Big Legacy, Bright Fu­ture

Dis­ney TV An­i­ma­tion turns 30 on a cre­ative high note that it plans to carry on into the fu­ture. By Tom McLean.

Animation Magazine - - Tv -

In Novem­ber 1984, the Walt Dis­ney Co. — fa­mous for decades for its an­i­mated the­atri­cal shorts and fea­tures — did the un­ex­pected and opened up a stu­dio to pro­duce an­i­mated shows for tele­vi­sion. It was an ob­vi­ous move, in ret­ro­spect, that is pay­ing off hand­somely on both the business and cre­ative sides of the in­dus­try.

Hav­ing grown from a small op­er­a­tion into one that now oc­cu­pies mul­ti­ple lo­ca­tions in Glen­dale and Bur­bank, Dis­ney Tele­vi­sion An­i­ma­tion is on a roll as it cel­e­brates its 30th an­niver­sary. Its Emmy-win­ning se­ries of Mickey Mouse shorts have be­come a le­git­i­mate hit, it has built solid fran­chises, and the stu­dio is at­tract­ing and de­vel­op­ing some se­ri­ous tal­ent.

The cur­rent man­age­ment of se­nior VP of orig­i­nal se­ries Eric Cole­man and VP of cre­ative Mike Moon has put a fo­cus on cre­ator­driven se­ries that has sparked a cre­ative burst that in­cludes the cult hit Grav­ity Falls, The 7D and forth­com­ing se­ries Star vs. The Forces of Evil, Penn Zero: Part Time Hero and Peanut and Pickle.

“We’re re­ally try­ing to make this a home to a lot of very for­ward-think­ing an­i­ma­tion cre­ators by way of giv­ing a lot of that tal­ent over­all deals and let­ting them be in the space, let­ting them be around the cul­ture, let­ting them in­cu­bate ideas out of that,” says Moon. “We’ve had a lot of suc­cess, and if you look at a lot of the shows that we’re pro­duc­ing, a lot of those emerged from a sce­nario like that, which is very dif­fer­ent from how we used to op­er­ate.”

“My ap­proach has been more to fo­cus, not on my par­tic­u­lar agenda, but on cre­at­ing an en­vi­ron­ment where great work can be pro­duced and have an at­mos­phere that peo­ple feel cre­atively en­gaged and in­spired in,” says Cole­man. “Our guid­ing prin­ci­ple is ‘great art comes from great artists,’ so I have made it a pri­or­ity for us to have an at­mos­phere at the stu­dio that is invit­ing to the best tal­ent around, and for us to re­ally tar­get the best cre­ative tal­ent in ev­ery part of the process.”

That’s led the stu­dio to bring in ex­pe­ri­enced peo­ple like Powerpuff Girls cre­ator Craig McCracken, who cre­ated Wan­der Over Yon­der; South Park veteran Ryan Quincy, who is pro­duc­ing a se­ries of Fu­ture Worm shorts; and veteran an­i­ma­tor Paul Rud­ish, who is ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer on the Mickey Mouse shorts.

Rud­ish says the abil­ity to tap into the stu­dio’s legacy, as well as its abil­ity to support its work in ev­ery way imag­in­able, were at­trac­tive el­e­ments. “Other stu­dios are a lit­tle more small scale and a lit­tle scrap­pier,” says Rud­ish. “Dis­ney, of course, is a gi­ant company. That gives us a lot of re­sources, and I feel we have a lot of support: phys­i­cal support to just get stuff done, and, once you do get stuff done, Dis­ney goes big. You know Dis­ney’s de­sire for qual­ity, but also those in­di­vid­u­als who drive them­selves very hard and in­spire their team.”

Ex­am­ples of new tal­ent in­clude Grav­ity Falls cre­ator Alex Hirsch, whom Moon says the stu­dio iden­ti­fied as a top tal­ent while still a stu­dent at CalArts; and Daron Ne­fcy, a 2009 CalArts grad who cre­ated and is co­ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer on the forth­com­ing Star vs. The Forces of Evil.

Moon also says the stu­dio takes its time to en­sure new tal­ents are ready for their roles. “I think it’s al­ways help­ful — whether it was Daron or Alex Hirsch or some of th­ese other re­ally tal­ented film­mak­ers — to get them ex­posed a lit­tle bit to the pro­duc­tion prior to jumping into their own show, so they learn the rhythm of the stu­dio and they learn the rhythm of a show, which is very dif­fer­ent than de­vel­op­ment.”

Ne­fcy says run­ning Star vs. The Forces of Evil has been chal­leng­ing but the in­put from the staff she as­sem­bled has done won­ders for the fi­nal prod­uct. “I can’t even say I to­tally came up with it (any­more), be­cause you come up with some­thing and then all th­ese other peo­ple who are su­per tal­ented put in them­selves and it evolves,” she says. “I think it’s evolved to a place that is so much bet­ter than I could have done on my own.”

With de­mand for an­i­mated con­tent and tal­ent so high, Cole­man says the Dis­ney legacy is a help­ful as­set when it comes to find­ing and keep­ing tal­ent. “There is more com­pe­ti­tion than ever around town and just find­ing

the tal­ents to ac­com­plish what we all want to ac­com­plish is chal­leng­ing,” says Cole­man. “But I like our po­si­tion in the mar­ket, I like what we are do­ing. I think peo­ple feel very pas­sion­ate about be­ing at the stu­dio and work­ing on th­ese shows. And I like that peo­ple feel when they’re here that they’re part of some­thing big­ger.”

Moon and Cole­man both say the stu­dio is also look­ing to the fu­ture of tele­vi­sion and the evo­lu­tion of how peo­ple watch, where they watch and on which de­vice they watch.

“We want to be able to feed all those out­lets, and the needs and de­sires of the mo­bile watcher will be dif­fer­ent than the lin­ear au­di­ence,” says Cole­man.

The suc­cess of Mickey Mouse seems to be point­ing the way, sug­gest­ing a big role for the kinds of cre­ative shorts that launched Dis­ney in the first place is just over the hori­zon.

“I feel like we re­ally have quite a bit of cre­ative free­dom while still keep­ing the brand in­tact,” says Moon. “There’s a hope­ful­ness to the con­tent we’re pro­duc­ing; there’s an op­ti­mism to the con­tent we’re pro­duc­ing. ... We can push some of the hu­mor, but as long as they’re grounded by univer­sal truths and warmth, it buys us a lot — and that’s, for me, what makes it Dis­ney.”

There was a time when the minis­eries ruled TV and events from Roots to Shogun to The Thorn Birds were among the most pres­ti­gious and highly rated pro­grams of their time. Find­ing sim­i­lar pro­grams in an­i­ma­tion has been next to im­pos­si­ble — es­pe­cially dis­count­ing shows can­celed after a hand­ful of episodes.

But now Car­toon Net­work has taken the plunge, with its 10-episode se­ries Over the Gar­den Wall, which will air two episodes each night over five con­sec­u­tive nights start­ing Nov. 3.

Cre­ated by Pa­trick McHale, a veteran of Ad­ven­ture Time and The Mar­velous Mis­ad­ven­tures of Flapjack, Over the Gar­den Wall is the story of brothers Wirt (voiced by Eli­jah Wood) and Greg (voiced by Collin Dean), who find them­selves lost in the Un­known — a strange for­est adrift in time. With the help of a wise old Woods­man (voiced by Christo­pher Lloyd) and a foul-tem­pered blue­bird named Beatrice (voiced by Melanie Lynskey), Wirt and Greg must travel across this strange land, in hope of find­ing their way home.

For McHale, the se­ries had its ori­gins in his days as an an­i­ma­tion stu­dent at CalArts, when he de­cided to take a short break. “I was get­ting re­ally un­com­fort­able with the lack of sea­sons in L.A. and I was feel­ing re­ally nos­tal­gic for a sea­sonal change, so I took a se­mes­ter off to stay in Mas­sachusetts for a month and a half,” he says. “And it was so amaz­ing cre­atively to take some time to just not be around other peo­ple that I knew, and just en­joy the time alone. Most of my cre­ative ideas at this point are just stolen from ideas that I had then, at least for this show.”

The in­flu­ences are a mixed bag; hard for McHale to pin down. But Over the Gar­den Wall has a clas­sic 2D an­i­ma­tion look and its story evokes the clas­sic bed­time tales most adults re­mem­ber fondly from their child­hood. McHale says he was in­spired by “just look­ing at old il­lus­tra­tions from old books and not pay­ing at­ten­tion to the sto­ries, just kind of mak­ing up my own sto­ries from that stuff.”

Post-grad­u­ate Pitch

McHale first pitched the project as a se­ries in 2006, right after grad­u­at­ing from CalArts. “It was like a reg­u­lar se­ries that was episodic, and when I pitched it there was a fea­ture-film depart­ment at Car­toon Net­work that was just start­ing up and they weren’t sure if they were go­ing to do any­thing or what they were go­ing to do, and I was try­ing to adapt it for them,” he says. “And I just couldn’t fig­ure out how to make it into a fea­ture, be­cause it needed to be episodic with the way the world was set up.”

After work­ing on Flapjack and Ad­ven­ture Time, McHale was in­vited to do a pi­lot and pulled out his old pitch to re­work it. The pi­lot was made as a short, re­leased to fests as Tome of the Un­known, which won the Best An­i­mated Short honor at the 2014 Santa Bar­bara In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val.

That led to dis­cus­sions for a se­ries. “Car­toon Net­work liked it enough to want to make it, but it’s a hard show to make,” says McHale. “It’s de­mand­ing in back­grounds; they go to a dif­fer­ent place ev­ery episode; there’s tons of character de­signs and back­grounds; and the an­i­ma­tion is a lit­tle more com­pli­cated than some shows. And so it just felt like, ‘I don’t think we can make this for­ever,’ but a minis­eries seemed like a good com­pro­mise for every­body and a way to ac­tu­ally make this weird thing.”

The look of the show is lush and deep, qual­i­ties that McHale says came from lay­out artist Chris Tsir- gi­o­tis and art di­rec­tor Nick Cross.

Tsir­gi­o­tis’ draw­ings were im­pres­sive and un­like any­thing else on tele­vi­sion, but they weren’t sure the style could be suc­cess­fully im­i­tated by other artists. “He can draw it, but we weren’t sure if ev­ery­one else could do that stuff, be­cause you didn’t see it that of­ten,” says McHale. “Based around that, we got Nick Cross in­volved in paint­ing that stuff for the pi­lot and from there that just be­came the look of it with the back­grounds be­ing as gor­geous as Chris could draw and Nick could paint.”

Tread­ing a Fine Line

Writ­ing a minis­eries was also a par­tic­u­lar chal­lenge, McHale says. “With a lot of shows, you can open up doors to go­ing deeper and find­ing th­ese se­crets, but you don’t nec­es­sar­ily have to ad­dress them right away,” he says. “You can just kind of say I’ll do it later un­til you’ve fig­ured out a re­ally good so­lu­tion.”

The for­mat was largely episodic with the over­ar­ch­ing story need­ing to come to a con­clu­sion in a tidy 10 episodes. “We had to have some­what of a fea­ture-film arc to it be­cause it has a be­gin­ning and an end,” he says. “But each episode needs to stand alone and have its lit­tle story, so I guess it’s in some ways like some of the mod­ern TV for adults.”

The show fea­tures an ex­ten­sive cast of guest voices that in­cludes Chris Isaak, Bebe Neuwirth, John Cleese, Shan­nyn Sos­sa­mon, Jack Jones, Sa­muel Ramey, Tim Curry and Deb­o­rah Voigt.

McHale says putting that kind of cast to­gether in­volved a fair bit of serendip­ity. At first, the voices he was get­ting for Wirt were all wrong. “Peo­ple were look­ing at the character like a Woody Allen-type voice, so it was just sound­ing like too nerdy and too un­com­fort­able,” he says.

Telling the cast­ing di­rec­tor he wanted a voice like Eli­jah Wood, she put in a call to the ac­tor’s reps and he was in­ter­ested. “We talked on the phone and he did some au­di­tion­ing on the phone and it just sounded great,” McHale says.

As the show’s premiere nears, McHale is hope­ful that peo­ple of any age can watch it and en­joy it.

“Ide­ally, I like to make stuff that peo­ple can like and find spe­cial,” he says. “The tar­get demo we usu­ally have on kids shows, ages 6 to 12, is pretty right on. But I think ( Over the Gar­den Wall) goes a lit­tle deeper than maybe some shows do as the story goes on, so I think any­body can like it.”

“The first thing that I got in­volved with was fight­ing and so that’s what I be­came: a

fighter. But my whole de­sire is to en­ter­tain peo­ple. That’s what I was born to do.”

Tough­est chal­lenge in mak­ing the movie: dreams cost $200 mil­lion. Or more!

Sched­ule and bud­get. I like to dream big and some­times my

Eric Cole­man

Mike Moon

Daron Ne­fcy

Paul Rud­ish

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