Interview with John Tarnoff, CEO, Newspeak Consulting Group

By FARHATNAZ ANSARI | 6 June, 2011 - 17:00

John Tarnoff a 30-year veteran of the media/entertainment business, with broad management experience as studio executive, film and interactive producer, and technology entrepreneur in conversation with


Tell us something about yourself?
I’m a 30 year veteran of the entertainment business, having worked as a studio executive in live-action and animation, a producer, writer, and software developer.  I never cease to be amazed at the power of the moving image, and am totally energized by the massive changes that are currently rocking the digital entertainment future.

What are your plans to build stronger ties between media / entertainment industry and higher education?
The media/entertainment business is a far more complex place than it has ever been – but also much more exciting.  For the industry to plan successfully for the future, something that is inherently unknowable as most predictions fall flat, it is going to have to work much more closely with education programs at all levels to help educators do the best job of preparing the next generation for the business.  So my charge to the industry is to engage with educators.  Bring them up to speed with the latest creative, technical and business developments, and keep them closely involved as partners in designing curriculum based on what’s going on in the real world.  And my charge to schools is to open them up to new ideas coming from industry – and from students.  Accept that change is both inevitable, and also good, and most of all allow for interdisciplinary approaches that reject hierarchies and silos in favor of flat, interdependent communities that use a network model.

How was it being on Chancellor’s Entertainment Advisory Board for the California State University?
Let me say that the State of California has an amazing system of publicly funded higher education.  We are experiencing significant challenges to that system right now, and it is my hope that the State will continue to support the CSU, as well as the UC (University of California) systems.  Public education should remain a top priority in the U.S.  To the extent that media education supports not only the media/entertainment industry, but also provides skills that are increasingly valuable in all industries, the CSU system is very wise to be engaging closely with entertainment industry professionals for guidance.

What was your role in DreamWorks?
I wore a number of hats over my 6-year tenure there.  I started out working in production, troubleshooting the prototyping process that is followed there to bring movies out of script development and into full-scale production.  In the process, I became very closely involved with two front-end departments, Storyboarding and Visual Development, and wound up managing those artists within the company’s production hierarchy.  From there, I began to branch out into what became my defining role, which was as the founder of the company’s educational Outreach Program to colleges and universities, as well as the director of the company’s internal Artistic Development program, which created a mini-university within DreamWorks Animation to encourage creative leadership and professional development.

Can you share any particular incident from your time at DreamWorks?
I was very fortunate to work closely with CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg in developing the Outreach Program at DreamWorks Animation, and I think the accomplishment I’m most proud of from my time there was working with him to establish an undergraduate professorship at San Jose State University, sponsored by DreamWorks Animation.

What are your views about the future of Animation Industry in Asia Pacific region?
There has been an explosion of animation production and content in Asia, but I would caution everyone to focus both on quality and on the market viability of that content.  Telling good stories is not easy in any medium, and we need to remember that we are storytellers first.  Great animation, special effects and other eye candy aren’t going to bring audiences to view the product unless they have great stories and characters.  While it is tempting to jump into a CG animation package like Maya, young artists need to spend time working on the fundamentals of their art before they are ready to work for, or compete with established companies.  In the long run, I think that the global marketplace for all content will continue to grow, and I think that digital distribution is making it increasingly possible for a greater diversity of cultural programming to get made all over the world, including in Asia, and to be successful.

What are you currently working on?
I am focusing on a handful of clients right now, both on the industry side, and on the education side.  My work is generally to help clients understand what their challenges are, to come up with simple next steps to address those challenges, and then to help facilitate the execution of those plans.  Life never goes the way you plan it, so it is also important to be flexible, and to listen and observe what’s going on so that it is possible to make the necessary course corrections on the path to success.

Your experience on writing war games and PC games
I was having lunch with John Badham, the director of the original War Games movie (starring Matthew Broderick), in the early 1990s, just as multi-media and CD-ROM games were starting to become popular, and we realized that War Games was really the first video game movie.  We thought up some ideas about how to create a sort of gameplay sequel to the movie and approached MGM Interactive in 1995 about creating the game. They were working with a developer who had a great game engine, and we partnered with them to write the overall story/scenarios, and the gameplay on each level.  It was one of the early Playstation 1 titles, and did extremely well.  Somewhere, I still have the promotional t-shirt that had a picture of the Radio Shack computer that Matthew Broderick used in the movie, and the caption read:  “In 1983, David Lightman (Matthew’s character) nearly destroyed the world with a TRS-80.  Imagine what he could do today…”

What would be your advice to future game writers and producers?
Focus on story and characters. F.Scott Fitzgerald is quoted as saying that “action is character,” and that is never more true than in the context of an interactive title.  If you have your story and character set up correctly, and you know what they’re about, then the strategy and gameplay will work much better than if you start the other way around.