by Ed Symkus
There are those of us who trudge off to work every day wondering why 5 pm seems so far off. Just as there are many of us who thank their lucky stars for the careers we've managed to carve out. Since he started working for the Disney company in 1973, animator John Pomeroy has been thanking a lot of those stars.
For the past three years, Pomeroy has been serving as supervising animator for the lead character, Milo (voiced by Michael J. Fox), in Disney's newest animated feature, Atlantis: The Lost Empire. And even though during pre-production, Pomeroy first looked over story sketches and layout drawings for the film, then watched and listened to videotapes of Fox playing the part, a great deal of what went into actually bringing the character to life had to do with what was going on in his own head.
"Oh yeah, I have to have my own personal identification with the character, or he'll just be false. It won't work at all," says Pomeroy, sitting back with a smile of satisfaction on his face. "The authenticity and the honesty with which the character is depicted is really in the hands of that character's supervising animator. And unless they have that personal identification, you won't be able to transform into that character, and you won't be able to animate him convincingly.
"All of the bits and pieces of information -- as far as the direction and the acting, and what I get from Michael and from animators and co-workers -- all of this gets put into my brain, and then it's poured through my arm out the end of the pencil onto the surface of the paper," he adds. "But it has to go through my brain -- that synthesized part -- and it works in conjunction with the needs of that particular scene at that moment. Sometimes the scene will be 100 percent me; sometimes it's all Michael J. Fox; other times it'll be fragments from several different sources coming together, and it'll be a real potpourri of personality stew."
Pomeroy, whose most recent work has included supervising the animation of Captain John Smith in Pocahontas and the Firebird in the "Firebird Suite" segment of Fantasia 2000, found that one of the biggest and best, differences between Atlantis and other films he's worked on is that the new one has no songs.
"That afforded us a little extra time," he explains. "A lot of that went into the action sequences. But it gave the animators a little extra time to do some really nice, juicy acting scenes with our characters -- scenes where the character stands still and reflects about himself, his predicament and the characters around him. And that's really fun. It's challenging, because some of the scenes are pretty subtle, and we thought that was an opportunity to break some new ground in acting for animation. There's a scene where Milo is up on a plateau, overlooking all of Atlantis, and he's thinking of his grandfather and gets choked up inside, and he begins to tear up and he gets embarrassed and he's trying to hide that and he laughs it off. These are subtle things."
But Pomeroy also has a few tricks up his sleeve that serve as a sort of barometer of the quality of his work: his kids, who are 8, 5 and 2.
"They all like to draw," he says. "So I was showing them early-stage drawings of how Milo looked. And if they're peppering me with a lot of questions, then I know that I'm in trouble. But if they look at it and then go off on their own and immediately start drawing it, then I think, 'Hey, it looks like it's working.' "
Pomeroy, too, has been an artist since he was a kid, first painting and making marionettes.
"I was working with puppets and putting on shows," he recalls. "I was around 13 years old, and I decided I'd make the perfect replica of Pinocchio. I went to the L.A. County Library and was looking for some photo reference, and I came across a book that was written in 1942 called The Art of Walt Disney. I pulled it out and blew the dust off and opened it up and started thumbing through the pages. It was written during the studio's golden age and was about their process of making films when they were in the middle of Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo and Fantasia.
"I read that book from cover to cover six times," he continues. "I put away the paint brushes, put away the puppets. What's that line in Apocalypse Now? Marlon Brando says, 'Like I was hit by a diamond bullet.' It was like receiving a calling. I knew that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my years. And it was just a matter of focusing in and going for it, going to art classes, putting together portfolios, studying architecture and all the things I thought were needed in order to qualify to get to the animation mecca."
Pomeroy refers to the day he got the job at Disney as a fabulous one. It came after making presentations of three portfolios and receiving two rejections, but his third try was the charm. And his timing couldn't have been better.
"It was amazing because the key artists that worked there were known as the nine old men," he says excitedly, in reference to the nine animators upon whom the studio's reputation for quality work rested. "And we got to work right along with them. They were still in production. They were right in the trenches with us working. We got to learn all their trade secrets, and they were like mentoring us. It was a wonderful period of time."
Pomeroy's first project at Disney was Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too! on which he got to work closely with one of the nine old men, Frank Thomas.
"I was an animator, and he was my supervising animator," he says. "I would show him all of my scenes and get his approvals. And he was a perfectionist. I remember doing one scene where Tigger was walking in the snow, sadly. He had me do that damn thing 18 times. Because in each case there was something wrong. I had missed a stitch on the fabric of the performance. He said, 'Always make sure that whatever you put down on paper is the very best you can produce.' And that was a strong lesson. I still feel it to this day, so that whatever attempt I make in performing on paper is the very best possible."
There are also a few other sides of Pomeroy's artistic endeavors that have nothing to do with animation.
"I love doing portraits, landscapes, still lifes," he says. "But my real passion is military history painting or illustration -- big battle panoramas like the Civil War, the Napoleonic Wars. I work in oils and acrylics and have had exhibits in New York and Texas and Tennessee, and a lot of exhibiting in California."
But he's never far away from big screen animation, and he can hardly contain himself about the excitement he feels when he finally sits down in a theater to watch the completed project.
"For me, this is a time of reward," he says. "I sit in the audience, and for me to hear the audible response of laughter or tears to something I created on the screen, man, that's really a thrill."
Of course, he also gets to see any little mistakes he's made being played out bigger than life.
"Oh yeah, if I have an elation over a scene, it's never more than maybe half a day, and then I might think of 20 other ways I could have done something," he says. "And that's kind of a curse. The actual art form, itself -- me infusing myself into the drawing and me creating into the drawing and me creating something out of nothing and suddenly I see a life pulse on my paper -- that's the thrill. That's the addicting part of animation for me. And it can't be duplicated in any other form."
Atlantis opens at AMC and Regal on June 14.