Larry Latham

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What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Larry Latham; currently I teach Maya and Flash at Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology. It’s a two year program, with a lean toward visual communications, so though we learn both software packages, the emphasis is less on character animation and more on motion graphics. The good news is that when a student really wants to learn character animation, we have a flexible policy that allows me to vary the lessons. Plus, we’re working on getting a four-year degree program, which would allow more time to focus on the finer details.

What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
Whew! That’s a big one. I managed a Taco Bell restaurant, inventoried nuts and bolts (one at a time, not [er box or case) for Lockheed, delivered liquor to retail stores and sold cars.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
Talespin is at the top of the heap. I produced and directed 14 episodes and did post-production on about half the series. Right after that would be the two American Tale direct to video movies I produced and directed at Universal.
How did you become interested in animation?
I kind of eased into it. As a kid I loved Popeye and the old cartoons, but could never muster any interest for the newer stuff, except for The Flintsones. Jonny Quest bored me stiff, and though each year I would eagerly wait for the likes of Space Ghost, The Fantastic Four, Superman, they were always let downs. Even at that young age I recognized the cheapness of the animation, the repeat footage, and I loathed the overdramatic voices and camp approach. In college I tried to make an animated film, but had no idea what I was getting into, and the amount of work just overwhelmed. It was never finished.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and moved to Los Angeles to get in the movie industry in 1976. I worked on some super-low budget movies (The Wormeaters, Alex Joseph and his 12 Wives, The Aftermath) but never managed to get into bigger pictures. Part of it was a lack of focus as to what I wanted to do. To make ends meet, I ended up selling cars in Wilmington, down near San Pedro. That was a real low-point. I had a friend who had a friend who told me about Hanna-Barbera’s training school. Anything would be better than selling cars, but though I had always doodled and drawn, I had never studied drawing. Frankly, I wasn’t very good. But I did have a film degree, so I knew how to tell a film story.  I took some sample drawings I made up and went to see Harry Love, who was in charge of the ‘school.’ I made up some story about just having moved to L.A. and not having access to my portfolio. Some of the drawings I’d done were of Bugs Bunny, and I’d also drawn a one-shot Betty Boop underground comic for a friend. These were enough for Harry to take me in, though I have a feeling he would take have taken any warm body at the time. In-between animation was still done in this country at the time and HB needed a new crop.  I started in late October, driving up from Wilmington four nights a week. While I was back in Oklahoma on Christmas break, Harry called to offer me a storyboard apprentice job. I jumped at it, of course. There were four or five of us in that program as I remember it: me, Will Meugniot, Emily Kong, etc. And it took off from there. That was January, 1979. I still have my first paystub.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
I suppose you are actually asking about when I was in animation as opposed to teaching. Each day was different, which is what made it so enjoyable. When starting a new series there was all the pre-production design to get moving, get approved, staff to hire, schedules to make. Then, once you had a script in hand there was the breakdown, the handout, deciding on any stylistic guidelines for the show. Before too long you’d be getting scripts at the same time as rough boards were coming in, making notes and corrections, hurrying to a recording session. By time the first footage came back, you’d have three or four episodes in various stages of production but you’d have to add time for editing and calling retakes, spotting sound, telecine, etc. I don’t remember many people problems, a few, but most of the folks in the business are great; issues would always come up with length, shipping, bad animation. But that was the job.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
Telling the story, because that’s what it’s all about. Even with the time crunch that all TV animation is subject to, which causes both writers and artists and especially ‘creative executives’ to fall back on clichés, there was always the challenge of trying to make the story come across as fresh. When that worked, infrequent as it might be, that made it all worth while.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Ooh, that’s too easy: having to revise perfectly solid material because some executives five-year old prefers round things instead of triangles, or because their child didn’t get a joke on a storyboard. The idea that your kid is somehow representative of the entire audience is, for me, the mark of truly low intelligence. It seemed to be localized in those ‘creative executives’, people with no experience in film or art but who had once seen a cartoon and thought they knew it all. Also, a few story editors, but that was more rare.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
The fact that most of what we did, no matter how hard we tried, was not very good. We were mostly grinding it out to fill air time and sell cereal. At HB they had a rule limiting you to nine retakes per half-hour show, so you’d have to balance a scene where the mouth was on a character’s head –this was in the days of cel animation, and the cameramen weren’t always watching what they were doing—or a scene where the animation failed to get across a storypoint.  Later, it became more about the level of material we were given. There are some great writers out there, but also a lot of them that make their rep on churning out material over a weekend. Since we didn’t have the budgets to do great animation, the dialogue became all important; ‘illustrated radio,” as Chuck Jones called it. When the dialogue is bad and unfunny, what can you do? I love the Simpsons and King of the Hill, but no one can say they are great animation. They have a truly talented stable of funny writers. Other shows, not so much, and when you get back to the days of Fonz & the Happy Days Gang or the Dukes of Hazzard, or even (I know I’m going to get shot for this) Scooby Doo, those shows were just work.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
I was at Disney TV and went to the launch party for Adobe Premiere 1.0. I immediately saw that we could do animatics, and we got right to work on it that very week. But I left the business before all the cool stuff that’s out there today came around. At school I work with Maya and Flash daily, and Photoshop. I’ve used Storyboard Pro and I’m slowly learning After Effects, though my real goal at the moment in learning zBrush. These are all fantastic tools. With video conferencing so easy now, I am still a bit surprised that the L.A. studios still want butts in chairs. It would cut overhead so much to dispense with all that room, but things will change in time.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
Yes, and it makes me sad because I didn’t recognize it at the time. One of the first people to befriend me when I went to HB was Dave Tendlar. I knew he’d worked on Popeye, but was too focused on my self to find out just HOW MUCH he’d worked on those cartoons. Ray Patterson was head of directing at HB and gave me a lot of advice when I started directing, and several compliments. But I never knew or bothered to find out he was one of the top animators on Tom & Jerry. There were people there who had worked in animation since the silent days, for crying out loud, and as much as I am interested in animation history now, I can’t believe I never even bothered to get to know them. Bill Hanna started out washing cels! Alex Lovy did some of the best Woody Woodpecker cartoons. Walt Peregoy designed Sleeping Beauty. I was not a very bright lad, I’m afraid.
Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
I do a weekly webcomic, Lovecraft is Missing. It’s been running for three years now, and the new chapter is just about to start, on Sept. 2. I have a few more ideas for comics, all off-beat, that I want to pursue when LIM wraps up, but that wont be for another two years.  I’ve written a script and started designing the characters for an animated short, the kind of picture I want to see as opposed to what might gain widespread attention. I’m going to do it in 3D, but as I’m doing most of the work myself, it is a long-term project. For hobbies, I collect all kinds of stuff: dime novels and serial lobby cards predominate, but I have a lot of pulps and Big Little Books as well. And tons of books, not so much collectibles, just stuff I’m interested int. I always take an opportunity like this to recommend The Great Bridge by David McCullough. It’s a fantastic history of the building of the Brooklyn Bridge; may not sound like much, but it’s terrific.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
Not a one.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Never quit learning. Think for yourself. Always look for different ways of doing things.
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One Comment

  1. No unusual hobbies, Larry??? What about the frontier/ re-enactment stuff you do? That’s fun stuff!

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