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.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Of Geeks and Go-Getters

“Make the kind of work you want to be paid to make.” Super Jail co-creator Christy Karacas has said this time and time again to my SVA Animation career class and I’ve come to think of it as, perhaps, the single most important bit of advice one could give on creating a happy and successful career in animation. I’ve mined this topic before on this blog, but think it’s well worth revisiting.

Writer-Comedian Kevin Maher (pictured above) is the host of a long-running series at the 92nd Street Y Tribeca called ““Kevin Geeks Out.” Tackling such subjects as Aliens, Rip-off Cinema, Big Foot, Robots, Dummy Deaths, and Sharks in hysterical, fanatical detail through power-point presentations and rare footage not available on YouTube, along with his warm, witty, and insightful live commentary, "Kevin Geeks Out" makes an infectious celebration out of the most trivial pursuits. If that’s not enough, he also serves snacks. In between “Geek Outs,” Kevin is a frequent blogger, where he shares more of his obsessions in videos, essays, and interviews like this, and this, and that.

The work required to put on his show and maintain his blog is a labor of love, something Kevin does as a sideline to his busy career as an Emmy-nominated comedy writer (he frequently writes for animation) working on projects for HBO, AMC, CNN, Comedy Central, VH1, Nickelodeon, etc. But, unlike the work for hire to someone else’s specifications, Kevin’s “Geek Outs” let him revel in his passion, develop his voice, and sharpen his observations.

Which brings me back to Cristy Karacas’s quote that opened this post: “Make the kind of work you want to be paid to make.”

A couple of weeks ago, via his Facebook status, Kevin announced: Emmy nominated Kevin Maher is set to host RANDOM FANDOM, a documentary TV series created
 and developed by doublewide media. RANDOM FANDOM is a half-hour docu-series that explores the
world of geekish revelry at fan conventions. Each week, Kevin will go to a new convention (lovingly called cons) and unveil parts of cons known only to the initiated. Every con has a hidden
subculture — we’re uncovering all of them.

As Kevin’s story shows, it’s important to lay your own track, to grow opportunities in the direction you wish to grow.

Half the fun of making the work you’d like to be paid to make, is not knowing when and where it might pay off. It’s kind of magical––you sort of set it and forget it. Sort of like a George Foreman Grill of career plans. Examples? The film Cristy Karacas made with Stephen Warbick for MTV (“Bar Fight”) is what led to their invitation to pitch Super Jail eight years later at Adult Swim. I can throw a new experience of my own into the mix. A year ago I made the film “Grandpa Looked Like William Powell,” a short animated documentary. A month ago, a producer, whom I’d never worked with before, got in touch with me because he wanted to make a test pilot which happened to be a short animated documentary. When I showed him my film, he had proof that I had passion for the genre. I got the gig, something I was able to squeeze in during a two-week hiatus from my full-time job.

Cristy, Kevin, and I are all deep into our careers, but making your own opportunities is something that can also apply to students. About a year ago I was checking my email at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts (where I teach undergrad), and there was a nearby information table where a student sat to hand out orientation materials. Two of the student’s friends happened by and began to chat with her. One asked her what she wanted to do after graduation.

“I want to be a paid blogger,” she replied.

“Oh, do you have a blog?” her friend asked.

She answered, “No.”

This would-be "paid blogger" is on the complete opposite path of what Cristy Karacas is suggesting and what savvy people such as Kevin Maher do instinctually. Whether you’re a student or ten years in the industry, you have to build a foundation for your own unique success. And, since this takes time... Why wait?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Leaving the Nest

We struggle so hard for our breaks in this business that it can be hard to imagine that some of our best breaks come when a job ends. Being a child of television (my dad a Zenith, my mother a Panasonic), it was a dream come true to have a chance to work on a number one animated TV series for a top cable network. Even though the show was a hit right out of the gate, few of us on the crew expected that the production would last the almost ten years it added up to.

But, on October 11, 2001, the show’s animation team was called into a conference room. Now, if you have any experience working in animation studios, you know it’s seldom a good thing when there’s a sudden unplanned staff meeting. Often it means an announcement that the production is ending, or already over. On some occasions I’ve heard about, large teams of artists are led out of the building after being sacked en masse at such meetings. So, next time your studio rounds you up into a conference room, hide out in the bathroom until it blows over.

Our staff, still rattled by the terrorist attacks on NYC the month before, were told that we had a whole two years of work left on the series but that the network had decided not to renew the production after that. A two-year notice! Compared to the worst case scenario of the show shutting down that day (a likely outcome after such a disaster and blow to the economy), this wasn't so bad at all. As much as I liked my job, working with this crew, and the project itself, I left that meeting feeling free and full of hope. It was my first light feeling in four weeks.

I wasn't that deep into my career at the time but my confidence was up because I had done a significant amount of freelance outside of my full time job (not to mention a lot of networking), so I had ready connections to future work. More importantly, I was optimistic that the two-year span would help us all ride out the worst of the economic downturn.

But, when I looked around at my pals, some wore expressions like they’d been punched in the stomach. Others had the color drained out of their faces. While I felt that this kind of change was good, for some of the crew this was their first job (and their only job), so they didn’t know what it would be like to work on other projects with other people, or how to even look for a work. So, I can understand the way they were feeling. But, ultimately (even if things were bumpy at first) this forced exodus made all these artists stronger in their craft and savvier on surviving in this freelance-based business. Getting kicked out of the nest can be a great break indeed.

There are a lot of other reasons why it’s good to have to move on. Firstly, compared to working on one long project with the same crew, you gain much more valuable experience working with different crews on diverse projects. You pick new skills and techniques and get to learn from different work and management styles. Secondly, to see value or appreciation on your skills or accomplishments, it sometimes requires working with a new set of people. The people who “knew you when” on your first job always remember you at the level you started at, and/or dilute your specific contributions as simply being another member of the team. It’s mostly in your next jobs with a new set of people that you'll find a deeper recognition of your talents and know-how.

Need more evidence? Add Steve Jobs (once sacked from Apple) and John Lasseter (once sacked from Disney) to the list of people who owe much of their career growth to opportunities gained after losing a job.

These days, long term jobs in animation (or any field, for that matter) are rare, so we might as well embrace and recognize the career-enhancing benefits that come with a life outside the nest. Of course, long term jobs are a blessing, but losing them need not be seen as a curse.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Cooper Film

Vintage postcard image of New York City's Cooper Union.

Since it’s been a long time since I used this space to talk about my current projects, I decided to post about a new indie film I’m making, and the issues it brings up.

On Father’s Day this past June, I ended up recording a three and half hour interview with my dad all about his days in advertising. I can’t say what I planned to do with all that audio, but the next day I started editing it to a lean 90-minute narrative.

The focus of the interview was on my dad’s eleven-year run as a creative director at Grey, which spanned most of my childhood. But, when I realized that I should ask him some backstory questions, a story popped out on how he came to go to Cooper Union, something that would change his life, and later, mine. If you’ve read my books, you already know that I grew up on a steady diet of my dad’s career stories, but somehow until this moment, I had never heard him speak about his acceptance into this prestigious school.

During the edit, the Cooper Union story emerged as something that could be the bones of a short animated documentary film. I’ve been in love with the animated documentary genre since seeing Michael Sporn’s Champagne, and Paul Fierlinger’s films (including Still Life With Animated Dogs, and A Room Nearby). And since my most joyous filmmaking experience to date was with a doc short “Grandpa Looked Like William Powell,” I wanted to further explore this area.

But, since I don’t want to make the same film over and over again I thought I’d change up my process on this Cooper Union film in a handful of ways:

Lock the soundtrack first
When making “Grandpa” my frequent composer, Bob Charde, wrote and performed music to the actions and cues in my finished animation.

While I loved the resulting soundtrack for “Grandpa,” in the Cooper film I thought it could be fun to have Bob finalize his score before any storyboards, designs, or animation were created. I know that indies work all sorts of ways so this is nothing new or innovative, and, of course, in the golden age of Hollywood cartoons the soundtrack usually came before the animation. I wanted to try this simply because it might spark ideas in the storyboard and provide musical accents to hit in the animation.

I’ve grown increasingly fussy about the audio and sound in my films and I like to give a lot of direction before and during the process. For this short I gave Bob a half dozen clips of avant-garde music I liked and instructions on where similar music might fit into the piece. Working over a month-long period, Bob experimented with different sounds and composed a really terrific score. He ended up going above and beyond what I imagined, and really brought out the various moods in this story.

Two of my last three shorts did not have anything resembling a storyboard stage, and while that was all well and good, this time I felt the need for some structure. But, since the film was so personal already I wanted to take one step away and bring in some help to create the storyboards. I’ve been a fan and friend of animation artist and teacher Willy Hartland for years and lately we’ve worked together on several freelance projects. I knew he would be the perfect fit for this film.

I gave Willy the soundtrack and a script with a shot-by-shot breakdown of what I wanted. He naturally asked for character designs so he could do his job, but after experimenting with many different design styles for two months, I still hadn't arrived at the right look. But, right after I got off the phone with Willy I turned on my cintiq and, at last, the appropriate designs finally emerged. I was able to email him a complete set of designs within an hour. That’s one of the reasons I love collaboration on an indie film. When you bring another party into your process it challenges you, forces you to get your act together and stop floundering.

Find the Balance
It has been a little harder than I thought, making a film after “Grandpa,” because it can be intimidating to make your next work after you’ve had a success. This is new territory for me, although I think it’s something every filmmaker or artist deals with at one point or another. On one hand you want to repeat what worked for you, but on the other hand you want to try something new.

One thing I tried and rejected (with the good advice of my co-producer, Debbie Staab) was the idea to use another device (like the autograph book in “Grandpa”) to frame the Cooper film. In the “Grandpa” film the video book element was an organic part of the storytelling. The book was a symbol of both the connection and lack thereof between generations and the animation lived in its pages. I spent a few weeks trying something in that vein for the new short, and it came across as very forced and unmotivated to the story I was telling.

With this new film I could fall on my face, but I like to remind myself that was just as likely last time. The worst that will happen is that it won’t get into many festivals. The important thing is that I believe this is a film worth making. There’s something powerful and universal in the story of a poor kid’s desire to better him self by seizing his one chance for a college education. As school starts up this week, don’t we wish all our students were just as passionate about their educations?