Rick DeMott talks with Fanboy and Chum Chum creator Eric Robles about his first series and his 15 years in the animation business.
Nickelodeon debuted its latest CG series from Frederator Studios, Fanboy and Chum Chum, on Friday, Nov. 6th. Only following the latest SpongeBob special, the series debut posted huge numbers, ranking as the #2 basic cable program of the week. The series began as part of the shorts series, Random Cartoons, which Frederator Studios produces as well.
The series centers on a fearless, comic book-loving 10-year old named Fanboy and his best friend and trusty sidekick, Chum Chum, whose wide-eyed acceptance of the bizarre is the perfect complement to his friend's hyper imagination. I recently had the opportunity to speak with creator Eric Robles about his first off-the-wall series.
Rick DeMott: What inspired the series?
Eric Robles: What inspired the series for me was just wanting to tell stories about being a kid. Basically, I'm a latchkey kid. I grew up at a 7-11. It was like my home away from home. So I thought what better place to tell stories as a kid and growing up than at a 7-11 where you basically come across every individual you can think of. Back then when I was growing up, 7-11s were the place to be. You had your convenience store. You had your Slushies. You had your videogames. Back then they actually had the videogames inside the 7-11s. You had all the junk food you could get, and all your buddies were there. All the action, the drama, the suspense happened at your local 7-11.
RD: How did the original short on Random Cartoons come about?
ER: At the time I had an option over at Cartoon Network. I had another series I was developing over there that got put on hold for awhile, so around that time I got a phone call from [Frederator's] Fred Seibert and he had heard of some of my work that I had done throughout the years, and he was really interested in my work. So he said that he really wanted to meet me, so we had lunch and we had an amazing meeting, and he asked me if I had anything to pitch, because he was doing the Random Cartoons. And I actually said no. I turned him down the first time, because I said, "I know who you are, I know what you've done in the past, and I said I'm not going to pitch you something unless I'm ready for you." I mean he did Powerpuff Girls. He brought in Genndy [Tartakovsky] with Dexter's Lab. So I knew if I wanted to do something with Fred, I really wanted to take my time and do something special with him. I said, "When I have something, I definitely want to call you, and if you have a shorts program going on at that time and you like what I have then we'll do something, and if not then I'll wait until you do have something."
Fortunately, about four months after the initial meeting, I said, "I have this story I want to do about two kids who hang out at the convenience store all day in their superhero outfits." I got this idea together and boarded the thumbnail out. I pitched it to Fred and Eric Homan and immediately they gravitated to it and said, "Let's do something. Flush it out some more and then re-pitch it." So I flushed it out some more and re-pitched it and we got the thumbs up to do it.
RD: How long did it take to get from that initial short to the series?
ER: It actually took a little while. It took about a year. There were so many shorts in the making — 39 all together. That's a lot to digest as far as the network to look at and see if they really want to do this and if they do it which of all these are they going to do. So I'm sure it took them quite a while to take them into consideration.
One of the many things that I was really proud of was it was the first time I considered doing something on my own in CG. I had worked and developed CG prior to that for about five years, but that was with different companies like Disney and Mike Young Prods. I had done a lot of CG work. In the process of learning the techniques of CG animation, I learned a lot of the pros and the cons. I just cataloged a lot of the things I really liked and felt that really worked. So when it came time to do these shorts, I originally was going to do Fanboy and Chum Chum as a 2D cartoon because that's what I started with, all I knew was 2D. I was kind of learning CG and it's kind of interesting and I kind of like that, but I didn't think that CG was up to par yet to do squash and stretch and my goal was to do squash and stretch animation. But then I got together with the right guys and they said, "We can do squash and stretch animation in CG. If we rig these things right we can actually make these things happen."
The last thing I had seen come out of Nickelodeon was Jimmy Neutron, but it didn't have squash and stretch elements that I wanted for this kind of show. But I said, "I'm going to give it a try." I said, "If I want it to stand out from the 38 other cartoons that were being made here at Frederator then I had to try something different. Try to pioneer something." It was a very tough choice and I'm sure it still is, because a lot of people are use to seeing CG for features but they're not comfortable with TV yet. And that's what I want to do, I want to break that mold with this series and say, "We can do squash and stretch and have fun with these kinds of characters in CG as well." And that's something I definitely think we've accomplished with the show.
RD: Who is doing the CG? Is it done at Nickelodeon? Is it being prepped here and then sent overseas?
Yeah, it's actually an amazing process we have here at Nickelodeon. I'm really proud of the work that is being done here. What Mark Taylor has done over here is set up a pre-production studio here in-house in Burbank. What we're doing is all the pre-production here in-house and everything that is being done in 2D. We basically have two floors that are committed to doing the Fanboy work. We have one floor that does all the 2D work and the second floor does all the CG work. And the amazing thing about that is that I literally go from one of my character designers who does work in 2D and then it goes down to one of the modelers and I can oversee everything throughout the entire process of it all. Once it's done here, the animation itself is sent overseas. Now we do have a few key animators that are here in-house, as well, to set up a few of the scenes, we do some of the layout here, and we actually do walk cycles and some of the pre-animation so the people overseas know exactly how these characters are supposed to act and react to things.
RD: What part of the series are you focusing on? Are you boarding episodes? Are you doing scripts? Are you directing?
In the past 15 years of animation, I've covered all my bases. I basically touched every part of this production. From boarding to directing to design. I mean I have my key guys who are handling the brunt of the work, but I definitely get my fingers in all of it.
RD: What would you say are some of your influences for this show?
ER: This series in particular, design-wise, I wanted to go with a simple design. I'm a big fan of Tim Burton's work and style. I really like a Jim Henson-ness; simple Muppet shapes. The bulging eyes coming out of the head. One of the key things I've felt with design was, something I discovered a few years back, that if I actually bulged the eyes out of the characters' heads, I'd have far more free range for expression. Because most of the time when you look at CG features or movies there is only a certain extent that you can do with the expression on the eyes because of the shape of the skulls. And just as humans, we can only be surprised so much, so with cartoons, if you look at the old Tex Averys, those eyes go huge, and I said, "We can do that if we bulge the eyes out of the head then we can make these eyes huge for an expression." And that's pretty much the approach I took with these characters as far as design.
Also, like everyone else, I've been a big fan of the old Rankin & Bass. So for a lot of moves in the show I do a lot of quick, snappy timing in animation, but then also what I do purposely is cut out a few frames so that it would look a little stop-motion-y. I've been a big fan of stop-motion animation, but nowadays it's tough to go into a studio and say, "I want to do a stop-motion animated show." So when you say, "I want to do a CG show," they're a little more inclined to do that. So what you can do is go and make a CG series, but give it the timing of stop-motion. So you play with it a little bit. When you need that stop-motion-y type of timing you do it, and when we need the fast, quick, in and out, squash and stretch kind of animation, we go ahead and do that.
RD: What are some of your general influences?
ER: As far as design, a lot of classic stuff. I'm really big on J.C. Leyendecker. You know, old Saturday Evening Post s are really one of my inspirations. As far as the cartoony stuff, I definitely love Tex Avery. I really try to push the cartooniness on this show based a lot on his silly gags. Chuck Jones for sure. Even stuff like John K.'s work. Even down to stuff that's being done now at Nick. I've always been a big fan of SpongeBob as well. Many different influences.
RD: What was your path to where you go to today?
ER: I've always been into animation as a kid. It was always my dream to work in animation. I always wanted to work at Disney, as many kids wanted to. I was about 17 when I realized that my parents couldn't afford to send me to art school. So I didn't know what I wanted to do if I couldn't get into art school. So at the time I decided to try law enforcement. It was one of those decisions on careers if you can't do your dream. So I went ahead and went to school for that. Luckily I was discovered by one of my instructors, Joe Dean. He was a Burbank police officer and his sister-in-law worked in animation. Stephanie Graziano from Graz Ent. This was the time when they were doing the X-Men series, The Tick, Dark Stalkers. The most amazing thing was I didn't have much to show. But I would always be drawing no matter what. It was always my thing. Even in my law enforcement classes, I'd have, at the end of my blue book exams, drawings of a bunch of thugs all lined up. My instructor was always more pleased to look at my drawings than the answers on my tests. He said, "What are you doing kid, you need to be drawing." I didn't know if I was good enough.
So, at first, he asked me if I had a portfolio. I said, "I got napkin drawings, buddy, that's all I got." So he said, "Why don't you put together a sketchbook," so over a weekend I did. I sketched in it an entire weekend, didn't sleep at all. And I turned it into him and he showed it to Stephanie Graziano and she said to bring this guy in and we'll show him the studio. And that was the pinnacle of my life was to go into an animation studio. It was one of the independent studios back then, but it was still a big deal. I was just watching the X-Men series on TV and now I'm actually in the studio that actually made it, meeting with the artists. So for a guy like myself that was never exposed to these kinds of things, it was a huge deal for me.
Luckily, they saw my enthusiasm and they saw my work and they said, "We'll give you an internship." And that just blew my mind that I could actually be close to these guys, the professionals. For me it was the greatest experience ever. I actually only intershipped for about a week and a half before I got my first job. The only reason that happened was because as soon as I got in that door, all I would do was make copies of the model sheets and I would do my jobs, whatever they asked of me, but as soon as I would go home, I would mimic those model sheets. I learned how to draw X-Men. I learned to draw Wolverine and Cyclops and anything they had in production at the time, from the Tick to Street Fighter. And I would just draw and draw and draw, nightly. And then what I'd do every morning was go in real early in the morning and make copies of my work and put them out on the directors' and producers' desks of all the work I did the night before. So I did this for about a week and a half and basically these poor directors would have all my drawings all over their desks. So when the time came around when they needed a character designer for a show, they saw my work and they said, "Give it to the kid." It was one of these things where they came up to me and said, "Do you want a job?" and I was like "are you kidding me? This is a dream come true for me."
So I have to say, I didn't go to art school, but I was taught by professionals. Everyone around me was so willing to give me direction, to help. And that's all I wanted to do at that time was learn. So like a sponge I absorbed everything anyone told me throughout my career. I've been very blessed to have amazing mentors around me.
RD: If there were one mentor who stood out, who would that be?
The one person who influenced me the most through my career was Carlos Huante. Carlos, he's been in and out of animation. He's more of a feature creature designer. And he's up at ILM now. But he's definitely the one that buckled me down and was like — this is anatomy, you have to know anatomy. This is why shapes work. This is why squash and stretch works. This is why this all happens. He was one of the ones that was real tough on me at the get go, and I needed that. He'd say, "This sucks. Get out of here until you get it right." And I'd be, okay, okay, whatever you say. Again, all I wanted to do was learn at that time. But I had a lot of great people around me that were constantly sending me back to the office to redraw this or that. For me, nothing was negative. Anything that anyone told me was a learning opportunity is how I took it throughout my career.
RD: How was your experience working on Ni Hao Kai-lan?
ER: It was the first time that I ever worked on a pre-school show. At the time I was working at Jim Henson Studio and was doing some CG straight-to-video for them and I got a call from Dave Marshall that was working on Ni Hao and he said, "We're having a little trouble getting some of these models, so how about you come over here and give me a hand." And I had worked with Dave on The Xs prior. I said, "You know Dave, I usually don't just get up and go from jobs." But he was a good friend so I said, "Absolutely, I'll go over there and give you a hand."
It was definitely a fun learning experience for me. I got to storyboard their main titles for them. Help them with their models, special posing and some of the boards. It was a fun experience.
RD: How did it feel to get an Annie nomination for The Xs?
ER: This industry has been nothing but good to me. To even have someone recognize you first of all it's a huge deal. I've always admired everyone in this industry, all these amazing artists, designers, directors and creators of these shows. To just be part of it is a very big deal for me. It's very humbling at the same time.
RD: Is there anything else you'd like to add about Fanboy?
At the end of the day, Fanboy is everything I've ever wanted to say about cartoons. It's fun. It's high energy. The beautiful thing that we've been given at Nickelodeon is the freedom to make cartoons. On Fanboy and Chum Chum, don't expect the series to be anything but Fanboy trying to collect every single comic in the world in every episode. Fanboy and Chum Chum is the type of series where basically we have been blessed with a reset button on every single episode. That's what I love about the show. It's the beauty of SpongeBob where they can have random Bubble Buddies if they want and no one says, "That's really weird, why is that happening?" We've been able to break that mold with this CG series and say we have these kids and anything can happen.
RD: It's nice to hear that execs get it.
ER: I have to thank Fred and the Random Cartoons for that. At the end of the day, Fred is the kind of producer that says, "You know what? What do you want to make?" He's not the kind of producer that says, "You know this is what we're looking for. Right now, we're looking for series about dogs." I was very upfront with it and said, "I want to make a series where you can go nuts."
Rick DeMott is the director of content for Animation World Network, VFXWorld and AWNtv. Additionally, he's the creator of the movie review site, Rick's Flicks Picks, which was recently named one of the 100 best movie blogs by The Daily Reviewer. He has written for TV series, such as Discovery Kids' Growing Up Creepie and Cartoon Network's Pet Alien, the animation history book Animation Art, and the humor, absurdist and surrealist website Unloosen. Previously, he held various production and management positions in the entertainment industry.
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