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!