Joe Strike interviews R.O. Blechman, the modest, soft-spoken gentleman, whose minimalist characters are a signature of his 55-year career in television animation.
No matter what their subject matter, R.O. Blechman's drawings are instantly recognizable: the squiggly, seemingly hesitant lines that know exactly where they're going, defining minimalist characters who face their dilemmas head-on with quiet self-assurance.
They're not unlike their creator, a modest, soft-spoken gentleman who nonetheless possesses many strong opinions, usually couched in the politest of terms. In his 55-year career, R.O. Blechman has created hundreds of unforgettable images and several novels told in pictures; his signature style has come to life in numerous commercials and in a pair of PBS specials that deserve much wider distribution than they currently enjoy. From 1978 through 2004 Blechman headed up The Ink Tank, a New York studio that transformed the work of high-profile illustrators (himself included) into animated commercials.
Since closing the Ink Tank, Blechman has moved his base of operations to upstate New York's Hudson Valley. He still maintains a modest NYC pied-à-terre where he can keep tabs on his ongoing projects while in town. It was here I had the pleasure of conducting an early-April interview with R.O. (who, as it turns out, preceded me as an AWN contributor by several years). My first question of course was...
Joe Strike: What does the 'R.O.' stand for?
R.O. Blechman: Actually, my real name is Oscar. I just decided to have a pen name and R.O. provided a little interest -- an aura of mystery. I just inverted my two names -- instead of Oscar Robert, I thought, "hey why not R.O.?" It has no significance at all -- call me Bob, my friends all do. For many years I was called R.O. but it seemed a little stuffy. I hate Robert.
JS: Would you mind giving me a quick overview of your career?
ROB: My very first staff job was in an animation studio. I was 22 years old and I'd just gotten out of the army. I'd published a book [1953's The Juggler of Our Lady], which bought me to the attention of a wonderful animator named John Hubley. He took me to a fancy-shmancy place for lunch and asked me if I'd be willing to join his organization [Storyboard Studios]. What 22-year-old would say no? For the first year of his New York operation I did storyboards. My stuff was understandably considered un-animatable, because it's damned difficult to animate what is both a broken and a squiggly line.
Not only that but at that time UPA's look was the current style, so all my storyboards were given to other "designers" as they were then called. That was my first real introduction to animation. I do remember when I was a 19-year-old in college it suddenly occurred to me like a thunderclap that the next great art form would be animation.
JS: Where did that come from?
ROB: I don't know, because I hadn't seen anything. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was always interested in doing picture stories, which are now called graphic novels, and I always loved the idea of combining words and images. And I also loved film, who didn't love film?
I suppose it was the conjunction of my two interests, which made me think animation was the wave of the future, and boy was I wrong. I don't think animation is anywhere near where it should be.
For many years I freelanced. Then I thought, "Hey, why don't I actually work with the animator directly and give the studio my animated work rather than just give them the drawings? That way I can supervise the stuff a little more closely."
JS: Juggler of Our Lady was animated in 1958; was it done by Hubley?
ROB: No. In 1958 CBS bought Terrytoons. Gene Deitch, with whom I worked at Storyboard, became the director there. He then persuaded me to lend my material to his operation to animate. I didn't direct it, I was the creative director. Al Kouzel directed it. There were some nice things about it. There were some things I was unhappy about, but so be it. No film anybody has ever created that doesn't have aspects that they would rather redo.
[In How to Succeed in Animation Deitch describes working on the film:
... Blechman was well aware of the Terrytoons product, and was terrified we would convert his little juggler into Mighty Mouse. I was literally on the phone with Bob every night for nearly a year before he finally relented. I assured him over and over again, that we would be absolutely true to his story and faithful to his graphic style. My ace card was Al Kouzel, one of the finest artists who ever worked with me. I knew that I could rely on Al to perfectly get Bob Blechman's images unscathed onto the big screen. Al was a talented and dedicated artist who worked with me for many years in many locations, even in Prague. He was able to get Bob's confidence. It was a prodigious undertaking, and Bob himself came into the studio to work with Al on the layouts. I monitored and guided the visual staging development each day. I knew this had to work and bring us needed prestige, or I would be finished immediately."]
JS: You also worked on A Date with Dizzy for John Hubley. [Blechman, Art Babbitt and Stan Walsh are credited with providing the short's animation, which features several Hubley TV commercials from the era.]
ROB: That was in 1953 or '54. It was live-action with little animated pieces. It was perfectly dreadful, it was god-awful.
JS: I'm sorry to hear that.
ROB: I'm sorry I was responsible for it.
JS: You did the animation?
ROB: No, no, I did the storyboard and the artwork, which was awful, just awful.[The curious can judge for themselves on YouTube.]
JS: It sounds like you're your own worst critic.
ROB: No, I'm quite fair about my stuff. It was really bad. It was much, much later in my career I started paying attention to the look of my work. I was always very funny and very bright as compensation for the fact that my stuff was awful looking. Then I started paying attention to the artwork.
JS: Can you explain that a little more? I'm not sure I follow you.
ROB: After Storyboard I worked with an outfit called Elektra Films for many years -- from the mid 1950s through the early 1970s; it was a very important studio at the time. I would give them storyboards, which the studio's animators would take over. Then it occurred to me I really ought to work with one or two of the animators so that I could be more involved in the process instead of just handing it off. After a while I realized I could call in somebody to help color the stuff, to do the ink and paint. A while after that I just started to produce my own work.
JS: The squiggly broken line is your signature; where did it come from?
ROB: My very first job, around 1952, was for a short-lived magazine called Park East. They gave me a page and told me to go do some drawings. I used a very tight crosshatch line, which was popular at the time. I think Ben Shahn was the innovator of that; Andy Warhol also used a crosshatch line when he was doing illustration. The reason I did it was because I was paid $100 and I thought they have to get their money's worth. They certainly wouldn't pay me all that money for a nervous broken line, so I took a popular style.
I was suppose I was playing with different styles and I kind of liked one particular look, so I started developing it. It's not as if I was born with it. I can see some similarities to the stuff I did when I was a student at Music and Art High School, but I see more dissimilarities to my present look.
I think any artist creates his or her own style -- it's natural and unnatural; natural in the sense that it came rather effortlessly, but then you perfect it. Even now I sometimes see my stuff is either too loose or too tight. It's not as if I sit down and draw a Blechman; I sit down and I create a Blechman.
JS: It looks very natural and instinctive.
ROB: It's interesting that when my work is animated it's enhanced by the animators. They give it a fluidity and emotion, and not merely the motion my work doesn't have when it's a still drawing -- when I'm lucky and work with the right people.
JS: What about that style drew you to it?
ROB: It probably conformed to my personality and character; it's as simple as that. There was a French saying in the 18th century -- "The style is the man." I think it's true, but the style is very often the better aspect of the man.
I also think I purposely -- let me see if I can express this right -- I purposely use humor and a certain modest look to sometimes say outrageous things. I get away with -- "Hey I'm only joking," but that's an unconscious thing, I don't sit down and say "I have to do something [modest] so my statements can be immodest."
JS: Your style is very distinctive. At one point I worked at a cable channel that printed a publicity brochure with a squiggly drawing of a man on its cover -- similar looking but a few generations removed from your work. The art director said, "We couldn't afford Blechman so we got a Blechman imitator." Does it ever bother you or do you take it as mark of pride?
ROB: It never used to bother me but now it bothers the hell out of me. I find that a lot of people have preempted the jobs I could do better. Also I suppose when I had a film studio I kind of removed myself from the illustration field and other people moved into the slot I had. Some of the people were even students of mine, because I taught for many years at the School of Visual Arts.
In one case I saw something that was so egregiously imitative that I said, "I'm going to sue this guy." It turned out to have been a very nice student of mine, and that was the end of that suit. The first time I looked at it I said, "I must've done this, it looks too good," and then I realized no, I hadn't done it.
JS: That studio was the Ink Tank; how did that company come about?
ROB: The birth of the Ink Tank was in 1978. I was able to produce an hour-long Christmas program for PBS called, Simple Gifts. I used about seven artists including Maurice Sendak, Seymour Chwast, James McMullan, and, being the producer and director, I also called on R.O. Blechman to contribute a segment.
JS: You're showing some favoritism there.
ROB: After that I decided, hey as long as I'm doing all these different styles, why don't I more formally organize a studio? Up until that point I'd never organized one. And I called it the Ink Tank.
JS: What other artists were involved?
ROB: chas b. slackman had done a section on Teddy Roosevelt in Simple Gifts. Edward Sorel did a very stylized crosshatch, it was wonderful. George Price, Tomi Ungerer and Whitney Darrow Jr. were also there. There are others I can't remember, but I also signed up some international artists including Andre Francois and Ronald Searle along with the Americans I had already worked with, but as it turned out they were a little too elite for the commercial marketplace.
JS: Was it challenging for your animators and inbetweeners to translate yours and these other very stylistically distinct artists' work into animation?
ROB: There was really no problem, they were very versatile. We never had animators on staff, they were always freelance people. There are certain animators who are very good with broad styles; there are others who are very good with fine styles.
We did have certain people on staff, ink and paint people. They were very precious in the days before Photoshop. To have watercolor not flicker uncontrollably, to keep it smooth from frame to frame meant that it actually had to be animated. There were very few ink and painters who could do that, so we kept them on staff.
JS: Are there any names among the ink and painters people might recognize?
ROB: No but they should, because they were extraordinary. One was Sara Calogero. She was an artist in her own right, and had a marvelous eye and a wonderful hand. I once was in awe of something she did and asked her, "How in the world did you do that Sara?" Without looking up she said, "Oh, that's my secret."
She was more than an ink and painter, just like the animators we worked with were more than just animators. I always thought of them as animated filmmakers, who were unfairly slotted in what I considered a lower category.
JS: It sounds like you were caught up running, administering a studio rather than doing creative work yourself. Is that a risk creative person has to take?
ROB: I enjoyed it a lot, I really did. When I went to England I saw Richard Williams' studio and I said I want to model myself after his studio. He had a commissary where people ate, so what I did was have a catered a lunch for everybody every Friday.
I did things like that. I showed films that I liked, I gave gifts to people, I had Spiegelman give out autographed copies of his Maus -- I loved running a studio. After having been a freelance illustrator working alone for a long while it was very nice to be surrounded by people I liked and respected. It was great to work with other styles also.
JS: Your website [www.roblechman.com] mentioned you won an Emmy.
ROB: I won a lot of Emmys. But I would say the studio won a lot of Emmys, I only won an Emmy for The Soldier's Tale.
JS: Why did you make the decision to leave the Ink Tank behind?
ROB: Business made the decision for me. All advertising was hit hard after 9/11. In 2002 there wasn't the work and like so many animation studios in the past I had over-expanded. I had two floors, 17 telephone lines and very few of them rang.
I'll never forget back in the '50s one of the biggest animation studios was Phoscine. One Christmas they held a great big party, the next Christmas they were out of business. It happens.
JS: So the Ink Tank is no more.
ROB: But I managed to do a commercial a while ago, not a good one but I managed to do it. It was for Zimmer Knees, knee replacements. A silly thing, but I was delighted; it pays the maintenance for this place. The animation was all done by hand, but everything else -- the coloring, compositing, everything else was digitized.
JS: Lately, a lot of the drawing has moved directly onto electronic tablets. A lot of people aren't even drawing on paper anymore.
ROB: Animators of the old school are obviously more comfortable with pen and ink and paper.
JS: This might be a good time to talk about The Soldier's Tale -- how did it come about?
ROB: It was sheer luck. After doing Simple Gifts I was invited to attend the Flaherty Film Seminar, which was being held in Milan. I met Suzanne Weil, the head of PBS in the hotel lobby who said, "I loved Simple Gifts. I'd love to do something else with you, do you have any plans?" I was so taken aback I said, "No, I can't think of any, but I'd love to do something." She said, "Well if you ever think of something get in touch."
I felt terrible. I did have ideas but I was so taken aback by the question. I walked slumped out of the hotel lobby. I happen to pass the La Scala opera house, and there was a billboard announcing the premiere of L'Histoire du soldat.
I thought, gee this would make a very interesting film. I went back to the hotel lobby and as good luck would have it she was still there. I said, "What about animating L'Histoire du Soldat?" She said, "It's funny you should mention that; my previous job was head of the Walker Arts Center and we mounted a prod of it. I would really be interested in that, can you send me a proposal?"
I thought, "That's the end of it. She's the head of PBS, why do I need to send her a proposal?" But I did and I didn't get an answer for many, many months and I forgot all about it. Then I received a phone call from WGBH: "We heard from Suzanne Weil that you were interested in doing a program on Histoire. It happens to be Stravinsky's centenary and we would love to do Histoire, based on your proposal."
It was just a chain of fortunate things -- if I hadn't been in Milan and met her, if I hadn't passed La Scala and sent her the proposal, and if hadn't been for the centenary...
But then there was something else. I managed to get 20,000 bucks from I guess it was WGBH, CPB or PBS, I don't even remember but I started making the film with this money. They were interested in doing a two or three-hour major program with people like Sheldon Harnick who'd done Fiddler on the Roof and others, but theirs were just proposals and I had actually started the damn thing. They only had so much money and they couldn't invest in everything, so they decided to put it into something that was already in production. They liked to see something tangible. That also was another link in a very fortunate chain. If I had just done a storyboard maybe they would've said, "Hey, let's go with Sheldon Harnick, who wants to do animation?"
JS: Let me ask you a little more about The Soldier's Tale. It has a lot of fascinating, stylized animation and multi-image scenes; you weren't just making pictures of the story, you were going for an emotional feel or impression. Where did that come from?
ROB: Well, I'm a very restless guy and I just like to move from thing to thing to thing. Somebody once told my wife, "Your husband is marvelous but he'll never do anything of any length." The Soldier's Tale really consisted of many, many episodes stitched together, with many different looks and approaches. I suppose the truth is I got bored as hell.
JS: What about the commercials? Your 1971 Alka Seltzer stomach featuring a man arguing with his stomach is as memorable as the Apple 1984 or the 1964 anti-Goldwater Daisy commercial. It's one of those images that no one who was around at the time can forget.
ROB: The ad agency [Jack Tinker and Partners] came up with the concept and I did the storyboard; it was animated at Elektra. Of course the concept was a brilliant one, the whole idea of a guy arguing with his stomach, give me a break -- [Quoting the commercial:] " You've always hated my mother."
It was very beautiful and it had a marvelous soundtrack. I suppose it was the artless look of the animation that endeared itself to people, because commercials generally had a more finished, polished look and there was something I guess intriguing and appealing about it.
JS: You could also say your simple style made it humorous /friendly. A more realistic looking stomach might've been discomforting to people.
ROB: What I really enjoyed doing were little short subjects. I did one for NBC called The Medical Dilemma, I just loved that one. It wouldn't have been as good if it hadn't been animated by Ed Smith, a master animator who's still around. It was a wonderful story, about Siamese twins who have to undergo a medical procedure involving a certain amount of risk. One of the heads says, "What are you doing, you can't risk our lives for this," and the other says "This is all medically approved, there's nothing to worry about." The cynical head decides not to go through with it and as he starts to leave the two heads become one. The doctor rushes after him saying, "You can't leave like this" when he sprouts a second head that says "We can't perform a risky procedure." Then he sprouts a third head. It was pretty fantastic; I loved doing a thing like that.
JS: I wonder if any of the networks do these kinds of things any more.
ROB: Nahh. One year I did a 60-second Christmas greeting for a New York theater chain that CBS picked up and ran on the network. Forget about them doing a thing like this now. What public relations that was, that was fantastic, to wish people a merry Christmas and peace on Earth.
ROB: I came across an article about you online that said, "Blechman is currently working on an animated feature version of Nathaniel West's A Cool Million, a satiric Horatio Algeresque story set in the Depression."
I did the screenplay and I hired an artist to do the visuals. I like the idea of a graphic novelist doing the art, because it's an appropriate look for the story.
JS: So it wouldn't look like your style.
ROB: No, but I'll direct the thing.
JS: Who is the artist?
ROB: He's a Canadian artist called Michael Cho. He's unbelievable. I haven't started pushing it around yet, because I'm revising the script a little bit. It has live action and animation in there. I love the idea of having live-action in there, in separate scenes.
JS: Why did you pick him?
ROB: I would like to make this a Canadian production, because I can get tax advantages, I may still go that route, but I'm not doing anything until I can get the package perfect. I hope it happens. For years and years I've been working on feature projects and nothing's ever happened.
JS: It's challenging to get a film off the ground.
ROB: Oh it's awful. One time I thought I really was going to have it. Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones gave an interview on NPR. He talked about how he had two childhood heroes: Charlie Parker the saxophonist and "R.O. Bletchman," as he called me. What he said was, "R.O. Bletchman, who may still be alive and drawing."
My producer called him and we met a few times, here and in England. But nothing ever came of it. The funny thing is nobody really responded to my storyboard and it was one of the best I'd ever done.
JS: What was it going to be?
ROB: It was going to be a feature film on the early life of Charlie Parker, but since he was called the Bird, I decided to have different animals, elephants and donkeys and dogs, monkeys so that I could deal with the material very freely.
JS: A funny animal version.
ROB: But very serious, a lot of jazz. Very freewheeling like The Soldier's Tale. The whole thing is about the two worlds Bird was torn between. There'd be a lot of biblical stories in it. It ends with him going to New York City with a saxophone in one hand and some coke in the other, and I don't mean the soft drink.
In any event Charlie Watts was the wrong guy to be involved. He's a very passive guy and a little paranoid. He was very suspicious, why do I want him? Well I want him because he's Charlie Watts.
JS: His name would open a few doors?
ROB: He was full of "well, I'll get in touch with my good friend Clint Eastwood" -- the last person you should get in touch with because he did a shitty film on Charlie Parker, Bird. It was a bad film. He's a great filmmaker, but this was a very bad film. So why in the world he would get involved with another version of Parker? That was one that should've happened, but we all get our reverses in life. That was one major reverse in mine.
JS: Have you ever thought about publishing the art from that? The boards or the concept art?
ROB: No, because I'd have to redo everything, but that's a hell of an interesting thought.
JS: I found this via a Google search -- something [Transfixed and Goggle-Eyed] you wrote for AWN back in 1996 when the website was just starting up: "Blechman excoriates Disney's 1991 work-in-progress screening of Beauty and the Beast at New York's Lincoln Center as evidence of a 'decline in visual standards.'" Do you still feel the same way?
ROB: Oh God it was awful. What really hurt was this was a special screening for a very select audience and they just ate it up. I couldn't believe it, it was garbage, just awful stuff. But I haven't seen any Disney since, I'm afraid I'd have the same reaction as I did then.
JS: They've given up on hand-drawn animation.
ROB: Which is a shame, it's a wonderful form of animation. It's stupid, because there's such humanity in the drawn line, such warmth, humor and character.
JS: Like you were saying earlier, it's a reflection of the person who created it. I was talking to an animation buff who was particularly vehement about motion-capture technology. He was saying it takes away what the animator does: bringing drawings to life by instilling motion in them. If all you're doing is translating an actor's motion into your characters, you're nothing more than a technician.
ROB: That's what bothered me about an anime I saw, Ghost Story... ?
JS: Could it have been Ghost in the Shell?
ROB: I don't know what it was, but I thought this could be live-action, who needs it as animation? Animation should be a highly expressive art -- you should feel the artist behind it, which of course was what Hubley exemplified in his work.
I think this is culturally a very low period which bothers the hell out of me and don't ask me to elaborate on that.
JS: Actually I will ask, if you wouldn't mind.
ROB: It's just that the sense of craftsmanship and draftsmanship is totally lost. I can go to the Museum of Modern Art and see some things that are both experimental and conceptual, and I wonder, what the hell is the use of a concept or an experiment, except to be the beginning of a project, not the end of a project.
JS: Earlier you said at one time you thought animation was the wave of the future, "and boy was I wrong." Yet there's been a real explosion in the medium the last few years.
ROB: Yeah but I don't consider any of it as artful as live action. I don't think people talk about animation with the same love and respect -- and sometimes awe -- as they do live-action. Artists nowadays tend to pour their talent into graphic novels, because it's too damned expensive and difficult to enter the field of animation, which is tragic.
JS: I'll just play devil's advocate for a minute: with desktop computers and Flash animation, people have the tools to create their own films relatively inexpensively.
ROB: It's very interesting. I see too little of it. For example, I occasionally see Bill Plympton's work, which I think is fabulous, but it hasn't entered the mainstream. Maybe the mainstream is now digital and I've not been able to see any of it on my computer. But in theaters -- not that I've seen that much of the so-called 3D stuff -- is that what it's called, 3D?
ROB: Yeah, I've seen little bits and pieces and I don't like it very much. I think the humanity is drained out of it, because of its very mechanical and technical qualities. There was a film done a few years ago; I can't remember the guy's name or the name of his film. It was a kind of rotoscoping, but it was a different process...
JS: Waking Life?
ROB: Yes -- I would've loved to have seen it.
JS: That was by Richard Linklater. He did A Scanner Darkly in the same style last year.
ROB: Great stuff. That's very funny -- here I knock animation as a field, but there are things like that that make me think, "Hey it really is an art form." And of course I love Bill Plympton, I think his work is really amazing.
JS: There's a huge independent animation scene in New York.
ROB: Boy I'd love to see some of this stuff. What I'd really like to see though are graphic novels turned into film and films turned into graphic novels.
JS: Your book The Juggler of Our Lady was made into a cartoon.
ROB: Well the book moved, the book was a piece of stillborn animation. To me it was like graphic novels are these days. To me graphic novels are all stillborn films, and they've learned a hell of a lot from films. It's always been mystifying and frustrating that so few graphic novelists turn their material into films. I don't know why the hell Spiegelman doesn't want his stuff animated, it would be just a mind-blowing thing if he got the right people to work with.
JS: Hollywood's full of horror stories about adaptations gone wrong.
ROB: He could write his own ticket. A lot of these people are very happy with the material in its still form, and I never understand it, because it would be enhanced with motion and voices and music.
JS: A lot of graphic novels have been turned into live-action films --
ROB: Which is bad news --
ROB: Also Ghost World, I'm a Daniel Clowes fan. I know Crumb resisted his stuff going into animation, but I thought it was very well handled by [Ralph] Bakshi [in Fritz the Cat]. Have you seen Heavy Traffic? That film was amazing. Unfortunately I don't know what the hell happened with Bakshi, it's a shame. Heavy Traffic was like, boy, I've seen it twice...
JS: His last film, Cool World, was very unsuccessful, which may have turned him off to the industry and vice-versa.
ROB: Which is a shame, because when people fail in animation it hurts the entire field. It's not a single failure, it's a collective one; people say, "Hey who needs animation?" I saw something called Coonskin -- a very bad film.
JS: That's one of those films that's never really been released.
ROB: It's just as well. Bad stuff.
JS: John Kricfalusi has sort of taken on Bakshi's mantle as a rebel animator and he's also having trouble getting projects off the ground.
ROB: Sometimes the insanity that goes into the work is great for the work but bad for the career. This spin-off that's very damaging to the working relationship.
JS: Bill Plympton once said, "My work is insane but I'm a normal guy. The people who do normal work -- they're the crazy people." None of the animation going on now does anything for you; is there anything you like?
ROB: I don't see much. I would like to, but I just never get around to it. I'm sure if I saw it I would like it, I probably should extend myself.
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.