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Blog History of Frederator’s original cartoon shorts. Part 20.

September 16th, 2007

We’d finally gotten the “shorts” program approved by my Turner bosses Scott Sassa and Ted Turner, and convinced the person running Cartoon Network it was actually her idea to produce 48 ‘classic length’ cartoon shorts over two years. If only I was right and the talented people in animation really wanted to make cartoons.

Blog History of Frederator’s original cartoon shorts.
Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12. Part 13. Part 14. Part 15. Part 16. Part 17. Part 18. Part 19.

Everyone at Hanna-Barbera Cartoons and Turner Broadcasting who cared fanned out across the globe to spread the word we were serious about making cartoons. Serious in every way. We were making 48 short cartoons over two years in a back-to-the-future kind of unit production way. Each “classic length” (7 minutes) short would debut, by itself, as a stand-alone cartoon on Cartoon Network. Each one would be a product of one cartoonist’s vision (or a self-selected team), produced the way the creator saw it. There was no concern on our part what an eventual series would be “about;” the short had to be great on its own without any allegiance to some preconceived “bible”. We didn’t care what the sitcom trends were, what Nickelodeon was doing, what the sales departments wanted. Even the music would be individually crafted scores, individually tailored to the film at hand, no stock library, pre-fabbed “beds” here. We wouldn’t ‘develop’ them; we wanted to make the cartoon the creator(s) wanted to make, not some executive idea of what they thought kids would like. And we wanted them to be laugh out loud funny.

We wanted cartoons.

Getting original cartoons into the studio and onto television required an army’s worth of work to begin with. Even those who thought this might be a good idea were hard pressed to explain it outside our BS sessions, and since not one person in the world had exactly been waiting for us to show up (at least, not consciously) it was going to require us to explain what we were talking about, explain it again, call back to cajole, convince artists that had never put together one classic cartoon idea from scratch (remember, studios and networks thought cartoons were hopefully passe´, animated sitcoms were where it was at) to put together a pitch storyboard. And, oh yes, the odds, as always in any entertainment project, were we were going to say “No” to their idea.

My closest studio co-conspirator during the run up to the shorts was the studio’s new head of production, Buzz Potamkin. We’d worked together on MTV in New York when he was an independent producer and he’d given me years of Hollywood cartoon biz insight which helped me get started at HB. Buzz could articulate better than I our strategy of re-creating the unit production system that had fueled the golden age, and suggested Larry Huber as the supervising producer for the new shorts unit (a role, among others, he’s successfully navigated through all 138 Hollywood based shorts we’ve produced). Buzz unsuccessfully suggested we make a short with Bill Plympton (it took me 20 years to get smart/brave enough to do it), but brought dozens of other creators to the table. Later, we’ll tell the story of how he convinced Ralph Bakshi to join our group of first-timers.

At Cartoon Network, founding programmer Mike Lazzo rallied his troops behind our efforts. He’d been managing Turner’s cartoons at Superstation TBS and TNT since he was, I don’t know, maybe two years old, and a uniquely brilliant blend of creative thinking and analytical programming. Mike was the person I turned to for inspiration, network thinking, and plain old jawing about cartoons.

The Hanna-Barbera development department (after slashing and pruning of about a dozen staff development writers –an extremely painful task– it was now primarily Jeff Holder, Ellen Cockrill, Margot McDonough, and Dan Smith) had a tough task. They needed to persuade folks that Hanna-Barbera was earnest about giving creative people a chance to do their own work. For decades HB had been a shop where you started or ended your career, but if you had creative ambitions you steered clear. I knew that to reverse the fortunes of the place, to keep Turner from closing the production studio altogether, we had to change that perception. Our shop had to become the place talent was clawing their way into. Hah!

And I was making the development job even harder. I didn’t want “development,” at least in the way they’d been trained, I just wanted them to go out and find hit cartoon creators (much easier typed than done, of course), people who could make a hit and sustain it no matter what happened to the executives or networks who discovered them in the first place. “Development” across television had become a haven for executives who had never produced anything themselves, or had washed out of the dog-eat-dog show biz environment, to take a fairly risk-less path to getting their own ideas out. A D-exec could lean back in their salaried chair and bark dictums (”make it funnier!” was a favorite of mine from an HBO executive) until an exciting, original piece of material resembled nothing more than a piece of product for the junk heap. When instead, they tried to bring me around to their point of view –why were they being paid as ‘development’ execs if their input wasn’t needed– I asked them a couple of simple questions.

“If there’s a successful cartoon series, who deserves the bonus? The creator or the executive?” “Both of us,” was the reply. Fine, and if there’s a failure, who gets fired? That wasn’t a question anyone wanted to answer. I was interested in a clear path back to a successful film, I wanted to know if the credit was “Created by Ray Sturgeon” it didn’t really mean “Created by Ray Sturgeon and a pack of execs.” Besides, I knew the average life of a development executive at studios was actually shorter than the time it took to get a hit series to air. If that was the case, and the exec was partially responsible for success, we were screwed if key members of the creative development worked for the competition by the time of the show. It had always struck me as a bogus approach anyway. William Shakespeare, Leonardo DaVinci, and Duke Ellington, had all made great, popular art with a singular vision. We could do it too. (Please don’t ras me with my artistic comparisons; I aim high.) When it was all said and done, our development folks bought the program, for as long as they were with us anyhow, and walked the walk and talked the talk.
So, anyway, all of us fanned out everywhere we could spreading the message, telling our story. Any way we could, we tried to put our money where our mouth was. We went to schools, we started a high visibility storyboard contest, we talked to union groups. We all had individual meetings with every artist in the studio who would be patient enough not to laugh in our faces. (Not a few came in ready to participate only to find out they wouldn’t be paid to create their storyboard. After all, all across the world entertainment business a creative idea was developed in free time, the creator got a royalty participation in all future success after all; no risk, no reward. But in animation, where it had always been “we have the ideas, you be the hands” it was pretty confusing to a lot of veterans.) We placed stories in the press in the US, Europe, and Asia. We were relentless in looking for talent. After all, we had 48 cartoons to make from a dead stop.

(More next time.)

Blog History of Frederator’s original cartoon shorts.
Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7. Part 8. Part 9. Part 10. Part 11. Part 12. Part 13. Part 14. Part 15. Part 16. Part 17. Part 18. Part 19.

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