Elaine Bogan takes a nostalgia trip for this week’s edition of The Animation That Changed Me, a series in which leading artists discuss one work of animation that deeply influenced them.
As a director and storyboard artist, Bogan has played a key role at Dreamworks Animation over the past 15 years. She directed the feature Spirit Untamed, which comes out in theaters on June 4, as well as episodes on the Netflix series Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia, 3Below: Tales of Arcadia, and Dragons: Race to the Edge, and Cartoon Network’s Dragons: Riders of Berk. Her work has earned her nominations for an Annie Award and a Daytime Emmy.
Bogan has picked Pee-wee’s Playhouse (1986–90), the CBS series starring Paul Reubens as his whimsical alter ego Pee-wee Herman. Mostly live action, the show — and the Tim Burton-directed feature that preceded it, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) — incorporate stop-motion segments created by Craig Bartlett, the Chiodo Brothers, and the Aardman Animations team, among others.
Below, Bogan tells us how the animated parts, and the very mix of animation with live action, sparked her imagination as a child …
Elaine Bogan: I vividly remember, way back when I was about six or seven, hearing the lunch bell at school and running home as fast as my tiny legs could. I’d plop myself down in front of our little tv, my sweet and supportive mother would hand me a sandwich, and I’d laugh and scream along with that week’s “Word of the Day” on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. As soon as the show and my sandwich were over, that was my cue to run back to school for the afternoon.
I was a die-hard Pee-wee fan even back then. The biggest thing I remember being so struck by was all the stop-motion animation segments of the show, which felt like they existed in the same space that Pee-wee lived in. That blew my mind! It was suddenly, “Wow! See, mom! I knew it! Tiny dinosaurs really do exist, and my toys do come to life at night and mess up my room!” The older I got, the more I realized, “Oh, bummer …” Haha.
I really loved the stop-motion segment that took us into Pee-wee’s fridge: believable-looking cartoon versions of items we all had in our own kitchens. For me, that was the magical part, and it made me look at things differently from a very young age. I loved imagining that when we closed the freezer downstairs, our ice cream and chicken fingers were all having a wild party together.
I feel like this was Paul Reubens’s way of inviting us all to share his imagination and love for the surreal, because we all have these things at home. It was relatable stuff that we could all join in on.
The limited stop motion so perfectly blended with the use of puppetry and color in the rest of the show, only adding to the feeling that this place and these characters actually existed. It was the perfect mix of reality and the surreal, which is exactly what goes on in a kid’s imagination all the time. It did in mine, anyway.
As I grew older, I stayed fascinated by this. No longer because I thought I’d meet the tiny dinosaurs in real life, but the simplicity of the models and movement made it feel like I too could be capable of creating these worlds one day!
Pee-wee’s Playhouse, along with segments of Sesame Street and shows like this, were definitely my intro to stop motion aged four or five. A few years later, when I was old enough for Pee-wee’s Big Adventure — there are some quite surprising and scary moments in that film! — it quickly became my favorite movie. I melted many VHS tapes watching over and over.
I loved it because it was still Pee-wee, with the same glimpses of stop-motion magic, but it felt new and big. Of course, the partnership of Paul Reubens and Tim Burton brought something wonderfully unique to this world, and it remains one of my favorite movies of all time. Even the storytelling is something I always look to as an example of solid and great entertainment. After that, I actively started seeking more movies out, and stumbled into worlds like that of Ray Harryhausen.
I owe a lot to Pee-wee’s Playhouse for sparking my imagination: for allowing me to hold onto the idea that cartoons exist for just a little longer — maybe too long, haha. Fortunately I’ve been able to hold onto that excitement for the surreal and create a career out of it. The word of the day is: “Thank you Pee-wee! Aghhhhhhhhh!”
Now, it seems almost every movie we watch has a bit of this mixed in, with the evolution of cg effects and hybrid films. The same mix of reality and the unreal tickles everybody on some level, because the impossible becomes possible. Fantasy becomes reality.
There are many in the Pee-wee fan club, who all have their own endearing stories about watching when they were young. I’ve even had strangers run up to me because of a bumper sticker on my car yelling “Is that Large Marge!? I loved Pee-wee when I was a kid!” To evoke that kind of excitement in people is something special.
From time to time on a Saturday morning I put a couple episodes of Pee-wee on. I’m still delighted when those little dinos appear or the ice cubes dance to “Tequila.” It takes me back with incredible nostalgia, but also reminds me of just how profound an impact animation can have on a young mind. We have a very delicate and important job in this industry. I’m always honored to be a part of it, and hope to pay some of that wonder and imagination back.
“Pee-wee’s Playhouse” and “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video.