Thursday, March 12, 2009

John K: The Ghandi Of Cartoon Mountain

I love cartoons. Always have. They were one of my main influences growing up. Cartoons helped shape my sense of humor, my personality, and even led me to a career. At the age of five I knew I wanted to draw for a living. Who can deny it -- cartoons are a great escape from dull, boring reality. Everyone has their favorites. Some good, some not so good. And some are legendary (Looney Tunes ring a bell?)

If there is one man who knows cartoons, and what it takes to make great cartoons, it's John Kricfalusi, creator of Ren & Stimpy. John has demonstrated an innate ability to take a cartoon -- current or classic -- and dissect it for the purpose of finding out how it ticks. And he minces no words in his assessment of what can make or break a cartoon. How could a huge, multi-million dollar animated film fall flat when compared to a rudimentary, dime-budget cartoon from the 1940's? The short answer: A crappy movie is a crappy movie, even if viewed in 1080p high-definition. I have to agree.

Recently on his blog, John has been sharing his thoughts regarding creative team building; specifically, for the animation industry. But even though his focus is on animation, John speaks volumes when it comes to the methodology behind the creative process. The guy just gets it.

I know this may sound hum-drum (and it probably does if you're not the creative type, so stop reading now) but let me tell you, if you are creatively-driven... if you are tired of UN-creative executive types meddling with your ideas or watering-down your mind... you will find this fascinating. Here are some highlights from one of John's recent posts.

John K On Building A Winning Creative Environment:

Learn from mistakes and successes. A shorts program should allow the directors and cartoonists to try things out, to experiment and make some mistakes that they can learn from. If each crew only gets to do one short, that's a total waste.

You need to keep a crew going for a while to see if they learn and get better.

Tex Avery didn't make a hit with the first cartoon he made. Neither did Walt Disney or anyone else. All the most successful people in history needed practice, experience and the opportunity to make some mistakes.

Having ten or twenty crews (too many) means you never develop a studio style or personality. Warner Bros. started with one crew, then went to two, then three and then four. The whole time they were developing a style and attitude that the audience could recognize and anticipate. They were "building a brand".

Have only one executive in charge. Looney Tunes had the best production system in history. The one most guaranteed for success. There was only one executive -- Leon Schlesinger. Leon had two traits that made him successful: 1) He was greedy 2) He liked to laugh

Use common sense and let talent thrive. Today's executives don't want to make any money for their companies because they don't own the company. So instead, they like to SPEND money -- like water! They hire more executives who all get involved in interrupting the creative process. A bunch of hippie communists who can't make decisions so want to spread the blame amongst other equally uncertain slobs.

The money wasted on pseudo-science could fund more cartoons. Executives not only can't make decisions amongst themselves, they then go and spend ridiculous sums of money on voodoo science called "Focus testing" and "Market Research". This makes each short cost 10 times what it would if they just hired an experienced and funny cartoonist, gave him a unit of talented cartoonists and let them make five or ten shorts, letting each one get better. You shouldn't expect the first characters the crew creates to be a hit either. It takes time to find and develop good characters. How long did it take Warner's to "discover" Bugs Bunny? They went through a few dud characters before they even got to Porky Pig. But once they found their style, they were on a roll and created money-making character after character.

What's more important than new ideas and characters? The talented people who are able to constantly produce new ideas and characters. Today's execs seem to think ideas exist in a vacuum. That an idea is either a "good idea" or a "bad idea", so they go through young cartoonists like crazy trying to find the one who has the latest good idea, rather than developing talent and a whole studio system that allows people to gain experience, work together and try new things on an ongoing basis, the whole time improving their skills without interference from amateurs.

Bugs Bunny is a good idea, right? Then why has no one been able to make a good Bugs Bunny cartoon since the 1950s? Because other people with less experience, talent or time to work together tried to compete with what took years of a long gone logical system to produce.

Execs today spend a fortune worrying about each short -- rewriting it twenty times, testing the damn thing, writing story bibles, taking luxurious treks around the world to "creativity summits," having too many discussions about the characters and their motivations -- instead of planning the big picture and building strong crews and a studio personality. LA is just stuffed with talent more than capable of doing what Looney Tunes did. It's the system that's messing it up.

Creative growth happens naturally if you just set up the system to let it. Like Leon did. Leon would give each director and crew a year at least to see how they did. If they did well, they stayed on and kept improving. If they made boring pictures, he fired them and replaced them with some eager new director (who had worked his way up the ladder by assisting, animating, writing gags and learning the whole process.) He didn't hire inexperienced kids off the street and put them in charge of his own loyal experienced animators just to kill their loyalty.

Everything about the Looney Tunes system made perfect logical common sense. It was geared for success at the least cost, and it achieved it, both in terms of developing the best talent, and creating the best, most and longest lasting cartoon characters.

I learned from the opportunity to make mistakes. In 1987 I got my first shot at directing from Ralph Bakshi. I hired the crew and we made the first real cartoons in 25 years. (meaning actually created by cartoonists and using the medium). I adapted my layout system to the show and added new production systems that combined the realities of TV budgets with the creatively more efficient classic Looney Tunes Unit system.

The show was innovative and a cult hit, but not mainstream and popular enough for CBS to keep on, so I scratched my head and sat down and figured out why not.

I didn't consult any focus groups; I just used common sense and reasoned it out. Some cartoons got bigger laughs than others, and it seemed to me that they were the ones that had the most personality and structure.

I swore if I ever got to make my own cartoons, I would concentrate more on the characters, which is what I like the most anyway.

So when Ren and Stimpy sold, I already had a lot of experience, had made creative mistakes and learned from them. It wasn't merely talent that made the show work. It was experience guided by logic. And weird ideas, of course...but controlled weird ideas. And PRACTICE! I also had a team of great artists that I already had worked with. We knew each others' styles and strengths, so I took advantage of that on Ren and Stimpy.

The show was a smash hit, put Nickelodeon on the map, bought their studio and put cable cartoons in business. All this with no marketing, no focus testing and only one executive. A very good deal for Nickelodeon and it killed Saturday Morning Cartoons (which were already pretty unhealthy). And then of course Nick didn't give it a chance to make further money and cut it short. God how they hate to make money the easy way. Now they have been copying it for years using theories, market research, voodoo, soccer Moms and clones and the "formula" gets watered down and the clones get replaced by new clones after every few months. Then they wonder "where is the next Ren and Stimpy? They could have had twenty more [Ren & Stimpy's] by now if they just let it happen while we were on a roll. Instead they waited ten years and spent a hundred times the cost until Sponge Bob snuck in through the back door under the radar. Now of course they want the next Sponge Bob, "but not so weird". So why don't they get the Sponge Bob crew to do it? Because that would make too much common sense. Get other people with no or little experience to imitate it superficially, then apply market voodoo to it and make the same mistakes over and over again and watch the quality and originality get filtered out year by year till we end up with intensely simplified formulaic copies of what was once alive, exciting and evolving.

You can read about this and so much more by going to John K's official blog!

Thank you, John!

No comments:

Post a Comment