Tony Craig

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What is your name?
Tony Craig
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
“The animation project I’m most proud of is the DVD video Bobs Gannaway, Jess Winfield and I did to wrap up the Lilo and Stitch tv series.  I know that it is relatively unknown, and I won’t get into the reasons for why I think the release of it was handled inappropriately, but the name of it is “”Leroy and Stitch””.  The reason I am proudest of it has to do with how it all turned out.  Usually, as a director, you have in your head what you think it should look like, and then when your show comes back from being animated overseas, it is not even close.  Then you get used to what you do have, and start molding it into the final show.  This project was the closest to what I had in my head.  I know that it is not feature quality, but when you consider the time and the budget we were given to do it (1/4 the time the Disneytoons folks got for Stitch has a glitch, and probably 1/8 or less of what they spent), well, I’m proud of what we pulled off.
The storyline is good too.  Bobs and Jess did a great job with the script and the transitions of emotion from scene to scene, action sequence to quiet sequence, musical parts, score…all of it came together.
House of Mouse was another fun one, because we were able to utilize any character from the history of Disney animation.  We were pulling the most obscure characters from old Silly Symphony cartoons and sticking them in the show, just for fun.
A personal project that I enjoyed doing was photographing old country and general stores across the state of North Carolina and compiling them into a book, “”Country Stores in North Carolina”.
How did you become interested in animation?
“I remember an evening at my grandparents’ house with my parents. I was still in a high chair, and I know this memory wasn’t based on photos or anything like that.  We went to see Disney’s “Pinocchio” that evening.  I fell asleep through most of it, but what I saw must have made an impression, or clicked in at that developmental stage of my infant mind. There was a copy of Christopher Finch’s book, “The Art of Walt Disney” in the reference section of our library.  Every family trip to the library, I would be at the end of that row, poring over the artwork.  I worked in the yard, saved my nickels, dimes, and quarters, until I had the $35 to buy my very own copy of that book, and I copied the pictures out of it regularly.
When I heard about the CalArts animation program, that is where I wanted to go to school, but I knew from grade school that I wanted to work for the Disney company.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I grew up in a small rural area in North Carolina….and after two years at CalArts, was hired onto Ken Boyer’s crew for Tiny Toon Adventures.  Some of us were sleeping on the floor of the studios at CalArts, dodging security, trying to get a job.  This was the first break I got.  Actually, I worked on Art Leonardi’s crew for a week, but was supremely inexperienced.  Ken saw something there and brought me over to his unit when Art let me go (and I don’t blame him one bit).  Ken had the patience to put up with my crummy drawing, until it finally “clicked” for me.  One of my college design teachers said that it just comes to you and I didn’t believe him.  He was right.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
Right now, I’m back in Los Angeles and working with Hallmark on a half hour animated project.  I’ve been flying back and forth between their home base in Kansas City and Los Angeles.  They have a really supreme team of artists there, and are starting to explore animation.  We utilized Los Angeles talent for storyboards and editorial, the rest has been done in the midwest.  Melinda Dilger (formerly Rediger) is the producer with me and we share an office in the Hallmark Channel building in Studio City.  We’re kind of flying by the seat of our pants, being such a small crew.


What part of your job do you like best? Why?
I enjoy watching a project come together, especially during the post-production process. That, to me, is when it really comes to life.  I also enjoy the planning of the sound track early in production…deciding what the music is going to be and where it will be.  It always seems to come out better when you plan that part up front also.


What part of your job do you like least? Why?
The part I like least is dealing with all the huge egos.  Let’s face it, most artists have an ego (myself included), and sometimes it can get in the way of someone doing what is best for the production. Some people may take offense at this, but it’s not that I dislike them, I just don’t want to deal with it when trying to get a show done.
I’ve had people refuse to do revisions, and gossip can run amuck on productions, not just with artists, but the production crew too. There are always personality problems that need to be dealt with…sometimes you feel more like a psychiatrist trying to calm down an irate artist than the director of the show, maybe that’s part of the job. One thing that I could be better at is letting people know when they’ve done a good job.  A few compliments can go a long way.  During the last few years while taking a break from directing and doing freelance storyboards, I found myself needing the reassurance from my directors that I’d done a good job.  It surprised me how little feedback I got, you have to go looking for it.  I suppose if there are no notes, you’ve done a good job, but it’s nice to hear it.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
I don’t find the art side of being in animation difficult.  Dealing with development executives who have a legal background rather than any type of artistic ability is difficult.  Why are they making the decisions about what is good or not?  Unless their rear ends are covered from one end of the country to the other, they won’t even consider making a show.  The idea of  having something in development, while working for little, or no money is ridiculous.  It shows that they have no faith in your abilities or track record.  That’s Hollywood.  There’s so much money involved that studios get nervous.


What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
“Our current project is being done in Flash, but I use Photoshop, Alias Sketchbook, etc.  Anime pro is a program I recently purchased, and can’t wait to start fooling around with it.  My nemesis is Toonboom Storyboard Pro.  I would never willingly pay for it.
It may be a one stop place for drawing and compositing to make a reel, but the brushes all suck and it can’t handle large art files.  It’s vector based, so it doesn’t work well for me. I like the shading and line I get with a pencil. I’d rather draw by hand and scan it in, but as I said, SBP can’t handle a lot of scanned in art files, unless you make them so small the quality turns to garbage.  It’s just not for me.”


In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
“When I was in high school, I wrote to Frank Thomas, probably because his name was the first as author on “”The Illusion of Life””.  To my surprise, he wrote back to me.  Me, a high school kid.  We corresponded a few times. Years later, while working on the lot (I think we were on Mickey Mouseworks at the time), I was in the commissary and Frank and Ollie walked in to check out how it had been remodeled.  I introduced myself, reminded him of the letters, and said, “”Now, here I am!””  “”I’m to blame, huh?”” he said.
Bobs and I got to work with Chuck Jones on a short in 1993, even though it was never produced.  The best thing ever was having Chuck put his hand on my shoulder and telling me that he really liked my drawings.  We also got to work with Roy E. Disney on a regular basis while making Mickey MouseWorks.  Here was a guy who was in attendance at the premiere of “”Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs””.  And even though he was one of the top 10 richest men in America at the time, I never met anyone more down to earth, and passionate about animation.
While working at Hanna-Barbera from 1992 to 1994, they were still there.  Mr. Hanna had an office at one end of the building, on the third floor I think, and Mr. Barbera’s was at the other end on the ground floor.  I had heard they didn’t really talk to each other.  Mr. William (Bill) Hanna was in charge of cutting the cake for our Friday birthday celebrations.  He had quite gnarly old man hands, and he’d cut the cake and lift it onto the plates using these monstrosities, getting icing all over them, which he would proceed to lick off before cutting the next piece.  I never ate any cake.  Once I took a matted piece of original Little Golden Book art upstairs to have him sign the matte.  He got out a piece of scratch paper and started practicing his signature…””B””, “”Bi””, “”Bill””…finally he felt he was ready. He put the pencil on the matte to make the first letter of his name, and drew a squiggle that looked like a mountain range.  He froze, looked up at me, and said in the most apologetic senior voice, “”I fucked it up.””  I asked him to continue signing it so I could have a good story to tell later.  I still have that piece of art that he and Joe Barbera signed.
Of course there was the animation vocal talent.  Corey Burton, Bill Farmer, Wayne Allwine and Russi Taylor, Tony Anselmo, Tress MacNeille, Ernie Sabella, Patrick Warburton, J.P. Manoux.  They were all so much fun to work with.”


Describe a tough situation you had in life.
The most difficult part has been breaking away from Disney TV animation. It was a lifelong dream.  Now it’s just a job. While freelancing from back east, I got a call from the Disney legal department, after I’d started working on a project mind you, that Disney was no longer going to pay into my union benefits.  The management there will take advantage of any possibility to keep costs down, and after working there for 17 years as a producer/director on several successful shows, I felt like I was totally being shafted. I was told not to take it personally, that they were doing it to everyone who was not actually working in CA.  In my mind I was sarcastically thinking, “Oh, they’re doing it to everyone?  Well, that’s OK then.”  If you’re a paying union member, you should be paid union benefits, that’s all there is to it.  The cartoonist union was not willing to assist with this problem, in fact their advice was to withdraw from the union. I would say that they are very apathetic when it comes to real issues. A strike like the one that happened in the 1940s would never be called for now, they don’t want to make any waves.


Any side projects you’re working on you’d like to share details of?
When I have time, I paint watercolors. I got one into the NC Wildlife Calendar last year, and am represented by the Sunset River Marketplace in Calabash, NC.  I also do some writing for American Road Magazine  The spring 2011 issue has 4 pieces in it, including a rather large article about the La Brea Tar Pits.  It doesn’t give me an excuse to travel, because I like doing that anyway, but I do learn more about where I am when I start asking a lot of questions.  I’ll have a piece about the Mission Tiki Drive-In movie theater in Montclair, CA coming up soon.  I’m slated to write an article about Blackbeard the pirate, and possibly some write ups about diners and mom and pop motels.  All this ties into traveling around and getting photos to do paintings from too. Finally, I have a book that can be purchased here called Country Stores in North Carolina.


Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
It is a business, after all.  Don’t let your ego get in the way, and be willing to compromise-but don’t be taken advantage of either! Being a talented artist has a real value and should be compensated for. Don’t work for pennies or for free just because someone is offering you compliments or a chance for future work. I have learned from experience that they will use you up and then go right on to the next sucker who is willing to work for free.
If you admit when you make a mistake, people will respect you more.  I went into a meeting at Disney TV with the IT guys.  I could see that they were ready for a fight.  I said, and meant, “Sorry about making the call to do what I did. That sure was dumb, and you were right.”  You could see them instantly relax.  We had a really good meeting and solved a lot of problems.  However, if you feel strongly about something, make sure you can argue for it with facts and know how.
Finally, make sure to take some time for yourself.  It’s easy to just put in the hours without stopping to smell the roses.  There’s a real benefit to doing nothing and coming back to your work with a clear mind.

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  1. Tony,
    Great article. Thanks for the plug and the insight. You are truly the best Director I’ve ever worked with and am honored to be your partner in this Hallmark gig.
    Looking forward to more great projects and awesome memories with you, my friend.

  2. Jeanne K. in Tampa


    Very interesting article. Your paintings are wonderful. Good to see you and Melinda are working together. Bill says hi to you both.

    Wishing you all the best on the Hallmark project.

  3. Tony, interesting to read about your “brush with greatness.” Mine involved the same two crotchety old codgers, you should read my account…


    • It’s too bad they brushed you off like that. WE should keep that in mind when someone who is enthusiastic approaches us about animation.

  4. Of course by helping the younger generation you are also helping someone to one day snub you and take your job so there’s that. Bah humbug.

  5. Hows that tablet working for ya? You digging it?

  6. Very enlightening interview, especially the advice; “Don’t work for pennies or for free just because someone is offering you compliments or a chance for future work.” Wish I had known that when I started in the “business”, I was just too damn eager to work than to ask for money.
    Some of us “old timers” used to work overtime for free and sometimes for days without sleep because we loved our work, how stupid we were.

  7. If I may make a retraction, at the time of the interview, I went away from hand drawn storyboarding kicking and screaming. I was big baby about it actually. Storyboard pro is now a tool that I don’t think I could do without. I would rather do boards digitally now. It’s a shame there’s no paper based art…I saved a lot of my peers original storyboards and cast offs. No more of that. But it’s so much easier to do a project digitally and upload it, rather than having to copy and Fed Ex. And it’s easier to make fixes too. So to everybody I gave a hard time, all I can say is, I’m sorry, and you had more foresight that I did.

    • Haha! I think a lot of us went kicking and screaming Tony! But it really IS a better way to draw… at least professionally. Just the ability to flop and lasso things to move and re-size is a far better way to lay something out than on paper.

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