In this month’s column, Dr. Toon profiles independent Midwest animation company Perennial Pictures, looking at the growing trend of toon production without borders.
Seen from the street, Perennial Pictures Film Corp. looks much like an ordinary storefront in a strip mall. If not for a small sign on the door, one might pass it by entirely. If so, one might never discover that this small, but spunky animation studio in Indianapolis has been producing animated specials, pilots and pitches for domestic and international markets since 1979. One might further find out that Perennial Pictures created a sprightly short called Handycat that will premiere on Nickelodeons Random Cartoon Show in the near future. Last month I dropped in on Perennial to give our readers a look at this rarity. Nestled in the Midwest, far from the animation haven of Hollywood, Indianas own animation studio has quite a tradition and is hoping that greater things lie ahead.
Perennials founders and brain trust are G. Brian Reynolds, 54, and Russ Harris, 52. The two met during their time in local TV at Indianas Channel Four. Both knew that they wanted to work in film. Brian was determined to have an animation career from an early age: I knew by the fourth grade thats what I wanted to do. The first cartoons I ever saw were the old black-and-white Max Fleischer Popeye cartoons hey, thats all they had on TV! Hanna-Barbera were my heroes; it was so fresh when it first came out. In 1966, when I was about 14, I wrote Bill Hanna, told him what I wanted to do and sent him some of my stuff. Not only did he write back with a very encouraging letter, he sent me an autographed Flintstones cel. Brian lifted the framed cel from the wall and proudly showed me the gift that launched a career. His enthusiasm turned out to be infectious. I wasnt drawn to animation, recalls Russ with a laugh. I really wanted to go into live-action filmmaking. After I met Brian, things changed. I began to realize that animation was just a great medium. Every action is so controllable.
Russ readily admits to a fondness for early Hanna-Barbera and Jay Ward cartoons, as well as the specials produced by Bill Melendez. Brian concurs. I couldnt wait for the Charlie Brown Christmas special to come on every year. Especially after we got a color TV! As a creator of numerous Christmas specials, Brian can name his favorite without hesitation Mr. Magoos Christmas Carol (1962). I have it on DVD and watch it again and again. I have some original art from the special and I really treasure it.
A tour of the Perennial studio reflects the impact of Flash animation on modern production. In one nearly empty room sits a forlorn, backlit ink-and-paint desk and above it, long shelves holding colorful bottles of cel paint that have not been opened for a very long time. We ought to give them away to a school or something, jokes Russ, if they havent solidified by now. At the rear of the studio, space is taken up by an ancient Kem 35mm film editing machine that has seen busier days (perhaps in the 1970s). A rear storage area is crammed with a Frankensteins lab of camera and editing equipment that might have been used in making Mr. Bug Goes to Town. Beneath their mantles of dust is a virtual history of how animation used to be done; I wryly suggested that the studio could be kept afloat for years through the judicious use of eBay.
The heart of Perennial is a long, rectangular room in which three powerful PCs utilize Flash techniques and software to produce the studios modern output, including Handycat, their latest short for Nickelodeons Random Cartoons. Over the past decade, Flash has helped to level the playing field for smaller animation producers and studios and Perennial has been an economic and artistic beneficiary of this advance in computer technology.
During the early days of the studio, Brian and Russ created a concept called Mirthworms featuring a community populated by humanized worms. Russ remembers that, We worked on A Merry Mirthworm Christmas (Perennials first half-hour animated production) beginning in 1981. We worked on it in between commercials and it took us a couple of years. About three-quarters of the way through, our third partner and business manager Mike Ruggiero negotiated a contact for us with a distributor out of New York. Mike and the distributor were able to get us into the Showtime network sometime during the summer. The network said they would take the show if we could get it done by October. It only gave us a couple of months to finish the thing and deliver it, but we did.
Also thanks to Mike we were able to get international distribution. We ended up making three Mirthworm specials and we were funding them ourselves. Looking back on it, we really overproduced and over-animated. We could have done twice as much if we had used limited animation and scaled back. But there was always a market for Christmas specials. A company called Anchor Bay Ent. put up money for seasonal holiday specials and they were really keeping us afloat. We kept the domestic and international television rights to most of those things, which is where our profit came from. Another fact: both Brian and Russ are talented voice artists who provided many of the voices for Perennials productions.
Brian remembers that, A friend of ours, Greg Shelton was working on a Christmas special and we figured that if he could do it, we could too. This was in the early 1980s and you could still get an unknown home video product on the shelves. That is, up until some of the bigger home video companies like Disney began putting lots of their own stuff out and crowding the other companies off the shelves. Christmas specials turned out to be a mainstay and Perennial would eventually make nine of them. One special, Jingle Bell Rap (1991), featured a team of anthropomorphic dogs and was considered for a possible series. It still runs seasonally in Canada and Europe.
Perennials pilot for a series called Aliens Next Door was picked up by Paragon Ent. in Toronto for TELETOON; the series never materialized but it did spin off yet another holiday special, The Aliens First Christmas (1991). It was like a Beverly Hillbillies in reverse, Russ recalled. An Earth family, the Peoples, moves to the alien planet Zolognia and has to get used to the customs and life of another civilization. The last storyboard may not yet be written Brian still likes the concept and confided that We just might revisit it. The artwork for the special clearly shows the influence of Hanna-Barbera on Perennials character designs at the time.
Still, Brian and Russ had bigger plans. We were only making things that ran once a year, Russ recalled. We really wanted to go to a series, so we came up with Crawfords Corner. Its a series of five-minute educational shorts that are now running in overseas outlets like Discovery U.K. and in Israel, to name a couple. Brian indicated a colorful poster on one wall featuring Crawford, the star of the series. We made 13 of them but found out that we really needed 26 instead. So, were working on them between other projects. We found out that with a series, the first episode of anything is hell theres no precedent. You have to fix, change, go back, revise and it gets expensive. Two through 13 is a lot easier!
Perennial made noise on the domestic front in 1995 when they successfully pitched a short to Cartoon Networks World Premiere Cartoons and caught the attention of Fred Seibert, then president of Hanna-Barbera. Russ related that, one of our friends at Disney said, Theyre really doing it (soliciting auteurs to make shorts)! Send a board! We pitched, and they greenlit it. We made a short we liked called Rat in a Hot Tin Can featuring a main character named O. Ratz. We were able to get Harvey Korman to do the voice of the lead character and Marvin Kaplan did his sidekick, Dave D. Fly. Perennials cartoon had the distinction of being the first short in the World Premiere Cartoon lineup made outside of the Hanna-Barbera studio.
Fred Seibert, now at Frederator/Nickelodeon, originally contacted Perennial about pitching a short for the project now known as Random Cartoons. At the time, Brian and Russ were working on a childrens book in conjunction with Seibert. Brian recalled that the Handycat concept was actually 10 years old and that he and Russ had gone through some 800 designs of the character over time. Anyone following the production blog at the Frederator website (newtoons.frederator.com/handycat) can see the incremental development of Handycat since work began on the short.
Handycat was not Perennials original pitch to Seibert; that honor belongs to a concept called MyCrobes, which was summarily rejected. Russ Harris recalls that, I think the concept was a bit gooey. They werent too excited with a short about germs that took place entirely inside a human body, where they never saw the light of day. We came up with three other ideas instead and they told us that all of them were OK out of them, Handycat was the short we decided to pitch.
The first definitive model for the pitch was designed in November 2005, and the pitch itself came in August of that year. Drillbit, Handycats dog, came much later in the game, relates Brian. When we decided to add a sidekick, Russ was the one who came up with him. I really wanted a more exotic animal than a dog, but the design just sort of rolled out perfectly just about the first time.
Brian talked about the development of the character after that point. Originally Handycat was an inept loser, but we learned something after we did our O. Ratz short. Adults loved the cartoon, but kids didnt like it nearly as well. The rat was a loser and kids really dont like losers. So, we modified Handycat so that he wins sometimes, anyway. Hes sort of a screwball winner, usually at great expense to himself. I was then given a sneak preview of the actual short, just a week or so after the master had been delivered to Fred Seibert. Not to give much away, but: 1) Handycat does win a battle clearing a nest of stubborn bees from the backyard of his first customer, a little old lady and 2) At great expense to himself. Mission accomplished for Handycat and his faithful mutt.
More than anything else, Brian and Russ vastly enjoyed the entire experience of working with Fred Seibert and the production teams at Nickelodeon. Working with the L.A. crew was a joy, said Brian with considerable enthusiasm. They would review our work and give notes and solid feedback and it was always right. We really admired (executive-in-charge for Nickelodeon) Claudia Spinelli; her notes were dead on every time. She really knows and understands story. There was also terrific input from (development head) Eric Homan and (exec producer) Larry Huber, who we first met when we did the O. Ratz short for Cartoon Network. Therese Trujillo, the line producer for Fraderator, was a great liaison to have. Casting director Meredith Layne scored a major coup for Handycat; through her effort, two of animations top voice talents joined the team.
Rob Paulsen is an honored veteran of hundreds of animated series including Animaniacs, Pinky and the Brain and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Rob would voice both Handycat and Drillbit. The grand dame of animation herself, June Foray, provided the voice of Handycats first customer. Russ recalls the feeling of awe that came with meeting a legend We were getting prepared to record. Rob was already in the room and we were discussing a line read. Suddenly, I heard someone come in and say, Hokey smokes! I turned around and theres June Foray right behind me. Brian, who was also sitting in the booth adds, I have no idea what she said right after that because all I was thinking was, Oh my God, its Rocky! She was just wonderful. Very easy to direct, says Russ.
Brian and Russ have many compliments for the Frederator team and Nickelodeon, as well as the entire Random Cartoons project, especially the blogs. Brian avers that, It was Fred Seiberts idea to make everybody involved feel like part of the same thing, almost as if we were a big family. Were all working on these special projects, but its set up so that its non-competitive. Fred has been a mentor to me. I think hes brilliant. Russ concurs with the mentoring aspect that Seibert brings to the project. Random Cartoons was great for us, but also wonderful for a lot of the younger people creating and running these shorts. Fred would give them great advice such as, Concentrate on your next job, your next step. I believe he was gently urging them not to spend too much time promoting their one Random Cartoon character, but to continue developing and pitching other ideas too.
After Handycat? Jerry and Russ both agree on one thing; they would like to produce another series. We are currently in development on a couple of ideas for three to seven-minute shorts that will hopefully find a home in broadband or other new entertainment arenas as well as traditional platforms, says Russ. Brian agreed with his longtime partner. Producing another series is the desire. Beyond being more profitable, I personally enjoy that extended period of time working with a single set of characters and situations. Thats what I love about continuing to work on Crawfords Corner. With successful pitches and connections to both Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, Perennial Pictures Film Corp. may get their wish. Animations next hit show just might come out of Indiana.
Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.