Friday, January 01, 2010

Complete Wired Interview About Mighty Mouse


1) What are your thoughts on this series, decades after it was sadly

Well first of all, if not for Ralph Bakshi, the 90s “creator-driven” revolution would probably never have happened. Everyone credits Ren and Stimpy for drastically changing the way kid cartoons were made, but it really started 2 years earlier with Mighty Mouse. That was my training ground and you can see primal elements associated with R and S all being experimented with in MM. Ralph is not only the most important figure in my career, but I would say in the rest of cartoon history following Mighty Mouse.


Q: It was ahead of its time and loaded with animation talent.
Care to share any fond memories (or horror stories) from your time
working with Timm, Stanton and other animators involved?

Ralph hired me to be the supervising director on the show. I in turn raided the studios of lots of people who I had worked with before on other projects. In a week we went from not having a studio to having 35 artists on staff. Many of them had been as disgruntled with the state of 80s animation as I was and couldn’t wait to work on a cartoon that might be fun. The key creative figures were writer/cartoonist Tom Minton, cartoonist Eddie Fitzgerald who got his first shot at directing on Mighty Mouse, Lynne Naylor -a designer, animator and layout artist.

Jim Smith was key. He drew storyboards, layouts and background designs. Bruce Timm had been my clean up artist when I was designing character models for other shows and I eagerly invited him to join us on Mighty Mouse. He became my most reliable layout artist and I gave him all my scenes to work on and most of the hardest ones. Libby Simon headed the color department while Vicki Jensen painted the backgrounds. Bob Jaques – who later animated the best episodes of Ren and Stimpy, was the timing director.

I also hired very talented cartoonists like Ken Boyer, Byron Vaughns, Jim Gomez, Mike Kazaleh and Kent Butterworth who each had a few years of experience under their belts. Tom Minton and I went to Cal Arts to see who the best talent from the latest crop of graduates were. Jim Reardon had already worked with us on some development for Ralph. He was a very funny cartoonist who was particular good at snappy one liners and I made him a writer right out of school. Other Cal Arts grads were Jeff Pidgeon, who had a unique cartoony and stylish sense of character design, Rich Moore, Carole Holiday, Andrew Stanton and Nate Kanfer. Jeff, Carole and Rich became incidental character designers and the rest probably were clean up artists. As far as I know, it was their first gig. In my mind Jeff was the most original of the Cal Arts guys, though they were all talented.


We experimented every step of the way. No job went by where we didn’t try something new, add a gag, create new styles of backgrounds or beef up the acting. Besides the obvious change in the style and content Mighty Mouse introduced, there was another just as important revolution – and that was in the whole production process we used, without which the creative innovations would not have showed up on screen.


Prior to MM, TV cartoons were being churned out like assembly line product, with with no single person involved all through the making of a cartoon. Each department was separate and had a list of rules to abide by. Writers were in one department, storyboard artists who should have been the writers were just illustrating the scripts written by non- artists. There was no such thing as a “director”. Layout – a very important creative step in the making of my style of cartoons, was not even being done in the country anymore. I brought it back for Mighty Mouse and made it a key part of the process. I also re-introduced the “unit system” of the 1930s and 40s. We split the crew into 4 units, just like Looney Tunes, each unit headed by a director who would follow the cartoon from script to final edit. The director would direct everything – the voices, the storyboards, the layouts, the character designs. Each director had his own crew and talked to each and every one of them personally about the handling of every idea in the cartoon. This way, everyone had a creative stake in the outcome of the films.

Without this process, no matter how many funny ideas we came up with in the writing, everything would have ended up treated blandly and generically on screen as all the rest of TV cartoons were in the 80s.

This was a bold experiment and we made lots of mistakes through trial and error, but we learned a lot and made a few cartoons that really worked from story through execution. There were also some very anarchic episodes that were just weird for weird sake, and I learned from this and made alterations to the system when I sold Ren and Stimpy 2 years later.


2) Any thoughts on the social controversies that complicated it? I
noticed "The Littlest Tramp" is included and unedited, if I'm not

The only controversy I can think of wasn’t a controversy at all until over a year after it came out. Mighty Mouse had sentimentally sniffed a crushed pink flower in “The Littlest Tramp” and one day while I was working on Beany and Cecil we heard on the radio that some crazy preacher was raising a stink about Mighty Mouse sniffing cocaine. There were plenty of other things we got away with in the cartoons that someone could have jumped on, but this flower thing was manufactured out of nothing.


3) What was it like working with Bakshi, who helped lay the foundation
for mature, independent animation? He told me that your group really
stretched him, and that he was impressed with your fearless humor. Any
Bakshi stories to share?

Ralph is hard to work for because he is very demanding that we give him the best we have. He is a large strong scary man too, so you really want to please the guy! We had to pitch him every story we came up with and he would throw out at least 2 out of every 3. There was one that I was in love with called “Night On Bald Pate” about a psychotic super villain who wanted to steal all the left shoes in Mouseville. When Tom and I pitched it to him, he hated it. He didn’t get it. But I stuck to my guns on this one and argued till he got too tired to continue the fight. He’d won most of the others so I guess he felt he could give in this time. Then I went off and directed the voices for the cartoon and brought back a cassette tape of the dialogue track and played it for Ralph. He was sitting in his chair all sullen and surly, smoking a cigarette down to the filter. He really wanted to hate this cartoon. Then I clicked the play button and as soon as Petey Pate (played by Patrick Pinney) started ranting and raving like a maniac, Ralph swallowed his butt and started hacking and laughing his lungs out. Then he thought I was a genius. He said he didn’t understand the story until he heard the performance and that’s when I knew I was on to something really new in modern cartoons. All my best cartoons since have been about the characters, and I write the plots to stimulate the performances.


4) Bob Clampett! Mighty Mouse's episode "Night on Bald Pate," like Ren
and Stimpy's "Space Madness," seems to be an homage to Clampett's
riotous "Porky in Egypt." Is Clampett the most underrated animator in
toon history? Any thoughts on his legacy's similarities with Bakshi's
legacy: Both made mature, surrealist animation for adults and kids,
got into racial hot water with "Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarves" and
"Coonskin," and so on?

Bakshi, like me loves Clampett’s work. Clampett though never tried to stir up controversy; he just made what he thought were funny entertaining cartoons. He was the dominant director during the heyday of Looney Tunes in the 40s. He set the overall tone and style of the “looneyness”, that dethroned Disney. The other WB directors were swept along by his energy, attitude and non-stop invention. Ralph, like Clampett swept along a whole new generation of animators in the 1970s with his own energy, drive and personal view of the world. Ralph and I share a love for classic cartoons and comics and both always want to do the next new thing and we are easily bored by formula. We also both have strong egos of course and often butted heads on Mighty Mouse, but if he sensed I really believed in a certain direction, he’d back me on it. He also kept the network people off our backs which was invaluable. Ralph, like me believes in and practices individual vision. His cartoons can only be made by him, and I think why he gave me a shot is he saw my own quirkiness and took a chance that it might click with the audience. No one else at that time would have.


5) Your Mighty Mouse series incorporated clips from the Terrytoons
original. Was the purpose to educate viewers on the character's
animation history -- or animation history, period -- as well as take
up space?

The real purpose was to bring down the budget so that we could afford to do the layouts in house on the rest of the cartoons. Layouts take a lot of artists, and most studios just shipped them overseas to be done by cheap foreign labor. It wasn’t thought of as a creative process. To me, the cartoons had no chance of working without them. Our content was so different that we had to really make the characters come alive on screen. In the layouts we would draw tons of unique poses and expressions-tailored to the dialogue tracks so that the drawings would match all the inflections in the actors’ voices. We also added lots of visual gags in the layouts that weren’t “written” in the scripts. I allowed each artist quite a bit of his or her own style in the scenes he drew, and this was unheard of at the time. You can tell the different artists apart when you watch episodes of Mighty Mouse. Ken Boyer’s scenes are cute and dynamic, Jim Smith’s are manly and well composed, Lynne’s are very girly and cartoony at the same time, mine are very specifically acted, Istvan’s are extremely crazy looking etc.


6) Any thoughts on the way popular animation has changed since the
appearance of Mighty Mouse, Ren and Stimpy and other multi-dimensional
toons you have worked on? Do you feel that animators today take the
same chances? Do you feel that studios are more permissive to mature
toons because of the work put in by you, Ralph and others?

I think that after Mighty Mouse and Ren and Stimpy, there was a momentary belief (even among executives) in cartoons being cartoony again, and being completely created by the cartoonists themselves. Mighty Mouse was the first cartoon in decades where the cartoonists had control of our medium back. In the last decade or so, the system has drifted backwards to the old Saturday morning cartoon system, where all the jobs are departmentalized and no single person has control over a whole episode of anything. A lot of the work that I keep in the country (like layout) is now shipped overseas again and that makes cartoons automatically formulaic and repetitive. Cartoons used to evolve. Bugs Bunny looked different in every classic cartoon. There was no formula. The cartoons Ralph and I made brought back the concept of evolution. Now the system is geared to stop changes. Changes and growth are evil.