Suspended Animation # 304
Director Steven Spielberg was quite taken by Rod Serling’s television series The Twilight Zone when he was a teenager. He tried to capture the magic of the original series with his own 1985 anthology television show entitled Amazing Stories.
One episode that first aired February 16th, 1987 captured a great amount of attention and was directed by Brad Bird. It was a half hour entirely animated episode entitled Family Dog and featured three segments written by Bird who also provided the voice for the dog. It was the only episode of the series that was animated.
The first segment involved general misadventures around the house with the dog who was terrorized by the children, scorned by their mother and continuously criticized by their father. The Binfords were voiced by Stan Freberg (father), Annie Potts (mother), Scott Menville (son) and four year old Brooke Ashley (daughter). Unfortunately, Ashley had the same name as woman who was a porn actress in the 1990s and so that actress often was credited on her resume with providing the voice.
The second segment was a Christmas “home movie” narrated by the family with the punch line being the dog eating the ham meant for the big dinner.
These two segments were later released as a theatrical short to precede Spielbeg’s animated feature The Land Before Time (1988).
The third segment was the longest and had burglars breaking into the house without the dog protecting the property. The Binfords sends the dog to an obedience school run by Gerta LeStrange (voiced by Mercedes McCambridge) to learn how to become a “quivering, snarling, white-hot ball of canine terror’.
The burglars hit the house again and are attacked by the dog. When they return to their hideout, the dog is still clamped to one of their arms. A policeman busts in and the dog sensing another intruder attacks the policeman. The burglars decide to use the dog in their heists and become known as the “Dog Gang”.
The dog gets irritated at the crooks and turn on them so that their car hits a police car and they are captured. The dog is returned to his family but the final gag is the father is accidentally locked out of the house and when he tries to sneak back in, the dog attacks him.
A week before the episode aired, Spielberg cut the original ending where the father kicks the dog back outside. “It simply feels better to have the dog inside [at the end],” producer David Vogel commented to the L.A. Times.
Family Dog began life as part of a demo reel, created by Brad Bird not long after leaving Walt Disney Animation. Tim Burton who had also been a student at CalArts at the same time as Bird as well as being out-of-step when he joined Disney animation helped contribute to the design of the film.
His design of the dog is very similar to the Sparky character in his own 1984 short film Frankenweenie based on his own dog, a mutt named Pepe who came into his Burbank, California life when he was three years old.
As Burton recalled in 2012, “The funny thing about dogs is that they are so simple — you leave, come back 10 seconds later and it’s like they haven’t seen you in a year. People don’t treat you like that. It’s the soulfulness of the dog. There was this strong connection.
“I was trying to make the dog more general with the right kind of spirit. But when it came to going with a real dog, (using a bull terrier) definitely felt like the right type. They’re quite special-looking. The ones I’ve known have got good personalities.”
Bird had first met Spielberg when he had pitched him the idea of doing an animated feature film about Will Eisner’s The Spirit.
Upon seeing the demo reel, Spielberg was so taken with the pup that he asked Bird to storyboard it as a theatrical short. However, theaters were resistant to animated theatrical shorts since they didn’t seem to increase attendance and cut down on the time to re-screen the feature film for a new audience.
While working on writing stories for Amazing Stories, Bird was given a crew of twenty-one people (ten animators and eleven assistants) and a budget of one million dollars to produce Family Dog in just under a year.
Bird converted a warehouse into a studio in the artist’s district in downtown Los Angeles. The working conditions were not ideal but the morale of the team was high.
The team included Ralph Eggleston, future Pixar production designer and director of their short For The Birds (2000), Chris Buck, future co-director of Disney’s Tarzan (1999) and Frozen (2013) and Rob Minkoff, future co-director of Disney’s The Lion King (1994).
Others included Dan Jeup, Sue Kroyer, Gregg Vanzon, David Cutler, Alan Smart and Darrell Rooney.
Tim Burton provided character design and the music was provided by Burton’s long-time collaborator Danny Elfman, also responsible for other animation music such as the theme for The Simpsons. Steve Bartek was also involved with the music. He also composed music for the Nightmare Ned series and An Extremely Goofy Movie among other credits.
The show garnered high ratings but could not be nominated for the animated half hour special Emmy because it was part of an anthology series. (The first special based on the Cathy comic strip won.)
With the success of the half hour episode, NBC offered to buy another Family Dog half hour special but at half the cost. Bird refused. For a brief time there was discussion about a Family Dog animated feature film but Bird was not interested in what was being proposed.
CBS announced in May 1990 that it was going to produce an animated series based on the still popular half hour episode, especially with the name value of Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton connected.
Bird was asked to participate was too involved with The Simpsons and had his suspicions about CBS’s commitment to producing a quality product and whether the premise could be maintained in a series. In addition, he was supposedly upset that Spielberg and Burton were getting the creator credit. As a result, on the disastrous CBS series, Bird’s name is never included.
CBS ordered 13 episodes – a standard episode order for a new series – budgeted at $650,000 per episode, and Dennis Klein was hired to write the scripts. The show was rushed into production as a midseason replacement for the spring of 1991 but there were problems from the start including the scripts being a challenge to translate into animation. Sherri Stoner and Paul Dini were brought in to try to fix them.
Both Spielberg and Burton were distracted by live action films they were working on at the time, Hook and Edward Scissorhands.
The premiere date of March 20th, 1991 was missed by two years. Ten completed episodes from Taiwan’s animation house Wang Film Productions were unsuitable and required extensive re-working by Canada’s Nelvana animation studio for “fixes and completions” that added an addition $250,000 to each episode.
In addition, licensing deals had been signed with Applause to produce plush dolls of the character, a video game by Nintendo and other items including apparel and even dinnerware. When the series missed its deadline, the items remained gathering dust in warehouses and some ended up in bargain bins.
The episodes, with minimal promotion, began airing in June 1993 in hour long blocks for five weeks until July. Critics were merciless and ratings very low. The episodes were later released on VHS and laserdisc. Here’s one: