Interview: John Cawley

We are proud to present to you a renaissance man of modern animation. With a wealth of work under his belt, John Cawley has most recently working as a producer on on Cartoon Network’s series “Dexter’s Laboratory” and “Megas XLR”. Add to this the many series he wrote for that literally shaped the Saturday morning landscape in the 1990’s and you’ll discover that almost everyone has seen some of Cawley’s work at some point. From writer, to producer, to research and development, we’d like to introduce you to John Cawley.

CNF: The Fansite: What animated shows or movies have you worked on in the past?

John Cawley: I received screen credit on the following: An American Tail, Garfield and Friends, Garfield: Babes and Bullets, Cro, Bobby’s World, Mighty Max, Spider-man: The Animated Series, Angry Beavers, Flintstones: On the Rocks, Dexter’s Laboratory, Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, and the upcoming Megas XLR (formerly LowBrow). I also contributed to Bango the Woodpile Cat, Dragon’s Lair II, The Land Before Time, Huck’s Landing, The Fox and the Hound, The Rescuers Down Under, Bat Rat (pilot), Beauty and the Beast, Invader Zim, Mother Good and Grimm, The Rat Pack, The Pink Panther (prime time pilot), and many others. *whew*

CNF: The Fansite: Do you have a favorite project you’ve worked on?

J. Cawley: Probably a toss-up between Garfield and Friends and Dexter’s Laboratory due to the camaraderie of the crew and extreme teamwork between execs, creators and staff.

CNF: The Fansite: How did you get into the animation industry?

J. Cawley: By accident. My original goal was to go into journalism, which is what my degree is. A special project on the history of animation gave me the bug about animation history. I eventually ended up at the Walt Disney Studio Archives. At the time, the animation department was still on the lot in the original animation buildings. There, I began to discover animation production and creation. My talks with such folks as Glen Keane, Randy Cartwright and Ron Clements allowed me to see how production and creativity blended and battled. Before I knew it, I was being invited to screenings of THE FOX AND THE HOUND. The animators hoped my “independent story sense”, as they called it, would help some of the execs smooth out some story points. The animators liked the fact that I was plot driven, and not art driven. They felt the film was being damaged by execs (and even directors) who kept creating visuals that slowed the plot. Glen Keane, in particular, felt the film too formula. We spent several lunch hours together re-thinking scenes. My next animation gig was at the long forgotten Tom Carter Studio where I handled creative chores until a collapse of the animation studio created the need for someone who understood animation production. Since I was the only writer who had worked at an animation studio, I was asked to oversee the production. I then moved to the Bluth studio. Don hired me to handle public relations, but hoped I would help write future videogames. When AN AMERICAN TAIL began, I moved fully into production. I talked to Don about the switch. He stated there were lots of folks who could write, but there were very few that could oversee animation production who understood the creative process as well as the production end. Since then I seem to find myself more on the production end than creative.

CNF: The Fansite: What type of schooling did you go through?

J.Cawley: I graduated with a journalism degree from Cal State University Long Beach. My training in animation came from working in the trenches. In the early days, the studios were not as free with their money on the production end. On some series, I was the only production person working. That meant I had to learn how to do about anything needed from scheduling and budgets, to correcting storyboards, to reading exposure sheets, booking voice talent, hiring artists and more. I recently took courses on editing and flash. One reason I work well with lots of creators is that they know they can give me any task and I both understand it, and in many cases, can do it.

CNF: The Fansite: Do you have a favorite cartoon or comic character?

J. Cawley: I always consider this a trick question. I think most people change their tastes as years go by. As they would say in Hollywood, my short list would include Tom & Jerry, the Pink Panther, Huckleberry Hound, Heckle & Jeckle and Scooby Doo. Feature films on a similar list would be THE LION KING, WATERSHIP DOWN, SPIRITED AWAY, DUMBO and MONSTERS, INC.

CNF: The Fansite: What inspires and motivates you in your career?

J.Cawley: As corny as it sounds, a desire to create entertaining animation. And by this I mean projects that are as much fun to make as they are to watch. Too many projects are too busy trying to be clever or artistic than to make cartoons that entertain everyone.

CNF: The Fansite: Any current projects underway?

J. Cawley: Having finished the first season of MEGAS XLR, I am now involved with several series at Cartoon Network that are a bit early in production to discuss.

CNF: The Fansite: Any memorable stories from your work experiences (particular shows/movies)?

J. Cawley: Wow. I wouldn’t know where to start. I also wouldn’t know where to stop. (I do need to keep working in this business.) The happiest stories are about folks that make creating animation so much fun. The funniest stories feature the folks who create frustration and waste.

CNF: Fansite: What do you think the most important element is for writing for animation is?

J. Cawley: Besides the obvious answers of being fresh, funny, and exciting, it is more important to be on time. As animation folks often say, “it all starts with the story.” Putting that into a timeline context, it also means nothing starts without a story. Writers who take their time are really taking time away from everyone else. I know of too many productions (series and feature) that have to rush through storyboards, design, voice work, timing and animation because of late scripts or constantly revising scripts. Second to timeliness is simplicity. Disney’s nine old men used to state if you could not tell your story in 7 minutes, it was too complex. Such complexity leads to too much dialogue and too little time on character.

CNF: The Fansite: Most people don’t know what exactly a line producer does. What is your typical day like on the job?

J. Cawley: Sadly, most of the time is spent in meetings. There are meetings with studio management and network execs to discuss how to get the production done in the time and budget allowed. These meetings lead to meetings with the talent to figure out how to get the production done in the time and budget allowed. But to boil it all down to the basics, the line producer’s job is to get the production done! As mentioned, I have done a lot and so I might be doing anything from creating color models to drawing backgrounds on storyboards to creating lead sheets. There is also the photocopying of materials, shipping things overseas, hiring talent, traveling overseas, and (sadly) laying off talent. You have to be familiar with everything happening on the show. Good line producers must be creative and intuitive.

CNF: The Fansite: Many fans have been asking about some of the in-jokes on “Garfield and Friends” in particular. Is there any backstory “Klopman Diamond” recurring gag? Also, did you have anything to do with the “Cawley Drops” Garfield tried to sell to Nermal?

J. Cawley: The back story to the “Klopman Diamond” is simply that Jim Davis and Mark Evanier found the name funny and dropped it in whenever they could. As for “Cawley Drops”, yes that comes from my name. Up through the 1980s, it was a fun thing to drop in caricatures and names of people on the staff. However, as the 90s came on with more legal issues, studios began to worry about such things and the trend is no longer not quite as common.

CNF: The Fansite: You’ve played a part in the development of many blockbuster animated features, mostly in the development stages. How important do you think research and development is to an animated feature?

J. Cawley: This is a real hot button topic. Research has been going on in Hollywood almost since movies began. There are numerous tales of films failing at test screenings and being altered before final release. Some feel the amount of research done is excessive, others feel it is vital. I would probably agree research is probably most valuable in locating scapegoats should a project fail. An exec can say, “It’s not my fault the show tanked, the research said it would be a hit.” On the topic of development, it depends on what you mean. If you mean the time spent building a project into a solid pitch, yes, it is necessary. Again, it can be done to excess. In fact, many unions feel the process is unfair. I personally worked with Disney features for nearly 6-months on a feature project they wanted to do. Suddenly, one day they decided to pass and that was it. My total payment was zero dollars. An associate spent several years in a similar “development hell” and ended up having to declare bankruptcy. And again, no amount of research or development can predict a hit.

CNF: The Fansite: Shows like “Cro”, “Bobby’s World”, “Flintstone Kids”, and “Fantastic Max” all seem to take place from a young person’s perspective. Do you find writing in that manner a challenge, or does it come naturally?

J. Cawley: A wise creator once stated that as long as you deal with genuine feelings and emotions, your story will transgress all ages. The key is to realize that everyone, at all ages has the same emotions. For example, if an exec is told the company is sending him to Paris on a business trip, he will become quite excited. Similarly, if you tell a child they are going to Disneyland this weekend, they will feel the same excitement. When the company then cancels the trip, and the child is later told the Disneyland trip is off, the adult and child will, again, feel similar emotions. Only the frame of reference is different. This goes back to the old “we didn’t make it for children” cry. The key is to remember that different ages have different references. For example, children won’t get jokes about taxes and politics.