Thursday, January 07, 2010

Digital Chumps Interview

1. Where did it all begin for John Kricfalusi? What were you influences growing up? Did you know that animation would be your life?

I loved almost all cartoons when I was a little kid: Popeye, Mighty Mouse, Looney Tunes, Disney and early Hanna Barbera cartoons. Cartooning was about all I was ever good at, so yeah, that’s what I knew I was gonna do.


2. Looking through your resume of animated shows you were involved with, pre-Ren & Stimpy/Mighty Mouse, what did you have fun working on the most? What shows were you happy to get away from? Also, whom should I blame for The Snorks coming on at 5:30am in the Atlanta market when I was a kid?

Ha ha. I worked on the Snorks but got kicked off for drawing too flat.

Well when I got started in the 1980s, cartoons weren’t very much fun anymore. Either to watch or work on. It was depressing time for cartoonists then. Not many of us were proud of what we were doing – but we had no control over any of it.


Now and then I’d get a job on something that was theoretically cartoony, like remakes of classic cartoons-but they always took out whatever made the original cartoons fun in the first place. I worked on Filmation’s remakes of Tom and Jerry and Mighty Mouse.

I had some fun doing layouts for Tom and Jerry, and I would try to be creative despite the boring scripts and the rules against slapstick, but when the final shows were finished I could barely see my input.

I realized that the whole system was just geared to ensure that nobody’s individual contributions ever made it to the screen. Each department would take out anything interesting that the previous department might have drawn. That was their duty.
The action packed, expressive style of Filmation


I had more fun on the remake of The Jetsons because Bill and Joe gave me more control over the look of it – at least my episodes. But the stories were still formulaic and not very funny.


If I was ever gonna really be proud of any cartoons I worked on, I’d have to change the whole way cartoons were being made. The 80s cartoon production system was a big factory assembly line with no one person in charge of any cartoon.

All the best cartoons were made in the 1930s to the 1950s using a director-headed “unit system” and I wanted to bring that back if I ever got my chance.

They also used to write the stories on storyboards, not scripts. Artists wrote the stories and they used full advantage of the cartoon medium. They weren’t trying to imitate live action. Cartoons used to be magic. That was completely gone in the 1980s. Stories were written on scripts by people who couldn’t draw. Not only were they boring and didn’t take advantage of the medium, but they were full of technical problems, just because the writers hadn’t ever actually made any cartoons and were just guessing about what could be done. This was a horrific problem. Cartoonists had had our medium stolen from us by amateurs and people who just didn’t care.




3. In the late 80s you were reunited with Ralph Bakshi for Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures. How did you approach the series and what did you expect out of it?

Ralph and I both wanted the same thing. We wanted cartoons to be cartoons again. The only way that was going to happen was to give control back to the cartoonists. So I set up a unit system, much like how they made cartoons in the 30s and 40s and put directors at the head of each unit. Me, Kent Butterworth, Eddie Fitzgerald, Steve Gordon and Bruce Woodside. The directors would follow a cartoon through from start to finish, supervising every aspect, including directing the voices, the storyboard artists, the designers, color and backgrounds. In the other studios, all these supervisory jobs were split up among different department heads who didn’t collaborate with each other on the stories and production. We changed all that.

All (well most)of our stories were written by cartoonists, mainly Tom Minton, Jim Reardon, Eddie Fitzgerald and myself. We wanted to write them the old way, directly on storyboards, but that was too radical for CBS. It was still a huge leap forward just to have stories written again by actual cartoonists.

Storyboard artists like Jim Smith added a lot of gags and visual ideas in the boards. Ji also did many great layouts and designs.


4. How was it working with Ralph Bakshi again and what were your respective roles in the production?

Ralph was the Producer, I was the supervising director. I handled the studio setup, most of the hiring and oversaw all the creative aspects of the show. I also directed 8 of the episodes myself. Ralph was involved in the stories and main creative elements of the show. He added gags, characters and story ideas all the time. He also kept the network people off our backs. I never saw any network notes. I don’t know how he did it, but he managed to keep people from interfering with this grand experiment that broke all the rules about how to tell stories, what cartoons were supposed to look like and how technically, cartoons were made.

One very big change to the production system was the way we used the layout department. First of all, by 1987 most studios in LA didn’t even do layouts anymore. They didn’t think this was a creative department so shipped all the work to Asian studios, just as they did with the animation itself.


I knew we weren’t going to be able to afford animating in LA because of the low TV budgets, but I did create a lot of jobs for star cartoonists to do layouts. The layouts were where we drew all the acting and posing. MM had way more drawings in it than other cartoons at the time. And each drawing was a custom-designed pose and expression that only worked for the particular instant happening at any given moment in the cartoon. This was totally radical. Ever other cartoon used “model-sheets” to control the look of their characters. They would design 3 or 4 poses of a character so you could see what it looked like from all sides and then every animator and artists had to draw the characters “on-model”. Exactly the same every time. This made the cartoons look like mannequins were sliding along the screen. Mighty Mouse brought cartoon characters back to life. Without the layout department, this would not have been possible, no matter how funny the scripts might be. I also encouraged each artist to draw the characters in their own styles – which was outlawed at every other studio.

To me, the performers in the cartoons, were not the characters themselves, but the layout artists: Jim Smith, Lynne Naylor, Ken Boyer, Istvan Majoros, Jim Gomez, Bruce Timm, Mike Kazaleh and more. These are the people who draw the acting and excitement, bringing the characters to life.

I have to tell you I had been pitching this way of producing cartoons for years before Mighty Mouse and everyone thought I was crazy. To Ralph, who had made many personal cartoons himself and who got his start in the old system – on the original Mighty Mouse, it was just a common sense way to make cartoons.


This was the precursor to Ren and Stimpy. Everything we tried on Mighty Mouse, I refined for Ren and Stimpy – and kept refining it. This way of making cartoons came to be known as “creator-driven” in the 1990s, but since then the system has devolved back into a similar assembly line production approach like the 1980s.


5. What were the high points of the Mighty Mouse series for you? The low points?

The high points happened every day. Working with top cartoonists and knowing that their work was actually going to end up on screen was the biggest thrill. I loved being involved in creating new characters and writing the stories with the other writers. I Iiked working with color and trying to use new color combinations with Libby Simon and Vicki Jensen. I directed the voice actors for the first time, and that was frightening at first, but I learned how important this step is to the entertainment value.

Eating breakfast at 7 in the morning and then supper at 12 midnite every day with Ralph at Twains was a high point.


Being able to add gags and creative ideas in every department along the production was great.
Low points? Well, it was very hard. We all worked long hours and didn’t sleep a whole lot. The lowest point came when the first cartoon came back from Taiwan and we watched it on the moviola. It (Me-Yoww) was basically a generic Looney Tunes type story, but without the great execution of Bob Clampett or Chuck Jones; it just played like a bad imitation – a fake cartoon. Luckily the stories we did after Me-yoww first one were much more personal and I started getting more confident as a director and trying to do my own thing, rather than imitating my heroes.


Some of the stories were just too chaotic and had no plot and little characterization. The most exciting times for me was when I would see cartoons come in that actually played like I imagined them in my head and that had emotional scenes and rich personality.

I was very happy about Night Of The BatBat, Mighty’s Benefit Plan, Night On Bald Pate, The Ice Goose Cometh and the Littlest Tramp because they weren’t random chaos or just gags for gag sake. You could actually follow them and were pulled along with the characters and their plights. They had truly intense moments. That was a real insight for me. When I saw which cartoons were really working and which ones just seemed to be abstract weirdness I was able to analyze the difference and gradually improve.

That was another high point: seeing cartoons evolve again. We tried all kind of ideas and approaches and you could see the cartoons changing, literally from week to week, just like they did back in the early days of animation. That was tremendously exciting.


6. In 1990 the FCC instituted the Children’s Television Act, which basically required cartoons to have some educational/informational value to them, would Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures have been the same if it had rolled over into that time period? What did this act mean to you, personally, in regards to creativity in the animation field?

It meant Saturday Morning Cartoons were doomed, which was good for me because I was doing Ren and Stimpy for Nickelodeon. My cartoons are educational anyway, maybe not for the audience, but for all the people making the cartoons, and for the executives too.
(The FCC should put homework in your ice cream while they are at it.)


7. What do you think of the new/upcoming (depending on time) of the Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures on DVD?

I’m glad it’s finally happening. I’ve been pushing for it for 20 years now. Ralph Bakshi’s Mighty Mouse was a major turning point in modern cartoon history and started the whole ball rolling again. It was before Mighty Mouse, The Simpsons, South Park, Family Guy, Sponge Bob and tons of other cartoons that benefitted from the pioneering work on the series.

8. Finally, what’s up next for you?
I’m developing some cartoons with a couple networks. Here’s a link to some storyboards:

I’m also working on a coffee table book called “The Art Of John K. and Spumco”. It has a nice fat chapter on Mighty Mouse.
I also have a college blog where I share all the secrets of how to make cartoons:

Thanks very much for your time. Hope the holidays are treating you well.

-Nathan Stevens

Get Your Own Copy Here!


The Butcher said...

Oh cool! The ball is rolling and I might get too see some new John K cartoons. I hope to see Kaspar, Slab, Ernie and George on tv soon.

RooniMan said...

Mighty Mouse, I salute you!

Oliver_A said...

Oh man, seems I have fully stepped into the crap by mentioning Tom and Jerry in my previous post. Sorry again!

Great and interesting interviews. I hope this will generate enough buzz to get things rolling!

WIL BRANCA said...

Yes Sir, I like it.

The Butcher said...

Hey, it's Dirty Dog! Good to see you commenting. And you have a blog. Cool!

Whit said...

At 4:58 in that Filmation cartoon, Lou Scheimer's sped-up, uncredited Mighty Mouse voice screams "Something is sucking me into that hole!" This may be the most profound line in any Filmation production.

CartoonSteve said...

Great interview! Thanks for posting. I found the Jetson clip here: (play free preview)

DrSpecter said...

I am LOVING the new Mighty Mouse DVD set. I think I've lost count of how many times I've watched the doc. Most cartoons are going on three times, though. In a very literal way, the show is a sometimes brilliant prototype for almost everything good that hit TV animation since!

I'd love to hear more about the production of that show. There should be a book!

kurtwil said...

Was really glad to have bought and watched MMTheNewAdventures on DVD. My only regret's the live action bit at end of "Mighty's Wedlock Whimsy" went AWOL (though at least part of it showed up in the DVD's great Commentary !!).

As for the Filmation MM, sorry but I could only get through 2 minutes of that illustrated radio. Maybe it's fitting that a lot of Filmation stuff's now in public domain.

Best wishes on your new shows, J.K!

Wattsink2009 said...

Is that big tough guy whispering to Gadget from Disney's Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers?