ANIMATION ANECDOTES
March 5, 2021 posted by Jim Korkis

Jeff Smith and “Bone”

Suspended Animation #309

In October 2019 it was announced that Netflix in an attempt to more aggressively compete with Disney+ would be producing an animated series based on Jeff Smith’s Bone, the beloved whimsical fantasy epic.

“I’ve waited a long time for this,” Smith said. “Netflix is the perfect home for Bone. Fans of the books know that the story develops chapter-by-chapter and book-by-book. An animated series is exactly the way to do this! The team at Netflix understands Bone and is committed to doing something special — this is good news for kids and cartoon lovers all over the world.”

Smith didn’t mention that this is just the most recent attempt to translate his popular comic book into animation.

Jim Kammerud and Jeff Smith of Columbus Ohio’s Character Builders

Prior to the publication of the comic book series, Smith co-founded an animation studio called Character Builders in 1986 with Jim Kammerud and Martin Fuller. They were all self-taught, supposedly learning the basics from the book Disney Animation: Illusion of Life.

“We built our own little peg-boards and light-boxes, punched our own paper for registration holes, and taught ourselves out of that book”, said Smith. The Ohio based Character Builders supplied animation for productions like Bebe’s Kids, Doug and Rover Dangerfield.

In 1991, Smith released his independent comic book, Bone, which immediately received critical acclaim and complimentary comparisons to the works of Walt Kelly and Carl Barks.

After being run out of Boneville, the three Bone cousins, Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone, are separated and lost in a vast uncharted desert. One by one, they find their way into a deep, forested valley filled with wonderful and terrifying creatures and adventures.

Even Disney expressed interest in bringing this Tolkien-like saga to animated life but balked at Smith’s insistence on artistic control. Eventually, Nickelodeon expressed interest in an animated feature based on the early installments of the story and a deal was signed in August 1998.

Smith and Character Builders had art boards made up and Smith said: “We pretty much showed them the movie that we wanted to make: The Bones get into the valley, they meet the princess, they’re in the cow race, and they defeat the rat creatures. Very simple, straightforward movie.”

It would have been a complete film with a beginning, middle and an ending but also leaving open the possibility for sequels based on the rest of the epic.

At first enthusiastic about Smith’s participation, Nickelodeon felt that the greatest story arc was actually the character of the princess Thorn and the emphasis should be on her. They also suggested that the Bones should be voiced by six year old children in the style of the “Peanuts” animated specials.

They wanted to change the ending and make the mood and tone of the story much more kid friendly. They had seen licensing art that featured Fone Bone wearing green gloves (from a scene in the comic book where he was helping Thorn do gardening) and suggested that Fone Bone could have “magic gloves” so that he could make things grow.

However, the final straw that put an end to the project was when it was suggested that the film include a song by singer Britney Spears. While Smith admits he enjoys music by Spears, he had been insistent since the beginning of the project that there would be no songs in the movie because all the formulaic animated features for kids seemed to feature forgettable songs.

Nickelodeon concept art for their BONE movie

Nickelodeon had agreed, in writing, to no songs and now, almost a year and a half into the project tried to convince Smith to change his mind. Smith was told that they could get twelve million in financing for the film if they put in a pop song.

“I wasn’t willing to make it as commercial as they wanted,” Smith said, “When we first signed up with them to start doing it, they understood Bone and wanted to do it. But about two months later the first Rugrats movie was released It was a huge success and Paramount who is the umbrella company, said you’re going to make all movies like the Rugrats movies.”

Jeff Smith

The project was officially cancelled in August 2000. Smith said he enjoyed the experience and that Nickelodeon helped him iron out rough spots in the story, had a contract that allowed Smith to keep his rights when the project didn’t work out and that some of the failure to get the film made was the result of his own inexperience in the Hollywood system.

However all the time invested in trying to do the animated project did slow the production of the comic book series. When the animated project collapsed, other studios wanted to talk about doing it but Smith decided to finish the comic book series first and then re-consider how to translate the characters and story to animation.

Jeff Smith mentioned at the time that his “wish list” for voice roles would be Tim Robbins as Fone Bone, Danny DeVito as Phoney Bone, Bill Murray as Smiley Bone, and Tom Waits as the dragon. Smith also produced a limited edition “Bone” flipbook, primarily animated by Tom Bancroft, which he sold at various comic book convention appearances including the San Diego Comic Con which is where I picked up my autographed copy.

In March 2008 it was announced that Warner Brothers had bought the film rights to the series. Two scripts were written and rejected and third was started with the assumption that the script would springboard into three separate computer animated films.

In 2010, animator Andrew Kaiko created his own hand-drawn Flash animation test of Jeff Smith’s Bone – using audio from an existing Bone video game:

In 2012, it was reported that Patrick Sean Smith would write the adaptation and P.J. Hogan would direct. In 2016, it was announced that Mark Osborne (Kung Fu Panda, The Little Prince) was on board to co-write (with Adam Kline) and direct the first installment of a Bone franchise that was still planned as a trilogy. Warner Brothers began to lose interest in animating when having to adjust to Smith’s input including that there would be no songs.

A four minute animation demonstration reel was made and shown to Smith who said that it was “Fone Bone was falling in the water and going through cliffs and canyons. The dragon moved in from off camera in the shadows with smoke around him, all in 3-D. It was pretty mind-blowing.”

I think most fans of Smith’s Bone would prefer to see it done in hand-drawn animation but maybe CGI will allow this ill-fated animated project to finally be made.

6 Comments

  • I’ve read enough MAD Magazine to recognise the Don Martinism “Fonebone”. I forget exactly what it was, but it must have been something that had hinged feet and went “SPROING-ging-ging chuk-a-chuk-a!” The Bone cousins don’t resemble Don Martin characters in the slightest; if anything, I half expect to see them roll with laughter while asking “You want it WHEN???”

    I guess you can tell I’m not acquainted with the Bone comic books, but I’ll definitely give the Netflix series a look when it comes out. Since Nickelodeon’s not involved, it might be worth watching.

    • I believe Jeff Smith had been drawing the characters since he was a child. They each do resemble a cartoon bone.

  • Regarding Mark Osbourne’s proposed animated film, I recall he came to Columbus in October 2016 to secretly talk to Jeff Smith about the planned project. As a small cover-up, he was part of the annual Columbus “Cartoon Crosswoods” line-up of events (which Jeff Smith helps set up) where Mark talked and showed he recently released “Little Prince” feature film at the Wexner Center of the Arts which I attended along with John Canemaker in the audience. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that they announced the “Bone” project. Shame it didn’t happened.

  • I really hope if it is ever animated that it will be drawn. It would be nice if they can achieve the ink line quality of the series. I honestly and personally cannot imagine it as charming & appealing in CG.

  • Yes, “Bone” really needs to be made with hand drawn animation! You get SO much more personality and character when something is hand drawn in full animation by extremely talented artists.

    In New York a number of years ago I went to a presentation by the Blue Sky animation group. (You know, “Ice Age,” “Rio” movies, etc.) Now I think their digital movies are pretty darn good, BUT…. they showed some pencil test footage from their movies, and, oh my, what a difference even a pencil test was! The “acting” was so much more lively and nuanced. When you can’t get that much personality in a digital drawing, I don’t know why they keep doing it. I mean why haven’t they come up with something in which you’re able to get so much more personality into a digital character?

    Bone needs to be hand drawn. Put them into a 3D background that still looks hand drawn, too.

    • Here’s three simple (and frank) answers to your question:

      1. Because film and feature distributors are strictly business and have no sincere sense of artistic appreciation. Time and profitability are their bottom line.
      2. For them, it’s strictly about content and not always about satisfying the customers.
      3. Often times, they are more busy pandering to “concerned parents groups” and lobbyists than considering the interests of fanbases or licensees who cherish the integrity of the franchises concerned.

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