The internet hadn’t really become a factor in video when I approached the Nicktoons network. They’d recently made a renewed effort to assert themselves as an alternative cartoon network, and I suggested that they couldn’t be a kids network for 24 hours a day. What about running a shorts festival in the late evening hours and get the message out to animation freaks? A film festival on TV. We produced the first three years when they decided to take it over themselves. That was OK with us because by then we had our hands full with a better alternative for short cartoon filmmakers at Channel Frederator.
From the postcard back:
Congratulations! You are one of 200 people to receive this limited edition Frederator postcard! www.frederator.com
Slowly over the last few years I’ve been putting some of my archivesonline. For me it’s easier to organize than shelves and drawers.
Anyhow, one of the things I uncovered was this fave that I think regular readers of Frederator Blogs are going to love. My partner Alan Goodman and I took one of our favorite doo-wop groups, Eugene Pitt’s The Jive Five, and built the on-air Nickelodeon brand around them.
Rob Renzetti’s beloved “My Life as a Teenage Robot” played the last episode of its 2nd season a couple of years ago, and by the infinite wisdom of corporations the until now unseen 3rd season sat on the shelf until this week. Go figure.
Mike Reagan, aside from his various film (Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday or Elmo in Grouchland), TV, and videogame projects, has been our honored composer on Ape Escape Cartoons and the 52 episodes of Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!. He came by the studio the other day and was telling me about the trés cool set up he’s put together for the music on Ape, and rather than my explaining it to you, I thought I’d let Mike do the honors himself:
I am having a BUH-LAST writing the music for Ape Escape! Working with Kevin Kolde and Karl Torge has really challenged me in the best way possible - really getting to stretch my muscles in this series. Their knowledge of music is pretty wide - we’re just a bunch of big kids doing what makes us laugh - it’s just fantastic. They introduced me to the world of Hoyt Curtin, Les Baxter, Bert Kaempfert and so many other great composers - music I’ve heard all my life, just hadn’t taken the time to really crawl inside it.
Each episode is pretty fast paced, with many twists and turns - so there’s just a ton of music to write. Everything from themes to accentuate the stupidity of some characters, to writing music in the style of Bernhard Kaun for the Frankenstein monster episode or 50’s style montages… the list goes on and on. Glad you liked the Frankenstein episode!
To quickly access each theme, I’ve created a system using pictures on a USB device that’s essentially 128 buttons that you can assign to just about anything. So, I basically save markers in Logic for each theme, then assign a series of key commands to a single button to grab what I’m hearing in my head and paste it at the right spot. After 18 episodes I’ve got over 40 buttons programmed right now, but there’s room for 128. I’m going to do the same thing for Wubbzy - get another box of 128 buttons and start organizing themes in the same way. For the pictures, I search through the Ape Escape quicktime movies and capture the screen shot that’s most appropriate for each theme. Specter, Jimmy, Nathalie, Monkeys, and Professor are the main themes, so there’s different (and multiple) pictures for them, but there are also montages, falls, stings, sinister themes, location based music like Paris, Hospital waiting room, Vegas, etc… that get pictures on their buttons, too. For instance, there’s a Paris love theme that has a picture of the Iefell Tower, and the barnyard / Turkey in the Straw tunes have pictures of a chicken.
It’s so much faster associating a piece of music with a thumbnail picture as opposed to remembering a marker number or a folder path… this keeps the creativity at the forefront, and the math and memorization on another planet.
To quote Napoleon Dynamite’s brother Kip:
“…I still love Technology, always and forever”
Brown Johnson was on our blog back when we were on Blogger and I called her one of animation’s great star executives. Today, Variety reports she’s been named President of animation at Nickelodeon, our home studio for kid projects for the last 12 years.
Brown’s going to make a great difference in the cartoon business, she’s still a great star.
….. Johnson takes reins at Nickelodeon
Exec named president of animation
By MICHAEL SCHNEIDER
Brown Johnson, the architect of Nickelodeon’s hugely successful preschool division, has been tapped to tackle the company’s animation business.
As part of an executive realignment at Nick, Johnson has been named president of animation for Nickelodeon and MTVN Kids and Family Group. She’ll be charged with overseeing development and production for all animated programming across Nickelodeon, known for hits including “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
At the same time, Johnson will continue to handle preschool programming — which includes Nick Jr. and the recently expanded 24-hour cabler Noggin.
Johnson will commute between New York and Los Angeles, with an emphasis on getting to know Nickelodeon Animation’s large West Coast studio in Burbank.
Until now, Nickelodeon development exec VP Marjorie Cohen oversaw both animated and live-action programming. But with the channel continuing to add more live-action product to the mix, Cohen will now focus on that world. That allowed Nick to create an animation presidency for Johnson.
Johnson will continue to report to Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon and MTVN Kids and Family Group.
“I feel that animation is still the core of our business, and it does deserve somebody at its helm,” Zarghami said. “We’ve got a fantastic studio in Burbank, and it’s been bugging me that we don’t have anyone who hangs their name on the door as the one responsible for it. That studio will become Brown’s studio.”
Johnson said she’ll spend much of the coming weeks getting to know animators and producers handling work for Nickelodeon.
DreamWorks, for example, is behind the upcoming “The Penguins of Madagascar.”
Johnson also takes over the animation side just as the division expands its output and starts focusing on other platforms, such as mobile and VOD.
Nickelodeon airs about 90 hours of animated programming per week. The network’s animation studio will increase its output by 50% this year — with 225 half-hours delivered. Studio will also produce 29 hours of CG animation this year.
Johnson first joined Nick in 1988 as exec in charge of production, before turning her attention to the preschool world in the early 1990s.
Back in the day my partner Alan Goodman and I were known as the logo guys. It was both flattering and annoying, because we’re not designers and it deflected attention from the brilliant people we worked with often, like Manhattan Design (Frank Olinsky, Pat Gorman, and Patti Rogoff) and Corey & Co. But after we became known as the group who developed (not designed) the MTV logo, our reps were set in stone for a while. Eventually we were able to morph it into the idea of developing media brands, which more accurately reflected how Alan and I thought of ourselves.
After setting the vocabulary (more important than design in many ways) and “look” of MTV Alan and I left MTV Networks to set up our independent Fred/Alan Inc. and our first client was… MTV Networks. By 1984, the five year old Nickelodeon was in trouble, having lost an accumulated $40 million (that’s in 1980’s money, like $200 million today) and worse, it was the absolute lowest rated cable network in America. Dead last. MTVN chief Bob Pittman asked Alan and I to help. It was a tough decision for us to make since we were broke but had no interest in children’s television or the people who worked in it. The ‘broke’ part won out.
The key decisions we made:
• Keep the name “Nickelodeon.”
We figured that 10,000,000 kids (there current circulation) knew the name and what it stood for. Management wanted to switch to “Nick,” since it was easier to spell and say; let’s forget that everyone outside the company would wonder why they were named after a garage mechanic. There were a lot of reasons for killing it: no one under a certain age had ever heard of a nickelodeon, and those who had knew it had nothing whatsoever to do with children; the word was hard to spell correctly in the age of pre-Google and spellcheck; and, the word was way too long and thin to dominate a television screen.
• Treat the network like an exclusive club, where only kids could join, not like a TV station with all kids shows.
Kids in June of 1984 (when we started work) needed something they could call their own. They felt on the rear end of life, they told us so constantly. Adults (parents and teachers) made all the decisions for them. TV in the 80s wasn’t for them. They were scared of getting older, but their unconscious biology kept egging them on to age faster.
• Ban the word “FUN” from the Nickelodeon vocabulary.
Every network promo told the kids that Nickelodeon was fun. It wasn’t. We thought it was better to be “fun” than say “fun.”
• Redesign the logo.
Famous television designer, a moonlighting Lou Dorfsman, had designed the logo in 1981, and our brilliant friend Bob Klein had added a silver ball that zoomed around the screen in and out of everything a kid might find exciting. Alan and I didn’t find it exciting.
We’d been working a lot with a new friend, Tom Corey, who owned Corey & Co. (tragically, Tom’s passed away, his companies are now called Corey McPherson Nash & Big Blue Dot)in Boston. He came down to the Fred/Alan office in New York with his partner Scott Nash and heard our pitch for the network. we told them about our decisions I talked about above, and told them while we didn’t know anything about kids’ programming we knew that the offices of Nickelodeon were as quiet as a chapel (as one of the internal wags put it) and that in order to spice the place up we hoped that when our jobs were done they’d all be shooting spitballs at each other. Tom and Scott dug in eagerly.
I wish I had their presentation. It was pretty informal –a bunch of logos sketched on a page– and none any of us were all that crazy about. Eventually, we settled on one that was 3D in nature that revolved around itself, and kind of a standard designer treatment of a trademark. We were about to settle when Alan spoke up and said he didn’t think it was in keeping with our reputation as moving image thinkers about logos.
The MTV logo had been sold in with two thoughts. 1) Rock’N’Roll was a dynamic constantly changing medium and a logo should have a built in updating mechanism. And 2) More importantly, television was moving pictures. Logos were generally designed by print designers who wanted a perfect image, then handed off to moving image designers who had to figure out how to make the damn thing move. Often, it ended up with a big hunk of metal hurtling through space, cause what else were they going to do? We’d argued that in the 1980s that was a dumb thing to do. Why not just design a logo with movement baked into the conceptual frame right from the beginning? TV was the most important place to see the logo, and print designers could just *STOP* the motion and pick an image for an ad; it would be more dynamic even in the print that way.
Alan pointed out that’s how we’d made our bones, and besides were right, darn it. Movement was the way to go, constant change made for a energetic network, and kids were the most vital force in the world. Give them something they relate to: change. He was looking at the orange splat on their page. Tom and Scott argued that orange generally clashed with everything and that would make the logo stand out (as long as we didn’t let designers try and make it work “correctly.”) The splat could morph into any image we liked. And it wasn’t the MTV version of change. I came along for the ride that Tom, Scott, and Alan were proposing, and we trucked over to Bob Pittman’s and Gerry Laybourne’s office to make the pitch.
Bob and Gerry didn’t buy it. No one else there did either. “It doesn’t match anything.” “It’s flat.” “It’s not as cool as the MTV logo, what happened to you guys?”
Ultimately, we prevailed. I’m not really sure how, since all their objections were right on. But we were the “logo guys,” so they eventually bought our action. I’m thrilled they did, since our work with Nickelodeon is some of my favorite stuff in our careers. Tom and Scott went on to be among the premiere designers in television and kids (Scott’s now one of the leading children’s book authors and illustrators), Alan’s a successful producer and brand strategist (still consulting Nickelodeon), and they all deserved the accolades the world could throw at them.
(By the way, the book Nickelodeon Logo Logic was put together in 1998 by the in-house creative services department after Alan and I had stopped full time consulting to the company six years before. The company had expanded so dramatically and so many people had trademark needs that without us –the “logo police”– around they needed some objective rules set down for designers and marketers to follow. I’m not so sure we’d agree with all their points but a trademark is a dynamic thing. Different people interpret it different ways, kind of like a musical composition, and it’s natural it’ll be looked at in new ways over the years.)
Good question Andrés, and one we get fairly often, even from some of our potential creators.
Of course, the answer is “Yes and No.”
Ultimately, the purpose of doing all our shorts (not only World Premiere/What A Cartoon! and Oh Yeah!, but also the latest set of Random! Cartoons) is looking for filmmakers and characters that are strong enough to sustain lots of great cartoons. Not unlike it was back in the day when Felix, or Betty Boop, or Mickey or Bugs launched with one short that led to another and another and another. The optimistic hope we always have is developing the kinds of relationships we have had with creators over the last 15 years that lead to wonderful series of films.
However, when we call for ideas to come in, one of the first things we always say is that we’re not really looking for “pilots,” but great stand alone cartoons that have memorable characters at their center. A pilot” often tries to solve all the problems and answer all the questions that might arise in the future of a series. Frequently, there’s an attempt to introduce all the main characters and plot points. I think that’s a mistake, because the pilot episode then becames pedantic and sometimes pretty boring.
Our hope in a short is, not to put too fine a point on it, great. A tall order to be sure. But the way I figure it is that a fantastically funny short without all its questions answered has a better chance to be a wonderful series, than an only OK short. And yes, I understand that it’s not so darn easy to make a great cartoon. Look at all the talented creators we’ve worked with over the years, and how seldom their films become hit series.
In the end, the reality is no matter how hard we try to find cartoons with rich, memorable characters we have a lot of shorts that are just fun one-offs. We’ll be running one on Channel Frederator in a couple of weeks, Harvey Kurtzman’s Hey Look!. It’s based on an early newspaper strip of Harvey’s, sublimely adapted and directed by Vincent Waller, and we tried like the dickens to make the characters funny and indelible. Are they? You’ll tell us, but to my mind, it’s a great one-shot.
Frederator Studios is at the end producing the 39 original shorts that will make up the Random! Cartoons series on Nickelodeon. We started making original short cartoons in the early 90s at Hanna-Barbera and Cartoon Network with 48 What A Cartoon!s a.k.a. World Premiere Toons (six series were spun off from those shorts), then with 51 Oh Yeah! Cartoons (plus another 51 shorts and three series) and now these 39. Occasionally in this space I’ve been recounting how we got here. When we last left off the new Hanna-Barbera production team of 1992 (under Ted Turner’s recent acquisition of the studio) was busy putting together a production team for these cockamamie shorts.
When I first joined the studio, completely ignorant of the process of making commercial cartoons, I’d talk to anyone who could give me a clue (and quite a few who couldn’t). John Kricfalusi introduced me to the artist/writer Pat Ventura when I told him I’d asked Joe Barbera to include an update of Screwball Squirrel in his new Fox Kids Droopy series (he rightly pointed out Pat, a Tex Avery fan, was already on the Tom & Jerry Kids Show writing staff, why start searching for someone new?). Along with John, Pat’s inadvertent influence on our future shorts would be incalculable.
As a little background, Pat graduated from CalArts in the 70s and proceeded to work all over the business as an artist, storyboarder, writer (he quickly found out that “writers” were in demand, writers-who-wrote-on-boards were not) and had done a great stint as a gag man at Disney features during their 1980s revival, writing many of the Roger Rabbit shorts. He left for the Tom & Jerry Kids Show because he had the great and rare insight to realize the opportunity to work with an old master of the shorts form was virtually extinct; working every day with Joe Barbera was too great to pass up. Which is when we met.
I took an immediate liking to Pat and he was one of the few people I took into my confidence about the looney idea of reviving the cartoon form through shorts. He was a great film historian and student (particularly the silents) and would patiently give me instruction. He’d tell me about his preference for Keaton, Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy. And why he preferred the composer Scott Bradley to the more revered Carl Stalling. He did his best to show me how gags were set up and staged and why, while he thought Looney Tunes were OK, he liked the Fleischers.
And we talked incessantly about short cartoons. Why they were good, why they weren’t. Why writing on boards was good and what you could learn from them. Because of Pat we started a weekly screening series at Hanna-Barbera where we could share some of the great shorts (animated and live action) Ted Turner had in his vast library with the studio staff who cared.
When I started talking to John and Pat I came at everything like a studio head. (It would take me a little while to get smarter.) How do I find hit shows? Shorts seemed like a good idea since we could get 25 “at bats” for every series we’d try the old way. So when I first broached the idea with Pat I said I wanted to do as many shorts as possible; I suggested that a bunch of three minute shorts would give us an idea of what characters we liked.
“No, not three minutes. Six, seven, eight,” Pat told me.
My logical “Why?” was answered that if I wanted to make cartoons then they needed to be made with artists who loved cartoons. And if I was going that way then the cartoons needed to be, well, cartoons. And cartoons absolutely were not three minutes.
Pat was so certain I just agreed on the spot. It took me a long time to realize just why his instinct was so right on. But from then on that was it. All our shorts, well over 100 by now, are seven minutes long. It drives some of our talented creators crazy (of course, we realize no matter what length we set, someone would be annoyed) but seven minutes it is. A real legacy of short cartoons. Shaped in part by our friend Pat Ventura.
Now, if only I could convince the folks at Cartoon Network.