Mike: 0:00 Hi, everyone! Mike here. Today’s episode is a cracker. It’s with celebrated Disney animator Joe Haidar. It’s an episode of two parts. In the beginning, we talked through his journey into the business and advice for anyone seeking a job in the animation field. Then, we get into the incredible backlog of stories that Joe has, including how he pitched the idea of Disney’s Hercules to Jeff Katzenberg, what it was like to work with Robin Williams on Aladdin, the making of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, what the DreamWorks Disney animation was, why he has a picture of himself and Steven Spielberg on his windowsill. That’s all for me! It’s an episode.
Joe: 0:35 I only attended a couple of recording sessions with Robin. I am so grateful to have had that opportunity. He is amazing. Obviously, everything you can imagine. I mean, those sessions left my face hurting from laughing so much that the muscles in your face... I literally couldn’t laugh anymore.
Mike: 0:56 Hello! Welcome to Red Carpet Rookies. Today’s guest is a first for us on the show, a multi-talented animator, and storyboard artist. After gigs, commercials, and music videos, he promptly transitioned to features where he soon began working on what became the legendary Bob Zemeckis film, who framed Roger Rabbit. From there, his career only picked up pace, animating at the center of the 90s Disney - Renaissance on Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, Hercules, Mulan, even Robin Williams’s Genie, and Aladdin. Now an accomplished storyboard artist as well, this man just bleeds creativity. Our guest is Joe Haidar. How’re you doing today?
Joe: 1:34 Oh, very well! Thank you. That’s a great introduction. Oh, my God, I hope I lived up to it.
Mike: 1:39 It’s great to have you here. The first question I always ask everybody is what did your parents do? And how did it affect your career choices moving forward, if at all?
Joe: 1:48 I lost my father when I was very young. So at the moment when he died, he was in insurance. So, he had nothing to do with what I do. And my mother wasa secretary back in those days and assistant to someone in Sears. But dad had very little to do with my direction. I think a lot of my interest came because my father was interested in movies a lot. But we really didn’t spend enough time together for me to get that from him. But we had the whole process of emigrating. We moved from Lebanon to Canada when I was 9 years old. So, that was a cathartic experience for me, moving from a temperate zone to a very freezing and frigid atmosphere. On top of that, not being able to speak English was a big hurdle. And back in those days, there really wasn’t enough remedial help for children to learn how to speak English.
I was just thrown in the fourth grade. It was sink or swim situation. So the thing that got me through was my parents speaking English very well. So, they switched from Arabic to English in the house. So, my brother and I would have to learn it from them as well. But it was very isolating. So, I think that really formed a lot. I was really into comic books back then, before we came to Canada. And then, I just retreated even further into comic books when we moved to Canada. So, it became my communication. What is that like a little something I can communicate with the other kids with and the drawing? I mean, it inspired me to draw a lot. So, other kids thought that was really cool. So suddenly, you were this kid who couldn’t really say more than 2 or 3 words. But, Hey! That guy can draw Superman. So, it gave me an entree into that world.
Mike: 3:48 And then, when you finish school, obviously animato isn’t necessarily the most obvious step for one to take, particularly back then. Because I am right though! The Disney heyday had finished of animation, and it was before the Renaissance to come. So, where were you in your headspace at that point before you went to college?
Joe: 4:06 Right. So that’s really a good point. It’s hard for people to believe or remember or understand back then, that there was no information about the film industry. I mean, there might have been 1 or 2 books, but you’d really have to know how to find them. And we’re talking about the late 70s. So, animation to me was just a word that was on the TV Guide. When I looked for movies that I wanted to watch, it said “animated.” I knew that was a cartoon and not live action, although we never use the term live action. So, we just knew that there’s the real movie, and there’s an animated movie. But I didn’t know how animation was done. I didn’t even though it was a career.
I had no clue about animation as a vocation. I was looking at comic books. I knew who the comic book artists were. And I knew comics books were done by human beings. And I thought that was what I wanted to do. But I was procrastinating in high school back in Canada back in those days, you could have 5 years of high school. So, you could go up to what is called the 13th grade back then, to procrastinate another year. If you wanted to, which I think is brilliant. And I really hope that they keep doing it. But I don’t think they are. I stalled because I really had no... I was really reticent about telling my mother I wanted to do comic books. I just didn’t think that was going to go over. My father had passed away. And I think she wanted me to be a serious person in the world. Nobody respected animation or comic books back then. None of my friends were even remotely into it. Everybody was an academic. They were all going to be engineers and whatever. So, I just had nobody around me to give me a picture of what I could potentially be.
And while everyone encouraged my drawing, nobody thought it could be a career. It was purely like, “Hey, that’s a great hobby you have there!” But it was only one day in the 13th grade that I saw a movie on television called -it was an old Fleischer animated film- Gulliver’s Travels. And I asked my art teacher about it. Because I was fascinated by the human characters. And I knew that Disney did brilliant human characters although none of us spoke that way back then. It wasn’t like, “Oh! They did really human.” No! It was just like, there’s amazing movement, color, and shapes going on. But I have never understood how it was all happening. But when I asked my teacher about it, he was this very charming Irish drunk gentleman. He just said, there’s a college here in Canada called Sheridan College, and they teach animation. And I thought, what the hell is that? You mean like, cartoons? And he said, Yeah! You can go to college to learn this. I just thought that was insane. He introduced me to that college. I looked them up. Sure enough, they had a world famous program.
And I thought, Oh, my God, I can tell my mom this. I can go to her and say, I’m going to be in the movies somehow. Overtime, I look back at it. And I just go... It covered the 2 big interests I had, without knowing I had that interest. Well, of course, it was drawing, but the other one was storytelling. I loved stories. And I loved drawings that tell stories. So comic books -of course- did that. Then, I quickly discovered animation was another form of that, but on a much larger scale. So, my direction was decided, even though my mom was still not that... She’s still weary of it, but she got on with it afterwards. But people really can’t understand back then that there were no books. There were no videos. There’s no internet. There was nothing. So, you’re really jumping into a void. And you just have no clue whether this is a viable industry. But you’re just going with your gut.
Mike: 8:22 Yeah! I read that. I saw you in an interview saying that one of your life philosophies is, sink or swim, baby!
Joe: 8:27 Yeah.
Mike: 8:28 I guess you were doing that. You didn’t know what was going to come. You didn’t know all those movies going to blow again. It was almost like; I don’t know there was going to be electric cars 15 years ago or something. And going on, okay, I’m going to do it.
Joe: 8:37 It’s being an entrepreneur but without really knowing what that is. But part of what I was actually motivated by back then is the fear of doing something that I just would not like. I saw too many adults doing that. It scared the pants off of me. I had a part-time job at Sears through high school and college. And I would work 3 days a week at Sears store as a salesman on the floor. I remember seeing the full-timers employees. They were the ones who had the greatest influence on me. Because I would look at them on their coffee breaks, and they lived for their coffee breaks. They smoked and drank coffee for those 15 minutes. And I just thought, I’m 17 years old. I cannot do this. This cannot be my future. I had just started my animation training at [unclear 09:34]. And I just thought, I have to have to succeed here, or this is what’s waiting for me!
Mike: 9:40 Amazing! With live action, I work on set-based jobs, which is what I do. It’s something that you can basically go in most of the time, and you don’t need to study it in a more traditional way. For people who want to be animators now, is the advice to go to college like that? It’s not really something you can learn the job isn’t quite the same.
Joe: 10:01 It’s both. Right now, just about every college has an animation program. I mean, it’s trying to find a college that does not have an animation program. I couldn’t imagine everywhere, all over the world. So, if you can afford it, and you can go to a really decent college, you will learn a lot. But if you can’t, there’s also lots of online tutoring that you can get as well. But animation breaks up into many different forms today. Whereas back then, it was a hand- drawn animation. And that was pretty much it. Stop motion existed on the fringes. But I don’t think that unless you absolutely loved it and knew it, you would have pursued that. So, it was really a hand-drawn animation. There were really no other choices.
So for me, that was perfect. But today, you really have to decide what kind of an animator you want to be. Fairly, I mean, you do not have to do it right away, but you have to do it at some point. And, obviously, the most prevalent animation today is computer animation. So, if you’re going to be an animator, you better love computer animation. If you want to do hand- drawn animation, you better learn to do other things. Because at the moment, it’s around, and it’s in different forms. But if you want to do classical Disney style hand drawn animation, you’re going to have a hard time finding it. So, there might be a movie every 5 years. But that’s not enough to exist on. So, a lot of the animation is done with cutout animation that’s done today... I have never actually done it. So, I really don’t know that well. But it’s using software where they build a library of images, and you piece them together to create a drawing.
And then, that becomes your key frame and everything. And it takes skill to do that for sure. But you don’t always have to draw it yourself. The barrier to entry, back in those days, was a drawing. If you have no ability to draw, if your draftsmanship was weak, you’re pretty much shut out. Today, you don’t have to draw at all. I think it’s good if you can draw. I really do. It gives you way more options. But if you’re just well-versed with that software, and you know how to manipulate a character, I mean, it’s generally a digital puppet that you’re moving around. So, if you are good at posing it, and timing your animation, and creating a performance out of it, you never have to draw. So, there’s definitely 2 schools of thought. And maybe further than two schools, probably splintered off into many different forms. I mean, there are special effects animation for the big live action movies where you might have to do a creature or something.
And that timing and animation are far different from the kind of animation that Pixar or Disney or DreamWorks do. It’s more cartoony. It’s more character leaning towards comedy, but suddenly, now you’re doing King Kong or Godzilla, that’s a whole different ethics. So, you have to really decide which way you want to go. Some guys can manage all of them, which is amazing. And I’ve managed to do a few things myself. But generally, studios like to hire people who are proficient in one thing. So you have to specialize. Today we use the word “branding.” You really have to brand yourself as... That happens a lot in Disney without me even understanding that term back in the day. But anyway, I digress. I’m not sure if that answered the question properly.
Mike: 13:45 That’s great advice. I’ll take you back, though, back to your collage. So, you finished college and you’ve gone off to London, could you talk us through why you moved and how you got the job on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”
Joe: 13:58 No, that’s great. So, first of all, there’s a big book that came out in the early 80s. That was by the 9 old men, 2 of the 9 old men from Disney, called the “illusion of life.” And that became the Bible for animation for a long time. It is still it. But when I look at that book, which I couldn’t afford at the time, I think it was just way too much for me. But that shirt, and they had a copy around and whatever. I realized that, Oh my god! There are these human beings that did all these movies that I grew up with and their draftsmanship and everything was through the roof. So, I wanted to work in that world. But I couldn’t figure out how to get from Toronto to Los Angeles when I was in my early 20s. Like, what does one do? And back then, you couldn’t like email a recruiter or something like that.
So, you couldn’t... I just couldn’t figure it out. It really stopped me. I didn’t have a lot of money. So after I graduated in Canada, I was desperate for my first gig. Someone gave me great advice. They said, come and work at this big comic book store that my buddies and I used to go to all the time. In fact, it was probably one of my buddies who told me that. He said, just come and work here! It was called the Silver Snail. It’s still there in Toronto. And he said that everybody in animation comes here. So, it was my very first effort at networking. So, I worked at the silver snail for a year. And I ran into somebody who gave me a tip on my first gig. So, I went off and did that. And it was a very small animation thing. And it led to a slightly bigger one, which was the very second time that the Care bears were ever introduced to an audience around 1983. There was Care bears TV special. Anyway! So, I got to work on that as an entry-level animator, back then we were called assistant animators. I remember thinking, Oh, my god! Is this the best I could do? Like, I just thought it was really lame. It was nothing wrong with the Care bears. But it wasn’t Disney. It wasn’t what I was really looking to do. So, I couldn’t go back to that thing. And then, a couple of college buddies of mine, one in particular, coach, he and his brother, who was a much more senior animator. They were going to England. They said, there’s lots of work in England.
We are going to go, if you want to join us, we will be there. I’ve thought about it, and they thought about it. And I thought, I hardly have any money. But again, it’s that same question of whether you want to work on Care bears, or do you want to take door 2, and see what that has to hold. Because I knew what Canada had to offer. And it didn’t excite me. So, I jumped on a plane and went over to England. [unclear 17:00] met me at the Victoria station when I made my way over there. Literally, the day I arrived, he took me to a Bed and Breakfast. We tossed my luggage in the room. And then, he showed me where all the studios were in the west end. He had already arrived a few months before me. He was working. So, he took me around, and I took my resume.
I left it at all these boutique studios in London. And the next day, I had a job. It was insane. And back then, if you are Canadian or in the Commonwealth, you are allowed a 2-years work visa or so, to live and work in Europe, or in London or in England, and anywhere. So, you can travel through Europe. So, it was very exciting. We ended up in a small boutique studio called animation partnership. We were doing commercials. And I mean, it was very heady for me back then. In the 80s and 70s, London had the best animation. Disney has become very stagnant. Nobody was really doing anything terribly exciting in the world. But London was thriving. Everybody was bringing their commercials to do... If you had a high-quality, animated commercial or something to do an animation, you went to London to have it done. Richard Williams was there, who is one of the biggest and most prestigious studios. And then, people who broke away from his studio set up their own little studios.
So, he was like a big tree that dropped all these seeds and created a little forest of animation houses that all have their own specific style. And we would just go and work at all these little studios. So, you’d like to work at 1, and when you’re finished with a gig, everyone went to the Green Man’s in the west end, and that seemed to be the place where you would see all your peers. And somebody would mention, Oh yeah! Oscar Grillo needs somebody for this big commercial over at his studio or Eric Goldberg or whoever. So that’s how I moved around. And I just got to work at lots of little studios.
But how it leads to Roger Rabbit, that’s a long story! But I’ll try to keep it really short. So, I was doing many commercials, but I was still an assisted animator. I wasn’t an animator. And I was waiting for someone to give me that leg up. While the commercials I worked on threw me a little bit of animation to do in the background. None of it really got me to where I needed to be. So, I finally took a proactive step where I just sort of took my career in my hand. I just said, Okay, I’ve done this a few years now. I’m done with it. I want to animate, that’s what I got here to do. So, I stopped accepting those jobs. I went from being in the best studios and just kept dropping to the bottom of the studios.
Finally, I got some very effects oriented animation, like, animating and lettering in a commercial or some special effects and whatever. But at least I was animated. So I thought, Okay! I’m going to have to work my way back up again. But in a very short time, a month or two, I got a call from Eric Goldberg, who had a studio called Pizzazz Picture. And Eric is a genius animator from New York. He offered... And I’d already worked for him before as an assistant, but he said, Hey, I’m willing to try you out on a small commercial. And he was trying a bunch of younger animators. So, I jumped at the chance. I got through the process. He seemed to like my work and actually asked me to stay. But at that time, we had been hearing about a movie. Every time you go to the pub, everybody’s talking about, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Hey, it’s a Disney Spielberg movie! It’s like this massive thing. A lot of my British friends were like, is the Spielberg go hated, they’re also anti- establishment and anti... the big conglomerates and whatever. And I was just going, are you kidding me?
I want to be on that thing. Like, in a hot second, how do I get on there? And back then, it was so simple. Like, it wasn’t like, you had to find a recruiter or anything. I don’t know. I found the phone number. I called. I set up a meeting. And I got to meet Don Hahn, who was producing the animation. Later on, he became a big producer at Disney. And he literally interviewed me and looked at my portfolio and said, we can hire you. But he says, you don’t have enough to come in as an animator. We’ll hire you as an assistant animator. And then, we’ll see if the cream rises. So, I had told myself before this that I would never ever work again, except assistant animator work. I said, I’m an animator, and that’s it. I’m calling myself an animator. And that’s it, baby!
But here was an opportunity to work on this like, insane movie. And I knew, this was the most incredible movie on the planet earth at that time to work on as an animator. And I thought, I can’t blow this chance. So, I tried not to say, no. The words were coming out of my mouth. And I just have to say, Sure! That sounds great. Even though in my heart is like, damn it! I don’t want to come that way. But I’m so glad I said, yes. I had a week before the movie started. So, I literally went to a travel agent. I said in 24 hours I want to be on a beach somewhere. Literally, I was in Tenerife a day later to decompress and get ready for it. And then, I started. They teamed me up with Phil Nibbling, who was a senior animator from Disney - an American one- who came to the studio to work there, and they had a few of them. [unclear 23:08] and Dave Spafford, who were Americans that were brought over from Disney, the rest of us was all like Canadians, Italians, and French. This was all a young team of people. And very few of us, I would say, we were really qualified to work on a movie like that.
And I’ll say for sure, I was certainly not. But we had an enormous amount of determination. And, here you were working with the legend, Richard Williams, Steven Spielberg, and Bob Zemeckis. All these were big heavyweights from LA. So it was very heavy. I was on the movie for 13 months. I never really took a day off ever. Because my animation is just... Let’s just face it, I wasn’t really up to it back then. So, I have to struggle. For me, struggling means never ever leaving the studio. So, you have to stay late at night. You come on the weekends. And you just go at it, and you fight your way through it. It was very incredibly fun because you’re with a team of people who are all your age, and everybody’s excited. But at the same time, that this is once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And you really can’t fuck it up. I came close a few times, maybe. Richard Williams who was in his 50s at the time, and he was already a world-renowned personality. He won Academy Awards. I mean, I was petrified of him. And he had a bit of a temper. I saw his temper get unleashed on some people.
And one day it was my turn. He read me the riot act for something that was really incredibly trivial. But it was... I’ll never forget it. He called me into his office, and he yelled at me for an hour. It seemed like an hour. I don’t quite remember. And here I was, 26 years old, the very first feature I’d ever work on. And I had transitioned to an animator by this point. So the cream rose, thanks to the help of Phil Nibbling, who threw me some animations to do that we didn’t tell Dick about. So, whenever Phil had some background character work, he just nudges it over to me and helped me do it. And then, eventually, I remember this being... That day he said, we have to tell Dick about this. I mean, this is insane. Nobody does these thing anymore. But back then, it was like, Dick was approving animation that he thought Phil had done, but I had done it under Phil’s tutelage. So, Phil finally went over to tell Dick about it.
And I remember sweating like cats and dogs, man! I saw them talking. And then, Dick said, Oh, great. Well, let’s make up an animator. And it was just like, Oh, that’s it! Okay. So, Dick started taking a group of younger guys to raise us up to animator level. The way he did that was he took all the Baby Herman scenes. And he would quickly key them out in every eighth frame. So, frame 1, frame 9, frame 17... And he would do these beautiful drawings and poses a baby Herman in Sharpie. And he would hand them to you. And the only numbering is, what number that drawing has to appear on. it has to appear on drawing, or frame nine, or frame 17, or frame 20, whatever. So that’s all you were told. And he said, just finish it. Now, in animation, that’s still leaving you an enormous amount. But what he’s done is he gave you 10 full poses to help you out. So, you don’t get lost and you don’t drift. But it was up to you to finish all of that.
And there’s still a lot to work out. So that was a really nice little life raft for you to learn on. But that was one of those scenes that he called me into his office. Because he didn’t like the way I numbered my drawings. And I was numbering them B1, B2, and B3. And I don’t know, he had a thing that Milt call his favorite Disney animator used to number them 1B, 2B, and 3B. You just put the number before the letter. So, I got called out on the carpet for an hour about how Milt called it this way. I don’t know what. He just called me and said all type of horrible things. And I was just like, really sitting there thinking, my life was over. Everything was over. It was all over. I was 26. It was all over. The biggest animator in the world hates my guts. And I’m on the biggest movie in the world. And it’s just all over. And I don’t know why I didn’t just break out and cry. But I held on. And then, finally he said, Hey, do you have the shot on video? Can I look at it? And I said, yes. And I thought this will be a final nail in the coffin. We walked over to the little video suite. I played it for him. And he just leaned over and looked at it again. He said, Ah! Okay.
That looks good. Keep it up. And then, he walked out. And he left me in a puddle on the floor. I remember just thinking after that, I was very emotional. That thing gets to me. Some guys are tougher. They can take it in their stride. For me, it was like the biggest guy in the world and he almost destroyed me. So, I had to go and literally talk to myself and say, never again, I will let anybody their attitude or whatever affect me that much, especially him. Because he vacillates from extreme highs and extreme lows. So I said, from here on and just stay calm, just think of the end. and just do the work. Don’t let his temper get to you! Because later on, he actually went in the opposite direction. And he saw something that I did. Literally, he went to everybody. He interrupted Bob Zemeckis in a meeting. He’d go, Hey, Bob. Did you see what Joe did. Do you see how he did that little thing with a weasel and whatever? And Bob’s like, Yeah. It’s nice. It was just like embarrassing because it was just like, he was trying to make up for what he said before. I was just always like, Okay, stay calm. Good is good.
The bad is bad, but I don’t care. It’s all the same from here on. And I’ll never forget at the wrap party, at Radio City Music, I wasn’t in a wrap party. It was the premiere. They invited us. And it was amazing. Dick signed my program. And I still have it. And it said, was it worth it, Joe? And I have to say, it was worth it! But it was an incredibly tumultuous thing. But just to finish that story, after just near the end of Roger Rabbit in London, we were doing it in Camden Town, by the way. When that movie was coming to an end, our manager Max Howard was going to LA. He asked a lot of us, Hey, do you want me to take your portfolio to LA and drop it off with the review board and at Disney? And see if you guys want to work in LA, and a few of us did. And I was like, LA is really where I want it to be. So I thought, okay, sure. So, I sent my portfolio to Max. When I came back, it had nothing in it.
Nobody said, anything. So, I just assumed I was rejected. And that was the end of that story. And then, I was negotiating a movie in Munich to go work in Germany on a small animated feature called, “Willie the worm” about a worm that stows away on Christopher Columbus’s ship. I was almost set to go. And I was back in Canada. The contract had arrived. And I was literally about to sign it. The phone rings and my buddy Nick Ranieri, who has already made it to LA and was working on the Little Mermaid said, Hey, your name is up on the board. You’re supposed to get some shots -back then, we call them scenes- on Little Mermaid. And why aren’t you here? And I thought, what the hell are you talking about? Nobody told me I was hired. So, he talked to their recruiter, but back then they weren’t called recruiters, personnel. I got a call back and they said, yeah! We’d like to come get you over here. I mean, I totally dodged the bullet. I was really not keen on going to Munich on this movie. But suddenly, I had a shot to go to LA to work at Disney. So yeah, that completely changed my life. I finally made it to Burbank. So, I am sorry for the long story.
Mike: 32:27 Incredible story! And it was an education trial by fire. One of the things that I wanted to talk about is, you obviously got Roger Rabbit under your belt, what a film to have on your CV! And then, we can’t not talk about the Disney Renaissance, obviously, which you are a key part of, and one of the many that you’ve done. One credit that does stand out to me is apparently you had the idea for Hercules. Is that right?
Joe: 32:54 Yes. Yeah. It’s hilarious. When we were working on Aladdin, Jeffrey Katzenberg opened the door for all of us to come and pitch ideas. I was still very young at Disney and learning the Disney process. It’s very difficult when you enter a studio like that from the outside. You haven’t like been indoctrinated by [unclear 33:19] or something. So, when I landed there, everything was a new learning process. Then, learning how to live in LA and all of that was too. But by Aladdin, things were starting to stabilize. And then Jeffrey opened that door to any artists who worked at the studio to come and pitch any idea they wanted. And I thought, what a rare opportunity to stand in front of him and Michael Eisner and pitch something.
I had never pitched anything in my life at that point. So, I concocted this idea of Hercules because I remember at the time thinking, well, Disney only does known properties. They had never really... Even Oliver & Company and the great most detectives were based on actual stories. Sherlock Holmes and Oliver! So, the idea of coming in with an original idea seems ridiculous to me, although a lot of people tried. So I thought, you got to go with something that people have heard of. And by that point, they had pretty much used that all of the fairy tales that I’d heard of. So I thought, what’s the next source of great story? I thought the Greek mythologies would be great. And of all the Greek mythology is like, the one that I’ve heard of the most is Hercules. So I thought, Okay! Let’s look at Hercules. So, I read some stuff on Hercules. And I thought, oh my god! This is really bloody. He killed his family in a rage and in madness. And he looked for his stepmother to find its own men to... She gave him the 12 labors. I just thought, Oh, my God, this is a disaster. How do I make this Disney friendly? So, I found a way to sort of tell that story in a capsulated state. What I was thinking of is I wanted a Ray Harry Hausen movie.
I wanted to see like big creatures, mythological Hydras, and scary monsters that he would defeat so that I had a very big boys adventure film in my head. So, I created the story that told that story. And anyway, so here’s how that went. This was I’ve never experienced anything like that before. The day of the pitch, they got all of us in a room. There were over 40 of us pitching. We were brought into a giant conference room. And Michael Eisner was there, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Roy Disney, Walt’s nephew, and all the executives. They all sat in a room. Here’s the deal, they said, we’re going to draw your name out of a hat. You’re going to have about four minutes to pitch your idea, then you have to sit down and shut up and wait for everyone else to finish. You can’t leave the room. So, there will be no distraction. So I thought, okay! We’re all sitting there and apprehensive about it. And they drew a name out of a hat and the gentleman sitting next to me, Francisca Leavis was a storyboard artist at Disney. He got up and pitched. I can’t quite remember. I think, it was the Elliott.
But it might have been the Odyssey. I always get those two mixed up. As soon as he started talking, Jeffrey attacked him. It’s like, it’s been too big. It’s too... How do you plan to make it? How do you reduce it? How do you live it? And Francis was struggling to try to get his pitch across. He written some notes, and handed them out. And I just looked at it. And I just thought, Oh, my God! This is a crash and burn. And he’s pitching a Greek mythology. And I really need to distance myself here. And I thought, thank God! There’s 40 people in this room. Somebody else will go before me, there’ll be 10 people between us. And then, so they draw another name out of a hat. And sure enough, it’s me. And I just couldn’t believe it. I mean, I’m number two after Francis crashed. I’m coming in with Greek mythology. And I was so angry. I was just like; this is not the way I want to do this. And I held up my painting that a friend of mine, Eric Robinson helped me paint this thing. It was a one sheet of Hercules did... “Walt Disney presents Hercules” we did this kind of Hercules, one sheet. I’m trying to pitch my story.
And sure enough, Jeffrey attacks right away and asking me questions. I don’t have the answers. And I didn’t have a graceful way to discuss it. And I felt like he was really... I just completely misread them. And I thought he was just angry. And he was just... So by the end of it, I just said, Jeffrey, you’re going to have to hire a writer to work all this out which is kind of obvious. And it was stupid of me to say that to a big executive like him. But I just wanted to stop talking and sit down. And then, you got two out of three, meaning like you got a pretty good title. You got a really good theme. But I don’t think you have a story. That’s how I interpret it. So, I just thought, Oh, my God, he hates me. He hates it. I’m sitting down. And then, I sat down, and I listened to all the other pitches. So many of them nobody spoke. He never said, anything to anybody. 90% of them, he didn’t say anything. Well, why is he listening to that person? I mean, some of the ideas I thought were really not that great. And I thought, why does the attack that person? I mean, you really should stop it. It’s embarrassing.
And I just sat there fuming. I was thinking, why them and not me. Finally, the ordeal ended. And three weeks later, I receive a letter and 5 ideas from that pitch session where it was taken. And Hercules was one of them. And so were all the ones that he attacked. All the people, he attacked pretty much were the people that he was interested in. The people he wasn’t interested in, doodling on his pad waiting for them to have their 4 minutes. But I completely misinterpreted it. So, that’s how that happened. And then Ron and John, the two biggest directors at the studio, at the time, were given the film. And I remember, this was two years after I pitched it. It was in development, but I had nothing to do with it from then on. And John called me up one day and said, Hey! Look, I’ve been looking through all the scripts and everything that people have written on this, but I can’t find what you wrote.
So, I sent him the two-page outline that I wrote. It was really nice. I thought he said, out of everything in development on this project, your two pages were the best. But in the end, they went in a completely different direction. I never ended up working on the movie. I love what they did. It was not what I had. had in mind. it was a proper Disney movie. And at that time I came to the realization that Disney could never make an action adventure boys film. And even later on, when we actually tried Tarzan. He was like, Yeah, this was almost there, but it was still Here’s baby Tarzan. Here’s young Tarzan.
Here... Finally, we get, there’s the Tarzan. I want to see. But that’s the last 15 minutes of the movie. So, it was a problem back in those days that the films seem to skew a little bit more to the feminine. And testosterone was always a difficult thing to put in. But that was the story of Hercules in a nutshell.
Mike: 40:45 I love it. That pitch story was actually fantastic. You’re actually credited online on IMDb Joe, as animating adult Hercules, did that not happen?
Joe: 40:53 No, that did not happen. No. I hadn’t. I always felt like Ron and John were I think, I don’t know what their thinking was. But I never really felt terribly invited to be a part of that movie. And they were having a hard time casting me. Back in those days, you get cast. I don’t know if that’s. So, animators were cast on a character. So, everybody goes Mark, he’s a great girl animator. So, you always give him the Anjan of female to do or so and so is really good with 4 legged animals. But I had been all over the map. And I was kind of trying a little of this and trying a little of that. And when Ron and John called me and talked about what character I might want to do on Hercules, they said, we’re having a really hard time casting you. And I said, how come?
And they said, well, you did the genie, but you did guest on. But then, you also did John Smith. We don’t know where you fall. And I said, well, doesn’t that show that I’m versatile. And they were like, Yeah, versatile! And then I remember thinking, Oh, my God! I have been like directing my career in a completely wrong fashion. I thought versatility was good. But then, I really thought about it. And I thought, actors are not like given millions of dollars because they’re versatile. Like, you get Tom Cruise to do what Tom Cruise does, very few actors are paid enormous amounts of money because they can go from being an action start to Hamlet. And their salaries dropped when they do Hamlet. And it was the same for animators. They wanted you to be branded as a specific kind of animator so they could cast you easily. And I shot myself in the foot. Because I was trying a little bit of A and little bit of B. And I wasn’t really creating a mystique about myself as that’s the guy you go to for this character. So, that was a really big wake up call. And then, I moved on to Milan from there.
Mike: 42:57 Interesting! You mentioned working on the genie there. How did it work? Because, as I understand it, Robin Williams did a lot of improvisation. They did 16 hours of recording of him, didn’t they? How did that come into your guy’s roles?
Joe: 43:09 So, I only attended a couple of recording sessions with Robin. So, I was grateful to have had that opportunity. And he’s amazing. Obviously, everything you can imagine. I mean, those sessions left my face hurting from laughing so much that the muscles in your face... I literally couldn’t laugh anymore. It was just like; I’d already used up laugh muscles. But from what I saw, I’m sure he improvised. But what he really did is he took the lines, and he gave you 50 different readings of them. He just would do it in so many varied ways. And I really felt sorry for Ron, John, and the editors who had to pick the best take of all of those lines. It was always like; how do you pick this? But somehow they managed to piece together the thing. But from what I know, it was mostly scripted by the writers, Ron, and John. And I’m sure he did some ad libbing as well. But the biggest ad lib I believe is not the genies, but it was the opening. Oh my God, what’s the little merchant character that you find out later is the genie... Spoiler alert!
Mike: 44:19 Oh, yeah.
Joe: 44:20 And where he has like the Dead Sea Tupperware or whatever... Anyway! I think, they gave him a bag full of stuff. And he would just improvise whatever was coming out without knowing what was in it. That’s how I understand it. But back then, I wasn’t a big enough animator to be in every recording session. And only Eric Goldberg was the supervising animator of that character. So, he probably got to go to a lot. And you could probably answer that question a little better. But that was my understanding.
Mike: 44:49 He actually made a really cool comment on you guys, the animators, being in the room with him, Robin Williams said. He said, it’s nice when you can travel at the speed of life. I think, that’s quite a cool description of animation, isn’t it?
Joe: 45:01 I guess! I think that we’re the slowest people in the world. We have to slow things down to 24 frames a second. So, what we do and what the genie and by Eric Goldberg’s animation he said an incredible standard for that character. You make every frame count on the genie. You have to be so cognizant of the timing and squeeze so much performance in a very concentrated amount of time. I remember, my very first scene that he gave me to do. The problem with a genie is that he’s always transforming into other characters. So, he didn’t really follow the rules that we all learned about physics to really allow your character to have weight, to have solidity. Genie was this like a bag of water and smoke. It was very fluid.
So, you really have to apply a different amount of physics for that character. And I remember the first seat I did was the genie pulling himself out of the ground, literally pulling his own head out of the ground in the song, “Friend Like Me.” And I did it 50 million ways. I just couldn’t make it work. It just looked awful. And I went over to Eric, and I just said, how do you do this? And he just showed me in 4 or 5 drawings. The whole thing was just smooth and fluid. And I was overthinking it, I was trying to apply gravity to it. There’s no gravity with a genie. You just do it. And I remember that being an enormous learning session for me. And I was able to break through that character because that was way outside of my box of tricks. And working the way Eric does with a character like that, where you have to be really cognizant of the design of the character all the time. But the speed that he moves from moment to moment from pose to pose, you would never do that with more traditional Disney characters. But with the genie, we really had to... Yes, you have to speed it up in a very... It’s tough to explain that without a visual demonstration.
Mike: 47:20 I don’t normally do this job. But I feel like you’ve been on particularly those Disney Renaissance ones. And there’s only so much research I can do on yourself. Is there anything that comes to mind as another memorable story from those years because I feel like there are probably many? I’m just going to throw it to you.
Joe: 47:35 But I mean, the thing that you have to understand back then... And it’s much like that today, but back then you’re entering a culture. So, everybody had Disney was steeped in the Disney culture. So, you had to learn all that stuff yourself. I mean, you have to know the background of all of the Disney movies. But you’re in with the best people in the world. And you have to keep up. So, I think there was always this feeling like, you’re in a high school where you’re trying to keep up with all the best athletes and smartest kids. But the funny thing that I found was, none of them were into comic books, very few were back then we’re into comic books. So, the generation I grew up with, and the people who got into comic books or into animation really didn’t like superhero comics. That’s what I grew up with. So, a lot of the basis that I had brought to the table, all the history of what I learned, how I learned to draw, and all these things came from comic books. And they were not really helping me at Disney. And then, I realized there were very few of us who were steeped in that Marvel DC world.
So, I found a friend of mine, Chris Bailey, we’re still friends today. And we always laugh about this, like that was our bonding thing is that we were the few guys who actually liked this stuff. But that was the biggest hurdle about being a Disney... It was learning the culture and speaking the language. And I’m sure if you go to Pixar today, you’d have to do that too or any other major successful established studio, that. We went through lots of interesting hurdles. Hitting the 100 million mark at the box office was a really big deal! So, I think Beauty and the Beast was the first time we ever hit 100 million, even Little Mermaid didn’t do it. So, that was like a major celebration. The movie before that, Rescuers Down Under, we started on that was considered a bit of a failure. Although, I think it’s a brilliant movie. But for some reason, it just didn’t hit with the audiences. People don’t talk about it anymore. But I remember at the time, the executives were thinking of that movie as the training film for all the young guys. Like we had... They had just brought over a lot of the Roger Rabbit people and the new Cal Arts Kids. That movie was kind of a bit of a training ground for us.
This is what I thought I heard about Rescuers Down Under... It was... Jeffrey wanted that to be his James Bond like franchise. So, he thought, we’ll make a Rescuers Down Under every hue... or not down under but a rescuers movie every few years. And I think he picked Australia as a setting for that movie because he had passed on Crocodile Dundee years before and regretted it. He thought, maybe, let’s set this in Australia. I don’t know. These were the stories you hear when you’re at the studio. So consequently, it never became a franchise because it didn’t do well. But I think a lot of us who worked on it, hold it very close to our hearts. And I learned a lot on that movie. We move forward through, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, which was one of the greatest experiences working with Eric Goldberg, Ron and John and on a character like that. That’s just like, I look back in my career day and go, I want to do that now. I want to do that now. I’m good. Now I’m really good. I could do that without a struggle. But now, there’s nothing like it.
So, as we progressed and then Lion King came out. Lion King was the real groundbreaker. It suddenly hit numbers that nobody had ever seen at the box office before. And I mean, it changed everything at the studio. Suddenly, after Lion King, Jeffrey broke away from the studio. He went started DreamWorks. And he was calling all of us to come over and work for him. And what we were less aware of... I mean, we knew this was happening, but there was a pissing contest between him and Michael Eisner. And the pawns on the table were us. Basically, if you wanted to make an animated movie, back in those days, of the caliber of movie that we were making, you need these artists. That’s it. There’s only a few 100 of them on the planet Earth.
And most of them were at Disney. And the few that weren’t at Disney would never come to LA. So, they were spread throughout Europe. And that was it. So, they weren’t minting anymore. I mean, it would take a long time for a kid from college to come out and be good enough to work on these movies. So, they knew that keeping these artists is the only way that you can keep your business going. And Jeffrey was trying to bring a lot of us over to DreamWorks. So, the insane thing is we were like meeting with Jeffrey. I mean, he would call me over. I have sit with him for two hours in his office, as he tries to sort of pitch what DreamWorks is going to be. Every one of us had that experience. And if you didn’t sign on, then he would throw Steven Spielberg at you.
So then, at that time, I needed money badly. I was going through a divorce and everything. So, money was really important. I think my contract was up and they were bidding on me on both sides. So, I waited to hear what the offer was from DreamWorks at that point. I hadn’t heard one. But he called Steven Spielberg. I guess, we set up a meeting and I went to meet Steven Spielberg. And I hadn’t met him already on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” Not that he would remember but on Roger Rabbit, he gave us a photograph of us. When we came over to your desk and chatted with you. He had a photographer with him. And he took a picture of you chatting with Steven Spielberg. And he sent us all these beautiful black and white glossy pictures. And he signed it specifically to you. And I remember that photograph really helped to legitimize my career choice when I showed it to my mom.
So, we had a laugh about that when I chatted with him. He’s just an amazing guy. So, personable and makes you forget that who he is. We just sat in a room with him for an hour and we just shot the shit as we were a couple of Fanboys. And then, every now and then I just kind of like, what am I doing here? This is [unclear 54:02] in his office at Amblin. I mean, who do I think I am? But he just said, hey! it’s up to you. If you want to come over, some people will, some people won’t, whatever and anyway. But it was such a lovely experience. I’ll never forget it. In the end, Disney outbid DreamWorks for me. I have to stay at Disney. But that was a heavy period of time where people’s salaries changing every few weeks or months, somebody made more than the person before.
I mean, literally a friend of mine came into my office one day, and he looked like he had just been hit by a sledgehammer. And I said, what’s up? And he said, Dude, I just picked up the phone and made half a million dollars. And I’m like, why? He said, I just cashed in some of my stock options. Another guy came in once and he said, they just offered me a million dollar signing bonus. And you’re going, what was their first offer? That was their offer. And I said, [unclear 55:00] from half a million dollars. And it was just so crazy. It was just crazy. And that went on for a few years. And then, of course, party came to an end by the late 90s. And so many factors were complicit at this point. I think, there was an enormous resentment from the executives and everybody that they have to pay artists that much money. And on the other side of that was, Pixar had started to rise in computer animation.
They were making enormous amounts of box office. But none of us felt threatened by it. Because we not owned Pixar at the time, but we felt like we were in partners with them. But a lot of the artists made the critical mistake, including myself, and thinking that Pixar films looked this way. Our films look this way. And we thought the look of the films were not at all compatible. So, you can have your chocolate, but we are peanut butter. It’s like, you’re not going to replace peanut butter with chocolate. I mean, it’s ridiculous. So, a lot of us thought, we’re not threatened by this. Well, that was really dumb. And but the thing that really put the final nail in the coffin of that was Shrek and ice age. And this is my personal theory.
At that point, when I really noticed that the executive started to feel very anxiety ridden bed... When those two movies came out. They were the first time that a movie outside the name Disney had made Disney Dollars, prior to that other movies that sort of hit, close, and they got some good box office, but never did they ever achieve almost Lion King box office. And then, suddenly these two movies... Even Pixar movies had the name Disney on them. So, it wasn’t like, Oh! Pixar came out of nowhere. But suddenly, these 2 movies from DreamWorks and Fox came out. It was just like, oh my god, they made real money. And I think, the executives at that point thought. Okay, enough of this! So, let’s get rid of the 2d animation, change the pipeline to CG, switch over to this. Because it was interpreted that CG animation would be viewed by teenagers and young adults.
They would go see a CG animated film. But 2D was considered very young and adolescence. So, they felt like the audience was bigger. They could have been right. Certainly back then, because every CG movie was making enormous box office after that. We went through a terrible period in the late 90s, early 2000s, where the studio became very toxic in. And everybody was not picked up. And people were being let go. And it was just a steady stream of people leaving. And eventually my turn came up. And by that point, I saw the writing on the wall, and I decided I wanted to be a storyboard artist. And I transitioned to storyboarding. And it’s been pretty much like that since then. But along the way, I also made a short film with my buddy, Jim.
So, it was in the early 2000s, that was when the bomb had gone off and change everywhere. And you have to pick a position. So some people decided to become CG animators. I tried it. I didn’t love it. I decided to stay in the world where story really interested me in storyboarding and still drawing. So, I thought that was the direction to go. But when I left Disney, I told my friend, Jim. Hey! man, we have enough money. Let’s take a break. And let’s make our own film. I’ve been working in the industry for a long time. We’ve been making other people’s movies, let’s you and I take a break and make our own film. And we thought, okay, cool. We made a blood pack not to get a job for a year. And we thought, okay! We can do this. We can make an animated film. We decided to make a hybrid film like, Roger Rabbit. So, we could also learn live action. So, we put some money on the table and went on this little adventure together. And a year later, the film was nowhere near complete, and eventually dragged on for four and a half years to make this 15-minute film.
So, kids at home, if you’re going to make an animated film, you better really know what you’re doing. We did it the old school way on paper. We were trying to do it with a level of quality that we were familiar with. But we didn’t understand what it would take to do all of the technical things with it. The live action was actually much easier. We enjoyed doing that. It took like four days to shoot this film. And then, we spent the rest of the years trying to get the animation into the live action. Because we had worked at the studio for so many years, we never thought of the actual logistics of it.
So, just paper, just paper alone, like how much this paper costs? We used to have a supply room at Disney. Anybody can take as much as you want, e.g., paper, pencils, or whatever you want. So suddenly, we had no paper. There’s actually price tag for that. You have to go buy it. And we were shocked by all of it. Once we left, Disney was shocked by the real world and all the things that we had to cope with. But we had a really good producer, Susan Cohen, who was a friend of mine. And she walked us through the real world logistics, and got us deals. So, we were able to make this very complicated little film. Jim and I were creatively ready to do but we weren’t ready as... People have to actually make the real world stuff happen to meet... Rubber meeting the [unclear 1:00:48] And Susan really helped us with that, like crazy. So, I learned a lot about making a little independent film. And it won lots of awards.
Mike: 1:00:56 That was fantastic. I knew, I could trust throwing it to the floor there. Joe, that was brilliant. You had really fantastic stories. Everyone should go and check out Animated American. It is so good. It is exactly like watching real professional Disney movie. So, to wrap up on red carpet rookies, I always do my own version of [unclear 1:01:24] actor studio questionnaire. So, just say whatever comes into your head, Joe. Are you ready? Number 1, what is one of the best pieces of advice you’ve ever been given?
Joe: 1:01:34 I’ll never forget when I was in Disney when I was there. For the first years, your job does not end at your desk. A producer told me that and Kathleen Gavin is her name. And she was basically telling me you got to go and network for your next job. And I said, I already work at Disney. She said, that’s not a guarantee that you’re going to be on the next movie. You got to go to tell those directors on the next movie, that you want to be on their movie. Tell them what character you’re interested in and show some passion. That was not the way I was like or my personality was. I prefer to just stay back and be a quiet artist. But I will never forget that advice. And I’ve been using it ever since. Network! Network! Network! I mean, everybody in the industry knows that.
Mike: 1:02:25 Number 2. Do you have a favorite film?
Joe: 1:02:27 Clearly, Roger Rabbit and Aladdin were the most incredibly cathartic films for me. But I should have other films too. There are so many films that I love. Strangely enough, Richard Curtis films, I really go back to them over and over again. I don’t know. They’re just so well written. Those have smooth dialogues. And I know, they’re just feel good movies, but I love them.
Mike: 1:02:52 There is nothing wrong with that. Number 3, what gives you a reason to get up out of bed every day for a day of animating or storyboarding?
Joe: 1:02:59 Oh my God, that’s a great one. I love doing it. You have to love doing it. And I just get a kick out of drawing. If animating I mean, there’s nothing like that. Those drawings move and create a performance on the screen is still the biggest magic trick I’ve ever seen. And even when I do it I’m always shocked as anybody else by the result. And storyboarding it’s just another form of writing. Especially in animation, we really get to contribute enormously to the story. So, you’re not just picking shot. You’re actually influencing the acting. You’re influencing the atmosphere. You’re influencing the pacing. So, you’re directing a sequence yourself. And it’s just very satisfying, even though most of the time it ends up being thrown away.
Mike: 1:03:48 Number 4, which job in the industry would you do if you weren’t doing yours?
Joe: 1:03:52 For sure, directing! I must have been a writer or a director. If I could have started again, if I went back and talked to my younger self, that would have been a really strong direction, I would have pursued the thing that I came to too late in the game.
Mike: 1:04:08 Number 5, this is one that is the hardest one, in my opinion. If you could work with one person living or dead, who would it be? And also, I think, you didn’t work with him. But I am all right that you met... Probably our most legendary guests so far Peter, the production designer of Titanic.
Joe: 1:04:25 Oh my god. That’s right. Yes! That’s the different sorry. But to answer the first part of your question I’m actually still hoping this will happen. I would love to work with Brad Bird. He and I worked together years and years ago on a commercial before he became Brad Bird. And I freelanced a little bit on a coke commercial that he was doing. I got to know him. he’s such a brilliant guy. He mildly reconnected at parties a couple of years ago. And I keep hearing of a movie that he wants to make that I’m really interested in working with him on. But that would be so awesome. I just I admire him so much, but I admire many people. But he’s one who’s kind of crossed over successfully into live action. And still he did brilliant work in animation.
As far as Peter Lamont goes, in London way back, I got to work on a movie called Highlander as a storyboard artist. And I got it through a fluke. But after I finished that movie, I wanted to do another live action film. And I was meeting a production designer at Pinewood. I finished my interview with the production designer. I didn’t want to leave Pinewood. So, I asked him what other movies are going on in the building that I can maybe pop in and see other production designers. And this was true story, he would point out to one movie. He said, A Little Shop of Horrors is going on over there, go see somebody. And I went in, and I literally crashed into their production office. And I said, I’m here with my portfolio. And they were all super nice. I was very young. And they all accommodated me. And I asked them, do you know of another production designer? I could go see. And this went on as a chain. I did this the whole day.
Mike: 1:06:05 Network! Network! Network!
Joe: 1:06:06 Yes. And I didn’t have that advice back then. But I didn’t want to leave Pinewood Studios. And I thought this was the last time I ever come here. I’m pretty sure. And it was. But anyway, the last one I walked into was Peter Lamott. And he was literally making some a deal at the time for the movie Aliens. And I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t know who he was. He was so nice. He said, could you wait for me outside? And he finished whatever the meeting was, and then he was nice enough to look at my portfolio and give me some advice. And he thought, he said, I use a lot of my own board artists, but I will call you if I need extra people. And he never called me but I’ve just like, he’s always stayed in my head and heart as somebody who could have like, thrown me out of his office and probably should have. But it was very nice to me at a time when I was really young and stupid.
Mike: 1:07:05 That’s wonderful to hear. Number 6, what is a book that everyone should read? It doesn’t have to be a film book.
Joe: 1:07:10 Any! There’s so many, but I’ll say the one that actually affected me. And it’s not a film book. But it actually affected my decisions on how to direct my career. And it’s the book that everybody may have read called “Rich Dad, Poor Dad.”
Mike: 1:07:25 Robert Kiyosaki. Yes.
Joe: 1:07:29 And it’s about how to look at money, how to look at investing, and how to look at making a weekly paycheck. It’s stuff that I did not know anything about being an artist. I know nothing about that stuff. And I think everyone should read it, who is an artist, because we all have to make money. You have to know what to do with it when you make it. Otherwise, you will always be scrounging!
Mike: 1:07:55 Great advice. And finally, if you want an Oscar, who would you thank?
Joe: 1:07:58 I would naturally want to thank the people who got me there, but my mother and my late father, of course. Because in the end, we’re always do this for them. They are the ones that you want to feel some level of pride that, hey, we did not waste our time raising this brat. I think, my dad would especially have thought because he loved movies. I think, he would have loved that I did all of this. But he died when I was 12. And I don’t think he obviously ever saw that I was heading in that direction. My mom is still here. Thank God! So, I hope that she will. I know she’s dying for me to win an Oscar. But I’m sorry mom. I don’t think it’s going to happen.
Mike: 1:08:41 On that note, we very sadly must bring our interview to a close. Thank you so much, Joe. Absolutely, your passion bleeds through the screen. Thank you so much for your time!
Joe: 1:08:49 Oh my god. Thank you. That was lots of fun.