on the screen.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Good character animation requires a lot of intense concentration, and you get eyestrain, repetitive motion problems and back aches. Hopefully your partner is also in animation, so you don’t have someone staring at the back of your head wondering why you spend so much time drawing all day.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis, how has technology changed in the last few years in your field and how has that impacted you in your job?
I began in the day when an electric pencil sharpener was the most high-tech thing on your desk. Now I work with a Cintiq in Photoshop, ToonBoom Storyboard Pro, and Flash. I write scripts in Final Draft. I don’t do that much 3D animation myself. I’m at the point where others do that for me.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
Having to continually justify the importance of what animators do. That a characters acting is every bit as important to the success of a film as a flesh and blood actor. For every studio exec who enjoys working with animators, there are those who think it can be done by an over-hyped piece of software, or they think can train a large group of unskilled workers in an undeveloped country who work cheap to achieve everything you can do. They stare at you blankly “ You mean you draw every frame?” Well duh! When it comes to trimming budgets, the execs won’t work for less, the movie stars won’t work for less, the tech providers won’t give them a cut rate. So they come after you and me, the artists, and complain we cost too much. But animators don’t live on nectar in a tree like elves. We want houses and families and vacations just like anyone else. Chuck Jones and Roy Disney Jr were great champions for the dignity of animation artists. We miss them today. But this ying and yang between art and commerce had been going around since the Pope had Michelangelo re-do his ceiling. It’s a constant struggle for respect.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
I was fortunate that I began my career as many Golden Age animators were ending theirs, so I had a chance to learn from them directly. I knew Frank & Ollie, Marc Davis, Hanna & Barbera and Chuck Jones personally, Shamus Culhane and Richard Williams were mentors to me. I got to assist the animation of Grim Natwick ( Betty Boop), Art Babbitt ( Goofy), and Richard Williams ( Roger Rabbit). Ben Washam ( Bugs Bunny) also taught me a lot about Warner Bros timing. I learned a lot about comic art and teaching from Harvey Kurtzman ( Mad Magazine).
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
Years ago I started a new company with a few friends. But friends, egos and money rarely mix. We had too little work and too many arguments. It all soon fell apart.
Any side projects you’re working on that you’d like to share details of?
I just released a new book entitled MOVING INNOVATION, A HISTORY OF COMPUTER ANIMATION (MIT Press, 2013), It is the first ever complete history of computer graphics in book form. It took me seven years, and I interviewed 75 of the top people who made CGI from an oddity in a science lab to a reality in all our lives.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
Nothing that unique. I’ve always had a passion for historical research, and can name something that occurred on most days of the calendar. I’ve walked the battlefields of Waterloo, Gettysburg and the Little BigHorn. When your full time job is fantasy, reality is where you go to relax.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Success in animation and film don’t always go to the best artist, or to the best hustler. But it does always go to the stubborn. From the time you start, a lot of forces will be trying to discourage you. Just don’t take no for an answer. After a year or so beating your head against the wall, people will start remembering your name. Pretty soon you are running the place. And remember companies and positions come and go, but you work with the same people. The respect of your fellow artists is your best job security.