Martin Dr. Toon Goodman continues his behind the scenes look at Atomic Cartoons to see how much work and time goes into getting a show off the ground.
This is the second installment of the Atomic Betty project, which began in 2001; the concept involved tracing the development of one animated series from conception through sale, development, growth and production to premiere (and hopefully, great success!) It is my wish that the insights gained along the sometimes rocky road will be of help to the many aspiring hopefuls among our readership. Dr. Toon.
When we last left Atomic Betty in 2001, Atomic Cartoons was armed with little more than a short demo and lots of pluck, team Atomic went to MIPCOM and ended up with the third most- screened property at the event. Considering that there were 758 other projects competing for attention, Rob Davies, Trevor Bentley, Mauro Casalese and the rest of the Atomic crew had every reason to hope for success.
Still, it would take much work, many allies, fortuitous breaks and a multitude of changes in the concept before Atomic Betty could escape the gravity of pre-production planning and begin gaining altitude. First and foremost, Davies and company needed help in areas that were not initially strong at their Vancouver-based studio.
Trevor Bentley (left) and Rob Davies found themselves in a win-win situation when Atomic joined forces with Breakthrough on Atomic Betty.
Enter producers Kevin Gillis and Ira Levy of Breakthrough Productions, an independent production company based in Toronto. Breakthrough had already produced an award-winning syndicated series, The Adventures of Dudley the Dragon, and was on the lookout for potential properties. We decided to join up with Atomic after the (Betty) series was noticed and discovered by our lawyer. relates Gillis. That was about a year ago in July. The show was still in an early, developmental stage and the script process really needed to be focused. We made our first pass at a bible at that point (The bible is an overall guideline to a shows characters, including their appearances and personalities, as well as the internal rules of that given show Dr.T.).
Atomic Betty, it will be recalled, operated from the premise that a young red-haired moppet is secretly the heroine of Admiral DeGills Galactic Council. This fact is unknown to Bettys parents and kiddie cohorts, but is very well known to Sparky the Martian and Robot X-5, Bettys companions in justice who help her defend the known universe from nefarious villains such as Supreme Emperor I-Q of Lynxia.
Kevin Gillis (left) and Ira Levy of Breakthrough Productions brought writers, post-production facilities and experience in casting to Atomic Betty.
Breakthrough and Atomic soon discovered that the studios had very complementary skills Atomic had creative and talented designers and animators; Breakthrough post-production facilities, experience in casting, and, importantly, a solid writing team. The show needed good scripts. recalled Gillis. It had the ingredients all there but it just needed a few more, and in the right order. Broadcasters might love the design and the overall look of things, but what they really love to see are scripts and how the world of the cartoon is going to come together.
Although Breakthrough handles the writing, the creative minds at Atomic are given considerable and much appreciated input. As exec producer Bentley noted: The writing is handled at Breakthrough, but we are all partners and as creators we read and comment on every premise. Weve found that round-tabling the ideas with the writing team moves things along quickest and allows everyone to have input.
Davies agreed: The creators, specifically Mauro (Casalese), Trevor and I are involved with round-tabling pitches. As producers and directors on the project, its our responsibility to separate the wheat from the chaff as much as possible, so we are actively involved with premises.
Mike Kubat, Adrian Raeside, Jono Howard and story editor Alex Galatis are some of the writers involved in bringing Atomic Betty to the finished story stage; there are seven writers on the Breakthrough studio end. If something doesnt work we either re-jig it with Alex and Kevin, or it gets sent to the bin. noted Davies. We have some fantastic writers on board and the scripts are progressing wonderfully. Some of the stories actually originate with us, too. In this case, Alex fine-tunes them and hands them out to writers, depending on schedule needs.
It was crucial that Atomic Betty was highly consistent in all phases of design, character and story lest potential buyers raise too many questions about the show. Bentley put it this way, It is very important to Atomic that Betty follows our original idea. With the addition of Breakthrough, and the great writers we have on the show, its turned out really better than we expected.
Taijia Isen will now voice the role of Betty. © Atomic Cartoons 2001.
The new, improved Atomic Betty was now primed for success at MIPCOM 2002. Atomic and Breakthrough still had the same demo to show, but they came with an equally precious commodity in tow scripts. It takes one key broadcaster to make a commitment for things to really take off, related Gillis. With one major buyer committed, doors open to talk to potential production partners in Europe. In the case of Atomic Betty, the angel arrived in the form of TELETOON of Canada; M6, based in France, expressed interest in the hope that that Atomic Betty could be staged as an international production.
With interested buyers were on the line, Atomic and Breakthrough went to work in earnest. Gillis recalls, During the winter following MIPCOM we started feeding scripts to other broadcasters, Cartoon Network U.K. among them.
For Atomic, this meant expanding in two areas. New staff would need to be hired for production, and Atomic Betty would need a bigger universe. New characters were needed and existing characters had to be fleshed out. The show, as originally conceived had five characters, only four of whom actually appeared on the demo. Atomic and Breakthrough expanded the cast to include Bettys father and mother, Bettys classmates (who include a set of twins), as well as her teacher and principal.
Also making their debuts are a number of space oddities that Betty will encounter on her adventures Ive been asked not to spill the beans on some of these details just yet. The Atomic team envisioned visual designs for new characters and collaborated with Breakthrough in developing those additions. Existing characters also underwent changes as the process of scripting the show altered their original conceptions. We had to find their internal voices, as Gillis put it.
Supreme Emporer I-Q became Maximus IQ and was given a henchman named Minimus. The relationship between Sparky and Robot X-5 grew in complexity. X-5 was originally a jumpy but faithful clatter box who provided educational tidbits about the universe and its life forms; in the revised show, he is cool and controlled, a counterpoint to Sparkys impulsive, action-oriented personality.
The mix leads to some of the shows humor: Gillis notes, X-5 always knows just how to get under Sparkys skin at the right moment. We took the Odd Couple Tony Randall and Jack Klugman playing Felix and Oscar for our inspiration. Some of the changes made in Atomic Betty came from outside her respective studios. MIPCOM gave the chance to prospective broadcasters and production partners to offer some of their input as well.
Gillis remembers, Some of the broadcasters we talked to had good ideas. They said, for example, that it was hard to be sure if the show was reality or just Bettys fantasies, and this could be confusing. We got comments like, Well, heres the family cat that doesnt like Betty and the main villain is a cat. Betty has a goldfish and Admiral DeGill is a fish. Does she just adopt these into her daydreams? We got some suggestions that Bettys adventures be as real as possible for her. Theres no doubt that these adventures really do happen. Thus, Atomic Betty continued to evolve right up through MIPCOM 2003, which turned out to be a great success for Atomic, Breakthrough, M6, and all the broadcasters that hoped to bring Betty to worldwide audiences.
Scripts were the key. By then, Gillis recalls, we had about 15 complete scripts we could show or send to any broadcasters; they could read them and understand Bettys world. In other words, we were able to show depth. Word of mouth spread quickly, and Cartoon Network U.K. soon had interested parties from Italy and Ireland sauntering through Bettys universe for a closer look.
Success brought rapid expansion. Davies related, (Atomic) actually doubled in size and is now hovering at 40 people. Fellow Canadian Brent Kimbauer joins us from Klasky Csupo as line producer. We are also blessed with the scriptwriting talents of Mike Kubat, Adrian Raeside and Jono Howard as well as story editor Alex Galatis. We have experienced Flash animators ramping up too, and the directing talents of Flash animation vets Ridd Sorensen and Jeffrey Agala. Rounding out the talent are production manager Candace Olsen, storyboard artists Glen Lovett, Alex Basio, Louie Escauriaga, Lazarino Baarde and Samanta Palomino.
Now that there were enough solid commitments to launch full production, Atomic/Breakthrough geared up for a full 52x11 series (In the case of Atomic Betty this meant that 26 half-hours were being produced, each one with two episodes). 52 episodes is a tall order and each Betty episode has an individual Earth story and a separate space story, related Davies. It becomes very challenging to write 110 premises under a tight deadline, but were doing it.
Bentley agreed. Challenges for coming up with original episodes are always there, he said. Not only do we want to make Betty exciting and entertaining but we want each show to be original. Its tough at times because not only do we need to do 52 excellent scripts, but we dont want to revisit other ideas done on other shows. One of the biggest challenges is making strong A and B stories within 11 minutes. We have a great writing team so that really helps.
With a growing number of scripts in hand and production ramping up, the task of casting the show took prominence for the crew at Breakthrough. Gillis remembered the painstaking efforts in matching voices to characters. Finding the voice for Betty was very critical, said Gillis. We must have had close to 80 people give it a try. Theres two ways to go, really. You can use a kid or you can use an adult who has the ability to sound like one. Some productions wont use kids, because they get tired in the studio but its sometimes hard to get an adult who does a convincing kid. We wound up with a 14-year old girl that we thought was just terrific.
The coveted role of Atomic Betty went to Taijia Isen, a young voice actress whose previous credit was Sister Bear in the Berenstain Bears TV series. Most of the voice work comes courtesy of notable Canadian actors, some of whom double as standup comics. Len Carlson, who portrays several characters, and Rick Miller, who will be voicing Bettys sidekick Sparky, are among the comics who joined the cast. They ad-lib like crazy! Gillis admitted. It really makes for a more sparkling show.
Among the veterans is Colin Fox (Maximus), a character actor who has been doing cartoon voice work for more than 20 years while piling up many live-action credits, and Robin Duke, a former fixture on Saturday Night Live. Bruce Hunter and Adrian Truss (X-5 and Admiral DeGill respectively) collaborated on the offbeat Canadian comedy show, Puppets Who Kill, while Atomic Betty was still in its formative stages. Fully half the cast has prior experience doing animation voiceovers, but the real common thread linking all of them together is a background in comedy.
With a cast in place, broadcasters committed, production booming and negotiations underway for U.S. distribution, this portion of Atomic Bettys odyssey comes to an end. At the time of this writing, 39 complete scripts had been hammered out, as well as the working relationship among all parties. We have a good partnership because we have complementary skills, said Gillis of the collaboration between Atomic and Breakthrough. Its very much a team approach and has a very organic feel to it. We tackle challenges and problems as a team and are very integral in how we work together. All members of the team have a common goal. This show is our baby and we want her to thrive.
Editors note: Atomic Betty is scheduled to air on TELETOON in Canada in summer 2004.
Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.