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Saturday, October 21, 2006

John McCartney

John McCartney’s desk was situated just opposite mine in an area of the Amblin’ London animation studio known as ‘Little America” despite the physical and vocal presence of Spanish, Italian, German, American, and Irish animators and assistants.

The desks, constructed of finest Ikea Ivar modular parts, resembled small horse boxes. Occupants were known to neigh when in high spirits.

John was more nay than neigh—he was a 25-year veteran of the Richard Williams studio who had just quit the Disney London studio and come over to our show because ‘the other studio was a mess’. Little did he know that he was about to get into a much bigger one!

The animators, all young and in need of a stress release, had developed a taste for cheap, easily assembled toys from the Kinder Egg candy line. John’s lead, animator Roy Meurin, had purchased forty pounds’ worth with animators Uli Meyer and Rob Stevenhagen. You could get a LOT of Kinder Eggs for forty pounds in 1988. They got sick on the candy, assembled the toys, and created a triumphal arch in their area using the plastic eggshells—and every spare pushpin in the studio. John had to walk beneath this cluster of yellow globes (the end of which I adorned with a rubber frog) every time he picked up an assignment. He let us all know that this was a singularly demeaning aspect of his job.

Then he noticed the small animating plastic skeleton on my desk. This toy hung from a small bar and would perform gyrations and flips when you pushed two buttons on the side of the base. I called it an illustration of the Chaos Theory. John called it something else – in a notable Scottish burr.

“I can’t understand why a supposedly-intelligent woman such as yourself has all this crrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrap on her desk.”

I’d made friends with another prank-and-toy-loving artist, Nina Haley, by that time. We agreed that if John was going to complain about the toys, it was only reasonable that he lament the condition of his OWN desk.

Since both of us arrived at work at the crack of dawn our plan was easy to implement. The next few months brought John a daily onslaught of “Find Mr. Smurf”. This most annoying articulated Kinder Egg toy could now be found on a daily basis hiding on his desk in a variety of interesting poses, whether committing suicide with its head in John’s pencil sharpener or hanging by the neck from the top of the desk-stall or (once) bouncing off John’s head. Animator Raul Garcia managed to make a ‘flasher’ Smurf by rotating the body and adding a tiny paper raincoat. This was the only addition John approved of.
At this time Nina and I decided to throw John a birthday party.
“You can’t. My birthday is in February.”
“You will have a birthday when we TELL you to have one, John.”

For the first time, he looked worried.

This operation required special assistance from Roy Meurin and the guys in the Kinder Egg crew. Three hundred toys (the spoils of the forty-pound splurge) and the arch of eggs including the rubber frog were relocated to John’s desk sometime around Halloween 1988.

We also ran a small and disreputable contest to find (a) the most wretchedly tacky card and (b) the most tasteless ‘birthday present’ for John. The gift competition, open to the entire studio, received a number of entries that were easy to come by in the tacky Acton stores. It was won by Cathy Kiss who somehow located a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Advent Calendar. I created a poorly designed card on a computer located in the off-license down the street featuring a rude inscription actually written by the computer. Other presents included elephant-diaper shaped marshmallows and some horrible stuffed toys.

Naturally the news of the prank spread throughout the studio. Our production manager took a look at the resulting mess. “I feel sorry for the poor bastard!” was his only reply. I am sorry to say we never photographed it.

John’s reaction was of stupefied silence, hilarious laughter at the Advent calendar, and extremely literate abuse chiding us for time wasted creating this ridiculous thing. But he did enjoy the attention.

Many other ‘birthday presents’ were left on John’s desk afterward on a near-weekly basis. All were British made and purchased locally by the usual suspects; the worst being a toilet paper roll insert that played God Save the Queen. John reacted with his usual acerbic appreciation.

I left Amblimation to work at Warner Brothers in New York City as a director in 1991. Shortly after I started there I received a long-distance phone call from John.
Here is the conversation in its entirety:

“You BITCH!!!”


“It’s the GOOSE!”

“What goose?”

“ The electric, ROTATING goose.”

“John, I….are you on something? What do you…”

“It’s ELECTRIC, it ROTATES, it plays MUSIC, and my children won’t let me turn it off!”

After some confusion it was discovered that Nina Haley had been saving all the American stamps from the letters I sent her, and pasting them on the ‘presents’ that she wrapped in brown paper and left on John’s desk, implying that they had been sent all the way from New York. This goose in fact originated in London. Nina owes me big time.

John never forgot that particular ‘present’.
Nina and I gifted John with a Californian ‘cup holder’ consisting of a headless female torso in 1999 when we visited London.

I last saw John in Paris in 2003, when I treated him and his family to lunch at Café Angelica on the Right Bank. He was his old acerbic self and we continued to correspond by email and phone until shortly before his passing.

A few of his lovely character designs grace my upcoming book. I was delighted to get them and John was, I hear, pleased to know that they would be published in something a bit more permanent than an e-message.
John McCartney was a man whose command of the English language (especially the invective) proved the inadequacy of an American education. I was pleased to have him as a friend and will miss him.


Boris Hiestand said...

this made me smile so much- wonderful story!

Nancy said...

Hi Boris! I'm sorry it took me so long to post back but I've just updated the blog format!

John was quite a character. He's kind of representative of the 'artists' of animation-eccentric, brilliant, and interested in a lot of things BESIDES animation. I often wonder if the profession's demand for total concentration doesn't leave us mentally smaller than the folks who had time to take in other influences.

James said...

Hi Nancy

Excellent tales, there. I think ‘acerbic’ pretty sums up his attitude to most things in life – especially cats. Man, did he hate cats.

Quite a few years ago, he was living with his girlfriend of the time, Mel. Mel had a cat, which he treated with the predictable amount of disdain. One evening he was outside and saw the same-self cat sitting on the roof of a garage near where he was living at the time. For whatever reason he took it upon himself to attempt to get at the animal, not knowing that the brickwork of the garage was not in the best of conditions. The result was that an overhanging ledge of bricks fell on him, one brick striking him on the temple and another hitting him on the shin. He dashed into his house, spattering blood about in the process and proceeded to stand about swearing loudly while Mel rang for an ambulance. The woman from the emergency services was sceptical that my dad needed an ambulance at all, but with the amount of noise dad was making in the background she didn’t take much convincing.

He went to hospital and had stitches on his head and shin. And one of my clearest memories of the whole event was that he was too tall for the hospital bed. From where I was sitting in the waiting room I could see his socked feet poking out from behind the cubicle curtain, jiggling slightly as a nurse applied the stitches.

He wasn’t fond of cats before, but after…I’m sure you can imagine.

Nancy said...

Dear James,
My goodness, what a story. I had no idea John disliked cats.
It's quite a story though.
Lots of people have great stories about John; he was a memorable man.
Thank you for writing in.