ANIMATION ANECDOTES
April 11, 2014 posted by Jim Korkis

Animation Anecdotes #155

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The Spirit of Christmas. In 1994, Brian Graden was the head of Fox Broadcasting’s Foxlab television development program with such shows as “Cops”. He wanted a memorable Christmas card and he recruited two independent filmmakers, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, to create a five minute Christmas movie. With a $2,000 budget, Parker and Stone made a short where Jesus and Santa Claus fight a bloody war over who can truly be the “Spirit of Christmas”.

“I did the animation using construction paper cutouts,” Parker said. “And we improvised the dialogue, screaming obscenities at each other in my basement while my mom was baking fudge upstairs. It cost $750 and we pocketed the rest.”

Graden loved it and sent it out as his video Christmas card. “By February, we were hearing about it from every state,” stated Parker. “We’d never bothered to put our name on it, so the whole thing came full circle when a friend from Ohio sent us a copy and said, ‘You’ve got to see this’.”

In 1996 Parker and Stone sold the idea for a weekly series based on the children in the special to Comedy Central as “South Park”. Doing a weekly paper cutout show would takes months for each episode so they scanned in the original “Spirit of Christmas” cutouts into a computer and used CGI animation but still manually moved the figures to get “that organic jumpy look”.

Mr. Butts Goes To Washington. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health commissioned Sedelmaier Productions to do an animated anti-smoking advertisement based on Mr. Butts, a character in cartoonist’s Gary Trudeau’s comic strip “Doonesbury”. He was an anthropomorphic cigarette who was a shill for the tobacco lobby. The spot was called “Mr. Butts Goes to Washington”.

Director J.J. Sedelmaier remembered, “(The ad) was great because, as cartoony and as simply drawn as Gary Trudeau’s stuff is, you have to be aware of how the drawing has to go into a different realm. We kept it very cartoony because the Mr. Butts character is a take-off, almost an old Fleischer cartoon character. But I wanted Mr. Butts to have a lot of personality in the way he moved because of Billy West’s performance.

“Billy’s voice characterized Mr. Butts as a huckster. He’s a fast talker, so he’s got to have a lot of personality. Gary (Trudeau) was terrific. He’s so bright and such a good writer. The ultimte approval, both in terms of picture and track, had to be Gary’s. So that was refreshing in itself. When you do commercials, you usually have to deal with committees. It was such a biting thing. We did a glow where the coal is on top of his head because he’s a human cigarette and we did a bottom lit optical glow, and it transformed him from a cartoon character into the anti-Christ”.

The Name Game. In one of the Disney shorts that legendary storyman Bill Peet wrote, “Susie The Little Blue Coupe” (1952), there is a scene where the car gets stuck behind a truck. Printed on the side of the truck is a logo saying “Peet’s Ice”. Peet’s last name was originally “Peed” but he got so much grief from animators at Disney over it and the suggestion of urination that he legally changed his last name.

Disney Hits Bottom. “If you look at the Disney canon before I arrived in 1985, ‘The Black Cauldron’ really hit the low point. The refreshing and reassuring aspect I discovered was that no matter what we did in the future, it could be no worse than ‘The Black Cauldron’ in my opinion,” stated Peter Schneider, then president of Walt Disney Feature Animation in a 1997 interview.

Smarter Than the Average Pink Panther. When Friz Freleng left Warners and just before he teamed up with David DePatie, Freleng went to Hanna-Barbera for a short period where with John Dunn, he did the storyboards for “Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear” (1964).

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The Original Cats Don’t Dance. The original idea for “Cats Don’t Dance” (1997) came from stories about a group of semi-wild cats who have, for decades, populated the back lot of Warner Bros. Studios. The cats live behind the building facades where such immortal films as “Casablanca,” “East of Eden” and “The Music Man” were filmed, and are fed by stagehands who admire the independence and feline appeal of their four-legged “neighbors.”

“It was more of a Broadway show and not the sort of “Singin’ in the Rain” movie that it ended up being. The five songs they had were written by Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire, who had worked on the stage musicals “Big” and “Baby”,” recalled director Mark Dindal. “Randy Newman was not involved at all at this point. There are stray cats that live among the sets and studio backlots and the film was originally a story about the lives of those cats. So the original story had actual cats on four legs that could speak; it was more along the lines of ‘Lady and The Tramp’ (1955). The film kept evolving from a story of real looking cats to extreme cartoony cats that talked and interacted with humans but were considered a lower status.

One Turner executive wanted to change the film from the Forties to the Rock’n’Roll Fifties during the production. Several executives kept pushing for an “edgier” approach to the material during the years of production. Exec Dawn Steel came in and said, “Why don’t you make the main character a duck instead of a cat? Because my daughter likes ducks.”

Art director Brian McEntee said, “Of course, we were half-way through development and already animating and you can’t change the cat into a duck at this point. We always tried to be very polite so that it wouldn’t turn into a war, but it would always kind of end up turning into one”. Dindal did the voice of Max, Darla’s evil butler, as a scratch track and as they got to the end of the film, they ran out of money to hire a professional actor to do the part so Dindal’s voice stayed.

9 Comments

  • For some reason ‘Ducks Don’t Dance’ just doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily.

  • Exec Dawn Steel came in and said, “Why don’t you make the main character a duck instead of a cat? Because my daughter likes ducks.”

    and there, beautifully encapsulated, is exactly what’s wrong with the animation industry.

    • Absolutely. I remember designing an incidental young girl for a 30 second tease, appearing before the opening titles of a series. After the tease, she wasn’t seen again — to prove how insignificant the character was to the script. The note from the network executive demanded “clippies” be put into her hair because “girls like clippies,” and to get rid of her curly hair, because “girls don’t like girls with curly hair.” Never mind the fact that the (network approved) script was abysmal and had more holes in it than Swiss cheese. The best planned series are always screwed up by non-creative executives, who 3 years prior, were answering others’ phones.

  • “My kid likes ducks! Make it a duck.” Is that really how some decisions are made in Hollywood? Cats Don’t Dance is an underrated movie. The final product might be different from the original concept, but considering what they had to deal with it is well done.

    • Mr. Korkis, will you (or anyone more qualified than am i) please share with Whitney Grace the tale of how hanna barbera’s “moby dick” series came to be made?

  • It’s nice that we actually have a name to go with the “duck” executive. Usually these types of stories labe out names.

  • Cats are always good inspiration for cartoon stories. You’ve peaked my interest as to what “CATS DON’T DANCE” would have been had they gone for its original inspiration, just casual back stories on all the abandoned cats on the back lot. And I still haven’t seen this movie, yet.

  • Isn’t Dawn Steel deceased? http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0824406/reference

    • Wiki says she died at 51 from a brain tumor.Actually had a career packed with more than few successes.A pioneer woman in movie company management.This is not to defend her wrongheaded insight for this movie,but she took the blows like any good fighter.Wrote a tell-most memoir,”The Can Kill You But They Can’t Eat You”.

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