Friday, September 23, 2011

Animondays Interview: Rob Renzetti -part I

One day in 2003, Nickelodeon ran a marathon of their newish series My Life as a Teenage Robot, which was created by Rob Renzetti and had its origin as a short in Frederator's Oh Yeah! Cartoons anthology shorts program. I left the channel on that day, thinking it would be wallpaper as I went about my weekend business, but after a bit of time the show captured my attention to the degree that I popped a tape into my VCR and hit record.

Renzetti's series felt like another in the line of Cal Arts-meets-UPA-inspired creations that had been the rage since the mid-90s series, Dexter's Laboratory. This was no accident because the creator had been a key figure in this new wave of animation that began with Hanna-Barbera's 2 Stupid Dogs through The Powerpuff Girls. As much as My Life as a Teenage Robot was a stylistic continuation of these shows, it brought an art deco and 1930s animation bent into the mix. I was intrigued by the combination and wanted to learn more about the series and its originator.

With Fred Seibert's help, I got in touch with Renzetti and he agreed to the following interview. We didn't meet in person until some six months later when I made my first trip to L.A., where he generously gave me and my friend, fellow animator Dale Clowdis, a tour of the Nickelodeon's Burbank Animation studio. Renzetti is definitely one of the good guys of this biz.

I hope you enjoy this interview, first published in the November 2003 ASIFA-East newsletter, and now making its debut online. Next week, I'll present part II in which I interviewed Renzetti again in 2009 for use in my book Directing Animation.

DL-Describe your background prior and up to your first work at Cartoon Network on such shows as The Powerpuff Girls.
RR- I grew up in Addison, Illinois. A suburb about a half-hour west of Chicago. I graduated as an Art History major from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. I went on as a film major at Columbia College in Chicago and finally ended up at Calarts in Character Animation. My first work experience was as an Animator in Madrid, Spain working on episodes of Batman the Animated Series in the summer of ’92.

DL- What shows did you work on at CN and it what capacity?
RR- In the fall of ‘92 I was hired at Hanna-Barbera which eventually morphed into Cartoon Network Studios. While it was still HB I worked on 2 Stupid Dogs (pictured below) as a storyboard artist and then director. Created my own short called “Mina and the Count." And finally was a director, writer and storyboard artist on Dexter’s Laboratory.

After it turned into CN, I returned as a director on PPG and Samurai Jack. I ended up as supervising director on Robot Jones.
DL- Was Teenage Robot offered first to CN before landing at Frederator/Nickelodeon?
RR- No.

DL- What was the process once Frederator picked up your pitch? Did you make a Teenage Robot short at Frederator to sell to Nickelodeon?
RR- TR started as a short on “Oh Yeah Cartoons” and as all shorts did, it started with a casual verbal pitch to Fred followed by a 2 page outline. Since I was “in-house” and had done 10 shorts before it, the process was very familiar and informal. From there we made a 7 minute pilot.

DL- What has been your experiance with focus groups onTeenage Robot? Does Frederator utilize focus groups before going further with a creator's idea?
RR- In this case Nickelodeon did not do a focus group before picking it up as a series.

DL- CN was criticized at the launch of the "What A Cartoon" shorts program for "copying" the look and feel of Nick Animation. Now, Fairly Odd Parents and Teenage Robot, have brought a CN look and sensibility to Nick. Are their any distinctions left between the two major cartoon producing channels? Are there any differances in the way they develope and produce shows?
RR- With talent crossing back and forth between the two, you could say that there is a “cross-pollination” process that occurs. As a creator, I have been fairly consistent in the style of what I do, no matter where I do it. To the credit of both networks, they both give their show creators a lot of room and freedom to develop the kind of shows they want to produce.

You can ask the respective PR departments to delineate the differences that they think exist.

DL- What have your learned from CN creators Genndy Tartakovsky and Craig McCracken that you're able to use on your own show?
RR- All of us learned a lot together doing Dexter’s Lab. We were lucky to have a small group of like-minded people who had the same taste in movies and cartoons and to have the opportunity to try those ideas on a show that we considered “our” show. I think those ideas or the “style” that we developed there continues to inform all our work.

Genndy is a more instinctual filmmaker and Craig is more analytical. With Genndy the question is always whether something “feels” right or not. From him the greatest lesson I’ve learned is to always trust your gut. This doesn’t mean that everything you do will be perfect or hilarious but it gives your work consistency, integrity, and personality. Audiences respond to that.

Craig loves to come up with theories and themes for his cartoons. There are always many layers that give his stuff a richness that you don’t get from most cartoons. But the thinking that goes into his stuff doesn’t weigh things down. Craig’s work feels light and fast. His cartoons are like a nutrient-rich cream puff. I am constantly striving to try to match this combination of depth and lightness.

DL- What do Genndy and Craig think of your show?
RR- I recently had lunch with Craig and he seems to be a genuine fan. I haven’t had a long talk with Genndy recently but he saw a couple episodes and thought it looked cool.

DL- Did you take any key CN personale with you from your CN days to work on Robot? If so, whom?
RR- My most important collaborator is my art director Alex Kirwan. He started out working at HB and had a stint at CN on “Time Squad” but we became friends and partners during our “Oh Yeah” days at Nick. We worked on each other’s short cartoons.

Some other key people that have CN/HB history are BG designer Joseph Holt, BG painter Seonna Hong and storyboard artist Brandon Kruse. As do my line producer Debby Hindman, production manager Ani Martirossians and production coordinator Charlie Desrochers.

DL- The retro-futuristic look of Teenage Robot seems to be plucked right off the poster art from the 1939 World's Fair in NY. What were your design influences?
RR- Both Alex and I have a great fondness for thirties cartoons but we’re also big fans of the highly stylized look and amazing color theory employed in the UPA stuff. At this point we thought fifties looking stuff had been done to death. We wanted to do a stylized, flat show but felt that grounding it in thirties design elements would give it a different feeling than the other shows out there. What we didn’t want to do was pure “rubberhose” thirties characters against typical thirties cartoon backgrounds.

Alex was the one to come up with the idea of referencing thirties poster art. We found it had this great highly stylized look that was just as flat and “designy” as any fifties stuff. The limited palettes gave us the UPA-ish feel we wanted although the color choices are different. Joseph Holt and Seonna Hong have really done a great job translating this look into our production BG’s.

DL- Besides the eye-popping visuals, Teenage Robot also features sharp scripting, not unlike the dialogue heard on Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
RR- Thanks. I’m a big fan of Buffy.

DL- Can you describe how episodes are written for My Life As a Teenage Robot? How does the storyboard artist fit in to the equation?
RR- Once the premise is approved we write the story in outline form. We do not script the show before it goes to storyboard. There is a lot of visual humor in the show and I think a lot of that gets squeezed out in script driven shows. The outline gives the storyboard artist the freedom and room for visual storytelling. It also gives her or him the responsibility of coming up with a large portion of the dialogue. The rough board is pitched and the Nick execs and I have our notes. Before we record I go through the final board and make my final tweaks.

DL- In the episode, "I was a Preschool Dropout," there is an inpromptu song number that breaks out as the preschoolers play at being "robots." As Jenny trys to protest, her cries become part of the song's mix.
For a moment,this truly unexpected sequence takes on a life of its own. Do you look for sections in each show to try something off the beaten path?

RR- That was the idea of storyboard artist Brandon Kruse. Using outlines as I stated above gives you the room for such sequences. We do look for these opportunities in each show with varying degrees of success.

DL- Although Jenny was created as a super crime fighting Robot by her Mom, her world-saving adventures decidedly take second place to her "teen" life with her high-school pals. Villains and peril seem to show up just when they are needed according to the needs of the story. This is at odds with CN's Samurai Jack where ACTION is king. How do you find just the right blance between action, drama and comedy?
RR- I’m a story junkie and sometimes we overdose on plot points. That said, it was a conscious decision to concentrate more on the teen life side of the equation because that’s where Jenny wants to focus. The great thing is that the balance between action and comedy can change with every episode. Going forward we will hopefully do more ‘action-packed’ episodes now that the characters are established.

DL-The episode, "Ear No Evil," makes several allusions to Walt Disney's Dumbo. Jenny, an outsider, shares an obvious kinship with the little elephant. Jenny's outsider image is further reinforced in the series with shades of bigotry and injustice. Do you have any plans to explore this serious aspect of the show further?
RR- I don’t think you will ever hear a promo that begins with “Tonight on a very special Teenage Robot….”. The show will always be humorous and the heavier shades will usually be pretty light. Kids pick up on these aspects of the show without having to focus too strongly on it.

DL- Teenage Robot features a rich side cast of background characters, like Mr. Mezmer (an icecream parlor operator), that sport thick foreign accents. Was the ethnic tinged work of the Fleischer studio an influence? And is the name Mezmer a nod to Otto Messmer, creator of Felix the Cat?
RR- The Fleischer studio is probably my favorite classic cartoon factory. I especially love the Popeye shorts. Accents are used mostly as a quick way to help distinguish new characters. I also like to use them to subvert our expectations for certain characters with the most obvious example being Brit and Tiff.

Mr. Mezmer is a reference to Felix’s father.

DL- What are the non-animation related influences that have shaped your style?
RR- Hitchcock was an early and strong influence. The early films of Sam Raimi and the Coen Brothers were eye-opening experiences just when I started working in the industry. “The Hudsucker Proxy” is a great resource for anyone interested in visual storytelling. Chris Ware’s comics are awe-inspiring visual wonderlands.

DL- What is your opinion of the rival robot show on CN, Whatever Happened to Robot Jones? And is there any chance we'll see Jenny battle Robot Jones on TV's Battle Bots? Just a thought.
RR- I actually worked as supervising director on the first season of Robot Jones as I stated above. Since it is so different in terms of style and tone I consider it more of a comrade than a rival. I love the show.

I’m sure we will see a battle/team up when all the entertainment conglomerates eventually merge into one worldwide media empire.

DL- Your show is made at the Nick Toons studio in Burbank, CA. How much interaction does your crew have with the other in house productions?
RR- The studio is a very friendly place and there is a lot of social interaction and studio-wide events. There are a lot of good people and great artists working here.

DL- Where is Teenage Robot now in production? Will there be another season? A feature?
RR- Right now we are finishing up the last episodes of the first season and putting our pitch together for Season # 2. It would be great to try our hand at a TR feature but there are no current plans for one.

DL- Do you have any unfulfilled aspirations in this field or any other?
RR- I’ve been blessed with a much better career than I ever hoped for. My greatest aspiration was to have my own show. Now I’m focused on making it the best show I can. I don’t have a lot of time to think about the future. I’ll worry about it when TR is done.

DL- What advice would you give to someone looking to sell their own animated creation as a series?
RR- First decide if having your own show is something you really want. Because the process of making a creator-driven show is an all consuming endeavor. Unless you truly love what you are creating you will never make it through the process. It is a labor of love with the emphasis on the labor.

Now, if you decide that you truly want your own show it becomes a matter of tenacity. You need to show your devotion and energy to those who can make your show a reality. And you will need to show it again and again. It also helps to have some kind of track record in the industry. Work well and hard on other people’s shows. Gain a reputation. If you go in as a rookie, you will need to be much more brilliant and fantastic.

Also be careful of compromising too much at the beginning of the process. You need to know how to adapt and apply criticism without damaging the core of your idea. If their ideas or desires don’t fit with your show then move on. Six weeks or six months down the road their needs will change. What was a rejection may become a green light to go to series.

Fans of Renzetti's Teenage Robot, should definitely check out The Hub series My Little Pony, on which he currently serves as story editor.


Charles Kenny said...

Ah Dave, if you could only see how far the smile stretched across my face when I read the title of this post ;)

the promise of part 2 next week may have me looking forward to a Monday morning for the first time ever!

David B. Levy said...

Ha! I was thinking, Charles Kenny is gonna dig this, because I know you've mentioned liking the series on your blog. : )

Hope you enjoy! And, glad you're excited about part II. I hadn't looked at this part I in a long time. It was much better than I remembered. I particularly love his comparison of Craig and Genndy's directing styles. Nice to hear modern masters being discussed.

Dagan Moriarty said...

Nice, Dave!

LOVED the old 'Mina and the Count' short, one of my faves...

Looking forward to the 2009 follow-up interview... Wow, there is quite a lot of talent involved with the new 'Pony' show, isn't there? ;)

Gets me to wondering what new/original programming HUB will produce next... cool!

Brubaker said...

Rob Renzetti is amazing. 2 Stupid Dogs, Dexter's Lab, Powerpuff Girls, Teenage Robot, and now as a story editor on "My Little Pony" (it's a great show. The best "toy-driven" show I've ever seen)

Angela Entzminger said...

Hey Dave,

thanks for the great interview. "Teenage Robot" is a great show and Renzetti is an excellent artist. Looking forward to part II.