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Animator's Story. Jean Morel

This spring, a well-known animator Jean Morel did me an honor when he told me about his early career. I am very grateful to Jean and I decided to publish it on the, being sure that visitors of my site will appreciate it! Moreover I think that problems and challenges faced by Jean, will seem familiar to many of Russian young artists. Jean is very talented animator with amazing resume which includes many well-known pro-Disney animated films such as "All Dogs Go to Heaven", "The Lion King", "Hercules", "Tarzan", "Asterix and the Vikings", "Brandon and the Secret of Kells". By the way, his wife Annette Morel built a career in animation also - in particular at the Disney studio she worked on many films in the range of "The Lion King" to "Treasure Planet". Now, Mr. Morel lives in Ireland.

So here Jean Morel is speaking...

The third year [at Sheridan classical animation course] we were required to work on our individual film and do our best to complete it. Some people did finnish such as Nik Ranieri who made a film called "Common Problems" which was a spoof of Canadian parliament with caricatures of then politicians. It was a hit! and was showcased by the college. I myself didn't finish my film, but graduated in 1985 with honours and a Kodac film award. Back then it was too labour intensive with all the clean up and cel painting to get it done within 10 months or so. I intended to finish it after graduating but we had to get to work in the industry.

We had no idea of the second golden age coming at all. People were quitting Disney at that time and it was not the place to work. They were doing "The Great Mouse Detective" but it wasn't expected to do well and having suffered a flop with "The Black Cauldron". All we heard was that the studio was on it's last legs and would be broken up and sold off if "Detective" didn't do well. But there were some exciting things happening in Los Angeles for a few years while we were in college, like the video games "Dragon's Lair" and "Space Ace" by Bluth, the most exciting studio back then that we really wanted to work for, but being Canadian and not thinking that we were anywhere good enough. So it was basically just a dream and had to settle for whatever was going on in Canada, and do our best to eke out a living. Most of us were young and single and I was back living at my parent's house. I went to Atkinson Film Arts in my hometown of Ottawa as a background layout artist on "The Racoons" tv show. But quickly changed to assistant animator and then animator on following projects such as Babar and a short film using music from rock group Rush and a couple of other things. The weekly salary I made was little more than beer money.

Then I heard that the Zondags and later Pudleiner and a couple of other people such as Rick Bentham and Barry Atkinson went down to LA to apply at Bluth which was ramping up production for "American Tail" and got hired! I think it was Pudleiner I contacted and He encouraged me to come down and do a clean up test. So I took a couple of weeks off from work, and flew on a very cheap flight from Montreal to LA (99 dollars!) on People's Express airline. This airline worked this way: you got on the plane, having reserved beforehand and found your seat and then you put the cash (no credit cards) in a little pocket in front of you. Later, this airline went out of business because a lot of the planes were found to have cracks in the fuselage!!

So I got to LA with portfolio and stayed in the apt. that the Zondags, Pudleiner, Atkinson and Bentham were renting. We pretty crammed in. I was sleeping on the floor. Bentham was sleeping under the dinning table. Anyways, I met the people at the studio and left my portfolio. With two weeks to kill, I did the usual tourist things and hung out with the guys. Going to Westwood on the west side of LA was the nightlife back then. I cooked a lot for my roomates as well. The "Young Ones" was the British comedy show we watched religiously every night on TV while eating and drinking of course! LA, for me, was magical with the balmy weather and the palm trees, ect...a different world completely from the cold northeast. I'm sure you can relate being from Russia.

I should mention that I went to a couple of other studios as well...I did a clean up test at Filmation for "He-man" Saturday morning TV show. I showed my portfolio at Dick Williams studio, which closed a short time later. I went to Hanna Barbera for an interview with none other than the famous veteran Harry Love. He told the first thing to do is join the union! It was fun talking to him. He was pretty much the boss of Hanna Barbera, not being an artist anymore. His brother was Ed Love, who was an equally famous Bugs Bunny animator. And I also had a visit to Disney where I was shown around by Dave Stephan who was working there as an animator on "The Great Mouse Detective" I remember he flipped a scene by Glen Keane of Ratigan for me and I was entranced! Dave was a graduate from Sheridan a few years before me and was the first canadian to get hired at a well known studio like Disney. I wrote him a letter while I was in college. He replied and told me to call him if I ever came down to LA and he would show me the studio. What a great guy. He is now working in live action as a storyboard artist.

Then the holiday was over and I went back to Ottawa and my job. Not knowing if Bluth was interested. The xmas holidays went by, so I was kind of depressed as it didn't look like it was going to happen.

Then in January I got a call from John Pomeroy himself which was a shock of course (like getting a call from God!) He called to tell me that they were sending me a clean up test. I had to do a few breakdowns and inbetweens of a scene of Daphne (sexy girl) from Dragon's Lair. I got the test, laboured for a few days and sent it back and waited. A couple of weeks went by and then I got another call from Pomeroy and he was really happy with my test and asked me to come down as soon as possible, to do clean up with Vera Lampher's crew. I was thrilled of course!

So I finished my work on Babar or whatever it was I was working on and gave my notice. I flew down again on People's express the day after the Challenger Space Shuttle tragedy in 1986. And I was back on the floor in the canadian Ghetto. So I started work in the wharehouse annex across the street from the main building in Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley which is often called Little Mexico. I got my first scene from Vera which was the scene where Fievel the mouse is singing with the Pidgeon on the statue of liberty.

I had never done clean up so it was a total learning experience. The clean up at Bluth was the best in the world and was done mostly over the animator's own roughs in Blue to save time and money. So you can imagine how intense that could be because you could easily destroy the animator's work! It was a big thing to make it to Key cleanup which my friend Mark Pudleiner became. Of course I started off by doing tight inbetweens and then later to assistant breakdowns. I never got to Key clean up except maybe on some of the crowd stuff (and there was a lot of crowds on that film... a lot of mice!) because the production ended before I got to that level.

My first real encounter with Don was interesting, having only met him briefly on my first visit to the studio in 1985. Upon finishing my first scene it was the studio policy that Don would look at the work of any new hire. So I shot the completed short Fievel scene and then Don was called to the video tester (using VHS tapes!) I'm there shaking trying to keep calm while Don is studying my inbetweened test. He does a few hmmm...hmmm's and sits me down to discuss the test. Now the character Fievel had some very tricky drawing problems, especially around the eye area and the rounded brow. He was a lot like Mickey Mouse in design. Mickey Mouse is notoriously hard to draw and only a handful of people could do it and most of them are dead! Andreas Deja at Disney was the most well known present day animator to be able to draw him really well. So Don tells me that there are problems with my drawings that I need to fix and proceeds to show me all about the relationship of positive and negative shapes. Wow! What an eye opener. It revealed so much for me. Don is such an amazing teacher and leader.

During clean up on Tail, I was working on my animation test of a Brontosaurus eating seaweed and was showing my efforts to Pomeroy who would make me do it over and! Then the day came when he liked it and I made the move from clean up to assistant animator with Linda Miller on her crew. That was a great day!

"American Tail" was mostly animated and cleaned up in Los Angeles with the follow up work like ink and paint done in Ireland. The next one would be entirely done in Ireland. So Bluth were looking to hire people like me in view of bringing over to Ireland to help with the training of the employees from Ireland even though I was myself training to become an animator. You couldn't just send Don, John, Gary over. There had to be a core of north american and a few european workers with experience because a lot of Bluth's native californians didn't want to go and would just quit after Tail and stay in LA to find work at other studios.

So the three heads of the studio, a few of their top animators and us (canadians) and a few other people from different places around the world shipped off and settled into a building next to the big park in Dublin to produce "The Land Before Time". It was a real challenge because I was apprenticing with Linda Miller. Learning to animate four legged creatures convincingly is the ultimate tough assignment in animation. So it was good training that I would apply for later films such as "All Dogs Go To Heaven" and "Lion King" for example.

Gradually as the production progressed I was weaning off assisting and getting more bits to animate on Linda's scenes, like secondary characters, ect... She was the best person to work with as it was the old Disney way of doing things. After all, she trained under the amazing Eric Larsen who trained the new Disney recruits for many years. Her drawing was so accurate and the roughs you only had to put a dark line on it. So of course, cleanup loved Linda Miller scenes. My first scenes completely on my own were of the T-rex looking for Littlefoot when he's hiding under the thorn bush. The looking up shot at the rex through the hole in the bush was a real challenge that caused me a lot of pain for a couple of weeks.

But with Linda's help I got through it!"

So it all started.