Ottawa ’04 has concluded and a complete list of winners can be found HERE. Grand prize for short film went to Chris Landreth’s RYAN and best feature went to RAINING CATS AND FROGS. Numerous other awards were handed out in other categories, and notably, no award was given in the Machinima category (wink, wink…hint). Personally, I had a terrific time at the festival and it seems that everybody else did too (well, everybody but the Machinima filmmakers). I’ll file a lengthy report upon my return to LA. At the moment, I’ve taken a little side trip to Montreal and have found a charming (and quite crowded) coffee shop on St. Laurent with wi-fi access (thanks for the tips Emru).
I’m off to the Ottawa Animation Festival, which starts this evening (it’s going to be a mighty long day). There’s an amazing line-up of programs scheduled for this year and I’m sure it’ll be an excellent time. I’m especially excited because I’m hosting the Fred Crippen retrospective which will be showing on Thursday and Sunday. Fred is an amazing animator and director, and he’s done it all over the course of the past fifty years from UPA and SESAME STREET to ROGER RAMJET and adult cartoons for HBO and The Playboy Channel. He even has a brand-new film, IMPROVING COMMUNICATIONS, premiering in Competition #1 and it’s a real hoot. I’m also moderating a “Meet the Master” session with Fred on Saturday afternoon and will be speaking on the panel “Your Criticism Sucks!” alongside Chris “Animation Pimp” Robinson, Richard O’Connor, Mikhail Gurevich and ANIMATION MAGAZINE’s Rita Street. There’s going to be fireworks at this one folks…at least I’m hoping so. I’m not sure yet whether I’ll be blogging from Ottawa or doing a wrap-up report after the festival, but if the parties are anything like Annecy and Zagreb, don’t expect to hear from me until after the fest. If you see me up there, give me a shout. Here’s what I look like.
Fascinating article (and delightfully grotesque editorial art) in the EAST BAY EXPRESS about Pixar’s continuing battles with the city of Emeryville as they attempt to expand the size of their studio. The piece reports that there’s now a measure opposing Pixar’s architectural plans on the November Emeryville ballot. Regardless of the studio’s expansion woes, after seeing this new INCREDIBLES trailer, I can assuredly say that Pixar has created the best American animated feature of 2004. Granted, when your competition is SHARK TALE and HOME ON THE RANGE, that’s not saying much, but Brad Bird’s latest looks truly sumptuous and certainly one of the most entertaining animated features in years.
(Thanks to Karl Cohen for the article link.)
Appealing graffiti art HERE. Fafi is a French artist who specializes in drawing cute girls. Her work reminds me a bit of Katie Nice and Junko Mizuno, and for the most part is solidly drawn with creative flourish to spare. Fafi will be having a gallery show in LA at four x four opening on Friday, November 12. (link via Jared Chapman)
Illustrator Mark Frauenfelder’s recent post on Boing Boing about the forthcoming Jim Flora book is a reminder of what a wonderful time it is for aficionados of mid-century cartooning and animation. In the past couple years, there have been books dedicated to the work of Flora, Gene Deitch and Mary Blair, and there’s still more to come. I’ve heard that a Maurice Noble coffeetable book is in the pipeline, and I’m personally working on a comprehensive volume about Fifties animation design which will be published by Chronicle Books in 2006.
Milt Gross’s graphic novel HE DONE HER WRONG (1930) is examined in this ARTICLE at Indy Magazine. Somebody really needs to publish a good bio/art book documenting the vastly underrated work of Gross. For the time being, Shane Glines is posting a lot of Gross’s finest cartooning on his subscription site CartoonRetro.com.
Gary Owens, the voice of Roger Ramjet, Space Ghost and Powdered Toast Man, has a new book out called HOW TO MAKE A MILLION DOLLARS WITH YOUR VOICE (OR LOSE YOUR TONSILS TRYING). While mostly a how-to on becoming a voice-over artist, the book also includes anecdotes from Owens’ legendary career in film, TV and radio. Scott Shaw! points out on Animation Nation that next Wednesday, September 22, Gary will be doing a signing of his new book from 7-9 pm at Dutton’s Bookstore in North Hollywood (5146 Laurel Canyon Blvd.). And Scott hints that some of Gary’s friends with last names like Freberg, Winters and Conway may show up for the signing. I’d certainly be there if I wasn’t going to Ottawa.
Here’s an ARTICLE from Frank Thomas’s hometown paper, the LA CANADA VALLEY SUN, with remembrances from Disney folk like Andreas Deja, Andy Gaskill and Howard Green. Not an essential read, but worth a look for Thomas fans.
Nice article in this week’s SEATTLE WEEKLY about indie comic publisher Fantagraphics. The piece relates that in the 28-year history of the company, they’ve been on the brink of bankruptcy numerous times, but the company is currently enjoying relative stability as a result of their deal to publish the complete run of Charles Schulz’s PEANUTS. The first volume of PEANUTS has sold over 100,000 copies in only four months of release, already more than any other title in Fantagraphics history. And the success of Fantagraphics is great news for everybody because it means they’ll publish other cool comic/illustration books like THE MISCHIEVOUS ART OF JIM FLORA, which should be shipping any day now. (via Boing Boing)
A few DVD’s of note that I’ve received in the mail recently:
Politics and animation always seem to mix nicely, and the on-line short BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A JOB? is no exception. The film is a not-so-friendly indictment of Bush’s presidency, executed in classic black-&-white ’30s cartoon style and it’s now available on DVD for $8 ($6 + $2 shipping/handling). There’s a limited run of 200 copies.
The fine folks at fluorescent hill sent me a reel of their latest work and it’s a variety of stylish hand-drawn, stop motion, live-action and mixed-media works. Fluorescent is a Canadian collective of directors/animators comprised of Mark Lomond, Darren Pasemko and Johanne Ste-Marie. About their films, Lomond says, “Our work falls somewhere in between indy music video…independent animation…and sell outs…but generally accepted by none of those circles.” I especially enjoyed the music video “Joey” and their opening for the Montreal Student Film Festival. You can see their work at fluorescenthill.com.
It took me a couple weeks to decide whether I even wanted to put this next DVD into my player, but I finally took the chance and THE MEATY MCMEAT SHOW is indeed a most unique experience. It’s like SEINFELD, except Jerry is Meaty McMeat, a diseased heart with a rotating eyeball, who discusses life and philosophy with his friends Spleeny McSpleen, Lungy McButter and Sticky McStick. I’m still trying to make my way through the whole film, but I’ll say one thing. We all have crazy ridiculous thoughts for films, but few of us ever follow through on them. Not only did filmmaker Nathan Smithe follow through, but he made a 90-minute epic of pure uninhibited insanity. The DVD is packed with extras, including a director’s commentary to end all director’s commentaries. It costs only $13 and it’s guaranteed to be a hit at your next party, especially if you follow the warning on the front cover (“Do Not Watch Sober”). This in-depth REVIEW at DVD TALK does an admirable job of trying to make some sense of the film.
Visual Culture recently released their first dvd, VISUAL STORYTELLING, which is a training video about how to tell stories in animation. I haven’t had time to watch the entire program yet, so I’m not in a position to offer a detailed assessment, but skimming through it, the program seems like a solid and concise, no-frills approach to teaching a commonly neglected aspect of animated filmmaking. If you want to improve your storytelling skills, this might be a good place to start.
Oscar Grillo writes this nice memory of how he was inspired by Duane Crowther’s work:
Duane was not only a great animator. He was a great guy… he was my mentor. Aged sixteen I started to work in animation in Buenos Aires. I played a practical joke (I removed the boss’s chair when he was about to sit and he fell on his ass…I was an idiot) and I was fired. I knew I blew my chances to work in animation for the rest of my life. I begged some people in another studio to let me stay with them for no pay. They had a showreel from an American studio named Robert Lawrence Animation. It was terrific…I looked at it frame by frame in the moviola and checked out some of their tricks and techniques. Suddenly I felt that I understood the mysteries of animation and design and I tried to put it into practice. The boss I had played the stupid trick on came to visit the studio and saw the work I was doing then and rehired me on the spot and I started to earn my living as an animator.
Many years later I visited Duck Soup in Santa Monica and through Lee Mishkin I met Duane. He invited me to a great lunch at Musso & Frank and asked me what got me started. I mentioned the Robert Lawrence showreel and he said “What commercials did they have on it?” I said “This and that,” and he said “I made them” so I discovered who was my inspiration and made me do it. God bless Duane, I miss his censoriousness and pessimistic views, but compared with what passes for optimism today he was a genuine and true optimist!
Every so often I see a piece of animation that completely knocks me out, a gem that I never even knew existed. This past weekend I saw such a film: BLUM BLUM. The 3-minute black-&-white short was a student film produced by Duane Crowther in 1949 while he was attending UCLA. Duane was born in December 1928 so he would have been only twenty years old when he made the film. An experienced animator would be proud to have his name on this film, so it boggles the mind that such a mature work was created by somebody who had never animated before. To put it into some sort of perspective, I don’t think that in all the years I’ve attended the CalArts year-end screenings, I’ve ever seen a piece of student animation that exhibits such an innate sense of timing and overall understanding of the animated form.
BLUM BLUM is difficult to describe in words and must be seen to be truly appreciated. It is set to a rather goofy novelty tune by Peggy Lee and seamlessly jumps back and forth between abstract shape animation and character animation. All sorts of innovative UPA-ish modernity are on display throughout the film such as animating a character’s line and shape separately and having a round character flatten out when he turns to the side. When Duane made the film though, UPA had only released a couple Fox and Crow theatricals so his modernist influences must have come from elsewhere. Not surprisingly he started working at UPA-LA shortly after he finished this film. In Gene Deitch’s on-line autobiography, he recalls how Duane was transferred to UPA’s New York studio:
Ted Bethune, the background painter, was a Canadian, and wanted to go home. That presented us with our first crisis, and I got on the phone several times with Steve [Bosustow], imploring him to send me a replacement. Orders were coming in, and we didn’t have a background artist. As my desperation mounted, Steve put his hand over the mouthpiece, but I could still hear him ask someone, “Can you paint backgrounds?”
“Uh-oh,” I thought. “What are we going to get?” Shortly, a handsome 20-year-old with bright black eyes showed up. He painted the worst backgrounds I had seen up to that time. “What else can you do?” I asked plaintively. I could not throw back a fellow Steve sent me.
“I have this reel I animated when I was 18,” he said. I led him into the projection room with no real hope. The animation was sensational. Here was a natural born animator! He became my star. He was Duane Crowther.
The reel that Gene is referring to is, of course, the film BLUM BLUM. It is a testament to Duane’s talent that he became one of two main animators at UPA-NY, the other animator being none other than the great Grim Natwick. Fred Crippen, who’ll be honored at the Ottawa Animation Festival next week, was given his animation training by Duane at UPA-NY and was his assistant animator for a couple years. Even though Fred hasn’t seen BLUM BLUM in nearly fifty years, he still distinctly recalls it as being a terrific film.
After working in New York for most of the Fifties, Crowther returned to LA where he worked on TV commercials for Filmfair, Quartet and Jay Ward Productions among other studios. In the late-’60s, he went to England to work on THE YELLOW SUBMARINE where he animated sequences with the Blue Meanies. In the Seventies, Duane established the commercial studio Duck Soup Productions with Roger Chouinard. He passed away in 1998.
Animator Mark Kausler who kindly showed me BLUM BLUM, and likely has the only copy of the film in existence, also worked with Duane for many years. At some point, I’ll have to bug him for more details about Duane’s work. He told me that after this student effort, Duane never made another personal film. Then again, when somebody achieves perfection on their first attempt, what’s the point of trying again?
Ward Kimball is the only animator I can ever imagine being caught up in this sort of stuff. This ARTICLE recounts Ward’s involvement with secret unreleased government footage of UFOs. Most intriguing, the piece says that in 1979 Ward publicly screened 15-20 minutes of animation from an unfinished Disney documentary about UFOs. Does this footage still exist? I’d love to see it.
Last month I sung the praises of Benjamin Ettinger’s anime blog AniPages Daily, but it’s worth doing again. During the past couple weeks, he’s posted an excellent beginner’s guide to the history of independent animation in Japan and it’s fascinating reading. I’ve managed to see a handful of the films he writes about including Tezuka’s TALES OF A STREETCORNER (thanks Mark), a retrospective of Taku Furukawa’s work at Ottawa ’02, a couple of Yoji Kuri’s films, and assorted bits here and there, but to be honest, until I read Ben’s pieces I had no idea how all these artists and films related to one another in the context of Japan’s indie animation scene. The story begins in this ENTRY, continues HERE and ends with this POST. If only every blog was this informative and entertaining. And while on the subject of Japanese animation, here’s a nice page that has a listing of all of Osamu Tezuka’s independent films complete with stills and clips. I’d really like to see PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION one of these days.
New Yorkers can see BUSHWHACKED!, another Bush-related film festival, this weekend at the 8th annual RESFEST. Here is a description of the show:
A special program for this election year of great viral political films from media jammers (The Yes Men, Bryan Boyce, Michael Moore) around the world, includes some world premieres like Pinocchio (image shown here) which was too hot for MoveOn.org, and a “Schoolhouse Rock”-style animation from Eric Henry, Pirates & Emperors (Or Size Does Matter).
(via Boing Boing)
Eddie Mort and Lili Chin REPORT on their blog that Macromedia is developing a new version of Flash geared towards animators and designers. Mike Downey of Macromedia emailed them this note: “I’m happy to tell you that we’re in the early stages of defining the next version of Flash, code-named ’8ball’, and will be focusing the release on animators, multimedia designers, and digital artists… The next product release is being managed by an entirely new team of long-time Flash and graphics experts (unlike the last release) and we are all super-determined to return Flash to its roots and make it much better for designers and animators. We may not be able to do everything within the next release, but we definitely have Flash back on track for the future.” If you’re a Flash animator, feel free to contribute to the COMMENTS section of Eddie and Lili’s blog and tell Macromedia what features you’d like to see incorporated into the udpated Flash.
Hargrove Entertainment is currently soliciting films for the GW Bush Animation Festival. The selected shorts will be screened theatrically this fall as well as released onto DVD. According to the organizers: “It doesn’t matter if you’re pro-Bush or anti-Bush, we want to see your work. Toons will be chosen based on the quality of the work, not the political affiliation of the animator.” VHS and DVD screeners can be submitted to:
GW Bush Animation Festival
c/o Hargrove Entertainment Inc.
PO Box 750338
Forest Hills, NY 11375-0338
Artist/creator Seth MacFarlane speaking about the difficulty of creating new episodes of FAMILY GUY:
“I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh! We used up all the funny lines last week! What are we going to do?’ But that’s good. It pushes me to do better work.”
Poor guy. Now with the simultaneous production of FAMILY GUY and AMERICAN DAD, he must be running out of funny lines twice as fast.
Jaime J. Weinman is a fine writer who discusses cartoons intelligently on his blog Something Old, Nothing New alongside a variety of thoughtful posts about live-action sitcoms, musical theater and other avenues of American pop culture. I don’t always agree with him, especially when he sings the praises of witless Spielberg product like ANIMANIACS and PINKY & THE BRAIN, but he really hits the mark in one of his recent posts – “Why I Hate FAMILY GUY” – in which he offers ten well-reasoned arguments why Seth MacFarlane’s show is an abominable example of modern TV animation. Weinman however doesn’t mention the reward for such utter incompetence: a greenlight for Seth’s second Fox series, the currently in-production AMERICAN DAD. On to a less painful topic, be sure to read Jaime’s recent entry about Friz Freleng’s WB short LUMBER JERKS and why it was a better environmentally-themed cartoon than all the CAPTAIN PLANET episodes combined.
We’re excited to announce the return of guest blogging here at Cartoon Brew. It’s a fairly straightforward concept. Jerry and I don’t want this site to become purely an outlet for our own thoughts and opinions, so we’re asking friends from around the animation biz to join us on the Brew and share their unique perspectives on cartoons and the industry. There’s some terrific folks who’ve agreed to contribute over the course of the next few months, including artists, historians and critics. Our first contributor this month is animation director Ken Pontac. Ken is the co-creator of the highly inventive and entertaining stop motion TV series BUMP IN THE NIGHT, among numerous other achievements. He will be treating us to a journal he kept from a couple months ago while working on a show in that hub of animation production known as Reykjavik, Iceland. Here’s a bit more about him:
Ken Pontac has over twenty years experience in the animation industry, creating content for television, video games, and computer applications. A few of the cultural icons he has been involved with include the enduring green clayboy Gumby, the irascible green monster Mr. Bumpy, and the transmogrifying green gladiator the Blob from the hit videogame CLAYFIGHTER. Pontac has written scripts for animated television episodes that have been translated into a dozen languages and shown around the world. He directed the UPN prime time animated program GARY & MIKE, for which his episode “Phish Phry” won an Emmy for Best Art Direction. Pontac lives in Sausalito, California with a beautiful redheaded nurse and five adorable rats.
And now, the conclusion of our exclusive John Kricfalusi interview. The first part was posted HERE last week. Before we begin, be sure to SIGN THIS PETITION which will be sent to Spike TV asking them to put these episodes on the air sooner than later. LA residents, don’t forget the two-evening John K. tribute at the Egytpian Theatre on Sept. 7 and 8. And for images, clips and info about these new episodes, check out THIS PAGE.
Cartoon Brew: You were saying that these new cartoons are of a much higher artistic quality than the original REN & STIMPY episodes. Would it be safe to say that a big reason for this is because you’re a much better artist today than you were ten years ago and your improvement affects everybody else working on the show?
John Kricfalusi: That’s a definite. I worked with a lot of newer artists on the show. There were some of the artists from the classic period – Eddie Fitzgerald, Jim Smith and Vincent Waller – and they’re always great, but we started a lot of new kids. I mean, all artists get better with age. The more you draw, the better you’re going to get. I’m not bragging, but I’ve been studying and drawing a lot since then. So that raises the standards of the whole studio. In the same sense, in the early-1930s, the standards were rubber hose. By the late 1930s, the standards were much more realistic drawings and by the ’40s, there were even more difficult drawings. So as the standards were raised, not only did the veterans get better, but new people coming into the business had more of a challenge than they did ten years earlier because they had to achieve a higher level of drawing.
One problem I face now is a lot of people who come into the studio have only one influence and that’s Spumco. That’s a bad thing. I have to untrain them from what they think is the Spumco style. I have to explain to them that the Spumco style is a combination of me and Jim Smith, Bob Camp, Lynne Naylor and Vincent Waller and all of us have a wide variety of influences. So I say to people, “Go back and look at our influences,” which Luke [Cormican], Katie [Rice], Nick [Cross] and all these people do. They go to Shane Glines’ site and they see what people can really draw. They see all these great artists on Shane’s site. Now their standards are higher and they no longer draw just like Spumco or what they think is Spumco.
In general though, it seems a lot of younger artists today aren’t as well versed in the fundmentals of drawing as in the Golden Age of animation.
You meet young artists now and try to teach them something and they say, “I could do it that way if I wanted to, but this is my style. I draw club feet because it’s my style.” Unfortunately, schools are really bad now. Schools are not only bad in reading, writing and arithmetic, they’re worse in cultural aspects, like in music and art. They don’t teach you anything anymore. I know this from twenty years of experience hiring artists out of the schools. They get worse every year. They’re absolutely ridiculously retarded now. They don’t teach you anything and the few things that they try to teach you are completely wrong. They don’t teach you construction, line of action, nothing.
Illustration from the late-1900s up through the middle of the 20th century was absolutely amazing. In general, American culture was at its highest skill wise in every aspect of human life in the 1940s. It’s all been downhill since then. You just open an old magazine from the 1930s and ’40s and look at the illustrations in it. There’s nobody alive that could touch the way they could draw back then. In old movies, the cinematography is a thousand times better than anything today. Writing, a thousand times better. The standards in the 1940s were extremely high in all aspects of American culture. And they had schools that were like boot camp. They made you learn things. You couldn’t walk into a school and say, “Well, it’s my style to draw badly.” You wouldn’t get into the school. You’d have to be pretty damn good before you came to the school and then once you get there, they were extremely strict about your learning every technical aspect of art. Not only the obvious things like life drawing, anatomy, perspective, but elusive hard to teach concepts like composition and color theory. You buy any book on color theory today and it’s just complete poppy cock. Everybody comes out of school painting pink, purple and green. The whole damn cartoon industry has pink purple and green on their mind.
Those are the colors of INVADER ZIM –
Most cartoons are those colors. They have been for 35 years. Until REN AND STIMPY made that change. REN AND STIMPY changed it, Genndy Tartakovsky perfected it. And then there’s been some shows that have followed Genndy’s lead, like TIME SQUAD, which have absolutely beautiful color. But here’s an interesting theory. The main difference between cartoonists and illustrators, and this isn’t going to apply in every case, but in general cartoonists are untrained artists, while illustrators are more trained. But because the standards were so high in illustration and fine art in the early to mid-20th century, that even the cartoonists and animators who were mostly self-taught, looked up much higher than you have to look today. If you’re a kid wanting to be a cartoonist today, and you’re looking at FAMILY GUY, you don’t have to aim very high. You can draw FAMILY GUY when you’re ten years old. You don’t have to get any better than that to become a professional cartoonist. The standards are extremely low. Same as in illustration. Not very many people can draw who are illustrators today, compared to the early-20th century.
So would you say that training the artists on this show was easier or harder than the first time around?
It was harder this time. I’m trying to figure out why it was harder. I think maybe because when we first formed Spumco, there was a fairly large group of us that had worked together before. One of the big problems this time is that we were doing it in two countries. Even though I’d worked very closely with Jim, Eddie and Vincent before, they were in LA while I was in Canada. We didn’t really work that closely together. And I had to jump back and forth between LA and Canada training two crews of young people. So I don’t know if I can really answer that question because there were other factors involved in that. I think that we probably have some stars that came along this time like Katie, Luke, Kristy Gordon and Helder Mendonca. They’re just naturals and I don’t think we had as many of those in the younger group at the original Spumco.
Does Nick Cross fall into that group as well?
Nick was the fastest learner I’ve ever met in my life. He was unbelievable. I hope he doesn’t get mad at me, but when he came to the studio he had a very generic style. It was the generic Canadian style which is different from the generic American style. Nick was drawing wonky backgrounds and really generic characters. Kristy Gordon, who did background design on RIPPING FRIENDS, was always plugging Nick and I was like, “Yeah, yeah, you’ve got to say that about your boyfriend.”
So anyway, we were starting the show and I needed somebody up here to do storyboards. I hadn’t worked with any board artists in Ottawa so I had to try somebody. I said, “Alright, I’ll give Nick a week and see how he does.” I acted out a scene from “Life Sucks” [an unproduced episode] and he went off and storyboarded it. He brought it back the next day and it was super-generic. Everything was symmetrical and all the shapes were even. Stimpy was completely created out of ovals. Two oval eyes, oval pupils that were the exact same shape as the eyes, each eye is the exact same shape and size, standing next to each other on the same angle, the nose is the same shape as the eye, the body is the same shape as the eye.
So I sat down with great patience and explained assymetry and design to him. He may have already known this stuff that I told him, but I explained to him that to make something look real and alive, nothing can be symmetrical because nothing in real life is symmetrical. You have to make it look organic and give it appeal and design. Those are all difficult concepts and even if you start to grasp them intellectually, that doesn’t mean you can put them into practice right away. You have to train your hand and mind to follow this stuff and that usually takes a long long time. I’ve worked with artists who’ve never been able to grasp assymetrical drawing and design at all. I explained all this to Nick not expecting that it was going to sink in, and even if it did, it would probably be a few years. He came back wih the same storyboard, redid it like in two days or something, and it was beautiful! He applied every single concept I gave him; I couldn’t believe it. It was the first time I’ve ever seen that happen. I’ve never seen any human absorb information and concepts so fast and instantly put them into practice.
Let’s talk a bit more about the visual aspects of the show. How would you say that the show has evolved stylistically since the original episodes?
The ‘look’ of the show is the sum total of the artists’ styles and my stage in development. Technically, the drawings in the new episodes are much more advanced over the old series. The acting is better than it ever was. All artists have their own styles and my studio is one of the very few that allow the artists to use elements of their styles in the cartoons. We don’t trace model sheets here, so whoever is working on the shows is going to influence the ‘look’. If you notice, the ‘look’ changes from episode to episode and sequence to sequence as it always did. The BG styling is not as abstract in the Spike episodes as the Nickelodeon episodes.
In the original series, I influenced the BG style by not being able to draw perspective. Bill Wray and the BG artists developed cool graphic painting styles to make my bad backgrounds look like they were that way on purpose. When Bill painted Jim Smith’s excellent background drawings, then the result was solid, stylish and strong as in “Robin Hoek.” That look was partially inspired by N.C. Wyeth and didn’t have that ‘retro’ look people associate with REN AND STIMPY. In the new series, Nick Cross and Helder Mendonca drew very stylish (but not too stylized) backgrounds, and Kristy Gordon painted many of the backgrounds. Her style is softer and more lush than the graphic styles of the first season episodes and the combination of her style and Nick’s and Helder’s styles created some new ‘looks’ for REN & STIMPY. Jay Li painted some cartoons and scenes in his style also. He painted a magnificent bare girl’s ass in “Naked Beach Frenzy.” It’s so convincing in every detail. You can tell this fine artist researched his subject very carefully. Next season we all want to try some new ‘graphic’ looks again.
Assuming you get another season, in addition to greater stylization, what else would you do differently from these recent episodes?
I think I want to go and do some simpler, lighter, shorter and more cartoony stories next time. No more poo jokes! I’m actually thinking of making a cartoon specifically for Mike Barrier and then one for my Dad according to their specific tastes and phobias, rather than mine. I definitely want to bring back the bumpers and short bits like the original series. We wrote a bunch for the first season, like “My Little Ass,” “Powdered Toast Rolling Tobacco,” and “Log For Moms,” but didn’t have time to make them. I love to experiment and don’t like to stay in one mode for too long. Oh yeah, I want to do some musical stuff!
I’m curious to find out a bit more about your character creation process. I’m going to throw out the names of some of the more memorable characters from these new episodes and maybe you could talk about how they came to be.
Sure. Though I find it very hard to just sit down and create an idea or especially a new character on command. Usually my characters evolve by accident out of some story context, to fill a need in the story. The only character I ever remember actually creating in a flash of inspiration was George Liquor. God planted that in my head in an instant; I knew everything about the character – his look, his personality, his stories, everything. That was spooky now that I think about it. He’s really the richest character I have too. I’m amazed there aren’t 365 episodes about him on TV already.
“The Three Things” from “Altruists.” These guys are truly classic. Where did you get the idea for them?
They came about through sheer inevitable logical syllogistic progression. In “Altruists” Stimpy needed to wear a sexy duck costume to lure an angry duck away from protecting a house.
Therefore Stimpy had to have a duckbill taped to his nose.
Therefore the duck had to try to kiss the duckbill.
Therefore by sheer necessity I knew I had to make the duckbill speak, in a sexy voice.
Therefore the duck had no choice but to make out with the Stimpy/sexy duck.
When you make out it leads to an inevitable result – offspring. Ducks lay eggs, therefore a cat in a duck suit must also lay eggs. Eggs hatch. When a duck and a cat have a baby, the baby must be half cat (on top) and half duck (on bottom). The second baby must be the reverse, of course: duck on top, cat on bottom. They naturally have to think each other is weird looking.
And by the comedy law of 3′s there must be a 3rd topper. Where do you go now that we have used both possibilities? Left side-cat, right side-duck. Obviously. For easy comparison and contemplation we need to line all three up next to each other. They need a Terrytoons title card to show off their shiniest assets. Terrytoons once tried a short series of cartoons that starred three very weird-looking indefinable animal characters. They had a beautiful shiny title card advertising their entertainment attributes. I christened them “The Three Things” because I didn’t know what they were. Therefore a cat in a sexy duck costume leads logically, inevitably, step-by-step, to a spin-off series from REN & STIMPY called “The Three Things”…and a very shiny title card.
Wow! OK, how about “Shampoo Master Stimpy” from “Naked Beach Frenzy”?
Hmmmâ€¦more sort of logical progression from a story need. Ren and Stimpy are bathroom attendants in the girls’ shower room at the beach. The first dirty gag has Ren lathering up soap on a girl’s breasts. He thinks he has the best job in the world and is quite professional about it, so now it’s Stimpy’s turn to top him. We originally had him shampooing the other girl’s hair, but I thought, well that’s not as good a job or as entertaining as washing a girl’s breasts, is it? Steve Stefanelli was storyboarding this sequence and he brought me this problem. It seemed anti-climactic. What to do? Then came inspiration: “SHAMPOO MASTER!!!,” I blurted. He said “What?” thinking I had lost my mind. And I did for that ecstatic moment. I explained that Stimpy had to be better than a bathroom attendant to top Ren, so he had to be a super-hero that could dispense shampoo from his utility nozzle. Steve then drew the nozzle and added this strange ball in the middle of the tube, which when you twist it, the nozzle squirts the goo all over the girl’s head. There you have it. Of course now we have to do a whole cartoon about Shampoo Master.
And the hairy lifeguard from the same cartoon?
Once we decided to do a beach picture I knew I had to use a bunch of old beach gags we had storyboarded for the TNN bumpers promoting BAYWATCH. The bumpers starred a cat and a duck who spy on sexy girls at the beach, while this huge hairy David Hasselhoff-like lifeguard keeps beating on them to protect the sanctity of all the unspoiled maidens. I loved this character so much; I kept trying to find places to use him. “Naked Beach Frenzy” afforded me the opportunity to debut this bright new Hollywood cartoon star.
An interesting thought occured to me as I was reading this intense exchange of cartoon ideologies between John Kricfalusi and author/historian Michael Barrier, and that’s regardless of whether you agree with John’s views, Mike’s views, or perhaps even some of what they both have to say, it’s unlikely that Mike could be having this conversation with any other creator of an animated TV series. It’s hardly a secret that John has firmly entrenched opinions about what makes for a good cartoon, but these ideas are rooted in years of diligent study and analysis of the art form. He’s the only person I’ve ever seen who’s dissected (with mathematical precision) the layout compositions from UPA’s GERALD MCBOING BOING and broken down the story structures of Chuck Jones’ WB shorts, and his cartoons are a reflection and outgrowth of this formidable study of the craft. In John’s cartoons, whether the content is to one’s taste or not, the execution and artistry of his films is undeniable; the cartoons are complex and layered in such a way that they almost demand multiple viewings to fully appreciate the thought and nuance that went into their making.
The new REN & STIMPY episodes – NAKED BEACH FRENZY, ALTRUISTS and STIMPY’S PREGNANT – are no exception to the above, and they represent new heights in the continually evolving art of John Kricfalusi. While I’m sure it’s known to a good many readers of this site, now would be an appropriate time to disclose that I worked on these episodes. Admittedly though, at the time of production, there was little thought on my part that the resulting films would turn out to be such an utterly unique viewing experience. One of the show’s layout artists Luke Cormican recently put it best: “A John K. cartoon is no longer a short bit of crazy funâ€¦. it’s now an epic experience that pushes the boundaries of cartooning further than they’ve been pushed before in these modern times.”
These new cartoons are at turns bust-a-gut funny, fervidly melodramatic, unabashedly offensive, and always brimming with vitality and creativity. They are also of a consistently higher quality than the first batch of REN & STIMPY: ADULT PARTY CARTOON episodes, though REN SEEKS HELP from the earlier bunch is no slouch itself. The rising quality is to be expected considering that when production began, John had to train two relatively green crews – one in Los Angeles and another in Ottawa – to meet his exacting artistic demands. At the moment, Spike TV has not commissioned further episodes beyond the original order of six half-hours, meaning that the majority of the artists John had patiently trained for the past few years have been forced to disband and find cartoon employ elsewhere. To borrow another comment from the quotable Cormican, he says, “It’s really a crime that we were cut off right after we had gone through the rough training ground that this season was. It’s kind of like if someone burned down Termite Terrace in 1939.”
While there’s no additional episodes planned, there’s still the issue of these three new episodes which have been produced and remain unseen. Originally expected to debut August 20th on Spike TV, the date came to pass with nary a sight of the cat-and-dog duo. Spike has yet to announce another airdate, though Los Angeles residents fortunately have only to wait until Tuesday September 7. That’s when the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood will present a SCREENING of the new cartoons to be introduced by John Kricfalusi in person.
Below you’ll find the first part of a chat I recently had with John about the new episodes. The second part of our interview will be posted here on Tuesday, August 31. To see clips and images from the new episodes, visit the ADULT PARTY CARTOON website.
Cartoon Brew: A number of the new Ren & Stimpy cartoons run over half an hour. When you initially wrote the stories, were you planning on making them this long or is this just how the stories evolved?
John Kricfalusi: No they weren’t planned before hand at all. I envy novelists because they just write a story with a beginning, middle and end, and when they run out of things to say about the story, it’s over. In TV animation, you’re constricted by the arbitrary length of time. Also a lot of the original Ren and Stimpy’s were half hours. The very first one was a half hour – STIMPY’S BIG DAY. SVEN HOEK and SON OF STIMPY were also both half-hours. I was always struggling with that, even in the first season. No matter what scene we come up with, I always think up a million variations and ways to take the gag further and explore each gag. For example, ALTRUISTS is the extreme example of that. We set out to make a completely gag cartoon. It does have a plot, that Ren and Stimpy are altruists and they want to help a hot lady in distress. But it turns out what they have to do is build a house. We actually had a hell of a lot more scenes, with some even storyboarded for that cartoon, and we ran out of time to produce it. A few of the cartoons are like that. STIMPY’S PREGNANT has a lot more scenes written and we just didn’t have the time to produce them.
Despite their length though, the cartoons never drag or feel padded out. Do you have any methods when it comes to structuring cartoons so that gag scenes which aren’t plot heavy are balanced with the story scenes that drive the narrative forward? Or is it simply just a matter of making sure everything is funny?
No, there’s no general theory about it. I just try to make it funny. And I bore easy so I don’t want to repeat the same type of thing over and over again. I’m not saying that I don’t commit that sin sometimes and I do. Like there were a lot of poo jokes this year which kind of got out of hand. I would forget the previous cartoon; ‘Oh, we just did a poo joke in the last one.’ It was my poo phase. But I had my farts and booger phase too during the first couple of seasons and everyone loved it. I’m over the poo now. In the meantime there’s eight million other types of jokes in each cartoon.
On STIMPY’S PREGNANT, one of the sequences I enjoyed the most was Stimpy preparing the food, but I heard that you didn’t like that particular sequence –
No, I didn’t like it at all.
– which is surprising though because a lot of people who’ve seen the cartoon think that’s a really funny bit. Which scenes then do you think work well in STIMPY’S PREGNANT?
Well it’s probably a good thing I don’t censor myself. Sometimes I’ll leave things in that I don’t think are working and other people tell me it’s their favorite scene in the picture. To me, the very best scenes are in the very beginning when Stimpy is trying to bring himself to tell Ren that he’s knocked up. And then once Ren freaks out, Stimpy has to calm him down and get him to go along with it. That whole sequence to me is the best acted thing we’ve ever done and I was really proud of that. There’s just tons of expressions and drawings in every scene of that. There’s more drawings in STIMPY’S PREGNANT than any cartoon we’ve ever done. 40,000 cels, and at least half of them are damn keys. It’s like an old Rod Scribner scene. When you freeze-frame it, there’s no inbetweens.
That’s definitely one of the things that I noticed is that the new cartoons are less pose-to-pose than the original series. But to play devil’s advocate, one could argue that it’s a waste of time to put in so many key drawings and expressions in a cartoon when they’re going by so quickly. Projected at regular speed, the audience doesn’t see most of them, so what is the ultimate purpose of putting in so many drawings?
Well, when you watch a gripping actor in live action, a very subtle actor such as Peter Lorre or Kirk Douglas or Robert Ryan, you can’t see every expression. They don’t act pose-to-pose; no actor goes pose-to-pose. You see the change in the thought process from one expression to another and there’s a lot of things happening in between. The more subtle and rich that it is, the more the audience believes it and the more real it seems. So in this sequence, yeah you’re not going to see every single drawing as you’re watching in real time, but it’s way more gripping storywise. That’s the best part of that whole cartoon; it’s like a melodramatic movie. It’s all about the acting; the more changes that you can have between the key expressions and emotions, the more realistic transitions you have.
I’m sure you felt that. It was really tense at times, when Stimpy was thinking, “How am I going to tell Ren that I’m going to have his kid?” It was almost not funny because it was so real. I wanted people to feel that because a lot of parents probably go through something similar. Obviously we exaggerated it and made it more severe, but I’m sure there’s a lot of accidents happening out there in real life. And there’s got to be that moment when the wife has to tell the husband and she thinks she’s going to get in trouble for it. I’m sure a lot of people will identify with that.
I think you just hit on a really interesting point. In some of the episodes like REN SEEKS HELP and STIMPY’S PREGNANT, there were moments where I thought the cartoon was disturbing. It wasn’t the humor, but the animation itself felt disturbing. Perhaps that’s because our eyes are not used to seeing so many expressive, intense drawings in animation.
Well I love extremes in different mediums. The extreme of a cartoon is surrealism, that cartoons can do anything. A character can explode, can fly into pieces and come back together, can have their heads blown off, squash into a pancake, turn into an erection, I love all that stuff. But that’s not all I love. To me, if I make the character so real, so believable, and then do wild stuff with it, it puts you in a whole other world. It makes the weird stuff even more believable. Like in STIMPY’S PREGNANT the whole opening, after the puke stuff’s over, turns into this realistic drama. Then when all the intensity is released and Ren accepts that he’s going to have the kid, it’s all happy and light-hearted. All the birds and squirrels show up, and then it goes right into gags. So it’s about contrast. I like to do a lot of different mood and feelings, it’s not just a string of gags. It certainly isn’t a string of one-liners. There’s all kind of things. There’s acting, slapstick gags, surreal gags, verbal gags, the way the characters talk.
Also I’m not merely influenced by animation. If I was, I probably would have much shallower cartoons. I would draw off less experience and information, but I love movies and old sitcoms. I mean, THE HONEYMOONERS is a great example. When you watch Jackie Gleason, he’s completely gripping throughout the show. Even if it’s a Norton scene and Norton’s doing a lot of funny stuff, you could just watch Ralph’s reactions and they’re hilarious, subtle and amazing. He’s doing all this stuff that builds tension and real emotion in the scene. Cartoons don’t generally do that. The closest ever were Bob Clampett’s cartoons. They did it, but not to the extent of the live-action movies and the classic sitcoms of the ’50s and ’60s.
Can you point to any specific examples of where you were influenced by a live-action actor or actress in these new episodes or was it just general inspiration?
I don’t think I used anything specific this time around. I did during the original seasons because I was learning to act with my pencil and so I had to draw upon things that I knew really well. When you learn something, you learn by imitation first but I think I’ve gotten past that stage where now I can just feel things from my own life experience and I just act them out in the mirror. Sometimes I don’t even need a mirror. You’ve seen me do it, right? Have you been in my office where people try to come in and talk to me while I’m drawing a scene. You see me in all sorts of contorted poses.
Right. You look very focused.
Sometimes if I have a really tricky expression, I’ll use a mirror. But a lot of times, I can feel it in my heart and I know what it looks like. I’ll just draw it. But I couldn’t do that when we first started Ren and Stimpy. There’s a lot of scenes in the original Ren & Stimpy’s that we just stole out of old movies.
(To be continued…)
The post I made last weekend about Standards & Practices has drawn a couple responses worth pointing out. Writer/producer Mark Evanier adds perspective to the discussion and compares his experiences with S&P in live-action versus animation. He also points out historically that some TV producers like Bill Hanna have simply found it easier to appease S&P rather than fight against them. Of course, during the downtrodden TV animation scene of the Eighties, Hanna’s lack of vigor in defending his cartoons is somewhat understandable. As H-B was producing hundreds of forgettable hours of animation every TV season, I’m sure the least of Hanna’s worries was that the artistic vision of THE GARY COLEMAN SHOW and MONCHICHIS was being compromised by S&P notes. Then again, that indifference is (in some part) responsible for allowing S&P to thrive and become an unnecessarily difficult hurdle for today’s creator-driven animated series. Also this thread on Animation Nation continues the list of outlandish revisions that artists have been asked to make on television cartoons.
I haven’t particularly enjoyed anything by Trey Parker and Matt Stone since their short THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS, but that doesn’t mean I’m not looking forward to their upcoming puppet feature TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE. This NY TIMES article details the painstakingly difficult production of the film, while revealing that the movie’s budget is $32 million dollars and the Chiodo Bros. are creating the puppets for the film. (via Scrubbles.net)