Animation Without Borders, Animated Cinema According to Phil Mendez


Over the past twenty-three years, I have had the opportunity to get to know and work with Phil Mendez, known as the enigma of the animation world. This is a man who has as many stories told about him as he tells about himself and the industry with which he has had a love hate relationship. Phil would say that that’s too strongly said and what he has is a general dislike for the unkind things the industry has done to this art form and its creators. Phil is a very positive up beat person; so if you believe these articles are going to be about animation bashing, you may as well stop here. I have found in Phil the ability to try to right the apple cart no matter where he is in order to advance artists and the medium beyond just the technical. Of course, as for anyone who has had an influence in the works created in the holy halls of major studios, there are tales that have been told which have twisted the truth, so here finally is Phil’s side. And in doing so, you will laugh as I did when I heard them. Stories like:
The Bakshi Chairs, the 1970 Draining Program at Disney, Mickey Mouse is Black, What fur? (The story behind the making of Kissyfur with NBC during the 80’s) will follow. Not to mention an inside look at how he wrote his Award winning children’s book The Black Snowman, and more …………

But most of all how we will learn how Phil survived 34 years as a major character designer, writer, comic strip artist, who ran his own studios and inspired countless artists along the way.
So join us these next weeks as we interview Phil Mendez, The Man whose motto has been for years: “To know, to dare, to do and be silent.”
Phil will write this column after we finish publishing this interview.

The Early Years

Bijan: To start with, you’re from the east coast, yes?
Phil: Yeah, I’m from Bridgeport, CN, the home of many famous cartoonists such as Walt Kelly, Al Capp and P.T. Barnum.

B: PT Barnum?
P: Yeah, Barnum was a cartoonist. What do you think a circus is? One big cartoon! Didn’t Walt Kelly use animals and show that the world is nothing but a circus?

B: Getting back to your living on the east coast, how did you end up as a Hollywood animator?
P: Well, being the oldest of 15 brothers and sisters, I was eager to get out of the house. So I started selling my cartoons at the age of 16 to a shopper’s guide. The strip was called Barbeque Brown. I wince even now at the name. It was the thing then that all comic strip names had to almost rhyme. I had two other characters whose names were Lenny Limbo and Peter Pips. God, just the thought of it makes my head hurt that anyone would even have read it. I had no concept, just some lame gags that I would hear on the street and try to make some sense out of them in the strip. But somehow, it went on for 2 ½ years until I got out of high school.

B: Did you go to college after high school?
P: No, in fact on graduation day I was in the counselor’s office having a verbal fight. The counselor was telling me that the school had gotten me a job as a draftsman in the local factory where most of the town worked. I was on fire and screaming at her that one day I’d be working at Disney Studios and she was screaming back at me that “that man doesn’t want you out there!” (Phil laughing) Like she knew Walt personally and he had called to let her know that they weren’t interested in me! Then she went on to tell me that since I had only taken a general course with no electives other than art (which was a joke of a class … kids sitting around with a bottle of ink and crow quill pen drawing their own hands for a class in life drawing). Truthfully, I wasn’t qualified for anything but I knew I wasn’t going to sit for the next thirty-something years with the same people I’d gone to school with. So I got up and told her that if she liked the job so much why didn’t she take it and then walked out of her office. She screamed back, “You’re headed for disaster, mister!” However, before I got out of the building, the principal told me he had a call in his office from New York City for me. It was some guy named Tollis from an ad agency. I answered the phone and he told me he’d been reading my strip in the shopper’s guide since I’d started it and he wanted me to come to New York to interview for a job.

B: And you were only 18 at that time, right?
P: Yeah. So, as I was saying, I got to the agency at Madison Avenue and now was sitting in the main reception room with a portfolio looking like a pizza box wrapped in string. There were some incredible professionals there talking it up about getting this great job but this Tollis guy was known to be a perfectionist who worked people ‘til they quit. It wasn’t even my turn but he spotted me amongst all these well dressed pros. Maybe it was the way I was dressed or maybe it was because I was the only kid there but he pointed at me and with a commander’s bark asked, “Who are you?” I told him my name. Immediately, he lit up and started to stutter, “Oh, yes, yes, yes, you’re the kid from Bridgeport, come on in, come on in!” He sat me down at his own desk, which was huge and had more supplies than I’d ever seen in my life. He told me he was Bill Tollis, Creative Head and Art Director for Dancer/Fitzgerald/Sample, and producer of the General Mills cereal commercials. This was the guy who did Kix, Trix, Cocoa Puffs, Cheerios, Lucky Charms and Total and who was looking for an assistant.

B: So, what did he think of your portfolio?
P: To this day, he’s never looked at it.

B: So, how did he hire you?
P: Well, I was sitting at his desk and had a blank piece of paper in front of me. He told me I had 15 minutes to draw some characters and he’d be back to evaluate them. Characters were my thing even then … and you know when you get into a groove and time seems to stand still … that’s what happened that day… I looked up and still had seven minutes and my paper was already full of characters in full color. Being bored waiting, I walked out of his office and told him I was done. He asked me if I was sure, then proceeded to the table and looked over the drawing. He turned to me asking, “When did you do these?” I replied, “Just now.” “You sure you didn’t take this out of your portfolio?” “No, look at the paper, it’s the one you just gave me.” So, after examining the paper and seeing that it was true, he took me outside and stood me before all those pros, told them he’d found the person he’d been looking for and sent them all home. So, I ended up working at Dancer for 4 ½ years where I got my training in design, presentation and film.

B: So, you started as an assistant art director at the age of 18, basically a self-taught artist.
P: Yeah.
B: Wow.

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About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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