Mo Willems hosts a conversation over dinner with CTW's Arlene Sherman and MTV's Abby Terkuhle. What does this unlikely duo have in common? More than you would think!
August 6, 1997 Il Bucco Restaurant, New York
If you want to catch up on the latest independent animation, your best bet is to tune your television to either Sesame Street or MTV. For the past 29 years Sesame Street has been the repository of some of the most inventive animated shorts in America. By the time MTV hit the air, it took its cue from Sesame Street, and recruited independents to supply them with odd, quirky i.d.s and shorts. MTV pushed the limits of animation techniques, changing the visual landscape for almost all television while Sesame Street, with its loose format, eagerly emulated MTV's experimentation, commissioning increasingly eccentric and vibrant films. I recently had a dinner conversation with the two people in charge of this wonderfully symbiotic relationship, President of MTV Animation and Creative Director of MTV, Abby Terkuhle and Sesame Street's Supervising Producer, Arlene Sherman, to discuss the current state of animation and enjoy some great biscotti.
Mo Willems: What are you not looking for in a film?
Arlene Sherman: Well, I can start by saying that people that normally would come to me, they come with a pre-conception because what we do is for children. What I'm not looking for is something that would be typically thought of as something that would appeal to children, which usually means, not in a positive sense, playing down to them, stylistically.
At this time, the wine arrives. After a conversation regarding the bottle, it is poured and ...
MW: So, something that isn't a "kiddie" film. And you, Abby?
Abby Terkuhle: What I'm not looking for is formula. We purposely created a blank slate, a tabula rasa that we could always change. That was really the big idea behind our logo. So now we have hundreds of these animated i.d.s built up over the years, and it gets harder and harder, but its still possible to come up with new ideas and also to sort of re-invent the approach. So, as opposed to having the logo in the ten second piece, we challenge directors and animators to come up with the logo in a different way. And that extends to our long form programming, too. I'm looking for something that you wouldn't find on a network or in a commercial.
MW: That brings up an interesting question which I think applies to both. How important is new technology or formal issues? How important is it that they have a new look or a different look? AT: To me, I think a good concept is more important than any technology. It's not about which computer you use, its about the idea first. I find, some of my favorite ideas have been the most simple ones. (Colossal) Pictures did a Generic M, which was a bar code "M," and then we played Muzak [over it]. It was a great idea. We are committed to exploring new technologies, but I find the idea always comes first.
AS: I agree with that totally. The most important thing is the concept. It's really form following function. The idea is first, then what technique you use is what technique best serves the idea. MW: Have you ever come across people that have come up to you with a great idea, but the technique or the form of it is wrong, and you say, "Well, this would be great in that technique, or this shouldn't be cel, this should be stop motion, or, you know..." AT: I think that's happened, but pretty much I let the creators decide. I try not to muddle with their ideas and their choice of techniques. I'm not an animator, and I leave that up to the people. I let them go and trust they know what they're doing. AS: Well, I guess sometimes the people that you go after, you go after them because they have a specific style or technique or a sensibility. So that already is dictating what form or technique they'll be working in. But sometimes the idea may be generated from us. Some things lend themselves better to a specific style, to, say, traditional cel animation as opposed to, if we want to spend a little extra money ... 3D CGI. Those kinds of things do sometimes come into play. For the most part, though, since you're working with someone who's an independent, you're going after them because you like their style. And so you want them to work in the style they are most comfortable in. So, I think more than changing their style, you might adapt an idea that fits their style.
MW: That actually leads right into the next question. How important is the filmmaker's vision and how much can it be changed to meet your needs? Changed isn't the right word, maybe.... AT: For me its usually length. I'll never forget Mike Judge before we went into series. In a weak moment, he said "Well, these characters, should I draw them a little better?" And I said, "No, Mike. Don't touch a thing. They look like a 14 year-old drew them. They're perfect." They were kind of naive or outsider in that way. They were his vision and his characters. That said, if we need something that's 22 minutes and its coming in 24 minutes, we might say, "Well, we will make changes." AS: Well I think its actually interesting because, for us [Sesame Street], we are informational. We have to get a piece of information across, and time is not an issue with us. If I commission something for 30 seconds and it ends up being 32 seconds, or 28, it's okay. That's the luxury of the magazine format that it has to fit in. Time is really not the issue. It's conceptual that's the issue. And so, because I'm going after people who aren't necessarily privy to how you teach a four-year-old to recognize a certain symbol, that's where our input will come in. How's the most productive way, within your style and sensibility, to adapt for our purposes? MW: The really interesting thing there is the idea that Sesame Street is definitely informational. There is sort of "hard knowledge" that has to come across. Abby, do you feel that MTV has that? AT: Well I think first and foremost we [MTV] are about entertainment, but we have initiated storyboard competitions that have been around a pro-social theme. We've done those [Free Your Mind] for two years in a row. We started off with an environmental theme, then a world problems, and most recently, Free Your Mind has looked at racial, sexual and religious intolerance. We got 2,000 storyboards from every corner of the world. It was really exciting. We commissioned ten, and they aired all over the world. I think animators respond particularly well to something that's very educational, pro-social....
AS: You know what's great about it is that on Sesame Street you're never starting with a blank piece of paper. You're getting a piece of information across. Beyond that, you can go in any direction you want. There is all kinds of freedom. It is easy to call in 2,000 storyboards when you've got a concept, or a piece of information. I think its really interesting. Since I've been commissioning animation on Sesame Street, the thing that has really influenced our animation, as far as MTV, is that we use a lot of the same people. AT: We do. AS: So I think our sensibilities are definitely the same and the same kind of structural thing that we are trying to attract. We are trying to teach through entertainment and what engages children most is incredible colors, wonderful music, and innovative styles that are captivating. I mean, I got so many ideas, and signed so many people by watching Liquid Television. I can just name people like Jim Blashfield or, when we would do Muppet music videos, it really was inspired by that whole genre of MTV. The whole idea of Sesame Street was to make it look "as good" as the rest of television. We know kids were watching MTV, and they were responding to it. Initially, the animation was inspired by commercials. We knew, by studying children's responses, that commercials were highly produced, they were innovative and they were repetitive. Seen over and over again. So we took our cue from that. And you know when MTV came around, it was this whole other phenomenon, of taking musical form, and codifying it, identifying it, in some very innovative, wonderful, free ways. AT: Always with a wink. I think we share that. We have that in common. The wink is so important in everything we do. AS: Absolutely! MW: Arlene brought up a point...One of the things I found, working for Sesame Street, that I really enjoy, is the limitation. That is to say, well, how am I going to find a way to talk about the letter "S" or to talk about imagination....and work around it? Are there other limitations that MTV has, that are practical limitations, that inspire and make the work better?
AT: I think so. Our logo is not particularly user-friendly, when you think about it. It's a big, blocky "M." That in and of itself is a challenge, and I think for creative people, that excites them. It's like: "How do I solve this problem?" "How do I breathe life into this block?" AS: You know what's really interesting that you've done with the logo, that I have to really commend you on is, you're right, it's a big blocky "M." How many reincarnations of that? It's so inspiring; all of the different approaches to that. A lot of the people that have been rejected by you, then send me their stuff. So, I've seen the gamut of what you've chosen, and its all at a very high level, and it's so similar to what I do. MW: It really is an icon. That's the one thing that you guys have. I mean that is something that, even if you flashed it for 15 frames on the screen, people are going to recognize that as an icon. AS: It's interesting that you've kept that identity, with all different kinds of interpretations of it. AT: Well, it's really come to symbolize what our brand means. It's ever-changing. It's irreverent. It really symbolizes what MTV is about, and we like to even break our own rules sometimes. We've done a live-action i.d., one of my favorites. There's a guy who sneezes into his napkin, and says "Oh look, I've made an MTV logo!" So you don't even see it. It's an anti-i.d. Wow! What a great idea! An i.d. that doesn't show the logo. AS: Because that icon is so built into everybody's head, that you can do that. It's great.
The food arrives. What is everyone having? MW: The duck is for me, and the rabbit is for Arlene. AS: I'm eating Thumper.
MW: I'm eating Donald. That's okay, because Donald was a bastard. After comparing dishes and samples of food ('Want a bite?') the discussion continues... MW: I think we've established that there are a lot of similarities between what you guys do. There is almost a pattern, a growth pattern, going up. There is one very different thing, on a practical level, that I wanted to talk about. MTV is going more and more out of their studio. What is good and bad about that? And, Arlene, your work is almost all independent. You don't have any studio or any sort of set-up for animators. How is that? AT: At MTV, we still look everywhere for the best idea. The best idea will always win, whether it comes from in house, or out of house. But you're right, we do have a studio now, and we have a talent pool. We like to challenge that talent pool and give them opportunities to pitch ideas for i.d.s or programming or whatever. So, we have commissioned a lot from within, but I think its only because we have a good talent pool. We haven't done that at the exclusion of going outside. MW: Are the resources that you have available to independents that you pull from outside? AT: Yes, people come in and they can use our equipment. We can budget something internally or externally. In some cases, it might be cheaper to do it independently. MW: And Arlene, so the question for you is, you work solely independently ... well, even that's not necessarily true, because you often take care of music, voices and effects. AS: Some of that is a control issue. Some people are much stronger in terms of visual strength. We can provide them, because we have that at our facility, a wonderful band, great composers, good writers. So it depends on the strengths and weaknesses of people. Some people are the total package and some people need that help which we can certainly offer them. The economic issue is that necessity, is the mother of invention, and there are certain things that we can provide, because we are offering people such low budgets. AT: Another thing we have in common! AS: Certainly nobody is going to get rich by doing this. They're going to have a lot of freedom, and they're going to have a lot of fun. MW: Is that always a trade-off? AT: I think so. Definitely we can promise creative freedom, but you're not going to retire on one of our dimes. MW: I've worked for both of you, As an independent animator for Sesame Street, and on Beavis for MTV. At Sesame, I find that the freedom is tremendous. That's what I enjoy about being able to make those films. Every year I get to do something I haven't done before, that nobody else in their right mind, except for Arlene, would let me do! That's a great joy! AS: I don't know if I want that on the tape! We'll have Barishnikov coming in, wanting to be a tap dancer! Because we are limited by our budgets, the way that we can really exist, within the budget, is to go the independent route. We don't have any in-house facilities, in terms of making animation, or making that happen. We can, however, provide music, sound effects, voices. We work with all of these incredible puppeteers who have a range of voices, talent, to help the person along, both financially and aesthetically and conceptually. That's the way we can help the budgetary situation a lot. Where it gets a little dicey is when you want to experiment with some very high end kind of things. If I work with Pixar or Will Vinton, its because they have a special feeling for Sesame Street. For instance, when Will Vinton decided to go CGI, one of their first experiments [Hammertime] was on a Sesame Street project. They can safely try out their new equipment. With Pixar, I was helping to train their animators for Toy Story. They needed to gear up a lot of people, so the Pixar people and I had a mutual feeling about the show and sensibility, and so I would never know when I was getting another animation. I would approve the storyboards, then I would get these packages in the mail, with these wonderful Luxo Jr. pieces. I've had to work a lot with relationships, and use the good feeling that Sesame Street is promoting. Working as a producer is a real advantage there, because people want to work for the show.
MW: This is the question for people just starting out. Would you pass over an animator, that you recognize has potential, but they're just not there yet; it may be technical, it may be writing, may be aesthetic. What would you recommend that they do before they come back? AT: I think each case is different. Usually I would protect something. Even when the technique is brilliant, but the idea is not quite where it should be. So, go think about how you can give it a wink, because right now it doesn't have a wink. That's where i.d.s come in. I've been talking a lot about i.d.s, but we also do series production now, and that requires a lot of drafts, a lot of storyboard revisions, a lot of casting, and you don't get it the first time, it's a process. MW: What does the artist do? The artist may pitch a series or an i.d...the honest response is what? AS: Find a writer. You know, writing is so important. I think because you're dealing with the visual medium of animation, where you can break all the physical rules of the world, that it gets overlooked. The success of The Simpsons is due directly to the best writing on television. It's more real than any sitcom on television, that family. Look at any of them, Rugrats, and of the really successful animated shows, the writing is there. The writing is generating characters and performances that are wonderful. MW: Then by necessity the independent animator really should be a writer as well...a writer who happens to be able to draw? AS: Or seeing where you're strengths and weaknesses are. If you're a strong writer, you can write. If not, find somebody who can. AT: It is possible to find it in one package. Look at Mike Judge, with him it's voice, character, style, vision. That's rare. You need to team people together. A writer and an animator, a collaborative effort. AS: It's about putting the right group of people together. I always think you're the guy standing behind someone playing solitaire, saying, "Can you put that black Jack on that red Queen?" It's like you're really just sort of guiding this team that you put together -- hopefully to have enough faith in this team -- to let them do what they want, etc. AT: Judge started as an independent. He had done this cartoon at home. He came to New York, and I was so excited, I said, "Mike! We got money to do 65 of these!" And he turned white as a ghost...I said, "Don't worry, we'll get help." So we built a team of writers and we put it together. AS: You saw something, an independent coming to you with a very naive style, and you guided him, you said, "Don't change that!" You saw something in him. AT: It was less about the style, and more about the characters. He defined these universal characters. AS: My husband can't stay away from it ! [Beavis & Butt-head] MW: It's ironic that it's a producer guiding by saying, "Don't change." AS: I think that's the way if you're a successful producer. My whole thing is that if you see something in someone, you hire them, and let them go, because you have that confidence in them. It's a very successful thing to do, to say, "No, keep it the way it is." That's having a vision. AT: It was risky. It was the first thing. The animation people said, "God, what did you do?" AS: We are to a certain extent, in a situation where we can take risks. That's why I love working at this job. If something bombs, it's not life or death. Certainly if a series bombs, it's a bit more. But if a logo or an interstitial thing bombs... AT: We tend to put stuff on the air, we want to keep it on, but we air everything.
AS: Series are much different. Short form interstitials, it's not the end of the world. You have to just shrug it off and say okay. Television doesn't allow you that luxury. MW: I have a friend of mine who is a doctor. If I have a bad day, something went wrong with a production, I think to myself that the worst thing that could happen is that some child in Minnesota is going to say, "Mommy, I wasn't thoroughly entertained today." That perspective is important. Going on to define that prior question, can you estimate what percentage of your filmmakers write and direct their own films, and what percentage team up? AS: I'd say that it's probably 60% team up, 40% work independently, maybe 70/30. I often "blame" this on the MTV generation. It's so great talking to you, Abby, because we're really coming from the conceptual angle. It's what I tell young animators, it's all style over substance. It's like bad Broadway, when you walk out talking about the scenery. What I find with a lot of people now, is that they come to you with a lot of visual styles, but they can't write, they don't have a concept, so it's a shortcut for me, really. I have this great team of writers, they're wonderful. Thank you Mo, you're one of them. I can make up for that deficiency in doing that. MW: What makes an engaging character? Is that an answerable question? AT: I hate to use the word, but with our audience, usually if they can identify in the character, or find them relevant to their lives in some way. MW: Are you very aware of your audiences?
AS: We are trying to teach something, so we try to stay within the perimeters of pre-schoolers. However, what I like to do is challenge those kids too. I don't want to have pre-conceptions about them, such as a three-year-old doesn't like a certain kind of music, or get that book, or whatever. Kids are sponges. If something's engaging, and it's relatable-to, it doesn't have to fit into a box, you can stretch the boundaries. MW: If kids are sponges, then teenagers act like sponges, right? AT: Well, we're very concerned with our audience, because they change. We have a new audience every three years. They move through MTV. MW: Move their way up to CNN.... AS: Hopefully! They all share a laugh. AT: We talk to our audience. We listen to them. We like them. We employ them. MW: Sesame Street doesn't have any three-year-old interns do they? AS: No, but we've done some kids animation. AT: It's very important. We definitely want to lead them, too, and challenge them in the same way, which I don't think a lot of television does. MW: Talk to my generation for a minute. Talk to the kids who first saw Sesame Street and first saw MTV. Why was it such a logical jump, and what has changed now? What is my kid going to be seeing?
AS: Your child will be watching Sesame Street. The part of the show that stays the same, when the kid turns the television set off, he feels better about himself. That's what we want, self-inclusion. However, we need change. The child of today doesn't have the same needs as the child when you were growing up. We're very aware of that, and we're constantly changing. What does the kid need to know? What's happening in the world, or their street corner, or backyard, that we can do to engage them and relate to them, so that we can teach them through entertaining. The basic fabric of the show stays the same but the trappings of it change, and the subject matter changes.
MW: What about when my kids are teenagers? AT: Well, having a three-year-old myself, is very interesting, because I might not have watched much CTW or Sesame Street, but I watch it with my kid now. It's fun, and it probably hasn't changed in basic ways. It's kept those values. It's smart. It's well-produced, and I love it. When my kid is a teenager, I don't know, things will change so much. MW: There is something about Sesame Street though, that makes parents want to watch it together with their kids. Is MTV the opposite, i.e., this is not for adults... AT: Absolutely. Nickelodeon is based on that. MTV is based on that. Even VH-1 is based on that. They're all very niche-targeted services. I would hope and pray, well, let's just say that if MTV is not different when my kid's a teenager, then it won't be around. It's got to change. AS: And also the marketplace changes so much. AT: Hopefully, we'll share some core values of humor, risk-taking, unpredictability, irreverence, those things that both of us cherish. AS: How long have you been there Abby? AT: Eleven years. AS: So you've seen a change, then.
AT: Oh, quite a bit. When I was first there, it was all music, and what brought me there was the animated i.d.s. It was something that Fred Seibert had started. We've grown our animation over the years, from those ten second i.d.s to commissioning shorts from people like Henry Selick and a lot of the directors who did those, to Liquid Television, which is where we showcased them, to spin-offs from Liquid, like Aeon Flux and Beavis and Butt-head. And it continues from there. AS: Now you're doing a new version of Liquid Television ? AT: Yes, Cartoon Sushi, which is an animated variety show. It is more humor focused, and less experimental focused. But then we are thinking of "Cartoon Sashimi" which could be more experimental focused. They all laugh again. MW: That would be great! AS: I think humor is also something that we share. When people ask for a thumbnail sketch of what Sesame Street is, I always say it's a comedy show that teaches. We have the best comedy writers on TV working for us. That's why it works. We have these incredible characters. They can be funny, and they can do the corniest stuff in the world and get away with it. MW: I have a more personal question for both of you. What brought you to animation, both career-wise and personally? What is the attraction for you? What grabs you? AT: In school I had a professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, by the name of Bill Kuhns. He would bring in Eastern European films from Zagreb and Czechoslovakia and Poland. It blew me away. Here is not only a different visual style than the Warner Bros., Disney thing we'd all grown up with, but this was animation that was being used to communicate a political and social message. It was like, "Wow!" I had a lot of fun with this guy. I'd go over to his house, and we'd mix soundtracks. I wanted to work in the film business. I got a degree in film. I always had a love for animation, an appreciation for animation, an appreciation for art. I married a painter. Animation combines art with motion, brings the filmmaking together with the art world. So I had been at Saturday Night Live, doing the commercial parodies. Then I was over at MTV. Both were kind of dream jobs. But my first question was "Will I be responsible for commissioning the i.d.s?" You know, it was a curatorial job. And the answer was yes, so I went over there. That's my story.
AS: Well my story is that I started out as a filmmaker. I was a painter before I was a filmmaker, but I wasn't a good painter. So I decided to take pictures of things so that I wouldn't have to render myself. I worked for many years as a film editor, which was sort of the route that happened when you got out of NYU Film School. Women at that time, you became a film editor. MW: Yes, there was some sort of official treaty...
AS: That's right, that was the way into the industry. I lived in Europe, after I went to film school, for five or six years, and made some experimental films. Those were the things that interested me, music and art, and breaking the rules. Not narrative filmmaking at all. Then when I came back to America, I suddenly wasn't in the union, I couldn't find work immediately as a film editor. I got this temporary job at this television show called Sesame Street. I recalled when I was in college, watching it, and thinking, "This is so cool." So, I worked on the show, first as a production manager on a remote they were doing in Puerto Rico. I'd never been out of the edit room. I was standing there with keys to all of these blue Chryslers in my hand, wondering which goes to which at the end of the day. I was working with a great group of people that were really of the same mindset that I was. They were trying things, breaking the rules. I also felt good about it. I never thought I'd be working in television. I was a real snob that way. So I sort of worked my way up through the ranks, as a film producer. And that's where I got involved in animation, was commissioning animation. My background in art made it such an incredible marriage. I love being able to break all of these rules of the physical world. The limits are your imagination. You don't have to have Steven Spielberg's budget to do that. It's the idea that makes it happen. I became so fond of it, and also so fond of that independent animator community. It's so amazing, the talent and ideas that are out there. So, because of my connections with downtown artists and my lifestyle, then I would think to bring William Wegman on to do something for Sesame Street, or Keith Haring, or those people, at that time. I've grown so much, and I've learned about animation, and learned to appreciate it. Conversely, as I was learning, the whole animation explosion was happening around me. So, that's how I got into it. MW: Can anyone make a wild guess at what the spark for the animation explosion was? I'm not talking about a specific event, but why all of a sudden people were ready for it?
AT: I remember when I first started in `85 or `86, there was nothing going on. MTV and Sesame Street were the only ones supporting the small animation community. MW: I was in film school then, studying animation. People couldn't understand what I was doing there. AT: I don't know, really. I did an interview today, and was asked the same question. Mainly about adult animation, why is that coming to be? I think The Simpsons were a pivotal turning point. MW: That's more of an abstract think, I think. But what's at the core of it? Why did a certain generation of people attach to it? AT: We grew up on cartoons, and cartoons grew up with us. So there was an appreciation there. Also, to echo what Arlene said, its the visual equivalent of music. Mo Willems' animated films have appeared on MTV, HBO, The Cartoon Network, IFC, Sesame Street, The Tournee of Animation and Spike & Mikes Festival of Animation. He has won an Emmy for his work as a script writer on Sesame Street, and is the creator of The Off-Beats, currently in its second season on Nickelodeon's KaBlam!