John animated the entire commercial below (as well as three variants for other classic villains) for the now defunct Canadian department store, Zellers. I spoke with John to discuss his career, and what he’s been getting into lately.
JA: John, for those that may not know your pedigree, please share a few highlights of some of the more noteworthy projects you’ve worked on as an animator.
JC: Certainly! I’ve been a classical 2D animator for 40+ years, animating the first appearance of Boba Fett the Bounty Hunter in the Star Wars Holiday Special! During my career, I’ve been fortunate to animate on several unique projects. These include a series of classic Batman commercials, being a senior animator on the groundbreaking video games “Dragon’s Lair” and “Space Ace”, and the original “He-Man” and “She-Ra” TV series. My favorite project was the cult classic “Rock & Rule”, in which I animated Cindy the roller skating disco queen, Officer Quadhole the cop, and Mylar the club owner.
JA: How did you start your career in animation?
JC: I’m a self-taught animator. When I started in New York City (back in the early 1970s), there were very few books available that explained how to animate, and even fewer schools that had in-depth animation courses (Cal Arts in Los Angeles and Sheridan College in Toronto). But I had a natural ability to capture movement and acting with my pencil sketches, and that drove me to find a way to get into the animation business.
After dragging my portfolio around New York City from commercial studio to commercial studio, in 1975 I hooked up with a crew of former Max Fleischer Studios and Terrytoons Studios animators who had worked on the classic Popeye and Mighty Mouse shorts of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s; and learned the basics of animation from them. Developing my own personal style, I went on to work on projects produced and/or directed by Friz Freleng, Richard Williams, and Don Bluth.
JA: I think some of our readers may be fascinated to hear how you got involved with the Bluth video games “Space Ace” and “Dragon’s Lair”, what did you enjoy most about those projects and what was your least favorite thing about working on them?
JC: The Bluth video games “Space Ace” and “Dragon’s Lair” were the projects that allowed me to return to the United States after I’d been living in Toronto, Canada and working at Nelvana Studios from 1977 to 1983. Animation production work on Nelvana’s “Rock & Rule” had been completed, and the studio heads had decided they needed to transition away from creating original content to becoming an animation services studio. I hated the projects that were being lined up (and how the producers were treating long-time employees by cutting salaries in half). I decided to put out feelers for work in other Canadian studios, but it was a very low point in the animation industry in that country. So I was faced with staying on at Nelvana as head of animation and doing work that was stressing me out. I decided to take a well-earned sabbatical from Nelvana, but not before taking the opportunity to edit together a portfolio reel of my work on “Rock & Rule” and “Easter Fever” (which I had directed).
Taking that breather, I started looking at what work was available back in the States. I visited with Brad Bird and Jerry Rees in California who were developing Will Eisner’s “The Spirit” as an animated feature. I showed them my work (including a rough animated scene of The Spirit, which I created for the meeting), and I was offered a spot on their team if they were successful in pitching the project to a studio. While I had that iron in the fire, I read a newspaper article about Don Bluth’s “Dragon’s Lair” project, so I decided to send my reel (along with samples of my handling of Dirk the Daring) to the Bluth Studios. I was contacted within a couple of weeks and offered a job as a senior staff animator.
Several of the things I enjoyed most about animating on “Space Ace” and the “Dragon’s Lair” games were:
A) Animating “Death Scenes” and the “Jabberwocky Chase” sequence;
B) Being part of a team of Disney-trained young and veteran artists;
C) The exhilaration of working on original concepts that had a tremendous critical impact within the video game industry;
D) My experiences working at the Don Bluth Studios started me on my personal path to developing my own projects.
My least favorite aspects about working on those video games were:
E) There not being many personality scenes to work on. It was mostly short scenes of frantic action;
F) Not fitting in with Don Bluth’s straightjacket approach to animation. I was considered too much of a “maverick” that had to be tamed. The high quality of my animation was unquestioned by Bluth… the problem was that the Bluth style was to rely on cliche technique and cartoon/live action reference, while I (on the other hand) had learned to analyze the animation problem at hand and invent a fresh, entertaining solution. So, even though I drew the characters “on model”, I still put my own original touch on them.
G) And the VERY least favorite aspect was Don Bluth Studios shutting down because of bankruptcy. This happened only six months after relocating from Toronto to this union job, moving with my Canadian wife and all our household belongings.
JA: Yeah, that was a terrible time for Bluth Studios. A pity. Let’s back up a moment. After doing the Boba Fett cartoon, this character went on to become of the favorite character of many Star Wars fans, myself included! What was your take on Star Wars at the time?
JC: I find it very surprising and exciting that the Boba Fett animated segment of the “Star Wars Holiday Special” made such an impression on Star Wars fans….Especially since it was broadcast only once on TV in 1978. I’d like to think that my Boba Fett performance as an animator helped plant the seeds for this extremely popular character to grow within the Star Wars Universe.
I very much enjoyed seeing the first Star Wars film when it came out in the summer of 1977. As a kid, I had watched reruns of the old Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials on my family’s black and white TV back in the early 1960s, and knew first-hand Lucas’ movie references. It was a ton of fun watching cutting-edge effects being layered over a classic storyline. So, I was excited to get a chance to work on a non-Saturday morning animated adventure. I knew we (at Nelvana Studios) didn’t have the budget to produce the quality of the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons, but we could give it our best shot!
JA: You’re currently producing a children’s book series focusing on Snuffy & Zoey, a pair of rambunctious, sibling bear cubs living in a forest. What prompted you to get into children’s books?
JC: I created an animated short film using Snuffy & Zoey, which I uploaded to my YouTube channel. It took me two years to produce this film singlehandedly and I wanted to be able to complete new projects in a much shorter period of time. So I felt producing Snuffy & Zoey stories for the all ages book market was the natural way to go. I’ve written and drawn these books to entertain myself…you might say that I’m channeling my precocious “Inner 5 Year Old”.
JA: Tell us a little bit about Snuffy and Zoey. What kind of stories are you telling?
JC: If I had to describe Snuffy & Zoey… Snuffy is happy, gregarious, full of rambunctious energy, occasionally acting impulsively—which gets him into trouble. But Snuffy’s the type of person who needs to learn the hard way, though he tries to not make the same mistake twice.
Zoey is cheerful and very active, full of curiosity—always asking questions about what makes something tick. Zoey instinctively thinks ahead and tries to keep from stumbling into trouble, but doesn’t always succeed.
The stories are stand-alones. The basic premise of the series is that when Snuffy and Zoey are bored, they jump into their magic toy box, landing in the “Fun Zone” where they have imaginative adventures. This allows for my telling stories of any genre (Fantasy, Adventure, Science Fiction, etc). In Book 1, Snuffy and Zoey encounter a Dragon who is guarding a mountain of cupcakes. In Book 2, S & Z are captured by Captain Braggard and his crew of Stinky Pirates searching for the Treasure of the Lost Toys.
JA: I would imagine how much easier it must be to produce a book with a single image for a scene versus doing full animation. Other than doing fewer cells, how has your process changed from animation to comics?
JC: In transitioning from animation to comics, my creative process has not changed much at all. I still go through the process of understanding what my characters’ goals are within the story; coming up with personality quirks that can be portrayed visually; and telling a solid story with a beginning, middle, and convincing ending (setup, development of conflict, and the resolution). The comics production process is slightly different in that I produce my storyboards on a multi-paneled page layout. I try to make the entire page attractive without being distractive to the pacing of the story, directing the reader’s eye to areas in the order in which I want the story to unfold. I approach coloring the panels the same as I would an animated cartoon, using color and tone to emphasize the most important areas of each panel on the page.
JA: What approach do you take to producing all-ages comics?
JC: To me, the missing quality in today’s comic books is a sense of innocence…and without that, the industry is missing out on developing millions of new young readers. All-in-all, the main thrust of Snuffy & Zoey’s ToyBox Adventures is to encourage developing a child’s imagination. Every child is born with the super power of imagination, and it’s only the Kryptonite of discouragement that destroys it! My personal rule is: Treat kid readers with respect. Don’t talk down to them…and don’t write stories with “life lessons” as part of the series’ “agenda”!
I want my readers to look upon Snuffy and Zoey books as being a source of unadulterated fun. After each story I have an activity section for the readers to learn the basics of drawing using simple shapes, as well as pages of line art to color.
JA: Your website and Youtube channel contain a lot articles and videos about drawing and animation. What inspires you to want to help others with their craft?
JC: My reason for creating my website and YouTube channel is to share my knowledge of classical 2D character animation and help keep this art form alive. Back in 2001-2004, I grew to realize that the motion picture industry’s focus on computer animation would eventually bury traditional hand drawing; and thus, what is now called “2D animation” is really puppetry. I decided to make my classical knowledge available online and free to those artists who have a thirst for this knowledge and can’t afford the outlandish fees charged by most schools.
JA: Snuffy and Zoey aren’t your only current creations, tell me about Bloodwing Angel.
JC: My black and white web comic Bloodwing Angel Chronicles is based on my fantasy/sci-fi novella “Bloodwing” that I published as a Kindle ebook. “Bloodwing Angel Chronicles” is an irreverent, complex, ongoing allegorical series in which an innocent angel struggles with treachery, self-discovery, love, and spiritual crisis.
The premise of the story is that Mychal, an innocent angel of light, is unjustly banished to a dystopian society surrounded by a giant Wall, which protects and imprisons those fearful individuals who hide behind it, never experiencing new ways of living that might solve their present problems. There, Mychal is turned into a semi-mortal of both genders and struggles to survive amongst demons, sinners, and living dead.
As Mychal deals with physical danger, spiritual crisis, and questions of gender identity, he discovers he is the crucial interactive pawn in a cosmic chess match of wills between Creatus the Almighty and Sha-Dow the Ruler of Darkness.
Betrayed by these egotistical deities, Mychal realizes she is the center of the universe—as both of the greatest powers in Creation are focused upon her. She finds this attention intoxicating and wants to keep this cosmic competition going for as long as possible—which means playing for both sides.
Unfortunately, I had to put Bloodwing Angel Chronicles on indefinite hiatus due to having to focus all my energies on Snuffy & Zoey. But I did manage to create and upload 58 pages, which anyone can read online at www.bloodwingangel.com
JA: What project would you most like for our readers to check out and get behind?
JC: I really want your readers to check out and get behind my Snuffy & Zoey series. I’m hoping that they will consider Snuffy & Zoey a good way of introducing kids ages 4 to 8 to the joys of comic book reading. The books are in an oversized A4 format (8.25 x 11.75 inches), printed on heavy stock and perfect bound. Even if your readers don’t have kids of their own, maybe they have family members that age for whom this series would be a suitable gift. My publisher Fair Spark Books is headquartered in the United Kingdom and is working on ways to get their line of family-friendly books distributed in the United States. My Snuffy & Zoey ToyBox Adventures are available digitally on comiXology, Amazon Kindle Books, and through other digital platforms.
JA: That’s great! What’s next for John Celestri? Where can our readers find you?
JC: For the foreseeable future, I will be creating more Snuffy & Zoey ToyBox Adventures. Right now I’m working on Book 2: “What Do You Do With A Stinky Pirate?” Meanwhile, Bleeding Fool readers can find me on Twitter @CelestriJohn
I'm a collector, a speculator, and one opinionated, based geek. My friends call me Braly, but those who know me within the hobby generally refer to me as Bralinator. I can be heard monthly on the Comic Book Page Previews Spotlight podcast with several other comic book nerds. Follow me on Twitter @ChrisBraly