In the Be­gin­ning ...

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Dis­ney sur­prised many ob­servers in 1984 when it started up a TV an­i­ma­tion di­vi­sion as the company had long avoided mak­ing toons for TV be­cause it was deemed too ex­pen­sive.

But un­der the lead­er­ship of then-new CEO Michael Eis­ner, the company jumped in just in time to ride the rev­enue waves of net­work, cable and syn­di­ca­tion.

Founded with Gary Krisel in charge, Ed Wexler and Rob LaDuca — both still work­ing at Dis­ney TVA on the se­ries Jake and the Never Land Pi­rates — were among the first to sign up.

“I got a call from Art Vitello, who was the first di­rec­tor hired here, to do the Gummi Bears,” says Wexler. “He called me up and told me Dis­ney was start­ing a TV an­i­ma­tion group, and I thought that sounded nuts. But I came in and showed my port­fo­lio and I think I was the sixth or sev­enth or maybe the eighth per­son brought on.”

“We were all in our 20s and it was start­ing some­thing to­tally new and it was a lot of fun,” says LaDuca, ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of Jake and the Never Land Pi­rates.

“It was so small at the be­gin­ning that ev­ery­one at Walt Dis­ney TV An­i­ma­tion was in the same room in the morn­ings hav­ing a cup of cof­fee to­gether,” says Wexler, who is a character de­signer on Jake. “Most of us are still friends and get to­gether and so­cial­ize. We had a good time on the Gummi Bears, that’s for sure. Every­body did a lit­tle bit of ev­ery­thing.”

Jill Stir­di­vant also was an early hire as a color stylist, a job she still does for Jake and the Never-land Pi­rates and Sofia the First.

“It was re­ally small,” she says of the early days. “There were just a few pro­duc­tions go­ing on — Duck­Tales and Gummi Bears and Fluppy Dogs — when I got there. We had one art di­rec­tor for the whole unit, in­stead of each project hav­ing its own art di­rec­tor.”

The stu­dio was first housed in a build­ing off Cahuenga Boule­vard in Toluca Lake, next to the Ca Del Sole restau­rant, LaDuca says. “I re­mem­ber we moved into the of­fices and we kept break­ing through walls un­til one day we broke through a wall and we could jog a cir­cle (around the of­fice).”

The stu­dio has re-lo­cated a num­ber of times since then, and is now set up in one lo­ca­tion off Sonora Av­enue in Glen­dale with another lo­ca­tion on West Em­pire Av­enue near the Bob Hope Air­port in Bur­bank.

Stir­di­vant says the pro­duc­tion process has changed com­pletely since she started at the stu­dio, go­ing from ink and paint to to­day’s alldig­i­tal pipe­line.

“I feel for­tu­nate that I was trained old school,” she says. “I do miss the tac­tile feel of brush and pen­cil but there’s no way we could get the work done in the time we have to do it now with­out the com­puter. It’s a much faster, eas­ier process.”

While other op­por­tu­ni­ties ex­ist and have been oc­ca­sion­ally ex­plored, all three say they keep com­ing back to Dis­ney TVA be­cause of the peo­ple.

“Even though it’s big­ger and we’re in two dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions, it’s still all about the crew that you’re work­ing with,” says Stir­di­vant. “It’s an in­ti­mate group, like a fam­ily. That’s what for me, over the years, makes or breaks a project, is the peo­ple you’re work­ing with.”

Once, he was “Iron” Mike Tyson — the Bad­dest Man on the Planet. Now, he’s a car­toon star who “solves” mys­ter­ies with a de­gen­er­ate talk­ing pi­geon, his adopted teenage Korean daugh­ter and the ghost of the Bri­tish aris­to­crat who in­vented the rules of box­ing. Given the mere ex­is­tence of Mike Tyson Mys­ter­ies, which pre­miered Oct. 27 on Adult Swim, can any­thing truly be called im­pos­si­ble?

But Mike Tyson Mys­ter­ies, pro­duced by Warner Bros. An­i­ma­tion, is more than just a quirk of the uni­verse — it’s funny.

Riff­ing on the clas­sic car­toon archetype of the mys­tery-solv­ing gang of odd­balls ex­em­pli­fied by such vin­tage toons as ScoobyDoo, Where are You?, Speed Buggy and Josie and the Pussy­cats, Mike Tyson Mys­ter­ies sees the re­tired world cham­pion boxer field­ing re­quests for help de­liv­ered by car­rier pi­geon with the help of his adopted daugh­ter, Yung Hee; the ghost of the Mar­quess of Queens­bury; and a pi­geon, voiced by Norm MacDon­ald.

Ev­ery­thing about the show, from the character de­sign and the an­i­ma­tion down to the funky main ti­tle theme, evokes vin­tage 1970s and 1980s cartoons.

And it just gets weirder: The first episode sees the group re­spond­ing to a call from Pulitzer Prize-win­ning au­thor Cormac McCarthy to help over­come writer’s block. The real cul­prit turns out to be a chu­pacabra that is ac­tu­ally the long-thought-dead au­thor John Updike. The sec­ond episode, sim­i­larly, sees Tyson and crew re­ceive a cry for help from Big Blue, the IBM com­puter set to take on chess grand­mas­ter Gary Kas­parov in a de­cid­ing match.

At the heart of it all is Tyson, who voices him­self and ap­pears to take real glee in play­ing a ver­sion of him­self that con­stantly man­gles pro­nun­ci­a­tions and makes bizarre — but ul­ti­mately cor­rect — de­duc­tions based on no ev­i­dence what­so­ever.

One thing was clear in the press pro­ceed­ings around the show: A lot of re­porters ex­pected the peo­ple Tyson worked with to be at least a lit­tle afraid of say­ing or do­ing some- thing that would send the ex-boxer into a vi­o­lent fit of rage.

So, is Tyson — for­mer heavy­weight box­ing cham­pion, con­victed rapist and scene-stealer in the hit com­edy movie The Hang­over —a scary guy?

“I don’t know,” he says. “It de­pends on what you call scary. Kids don’t think I’m scary.”

Why did Tyson want to do an an­i­mated show? “I wanted to do any­thing that any­body of­fered me; I want to see what I can do and he says. “I don’t think he had a real strong take on what it ought to be about, though, and the rea­son it’s called Mike Tyson Mys­ter­ies is just be­cause it’s al­lit­er­a­tive. So after that, it fell to us to fig­ure out how to ex­e­cute it.”

While there are sim­i­lar­i­ties to Scooby-Doo and other vin­tage mys­tery-solv­ing an­i­mated se­ries, the goal with Mike Tyson Mys­ter­ies is not to repli­cate those shows but to tell comedic sto­ries us­ing character and sit­u­a­tion, Da- ripe for com­edy, right? It kind of writes it­self.”

It took a lot of work to make the show re­ally work on a character level, David­son says. “Mike Tyson knows the ghost, he knows the pi­geon, he has a his­tory with those char­ac­ters and we know how they feel about each other. And we make it feel like that’s the pri­or­ity, es­pe­cially in an 11-minute show — not the mys­tery, not the ac­tion, be­cause that stuff is easy.”

Tyson’s rep­u­ta­tion is an in­te­gral part of the show and one that the writ­ers don’t shy away from.

“When they go some­where, peo­ple rec­og­nize him, and some­one could say the wrong thing and he could get pissed off and you never know what could hap­pen,” says David­son. “We want that to be in the show, so that the show feels a lit­tle dan­ger­ous, which I think adds to the com­edy.”

One of the strangest char­ac­ters is the Mar­quess of Queens­bury, whom Tyson calls “Mar­cus” be­cause he can’t quite pro­nounce mar­quess, voiced by Jim Rash of Com­mu­nity fame. The real-life Mar­quess of Queens­bury was a Bri­tish aris­to­crat who wrote the rules of mod­ern box­ing. Also, his son was one of Os­car Wilde’s lovers and the mar­quess was in­volved in sev­eral le­gal dis­putes with Wilde — in­clud­ing the one that sent the au­thor to prison for two years.

“I’m sort of the voice of rea­son or at least the high­way-to-heaven guide through this process,” says Rash. “It’s a lot of fun — he’s flam­boy­ant and fun and very proper.”

Tyson says hav­ing his own car­toon is an ac­com­plish­ment that ex­ceeds any­thing else he’s ever done.

“I come from a re­ally dark side of en­ter­tain­ment (with box­ing), and I’m en­ter­tain­ing kids now, so that’s re­ally cool but creepy, too,” he says. “I’m re­ally grate­ful to be able to do it. I’ve learned not to take my­self too se­ri­ously. I’m learn­ing new forms of hum­ble­ness.”

2014has been a banner year for fea­ture an­i­ma­tion, and it’s easy to be im­pressed with the fin­ished films. But what went in to the mak­ing of some of this year’s most ac­claimed and beloved movies? We asked sev­eral of the direc­tors to give us a glimpse into their process and share their thoughts on the big pic­ture when it comes to their craft.

Key mo­ment of in­spi­ra­tion: I saw The Em­pire Strikes Back when I was 10 years old, and it had a last­ing im­pact on me. Its bal­ance of ad­ven­ture, height­ened stakes, hu­mor, new worlds and sur­pris­ing crea­tures seemed just right. It was also one of the few se­quels that I deemed bet­ter than the orig­i­nal. So, when dream­ing up ideas for the sec­ond part of our tril­ogy, I had a great ex­am­ple. Tough­est chal­lenge in mak­ing the movie: We had lofty am­bi­tions in terms of scope and scale — much big­ger than our bud­get al­lowed for on pa­per — but the crew was very mo­ti­vated to put it all on screen. They found ways to stretch our pro­duc­tion dol­lars and de­liver ev­ery­thing I was hop­ing for. Piv­otal scene: The trick­i­est scene was prob­a­bly the one in which Tooth­less is or­dered to blast Hic­cup, but Sto­ick leaps in the way, sac­ri­fic­ing him­self for his son. In or­der for it to work, it was cru­cial that the au­di­ence sym­pa­thizes with Tooth­less and not blame him. On the state of the an­i­ma­tion business: Our art form is now be­ing re­garded around the world as a pow­er­ful, bound­less medium to tell sto­ries of all kinds. An­i­ma­tion is no longer just for kids; it can ap­peal to the broad­est of au­di­ences. It’s up to us to push the bound­aries. Fa­vorite movie or an­i­mated character of all time: As a fa­vorite an­i­mated film, I love The Iron Gi­ant. And as fa­vorite an­i­mated character, I’m par­tial to Beavis. Ca­reer begin­nings: I landed a job as an in-be­tweener, and later as a lay­out artist, at Hin­ton An­i­ma­tion Stu­dios in Ot­tawa, On­tario, Canada, while at­tend­ing the three-year In­ter­na­tional Sum­mer School of An­i­ma­tion at Sheri­dan Col­lege. It taught me to be fast, pro­fes­sional, and it paid my way through col­lege. Best ad­vice: The best ad­vice I’ve been passed down came from Zack Schwartz, a pro­fes­sor at Sheri­dan Col­lege, who said, “Don’t be a clock-watcher!” He also said: “In all art, if it reads as a postage stamp, it will read as a bill­board” – a sage re­minder to look for the strong­est, sim­plest state­ment in ev­ery­thing you cre­ate. My Dis­ney men­tor, Joe Grant, used to say: “If you’re afraid of fail­ure, it’s a sure sign that you should be do­ing it.”

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