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.
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.”
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