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Getting In Toon: The Scott Roberts Q&A - Part 1 By Rich Watson
One of the longest running and most beloved children's comics today is Patty Cake & Friends, by one of the most talented cartoonists I have the pleasure of knowing, Scott Roberts. I first met Scott years ago here in New York, at the Big Apple Con in Manhattan, where he's become a fixture. I was hooked on his title - self-published at first, then carried by Caliber and now Slave Labor - from the start. It's the one comic that never fails to put a smile on my face no matter what mood I'm in. In addition to being an exceptional artist, he has a deep and vast knowledge of cartooning and animation in general, among other things, as evidenced by the following interview I conducted with him during last January's Big Apple Con. In the first half, he talks about his current gig working on the Rugrats comic strip for Nickelodeon, his work on the Dexter's Laboratory comics, and about the good and the bad in animation today, including his thoughts on the demise of Futurama.
Rich Watson: Let's start with Nickelodeon and Rugrats. You've been doing the newspaper strip for how long?
Scott Roberts: I started with it in late '98, writing gags. Then I graduated, after a few months, to pencilling. We had four pencillers for awhile, during which time the editor, Lee Nordling, would distribute the gags accordingly. He would decide which gags fit which penciller's style. One by one, the other pencillers left the strip. Gary Fields, who was one of the pencillers, is still lettering the strip, but for the last year or two I've been the only penciller. One thing led to another. First, I wasn't considered ready to draw it, and eventually they wanted everybody else to be able to draw it the same way I was!
RW: How hard is it to maintain consistency with these characters when drawing in a specific style?
SR: It's always a challenge; you always have your eye on it. First you have to learn that style. There's a lot of trial and error. I did practice runs for a few months, sending in drawings, and Lee would send them back, saying what I was doing wrong. Even when I started working on it, they were coming back with corrections, either on tracing paper or stick-it notes, telling me how to change the characters to keep them on model. Eventually I just got to the point where I just had them all in my head. Except for those characters we don't use very often, I can pretty much draw them off the top of my head. There are a few I need reference on still if they appear only seldom. Lee himself will tell me if he wants something changed now; we don't have to put it through the motions anymore for blue-liners and send back their corrections.
RW: Do you get a lot of feedback from the Nickelodeon executives as to story content?
SR: Well, all the strips, even after Lee decides which gags he wants to buy, has to be put through the system, which includes Standards and Practices. It hasn't happened very often, but once in awhile, Standards and Practices will knock down a gag that Lee has chosen, or ask that something be changed because it's not right. Only one of my gags were ever rejected for Standards and Practices reasons, and one by one of the other writers, but more often than not, if it happens it's just [to] change a word or something. There are restrictions, and they're much tighter than the restrictions on the TV show.
Newspaper is a very different audience. The most common mistake made by the creators of animated cartoons when going over into the newspaper medium is assuming that they'll have the same audience. You cannot assume that everybody that's reading the paper has seen your show; you cannot assume that everybody who's seen your show will read the paper. Newspapers are more of a family publication; a lot more conservative people read them. They have to keep it cleaner than the TV show and the movies. The Rugrats are constantly in some kind of physical danger that you know, realistically, no babies would survive; they'd be killed. We can't do any of that in the strip. We can't show them in the kitchen by themselves, with the refrigerator open, or near the stove, or anything that could hurt them. And there are certain restrictions on language: we can't drop g's; we can use malaprops, but not too much in the way of bad grammar; and [as for] abusive language - Angelica can call the babies dumb but she can't call them stupid. "Stupid" is considered a harsher, crueler word than "dumb…" We can't mention religious holidays -
RW: Even though there's been a Rugrats Kwanzaa, a Rugrats Passover, and all that stuff?
SR: On the TV show, it's okay, [but] again, it has to do with the different tenor of the newspaper reader. There was a Sunday strip that offended some people. It had a religious theme, and it got a lot of complaints… Nickelodeon set this standard themselves. It was like self-censorship, saying, "We will no longer mention religious holidays by name." We can hint around Christmas; we can do all the gags we want about getting new toys, we can show them opening presents on Christmas, but we can't show that it's Christmas.
RW: You can't show it?
SR: We can't actually have a tree, or use the word, any more than we can say Hanukah or Kwanzaa. [On] Easter we can do chocolate rabbit gags, but we can't actually say it's Easter. And because of the offensive strip, we can't use the character of Grampa Boris in the strip.
RW: What's he like? I'm not that familiar with the show.
SR: He's Tommy's maternal grandfather. He's a Russian-Jewish immigrant, and the character is actually designed by [co-creator] Arlene Klasky based on her own father, and to her, it was an innocent caricature of her own family. But people thought that it looked like a Nazi-stereotype caricature of a Jewish person. And they quoted sacred text in the script, and that's a no-no. So we promised the Anti-Jewish Defamation League nothing like that would ever happen again. The same kind of things have happened to The Simpsons comic strip. They didn't last very long, unfortunately - they didn't learn our lesson, that you have to reinvent the cartoon for the medium.
RW: I would imagine you'd also have to answer to newspaper editors.
SR: Oh yes. Newspaper editors are very watchful of complaints; complaints could mean loss of sales. We will get back these complaints very quickly. If somebody calls in and says "I don't like what I read," we'll hear about it. Newspaper history is full of this…
RW: Do you get a lot of reader feedback?
SR: I don't get it directly; that would go to Nickelodeon. The feedback I get is from the editors, as to what people are saying. It's usually positive. Some people didn't like the strip at first because it wasn't just like the show, but as I said, it can't be just like the show. When Lee Nordling took over - he was the second editor - the first thing he did was reinvent it for the newspaper format because he knew that was necessary. He couldn't have all the babies, all the time, in every panel, having adventures like in the show. So we simplified the focus. And a few people have said that they like the look of it almost better than the show because we try to three-dimensional-ize the characters a little. We just focus on one or two at a time. Carl Barks never got much reader feedback when he was doing the Disney comics because they were doing it through a conduit, with all those layers - editors, lawyers - in between. If I get feedback on things like Patty Cake that comes directly to me.
RW: And with Rugrats it's more about the characters than the creators anyway. That was certainly true with Carl Barks.
SR: Well, I like to take the same attitude Barks did: you wanna make it good enough that you'd pay your own dime to read it. Barks said he could see other artists were just doing hackwork, for the paycheck, and that wasn't good enough for him. For [the strip] and the Rugrats comic books that I did, it was the same thing: my name is gonna be on this. Barks' name never did appear on those comics, but my name does. And I wanna push it to the point where I'm proud of what I did.
RW: Has Nickelodeon ever talked about expanding into comics, like Archie-size digests?
SR: I haven't heard anything. What they used to do is license the properties out to Marvel. The Ren & Stimpy comic was printed through Marvel. The first time they licensed Rugrats it was to Marvel Panini in England, but then they took over the publishing. And they prefer the magazine format. That allows them to get it into supermarkets, point-of-purchase places like that, outside of comic book stores. We retired the actual Rugrats Adventures comic and replaced it with these periodic NickToons specials. [Here he grabs a sample magazine off the table to show.] Like this one - The Wild Thornberrys Magazine. It ties in with the movie, but it's full of comics. We've done a few that were Spongebob oriented, but each one has other characters as well. The heavy feature will be the cover character, then in the back you'll get a little Rugrats, a little Rocket Power, a couple of things reprinted from the regular magazine. But they're comfortable, I think, right now with the magazine slick format.
RW: Yeah, I can't say I blame them.
SR: They've probably looked around and seen what the market is like for regular comic books. The Cartoon Network comics, I guess they sell well enough, but they can't reach everybody because comics just can't. I know I've seen the Cartoon Network comics on spinner racks in small stores, so that helps some. I've been doing the Dexter's Laboratory comic, and I've seen a little feedback, letters written in responding to stories I wrote and drew. So people are out there reading them, even if it isn't the numbers we want.
RW: I wanna get back to that point a little later. Let's move on to animation. What would you say is the state of animation today in terms of both film and television?
SR: Well, it's a lot healthier than it was for a few decades. In the 70's and 80's, it was starting to look dead and buried. [In] the late 80's going into the 90's, a whole renaissance of interest began, and now there's all kinds of new ways to do animation - computer animation, even more sophisticated stop-motion animation. My brother is learning Flash animation; [he's] very good at it. So there's a lot more stuff going on now, and even if the networks can't fully support animated shows - they are expensive -
RW: How expensive are they?
SR: I don't have actual numbers, but I know it's expensive to produce animation. There's a lot of people involved. It can cost more, I think, than a live-action show. You have to draw the whole thing out in storyboard form, you have to pay a lot of people to draw the animation itself, color, paint… I haven't worked on a show, I don't know what the numbers are, but it's more money than the average network feels comfortable spending for the money they make back, unless they're really willing to put out with the promotion. It also takes a long time, so the networks have been burned by ordering too few episodes of a new animated show. Then they're stuck with perpetual reruns, because by the time they order more episodes - if each episode takes an average of six months to produce, and even if they have several in the works at the same time, it's still going to be, at the very least, six months before they see anything new. That happened to The Simpsons, that happened to Ren & Stimpy - in both cases, they went through what seems like reruns forever.
A lot of shows that debuted on the regular networks and didn't work out are now showing up on the Cartoon Network where they get a reprieve, a second chance. Home Movies was a show that was dumped after five or six episodes by UPN. Not only has it been popular on Cartoon Network, but they commissioned new episodes, so they've had a couple of new seasons since they picked it up. It's found itself a berth there where it could be successful. They also picked up shows like Mission Hill, The Oblongs - all of these were either on one of the three major networks or one of the smaller ones like UPN, WB or Fox. Cartoon Network has now picked up Futurama. They're starting it from the beginning and they've given it a new home. So really, all that's left on Fox is The Simpsons and King of the Hill.
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RW: Why do you suppose Fox gave up on Futurama?
SR: Well, I don't want to get into the dirty laundry, but some of this was already in the press - I feel that a lot of it was punishing Matt Groening for not allowing the executives to be involved in the creative end of the show. When he created The Simpsons along with Sam Simon and James L. Brooks, they were a closed shop. They were left alone to do the show their way. And there were some notes from censors once they started seeing things, but effectively, the creative control was in their own hands. The Simpsons, of course, put Fox on the map, made it much more of a network than it ever was before, and [the executives] were aware of that, so they wanted to continue that success into other venues. But when they allowed Matt Groening to develop a new show, now they wanted a bigger piece of the pie. And the executives, being non-creative people, would like to be able to go around saying, "I made that show a success; it was my input." And he denied them that right by saying "No, we don't want your input." So I think they kinda slapped it back at him by giving him very little support, putting it in a ridiculously early time slot, where it's constantly pre-empted. You're lucky if a new season is three or four episodes.
And they made the same mistake a few times of putting an animated show that was just starting to get great notice and good ratings up against something with better ratings on another network, assuming that they'd beat them. They almost killed King of the Hill by putting it opposite Home Improvement. They very nearly killed The Family Guy - which they eventually pulled the plug on anyway - by putting it opposite Frasier. It did not beat Frasier in the ratings. It was lucky that it survived at all…
The Cartoon Network is dedicated to animation; that's their thing. They started out with a very small budget. That's why shows like Space Ghost Coast to Coast was created; it was an entertaining way to reuse old animation in a new format, at a low cost, and still produce an enjoyable show. So that was kind of a lynchpin for them. And eventually, the budget came and they could do things like Dexter's Lab and Powerpuff Girls.
RW: The Japanese have been conquering the American market with shows like Yu-Gi-Oh and Dragonball Z. What is it about Japanese cartoons that have it over on the American ones?
SR: Well, some people will think it's a generational thing. It doesn't necessarily capture me, but I guess for some people it's a fresh voice. It's different from our traditional cartoons. It's very influential on young people - art teachers will say that a lot of their students are trying to draw comics in the manga style. They follow a lot of formulas [like] sword-and-sorcery battle scenes, and that's easy to understand, to follow the story. Unfortunately, I turned on one of those shows and it seemed to be nothing but battle scenes. Each battle ends only to begin another battle! I grew up when Astro Boy was on, and that was America's first exposure to Japanese animation, but it would take another generation before it would start to make the inroads that it's made now. And then there's cross-pollination: Western cartooning influenced their cartooning just as much as theirs is now influencing ours in turn. So each one has been picking up something from the other. Neither is in a pure state anymore… I like to think that there's always room for variety of approach. I don't like a monolithic approach to anything; I don't want to see a prevailing style if nothing else is acceptable.
RW: You mentioned computer-generated art - can cell animation and computer animation still coexist, or has it reached the point where audiences want to see more computer stuff?
SR: There are still, at this point, things you can do with traditional animation you can't quite emulate in computer animation. You can do wonderful things in computer animation; you can do a lot of things faster, but it can't do everything. Three-dimensional CGI characters can't do everything that clay animation can do. There's still a problem with trying to do realistic human characters in CGI. They tend to look plastic still, which is why a lot of the most successful CGI features have characters that are animals, like A Bug's Life, [or] toys, like Toy Story, things like that. The dancing baby on Ally McBeal, to me, looked creepy! Didn't look like a real baby! In fact, Pixar learned that, too - in [the short film] Tin Toy, they had a much more realistically rendered baby in that… The kids in Toy Story are a little more cartoony and exaggerated. It just works better. There's still a slightly plastic look, no matter how interesting it is. Pixar is by far, I think, the leader.
RW: Disney's been in a bit of a tailspin lately. Can it be reversed anytime soon?
SR: Well, Lilo and Stitch seemed to be a breath of hope - that they can still do something in a simple, scaled-down, less expensive way and still have a hit. The movie was extremely successful and it cost a lot less to make than several of the movies they've had in recent years that were not successful. They really cut back on the amount of computer-generated effects, they followed a single artistic vision (the creator of the cartoon had been drawing the character Stitch for years), but everything, the watercolor backgrounds, which was very traditional animation, down to the character design, followed one vision. And it really kept the cost down, much the same way Dumbo saved the studio after Fantasia. [Walt] Disney's thing was, the money that he made on one movie would be spent, and then more, on the next one to make it better. So Pinocchio, he went into debt on, spending all of his profits on Snow White because he had new innovations. [With] Fantasia he could've busted the studio completely, and he needed to do something cheaper and quicker and as I said, spend less money on it and make a profit, and Dumbo was the answer. Strong storytelling, good characterization, but it's not heavy on special effects. It remains a standard because it puts storytelling first, whereas there really isn't much in the way of storytelling in Fantasia. I love it, it's beautiful to look at, but it's not telling a story.
RW: Was it meant to tell a story? Isn't it just a bunch of vignettes?
SR: Initially it was, because it was just going to be a "Silly Symphony;" it was just going to be "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," but it overran its own budget and it never would've made its money back. It's a short subject, so they expanded it and said, "If we gotta spend that kinda money we have to make it a feature…" Disney's original plan was, hoping that it was going to be a success, to put it out every couple of years with new segments. Of course, it didn't happen until Fantasia 2000, but that was what he had hoped for all along - retire some, put in new ones, and have it an ongoing thing. Despite this critical success, it was kind of a bust commercially.
RW: What's your take on what some are calling "cheap-quels," these direct-to-video sequels of all the classic and current Disney films?
SR: Well, it's hard to think they're there for any reason other than to make a buck. They're obviously not spending the same money they did on the originals, and it looks it. It's just a cash [grab] - and there's a market, and people demand more of something. It's a new format that they're doing it [in], but the thinking isn't really new. There have always been ways to try to repeat successes that looked kinda cheap. It's just that the new way of doing it is that [Disney says] "Well, we spent a lot of money making Aladdin, let's knock off a quick Aladdin direct-to-video."
Actually there have been a few feature films in the last few years that started as direct-to-video, but the budgets spun up, and then they just started going too expensive to do as direct-to-video so they said "Let's put this out in the theaters." Do they entertain children, keep them quiet? Well, probably, but are they works of art? No. I think those are done for purely bottom-line reasons. It also kinda upsets some of the structures of storytelling. It's nice to think that in a story, you're building to a logical climax, the story's going from point A to point B. If your villain keeps coming back for another adventure, coming back for another adventure, that kinda defeats storytelling. I mean, in Lord of the Rings, if they had to defeat Sauron again, because he came back, and again, because he came back, it wouldn't be the classic it is. It would be just another cheap serial…
RW: Disney has acquired some of the Japanese cartoons - Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away - but they've had limited releases in mostly art house theaters. Is Disney afraid of some kind of encroachment on their turf?
SR: Well, you could theorize that maybe they're trying to keep it under control by buying them, and then doing them in limited release so there can't be too much competition. That sounds conspiratorial, but still, Disney does have kind of a vested interest in being number one and staying number one.
RW: That's not too different from the way Disney-owned Miramax operates, from what I understand of how they acquire foreign films.
SR: And Miramax also has a reputation for buying themselves awards - the excessive campaigning, the "Vote for us!" [approach]. I know Disney got My Neighbor Totoro. The version I saw - no, it might not have been Totoro. No, it was Kiki's Delivery Service. I saw the European English translation and enjoyed it. Then I heard about the American one, with the different voice actors, and I said that didn't sound anywhere near as good. I know with My Neighbor Totoro they cut some scenes, too - things that are considered okay in Japan that aren't okay in America, like family baths, I suppose.
RW: Are there any worthy American challengers to Disney?
SR: Well, the first Rugrats movie definitely gave Disney a run for their money. That was, at the time, the most successful, non-Disney-animated film in history. And not every animated film they've launched has been equally successful, but they've made enough to keep them coming. I don't know what the box office is right now on The Wild Thornberrys, but I imagine it's holding its own. I think it's a very good movie.
Rugrats in Paris didn't do quite the box office as the first Rugrats but it did very well, whereas Disney tried to counter with Doug's First Movie, a character they had acquired from Nickelodeon, and it didn't do very well. But then, that started as a direct-to-video (rumor has it, anyway) and went to theaters when they decided to compete with The Rugrats Movie. I remember a complaint that it looked like an extended episode of the show, and that they didn't increase the production values to the point where it looked like a movie. At least with Nickelodeon movies they generally do go for higher production values, [they] make it feel like a full cinematic experience, not a TV show on a big screen. They even redesigned the characters in subtle ways.
If you work for Nickelodeon, you have to learn the new rules for the characters. When I started on Rugrats, it was about the time that the first Rugrats movie was released, and there were new model sheets of the characters. Kimi was introduced in Rugrats In Paris, and as soon as she made the transition to the TV show they redesigned her from the way she was in the movie. Suddenly we had gotten complaints from the editors saying, "You're not drawing her right" and I said, "Well, I was drawing her right - the way she looked before. You gotta send me the new model sheets." The coloring is different in the movies; they use a whole different color palette than they would on television. You look at the Rugrats on television, the colors are simple and bright. In the movies, they're much more gradated, more shading, subtler colors, more earthy, more modeling on the characters, more impressive backgrounds (perhaps real clouds in the sky) - all these things that would be too expensive for the television show that really up the look of it. So along with the bigger sound and the bigger music, you really feel like you're experiencing a bigger story.
I personally very much liked the first Rugrats movie, I've seen it many times. Not just because I work on it, I just felt they did a very good job on it. I wasn't a very big fan of the Rugrats prior to working for them. I'd only seen the show a couple of times and barely knew the names of all the characters. Now I'm considered an authority on them, because when I get involved on something I like to do my homework, relevant to what it is I'm doing.
Be back in 14 for the conclusion of my interview, in which Scott talks Patty Cake and other comics.