We here at The Journalix have always shouted from the rooftops about the comic strip Citizen Dog by Mark O’Hare. And we talked to the man himself all about it in Part One of our interview. But here in Part Two, we discuss his career in film and TV, from SpongeBob SquarePants to Despicable Me but it all began with a show called Rocko’s Modern Life…
MARK O’HARE INTERVIEW: PART TWO
MARK O’HARE: I was around 21 when I moved to town after graduation. I’d been to school for 6 years and was done with that. It was an amazing time. There’s not much public money for art in the States. You get these little openings in the market. You need to get experience and then when it happens, it happens. I did a comic strip at college and then I got into television animation which was really great. It was Rocko’s Modern Life and it was so much fun!
I was so used to having those 4 panels to draw in college, then somebody said “here, you’ve got 11 minutes, go and have fun”. It was great. And just good timing for me.
MORE THAN JUST DRAWING
THE J: You were writing, animating, storyboarding, directing… How did you begin and how did your role develop over time?
MARK O’HARE: Animation can be much more film orientated. I just wanted to draw cartoons and have a laugh. I got really lucky, in 1992/93 Nickelodeon wanted to make cartoons like the Warner Bros cartoons in the old days, they got some independent film makers in Joe Murray and John Kricfalusi, and said “here make us a TV show”. They really gave you the rope to hang yourelf with. My partner was Stephen Hillenburg, in four teams of 2 story artists and directors.
We were in a room together and honestly we just sat around having a laugh! It was great! We were making up stuff, dialogue thinking “OK so what would they say now” and making it funny!
TV ANIMATION IN THE 90’s
THE J: Was that a knock-on effect of The Simpsons?
MARK O’HARE: Yes, there was a lot going on at the time, every company was in trying to make money from it. The Simpsons was slightly different as it was writer driven. It started as little animated shorts and then graduated up to a full sitcom, so it has a very sitcom history to it with the writers, which was great! But as a cartoonist that just didn’t attract me, to animate a completed script, I was already finding work making it up myself. So it was a trade-off, you got paid less but it was worth it to be able to write and direct too, etc. So it was a good time, you know.
THE J: The stars were aligned!
THE J: And Rocko’s Modern Life was a big success!
MARK O’HARE: You know, it was wasn’t such a huge success at the time. We did 4 seasons and it was popular in a cult way but it wasn’t like SpongeBob…
THE J: That’s a surprise! I grew up with it as a fixture on Saturday morning TV here…
MARK O’HARE: I love it because it had a natural arc to it and it didn’t go beyond it’s life and what should have. Like if I watch [Ricky Gervais’ original version of] The Office I enjoy it much more because you can see that natural progression of the show unlike here in America.
THE J: You mentioned you’re a fan of 24 Hour Party People so I’m sure you would love The Royle family. A great example of a sitcom that mainly takes place between the living room and kitchen of one family home.
MARK O’HARE: Yes, I like TV shows like that. The best humour plays out in a limited format, I do love limits. It makes people smarter and work harder. I started out with 4 panels, a pen and paper. It’s like standup comedy, you better make it work, otherwise you’re screwed! Whereas in other formats it can be incredibly frustrating and it can happen with film, people will work on something forever trying to make it work. Kills the life out of stuff.
THE WORLDWIDE SUCCESS OF ILLUMINATION
THE J: You’ve worked for Illumination on each of the Despicable Me and Minions films, Secret Life of Pets and The Grinch. I gather your role there is much more prescriptive with what is being asked of you?
MO: Yes I’ve been in film for around 12 years now, mostly with Illumination. Yes, first up, with film the stakes are way higher. It took me a while to realise that I think it affects the nature and the psychology of the film unlike a TV show or a comic book. You’re always trying to talk people into booking a ticket to come and see it in a giant room with a bunch of other people. I can’t even begin to estimate the size of the screens these people are seeing the films on. It’s a massive undertaking! So if it fails, it really fails – and nobody wants to be the writer or director on that!
MO: (continued) That’s the starting point of film and I love it for that but yes you do take a smaller slice and you don’t get to wear as many hats and traditionally as an artist in the medium you’re not given the freedom of dialogue very often. At the upper end of it, Pixar for example, you do gain the trust as a storyboard artist and it’s a team effort, very much a collaboration. But if you’re more into free-form comedy and improvisational, which I really love, it can not be as much fun.
The end product can be wonderful and amazing and you could never do it by yourself, it takes hundreds of people to do it, but I find the TV shows and print is more improvisational and jazz-like and there’s a lot more opportunity to bring life and individual points of views.
SPECIALISING IN COMEDY
THE J: Do you find you have to be almost disciplined a little working on a film? For example, do you try to fill the screen when it’s not needed?
MO: The team is usually made up of folks that are cast for action or musical moments and I’m usually cast for comedy. So I bring something to the table and you try not to hold yourself back. But it can overwhelming how much material you have to sort out, On a TV show there’s less cooks in the kitchen and so everybody is usually reading from the same page, but with a film you can be working with material that has 5 different voices so you have to learn quite quickly to create a piece that people will respond to and rather than knowing exactly what’s required sometimes you’ll be going “maybe it’s this?” which can be the hardest thing to do as an artist.
THE J: How do you flesh out an idea for a project? Particularly when transferring your ideas from a sketch in your journal?
MO: Yeah I work on a computer now and Microsoft Surface Pro because they’re really affordable and I draw all my storyboards out on that. It’s basically really long comic strips that I’m drawing out. The most important thing are the motor skills, you have to keep proving to yourself you can do it. That’s what motivates me to do it.
ANIMATING GRU AND THE MINIONS
THE J: I know Citizen Dog has finished now but I was wondering if you would ever pitch an idea for Gru which didn’t hit so decide to use it for Mel & Fergus instead?
MO: You know, their characters are always such a part of me. So if I’m thinking of ideas, no matter what the project, I’m thinking what will Mel & Fergus do now? I’m using them in many ways in the basic rules of comedy.
THE J: Ah that’s so cool to know!
MO: Yeah, that’s why with Minions, straight away I was like “OK, I get this.” The way I treat characters and back to how I said the way the early Warner Bros cartoons treat their characters, they’re a little absurd. And that’s how the Minions are, in the way they would do things.
So when I was boarding out a scene in the first Despicable Me where Gru is trying to escape Vector’s lab and he had his 2 little Minions with him. It was like I was drawing my 2 little cartoon characters! Gru got stuck in a vent and he didn’t know what to do. Well, one of the minions gave the other minion the Heimlich manoeuvre and turned him into a glow stick, that was definitely something I’d have done in a comic strip. I probably couldn’t have pulled it off to the same effect so that level of stupid absurdity that we were able to build into the movie, made it feel like home!
THE J: That’s so cool to know, there’s a little bit of Mel & Fergus in Despicable Me!
MO: My kids recommend things, like I know I’m gonna love Rick and Morty but maybe because I’m involved in it I don’t really make time to see these things. But there is so much out there!
THE J: I hear you, there’s only so many hours in the day.
MO: I think there is a lot of great art in graphic novels, and comedy. When they scale them up they turn them into some really great TV shows and movies it works quite well. I still love print but it’s interesting. A comic strip I would never consider that I’d be able to launch online, because the internet is endless! I’m strangely uncomfortable in a world of no limits.
THE J: You need to be careful not to get lost down the rabbit hole. I can lose days finding old TV shows on YouTube.
MO: Well yes, it’s funny actually we had Monty Python on TV when I was growing up in the 80s and that was like going in a time machine. It seemed to take so long for it to make it’s way to us, it would come on at 11 at night, we had no idea it was from the 70s! We thought it was brand new.
THE J: I presume Terry Gilliam’s animation made an impact on you?
MO: Oh my gosh yeah, he’s one of my favourites and as a filmmaker. I had no idea to the extent he comes from the same background as he was a cartoonist originally. He puts references in his movies to old MAD magazines. He comes from that 60s/70s underground comics scene and to see him become a filmmaker is really impressive.
THE J: Is that a route you would consider given the opportunity?
MO: If the project is fun and interesting then yes. Hybrid animation and live action I find appealing. I just worked on the Spongebob that’s out soon. I worked with Tim Hill that has the same level of absurdity I love. He did such a great job, like Keanu Reeves showing up inside a tumbleweed is right up my alley! The kind of thing I love is working on movies that don’t take themselves too seriously and they tend to be way more satisfying.
THE J: Do you get much memorabilia from working on such famous films and TV shows?
MO: I was in the attic the other day and I have a lot of Rocko cells and I love those. Spongebob too. At the end of a season you would often be presented with a cell from a show but it doesn’t happen so much these days. I think they realised how much they can sell them for! I worked on Cool World and I’ve got some cells from that too, on of my first movies too.
Steve Hillenberg has given me some of his drawings too that I treasure. But I’m terrible for remembering to pick these things up when I’m working on a job!
THE J: You mentioned you were a big fan of 24 Hour Party People, were you a fan big fan of the music of that time?
MO: Yes, in the mid-West you get everything later so I was a big fan of Joy Division in college and then New Order. I hear cool stories from my friend Steve McGarry was good friends with Rob Gretton. For some reason I’ve always been attracted to the gloomy side of things, and England is just perfect for it!
THE J: You were in the school band, right?
MO: That’s right, I was a trumpet player. But at the time I hadn’t discovered jazz – if I had I would I have maybe thought being a trumpet player was cool – but I got tired of it and discovered art and ran with it.
THE MARK O’HARE PLAYLIST
Mark has kindly provided us with a playlist including some incredible tunes with a mix of different artists; music he listens to whilst working – enjoy!
If you liked this, you’ll be interested in reading our interview with Aardman’s Will Becher director of 2019’s Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon and lead animator on many more classic films from the genius British stop-motion animation studio.