Birth of a Ba­boon

Joe Vi­tale turns the ta­bles on Mike de Seve and in­ter­views him about his ca­reer in an­i­ma­tion and how the col­lec­tive be­came a re­al­ity.

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From Beavis and Butt-Head to DreamWorks to Ba­boon An­i­ma­tion, Mike de Seve has been some­where at the fore­front of an­i­ma­tion for 25 years. We sat down in New York re­cently to chat about his ca­reer.

An­imag: tion?

Mike de Seve: My dad bought me this lit­tle cir­cus tent doohickey when I was, like, three, that sat on a record player, with mir­rors. You played th­ese records with car­toon draw­ings that went around the la­bel — crows fly­ing, happy tug­boats pol­lut­ing, what­ever — and in the mir­rors they’d an­i­mate. I loved it. My dad ex­plained to me how it worked, and I started draw­ing flip­books a cou­ple years after that.

An­imag: Early fascination with an­i­ma­tion led you to choose the ob­vi­ous ma­jor: in­dus­trial la­bor re­la­tions.

De Seve: I went into the most bor­ing ma­jor ever, dozed off some­time sopho­more year, woke up three years later and said, “What the hell am I do­ing with my life?” So I threw my books away and went to New York to make movies. So my par­ents could say, “What the hell are you do­ing with your life?” Though they never did.

An­imag: You ended up study­ing film­mak­ing at NYU, and then on to your first an­i­ma­tion job, at Lancit Me­dia, the Read­ing Rainbow guys.

De Seve: Yeah. It was a whole stu­dio of peo­ple who spent their child­hoods alone in some cor­ner of their shag-car­peted bed­rooms just draw­ing, and sud­denly we’re all get­ting to be anti-so­cial to­gether. It was a blast.

An­imag: That’s where the Ba­boon team formed? How?

De Seve: Well, in­di­vid­u­ally we had squat to put on a show reel, so it was tough to get a de­cent job. But if we were a “col­lec­tive,” sud­denly our reel got bet­ter. Longer. It wasn’t just for show, be­cause col­lab­o­ra­tively we could pro­duce more ideas — and bet­ter ones — than we ever would alone, and it was more fun.

An­imag: I had heard that you then, as Ba­boon, en­tered the same MTV car­toon short contest 12 times, won twice.

De Seve: Ha ha! Yeah. Num­ber of mon­keys, that was pretty much our strat­egy.

An­imag: And as a re­sult, you made some of the fa­mous car­toon MTV sta­tion IDs.

De Seve: Yeah, they were fun. Then (ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer) Abby Terkhule asked us if we wanted to di­rect this re­ally cheap show about a pair of mo­rons that laughed a lot and blew stuff up. Of course, we said yes.

An­imag: You went from Beavis and Butthead to DreamWorks fea­tures and kids’ se­ries. How is it dif­fer­ent to write on those kinds of pro­duc­tions?

De Seve: Funny is funny and good sto­ry­telling is good sto­ry­telling: get­ting your au­di­ence in­vested in your character’s dilem­mas, height­en­ing the stakes, tick­ing clocks. All that stuff is what you try to be­come an ex­pert in. It’s the ex­act same skills in any de­mo­graphic. You kind just have to watch your mouth more, de­pend­ing. An­imag: What makes a great car­toon? De Seve: Peo­ple talk about fall­ing in love with a character, but I kind of think it’s not so much how you feel about the character, it’s how you feel about your­self after you watch that character. Like in a re­la­tion­ship — you’re with somebody be­cause of the way they make you feel about your­self. A lot of times you watch a great show for the same rea­son. An­imag: For ex­am­ple? De Seve: Sponge­bob and Phineas and Ferb. In both of those, the main character doesn’t win against ad­ver­sity, like they say a character’s sup­posed to. Th­ese guys don’t even ac­knowl­edge the ad­ver­sity, ei­ther be­cause they’re too dumb or smart, but it’s so charis­matic. It’s such a pos­i­tive at­ti­tude that it make us feel great, like we can be that way, and it’ll work.

An­imag: In the in­ter­na­tional an­i­ma­tion in­dus­try, what’s the coun­try to watch right now?

De Seve: I think ge­og­ra­phy mat­ters less now. We’re work­ing on Angry Birds Toons now, and not only is their cre­ative team a com­plete melt­ing pot, it’s be­ing done in sev­eral coun­tries seam­lessly. Tech­nol­ogy makes that easy now. It’s cool to be part of the pe­riod where what we do for fun be­comes a univer­sal lan­guage.

An­imag: Is TV still the most im­por­tant medium for an­i­ma­tion?

De Seve: What’s tele­vi­sion? (laughs) Se­ri­ously, I think plat­form means less now, in prac­ti­cal terms. My daugh­ter doesn’t care which rec­tan­gle she’s watch­ing Peg + Cat on; she watches it on them all. It’s not a TV show, iPad show or lap­top show, it’s a girl and a cat to her. Kids don’t care about the ques­tion. Maybe we shouldn’t ei­ther.

An­imag: 2024?

De Seve: an­swer that.

An­imag: writ­ers?

De Seve: Like any other vice: Do it with friends, it’s a lot more fun.

Ba­boon An­i­ma­tion is a U.S.-based col­lec­tive of Os­car-nom­i­nated, mul­ti­ple-Emmy-win­ning an­i­ma­tion writ­ers with cred­its on dozens of the most iconic an­i­mat-

Mike de Seve

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