Start from the beginning of the interview
As far as the Grimley shows go, they
were really poorly animated, but of course they were meant to
look sort of counter-culture I think. I just think if they had
American or Canadian animators working on them, they would have
translated better on-screen. These shows also featured some stuff
by Jonathan Winters which was, of course, hilarious in a scary
sort of way, and there were these short sequences with Count
Floyd, which were live-action, but then they'd get some Sesame
Street studio to do some really childishly terrible animation to
illustrate some "scary scary" story he was telling. I
guess we were honored not to be asked to do any of that
Keep in mind StarToons didn't do any of the animation - I just worked on the boards. Warner Bros was the first house in a LONG time to subcontract animation to any North American studios. Disney never did. It was considered a very risky decision. I'll always be thankful I was able to get them to spend the extra money on us; I tried to make it worth it. In the end they probably got better stuff out of TMS, but I think if StarToons had the chance to grow and stabilize, we might have been able to best them.
So, you're also in the credits for The Jetsons Movie, though your influence doesn't really show....there must be a story behind that.
Later that year, Bill Hanna called
me up and asked if I'd like to do some animation for their next
movie project: The Jetsons Movie. Naturally I was thrilled. But
animation had stalled, and they needed help getting storyboards
done. He asked if I wouldn't come out and work there for a few
months on storyboards, and he would pay the room & travel.
That sounded OK, I figured I could fly back to Chicago every
other weekend to see the family, so I went out there.
They gave me a section of script and an office, and I started boarding. After a couple of days I had about 7 pages done, and Bill told me I better run it past Iwao.
The long & the short of it is, Iwao Takamoto never approved a single panel of my storyboard. My sessions with him would consist of him sitting like Yoda, cross-legged, in this huge leather chair in this huge office, and he would lecture me - literally for hours - about his theories of drawing landscapes and compositions. All very interesting ... but none of it ever leading to actually getting anything done. I would go back to my desk and make the corrections he suggested, and bring them back the next day, and then the lectures would start all over, and he would change the things I'd done in some new way, and talk about new aspects of compoisition, etc. Possibly the problem was that my section was very heavy in landscaping, and drawing BG's was never my strength ... but I still felt that any of the weaknesses could be fixed at the layout stage.
After two weeks of this, and still not getting a single panel approved, I slunk into Bill's office and told him, "Send me home Bill. I can't get anything approved. You're wasting your money." I told him to definitely call me when he had some animation to do ... and I went back to Chicago.
Eventually I did get a few scenes to do on that movie ... and when I saw it in the theatres, I realized this was probably the worst animated feature film ever made. I literally slunk down in my seat when my name rolled up in the credits - it was embarrassing.
By then I had hired a full-time assistant (Nate Kanfer), and I began to realize that now I was responsible not only for supporting myself and my family, but also Nate. It was an uncomfortable realization - the more StarToons grew, the more responsibility I had. When things got thin, I had to pay Nate first.
Then my friend James Baker, a great animator and layout artist from Australia who had left before H-B closed down, visited me in Chicago. He loved traveling the world, and his next stop was going to be visiting some associates in Toronto. The associates turned out to be Kennedy Cartoons. James hooked me up with Glen, and I started taking animation from him right away. Glen and I had apparently met in Sydney back in '86 at a Christmas party - he had been working somewhere in the South Pacific, and came to Sydney to visit during his Xmas break. Honestly I didn't remember him, but he remembered me.
They were working on this new Tiny Toons series, which at first sounded like some kind of sick "Warners Babies" type of thing, but when I got the boards, I realized these were actually pretty fun little stories, with lots of visual gags. It was a chance to animate some of the classic Warners characters and use some of the classic techniques we had studied back in Australia.
The first show I worked on was "Buster and the Wolverine" and my Buster and Babs were horrible, but the animation was snappy and Glen was happy. The other TTA's I remember working on were "Gang Busters," "The Acme Bowl," "C Flat or B Sharp," "Fields of Honey," "Who Bopped Bugs Bunny?" and "High Toon." I only vaguely remember specific sequences from those ... and my model of Babs and Buster were improving ... but Kennedy was having a lot of trouble with Warner Bros, and by the time we got to "High Toon" there was already talk (at Kennedy) of breaking away from Warners and going to Disney. I heard it thru the grapevine that Glen had literally threatened to kill exec producer Tom Ruegger. I thought, that can't be good.
The next season ('91) Kennedy did indeed make the move to Disney, and they took a few episodes of Darkwing Duck - none of which I remember, although I did animate a few scenes for it. I just really missed the zaniness of those TTA scripts, and theseries had been renewed for a second season.
So I planned a trip to LA to see if I couldn't get some more more animation directly from WB. Nate Kanfer, Ron Fleischer (at the time working for Kinetics), and Robert Ciaglia, an editor visiting from Australia, were with me. We met with a few people at Warners in Sherman Oaks, but they were all basically giving me the LA handshake (the runaround) and at the end of the day, prospects were looking pretty bleak. We got onto the elevator to go to the ground floor, and there was this little guy standing in the corner of the elevator, and he just asked us who we were.
I said, "We're from a studio in Chicago, and we were hoping to get some work on Tiny Toons."
"Do you animate?" he asked.
I said, "Well, last year I did animate on Tiny Toons, I did some of the work that Kennedy Cartoons did."
He asked which scenes, and I told him about some of my favorite sequences, and he digs out his business card and says, "Well I'm Tom Ruegger, and I produce Tiny Toons. Let's go back up to my office and talk some more."
Wow! Unbelievable! It was like heaven smiled on me that day.
We went back to his office and made arrangements to do some animation for the closing credits, where at the end of the show you had these colored circles in the background, and the credits would roll, and at the end one of the Tiny Toons characters would pop out of the hole and say something funny.
We got about five of those to do, and a certain budget and a certain schedule, and if we could show that we could would within those parameters and turn out something decent, he'd give us some shows to work on.
We passed the test.
You mentioned the Kennedy 'toons you
contributed to, but left out several, like "The Learning
Principal." The most notable thing about that one is that
Plucky appears purple in Buster's classroom, and many people have
pointed that out as a blatant mistake--but I've had a theory that
it wasn't. The Plucky was a mistake, but the purple color was
not....because Plucky appears right outside the hallway as Buster
walks out. He couldn't be in two places at once, but by the time
that was figured out, the whole thing had already been laid
out...so somebody just called Korea and told them to color the
classroom Plucky another color to hopefully pass him off as
"some other duck."
Did I get it right? Do I win a prize?
Sorry I can neither confirm nor deny. I've seen discussions about this purple Plucky, and your proposed explanation seems quite plausible to me. Nonetheless, that cartoon is listed as being done by Encore, for whom I never animated.
Are you sure? This looks a lot like your
Oops--Hamton's hands are hooves.
.....It's undeniable. Those are my
drawings. And how like me to not even pay attention to the model
sheet for Hamton's hands. That sort of stuff got me in a lotta
But I think Buster looks OK there.
I can't figure out how this happened unless Kennedy was given some leftover Encore stuff to do and then shipped it to me.
"The Learning Principal" also has one
of my favorite bits of animation from you:
"WELL WELL, BUSTER BUNNY....."
"Dat's my name, don' wear it out!"
"Hehheh-heh, heheh heh-heh...."
I loved that little bit because it had so much personality. I doubt any of this movement was in the script, and it added a whole lot. The scene was a riot. The next time you're looking for short things to put into the portfolio, consider this five seconds--your talent can be summed up quickly here.
Well, I'm glad you liked it. I know I love animating stuff like that. And frankly, the scripts allowed for animators to have a lotta fun.
"Henny Youngman Day" is from the second season and was the first "official" StarToons episode of Tiny Toons. The second season of TT was interesting....there was the "Elmyra's Family" pilot as well as that episode written by three thirteen-year-olds...I loved the writing on Tiny Toons to death, as well as the people that brought it to us. Sherri Stoner rocks.
We were of course thrilled when
Ruegger informed us we had passed the test, and suddenly we had
to gear up for huge amounts of work. At the time (late spring,
1991) we had moved from downtown Chicago to my basement in
Homewood, mainly because we had given up on getting much work out
of the Chicago ad agencies (they branded us as a low quality
studio for working on TV series, I guess). There in the basement
we had room for myself, my assistant Tammy Daniel-Biske (now with
Disney, I think), Perry Zombolas (an intern whom I had taught at
Columbia College), Steve Leeper (later with Big Idea, which is
now of course also defunct), and my wife Chris. We were StarToons
at the time. Nate Kanfer had left at this point because he really
wanted to be a writer and he didn't want to be stuck working as
an assistant animator ... and he really wasn't up to snuff to be
an animator for this kind of series, although I think he animated
the test of Dizzy Devil eating the hole ... I had to more or less
draw over all of his keys. He got the action good enough.
Now I figured we would need at least four solid animators who could double as layout artists, and six assistants, at least a couple BG artists, and then we would need an overseas studio to do ink & paint and camera.
We threw out a wide net and hired all kinds of new people - some good, some not so good. These included animator Chris Brandt (to avoid confusion with my wife, also named Chris, he adopted the nickname 'Spike' and he is now still known as Spike Brandt in Hollywood, currently one of the exec producers for the 'Duck Dodgers' series), animator Kirk Tingblad (who moved to Homewood from Minneapolis), animator David March (who had been a teacher in Cincinnatti), animator Jeff Siergey (who had worked at Calabash), BG painter Uttam Kumar (implant from India, great artist who would figure prominently in StarToons' future), BG artist Kurt Mitchell (who had been a popular illustrator in Chicago before coming to StarToons), assistant Tony Cervone (then a young shoe salesman, now co-producing 'Duck Dodgers' with Spike Brandt, and author of the Walter Foster 'How to Draw Looney Toons' book), assistant Mary Hanley (former Columbia College student of mine), and assistant Genndy Tartakovsky (now famous as being the creator of 'Dexter's Lab', 'Samurai Jack', and those recent Star Wars things).
I'm sorry to say there were others whose faces I remember but not their names.
All of these guys were talented in their own way, but none of them had ever worked on a TV series before, so I had to show them the ropes, teach them the rules, the processes. Animation is a lot of work, but it also requires a ton of organization and management.
Genndy had been my teacher's assistant when I taught at Columbia. He was enthusiastic although I thought his student film was horrible - some terribly drawn, unfunny film about a King Kong-type character. The one thing he had going for him was his enthusiasm and his hard work. Unfortunately all that changed when he came to StarToons. I could see he had the brains and the desire to become a good animator, but I needed him to learn how to draw and time motion. The best way to learn that is to clean up and assist for animators who know what they're doing. But he had become completely infatuated with John Kricsfalusi's 'Ren & Stimpy', and when he saw that we weren't trying to emulate John K's style, he left StarToons after about a month. He got very little done for us - he had no interest. He moved to LA and worked on 'The Critic'.....not sure what he did for them, but the drawing requirements were a lot lower so it probably gave him a chance to cut his teeth on some real production work ... not sure how 'The Critic' was preferable to 'Tiny Toons' but I guess as long as it was West Coast, it made Genndy happy. Later he landed a chance to work in-house at Hanna-Barbera and created 'Dexter's Lab', which was really his homage to Kricsfalusi (even Dexter's voice was modeled after Ren's). 'What a Cartoon' loved him, and the rest is history.
You knew Tartakovsky? Wow....I find his being "amateur" at the time hard to believe. This IS the Dexter's Lab guy...
I think when Genndy talks about his career, he starts with "Dexter's Lab" and pretends the years he spent in Chicago never happened. It's probably just as well. His enthusiasm took his career to new heights, and he never looked back.
Mary Hanley's pencil-work was the
most beautiful stuff I ever saw. She could really draw. She had a
little trouble staying on task - she took a lotta cigarette
Tingblad's style was a little loose, but he was the best we had available at the time. I can't really remember exactly when he joined us; I don't think he worked on Henny Youngman Day ... if he did, he probably worked on 'The Lame Joke.' He later became a director on 'Johnny Bravo.'
Brandt was a gem. The guy was as careful and conscientious artist as I've ever known. A native of Gary, Indiana, he had been part of the rag-tag traveling freelance band of animation artists in the Chicago area, and he could never get enough work to support himself. He got work occasionally from Sinnott, or Kinetics, or Cioni, but he never got to animate, only inbetween, and he could never support himself on the sporadic work. And yet his animation work was better than any of the animators he worked for. When I offered him a full-time job, as an animator yet, he couldn't believe it. Tom Sinnott happened to call him up to do some more freelance assisting, and he told tom, "Sorry, I'm taking a job with StarToons." Well, Sinnott told him he was probably mistaken, that McClenahan was a newcomer in Chicago, and would never be able to afford to take him on as a full-timer. So Brandt got all depressed and called me back and said, "I thought you said it was a full-time job, but Sinnott says it isn't." I said, "Well who's offering it to you, him or me? I'm telling you Chris, I need you, dude!"
And he was just excellent. WIthout his help in those early years there would have been no StarToons. I did all the layouts for 'The Potty Years' and then turned it over to him to animate - he probably animated 60-70% of it himself (I did the rest). The only problem was when I started checking his animation, all of the little Plucky's looked like somebody had hit him in the back of the head with a sledge hammer - all of the heads were tilted slightly forward instead of slightly backwards. I drew over some of his roughs and handed them back to him ... and I thought he was going to kill himself. He felt so bad! And he never drew anything off-model again ... which is more than I can say for myself.
Cervone was a hard worker, although his drawing was a little weak, and he had no experience animating. He was our fastest inbetweener in the early months, and after about 6 or 7 months with us, he told me he wanted to animate. I gave him some scenes, and with some correction, he started getting it. By the time he left StarToons he was one of our greatest assets. He also later became co-director on the 'Space Jam' movie.
Uttam's work was awesome. He could paint like a son of a gun. Although I couldn't paint to save my life, I had to show him the procedures for painting BG's, based on my observations of BG artists working back in Australia. Once I showed him how to do it, he could paint 20-30 beautiful BG's a week.
I totally agree with you about the TTA writing staff, Sherri Stoner in particular. Extremely talented. They had a great synergy too, I think ...
... but there was a marked & somewhat hostile division between the writers and the staff animation directors (guys like Ken Boyer, Rich Arons, & Rusty Mills). When we first got the contract for 'Henny Youngman Day', they flew me out to LA to discuss it with them, and Tom & Sherri were very nice and handed me the script and then introduced me to Boyer and some of his guys, and we went into a conference room, and the directors all started saying things like, "Well, this is a pile of crap" and "We're going to have to cut this and cut that and" and "we'll just re-write all this stuff when we do the boards." I was surprised because for the most part I thought it was all pretty good, and I didn't see any reason most of the stuff they hated wouldn't be good & funny, but I figured I'm the new kid on the block, so I didn't say much. They all took notes and we broke up.
Then I went on a tour of the facilities, and about five minutes later, I heard a page over the loudspeaker system: "Jon McClenahan, please come to Tom Ruegger's office immediately." So I hustled back to Ruegger's office, and Stoner was in there breathing heavily with her arms crossed and a scowl on her face, and Ruegger was like, "Jon, let me ask you something: what the hell do you think you're doing?" I had no idea what he was talking about, so he pushed the notes toward me and said, "Well, these changes are just unacceptable, but go ahead and explain to me why you don't like them." I said, "Tom, frankly, I'm happy with the script as is. I was just going by the advice of your other directors." Tom & Sherri looked at each other, and then looked at me and said, "Well YOU'RE directing this one, not them." In other words, they wanted their script left intact. Seems like I had been set up by the staff guys - I had no idea there was this hostility going on. I did argue to cut part of the script, mainly for time and it was the weakest part (can't remember what it was) and they agreed, but the rest of it stayed.
I guess 'Henny Youngman Day' was kind of a new approach to Tiny Toons, and some people (including the staff directors apparently) thought it was out of place, based on the first season's shows, but frankly I thought it stood pretty well on its own. I think 'thirteensomething' was a much better show overall and again, very different from the first season.
By the way I think I remember somebody discussing "Stand Up & Deliver" (from "Henny Youngman Day") and they talked about the Emo Phillips Squirrel and the Andrew Dice Clay Roach and the fat Walrus character. Well, the fat Walrus was apparently meant to be Louie Anderson ... but nobody ever got that.
Backing up a bit, you said before you did an actual episode, you were given the "test" assignment of five character ending animations. One was obviously Elmyra's "LET THE SHOW BEGIN!!" which was hilarious (and the joke was lost when they used it at the beginning of one episode). However, another is Baby Plucky. Baby Plucky says a quote directly from the Henny Youngman episode, meaning either it had already been written and they were saving the script for new animators (?? sounds implausible to me) or you animated a sixth ender just for that episode. The latter seems more likely, but if I'm wrong, I'm sure you'll tell me...
You are correct - we animated a sixth, featuring Baby Plucky. Ruegger was extremely pleased with that episode, so after he saw it, he insisted that we do a special ending featuring Baby Plucky.
If anything outshone Dudley the Dinosaur in
quotability, it was Baby Plucky. My elementary school was
absolutely filled with "Water go down the hoooole!" and
"I wanna push da button! Again and again and again!"
quotes. Can you validate my theory that Baby Plucky is not only
voiced by one of Ruegger's sons, but based on him? (The
"hooooole" stuff might have been something one of his
sons was actually saying at the time.) I know his sons were
worked into a lot of his productions (heck, they were in all of
Another weird thing about the ending animations was that from 1991 on, the copyrights were almost always wrong. Episodes from '91 got dated as from 1990, and no episode from 1992 got a copyright from that year. The copyrights seemed to be just about the ending animations and not about the episodes themselves.
Don't know anything about the
copyright question. As for Nathan Ruegger (who I believe is in
college now), it's quite possible 'The Potty Years' was based on
his early childhood, but I can't confirm that. Anyway he got that
speaking part, which led to other parts, like Skippy Squirrel.
Nathan was a great kid, very smart, and very likeable.
I quite enjoyed doing most of the animation for "Stand Up & Deliver" as well as all of the Henny Youngman bits in between the three cartoons, some of "The Potty Years" and some of "Lame Joke" (we also used some freelancers for that first show, but I wasn't happy with their work, and so eventually we stopped using freelancers on principle) but the strongest piece was obviously "The Potty Years." I was coaching my sons in baseball, and I noticed a lot of the little kids around the baseballs field were saying, "I wanna flush it again!" and "Toot-toot go down the hoo-o-ole!" so obviously the show had been a hit.
Personally I had really enjoyed the 'Stand Up & Deliver' episode, and I began to really fall in love with Babs.
When we completed that first episode, Warners was very happy with us, and we were quite pleased with ourselves. We decided to rent a prestigious downtown Chicago restaurant and have a big celebration and invite people from the Chicago media (onloy a few of which came). We also called Henny Youngman and explained how we had animated that cartoon and asked if he would like to come if we paid his airfare and hotel bill. He wanted $10,000 to come out! I was like, "I'm sorry, Mr. Youngman, we're a really small, POOR little studio." He said, "Come on, kid, advertise it, I can put on an act, and you can make some money for yourself. It'll be great!" He was still hustling work for himself at the age of 85! Of course we had no idea how to promote comedy acts, so we told him thanks anyway. About a week later he called back and tried to talk us into it again!
Of course, this was ALSO the time of the glorious DTV movie "How I Spent My Summer Vacation," regarded by fans as the ultimate TT cartoon. You had nothing to do with it, but if you know anything at all, don't be afraid to dish....
The only thing I know about
"How I Spent My Summer Vacation" is how disappointed we
were that StarToons didn't get the work. Ruegger had talked to us
about doing it but in the end they chose TMS, which really was
probably the right choice.
And originally it was supposed to be done for the movie theatres, not DTV, but after some market research and group discussions, they decided not to release it to theatres. They actually showed it to some test audiences here in Chicago. I don't know if it tested poorly or what their reasoning was, but they made their decision.
It did, however, feature one of our end tags, where Byron the Basset sniffs around the outside of the hole and looks to camera and says 'Woof.' That one had already been used for another episode or two, but we were proud that they used it.
Next: Taz-Mania and Tiny Toons season 3!