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Billy Jarcho: Puppet Man

by Wendy Jackson Hall, Fall 2002

Billy Jarcho is an animation director, designer and puppeteer living on Vashon Island, a short ferry ride from Seattle. He is the “Jar” in Olive Jar Animation Studio, which he co-founded with Mark D’Oliveira in Boston in the 80s. After selling the company, Jarcho moved to the Northwest five years ago, and is currently involved in an art-puppetry movement called Monkey Wrench Puppet Lab. Jarcho presented his work in September 2002, including commercials and IDs for MTV and Nickelodeon, excerpts of episodes of Will Vinton Studios’ “The PJs,” and several short films. He also taught a “Masterclass” in animated short spot production at 911 Media Arts Center.

  • When and how did you end up in the Pacific Northwest?

    I taught at the Museum School and the Art Institute of Boston for about four years before I left Boston. I left Boston and went on a road trip. I drove across the country and spent about a year and a half, and then came up to Seattle to visit some friends, and I went to Bumbershoot one night and ran into a bunch of people carrying giant puppets who lived on Vashon, and I said, “Oooh, that’s what I want to do!” I moved out here about a month later, and here I still am five years later doing just that.

    When I started working out here, selling sculptures, doing my own artwork, I got a call from Vinton, who knew I was up here because I have old Olive Jar friends who work there. They were looking for directors. I swore never to do commercial animation again, but they made me a pretty good offer that made me swallow that pride, and I went down there. I directed two episodes, about four months at a time.

  • Why wouldn't you want to do commercial animation again? Did you just burn out?

    Yeah, I was totally fried. I had done it for eight years, it just got to be too much for me, the whole business/sleazy advertising world was too much. I also started to get into puppets, and the spontenaiety of doing puppetry was really exciting to me.

  • What was it like during the early days of Olive Jar?

    For the first few years I directed everything. Then we grew and brought in Flip Johnson, Julie Zammarchi, Michael Manning, and we started doing 2D animation and mixed-media type projects. When we sold the company, we sold it to Fred MacDonald, who started out as one of our college interns! He was a really smart kid.

    [ed. Fred MacDonald sold Olive Jar to a “Dot Com” called Red Sky in the late 90s, which folded last year, bringing Olive Jar and its animation legacy down with it. Many of the former employees of the studio are now working on renegade new projects in Boston.]

  • Will we see your early work at the ASIFA screening in September?

    Yes, I have about an hour and a half of material to show, including my college film that I made at Emerson College in Boston. My first film “The Taming” did really well. It was a clay-animated circus film. In 1981 I got a student Academy Award. It really catapulted me into doing this. I thought “O.K., this is what I’ll do!”

  • What are you doing now?

    I could tell you lots more about puppetry. I'm really into that. The Monkey Wrench Puppet Lab … we’re a group of about 12 puppeteers who live on Vashon and in Fremont as well. We’ve formed a collective where we are going to put on a couple of shows a year. My goal is to continue to do that, and I’d love to make some videos, some puppetry films. I love doing animation but it just takes too long. I’m like, ok, I need to move faster. I still love the art end of everything, I just find I can communicate what I want with puppets. It’s different and it’s also the same. It’s an exploration.