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Dr. Toon: Nuts and Bolts With Rob Renzetti

Dr. Toon talks to producer/writer/director/animator Rob Renzetti about his career, his influences, and that spunky Robotic Global Response Unit XJ9 (a.k.a Jenny Wakeman), star of My Life as a Teenage Robot. The show’s first one-hour special airs on Nickelodeon August 13.

Rob Renzetti is a respected veteran of TV animation whose credits include The Powerpuff Girls, Dexters Laboratory, Samurai Jack, Family Guy, Whatever Happened to Robot Jones, and Oh Yeah! Cartoons!. When not coming up with incredibly creative ideas, Rob likes to snuggle up with a large bowl of Clustard and catch a few Buffy reruns.

Rob Renzetti. Photo credit: Chris Polk/Filmmagic.

Dr. Toon: Rob, how early on in your life did you decide on a career in animation, and what helped to influence that?

Rob Renzetti: Well, like most people who end up in the business, I guess my influence was just watching cartoons. I saw a lot of old Popeye cartoons and the little bit of Warner Bros. that was available on those old UHF channels in Chicago. I fell in love with those cartoons and decided thats what I wanted to do, and I would guess that I decided on a career in animation probably as early as age seven. But by the time I was in high school in the 80s, it didnt look like even Disney was going to be doing any more animation.

Then, when I was halfway through college, Who Framed Roger Rabbit came out and it seemed like there was new hope! Even though I had gone to college for art history, what I decided I really wanted to do was try to get into the animation industry, since it looked like there really might be one. I found out about Cal Arts right about the same time so I applied there and, luckily, I got in.

DT: You moved from Chicago to L.A. in the early 1990s. Wasnt your first job working with Donovan Cook on 2 Stupid Dogs?

RR: It was my first job in Los Angeles, but I actually went to Spain directly out of Cal Arts. I worked over there as an animator for just a few months on the original run of Batman: The Animated Series. It was being farmed out all over the world, and this small company in Madrid got three or four episodes to do. They needed some extra animators, so a handful of Americans went over there and worked very briefly on it. Then I came back to L.A. and got hired on 2 Stupid Dogs.

Renzettis first professional animation job in Los Angeles was on 2 Stupid Dogs.  & © 2001 Cartoon Network. An AOL Time Warner Co. All rights reserved.

DT: You have either directed or worked on five different animated series that feature sci-fi and/or robot themes. You must be a serious science fiction fan, is that right?

RR: I am a sci-fan, but not a super-serious one. Im not as well read as I probably should be. I kind of zeroed in on Isaac Asimov as a kid and devoured just about everything he wrote. Then I read the Hitchhikers (Guide to the Galaxy) books somewhere in the middle years, and some of Ursula K. LeGuin as well as a few other random authors.

I read a little Arthur C. Clarke, 2001 (A Space Odyssey), and some other obscure stuff, and I love Star Trek and most other sci-fi shows to a greater or lesser degree. I just wish I was more well-read; at this point Im kind of overwhelmed by how much there is out there. Id say science fiction and horror are probably my favorite genres as far as movies and books go.

DT: Nickelodeons Oh Yeah! Cartoons! was like an animation laboratory for all sorts of entertaining ideas, many of which you worked on. You were involved with short films like F-Tales, Baxter and Bananas and Hubbykins vs. Sweetiepie. How did that kind of experience influence your later work?

RR: Oh Yeah! was a great place to experiment because the stakes were relatively low in that youre just doing one short. I did a number of different ideas, and there are some that youd probably think are more applicable to a series than others. I certainly have my favorites among the ones that I did by myself, but the nice thing was, you could stretch your legs a little bit and do stuff that maybe wasnt quite as obvious a choice for a series, at least to start with. I think I could probably see series in all my ideas. There were some that could have been developed more easily than others, but it was a great place to try out new stuff and see what works and what doesnt. When I came to Oh Yeah!, I had a lot of ideas stored up, so it was a great time for me to spread my creative wings.

Renzetti enjoyed his time on Oh Yeah! Cartoons! It was like an animation laboratory where he could experiment with many short films. Courtesy of Nickelodeon.

DT: Mina and the Count was one of the Oh Yeah! projects that seemed the most poised to become a hit. Why didnt Mina make it to a full series?

RR: I really liked that idea, too. Mina was my favorite, the one I was hoping would make it to a series. But for some reason at that time it didnt connect with the people that make the decisions about series. I think, maybe, the subject matter was a little bit touchy for them, because of the vampire and the little girl combination, although it was innocently presented and it was always intended to stay innocent. Mina just didnt connect with the executives here.

DT: My Life as a Teenage Robot and Whatever Happened to Robot Jones, the series you and Greg Miller worked on, both feature young robots trying to find their way and fit in, often in a school setting. Is this a theme you enjoy exploring?

RR: Well, the shows were developed independently and it was just coincidence that both Greg and I came up with that theme. I know that a lot of people were worried that Teenage Robot was going to be derivative of Robot Jones when they first heard the idea, but the sensibilities were so far apart that I never felt that it was a problem for me to work on both series, or for both of them to exist. I love Robot Jones; Im a big fan of the show. The only thing that was disappointing about getting my own series was that I had to stop working on that show. I was having a great time working with Greg and helping him do his series.

DT: Robot Jones was an interesting show; it had that funky Schoolhouse Rock look to it.

RR: That was definitely an intentional thing that Greg and art director Mike Stern were going for. I loved it because it was very fresh looking and different from anything else that was on TV at that time.

DT: Youve been a director on some very popular and imaginative shows such as Samurai Jack, Dexters Laboratory and Powerpuff Girls, to name a few. How did the experience contribute to your development prior to getting your own series?

RR: I was very lucky to be part a small group of individuals that was able to work as a team on those shows. I consider myself lucky to have worked with both Genndy (Tartakovsky) and Craig (McCracken); we all drew inspiration from each other. We had all developed the same tastes together coming from Cal Arts, and we were all influenced by the same kind of stuff. Genndy has an amazing work ethic and an incredible instinct for what is or isnt going to work. His sense of timing and editing is second to none.

Craig is one of the most talented artists Ive ever met and a great character designer. Everything Craig draws has a natural appeal to it. I was able to learn my craft on their shows. Hopefully, what I bring is the experience of having worked on them. I just try to live up to the standards that those two have set. I try to meet that level of artistry.

Originally entitled My Boyfriend is a Teenage Robot, Renzetti had envisioned pairing up a male robot with human teenage girl. All My Life as a Teenage Robot images courtesy of Nickelodeon.

DT: How did you develop and shape the ideas behind My Life as a Teenage Robot?

RR: Teenage Robot was the last thing I did for Oh Yeah! Cartoons!, and it was developed pretty quickly. I had one more slot to fill as a director for the number of shorts I was slated to do, and I came up with the basic idea. I pitched to Fred Seibert, the executive producer of Oh Yeah!. He had a couple of comments and I tweaked it from there. The show went through about a million-and-one titles, but it was originally supposed to be called My Boyfriend is a Teenage Robot.

The roles were somewhat reversed; the robot was very much a straight male robot and the teenage girl was actually human. She was still the main character because she had all the typical teenage angst, but Fred felt that a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship with a robot might be a touchy area. So, I decided to make the teenage angst-y girl, who was the star of the show anyway, into the robot. After that, the idea really fell together naturally.

DT: At a recent showing of Teenage Robot for ASIFA Hollywood, you told the audience about some of the influences on the show: Astroboy, the Fleischer cartoons, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Can you go into that a bit more?

RR: Astroboy was a really big influence with Alex Kirwan, our art director, as well as myself, but I have to give Alex the lions share of the credit for how the show looks. Alex and Joseph Holt, whos our background designer, and Seonna Hong, our lead background painter. They developed the look of Teenage Robot.

The most tangible thing that we took from Astroboy was the weird hairdos you see on everybody. It seems like in Astroboy every character has some sort of weird hairdo. We tried to translate that in for Nora Wakeman and Brad, and to a lesser degree, Tuck, but the most distinctive thing about the characters sometimes is the way the hair looks. Its also the most maddening part when you have to draw them!

Robots look is inspired by Fleischer cartoons, especially Popeye, which is Renzettis favorite cartoon ever.

The Fleischer cartoons, especially Popeye, are probably my favorite cartoons ever, and we just love that 1930s look. We really wanted to do a 1930s type show that didnt look totally 1930s, so we took that eras elements and motifs and we kind of streamlined and flattened them so that we got a look thats more stylized than you might see in an actual 1930s cartoon. One thing were doing for Escape From Cluster Prime, the one-hour special movie were doing this summer, is trying to use our computer to mimic the old 3D background effect that Fleischer had in their cartoons. They built these model sets that rotated behind the characters so you would see these three-dimensional cityscapes behind Popeye as he walked down the street.

Were trying to get that effect for a couple of shots in the movie. They gave us a little more money to do some 3D shots, and rather than do something that stuck out as a computer shot we wanted to have something that looked different but would be integrated. We showed the computer guys old photos of how Fleischers machine looked, and theyve recreated it on a computer. Were very excited about it. I can remember being impressed and curious about those 3D effects when they would suddenly pop up in the middle of a Popeye cartoon.

As far as Buffy the Vampire Slayer goes, its a great influence on Teenage Robot. Buffy was my favorite TV show. I loved the richness of the large cast of characters and the way the show developed a heroine who is both strong and vulnerable. That was a big goal of mine, to have Jenny be strong and vulnerable. I didnt want to give her all the weak characteristics that we sometimes associate with young girls, because I think thats an unfair stereotype. I also wanted Jenny to have some of the strong, positive characteristics that Buffy displays. So, Jenny is emotional but shes not weepy. Shes also stubborn, but honest and forthright, too. Shes committed to her friends, but at the same time she doesnt mind trying to sneak around and get stuff past her mom. We tried to make Jenny a complicated and conflicted character somewhat akin to Buffy.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is another great influence on Teenage Robot. Renzetti tried to make Jenny a complicated and conflicted character, somewhat akin to Buffy .

DT: Speaking of influences on the show, it looks like some of your incidental characters are styled in tribute to John Stanley, the famous comic book artist who drew Little Lulu.

RR: I think that Jill Friemark, one of our character designers, is actually a Little Lulu fan. She loves the big dot-eyed characters with the puffy cheeks, so it definitely does come through. Any sort of that 1930s-styled stuff is an influence on Teenage Robot.

DT: The look of the show seems to have evolved. Since the pilot, Dr. Wakeman, Brad, and the Krust cousins Brit and Tiff have all changed somewhat in appearance. Do you feel that the shows style has finally been set?

RR: Pretty much.Obviously, the show looks very different than it did in the pilot episode. In our first season, there was a lot of experimentation. I think in the second season we found our groove but were still constantly trying to expand the style of Teenage Robot. We bring in a lot of new villains, and that gives us an opportunity to expand what the show looks like. The color and background styling is also an area where we have the chance to experiment. Joe and our other background designer Chris Tsirgiotis both come up with some fresh, imaginative stuff on every show. And our color stylists Chris Hacker and Leticia Lacy always have different ideas for every color schemes in every episode.

Between the first and second season Alex took a pass at the main characters again after having drawn them for a full season. We redid all their models to update them and make them more appealing. Especially Jenny. Everyone was drawing her one way, but her turnaround (main model) looked a different way!

Ive experienced the same thing on other shows where you learn to draw the model sheet first and then learn how to draw the characters. By the time youre done with a season, the characters dont look anything like the models anymore. I remember that on Dexters Laboratory the model sheets were always a season behind what the characters looked like. So, after that first season of Teenage Robot Alex went back into the main models and he tweaked them a little bit. Since then, I think weve locked down what our characters look like. As far as Brit and Tiff go, theyre always evolving because theyre constantly changing their costumes. Thats one reason I keep bringing them back, to see what theyre going to wear next!

Renzetti served as director on Samurai Jack. Courtesy of Cartoon network.

DT: On the subject of villains, an evil planet of robots who call themselves the Cluster was a great concept. Not only did it lend to the sci-fi theme, without them, the show would have had one-shot villains, one after the other.

RR: Right. I wanted to have a general threat, like vampires are on Buffy, that we could just refer to as The Cluster. Youd know off the top of your head exactly what that means. I also like the idea of having different villains come from Cluster Prime, the home planet of the evil robots. Another returning villain that kind of surprised everybody was the Space Biker gang. I never intended for them to return but everybody kind of fell in love with them and theyve proven to be very useful and versatile.

DT: Earlier in the interview, you mentioned that Teenage Robot will air a one-hour special movie this summer (August 13). How was it decided to go with a special?

RR: Nickelodeon asked for it, actually, and I had an idea in the back of my head that Id wanted to do for a while, which is having Jenny going to Cluster Prime. Queen Vexus has wanted to get Jenny to Cluster Prime ever since they first met, to get her on the side of the evil robots. We thought that a longer format might be a good opportunity to pay that long-term threat off. We wanted to show what Cluster Prime was like, put Jenny down in the middle of it, and see what happens.

Again, one of the things I liked about Buffy was that things were constantly changing. When you started watching the show, you thought that the Master was going to be the main villain for the whole show, and then they got rid of him after the first season. So you wonder, Whats the show going to do next? In a cartoon show, you dont have the same opportunity to change things up as often, but I thought that doing this special gave us the opportunity to bring the Cluster storyline to a conclusion. The best thing I can say about the special is that it opens up an alternate universe that youve never seen before where the whole world is full of robots.

DT: Do we learn anything new about Jenny or any of the other characters?

RR: Well, its more about what Jenny learns about herself. Shes kind of dissatisfied with her lot in life but when she is yanked away from everything, she has a chance to reevaluate where she fits into the scheme of things. Jenny comes to terms with who she is and what her purpose is. She grows up a little bit emotionally and as a character, too.

Renzetti learned that a character goes through visual changes over time from his experience working on such shows as Powerpuff Girls (left) and Dexters Laboratory (center).  & © 2001 Cartoon Network. An AOL Time Warner

We also get to see Brad be a real hero for the first time. We get to see Sheldon and Dr. Wakeman working together as a scientific tag-team. We reveal a bit about Wakemans past including a connection between her and Queen Vexus, which well probably explore more in the series. We get to see Wakeman in action, something weve really havent done before. We give all the characters different circumstances than you would normally see them in. And, we get to meet a whole bunch of new characters on Cluster Prime that weve never met before.

DT: Nickelodeon has taken a few of its properties and developed them into theatrical features. Might there eventually be a Teenage Robot movie?

RR: I would love to do that someday but thats kind of beyond my control. It would depend on how popular the show becomes over the long term. Actually, I love working in TV. Ive loved a lot of animated movies that have come out but what I like about working in TV is having the ability to do a series of stories with the same characters and explore all these different storylines in their world. And if one doesnt work so well, youve got another twenty to work with. Having said that, after working on several stories of Teenage Robot, it would be great to do a story worthy of a feature-length film.

Renzetti has been gratified with the success of Robot so far. He is working on the third season now.

DT: Last year Teenage Robot was honored at the Ottawa Animation Festival as Best New Childrens Show of the Year. Are you pleased with the shows success thus far?

RR: Im very gratified. It seems to be very popular and it certainly has a rabid core of fans that are frequenting the Internet and coming on to our blog site. Were going to be down at the San Diego Comic-Con signing limited edition posters promoting the special. The last time we went down there the show wasnt on the air, and now that it is Im interested in meeting our fans in person and seeing what they think of the show.

Were working on the third season right now, and there are a few episodes that are going to be fun for the viewers. The show has gotten progressively stranger, in a good way. Now that we know the characters, we can play with them a lot more and do stranger storylines. Ive been blessed from the beginning to have a really good crew of people working on the show. Everybody seems to get along well, and we hang out with each other after work. And they all do incredible work for me, every day. Ive truly been lucky in that regard.

DT: We know that human slaves make the exquisite treat Clustard for their cruel robot masters on Cluster Prime. Any particular flavors youd recommend?

RR: It depends on what theyre making the Clustard out of. If theyre actually making them out of humans then I dont know that Id recommend any flavor! Lets assume that the humans are just powering the machine and not contributing to the ingredients. Id have to go with Rum Raisin Hell, Rocky Road to Ruin, Martial Lawberry Cheesecake or Chocolate.

DT: I understand that Jenny Wakeman was sighted in public recently with Optimus Prime of the Transformers. I think he might be a little old for her, dont you think?

RR: I would agree! I hope that this is just platonic and that Jenny isnt making a mistake. Im still waiting for Jenny and Sheldon to get together. Youd think Id have a little influence with Jenny, but she is one stubborn robot.

Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.