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Baseman in Wackyland: Squashing and Stretching 'Teacher’s Pet' to Fill the Big Screen

Bill Desowitz interviews Teacher's Pet creator Gary Baseman about his pet projects jump to the big screen.

Teacher's Pet creator Gary Baseman. All images. © 2004 Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. All rights reserved. All other uses require prior written consent of Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.

Gary Baseman, the talented, prolific and offbeat illustrator/designer, cant say enough about his latest creation, the Disney Teachers Pet feature that opens Jan. 16, 2004. He told AWN what it was like taking Spot/Scott, Leonard, Mr. Jolly, Pretty Boy and the rest of the fetching gang on their wacky, subversive journey to the big screen.

Bill Desowitz: What did you learn most in making the transition from series to feature?

Gary Baseman: The timing -- I had to play with the art. Just the act of storytelling. We were very fortunate that wed already spent a year knowing our characters, knowing Scott and Jolly and Leonard and Pretty Boy. You know, they felt like real flesh and blood and wed already seen them animated. Taking that and then creating and finding the right kind of story that we wanted to tell. And on each aspect, how to play with the music. In the series, the music was very rich and continuous and really pushed the story. That worked on the small screen, but on the big screen we realized we needed more pacing. We didnt what to overwhelm the audience. We didnt want to kill them.

BD: So you pick and choose your spots.

GB: Exactly. But, also, in taking my art and creating it for the big screen, some things that work really well on TV become too graphic or jarring. And then also with the backgrounds, we made a decision to play with depth a little bit more -- with light and shadow. Because, again, all the backgrounds are painted on canvas, but on the big screen we dont want to feel like theyre standing up in front of a curtain. We still want to give the sense that theyre living in this world. We wanted to emulate that they were created on canvas.

BD: Although the texture literally makes it look like a large canvas.

GB: Exactly. So we played with the sense of detail and pacing and storytelling to make it work on film.

Scott (i.e. Spot) and Leonard dance to the big screen.

BD: And obviously making things bigger in every way -- squashing and stretching, more cartoony, more theatrical.

GB: And I think that we succeeded really, really well. It wasnt made by committee; it was a labor of love. Timothy Björklund did such a brilliant job directing this thing. And Bill and Cheri Steinkellner were just so funny. And as wonderful as their script was, the moment the voice cast recorded it, they made it even better. I would just be in awe of Nathan Lane. He made the script 30% better just by his readings. And then with the big screen we also had more time to nurture the film. To nurture the story, to see what played well and what didnt play well.

Director Timothy Björklund was an equal collaborator with Gary Baseman on the feature film.

BD: Were aware of your wild style even more than in the series, which fits so perfectly in a 2D animated world.

GB: Well, I live with it every single day so its hard for me to stay objective.

BD: But it really says something about the way your collaborators revere you.

GB: Oh, when I met Tim, he said it was his mission to make sure it looked like my paintings. You know that when we animated it, we were creating something that was new and different and that it looked like my work. And the one thing that I had to learn as an artist was that coming from being a painter and an illustrator, I love experimentation and change. To me, thats a sense of growth in my art, but you cant do that in a film. You cant have four fingers one day and three fingers the next. Or have a different color or different hat. For me, I love always trying something new. But when youre working on a film, youve got to be consistent.

BD: Talk about the Bob Clampett influence.

GB: Well, I grew up in Hollywood here, went to Third Street Elementary School and JD on Fairfax, and Bob Clampett lived a few blocks away from me. I went to school with his daughters from a very young age. He came and spoke to our school in sixth grade and showed us some of his work. And just meeting him and knowing and seeing that a real live person could do it really influenced me in becoming an artist. Let alone, that my favorite animated short of all time is Porky in Wackyland. You know, its just so surreal and funny.

Hes just a really talented artist. That was the one thing that Tim and I both had a love for: Bob Clampett, Tex Avery, the Fleischers, a lot of old cartoons. Thats the nice thing about Teachers Pet: to me its a nice balance of new and old. We kind of tip our hat to the classic animation, but at the same time its really fresh. And its not like were being retro. And even with my artwork, Im really inspired by the 30s and 40s, but Ive never been good at necessarily copying anyones work. Like even if I tried to plagiarize or copy somebodys work, it ends up looking like my own. So I have that gift. And also it was always important to develop my own voice at a very, very young age.

The style of Teacher's Pet is a mix of the old and the new.

BD: Well, its a unique zaniness.

GB: Oh, thanks.

BD: Tell me a little bit about some of the stylistic experimentation done in the movie.

GB: Well, we would try to see how things would work in more of an abstract realm play more conceptually in actual scenes. For example, if the characters were going to be a little too dialogue heavy, I always liked using my background and then coming up with a conceptual image to get across the point that theyre discussing. But when it came to the film, we werent able to explore that as much because we were forced to tell the story and were able to play around more conceptually particularly with the songs. And you see with the songs that Tim did such an amazing job, which to him was so important to visually stimulate the audience relentlessly. And thats where we could play around with a lot of images that get across and just build.

BD: Like with A Whole Bunch of World, for instance, where you cram images of all 50 states?

GB: Exactly. But also in the opening and closing number. Again, we were able to experiment at the end of the movie with our kind of homage to fine art and to be able to just blast people where you almost need a DVD to see all the paintings -- how we did our own versions of these classic paintings.

Even the film's poster shows the Disney film references that viewers can expect.

BD: And what about the Disney references?

GB: They just came with the story visually they just worked, especially with Scott, who had his opportunity to become a real live boy. Certain classic characters could be easily referred to. But then we wanted to come up with a creative and playful approach that was actually important to the story. And we would put it in the script and wed put in the storyboards, and nobody said no, which was great. And also they respected our film and they allowed us to use them. So I put the Blue Fairy with Pinocchio.

BD: And The Seven Dwarfs and The Twilight Bark from 101 Dalmatians.

GB: Exactly.

BD: And how many different variations of Mickey are there?

GB: Eight or nine. I think its something for people with DVDs to have to stop it and take a look at it.

BD: Speaking of DVD, any plans to get the Teachers Pet series out there?

GB: It all depends on the success of the film. Im hoping that anyone who sees it will want to write about it because in some ways were kind of under the radar.

BD: It mustve helped creatively being under the radar as far as the studio giving you so much freedom with a $9M feature.

GB: Yes, that was the best thing for us to help create a smart, unique, funny film. They gave us notes, of course, but we got to stick to our vision. But now its a challenge to get the word out. I dont want it to be like Iron Giant, which was a wonderful film that wasnt able to find its audience.

If this first outing is a success, then we may be seeing more of Teacher's Pet in the not so distant future.

BD: Tell me a little bit about Hubcaps, your cocker spaniel, and inspiration for Teachers Pet.

GB: Well, he lived to the ripe old age of 18, which in dog years is probably 200 and something. He actually has two cameos in the movie. Theres one of him on the beach, when Scott is missing Leonard in Florida, which makes me misty every time I see the movie. And another time is at the end when Spot is running on the street -- hes one of the other dogs running behind him. He was a very funny, finicky, smart dog.

BD: Is there a lot of Spot in him?

GB: Somewhat. I mean, I dont think he was as literate and I dont think he quoted Shakespeare or Dickens.

BD: Not that you know of.

GB: Not that I know of. He did wear a beanie cap and glasses. But he was a really good dog.

Bill Desowitz is the editor of VFXWorld.