John K’s Guide to Surviving the End of Television
This year John Kricfalusi returned to a genre he essentially created – online, direct-sponsor cartoons. It began in 1997 with George Liquor furiously urging us to buy albums at Tower Records, and today we can watch his new online shorts for Raketu, the VOIP provider.
Flash animation pioneer.The contributions John Kricfalusi, or John K as he’s come to be known, has given the world of animation are numerous – The Ren and Stimpy Show, his work on the revival series Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, the Bjork music video, and his 2-episode revival of the Yogi Bear universe. But when future generations reflect on Kricfalusi’s career, his impact on the world of online entertainment and his recent educational blog-spewing will stack up there with his mightiest of achievements. [MYPLAYLIST=6]Perhaps too bold and stubborn to last long in the corporate world of TV animation, Kricfalusi found himself breaking ground in online entertainment. He was tinkering with the internet in the early 90s, long before most people knew what ‘www’ stood for. Kricfalusi was spending his down-time surfing through Usenet discussion boards, and if you’re resourceful you can even find some of his postings dating back to 1995, the year Netscape announced the IPO heard ’round the world. To put this into an animation perspective, Nickelodeon didn’t even have a website until 1997. So with the October 15th, 1997 launch of The Goddamn George Liquor Program, Kricfalusi had begun the first cartoon series produced specifically for the Internet. In the discussion board alt.animation.spumco Stephen Worth, the Spümcø-vet who acted as webmaster, typed this brash message announcing the episode titled Babysitting the Idiot.
Spümcø has just made history by introducing the first animated series created exclusively for the World Wide Web. These are also the only cartoons being produced today that are 100% TAMPER-FREE… No network execs or censors looking over the creator’s shoulder.
Watch Episode 1 of the Goddamn George Liquor Program – Babysitting the Idiot
That creator’s shoulder also ended up the cover of several magazines that month, including Wired, and the website welcomed 150,000 visitors in the first week alone. He and a handful of TV-vets set out to shock the system, and they did just that. Dancing feces, interactive interstitials and raw, uncut hilarity was available to anyone with a 28.8 modem at spumco.com. Between 1996 and 2002, some exceptional work was created – the 1999 Weekend Pussy Hunt series on Icebox.com, 2 revival episodes of the Yogi Bear series in 1999 (not to be confused with Wildbrain’s Yogi episode), a 2001 music video for Tenacious D, a 2001 commercial for Quisp, and a 2002 series of 3 Jetsons cartoons – all of which were animated and broadcast in Flash.
Beyond making cartoons, Kricfalusi is also simply a fan. He prefers animation legends like Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, and his absolute favorite, Bob Clampett.
[MEDIA=27]And, lucky for us, he doesn’t keep his appreciation to himself. Kricfalusi has consistently and tirelessly imparted his thoughts and animation wisdom to future generations of animators. As early as 1998, John was posting articles on the Spümcø website, detailing his theories for animation fans and students alike. Flash forward to February of 2006 when Kricfalusi started posting to his blog, and right from the beginning he shared his process, his theories and his art. A little over a year later, he has posted hundreds of priceless, dense diatribes. Some detail TV network missteps while others are laser-sharp breakdowns of the best cartoons ever made. Many of these posts should be (and probably are) required reading for any animation student looking to build a strong career foundation. It’s bound to become a proud and lasting legacy of his career – one that will surely be formalized into chapter form someday down the road.But John K’s Flash animation legacy is already being carried on at studios around North America. He trained artists like Eric Pringle, Gabe Swarr, Tony Mora, Matt Danner, Jerry DeJesus, Jessica Borutski, Nick Cross and dozens more. None are household names (yet), but they’re now the Flash animation backbones at studios like Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and Copernicus – shops that have embraced the Flash animation revolution. These artists also benefit from a studio system that now embraces creator-driven shows, a concept that had all but disappeared in the 80s.
With The Ren and Stimpy Show, John K had top billing, and now we have Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends and El Tigre, fronted by strong creators.So that brings us to today. John continues to pursue partnerships with major brands, develop original shorts and demand that animators everywhere study the past, and make trend-breaking cartoons. He shared these views and many more with Cold Hard Flash this month in a lengthy interview below.
AARON SIMPSON: You’ve been an accurate prognosticator of the digital animation age – the emergence of Flash animation and sponsor-integration into online shorts – what can we expect to see in 5 years?
JOHN KRICFALUSI: Well some of the things I predicted were supposed to happen 5 years ago and some are still slow in coming – like the directly-sponsored shows online. No sponsor has done that right yet. I have lots more predictions, but I think I wanna take advantage of some myself this time instead of giving the ideas away for free!
AARON: When you first started tinkering with Flash – did you immediately see the potential?
JOHN: Even before Flash. As soon as I discovered the web in the early 90s, I waited for something like Flash to come along.I worked with Macromedia for a while and they added a lot of my suggestions to the program. Sadly, it hasn’t really progressed in the last 5 years.It still has a lot of bugs and isn’t animator friendly. I wish I could develop a simple and sensible animation program that does everything real professionals would like, but leaves out all the cheesy stuff and uses a real ex sheet.
AARON: You’ve called yourself “a trouble-maker” before. Do you think this still holds true?
JOHN: I guess anyone who upsets the status-quo is a trouble maker, and I’m never satisfied with formula, so yes I guess so.
AARON: Looking back on The Goddamn George Liquor Program shorts you created for the internet – do you have any critiques of your own work?
JOHN: Oh yeah – big time. When I started the cartoons, it was an experiment just to see whether Flash was even capable of doing cartoon animation at all. At the time, people were just using it for animated lettering in banner ads and some simple games. I looked at it and thought, “Hmm, I’ll bet we could make animation with this.” We had a Flash expert who was working at Microsoft who would tell us what Flash couldn’t do. Lip sync for example. He told us, as did the Macromedia tech support people, that we shouldn’t even bother trying to have the characters talk. So we made them talk.
The first thing we were concerned with was how technically to make Flash make cartoons. We didn’t know where it would take us yet.
I also needed a story, so I took one we wrote for our line of Dark Horse comics called Babysitting the Idiot.
It’s about George’s nephews Slab ‘N’ Ernie babysitting Jimmy the Retarded Boy for an afternoon and corrupting him by teaching him to smoke while playing “strip club” around George’s hidden stash of nudist colony magazines. The story would take about 15 or 20 minutes to tell in a full cartoon, but we just started making it anyway. We found out that Flash could only hold about 2 or 3 minutes of material in a file, so we broke up the story into short bits. Then, on top of that, we could only afford to produce a cartoon every couple months, so it was hard to build an audience.
If I were to do it again, I would just make stand-alone 3-minute cartoons with no continued stories so the audience would be satisfied at the end of each cartoon. I have one called What Pee Boners Are For that floors the audience whenever we show it in theatres at retrospectives.
Babysitting the Idiot took 8 short cartoons just to do the story setup – it hasn’t even started the plot yet! It’s a really funny story, but where we left off we had just barely gotten into it.
We also had to have long title sequences in 1997 because the text would eat up time while the pictures downloaded. I imagine some of the potential audience couldn’t stand the wait for the cartoon.
AARON: Your recent collaboration with Raketu created quite the buzz on the internet. Have you heard from the company on how the campaign is working?
JOHN: Well, they told me that since the launch they had multiplied their downloads by a huge percentage, so I figure that’s a good sign. I hope to do more cartoons with them. They are a good group. Oliver McIntyre, the marketing director was all over the concept and really wanted to define Raketu as a unique brand. Oliver and I met along with the owner of Raketu, Greg Parker, in New York to go over all the concepts and I kind of wrote them on the spot as they showed me what Raketu was all about.
This is how I would love to work with sponsors. Show me the product, tell me what the selling points are and then let me come up with an entertaining way to pitch it so that the audience actually wants to watch the commercial. That was the concept behind my fake commercials in Ren and Stimpy. Log, Powdered Toast, etc. – I wanted to show that you could make commercials that people would love as much as the show itself.
AARON: Are there any corporate mascots you would enjoy bringing to life in animated commercials or sponsored shorts?
JOHN: Well I’d be happy doing any of them, but I wish sponsors would go back to old style ads, where you could understand what the commercial was about and you liked the characters instead of bombarding you with pink and purple multimedia montages. The old characters had personalities and little stories too, and that seems to have been largely abandoned. I think mascots should be made to be liked, not just be graphic icons.
I used to really like the 50s Tony the Tiger, the original Trix Rabbit, Sonny from Cocoa Puffs, Matty Mattel and Linus The Lionhearted.
Of course I would love to create new mascots too like I did for Old Navy (AS – which won an Annie Award for Best Commercial in 1999).
[MYPLAYLIST=7]AARON: Some companies don’t have mascots or icons you could breathe life into. Are there any that come to mind that you would like to team up with?JOHN:
- Labatt 50
- Ultimate Fighting
- Any cereal company
- Toy companies
- Dreamworks could use something to breathe life into it
Watch the animated Quisp cereal commercial by Spümcø
AARON: For the Raketu spots, you used a method in which some forms had outlines, while others didn’t. Is this a new method? And what are you trying to achieve with it?
JOHN: I was just trying to play with the style. I’d like to make cartoons that look like Golden Books some day and that was an experiment in that direction. A fast experiment! I had to turn out 4 cartoons in a month!
AARON: While drawing layouts for the Raketu spots, you experimented drawing the various mouth positions with a Cintiq monitor. Do you see yourself eventually going entirely paperless?
JOHN: Theoretically, I like the idea; it seems like it would be practical, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon. The software that’s designed for drawing and animating is so clunky and complicated and anti-artist that it really makes it hard for organic style artists to warm up to drawing directly on the computer.
I’ve pestered software companies for at least 10 years to let me design an all-purpose cartoon and animation program that is artist/animator friendly, but can’t seem to get anyone to do it.
As it is, you have to use a bunch of different programs to make a cartoon, and you still have to use paper if you want the drawings to flow and look natural.
AARON: Are there any improvements you’d like to see in drawing tablets?
JOHN: Maybe the combination of the tablet, the pen and the program. It needs to have a more pliable touch and more natural ability to go with the pressure and angle of your pen.
You can’t beat paper and pencils for that – or paint brushes and paint.
AARON: The relative simplicity of Flash has welcomed a vast, new generation into the animation industry. How will this new wave of animators change the animation landscape?
JOHN: Well right now, it’s made it easier for non-skilled artists to break into the business.
So TV cartoons have become cheaper and more amateurish as a result.
I think Flash is a temporary fix. It was a good thing for the internet because it allowed you to make animation with small file sizes, but it also makes “tweens” which really makes animation look cheesy. Too many people rely on it to make things mathematically smooth, which to me looks very fake and cold.
It ought to be easy to make a program just for animators and build in classic principles, real brush and paint tools to make it easier for us to learn the things that the animators of the 30s took a decade to learn.
AARON: You once mentioned that your “breakfast diet was planned by Bugs Bunny, Yogi Bear and Rocky Squirrel.” Recent studies have revealed that “less than 2% of television commercials are for foods that promote a balanced diet.” With the spiraling obesity and childhood diabetes epidemics in America, do you think that children’s advertisers should be regulated?
JOHN: No. But companies that make healthier products should jump on the bandwagon and get me to create mascots for them and cartoons that entertain kids and sell the healthy foods. Lots of healthy food actually tastes good and most fast foods taste like crap.
When I was a kid I ate whatever cereal had the best cartoon character on the box and had the best prize. Most cereal doesn’t taste very good anyway. We just ate it so we could get the next box and prize.
I’m amazed at how amateurish the graphics are now even on the big name cereals. They don’t even look fun anymore. I could cure that so easily. Hell, kids wanted to buy Log just because of the commercial! I’m obsessed with packaging and would love to find sponsors that see that making their products seem fun will sell a lot more products.
Watch the Tony Mora Pizza commercial by Spümcø
Watch the Ultimate Fighting commercial featuring George Liquor by Spümcø
Watch the Rice Patooties commercial featuring Wally Whimsy by Spümcø
JOHN: Well it started with Bakshi’s Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures and Pee Wee Herman. Those were kid shows, but with layers of perversion in them. Then The Simpsons came along and did edgy material in prime time cartoons.
Ren and Stimpy was known initially for its “edgy” and gross humor, but much of what we did then seems pretty soft compared to Beavis and Butthead, South Park, Family Guy and others that followed.
Sometimes now when I do stuff that’s “edgy,” it’s not really edgy at all by today’s standards but further than the original Ren and Stimpy. If I went as far as South Park or Tenacious D (whose live-action videos are hilarious but filthy), my fans would murder me. I sort of created a monster that I can’t completely benefit from myself. Some people today complain that I go farther than the original show, not remembering how relatively shocking the first season of Ren and Stimpy was. Now, no one would think twice about a fart or booger joke – let alone a gay joke! Even live action does this stuff now. I don’t ever purposely try to be “edgy” or even controversial, I just do what my friends and I think is funny.
But I’m gonna cut back on some edginess now so people can pay attention to more lasting qualities – like acting, funny visual humor, pure cartoon stuff and rich characters. The one potentially “edgy” thing I want to keep doing though is sexy girl stuff. No one else seems to do much of that in cartoons and I can’t figure out why. Violence seems to be just fine in today’s culture but some folks freak out at good, old, all-American lust. What is so damned horrible about well formed perky titties? Mike Fontanelli’s theory is that every movie should have a couple good, naked girl scenes. Then if you hate the story or it has bad acting, at least you can say “well I gotta a couple good titties for my 10 bucks.” Not that I plan to make bad stories just so I can have titties, but I don’t plan on skimping on cheesecake.
I’m also planning on doing some kid shows that are “safe” for your kids to watch. I love kid stuff. I collect old kid shows, cartoons and toys and I would like to see every generation of kids have some pure cartoon humor and funny characters. It’s funny how taboos change over generations. Old cartoons that were fine for kids for 50 years are now deemed too edgy. Every kid who sees Popeye loves him, but you can’t get it on TV. When they’re rarely shown Looney Tunes are cut to Hell. Crazy times! Poor kids today.
I’m also making toys in the old style – kind of a satire of old toys. Off-model and the wrong colors on purpose. Like these.
AARON: Your recent music video for Tenacious D was a big hit on the internet, and you’d collaborated with Jack and Kyle prior that on Fuck Her Gently. Do you have any future plans to work with Tenacious D?
JOHN: My plan is to do anything that Jack and Kyle want me to do. I am making toys for them now.
[MEDIA=30]AARON: Are there any other current bands that you’d like to animate a music video for?
JOHN: The ones that have the most money to spend. That would probably be the bands and “artists” I hate the most. The ones that talk their songs instead of sing them.Creatively, I’d like to animate videos for Burl Ives, Elvis, Count Basie and lots of old time music. I wish there was a market for it. I’m going to try to create one.
AARON: How did you wind up teaming with Copernicus Studios?
JOHN: Jess Borutski, a wonderful animator in Ottawa, hooked me up with them. I’ve had trouble with some service studios before. Many of them throw out the work you send them and redo it in the local style. The animators at Copernicus were fans and wanted to learn how I make my stuff look and move the way it does. They are dedicated to plussing the style rather than watering it down. They are great to work with.I also mandated that they do their best to not use Flash tricks and to try to make it look as organic as possible, not all “tweeny.” It’s impossible to completely hide the fact that it’s Flash, but they do as good a job as is possible.
AARON: Robert Crumb claims that when he was a child he was sexually aroused by Bugs Bunny. What artists do you think have made the sexiest animated characters?
JOHN: Ha ha. There aren’t too many sexy girls in animation for some unfortunate reason, but Rod Scribner’s Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs is great. I love Owen Fitzgerald‘s pretty girl comics. I like Harry Lucey – his Betty and Veronica comics of the 50s and 60s.
[MEDIA=31]AARON: Over the years, many have claimed that Coal Black has racist undertones. Do you agree?
JOHN: No, not in the least.It glorifies black jazz music. Clampett was a big fan of popular music and frequented the black clubs.
AARON: Imagine that you were creating the curriculum for an animation college. What course titles would you start with (like: Pencils Gone Wild – Jim Tyer’s Crazy Drawings)?
JOHN: I’m actually going to do a blog post breaking down my ultimate cartoon school course, year by year.I sure wouldn’t start with Jim Tyer or “crazy” stuff! I would teach power skills and would have the students learn principles in the same order that the original classic animators did.1ST YEAR
- Rubber hose animation
- Walks, runs, basic movement
- Basic lip synch
- Figure 8 motions
- Animating to beats
- ¾ walks with animating backgrounds
- How to read and write ex sheets
- Animating the impossible – using the medium to do what only animation can do
- History of cartoons, comics and animation from around 1920 till about 1965 – this would be every year and each year I would have the students study aspects of classic cartoons that relate to their exercises
- Life Drawing with an emphasis on slow careful drawings, structure, perspective and proportions
- Observation over style: Learning to use your eyes and senses to analyze, rather than copying trendy styles
- Music, Dance (every year)
- 40s principles of animation
- Using simple organic characters made of pears and spheres
- Basic acting, staging, timing
- Observation and application
- More Life Drawing
- Applying concepts from Life Drawing to your animation
- Caricature of bodies as well as heads
- Character animation
- Animating different types of designs
- Solving design/animation problems – animating cartoon designs from media other than animation-comic strips, magazine cartoons, etc.
- Advanced acting and dialogue animation – timing and pacing
- Animating caricatures
- Animating specific gestures and expressions that your fellow students make
- I’ll have to think about this one… maybe make a film.
If there was a school like this, the graduates of the first 4 years of the program would revolutionize the medium and no one else could compete with them.
AARON: Many of today’s aspiring animators are using Flash for what is commonly called ‘limited-animation.’ What could these artists learn from studying Ed Benedict?
JOHN: Make your characters characters and not mere designs. They need to learn from the same principles that Ed learned from. I wish young artists would be less concerned about “design” and be more concerned with important stuff, like good drawing and entertainment.
I love Ed, but I can see how his designs work because I know the principles behind them.
You can’t start by being a designer. You need to do things with solid principles for years, and even then, only a very few artists really have design talent to begin with.
The general public doesn’t care about design in the abstract; they want entertainment. If Ed’s characters didn’t seem like real characters, it wouldn’t impress any normal person.
Today people rely on flat “design” because it doesn’t involve any learning curve or skills.
I would like to go back to designing for character, rather than designing flat because it’s easy and supposedly cool.
AARON: Do see any value in returning to TV or feature film in the future?
JOHN: Not unless the whole system changes to favor creator-driven cartoons again.
All the networks have their own in-house studios now. They are basically closed monopolies. They are not interested in having independent studios compete with them. Even if they did buy a show, I would have to give up the rights to it. On top of that, every time I do a new TV series I have to train a whole new staff to do it and networks don’t include training costs in their budgets so I end up spending my own salary and profits to train people. Then when the show is over, the networks snap up my trained crew that they didn’t have to pay for and make them work at a tenth of their ability.
There isn’t a whole lot of incentive to make shows for networks anymore – unless I do what the old TV studios do and pocket half the budget and ship to the cheapest countries. I can’t seem to bring myself to do that. And the networks would then look at the shoddy product and say, “Well, I guess John isn’t creative anymore.” That happened on Ripping Friends, only I still spent my own money on training.
[MEDIA=32]I personally think TV is going to die anyway. I don’t see how it can sustain itself. Each network continues to grow in size and management staff, while the ratings go down. That can’t go on forever. I’m still betting on the web to change everything and give creativity and sincere entertainers a chance to thrive again.
AARON: Name 5 young artists who you admire.
JOHN: If I only name 5, another 20 will be offended!
But Katie Rice is a genius, I think. I’m in awe of her ideas and constant invention.Eric Bauza, Fred Osmond, Nick Cross, Kali Fontecchio, Kristy Gordon, Lorelay Bove, Helder Mendonca, Jess Borutski, Marlo Meekins, Brianne Drouhard…There are many more!
JOHN: Betty Boop (the black and whites)
The Fleischer Popeyes (releases July 31st, 2007)
AARON: What current animated series do you regularly watch?
JOHN: Every couple weeks or so I tune in to the Fox sitcoms to see if I can find anything interesting. King Of The Hill has some funny stuff.
AARON: For an aspiring animator just starting out – do you have any words of advice?
JOHN: Well I would say, the more time you spend honing real drawing skills and fundamentals, the more tools you will have to create something out of. If you just copy trendy styles, you will be severely handicapped in what you can create. Each modern style has built in limitations. The better you can draw, the more you can learn and observe and interpret, the more of a creative powerhouse you will be.Go back and learn the history of not only animated cartoons, but comics and all kinds of cartoons and illustration. Draw from a wide variety of inspiration, not just Pixar films, Spumco or Cartoon Network. Go to the ASIFA Archive, be amazed at the potential of cartooning and be inspired.Observe the world around you and find ways to draw it based on your observations, rather than filtering it through an existing style.If this next generation of kids would abandon trend-thinking and went back to basics, they could make the best cartoons ever!