Saturday, September 20, 2008

Wonky 2

This follows part 1 above this post...
I met Jim Smith during Harlem Shuffle. He could draw real construction, composition and perspective and liked old cartoons as much as I did.

Ralph sold Mighty Mouse to CBS in 1987 and we put together a big crew in a week.

Jim drew some amazing semi-distorted BGs in the storyboards he was doing. (I wish I could find some to show you!) These drawings still had a composition and an organized graphic plan. When they got to layout, they were misinterpreted as being arbitrarily abstract and "wonky" came into existence as a full-fledged new cartoon style.

I also drew much more emotive and exaggerated characters than anyone else at the time did, and many of my artists again misinterpreted this as meaning no-rules. So for every Bruce Timm Ken Boyer, Eddie Fitzgerald, Lynne Naylor and me there were 5 other cartoonists who looked at our stuff and decided anything-goes, as long as it's weird. I had unleashed a monster that I've rued to this day.
Mighty Mouse was a mixed blessing to the cartoon business. It freed up cartoonists and brought back creativity, excitement and invention to cartoons. It also brought back story structure and characterization - in the best episodes. It reminded the whole business of what cartoons were for in the first place.

It also was full of accidents, mistakes, sloppy execution and rushed work that I had no time (and not enough experience) to get under control.


Even though Mighty Mouse wasn't a huge ratings success it was immediately imitated by the rest of the industry. In a way that was flattering, but it was also frustrating to me, because what everyone imitated was the mistakes. They imitated the wonkiness. No one picked up on the novel concept of specific acting and expressions, the satire, the constant custom-made new ideas and experiments.They just imitated the surface. Satire was misinterpreted as parody. Anti-establishment inside gags were now imitated by conservative establishment studios.
Hanna Barbera came out with "A Pup Named Scooby Doo" the following year. It was pushed by Tom Ruegger, Charlie Howell, Gordon Bressack and a bunch of young brash HB writers. A bunch of writers tried to "write" a cartoony show into existence.

Now these were all friends of mine at the time. We hung around and played Pictionary at their writer parties (I always lost). They were nice guys and they pushed me at Hanna Barbera a couple years before to design some shows they created with a more modern style. I helped them create story bibles for shows that never sold. I witnessed them at writer meetings on Scooby Doo and discovered an amazing creative process. The way the ideas are chosen for script driven cartoons works like this:

A group of writers meet in a boardroom and shout at each other like a bunch of McKimson characters.

They shout out what plots to steal from the latest hit movies. They yell in a strange secret cartoon-writer language, belting out phrases like "WE NEED A SCOOBY BEAT HERE!"

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Each time a writer blurts out a "gag" it's followed by huge laughter - The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
but only by one person - the writer who yelled it. All the other writers roll their eyes and tell him what an idiot he is.

Then they all start up again.This pushing, shoving and shouting goes on for a few minutes. Whoever shouts the loudest gets his ideas in the script.

The whole process is built around stealing ideas that someone else came up with for a medium that all cartoon writers wish they could be in. They rearrange the ideas from live action, then decide which live action characters to base the incidental characters on.

"a-la Danny Devito", "a-la Robin Williams" You see this stuff all over every cartoon script. It's an admission that cartoon writers can't create original characters. For some reason, executives do not see anything wrong with this.

All this stealing is performed with what appears to be total sincerity. After a big shout down where the writers knock out a formula plot that they have all already written 50 times, and plug it up with handfuls of other people's ideas they all slap each other on the back and go off to their separate rooms to type up all these horrors and inflict them on long-suffering cartoonists.

So this same bunch of personable fellas at HB, after seeing Mighty Mouse, got together and wrote up the new drawing style and stories for the self-parodying Scooby Doo show. Someone in the art department run by Bob Singer, who chastised me for drawing too flat just a couple years earlier, then had to draw the show in what they thought was my style. They did a cautious conservative version of wonkiness, thinking that's what I love more than anything. You can tell by the drawings that they didn't really believe in it and it pained them to do it.

A couple years later, this misinterpretation of wacky "hip" cartoons and the same HB crew merged with some of the Mighty Mouse crew and grew into Tiny Toons, then Animaniacs - which took our mistakes and self-indulgences way beyond anything we had ever imagined possible.

Nelvana also immediately copied Mouse's mistakes and took the wonkiness to more extreme levels...
As I was trying to figure out what we did wrong in Mighty Mouse, and what I could do to build on the things we did right, I - in horror and revulsion - watched my mistakes grow into a whole school of cartooning doctrine at other studios - studios that just a year before thought everything I was trying to do was evil, crazy and ugly.

More wonkiness to come....

I sort of got of the topic in this post, talking about imitating other kinds of mistakes besides wonkiness so I'll try to get back to that in the next post.