Joe Strike samples a bit of the behind-the-scenes work that went into cooking up Cartoon Network's latest series.
These days kids' cartoons are more kid-centric than ever. Adult and even teen characters are falling by the wayside in favor of adolescent heroes who share the same age range as the six- to 11-year-old core audience. Chowder, the star of the new Cartoon Network series bearing his name, is likewise a youngster -- but he may be the strangest kid hero yet: a lavender colored, raccoon-tailed naïf who actually sounds like a little kid -- because he's actually voiced by one.
"He's a sweet guy with absolutely no impulse control," according to his creator Carl (C.H.) Greenblatt. "He wants to be a chef and touches everything in sight and causes trouble without meaning to. The character had been rolling around in my head for a long time. I wanted to do a story set in a really imaginative place about an innocent kid learning from an old master. There's a little bit of my childhood in there, but I pretty much threw into the kitchen sink what I wanted it to be."
Greenblatt may or may not have meant "kitchen sink" literally. Food is the driving force behind Chowder's premise, and "imaginative place" doesn't even begin to describe Marzipan City, the whimsical metropolis in which Chowder's adventures take place. Considering the amount of eye candy on display, the city couldn't have a better name. Minarets and domed buildings dot the skyline, outdoor bazaars and food stands fill the streets, and the population is a sauntering mix of humans and cartoon animals. Richly saturated background colors blur into one another and Chowder is as likely to be seen running through geometric, stained glass-like patterns as one of those streets.
"The last time you saw those designs was in The Thief and the Cobbler," says Greenblatt, referring to Richard Williams' lushly animated, but little-seen, feature. "We're all big fans of that kind of stuff. When we did the pilot I grabbed books on Morocco and India and pulled ideas from that. I'm not the strongest person when it comes to designing a city, but I had a definite idea of a Moroccan/Indian/Dr. Seuss-type world. I wanted it to feel urban but take you someplace else, someplace old with tons of detail, curving pathways, bridges and plants everywhere. It was important to me not to have big areas of flat colors. I wanted it to look like a show you could just touch and feel."
The young Chowder is apprentice to centuries-old chef Mung Daal, and if you've noticed a pattern here, you're not wrong. All its characters are named after comestibles, from Mung's assistant Shnitzel or rival Mrs. Endive, and Endive's own apprentice, the bunny-like, obsessed-with-Chowder Panini; Chowder is a show any young foodie fascinated with Rachel Ray might fall in love with. "Food is on everyone's radar," explains Cartoon Network programming VP Rico Hill. "Everyone's been looking for a cooking show for kids. I think we've accomplished that in a really silly, fantastical, cartoony way. It's a visually stimulating, messy show that deals with food. And we're not trying to teach recipes" -- unless kids try to recreate unlikely Marzipan delicacies like Froggy Apple Crumple Thumpkin or Balloon Animal Cookies.
That delight in messiness permeates Chowder. Production-wise, it is a mixed-media profusion of 2D and stop-motion animation interspersed with filmed, prop recreations of those exotic dishes, and even puppet versions of Chowder and Mung over the closing credits. "I loved all that stuff," admits Greenblatt. "I watched Pinwheel on Nickelodeon in its infancy when I was young, also Sesame Street and a lot of those shows. I saw tons of international shorts and they influenced me to think of animation as more than drawing. When we started, we asked Cartoon Network if we could put all these different media in there. They were nice enough to say go for it. It's given the show a unique look that can surprise you. A lot of kids don't see much of that anymore."
One of the show's more subtle yet eye-catching visual devices is the texture pattern -- for Chowder's clothes or Shnitzel's rock-like body -- that remains stationary even as the character moves around the screen. "I was thinking back to old Tex Avery cartoons," Greenblatt says by way of explanation, "where you'd see a guy move over a pattern and it would blow your mind. If we could pull that off it would be amazing."
The solution was simple in the age of digital postproduction: creating a full-frame background pattern and an alpha channel hole in the character for the pattern to fill in. "It was hard at first to get the kinks out -- it took a little work to make sure it wasn't distracting. Once our studio [Hong Ying Studio in Nanjing, China] understood that the patterns didn't move with the characters, everything fell nicely into place. They're delivering beautiful, beautiful shows."
When asked if the overseas studio found Chowder and its bizarre sense of place hard to understand, Greenblatt replies, "It's not an American classroom with an American boy in it. It's in its own world, so they can connect a little bit more to it. Like any studio, the hardest thing for them is to get cartoony and loose -- they want to be on-model. People tend to clamp down because it's easier to work that way. We told them it's okay to be rougher in your drawings and looser in your expressions. It's a fine line, though. We don't want to go so far off that things look weird. Trying to know when it's okay to stretch or go crazy is a learning process for both sides.
"I'd love to go over there, sit down and draw with them, but so far things are going so smoothly, we don't need to go and butt heads."
Comedy-wise, the show indulges in what might politely be described as effusive humor: the always-ravenous Chowder is capable of regurgitating mountains of food or sustaining a spit-take for 24 hours, and keeps a caged, floating (and noisy) fart as his pet. Sesame Street's influence on Chowder is evident, from its theme song sung by a chorus of enthusiastic kids to the title character himself. As noted above, Chowder is voiced by a child actor, 11-year-old Nick Jones. Greenblatt raves about Jones, who previously voiced Flower the skunk in Disney's DTV Bambi 2. "It was definitely a risk, but I was really adamant. In my head I saw Chowder as an innocent kid. For him to be annoying and chaotic, and yet still sympathetic, you had to have that sweetness that I don't think you can fake. I felt that what we might lose [in not casting a versatile adult voice actor] we'd gain in authenticity from having a certain quality of kid behind the microphone. In the end it paid off.
"When we did the pilot, Nicky was eight. At the time, we didn't know what range he would have, so we kept his dialog simple, but wrote it so Chowder was physically funny. Nicky's 11 now and we know he can do a lot of things for us. He can get in there and do accents, songs, he's amazing -- he's a ham, and he loves it."
With its youthful lead and Pinwheel influences, Chowder feels much younger than the typical Cartoon Network show. Greenblatt admits the network was "a little worried at first that the show was too young, too Sesame Street." Cartoon Network's Hill confirms this: "There were some concerns early on, but Chowder was just so darn cute. Our core demo is kids six through 11, and while it's not what we target, we're always happy to get the younger demo as well. There are visually stimulating things in there for them -- puppets, stop motion -- a lot of goodies. I think it's working for them."
Greenblatt's life is going nicely too. Tiring of his life as an art director in the New York advertising rat race, he headed west to L.A. and broke into the animation industry as a storyboard revision artist on SpongeBob SquarePants. "I moved up to storyboard artist and began writing as well. SpongeBob is an outline-driven show. You're given a couple of pages, then you put all the dialog in. We worked in teams and it was a really good learning experience. I was lucky to have that as my first job."
Greenblatt spent the next four years at Cartoon Network Studios, working on the Network's ultra-warped Billy and Mandy show. "The show was a blast," Greenblatt recalls. "Maxwell Atoms [Billy and Mandy's creator] gave us free reign to go nuts -- it's kind of scary when a creator gives everyone that much freedom."
The stint on B&M gave the network a first-hand look at Greenblatt's talent and sensibility. "I was definitely a known quantity to them, they liked my work. It helped when it came time to pitch my show: 'we know and trust this guy and think his work is funny -- and here's an idea we like.' It gave me the chance to do the pilot."
If SpongeBob and Billy and Mandy are the opposite ends of a continuum, Chowder is its center. "SpongeBob is sweet and silly, while Billy and Mandy is sarcastic, darker and weirder. I have both sides to me and it was fun to stretch that muscle for a while. This almost borders between the two -- it's like going back [to SpongeBob], but not all the way back."
There's more than a little bit of the sponge in... in whatever beastie Chowder happens to be. (Greenblatt's blog describes Chowder as a combination cat, bear and rabbit). "We're not trying to emulate that show," Greenblatt explains, "but coming into SpongeBob I could connect with his sensibility. I felt comfortable with his genuine sweetness and silliness. You could say it's in here as well, but it's more my general taste, which happens to cross both shows. On SpongeBob I learned how to balance character and comedy and what I walked away with the most was the storytelling aspect: you focus on the character, then the comedy comes from that."
Greenblatt isn't the only one who sees parallels between the two characters. Cartoon Network already had the show in production when Hill joined the channel from Nickelodeon. "When I came here and saw the show, I was, wow, this has the makings of a potential hit. Talk about SpongeBob kind of excitement, that's the effect it had on me. I felt the show had a lot of breakout characters and a unique voice the way SpongeBob does. I made comparisons I'm still holding onto. Chowder has that childlike exuberance, he's like a bull in a china shop. He wants to do good but he's probably going to wreck the place. It creates awesome tension and you tune in for that reason -- what kind of disaster is he going to create this time?"
Hill is also impressed with the impact Mung's hard-luck assistant, the rock monster Shnitzel (whose entire vocabulary consists of repetitions of 'radda-radda'), seems to be having. "It's cool to have a show with breakout characters. You know you have a really good show when kids are quoting catchphrases; 'radda-radda' is becoming social currency on the playground. Shnitzel is really resonating with kids and we're planning a lot of breakout stories for him in the near future."
Needless to say, Hill is pleased with Chowder's impact on Cartoon Network's schedule to date ("wherever we place it, it lifts up its daypart by a few percentage points") and plans to use its leverage to launch other shows. In the meantime, however, "we have a huge thing planned for him in July: the Raddapendence Day Chowder Raddathon."
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.