So you think selling a show is easy? Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman goes behind the scenes of Atomic Cartoons to see how much work and time goes into getting a show off the ground.
A superhero for our times: Betty as dreamy student by day; Defender of Justice against all evil until bedtime. All images © Atomic Cartoons 2001.
"Intergalactic Rocket Jockey" and "Legendary Defender of the Universe" might not seem like titles one would pin on a small, red-haired moppet from Maple Street, but this sweet little girl is not what she seems. She may spend her time lost in daydreams or the pages of a sci-fi novel, but whenever galactic peace is threatened she answers the call as -- Atomic Betty! Rocketing through the universe in her star cruiser "Blinky," Betty, along with her companions Sparky the Martian and her faithful Robot X-5, fight for justice. Commander-in-Chief Admiral Degill of the Galactic Council must depend on Betty and crew to defend 4556.33 worlds against evil menaces such as Supreme Emperor I-Q of Lynxia -- well, at least until Betty's curfew kicks in...
An Atomic Mission
If young Betty is a dreamer, she follows in the footsteps of her creators. Mauro Casalese, Olaf Miller, Trevor Bentley and Emmy Award-winner Rob Davies spent their formative years working their way through various jobs at Warner, Disney, Nelvana and DIC. Among other projects, the foursome worked up the online series Space Cadets for Studio B Productions. In February of 1999, Casalese, Miller, Bentley and Davies founded Atomic Cartoons in Vancouver, British Columbia, and by mid-2000, Atomic was one of Canada's busiest animation studios, providing services to such prestigious clients as Film Roman, Cartoon Network, Warner Bros. and Sunbow Entertainment. In less than a year the young studio turned out pre-production on over 100 hours of TV animation including work on Milo's Great Adventure, Edd, Ed, 'n' Eddy, and Courage the Cowardly Dog. The Atomic team also launched a popular series of Web Cartoons, Dog in a Box With Two Wheels (which initially premiered on the Honkworm entertainment Website). Co-founder Olaf Miller informed Playback magazine (4/5/99) that, "The goal of the shop is to move into the proprietary production arena, developing shows for other studios and developing its own concepts." Here were new worlds -- and galaxies -- to conquer.
The conquest began soon after Atomic Cartoons was established. "The first drawings of Betty were done in mid-2000," recalls co-creator Trevor Bentley. "We were still at our old space when Rob (Davies) and Mauro (Casalese) first came up with the concept to do a show about a little bundle of energy. The concepts for the overall idea behind the show developed quickly. As I remember it, Rob coined the name -- it was a reference to a surfer/mountain biker term for a girl who tears it up. All four of us worked in a developmental capacity on Betty. After the initial style of character was set, Mauro and Rob did the bulk of the character design. Mauro initially sketched out a few designs and Rob threw a few in there as well. Eventually we decided on the basic character we now have."
According to Bentley, "At Atomic we try and develop our shows in an open, 'everybody throw out some ideas' kind of environment. We all brainstormed the specific details and the final colors. One of our goals is to stay true to the 'classic' style of animation while combining it with today's sensibilities. We love the old UPA shows of the 1950s. We really wanted to use the Chuck Jones timing and we wanted to get a touch of anime, at least as far as the pacing during the action sequences." Casalese agreed: "I was heavily influenced by Chuck Jones. So many aspects of the designs that I did drew upon his stylings." Betty in many ways captures the spirit of Chuck Jones' famous daydreamer Ralph Phillips, who starred in the 1954 Academy Award-nominated short From A to Z-Z-Z-Z. In this cartoon, Ralph transforms his classroom into an imaginary arena of action and adventure, driving his teacher to distraction in the process. Bentley also recalled another feature of the character's design: "With Betty we combined two opposite personalities; one being a shy, reserved Earth girl, and the other her space alter ego, strong and confident." Casalese confided that: "Betty is based on a real person, but her identity will remain a secret."
The idea, however, was too good to keep secret for long.
Trevor Bentley (top left), Rob Davies (top right), Mauro Casalese (bottom left) and Olaf Miller: The Atomic Betty brain trust.
Finding Strong Partners
In a way, Phil Roman had much in common with Atomic Cartoons. He had also founded a new production company in 1999 (Phil Roman Entertainment) with an eye on developing new animated properties. Atomic's executive producer Samantha Daley remembers: "During one of our trips to Los Angeles we met with Phil Roman and showed him some artwork containing Betty. He was very intrigued and wanted more. We solidified a presentation pack and sent it off to him. We had a solid working relationship with Phil Roman prior to pitching the idea to him, having provided pre-production on several projects for Phil Roman Entertainment. Not only did he really like the work we provided, but he realized the quality of work Atomic Cartoons will always provide. After seeing the artwork and hearing the storyline he voiced his interest further, suggesting that we all work together on it. And thus we worked out a contract attaching Phil Roman as the executive producer on the show." Roman's credentials are impeccable. In 1985 he founded Film Roman, one of the world's foremost producers of TV animation. During his fourteen years with the company, Phil served as executive producer of The Simpsons, King of the Hill, and many of the popular Garfield specials; he was uniquely qualified to help prepare Atomic Betty for stardom.
Producer Samantha Daley helped to finalize the deal with Phil Roman Entertainment.
The partnership was announced in June 2001. Samantha Daley told the press: "We are extremely excited to be working with Phil Roman on Atomic Betty. Phil is an animation guru and his experience will surely make an already great property much better." Phil Roman was equally enthusiastic: "All of us at Phil Roman Entertainment are excited about our new association with the young, energetic and talented team at Atomic Cartoons. We are delighted to be working on Atomic Betty, a project that is both unique and distinctive." The final handshakes were negotiated by Rick Ramirez for PRE and Cheryl Nelson for Atomic Cartoons. Betty was now ready to conquer the universe.
Going to Market
With an eye on wider exposure, the Atomic team prepared Betty's "pitch pack" for MIPCOM 2001 in Cannes, France. (MIPCOM is an international film and program market where hopeful producers of TV, video, film and satellite properties meet potential buyers.) Animation director Mauro Casalese worked with Atomic animators Chaz McKenna, Ridd Sorensen, Jeffrey Agala and Benson Shum to produce the three dynamic minutes of footage seen at MIPCOM Jr., where properties aimed at the children and youth markets are typically screened. As Casalese related: "I came up with the idea and storyboard. I animated along with Chaz, Jeffrey, Ridd and Benson. They also did the bulk of the compositing and assisting." The final demo, which went through several stages of development, was the result of considerable work by Casalese and his team.
Writers Dennis Heton (l) and Jono Howard fleshed out the story.
Several other Atomic artists, including background artist Warren Flanagan and designer Victor Marchetti (who styled some of the initial character poses), helped with the early development. "Warren and Victor did some initial work on the pitch pack," says Casalese, "but I decided to go in a different direction for the background styling once the demo got underway and unfortunately some of those designs were not used." Jono Howard and Dennis Heaton came on board later as developmental writers. They really enhanced the story ideas and helped solidify the pitch pack." Trevor Bentley recalls: "We were working on a service job at the time so any development was done on the side. Sort of like reading comic books in math class at school."
View the Atomic Betty trailer.
The result of their efforts was an evocative demo that would give prospective buyers and investors a taste of the product to come. Betty and crew proved tasty indeed; Trevor Bentley recalls the excitement of their triumph at Cannes: "The big kick was the feedback we received at MIP Jr. and MIPCOM; Betty was the first most-viewed North American property at MIP Jr. I'd say that all the positive response has been the most enjoyable thing to date." Atomic Cartoon's showing was particularly impressive: of the 758 properties presented at MIP Jr., Atomic Betty was not only the North American champ, it was the third most-screened item in the entire program.
Fruits For Their Labor?
The cartoon has a winning retro look, and a quick glance reveals that the Atomic team stayed true to their inspirations. The UPA influence is strongly evident in the scene where Betty's ship weaves in and out of traffic, and some of the scenes set in I-Q's robot factory also reflect UPA's modernist style. The transformation scenes and titles are clearly inspired by modern anime; so are the flowing combat sequences, where Betty twirls and spins from one unlucky robot to the next without missing a beat. The character designs are uniformly excellent; Betty sports a flaming red ponytail and large green eyes that suggest anime design while keeping the look of a young, All-American girl. Whether girding for battle or daydreaming in class, the character is expressive, appealing and fun to watch. Sparky the Martian is (of course) a little green man, who benefits from sharp, well-defined poses. Robot X-5 resembles a tin toy straight out of the 1950s, and thus fits in perfectly with the demo's "throwback" style. Samantha Daley believes that Betty's appeal will be, well, universal: "Even though Atomic Betty is based on a girl, we feel the show will reach both genders because it follows one little girl's way of dealing with the unfamiliar and sometimes difficult world of childhood."
One of the killing machines under Supreme Emperor I-Q's command.
The Atomic Cartoons team is confident about facing the challenges of producing the new series. When asked how their experiences at other studios prepared them for Atomic Betty, Trevor Bentley replied: "All the work we have done for the big studios has led us to where we are today, so it's hard to pick out all the specific lessons we've learned. Some of the key things have been the chance to work with and learn from some really talented and experienced veterans, as well as working on critically acclaimed, award-winning shows. As far as Betty goes, we know all the pitfalls of pre-production so you can bet we won't cut any corners on the model packs, boards and layouts. The timing will be taken care of here as well, so we will maintain the crisp, quick, snappy action and subtle acting that sometimes gets lost in the animation stage. I think the important thing to us was to make a show that we would want to work on and watch."
Let's hope a network executive is thinking the same thing and signing on the dotted line right now...ensuring Atomic Betty will reach our television screens.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.
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