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A Boy and His Whale: The Marvelous Making of 'Flapjack'

Thurop Van Orman talks about the creation of the hit animated series that started with a dream.

As a child, Thurop Van Orman imagined he was Captain Flapjack, an adventurer traveling the world on a flying motorcycle. Today, Van Orman's Flapjack is on the loose on Cartoon Network. All images © Cartoon Network.

He was only a boy, maybe 13 or 14 at the time, but Thurop Van Orman had a dream.

Not a dream of creating a cartoon series; that would come later. It wasn't an aspirational, "I have a dream" dream either. This was your standard asleep-in-bed dream, a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which he was no longer Thurop Van Orman; instead, he was Captain Flapjack, an adventurer traveling the world on a flying motorcycle.

The dream inspired Thurop, a born storyteller, to create tales starring his fantasy self. Over the years the "Captain" part fell away, but the idea of a hero with that unlikely named stayed with him. Flash-forward some two decades: Today a would-be adventurer named Flapjack, the creation (and alter ego) of Thurop Van Orman, is indeed on the loose in Cartoon Network's animated world.

This Flapjack is a young boy, younger than the junior high school student who dreamed him up. He lives inside a whale with the unlikely Jewish grandmother name of "Bubbie" who talks in the voice of a sassy black woman. There's a captain in the picture too: a disreputable seagoing scalawag named Captain K'nuckles, inflaming the boy's imagination with tales of seagoing adventure, much to Bubbie's maternal chagrin.

Thurop was a bit of a seagoing adventurer himself in his younger days. Growing up near the water in the Florida panhandle community of Panama City, the youngster could not resist the lure of the open sea -- sort of. "When I was 14, I wanted to spend the summer on an island just off the coast, living off the land for three months. I wasn't even going to bring a pocketknife. I was going to make everything I needed out of shells and eat raw sea urchins and stuff like that."

However, the would-be Robinson Crusoe soon returned to the mainland after discovering the island was chock-full of rattlesnakes along with the occasional alligator or two, and that raw sea urchins were not all that tasty. His subsequent realization that people seemed more interested in the story of his disastrous experience than they might've been if everything had gone A-OK helped set the stage for the future Flapjack's adventures. (It did not turn him off to the idea of adventuring however; Thurop would embark on regular trips into the unknown, where "the crazier things that happened, the more excited I was about it.")

Even his unusual name has an oceanic connection, says Thurop. Not long after his island misadventure, the Van Ormans left Florida for another water-related locale, Salt Lake City, Utah. On his first day in his new school, several classmates thought he bore a resemblance to Errol Flynn's Captain Thorpe in the 1940 swashbuckler The Sea Hawk. In a fit of mispronunciation they introduced him to everyone as "little Thurop." (One might wonder why or how 1980s teenagers would be that familiar with a 45-year-old movie, but Salt Lake City is a bit on the conservative side.) The nickname stuck and the young man formerly known as "Mark" now had a new name.

Thurop pitched Flapjack to Cartoon Network early on, but with no résumé, he wasn't taken seriously. After landing an unpaid internship at the network, however, everything happened really fast.

Thurop's career began at Zantaro, a video game company that worked for major game developers like Electronic Arts. It was here the animation bug bit him, and bit him hard. Wasting no time, he enrolled at CalArts and shortly thereafter -- in 2002 -- approached Cartoon Network with Flapjack. "They didn't take me too seriously -- the person I pitched to was watching TV while I pitched. Even though they acted like they had notes and stuff, I realized no one would take me seriously until I had some experience."

Thurop found himself caught in the eternal catch-22: "I tried to get a job to get some experience, but no one would give me a job because I didn't have any experience. I finally got an unpaid internship at Cartoon Network and then everything happened really fast.

"I started going to Powerpuff story meetings and then they started buying ideas from me. I worked really hard those first two years to make a name for myself, doing storyboards on Powerpuff Girls, [The Grim Adventures of] Billy and Mandy, Camp Lazlo. As soon as I started to make an impression, people realized there was this new person here who had some new ideas, that's when I pitched [Flapjack] again. This was probably in 2003. It was crazy, a lot of work, but everyone who does it and is successful at it, it's all they do in their spare time."

The five-year process from Cartoon Network's first go-ahead to Flapjack's 2008 premiere began with the channel asking for a show bible. "They wanted an idea of the dynamics between characters, how they would drive the story and play out over a series. It was actually really good for me to figure out those relationships before I told the stories. You kind of have to do both at same time but it saved me some heartache in the long run.

The story of how Flapjack and Bubbie come to know Captain K'nuckles is not fully revealed in the series. Thurop is waiting for the long-form version to dramatize the backstory.

"I looked at it as me trying to tell other people how to tell Flapjack stories. It would be easy for them because they'd understand the checks and balances of the characters, how something K'nuckles does influences Flapjack and how that causes problems with Bubbie, so you have automatic buttons you can push. You can always push Flapjack too far in the adventure direction or K'nuckles in selfish, gluttonous ways and it's going to cause things to spin off in new story directions. It's easy to pull comedy or character moments out of that at the same time, which is what you want."

The story of how the three main characters came to know each other is one that Thurop is only half-willing to reveal. "There was more [backstory] in the original opening title sequence, but we had to chop that in half. Bubbie and Flapjack found K'nuckles in a shipwreck during a storm -- he played it cool and sucked Flapjack in" with tales of high adventure. "Bubbie's resented K'nuckles breaking up their cryptic, tranquil life together ever since." And as for the origin of Bubbie and Flapjack's cryptic relationship, or the significance of Flapjack's name itself? "If Cartoon Network ever lets me do a feature, or even a made-for-TV movie, I'll put that stuff in it."

They're not exactly identical, but Flapjack has more than a few similarities to its channel-mate Chowder, starting with the fact that both characters are named for food. (One more such show and Cartoon Network's schedule will resemble a menu.) Thurop acknowledges that both shows star eager, ingenuous youngsters, but observes that throughout the history of cartoons enthusiastic kids have been pretty common, adding that he's actually seen very little of C.H. Greenblatt's series. "I don't even have Cartoon Network at home."

Beyond their stars' names and temperaments, both shows delight in mixing media and throwing stop-motion animated moments into an otherwise 2D environment. "The opening animation is done with real wood carved puppets," Thurop (who is an enthusiastic whittler) reports. "I carved almost all of them, and the wooden letters at the top of the show, myself when we were doing the pilot, mostly because we didn't have any budget."

If those wooden puppets in the show's opening appear to be sailing on a sea of cut-out paper waves -- it's because they are. "They're pieces of water-colored paper that was scanned in and animated in an After Effects-type program, then dropped into the show."

Flapjack delights in mixing media and throwing stop-motion animated moments into an otherwise 2D environment. It uses real wood carved puppets and letters as well as a sea of cut-out paper waves.

Flapjack's stop-motion roll-ins are animated at Screen Novelties in Hollywood. "We send over really specific notes as to what we want. In fact sometimes I go down there and animate scenes myself.

"When we were doing the pilot, we hardly had any budget. Screen Novelties couldn't afford all the stuff I wanted to do, but they let me use their facilities, so we became super-good friends. It helped us get on the same page more as well. I asked them questions on how to do stuff and they asked me questions on why I was doing things certain ways. We work pretty close with them; they're right there in Hollywood, so we're able to stop in all the time.

"Chowder also uses Screen Novelties for their stop motion, that's why there's a lot of similarities there."

Early Flapjack episodes seemed to carry a moral lesson -- the dangers of boasting for example, or the temptation to eavesdrop on others. It's something Thurop says the show has been trying to move away from. "We were trying to do that more at the beginning to help us stay on track with one strong story. I tried to have them be a little bit fucked up more from the beginning," he adds with a laugh, "but those were more straightforward. I think we've gotten away from summing it up at the end but we still try to have one [occasionally], like 'the point of this story is blah blah blah.' We try not to be too cheesy with it. Sometimes it gets to be a kind of screwed-up moral. But we like to have something that, without saying it, this is the reason for watching this episode, it gives you a different take on life and/or Flapjack."

The first batch of season one Flapjack episodes have aired and are doing "super great" according to Thurop. "It seems like we're still gaining a following, so when the second season (currently in production for Cartoon Network's 2009 schedule) starts, I think we'll be really strong. The network gave us a huge pick-up -- 40 new segments.

"We'll have a bunch more episodes before that, though. The first season was originally 13 half hours, but then they gave us an additional order. There'll be maybe 14 to 16 new 11-minute segments we'll be airing before the second season, but it'll be on a periodic basis."

Finally, it seems that Flapjack's name has a watery connection after all. "It turns out that 'flapjack' is a kind of seaweed and Flapjack has a little thing of seaweed around his neck, so it worked out by coincidence."

Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.

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