Monday, October 19, 2009

Artists Finally Win Some Respect and Credit

The kind of animation I like is studio cartoons as opposed to independent animation. I think you can make much better stuff if you work with people who have talents you don't. I don't believe one person is completely responsible for every creative act in a cartoon, although one person should oversee it and make it all work together.
beautiful title card rendered by Bruce Timm, but the credit goes to some writer

Like I was saying in the last post about credits, in the 1980s no one in the business thought the artists had anything creative to contribute to the cartoons. (I'm sure they still wish they didn't need us pesky artists and would love a computer program that could finally get us out of the way.) The studios gave the writers credit before the cartoon started, but not any artist, not even the director. Well maybe because there were no directors in the 1980s. Not until Mighty Mouse. Ralph Bakshi was the first guy to open a studio and put the artists totally in charge of all the creative aspects of the cartoons. I instituted a "unit system" inspired by the old Looney Tunes system, where each unit had a director in charge who followed the whole production through from start to finish. We even had to bring back a whole job category - Layout - a job that the other studios didn't deem creative and were shipping overseas. This created at least 20 new jobs for American artists that did not previously exist.
But still no one got credit upfront-not even the writer this time (maybe because we were cartoonists too.)

The first time I was ever able to credit an artist on a title card before a cartoon was amazingly on Beany and Cecil in 1988. ABC hated artists, but the Clampetts and Richard Raynis supported me giving at least the directors credit on some of them. Quite a breakthrough.There was a lot of visual fun in Beany and Cecil and I wished I could give more of the artists credit - especially the storyboard artists and the key layout artists - the ones that were making the show have at least some interest.

But like 80s shows, they just piled everyone's credits together like cattle at the end of the cartoon and ran by them so fast that you couldn't even read them, let alone know which artists worked on which episodes.
I always liked reading the credits on old cartoons and trying to figure out who did what and seeing the different styles. I wanted to bring that back (while also bringing back the whole concept of cartoonist-made cartoons).
When we did the pilot for Ren and Stimpy I made sure everyone got prominent credits. I didn't ask for permission; I just did it.

I even painted the end credits myself and hand lettered them (well Libby Simon inked my hand lettering).

When we started the series I had to negotiate the amount of upfront credits. I had given an animation history lesson to Vanessa Coffey and explained the old unit system to her, and that old cartoons were not "written", they were drawn on storyboards. She agreed to this system. At last!
So I got together the funniest artists and we came up with story premises that we'd pitch to Vanessa. Once she OKed them, we'd then write an outline that was 2 or 3 pages long. Whoever physically wrote up the outline is who I'd usually give the "story" credit too, even though all of us helped gag each other's stories up.
I also negotiated for an upfront storyboard credit, which was unheard of at the time. The storyboard artists at Spumco were generally the same group of artists who came up with the premises and outlines but we would add a ot of gags and story material in the storyboards-the way cartoons should be written, and used to be.
I also wanted to credit key layout artists, animation directors, designers and background painters but couldn't get permission. Just getting a couple artist credits at all was a real victory in 1990.

Nurse Stimpy came out so ugly to me, that I didn't give myself credit on it as director.

I seem to be missing the storyboard credit, but am pretty sure Jim, Bob, Vincent and I did it.

Firedogs was written in an afternoon to replace a George Liquor cartoon that got rejected.
Jim and Chris made a very lively and funny board and added more gags.

This story came out of a deal I made with Vanessa. She didn't like the booger, fart and gross jokes we wrote, so I asked her if I could trade them for something she wanted. She wanted heart.
I was listening to the classical music in our APM stock music library and put on Clair De Lune by Debussy. I started picturing a sad scene with Stimpy in a fairy tale setting and that became The Littlest Giant. I pitched the story idea to Vanessa while playing the music for her and tears welled up in her eyes. She loved it! I tell you, that's a way to work with execs. Trade 'em. Find out what they like and meet 'em halfway. Not by eliminating or toning either of your tastes down, but by taking turns doing the kind of thing each of you like. This was very easy with Vanessa. Many times I would make up story ideas on the spot after asking her what she was looking for. Stimpy's First Fart was one of those.

Once more executives started to get involved, this became harder to do. There were too many "no"s coming from all directions and the idea of being fair and trading was harder and harder to achieve. Even people who weren't executives started sending us notes! Vanessa's secretary, a month after we had shipped the first couple of episodes to be animated, sent us a 30 page list of changes she wanted on our storyboards! Stories that were being animated and had already been signed off on by Vanessa. And what were the changes about? 90% of them were to tell us that the scenes on the storyboards didn't "hook up". A secretary telling us that.

Once artists starting seeing other artists get credits at the beginning of the cartoons, more and more wanted them - and I didn't blame them. On certain cartoons, I went back to Vanessa to beg for some extra credits for certain people who had done outstanding jobs on particular cartoons. This got me in a lot of trouble since we already had a signed agreement for story, storyboard and director only, but when she saw Space Madness and a couple other extra special pictures I bent her to my will. Others above us didn't like this encroaching artist recognition though. Especially when the press started coming over to Spumco regularly and I would take them around to interview and photograph all the artists at work.

To be continued....

Thanks to David Shreve and his crew for the frame grabs from Ren and Stimpy!


The Artist Aficionado said...

That's what writers and animators and artists need. Credit. It helps them advance in the work world so their potential can be used as a force for the studio.

John you know I don't like Walt Disney for a specific reason. He took credit away from several artists, animators, and writers. He dominated the screen. Same thing goes for several animation producers. Thankfully this is not the case recently.

So in terms of finally getting credit I'm happy you and other artists are finally getting you due. It makes it easier for an aspiring artist like me to know that my work won't be credited to my boss.

Shawn Dickinson said...

This post is AWESOME!!!

The Artist Aficionado said...

I think that when talented writers and animators were finally given shot the to explore creativity for the first time since the sixties the renaissance of animation had come about.

I cite the National Film Board of Canada, Roger Rabbit and the Mighty Mouse resurrection for fixing the industry and giving it new life in the late eighties. Because they used their name to create top quality animation you included.

Pete Emslie said...

To be fair, it can be a very slippery slope where credits are concerned, deciding whose talent should be acknowledged on screen. Let's face it: they're really overdoing it in the end credits of features these days with miles and miles of names, especially when it starts listing such nonsense as "Production Babies". Still, I agree that certain key players should receive their due on screen, whether before or after the cartoon. I don't envy anybody making that decision though.

Something else I want to say regarding these title cards, John, is that it's so nice to see hand-lettered credits! These really are a throwback to not only vintage cartoons, but all Hollywood films of that Golden Age, when the titles were a thing of beauty with hand lettering being created with brush and paint on a cel overlaid on an airbrushed board, coloured canvas, or other artistic backdrop. It's fun to see that even the same names are individually lettered for each cartoon, with nice cartoony kerning. Great stuff!

384Sprites said...

Jim Smith rules. I need to find those old cartoons and check 'em out.

GoldDarkShadow said...

I liked how in your ren and stimpy cartoon titles, there is no "written by" and you give the artiest credit. They worked their butts off for making awesome cartoons so they deserved it. Unlike these new cartoons, they have this written by garbage by someone who does not even like cartoons. John, thanks for posting this because this will help we a lot when i start making cartoons hopefully.

Anonymous said...

Chuck Lorre? The sitcom hack who brought us drivel such as "Two & A Half Men" being credited above you guys! Unbelievable?

Matt said...

I love when you write about the goings-on behind the scenes that took place back then.

The first episode of Ren & Stimpy that I ever saw was Firedogs, and the shot that hooked me for life was the fat lady flying down the ladder, with her huge fat ass flapping in the wind. I laughed till I was nothing more than a soggy puddle on the floor.

What really got me every time after that, though, was when Ren would come unglued and go into his psychotic deliriums. Every episode, I would pray that something horrible would happen to poor Ren, so that he'd come unhinged and start his psycho-babble. (In the Army!!!!) John, that $#!+ was pure gold. It was unheard of to see something so hilarious in a cartoon, at the time.

I appreciate those shows even more, knowing how hard you had to fight to get half the gags into them.

mike f. said...

Hey John - thanks for putting to the test the recent lie/smear that you don't give other artists credit.

In fact, it's been my personal experience that exactly the opposite is true. (My own credit on Spumco Comic Book is a case in point; all I did was clean-up.)

No need to acknowledge the new revisionists by name, they know who they are - and I'd rather not dignify them.

I'll look for a retraction, but I'm not holding my breath. That would take class, character and intellectual honesty - traits that are sorely lacking in some (so-called) Ren & Stimpy "fan" sites.

drawingtherightway said...

I don't get these executives not allowing more credits in the beginning. What do they care their not the ones creating the cartoons. If it weren't for you talented artists, they wouldn't have anything. I'm surprised execs don't have their names in the credits... I won't be surprised if some do.

JohnK said...

"Hey John - thanks for putting to the test the recent lie/smear that you don't give other artists credit. "

Huh? Who would ever say that? Not anyone who has worked with me - or who reads this blog that's all about cartoonists and who did what.

James said...

This post was interesting to say the least.

Credit should be where credit is due. I saw some great artists bunched up in a pile, Jim Smith, Lynne Naylor, Bruce Timm, Chris Reccardi, Bob Camp, Eddie Fitzgerald, and a lot of names I don't recognize.

That really gets me wondering what some of these folks did and didnt do.

Michael said...

Keep this up, cause things might be changing in other industries. Bill Buxton railed against software developers for putting out interfaces that were kluges. Tons of money is lost due to talentless crappy non-intuitive interfaces.
Buxton talks about how the art school system and "crits" need to be employed in the engineering and development of software. He's now at Microsoft trying to clean their executive mess up. There is a slow but steady recognition of artists taking more project management responsibility. The whole field of User Experience Design is booming and within in are artists getting more project management responsibility.
The MBA's are seeing true artist-managers like Steve Jobs continually kick the ass of Microsoft, Sony and the like. So keep it up John K. and maybe give Bill Buxton a call.

Niki said...

This is all too much for my computer to handle.

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful little moment in time you're showing us, John.

Let us never forget that it was, once upon a time, possible to give proper credit where credit is due.

Alas, now those times are over.

Did you know that on the show I work on one of the contributing producers was a LAWYER?

And sometimes she writes the episodes!

Let me repeat that -- A LAWYER.

Suffice to say her name is always at the very front of the show, and she sits far, far away from the artists. In fact we never, ever get to see this Wizard of Oz.

HemlockMan said...

Wow. One of your best posts. As I read this blog I get more information on not only how you work, but how the executive system at the studios operate.

After working in several industries I have come to the conclusion that management sucks. At a certain point in the hierarchy of a company, management should come to a screeching halt. There should be the folk who do the work (who are perfectly capable of managing themselves) and an uber-boss at the head of the company. Middle management are by and large useless or else very damaging to the operation as a whole. Those folk should all go away.

Eidenbrock said...

John, I love it when you dish out these post. I always love hearing those Spumco stories! The book will have a bunch, right?

Mike said...

Thanks a ton for this post! By the way, I never noticed that your chums were members of Die Screaming Liederhôsens.

Trevor Thompson said...

Wow, those grabs from the new Mighty Mouse DVD look really great?

Did they do something to kind of 'normalize' the color? I recall it being as garish as most shows of it's day, and yet the colors of these frame grabs look great!

I wish they'd leave the damn Looney Tunes colors alone.

Ollie said...

Those title cards are great!

What's Vanessa Coffey up to now? Maybe you could pitch some new ideas to her if she's still in a powerfull position.

lastangelman said...

Vanessa is on Facebook, in Los Angeles area.

Whit said...

It was the same Chuck Lorre of whom Jorge speaks. Lorre also wanted to produce the music for Beany and Cecil because it would pay him well as a lucrative side gig. Don't know if he snagged that perk, though. John will have to clarify. Lorre later got fired from at least two shows he created by sitcom divas Cybill Sheperd and Roseanne Barr but kept coming back until he was well set for life financially. Two and a Half Men is a hit, despite what it is.

glamaFez said...

Nurse Stimpy's not ugly. I have one of the cels to prove it.

Ren is stuck to the bed in his own filth and Nurse Stimpy is pulling him loose.

It's on my wall, but nobody ever comments on it. I don't think they want to know what it is.

Michael said...

The new role for cartoons in actuality has always been the same old role, but first I want to put it into today's context.Then I'll mention old time cartoons that have to same purpose.

First off, I think we rarely have good entertainment cartoons anymore due to overpopulation and over-consumption pressures. Over-consuming people (two-thirds of which should not exist according to UN population statistics) try to make efficient cartoons so they can afford their bloated lifestyles.

Recently I heard Nathan Shedroff talk about how important it is for designers to understand "systems" when grappling with challenges of sustainability. Cartoons like "Story of Stuff" are great at explaining and boiling down complex systems that we have a hard time dealing with. There's also this company called Root Learning that is doing systems cartoon stuff for the medical industry.

So think back to Rube Goldberg and what good cartoons do.
I was checking out the storyboards for Ren & Stimpy's Big House Blues. It's about the reality of being destitute in America. The system wants you dead if you can't produce. That's the reason for defending the current profit based insurance. So "Big House" was a hilarious predictor to how things are becoming for even the average American due to competition for resources. It explains systems and how they really are and it does it with exaggerated emotions and even more base survival instincts.

Well the new role for good cartoonists is to infiltrate the dry recesses of dry companies like Root Learning (AKA: "Rot" Learning) and create brain exploding drama along with dissecting systems that are currently messed up and need fixing. Jib Jab and all these other political satire cartoons get a lot of attention because they are communicating something that needs to be understood. Cartoons can be really good at doing this.

Whit said...

Jib Jab wants to please everyone in order to become the next System. It spoofs rather than satirizes.

Jackhalfaprayer said...

The attitude of putting together a bunch of artists that have talents one does not have in order to make a more well-rounded team of individuals that bring new and better ideas (or techniques) to a production is all well and good- but when you find yourself surrounded by "artists" who don't follow through, or in some cases can't even get work done, the only option is the old adage- if you want something done right, do it yourself.

Not all of us can weasel our way into a studio situation, John ;) Especially these days, with 2D in such a state.

Awesome post tho, totally remember these intros when I was a kid. Even then I remember thinking they hearkened back to the way toons used to be.

marcushelbling said...

hahaha, nurse stimpy was my dad's favorite episode.

Pokey said...

John, you rock.

"Raymond Spum":Does Allan Smithee ring a bell?:)

fandumb said...

I liked Nurse Stimpy, for your information. Last time I was ill, all I could think about was that episode. I watched it in German as well, and both Stimpy's voice actors in both versions, Billy West and Oliver Feld, were a delight to listen to, and both put their best efforts into voicing him! 'Nurse Stimpy' comes pretty close to being a personal favourite of mine.

kurtwil said...

Very interesting read, JK. Thanks!
Sadly today, even when shows give credit to artists, the networks jam credits into a tiny box surrounded by previews and network logos, making credits impossible to read. Bummer.

BTW, what will happen to the JK-directed Beany and Cecils, now that the Clampett children are re-releasing the original shorts?
When querying the B&C site, their response was they hoped JK B&C's could be re-released but they needed JK permission to do so. Hopefully that will come to pass as, like Mighty Mouse the New Adventures, there's a lot of energy and cleverness in those B&C's, as there was in the originals. They deserve better than the tiny, often badly transferred Youtube versions now out there!

fandumb said...

I kinda like 'The Littlest Giant', even though it was sort of a weak episode. The sad scenes went on a bit too long, as poignant as they are, as much as we sympathise with the giant's plight.