The Greenhouse Interview with John Over

John Over has directed, designed, written and produced television animation for 29 years. His work has aired at Warner Bros., DreamWorks, and Disney to name a few. He has won three Emmys, a British Academy Award, three Humanitas Awards and he designed the mascot for the 1994 World Cup. John also has numerous teaching awards and is currently Co-Owner and Creative Director of Over-N-Over Productions, which he runs with his talented wife and art director, Ellen Jin. They have two delightful children, and one cat, who, sadly, was last seen chatting with a coyote.
Shun Lee and The Greenhouse recently had the opportunity to sit down with John for what was going to be a nice, concise interview for Creative Life magazine.
Yeah, that didn’t happen.
The conversation was so darn good it went on for over an hour – much longer than would fit in the magazine.
Here’s the whole conversation, along with some of John’s artwork. Enjoy!

Shun Lee (SL): So, Joh, how’d you get started in the entertainment industry? You were creative as a young person, but were you encouraged as a creative?

John Over (JO): I got interested in this when I was a little kid. I was sitting in a theater, watching a movie called Ring of Bright Water. It’s one of those cute little family movies, then an otter gets killed horribly by a friend who thinks it’s a pest of some sort. He chops the head off with a shovel. And I remember being horrified in the theater like, “Oh, my God, they just killed the otter.” And then there’s this sad moment where he goes, “Oh, Beth, I’m so sorry.” And then he pulls up the shovel, you know, it’s like, “Oh, my God, he killed the otter.”

SL: How old were you?

JO: I must have been six or something. I remember crying in the theater and then thinking, “But no otter was really killed. This is amazing. I can feel what it feels like to have your pet die, but no pet died.” And that’s where I had this great appreciation for what cinema could do. You could go to places where you don’t have to murder somebody to feel what it’s like to kill somebody. You don’t have to lose a loved one in order to feel that. That is a powerful thing. I was a movie guy from then on. But my dad wanted me to be an engineer, which is nowhere near where I am. So I was really in this camp where, there’s movies, and that’s what I really want to do, and then there’s some other life that I’ve got to try to figure out. And then it was a bunch of wasted years of trying to figure out how to do something that wasn’t movies.

I won an Apple scholarship; they were going to pay for my schooling at Cal State Fullerton to be a teacher. Then I saw Steven Spielberg on the cover of Time magazine. He was going to open this new animation division at Warner Brothers, and I thought, “Wow, I need to do something creatively with this drive I have. If I don’t, I’ll regret it my whole life.” So I took my sketches and went down to Warner Brothers. I said, “I want to work here. I don’t know anything about animation.” They looked at my sketches, and said, “Wow, these are great, but this is the music division.” I ended up finding where I needed to be, and I got a job there. Within months, I was working with Spielberg, and it just kind of took off from there.

SL: How old were you at that point?

JO: I was in my early 20s.

SL: Okay, so you were in college.

JO: I was in college, and I left. I was in college, and I left. I was about to graduate with a degree in biology. [But] I was being offered a job that made three, four times what a teacher was making, working with Steven Spielberg. So I left school. And it was awesome. I didn’t look back from that point. But I had to learn on the job.

SL: I feel like a lot of creatives do. Especially if they’re coming from a family life or a perspective where the arts is not a viable career choice; it’s considered the career choice for people who “don’t know how to do anything.” And a lot of young creatives don’t end up getting mentored. They’re not given a career path of how to get to that place; they’re just kind of shooting in the dark.

JO: Yeah, it’s too bad. Because most of the people I worked with at Warner Brothers went to CalArts or USC. I was the only guy who was a biology major. I learned the most from a director I had. He said, “A creative idea is the number one thing that matters here. I don’t care if it comes from me, or you, or her. The best idea wins every conversation.” He was humble, and he did that. You could go in, and he would change an entire storyboard because you had a better idea. I held that with me throughout my whole career. I think that’s great.

SL: Do you think your background in biology helped in finding the life of characters?

JO: No. You know what does? Putting yourself into the script, adding a piece of yourself to it to the performance, that really is the magic. It has to be there. I don’t think you can hit those emotional moments until you’ve really felt pain, until you’ve really felt loss. It’s an old trope with writers: You have to have lived a life before your writing is worth anything. And for me, I see that the stuff I’m doing now is way more impactful than the stuff I was doing before. Because I had this period of my life where I really felt loss, where I really felt isolation, and fear. And when you feel all those things, it’s odd, your comedy gets better because your payoffs are more real. Relationships between characters are more real. When it comes to the idea of collaboration with people now, I connect to them now in a different way than I used to connect to people. I used to connect with people in a sort of a stand-offish part of my personality. It wasn’t until I went through this great loss where I feel like, wow, I’m not really listening to people. I’m performing for them. I’m pleasing them with a funny bit. But I’m really not listening or connecting to them. It wasn’t until I went through all these things that really shaped me, I realized, “Wow, I’m missing out on this whole part of life here.”

SL: From a broader perspective, do you think that applies to all the arts?

JO: I think it would. There’s technique, but behind everything we do, whether it’s animation or song writing or editing, if you feel the fear and emptiness… Say you’re editing a scene, and everything’s going great in your life. I had a period in my life where everything I was doing was just hitting on all cylinders. You don’t feel pain. You’re afraid of losing what you have, but you really don’t feel… A dear friend of mine went through a horrible time when he had a brain tumor, he lost a child, there was a lot that happened in his life. And I look back, and I say, I wasn’t worth a dime to him because I didn’t know how to react to that pain. I was scared of it. So if you’re an editor [for example], and you’re doing a scene where somebody feels alone, and you know what that feels like, you might hold on that for longer than somebody else [would]. Somebody that knows that might hang there longer so we really feel that… that isolation, that emptiness… and then you move on.

SL: It reminds me of a quote from Thoreau, who said, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”

JO: Oh, my God, that’s great!

SL: Do you feel like in the arts, and specifically television and film, there’s a power in reminding people what it means to be human?

JO: My first reaction to that, honestly, is no. Because we live in entertainment too much. If we’re finding all our humanity in entertainment, it’s going to disappoint us. It becomes an academic thing. It all becomes academic, and it’s worthless. If you look to movies to create your humanity, I think you’re going to be disappointed. If you look to movies almost like a vitamin pill or as something that can broaden your understanding of what you’re already experiencing with people, I think then it really has power.

This is the beauty of The Sound of Freedom. It’s a movie, but it’s connected so directly to reality and to how they can interact with reality. There’s a great movie. Have you seen the movie yet?

SL: I have not. I’m hoping to this week.

JO: I went to see it, and I’m something of a movie snob. There’s this shaved-head guy in front of me with his feet up on the back of the seat, and he’s checking his phone. And at first I was like, “Ah, I gotta say something to this guy because he’s checking his phone.” Then I realized the screensaver on his phone was him and his daughter. And I think he was checking messages from his daughter constantly. This guy is watching a film about your daughter being taken, and he was constantly checking these messages. At the end of the film, they have this thing where you can pay it forward. And he was up there, taking the code, and buying tickets for people. It was extremely moving.

So the answer to your question is, I think movies and entertainment have, in a way, too much of a spot in our lives. And we are removed from living life. But when you start living life, then films can add such texture to what you do.

SL: You once told me a story about Clifford the Big Red Dog and one of the episodes you did as a team, in which one of the dogs was missing a leg.

JO: That was a moment that really affected me because in animation, you never see your audience, really. You make the films with a crew of people that become your friends and your family in many ways. Especially if it’s a preschool show. Many animators don’t want to be on a preschool show. You’re not really dealing with big issues. And in this episode, it was an episode about a dog that only had three legs, and the other dogs were afraid if they touched him and got to know him, they’d lose legs themselves. So it’s kind of a ‘cooties’ kind of episode. Everybody’s like, okay, it’s one of those ‘special episodes,’ and then we did it, and we didn’t think much about it until we got a letter from the head of Scholastic.

She said, “We’ve been getting letters like this, so I thought I’d pass this along.” This one letter was from a mother that had a boy that had with one arm, and he had no friends. She said every day was absolute torture for her and him. The teacher, one day, show[s] this episode. At the end of the episode, all the students get up, and come over and hug him. It changed his life forever. From that moment on, he got friends in that classroom, his grades went up, he would have had after school activities. She said, “It’s hard to believe, but a TV show actually changed his life.” So again, that’s a TV show, but it’s connected to a real life moment. I would encourage your readers, if they’re creative people, don’t let the creative keep you away from real life and having a place where you’re helping people that are really in need, or you’ve been ignoring, or that are they’re awkward to you. Because that’s where you’re going to find your greatest inspiration.

SL: That really requires being aware of the world around you. You’ve kind of touched on this, but learning to read the world, getting out and seeing things, understanding the world – is that an integral part of your creative process?

JO: Yeah, and I was first introduced to that phrase “reading the world,” by [filmmaker] Hayao Miyazaki. Not personally, I wish it was personally, but it was through something he said, where he doesn’t show up at the studio till like 11 o’clock. He spends the mornings reading the world. He goes to a coffeehouse. He sees what people are wearing, how they’re standing, what they’re buying, what they’re talking about. He looks at the price of vegetables and the price of gas. And he has to understand how the world is working in order to be effective as a communicator.

SL: Speaking of the creative process, what role does failure play in the creative process?

JO: This is a really big deal for me. When I was a young man, right out of high school, I had a godfather who was a security guard. He died, and he left me $40,000, which is a huge amount of money. I remember being appreciative to family members, like, “Oh, wow, thank you!” But I didn’t appreciate it at all, in reality, because I didn’t know the value of that money. I didn’t know what it took for a security guard to save up and to sacrifice to leave me that money, and what it meant to pick me to give it to. I look back and think, “Wow, that’s a really missed opportunity. If I meant that much to him, I should have had a better relationship with him through life.” I don’t think you can have gratitude until you have failure. I don’t think you really appreciate things until you’ve lost them. Failure is something I always fought. I never embraced it. When I tried to start a couple companies or sell shows, and I would get this close to selling a big movie, and then wouldn’t do it, I would say, “Well, that’s a failure.” It’s just the wrong attitude to take. There’s so much I could have gleaned from those. Asking people, “Why didn’t you like this? I can see you’re not connecting with this story.” Instead of blustering and trying to make them connect. Then you might have a conversation that bridges some gaps. But I was so afraid of it that I couldn’t embrace it.

SL: How do you introduce the acceptance of failure into a creative team? Somebody screws up something, or a scene doesn’t work, or an entire movie doesn’t work. How do you create an environment where failure is embraced rather than causing fear?

JO: I think it starts with you first. You have to actually do that. They have to see you doing it. So for the show I’m currently doing, I wrote a pilot. It was very funny, and everybody liked it. We started [story]boarding it, but it wasn’t true to the vision of the show. I remember this, when, you know, you’re gonna throw up and you put it off, and you’re thinking, “Oh, my God.” I thought, “I have to rewrite this pilot.” I remember taking this walk. My neighbor, a dear friend across the street said, “John, you look like hell. What is this?” I said, “I wrote this, but I have to change it, I have to do a totally different thing. And that’s gonna piss everybody off.” And [my wife] was saying, “Oh, don’t do it! Oh, no, don’t call them up and tell them that you’re going to change this.” But I did. I rewrote it. And then I reboarded it, very quickly. And I presented it to them. They came back, and they said, “First of all, we want to say that it makes us so proud to be working with you because you did this. Yes, we think the other one is very funny, but this one is powerful. That you had the guts to do this really shows us a lot.” That’s the difference. They said, “That you had the guts to do this, really shows us a lot.” So it ended up being a plus that I cared enough. And that gives them the freedom to do the same thing if a scene isn’t right.

If you come down on somebody: “This isn’t right, and I need it by Tuesday, and come on, get with it!” – then they’re just gonna get stressed about it. But if they see it as their failure isn’t a failure, it’s just an opportunity to do a better job, they can get to a better place. If I looked at the first script as a failure, then it’s wrong. If I look at it as “what is it not communicating?” – now it’s a helpful thing.

SL: I once interviewed Chris Buck, the director of Frozen and Tarzan. He talked about how, when Pixar came into Disney, he had been at Disney for a while. [One of] Pixar’s mottos is “Fail as fast as you can.” Create an environment where failure is embraced as part of the process. He said up until that point, Disney had become a difficult place to work because people were so afraid of failure, they wouldn’t try anything new. What you’re saying is that embracing failure actually leads to innovation.

JO: It can, or it can destroy you. It can destroy you because you think you’re not up to the job. You think you shouldn’t be in this field. “Everybody loves their script; how come mine’s not working?” So it can destroy you, or it can lead to success. I love this idea of James Taylor’s in his song Secret O’ Life: Life is just a ride, enjoy the ride. In this ride, it’s really something to experience sadness, to experience loss. If you’re only experiencing the sunny side of the street, it’s not the full experience of life. You’re missing out on so much. If you’re running away from negative feelings, then you’re not going to learn from them.

SL: Have you ever had a situation where you experience failure in the creative process? You’re working on a project, or you’re working with your team, and you just massively fail, but it ends up turning into what I call a “happy accident?”

JO: Oh, yeah. I mean, that happens all the time. That It happens on a drawing level, like this drawing, that drawing. This isn’t working, you fix it. And then you just expand out from that. It goes all the way all the way to the series itself. There are happy accidents. It’s like in sports, if you picture yourself throwing the ball wrong, you’re not going to throw the ball right. If you’re thinking of how to throw the ball better, how to get closer to the target, then you’re going to improve. Whatever scene you have or story you’re telling, think about where it could be, how it could be better. Just don’t look down as far as the failure part.

I was once pitching a show. I was filled with doubts about the pitch. The executive listening to it said, “John, John, stop, stop. I can tell you don’t believe in this.” He was right. It cut me to the core. He was absolutely right. I didn’t believe in it. I was trying to wow him with amazing artwork and thoroughness of the storytelling and whatever. But he could see that inside, I was afraid of failing with this project. That changed a lot of how I pitch shows, how I looked at them. So yes, it can affect you.

SL: You’ve done a lot of teaching, helping young people develop as creatives. If you were talking with a group of young creatives, what lessons would you pass along so they don’t make the same mistakes?

JO: I understand that every young creative is incredibly stressed right now. It’s a real fear for anyone going into the creative world. It comes down to what makes you unique. With my first storyboarding job, I was promoted to storyboarding because I put an essence of me in there. So this idea of understanding that your life experiences, your failures, your successes, that crazy aunt you have – find a place for them in your story because it will add to it. So what can you add that’s a part of you?

Then there’s the aberration of cliché. Don’t go near cliché, even if it’s working for everybody else. By the time your thing gets out there, it’s gonna be tired. So many young people go with what’s already out there and what they see, and so they adapt what they see. Abhor the cliché. If there’s a simple way to do a scene, rethink it. How can you surprise your viewer with what you’re about to present?

SL: That’s really good. What are you reading, watching, listening to?

JO: Right now I’m reading Les Misérables, which is way better than I ever thought. The book is intimidating as all hell.

SL: Yeah, the unabridged version!

JO: The humanity in it! Again, I find the loss the characters are feeling… I’m fascinated with faith. It’s my big passion. But – this is gonna be weird – I’m an agnostic. I was a Christian. I didn’t grow up Christian, but I became a Christian in my teens. I was a very committed Christian for a long time. It was on the mission field I started to have some doubts. Faith was always this really big issue for me, how I was going to deal with it. I had cancer a couple years ago. When I went through that, this unknown God became a big deal. I listen to debates between Christians and atheists. When I’m doing the dishes, I’m listening to all these debates, history, how we got the Scriptures, all that stuff. I’m just fascinated by faith, and how it interacts with our daily lives. I think it’s extremely important. I look at all the people I respect in life, most of them are Christians. People who are actually out there doing things that enhance life for people, they’re all Christians. And then I say, “Okay, so where does that leave me if I don’t believe this?” It’s only through conversation. It’s only through not shying away from those things, but diving into them. I’m reading a book by a neurophysicist called The Illusion of God’s Presence, which is about how we might conjure God in our minds. Because those things matter to me, those issues.

SL: Wrestling with them.

JO: Yes. I love that. It’s “wrestling with God.” It’s what the word “Israel” means. It’s something I do daily.

SL: And then we walk away with a limp at the end of the day.

JO: Yes, a limp. You know, there was a big deal that happened to me with my cancer directly related to that. I have friends that never wrestle. But they never engage either. They’re never going to church and dealing with Christians. They’re never dealing with the poor or the suffering. So yeah, I’d rather wrestle with God and wrestle with those themes and embark on those adventures of helping people than not.

SL: There’s a long list of great thinkers who went down that same path. I think of C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien. They wrestled with it. They weren’t just going to say, “Okay, I’ll put my stamp of approval on this thing.” No, they’re gonna find the holes. And then determine if this is true or not. That led them into the depths of hard times, first of all, but also the depths of meaning and story. You couldn’t have The Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia without the faith journey those guys went on.

JO: That’s exactly right. I have to say, I’m a member of a church, and I go to these men’s groups and stuff. And I actually teach in a Bible study. And I say, “I don’t believe this.” And they say, “But we want you to go over it.” So we’re going over C.S. Lewis. They’re bringing up arguments, and I’m bringing up arguments, and they like this interaction of these ideas. They’re great guys. I totally love them.

SL: C.S. Lewis and Tolkien had their Inklings group where that’s what they did. They’d get together and pound out ideas, and argue with one another, and still love each other. I think that’s largely missing from – the world as a whole – but definitely from the creative world, where you’re just asked to believe one thing or another. And if you don’t, then you’re a pariah. And who needs that?

JO: You just brought up something really good. And I’ve never really considered this, but I think I will. You want somebody in your group who says, “Okay, wait, if that’s true, then what?” How many times do you do that creatively? If you’re doing a storyboard handout, or something like that, how many times do you say, “Okay, now, who doesn’t like this? And what isn’t working here?” I don’t know that I’ve really done that, where I invite people to rip it up. But that’s intriguing to me. I’m going to try that in some ways, because I think there’d be some good stuff that comes out of that.

SL: Bono, in his book, said, “The thing that will make you less and less able to realize your potential is a room that’s empty of argument.” We avoid the arguments, we avoid the people who would challenge us. We’re insecure in our own beliefs. We have to get to the point where we’re like, “Hey, you know, I may not be right here. I want to be okay with hearing your argument.”

JO: Yeah. So what would it be like to be working with a director? Well, you know, you want him to direct, you want him to [be tough on] you. But I think there is a point where you want to work with a certain group of people – it has to be a certain group of people you trust – that you really attack these things.

I had a guy at Biola, my Greek teacher. I was lousy at Greek. And he was amazing. He was this neatly dressed older guy. And he would say, “Well, so what do you think? Does this translate as this or that?” And I’d say, “Well, I think that this means such and such.” He’s say, “John, I vehemently disagree with you. I have to say I vehemently disagree.” But he’d do it in a way so charming that I’d say, “Okay, I want to hear it.” And I did.

SL: We could all learn something from that, how to disagree and debate charitably. We could use a whole lot more of that. My last question for you: What’s the most important thing for a creative professional to know?

JO: Connect with people. A lot of people connect with the entertainment world because it’s an escape. They like movies because it gets them out of an uncomfortable thing, which is the real world. So they bond to the escapism. That can be in movies, it can be in drugs and pornography, or a million other things, where you bond to the escapism. That’s a danger in our field. Don’t run away from these uncomfortable things. Build connections, and it will only help your creative life.

SL: I think that is the difference between a consumer and a creator.

JO: Wow, that’s exactly right.

SL: Consumers want to escape. They consume, and it never fills them up. And the creator is, like, “No, I’m connecting with this art form because I have something to say to an audience.”

JO: That’s a really great idea, and it’s so vital… I was talking to my son about that the other day. You want to be a creative producer in life, not a consumer. A consumer is never happy. They’re just judging what’s coming up to them. “Eh, it was a pretty good flick.” “Eh, it was a pretty good burger.” No, how much better to be creating your own burger?

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