Powerpuff Girls 10th Anniversary Interview With Creator Craig McCracken
Like Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s web empire Google, Craig McCracken’s path to world domination began as a school project. While the TV series and the internet search giant launched within weeks of eachother, it was 1992 when McCracken first brought Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup to life in a student short titled Whoopass Stew! A Sticky Situation, initially introducing the threesome as The Whoopass Girls. The Google gang may preach their altruistic “don’t be evil” mantra, but The Powerpuff Girls immediately “dedicated their lives to fighting crime and the forces of evil.” Let’s watch a few scenes from this original short:
McCracken’s crime-fighting cuties wowed the execs at Hanna-Barbera, in particular Fred Seibert, who navigated Craig’s work into What A Cartoon! Show (initially dubbed World Premiere Toons), the seminal shorts program that spawned a string of animated hits like Dexter’s Laboratory, Johnny Bravo and Courage the Cowardly Dog. After producing four in-house shorts (only one was completed), the show was given a greenlight by the network for a 1998 premiere (all of this development material is available on the DVD that releases next Tuesday – The Powerpuff Girls: The Complete Series – 10th Anniversary Collection). McCracken’s college roommate Genndy Tartakovsky was already a rising star at Cartoon Network, having created Dexter’s Lab, when the two teamed up to produce the first season of PPG. On November 18, 1998, the series enjoyed the highest rated premiere in Cartoon Network’s history, setting the stage for a six season run.
The show went on to win several Emmy awards, an Annie award and in 2002, TV Guide listed their 50 greatest cartoon characters of all time, placing The Powerpuff Girls (collectively) in the 13th spot – ahead of animation legends like Popeye, Porky Pig and even Mickey Mouse. A theatrically-released PPG feature-length film debuted on July 3rd, 2002, and in 2006 an anime-inspired spin-off, titled Demashita! Powerpuff Girls Z, bowed in Japan. In the kids cartoon world, hits are often measured in merchandise sales – and PPG has sold more than $1 billion at retail, making it an mega-hit. Moreover, the long-running series played a major role in putting Cartoon Network on the map.
CHEMICAL X BY FEDEX
Ten years ago, when PPG first debuted, cartoons were almost all “shipped” overseas to studios like Sunwoo, Koko and AKOM. The production for the original PPG season was centered in Burbank, where recording, storyboards and timing was executed, but the physical animation was handled at Rough Draft, the Seoul-based studio. In a 1995 interview (conducted by the late Emru Townsend), McCracken had this to say about the outsourcing process:
Going overseas, I’m not there to supervise. So it is frustrating, and we try to control it and give as much direction here as we can, so they can interpret it, but it never has the same finesse as if I had done it here.
On the surface, The Powerpuff Girls series didn’t appear to suffer from all this creative jetlag, but when McCracken got the chance to plan his next production, he aimed to remove FedEx from the equation.
PRODUCTION COMES “HOME”
McCracken’s next original series, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, bowed in 2004 to record ratings. It was business as usual for the Cartoon Network hit-factory, but behind the scenes, the production pipeline was being re-imagined. Before the overseas studios got into the act, most cartoons were both conceived AND produced in the same building. For financial reasons, this model broke in the 80s, and penny-pinching studios found significant cost-savings overseas. But with the arrival of inexpensive digital 2D software, namely Adobe Flash, this type of production was again possible, and McCracken was quick to take advantage. Along with Flash-wizard Eric Pringle, one of the Animation Directors on Foster’s, he architected a system that allowed for US-based production of half of the episodes (the other half going to Boulder Media in Ireland). The show has rung up years of ratings success and multiple awards, further cementing McCracken’s appreciation for this new powerful digital technology.
Next Monday, Jan. 19, at 8 p.m. (ET, PT), the first new PPG episode in 4 years, titled THE POWERPUFF GIRLS RULE!!!, will debut on Cartoon Network, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the series debut. Here’s a 2:30 clip from the episode:
In this newly-minted episode, Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup return to their familiar roles, as do dozens of artists from the original crew. But, with the Foster’s experience under his belt, McCracken made a few changes to the production pipeline – namely producing the entire half-hour in Flash. Taking it all full-circle, this new episode is loosely based on one of the first PPG shorts, titled Whoopass A Go-Go, which was never finished. In the earlier production, the key to the world is let loose to evil forces, who do exactly what you think they’d do in this situation. We recently had the opportunity to interview Craig, where we cover Flash-animation, pop culture, musical numbers, and his thoughts on world domination…
AARON SIMPSON: If you ruled the world, what would be your first new law?
CRAIG McCRACKEN: STOP BEING STUPID! (to be applied as one sees fit) On second thought, that could get really out of hand. Let’s just go with free puppies for everyone.
AARON: You were certain to not include any musical numbers in The Powerpuff Girls movie, but you dove right in for The Powerpuff Girls Rule. In this week’s production, you poke fun at the more traditional Disney-esque musical numbers – was that your conditional response to “why not musical numbers?”
CRAIG: Honestly, I was Mr. Serious Man on the PPG movie. At the time, I kind of lost sight of how silly PPG was. So when it came time to do this special, I learned my lesson and fully embraced silliness and enjoyed being funny at all costs. Mojo singing was simply the funniest idea – so that’s what went in there.
AARON: Even though you’d had years of experience with it on Foster’s, were you hesitant to use Adobe Flash on a PPG project?
CRAIG: Not at all, I saw it as a perfect chance to get PPG to look the way it was always supposed to look. The show was designed with very tight, crisp, bold, clean-ups (a “clean-up” is the refined artwork derived from original, rough drawings). Because it was originally hand-drawn, the line weights always varied, but with Flash we were able to get that crisp look every time. Looking back at the PPG series, I realized I designed a Flash show before Flash was invented!
AARON: After several years away from PPG production, did you find yourself needing a refresher on any aspects of your own show?
CRAIG: Surprisingly, no. I was actually amazed at how fast the writing and drawing of the characters came right back to me. It’s like there’s this PPG switch in my head – as soon as I flicked it on, everything powered back up like no time had gone by. It was pretty cool actually.
AARON: As far as animation goes, would you say this special is closer to a TV episode or the feature.
CRAIG: Oh, the TV show for sure. The movie was a lot of fun and I’m really proud of what we did on it, but it’s the show that defines PPG for me. Our animation director Eric Pringle researched the old episodes to get the same feel as the hand drawn animation Rough Draft produced. Inbetweens in Flash can have this mathematical perfection that can appear a little cold. So the team was removing tons of frames, putting things on 2’s to get a warmer, human feel.
AARON: How many Foster’s team members had previous PPG experience?
CRAIG: 31 out of our 100 person crew worked on the original show. It was really great to have that many people come back to contribute to this special. It was like getting the band back together.
AARON: It’s almost as if Tears For Fears wrote Everybody Wants to Rule the World for PPG. Who came up with this pairing concept?
CRAIG: I wanted the Mojo quitting sequence to be all Wes Anderson-style – slo-mo walking with the perfect song driving the whole thing. I think I suggested it, or it could have been Lauren, or maybe Derek Bachman – I really can’t remember. I just recall that we were all laughing so hard at the idea. I do remember thinking “this is perfect, I just hope we can get the rights to use it!” Here’s an inside scoop: the reason we had Mojo sing it and not use the original recording is that it costs half as much to license the song if you have someone else perform it. It’s cheaper AND funnier!
AARON: There were plenty of pop culture references in this special – Spider-Man, Wacky Races, Peanuts – and even Mario Kart; and even more in past episodes – Wizard of Oz, Monty Python, Austin Powers and The Karate Kid, to name a few. Are you a pop culture junkie?
CRAIG: Yeah, definitely. I’m fully hooked on the pop culture stuff I grew up with, but I’m realizing it’s generational. ‘Cause when it comes to what’s popular now, I have no idea what these young whippersnappers are into today. I’m old.
AARON: Did Flash help speed up the production?
CRAIG: Oh yeah, it cuts the animation phase of production practically in half. But the best thing on a Flash series is the animators are right down the hall – it makes doing retakes super easy. We make the whole cartoon in one building like the old days at Termite Terrace, though today it would be more like Terabyte Terrace. (Hey, I like the sound of that!)
AARON: PPG has sold over $1 billion in merchandise since the first episode aired. Do you have a favorite piece of PPG merchandise?
CRAIG: I’ve said this before but it still stands true – when your show gets a Piñata, you know you’ve made it.
AARON: You’re currently playing a key role in Cartoon Network’s latest shorts program – Cartoonstitute. Is it similar to previous CN series incubation efforts?
CRAIG: It’s kind of a cross between Oh Yeah! and What a Cartoon! Show. It’s a fast-paced, artist-driven program without a lot of executive interference. The idea was to get artists into the studio and start generating new content that could be considered for future Network series. It’s going really well; in just 9 months we have 25 shorts in the pipeline and the Network is already seeing show potential in some of what we’ve done. It’s cool to see a new generation of artists coming in with fresh ideas that I hope can be the cartoons of the future.
We now switch over to Eric Pringle, the Animation Director on THE POWERPUFF GIRLS RULE!!! and creator of Prophet Buddy, for a few questions about the production.
AARON: Is PPG a natural fit for Flash production?
ERIC PRINGLE: Yes, PPG transitioned very smoothly into a Flash pipeline, but it’s not unusual – graphic/stylized shows look and work very well with the software. Now with all of the assets we’ve created for the special, we can probably animate another one completely out of reuse, except you’ll have to wait another 10 years to see it.
AARON: What type of research did you do to get ready for the production?
ERIC: I pretty much watched the entire first season of PPG frame-by-frame. It took a very… long…. time.
AARON: Did you and your team employ the standard overshoot-and-settle method of animation?
ERIC: Not quite. The antic-overshoot-settle method has become somewhat of a crutch that many Flash animators use to get their scenes animated quickly without much thought. I’m guilty of using this formula myself and have been trying to shake it over the past couple of years. As a result of us trying to get episodes animated within our fast-paced schedule on Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, this method was used throughout the series and kind of became the animation style for the show.
While studying the original PPG series, I was noticing that the animation felt more solid as a result of not jumping around and moving only when it really needed to. If we were to animate PPG in the Foster’s method, the special probably wouldn’t feel like the original series and, personally, it was very important that it did. So when production began on PPG, a rule was set for the animators to not use unnecessary antic-overshoots-settles. As a result, we either substituted these actions with slow ins/outs, or simply popping to pose without any settles. It was a little difficult for everyone to switch gears right away, and there might have even been a few unnecessary antic-overshoots-settles that squeaked through into the special. You can totally hate me if you catch any.
AARON: Tell us about the stock models you and your team built for Bubbles, Buttercup and Blossom.
ERIC: Because the designs of the girls are really simple, we were able to make the most complex Flash character rigs in all of Burbank, seriously. I’m sure none of this will make any sense, but we separated each of the girls’ elements into a series of layers and nested symbols.
First, there was the character symbol. Inside the character symbol we had the head, arms, legs, body, hair symbols each on separate layers. Inside of the head symbol there was the face symbol that was masked and then a thick head outline that sat on a layer above it. By symbolizing the face inside of the head, it allowed us to reposition the face under a mask to either make it front view or 3/4 view and to make it tilt up and down.
Inside of the face symbol, all of the elements of the face were separated so we could reposition or skew them individually to maintain an organic drawn look. Nested in the face symbol, there were three animated mouth chart symbols, animated eye chart symbols, pupil symbols (which nested the iris and highlight so they could be skewed and animated individually from the rest of the pupil), masks for the pupils, a series of eyebrow and cheek poses, and a hair symbol for the bangs that contained over twenty different bend poses for when the head would tilt up or down.
Then the symbols for the body, arms and legs were also set up – each containing twenty or so bend poses. Since each girl is almost the same design, we only had to do most of the rigging once and changed the colors on the other two models.
Setting up the girls’ rigs to this extent made it possible for us to animate the majority of their scenes with just the stock turnarounds. Aside from the turnarounds, we only created 50 special poses for all three girls. With Mojo Jojo’s rig, which is a bit more complex, we couldn’t get as creative, and we ended up creating 120 special poses.
AARON: Were there any surprises during the production?
ERIC: Our animator Kristen McCormick had a baby. She was going to name him “Craig McCracken McCormick,” but I convinced her not to.