One Animation studio head John McKenna in a candid chat dispenses pearls of wisdom

John McKenna was not one of those young people who are passionate about the art of animation and want to create films. Yet here he is, heading One Animation which is the studio that has created one of the most globally successful TV animated comedy series Oddbods. Before destiny led him to animation, McKenna was working in London in writing, acting, producing shows, directing and running teams of musicians for live theatre. “At one point, I wanted to become an actor,” he smiled. Disney’s plan of opening a studio in London in 1989 changed the course for young John and he has never regretted his decision.
One Animation studio head John McKenna
The team at Disney wanted someone to lead their London studio and approached McKenna. At that time, he knew nothing about animation but everything about leading a team, hence he was hired. Initially, McKenna saw it as an exciting opportunity of working with a big name in the industry but gradually fell in love with the art. As his children grew up, he saw the impact the medium had on them and stayed in the field. “Since then, I have not done anything else,” he said. Over all these years, McKenna has seen the animation industry burgeon from a dying craft to a lucrative business. “People didn’t come out of college and say that I want to be an animator,” said McKenna, talking about the initial years when he had joined Disney. “But now, it is a lucrative career. Parents don’t fall over and say ‘what the heck is wrong with you’ because it is a huge mainstream business.” According to him, The Little Mermaid of Disney drew the audience to animation from 1989. But what drew the industry were Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994). Affirming every studio’s experience, McKenna said that challenges are always novel on every project as each movie is a prototype. “You never make something and get to make it again. Every project is created from scratch. That’s a huge challenge.”
‘The Lion King’ (1994)
Continuity of work at the studio is a massive responsibility, McKenna feels. “You cannot just go out of work and lay people off,” he exclaimed. This he feels especially for places like Singapore – where One Animation studio is based – where there are no other studios that employees can go to for work. “These people (employees) become your family so you want to look after them. They have their family in turn who depend on them. You are impacting lives.” McKenna was approaching middle age when the digital revolution kicked in and the traditional 2D drawn animation technique got replaced. He was a practitioner of the old form but people then wanted digital movies. “And I didn’t know digital! I thought I am going to become like an old wood-carver, yes, people still admire the skills but nobody wants to buy it.” He then relearned his craft and applied himself to it. When asked how his studio manages to create a show like Oddbods which is enjoyed by one and all, McKenna didn’t have a how-to-do-it theory response. To the contrary, he replied, “I actually don’t know the answer to that.” There are certain universal themes though that he hinted at, for instance something that is not too specific to one’s personal life that nobody else gets it. “When I look back at Oddbods, I see that first of all, there are no dialogues so anybody, anywhere in the world can watch it for five minutes and go, ‘I like this! This is funny.’ There is no translation required, no subtitles. It is not specific to any culture.” The major reason for its mass appeal according to him is the show’s cultural agnostic nature.
One Animation studio’s highly popular series ‘Oddbods’
Let’s talk business now. Saying that being a studio head means managing a studio is an understatement. Yes, there are the basic skills of managing people, organising, being able to budget, being able to monitor expenditure, being able to monitor operations so you’re doing them cost-effectively but specifically for an animation studio, “I think it’s a weird kind of combination of things,” he mentioned. Encompassing years of experience after working with names of the likes of Warner Bros. Feature Animation, Twentieth Century Fox Animation and Exodus Film Group he feels that the studio has to be a “fun, lively, creative place where people feel good about themselves because you want them to produce work that they feel invested in, that they feel happy about.” But at the same time, he strongly feels that the studio also has to be ruthlessly efficient and cost-effective in order to compete against other studios. One of the tasks that McKenna performs is making things efficient, meaning offering better quality of work in less money by cutting down waste. “But one cannot let the artists feel that they’re being watched all the time,” he stressed. “You need to care about your employees, value and recognise them. You have to try to unlock what is in them as a creative force that is giving you results.” From the Indian-centric animated content, McKenna loves the mythological feature Arjun: The Warrior Prince, a project executed by Tata Elxsi for Walt Disney Pictures and UTV Motion Pictures, and Jugal Hansraj’s Roadside Romeo. He shared his wish to partner with somebody from India to develop a movie which is set here, emphasising on “Indian values and Indian culture with a potential for a global audience.” To the young and aspiring animators, McKenna says, “You don’t have to listen to old folks like me but you should study what the old animators did. What you’re going to learn from those people, you will never learn only from your contemporaries.” A big believer in the power of films, he advised the artists to follow their dream and change the world with their films. An extremely lively and an enthusiastic personality, McKenna carries with him a practical approach towards the animation industry with a profound respect for the arts. Only a 30-minute interaction with him and I was sure, he is no part of  the “old folks”!