Karen Raugust looks at the production of Cartoon Network's first live-action show, Out of Jimmy's Head, based on last year's made-for-TV film Re-Animated.
In December 2006, Re-Animated, Cartoon Network's first made-for-TV movie to combine live-action and animation, premiered as the top-rated movie ever on the network among its core viewers, boys and girls aged 6-11. Its performance surpassed other highly rated Cartoon Network movies of the past, including Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends: Good Wilt Hunting and Codename: Kids Next Door: Operation Z.E.R.O. in 2006; Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends and Party Wagon in 2004; and Samurai Jack: The Trilogy in 2001.
"It stood out on our air," says Michael Ouweleen, svp, development and current series, for Cartoon Network. "It was the highest-rated thing on the network last year, and it holds up really well in repeats."
That success paved the way for the network's newest half-hour series, Out of Jimmy's Head. Like Re-Animated, Out of Jimmy's Head combines live-action and animation, and it marks the first time Cartoon Network has featured an episodic series containing mainly live-action footage. The show premieres September 14 -- coinciding with the DVD release of Re-Animated on September 11-- and will air on Friday nights.
Out of Jimmy's Head begins where Re-Animated left off. "We always saw Re-Animated as being a pilot, depending on how it did," says Ouweleen, explaining that the original production was meant to work either as a standalone movie or as a launching pad for a series.
The story focuses on 12-year-old Jimmy Roberts (Dominic Janes, who has appeared on E.R. and in other films and TV shows), who, due to a trolley accident at the amusement park Gollyworld, required an emergency brain transplant and ended up with the frozen brain of the world's greatest cartoonist, Milt Appleday. As a result, Jimmy's head is full of a cast of crazy, Cartoon Network-style cartoon characters who wreak havoc on his everyday life. "It's Cartoon Network's take on the usual kid-in-middle-school set-up," explains Ouweleen. The series has a "bent" world view, he says, but one that is put forward in a realistic way. "It deals with the normal stuff that our audience is going through, or will be going through."
The original film's creators and writers, Adam Pava and Tim McKeon, will continue with the series as two of the executive producers -- they previously were writers on Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends and The Life & Times of Juniper Lee -- and lead actor Janes also comes over from the film. But the network made several changes, both in the production crew and in the casting, design and animation, to smooth the transition from film to TV.
The original movie was a production of Renegade Animation, Appleday Pictures and Cartoon Network. Ouweleen says Renegade did a great job on the long-form animation, but Cartoon Network Studios decided to take the animation production in-house for the TV series "just for the ease of it. There's a lot of back-and-forth between the cartoon and live-action." The series is a Brookwell McNamara Ent. production; Brookwell McNamara's previous credits include The Disney Channel's That's So Raven.
Shooting a TV series is different from shooting a film, of course, and putting a crew in place with expertise in week-to-week production was important. "TV is a much quicker pace," Ouweleen says, pointing out that the movie was shot in about 22 days, while two TV episodes are shot every seven or eight days.
Meanwhile, creative changes included tweaking the animation models a bit for the series. "They're more kinetic, more animated, a little less traditional," explains Ouweleen. The characters needed a traditional look for the film, he says, since one of the premises was that the characters hadn't been out of the cartoonist's brain since 1945. That premise isn't integral to the series, however, so the characters can be stretchier and more modern in design. Ouweleen describes the animation style in the show as "more animation-y, more out there."
For the live-action footage, the series uses more cameras and sets different from those of the film, although the scenes continue to be shot in hi-def. Overall, the entire list of changes is meant to pace the show for TV. "It was mainly to make it snappier for a 22-minute series," Ouweleen reports. "There's a different grammar for a series than for a film," he says, adding, "A film is like coffee and TV is more like espresso. It's more concentrated."
The mix of animation and live-action gave rise to some challenges for the production. "We're learning a lot," Ouweleen remarks. But he believes the addition of animation to the network's first live-action series had several positive impacts from a creative perspective. "The animation brings a lot of life to the series," he notes. "It's not post-production. It's not just about making sure the characters aren't floating 10 inches above the floor; they're adding a lot of creative and a lot of energy to it."
Animators work on set, doing drawings on a Wacom tablet and basically creating storyboards on the fly while the live-action production is going on, incorporating ideas generated by what's happening on the set. "It's probably pretty harrowing for [the animators]," reports Ouweleen. "It's kind of production improv. It's very opportunistic. They have an opportunity to make use of the idiosyncracies of the production."
Although this is Cartoon Network's first series that relies predominantly on live-action, Ouweleen believes it still fits perfectly with the network's sensibility, with even the live-action scenes being "cartoony," and therefore accepted by the audience. "Live-action and animation are blurring so much anyway," he comments, noting that the network is open to all forms of animation -- not just 2D, but 3D and stop-motion styles, as well -- and to live-action. "Our intended audience doesn't have a problem with it at all. They're coming to Cartoon Network for a sensibility, for a cartoon take on things, even in live-action."
Karen Raugust is a Minneapolis-based freelance business writer specializing in animation, publishing, licensing and art. She is the author of The Licensing Business Handbook (EPM Communications).