In the Beginning ...
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.”