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The Triumphant Independent

an interview with John R. Dilworth

by Bob Miller

John R. Dilworth.
Photo © 1999 Bob Miller.

John Dilworth doesn't think of animation as a career, despite the numerous shorts he's produced and directed for Nickelodeon, PBS, MTV, HBO and the Cartoon Network. His films, The Limited Bird (1989), When Lilly Laney Moved In (1992), The Dirdy Birdy (1994), and Noodles & Nedd (1996), have won awards throughout the world. This includes The Chicken From Outer Space (1995), the Academy Award-nominated short that has spawned the new series, Courage, the Cowardly Dog, which premieres November 12 at 9 pm on Cartoon Network in the US.

"I just enjoy it more than I do anything else," Dilworth says. "To actually see and manipulate your designs or characters so that they move and express emotion and tell a story -- that's animation. It feels natural for me."

Dilworth started animating in college, at New York's School of Visual Arts. But he says, "You can't rely on a school to teach you what you believe you should know. You need to take the responsibility.

"All of us come with certain intuitive abilities, and whether or not we choose to use them is a conscious decision. I was aware that I had a very strong intuitive ability, and so I let that determine my decisions regarding what I should take, what would improve my talents, things like dance and the history of dance, creative writing, playwriting, and life drawings. And then of course history, because most of our stories and the way that we interact with people are just the sum of everything that's come before us. History appeals to me."

Instructors and Influences
Even today Dilworth continues to develop his craft, absorbing details from every facet of the Fine Arts. "This season I went to the Metropolitan Opera, and I learned a tremendous amount by the staging, the way they would maximize the most out of a frame, a setup, through all the singers and the ensemble, and even the beautiful way they move sets as a transition.

"I love the old classic Charlie Chaplin shorts, for their comedic timing and characterization. The animators that make me laugh the most are Bob Clampett and Tex Avery for their use of breaking the laws of animation and still retaining a law within that. Their exaggeration. Mostly I appreciate the timing, and their use of music...I listen to a lot of music. Everything from classical to rap. Even the very fast tempos that John Hubley used to do with jazz, and how he would interpret jazz for narrative use.

"Contemporary influences? There have been a few. Michael Sporn. Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell -- maybe not narratively, but just for sheer dynamics of action and technology. Some of that stuff that appeals to me the most are Miyazaki's Porco Rosso and My Neighbor, Totoro, the mix between fantasy and innocence. All that stuff is great. A woman ink & paint artist, Janet Scagnelli, taught me a lot of finishing tools and abilities I needed to complete a film. Cel painting is a true art.

"Artwork. You just look at any of the masters and spend time with them. One of my favorites has always been Cezanne, just breaking reality. Or Van Gogh. I looked at some of his real work, not just the stuff we see in catalogs or the post card stuff, his real work. A lot of the good canvasses are in Amsterdam over in Europe.

"I don't believe you could be narrow culturally or intellectually when you're creating cartoons. If you look at the old classics from the '40s, from anybody, it's loaded with culture, and references to things that people have experienced, to music and sound effects to even writing gags, social commentary, parody. Those were people that are very, very aware. They didn't put out gags superficially," he says.

A Continuing Education
After graduating college with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1985, Dilworth became an art director at Baldi, Bloom and Whelan Advertising, but would always work on his own films in his spare time, providing much of his own funding. "I would go home and work on this psycho-drama opus [The Limited Bird] at night for two-and-a-half years," he says. "After that I went to work for animation studios [Michael Sporn and Jumbo Pictures on Doug] as just an in-betweener or as an assistant or cel painter. I would always be working on films."

And always learning from his work. Dilworth explains, "For about a decade, I always felt that I was maybe five years behind where I thought I should be, and only because I spent so much time doing something on my own and figured it out so I knew it really well before I moved forward."

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