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Tom Sito
Looking back on the leaner times making Rock & Rule
Emru Townsend: How would you describe your experiences working on Rock & Rule?

Tom Sito: Rock & Rule was an exciting time of growth and experimentation for all those involved. In the time from 1979 to 1983 you could see the studioís output evolve from simple naïve designs and motion into sophisticated theatrical personality animation. If the film had had a better reception and Nelvana not regrouped to do budget television (they collapsed at one point from 250 to 25), Nelvana would have become a powerhouse in the current theatrical animation renaissance. As it was they were a forerunner of things to come. The proof is the Rock & Rule alumni who have gone on to be major players at studios like Disney, Amblin and ILM and whose talents, sharpened as they were on Rock & Rule, contributed to such classics as Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ferngully, Beauty and the Beast, Space Jam and more.

The studio worked and functioned more like a family than a business. We laughed, fought and cried together. We married, had children, did clubs together while the film progressed. Despite the large size the studio had grown to (around 250-300) the improv origin of the company meant it didnít have the hard-gloss efficiency or ruthless political undertones of a Hollywood studio. Maybe some of it was that perennial sense of inadequacy or provincialism that studios beyond the LA county line feel--this is not a particularly Canadian neurosis either, New York and Chicago Studios feel it too, except they cover with more attitude. But more of it I think was that the studio was the first stop for a lot of hot/irreverent new talent. Despite the fondest wishes of the upper management who wanted to be taken seriously, I think the studio was always a shirttails-out Whole Earth Catalog casual affair, like family, and I think thatís what the artists liked most.

Several people have described the process of making Rock & Rule as "organic"--that is, of continuous revision while the work was in progress. How do you feel this affected the film, and those that worked on it?

Well, this concept of an organic process is keeping with the regular process for Hollywood features, the way Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast was done as well. I remember at the beginning of the film Patrick [Loubert, co-producer of Rock & Rule] invited Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston (two of the Disney Studioís legendary band of animators, the Nine Old Men) up to speak to us. They were very inspiring (and Frank & Ollie got to ride the Centre Island ice cutter ferry) and perhaps thatís where they got the idea for this system. You really have to keep the process evolutionary, because in all the years Iíve made animated film I think only two or three times have I read a script so good that it was ready to animate without changes from the start. (Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was one, [but] then Robert Zemeckis was a screenwriter before he was a director). On Rock & Rule sometimes the process made us a little crazy, because we werenít always sure where the directors were leading us.

Why do you think Rock & Rule didnít quite succeed?

Iím not totally sure. I think the plot could have been stronger. Another tightening of the dialogue and voice readings might have helped sharpen the characterizations. I donít know if we ever really explained the post-nuclear world we set up as clearly as, say, Jim Cameronís Terminator films did. The original name of Rock & Rule was Drats!, because they were meant to be evolved rats who became cognizant after the human race was obliterated, but that was never really made clear. Plus we tried the gamble of using name rock groups in a volatile, transitional market. This was as much of a problem to Disney when he made Make Mine Music with top-40 groups in 1947 or Sanrioís Metamorphoses with work by the Rolling Stones as it was for Nelvana. Blondie, Cheap Trick, and Earth, Wind and Fire had all sunk beneath the waves by the time the film was done. Debbie Harry actually reworked the final Omar-Angel song with new lyrics and released it on her album Once More into the Bleach.

Finally, I think the animation renaissance was not ready yet. Before Spielbergís An American Tail there was rarely an animated feature hit outside of the Disney franchise, except maybe Yellow Submarine, but that had the Beatlesí star power to move it, and Fritz the Cat, which cued into the 60ís counterculture. Maybe if the film was more overtly punky we wouldíve rode a cultural wave. Who knows?

Personally, whoís your favourite character in the movie? Whatís your favourite slice of the film?

I always like Dizzy because of his design. I thought Charlie Bonifacio did some nice stuff with him. My favorite bit? I like the small scene I animated of the teenybopper Pia Zadora-looking Valley girl who gave her account of the concert explosion on the news ("well, it smelled just like cleaning fluid.."). I was happy with the way the lip sync worked out and that it got laughs.

I always laugh at that bit. That and the "I survived the Mok concert t-shirt" gag. What other bits did you work on?

I did the television announcer, the John Wayne Nuke-York border guard, Mok dancing in the My Name is Mok video that the boys watch while stoned (directed by Keith Ingham), and I collaborated with Chuck Gammage on the Beast creature. I created the concept of constantly polymorphosizing the creature while appearing (flying dead babies designed by Mike Merrill) and threatening Angel, rearing back and dying and falling back into the hole, all of which I animated and Brian LeMay was my cleanup artist (the idea came from when I was an assistant for Emery Hawkins on the Taffy Monster in the 1977 Richard Williams musical Raggedy Ann & Andy). I also did some hi-tech guard with a vacuum cleaner breathing apparatus tied to his face. I forgot where they put him into the picture eventually. [Outside of Club 666. -Ed.]

Do you still have that beard you were sporting in The Making of Rock & Rule?

Itís not as wispy as it was then, itís now a goatee with streaks of grey, and you can add about an extra 75 pounds as well. I look like Chuck Gammageís older brother. Time marches on!

Originally printed in fps #12 (Autumn 1997)