Cool and His Gang, Part 1

We all experience the doldrums of everyday life. The daily chores, the weekly staff meetings, the same old traffic congestion – it’s enough to make you want to shed your skin. Well that’s exactly what Lester Coolman does in each episode of Arna Selznick and John van Bruggen’s ‘Coolman!’ Lester is a meek, unassuming, black and white kinda guy, with very little excitement in his Squaresville life. But in each episode, Lester envisions himself as Coolman, the hippest, jazziest cat to ever bebop down the alley, and his daydreaming brings a shard of hope into his otherwise humdrum life.

Arna and John, who work out of their Toronto home studio, recently debuted a ‘Coolman!’ episode in the Nicktoons Film Festival. ‘Deep Sea Blues’ is but one episode of five created by this animation duo, and all of them are now running on YTV’s Funpak block. The latest, ‘Jazz Matazz’ airs this Thursday, February 24th at 7:30pm.

The following is the first of a three part interview with Arna and John, who seem to have benefited immensely from the hands-on functionality of Macromedia’s Flash software.

AARON SIMPSON: Did you two first team up as animators or as a couple?
JOHN VAN BRUGGEN: We worked together as supervisors in the layout department at Nelvana in 1985 and got together as a couple at the company’s annual Christmas party that same year.
ARNA SELZNICK: We actually got together on the dance floor at that party. We both love to dance, hence the name of our business: dancingmonkeys!

AARON: John, did you first witness Flash production while writing on Nelvana’s ‘Jacob Two-Two?’
JOHN: No. I first became aware of Flash a few years before that. I was the drummer in a band with Steve Whitehouse (the creator of ‘Mr. Man‘) and he sang the praises of a new type of animation software. He called Flash “an animation studio in a box” because he could produce his own cartoons, from pre- to post-production on a laptop computer.

Animation Express ran his first few Flash shorts and, not long after that, ‘Mr. Man’ was born! Of course, Animation Express also exposed us to a great many other Flash artists including Edgar Beals and Billy Blob.

AARON: Arna, you’ve storyboarded for the Flash-produced show ‘Peep and the Big Wide World,’ and now on ‘Coolman!’ Is there a special approach to storyboarding required of Flash production?
ARNA: When I board for Flash, I try to create as much reuse as possible without feeling too straight-jacketed. Storyboarding for Flash is not that different than boarding for any animation; especially important are strong silhouettes and posing.

AARON: How did the idea for ‘Coolman!’ first hit you?
JOHN: Several years ago, I made a series of sketches of a cool beatnik character bouncing on the moon, stopping pucks, or sporting a ten-gallon hat and chaps. That was the original idea behind Coolman: he was a ‘beatnik fish out of water’ dropped into an assortment of incongruous situations. Eventually I came up with the idea of a ‘Walter Mitty‘ character who ‘daydreams’ Coolman into those various situations — and Lester B. Coolman was born!

AARON: Did the final product match up to what you first intended ‘Coolman!’ to be?
ARNA & JOHN: We wanted ‘Coolman!’ to be sweet and gentle in tone, and got a kick out of building one whole story around Lester’s unrequited love for Grace and writing a haiku about kumquats. No one at Nelvana or YTV asked us to make it ‘wackier’ or more kid-friendly. Executive Producer Jocelyn Hamilton, and Creative Director, Chris Labonte, supported our show and let us do what we wanted, which really was the original intent of ‘Funpak.’

AARON: John, explain the experience of switching from writing 22 minute shows and 90 minute features to 5 minute episodes?
JOHN: I wrote 5-page scripts which translated almost exactly to a minute per page. Doing justice to the ‘two worlds’ concept of ‘Coolman!’ within a 5-minute format was a challenge. I had to tell two separate (though related) stories in less than five minutes (leaving room for credits and titles). The time constraint was great in a one way because it forced me to pare the stories down to their bare essentials. On the other hand, it could be quite limiting. For example, in ‘Hootchy Kootchy Haiku,’ it was almost painful to cut Coolman’s Beat poem so short; it was like ‘Kerouac interruptus!’ I had to do it because we needed the time to set up the relationship between Lester and Grace at the beginning of the story and pay it off in a satisfying way at the end.

AARON: Where did you draw inspiration for the idea?
JOHN: Listening to ‘cool’ jazz players like Miles Davis gave me the idea for a hip beatnik character. Saxophonist Joe Lovano is an obvious inspiration for Coolman’s design, with a hint of Buddy Hackett thrown in for good measure. Lester and his ‘big city’ office world of the Fifties have their origins in ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show.’ Jason Groh, a friend at Nelvana, turned me on to Eric Dolphy’s ‘Out To Lunch‘ and that became the musical blueprint of the show.

The films of (Buster) Keaton and (Charlie) Chaplin were another big influence. That’s where I got the idea to make Lester a ‘silent’ Everyman. I wanted him to be childlike and childish, so there’s some Mr. Bean there, too. The film ‘Pleasantville‘ gave me the idea for the ‘black and white vs. color’ visual concept. For some odd reason, I took Lester’s name from former Canadian Prime Minister, Lester B. Pearson. Go figure…

ARNA: There’s a bit of the Coen Brothers’ ‘Hudsucker Proxy‘ in the staging and design of the office sequences. We also took inspiration from Gene Deitch’s illustrations for ‘The Cat on a Hot Thin Groove

Check back soon for the second part of this three part interview with Arna Selznick and John van Bruggen, the creators of ‘Coolman!’ And don’t forget to watch their latest episode ‘Jazz Matazz’ at 7:30pm on Thursday, February 24th on YTV’s Funpak block. Then go to the site and vote!

In the meantime, check out these Quicktime clips from two ‘Coolman!’ episodes.

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