In the second installment of a two-part interview, Joe Strike talks to Fred Seibert about animated life after Hanna-Barbera, the creation of Frederator Studios and his new series on Nickelodeon and upcoming projects.
This interview is a continuation of a previous article that was published on July 15, 2003. To read the first section click here.
Joe Strike: When did you decide to leave Hanna-Barbera?
Fred Seibert: First of all, understand that the day I got in there I said to everyone I know nothing about animation, and the likelihood that I will ever work in animation again outside the studio is virtually nil. My career has been characterized as having no career. I was like a ping-pong ball in a wind tunnel. Wherever I went where I thought I could do something interesting I did it.
I went to work for an entrepreneur Ted Turner who I knew was going to indulge my entrepreneurial impulses. When I went there, the guy who was running the studio at the time asked me, What do you think Ted Turner wants from us? I said, I only met him for 20 minutes I have no idea what he wants us to do. But I read a book about him and Im going to guess what he wants me to do. Ill do what my best guess is, and if he doesnt like it hell fire me.
Ted was a fantastic boss but he was entrepreneurial. He basically approved a budget at the beginning of the year and checked in once a month to see what I was doing. I knew when we merged with Time Warner that was not going to happen anymore. I was not going to be in a company as small as Turner was. Turner was a company run by an entrepreneur, a loony entrepreneur I say that in quotes, and I say that with affection. There was nothing like that at Time Warner.
JS: A much more corporate culture.
FS: It was just a completely different culture, and it was not one that indulged people like me. I knew that my time was up, so I left with the merger.
When I knew I was going to leave, I looked back, which is the only time I really looked back. I realized that for the first time in my career I had actually developed an asset for myself that I could leverage elsewhere: I understood how to develop talent in the animation world and get hits. Id never really gone into any new venture with that kind of asset.
When I was still at Hanna-Barbera, someone from Nickelodeon called: How come in the last three years youve made 48 shorts and we made five pilots? I said I cant tell you that Im the competition. When I announced I was leaving, the same person called back, Youre not the competition any more, and I said Yeah, but youre not paying me. Its a secret. He said, Well can we rent the secret? I said, Sure, and I made a deal as an independent producer of new animation for Nickelodeon.
JS: Thats when Frederator was born?
FS: Yeah. I left Hanna-Barbera in October 1996 and Frederator started January 1997.
JS: You credit people like Larry Huber as having a knack for recognizing and developing talent; it sounds like you share that ability with him.
FS: Its something Im interested in. As an independent producer its required, because the only reason that companies make deals with producers is that producers know something they dont. And 99% of the time the thing that producers know and companies dont is how to root out talent and nurture and develop them into something valuable for the company.
So, aside from the fact that I shared it with those guys, I understood it was a requirement of my new life to know how to do it.
JS: How do you find talent? Or do you wait for it to come to you?
FS: No, you can never wait. Well you can wait, big companies wait. The studios wait, the networks wait; they literally sit there in their offices and take phone calls from agents. As an independent or as a small place you cant afford that, because frankly youre the last one on their phone list youre never first.
Im analytical. Im not very disciplined, but Im very organized Im a systems guy. When I have to deal with an issue like rooting out talent, I develop a system. Within that system I figure out how to put out a call to the greater community, saying Im looking, and now Ive developed a system for them to come in and to judge, which is ultimately what you have to do.
JS: You have a brain trust youll call and say I have a project here that I need you to come in and give me some feedback on.
FS: Yes, thats exactly what I do.
JS: People like Kricfalusi?
FS: Yeah, absolutely. Literally when I started What A Cartoon!, in part based on things I learned from John Kricfalusi, he was the first one I called. I said, John youll never believe it, Im doing exactly what you believe should be done.
If anyone should get credit for changing the name of the game in traditional cartooning, it should be John Kricfalusi. There were also the Mike Judges of the world and a few other people. But for people who work in the commercial grind, making commercial cartoons John Kricfalusis the man. He changed the game. He wanted to make the kinds of cartoons Hollywood wanted to make, in the system they wanted to make it, but he wanted them to be passionate and successful.
When I started Frederator and Oh Yeah! Cartoons, my first talent pool were the people that I had already done stuff with that I thought were special, but maybe hadnt hit the mark yet. There were people that didnt show up in time for the What A Cartoon! and get those. One of the most interesting ones was Larry Huber who had been my supervising producer for What A Cartoon! I asked him to leave Hanna-Barbera and come over with me like a shot in the dark and be my partner in the cartoons. Here I am, I havent been in the business five years, Im really young, younger than he is. He said, Well Ill be your supervising producer. I said, No, be my co-executive producer.
He said, Okay, what do I need to know? I said, Theres only one thing, you have to make a short. He said, Why? I told him, Youre an awesome story man. Youre not paid to be a story man, no one thinks of you as a story man, youre paid as a line producer.
Larry said, Im not going to do it. I said, You cant be the guy unless you do a short. Why dont you want to do one? The reason was he was basically scared of all the young folk, who he saw rightfully as stunningly talented. I cant compete with them, he said.
I said, Im not giving you the job unless you do your own. He reluctantly agreed. The first one he did, he partnered with Bill Burnett, an animation and advertising writer Id worked with in New York that Id brought to L.A. and that was ChalkZone. That was Larrys first creation in his life that made it to production. At the time he was 50-some odd-years old.
JS: Was he sort of hedging his bets working with Burnett?
FS: It just happened. It was Larry at his very best. Bill was also lucky. Hes about as old as Bill and he was comfortable working with someone of a certain age. When we started Oh Yeah!, one of the first people who came to see us was this 20-year-old recently graduated student from CalArts who had already been working in the business doing props and other things. He said, I heard that you might need somebody. Im looking at his portfolio. I dont know how to judge artists but this guy looks amazing!
So I sent him to Larry, who calls me up immediately, hes like whispering in the phone, What do you want to do with this guy? This guys the best guy Ive ever seen! That was a young guy named Carlos Ramos. He brought Carlos on to design ChalkZone.
What Larry did was put a team together. Hes an awesome film story man. Bill Burnett is an awesome writer probably 45 at the time and Carlos is not just young, but has a vision. Hes in many ways is in the top five or 10 artists Ive ever worked with of any kind.
JS: Hes going to get a swelled head when he reads this.
FS: He has one already, its okay. Larry put together a real creative team, which very rarely do the shorts makers do. Usually the shorts makers do it single-handedly a one-man show. What Larry did after 30 years in the trenches of running teams is, even on the creation side, he put together a team which is very smart.
JS: Carlos just walked through the door on his own?
FS: Dan Smith, one of our old development guys from Hanna-Barbera who was then at Disney, met Carlos and realized there was no room for him at Disney. He is a real stylist not merely a fist he had a thing. Dan understood we were the only shop in town where people with a thing had a chance.
JS: Is Oh Yeah! Cartoons the Frederator version of What A Cartoon!?
FS: Exactly the same. I just brought the system across the street. And the first pool of talent for Oh Yeah! came from What A Cartoon! and Hanna-Barbera. Then I put the word out in the community and people started coming in. But then the next place, which is the most obvious, was our own crew.
When we give something to a creator we say, Here are the people that are in our shop right now and we started with five people here are the five we have, do you want to work with any of them or who do you want to bring in?
So, one by one, as we signed creators, they started bringing in people. Within that team we already had they saw the opportunity and now the crew started coming in and pitching shorts.
JS: The opposite of your experience at Hanna-Barbera.
FS: Well by that point, Dexters, Johnny Bravo and Cow & Chicken were on the air. We now have three hit examples of what could happen. So it was no longer an experiment and like, Who is this guy? It was now like, Ohmigod, if I can get into this thing, I could go to the top.
JS: Where and when did Oh Yeah! Cartoons run?
FS: Nickelodeon scheduled Oh Yeah! on Friday nights in an hour block with another anthology show, Kablaam! Kablaam! was basically what I think of as the indie version of Oh Yeah! Bob Mittenthal, Kablaam!s producer worked with a lot of independent animators, people outside of the Hollywood mainstream, and had a much more writer-driven approach than I did.
Kablaam! had a different mission, although the mission for both of us was to find hits for Nickelodeon. The two shows complemented one another: Kablaam! gave Nickelodeon the cream of the indie crowd, and we gave them the cream of the commercial filmmaking world, the people who have come to Hollywood to make cartoons, not animation. Im a cartoon maker, Im interested in cartoons and I have a distinctive view of them as different from animated films.
JS: What successes came out of Oh Yeah!?
FS: We made 51 shorts, 51 original Oh Yeah!s, plus another 49 or 50 sequels of the best ones. Someone would come in, Larry Huber would come in with ChalkZone, and once we saw the film, we said why dont we make six more? Or a guy named Dave Wasson who went on to do Time Squad for Cartoon Network would come in and make The Goose Lady, which was basically like a Fractured Fairy Tale, and we said, Why dont you make three more?
So far and I dont think were anywhere near the end of this process Fairly OddParents and ChalkZone began as Oh Yeah! shorts. The ChalkZone series launched with the highest debut ratings in Nickelodeon history. My Life as a Teenage Robot was an Oh Yeah! short. We made seven or eight Super Santa shorts. That project has skipped animation for the time being, and is being developed as a live-action feature with its creator Mike Bell.
I think theres more to come. Were talking Nickelodeon into taking a second look at a few others, because if thats four out of 51, you still have 47 to look at closely. We started in January of 97 and here we are in March of 2003 and weve only gotten four into series. We created more original characters for air in three years than almost everyone else combined in a five-year period. It takes a while to absorb that. Were not producing any new character shorts at the moment, which Im fine with.
JS: In and of itself, Oh Yeah! didnt make as much of a splash as What A Cartoon!
FS: First of all, it was only promoted to Nickelodeon audiences, and we didnt do a lot of hey look at this promotion when we launched it.
JS: Like What A Cartoon!
FS: Well, I ran that studio at the time so I got to control the publicity. Nickelodeon had other things on their mind. When theyre launching a show, theyre watching it for ratings, and an anthology show is always going to do attenuated ratings. Its historically always the case we want characters we can watch all the time and fall in love with.
JS: What else was Frederator doing at time?
FS: We made two animated features for Nickelodeon when they thought they were going to launch a series of original television movies called NickFlicks. One was The Electric Piper, which was a contemporary pied piper story written by Bill Burnett. My log line for it was the piper is Jimi Hendrix.
The second one was directed by John Eng, who is now directing the third Rugrats movie. We took the title Around the World in 80 Days and wrote a new story to it. It wound up being called Globe Hunters, and by the way I think it was the most beautiful animated made for TV movie Ive ever seen. Its stunning. Aside from being a good director, John Eng is one of the most amazing stylists youve ever seen.
In 1999 and 2000 we greenlit the Fairly OddParents and ChalkZone series. Right around that time I decided to leave L.A. My wife and I had two small children that we wanted to raise in New York. Nickelodeon was gracious enough to allow me to remote control my role in these series.
In addition to being a producer at Nickelodeon, I was also consulting with MTV and VH1, which are all owned by the same parent company, MTV Networks. This was during the online explosion, and at the start of 1999 MTV Networks asked if Id run their online business for a while. Frederator was still going strong, so I took a step back and became an employee of MTV for a year running their online business. I was wearing two hats.
Luckily, I hire very high-level executors, or in this case creator-executors like Butch, Larry or Bill. At the point we go to series they dont really need me or at least we hope they dont really need me. So it worked out very well that they produced their series and only occasionally do I have to be involved.
In the middle of this the online thing blew up, which is just as well, and I went back fulltime to Frederator.
JS: Any interesting online war stories?
FS: None that Im going to tell. [Laughs] The most interesting thing for me was that I went from being a head in the sand traditional media guy, to saying there really is a new world, and the world has changed forever with the advent of this interactivity.
In fact, when I went back to Frederator in New York I dragged in a couple of partners, one of whom was Emil Rensing, a top online guy out of AOL who was all of 25 years old. We started developing online businesses and consulting arrangements. We helped Primedia build their team Internet business, we continue to consult with Avon Products, with the Viacom network TNN, so we have a thriving little online operation.
The other partner I bought in was Travis Pomposello, a young man in his early thirties who happens to be the son of my first business partner. We set up a little television promotion business to revisit my roots. A lot of people continue to call me for those branding things. With Travis, we were able to build a separate wing of the business that handles that stuff. We have clients from Nickelodeon, TNN, Disney, The Playboy Channel and all that kind of stuff.
What also happened in this process is that after I dusted myself off from my online wars, I started looking at animation again in a completely different way. Up until two years ago, animation was a late life avocation of mine. I did a lot of animated MTV commercials for 10 years, but in terms of show business, I didnt get into animation until I was 41 years old. I always looked at it like a temporary thing that I was doing because someone asked me to do it. It seemed like fun at the time, and I thought I could learn something.
When I set up Frederator, it was just the competition thinks I can help them and theyll pay me to do it, so thatll be fun. But I didnt look at myself as a fulltime animation person, even though, sometimes, I was more than fulltime.
Two years ago, right around the beginning of 2001, I looked up and I took stock. I had a couple of small kids, I had to figure out what I was going to do for the next 20 years. I had actually gotten further with this animation thing that Id gotten with almost anything else. Ive enjoyed it more than anything else, I love the talent, Im a big fan of the talent. And at this point in my life I seem to have become financially productive for the networks that I work with.
JS: Which opens all the doors.
FS: Probably for the first time in my life I decided to be very focused and give production the majority of my activity. I started making calls again and said, Im back in the game in a big way, lets figure out what to do.
Im more actively pursuing and developing animation projects than ever before. In the meantime, weve launched our fourth Nickelodeon series. Weve become their number-one supplier of anything, not just animation. We produce or have more series on their air than anyone.
Im exclusive to Nickelodeon. When it comes to kids I can produce animation for no one else at this moment which by the way is a fantastic problem to have, because Nickelodeon is not just number one, its number one by a factor of three or four. Theyve got about half the kids TV market, broadcast and cable, which is pretty awesome. All the rest is split among four different places: Cartoon Network, Disney, WB and FOX everybody else.
JS: Is it a first refusal deal?
FS: No, its exclusive.
JS: If they dont like it, it stays in the vault.
FS: Theres a reason for this and its just sort of an aside. I also consult for the company on network issues and so I hold their secrets. I cant go and work for the competition. Its an unusual circumstance, and one Im happy to be in. But I had a fantastic time with Cartoon Network and all those people, theyre great people. I like them a lot, theres no problems theyre just my competition now.
JS: But still good relationships.
FS: Absolutely, and by the way, my first hits continue to thrive on that network so I feel very good about that.
JS: Theyre your kids but theyre grown up and on their own.
FS: Exactly. Now were pursuing a number of different things. We have a bunch of movie projects that were developing. In certain ways Im very forward thinking, but in other ways Im very conservative, and I always felt that the Disney method of making [animated] movies, which was wonderful, was but one method of making movies.
JS: How would you describe that method?
FS: Florid. Orchestral. Large. Classic. But, you know, thats like saying the only way to make a hit record is the way that Nelson Riddle and Frank Sinatra did. Its wonderful, but its never the only way.
So when I went back with MTV Networks I was a great advocate and proponent of using television production techniques, which Disney had brainwashed the critics and studios into believing was a low-class method that could never succeed in movies.
I was a great supporter of MTV Networks of putting Beavis & Butt-Head and Rugrats on the screen using those déclassé methods. The results are almost $200 million in box office just on the first two movies. I continue, in the face of conventional wisdom, that the only animated movies people now like are computer-generated movies to think that, its complete hokum.
JS: Its the stories, the characters.
FS: And as a partner of mine here says, there are no little budgets, there are just little movies. I really believe that the low budget animated movie is an underestimated opportunity. The Rugrats-type movies cost more than $20 million to produce, but I think theres still an opportunity at lower budget levels to have big hit movies.
JS: You didnt work on the Rugrats films.
FS: Thats Klasky Csupo, and God bless them, theyve done a fantastic job. Its not my cup of tea, but I wouldnt know how to do what they do.
Im a cartoon guy not an animation guy. Theyre animation people, you know. Right now Im in development on five family-oriented features at this low budget level. Theyll use television techniques, overseas studios, but stunning talent to do it.
Simultaneously, on the exact flip side, I have another theory: I believe that you have in the generation of people who are the key movie-going people between 15 and 30 years old, a unique opportunity related to animation. We have for the first time an adult generation that has grown up with animation aimed at them in every developmental period of their life. With you and me, by the time we were12, we were out of the animation game, and that was it.
JS: Not me.
FS: Well, youre the exception. For most of us, it never ever came back, unless you would include The Simpsons. Occasionally people would try: the Fritz the Cats, the Cool Worlds, but lets be real. What you and I know at our age is that cartoons are for kids. No matter what evidence is in front of us, cartoons are for kids.
Its very rare for me to go to an animation movie, even for business purposes. If Im flipping through the newspaper and I see an ad for one, my first thought is, Why would I go see that? Thats not for me. My 29-year old partner Emil is exactly the opposite: when he flips through the newspaper and sees an animation movie, he goes, I wonder if its any good?
Animation is not his issue; its not a gating issue. What that means to me is that theres a huge opportunity the movie studios dont understand. Theyre not making movies for that audience. So were developing five or six movies that Im defining as PG-13 or R-rated movies with $1-3 million budgets.
JS: I read something about this recently
FS: Not from me.
JS: It may have been about Kricfalusi.
FS: John is doing a series of $10 million movies with Ralph Bakshi.
JS: Also PG-13 to R-rated?
JS: Is there a competition there or just great minds think alike?
FS: We talked. One of the things I like about Ralph and John is that theyre thinkers. They see the same thing I do, and by the way I wish them all the luck, because if they do it and succeed or I do it and succeed, its better for both of us, as it always is in our business.
But Im developing my features at a much lower budget level than Ralphs and Johns. My reasoning is the studios dont want to distribute these movies, they dont want to make them, so I need to make it as easy as possible for them. Again, commerciality has nothing to do with budget level. Im interested in making commercial movies so were developing commercial movies.
JS: This would be theatrical and not direct-to-video?
FS: Theatrical is the vision. My favorite working title so far is The Asshole Magnet, about the woman who always picks the wrong guy.
JS: Youve made a distinction several times now between cartoons and animation. I sort of get the idea, but how would you define it?
FS: Animation is a production technique. It does not define creatively or emotionally anything. It defines a very wide range of things. Minority Report had animation in it, the Vin Diesel movies have animation in them, Star Wars has animation. What the hell is it its a technique. Its like saying film.
Cartoons define for me a couple of key things: theyre funny, they tend to be short, they tend to be character-driven, not story-driven; theres a design factor to it. And to me, the most subtle, but maybe one of the most important is they use music as a character, rather than as a support mechanism.
I think youll agree when you hear a great cartoon score and, by the way, I dont just define [a score as being by] Carl Stalling, it can be Hoyt Curtin at Hanna-Barbera you can actually read characters and action by just hearing the score. So score has a radically different role in cartoons than it does in almost any other kind of filmmaking.
I also define it as lots of physical humor. In my very narrow definition, the words fill in the gaps between the pictures rather than vice-versa; seven minutes long thats cartooning.
When Im talking with my development group about these animation features I want to do, the family ones, and they walk in with the Sleeping Beautys of the world or some such I say, I dont do that. My natural space in life is cartooning. The talent that Ive developed over a 10-year period consists of cartoonists, not animators. I want creative projects that take advantage of where my natural understanding is, and where my talent goes.
By the way, theres a big preschool project thats on the table that I should tell you about. Ive never done preschool before either. Im attacking it in a very large and very real way like Oh Yeah! Cartoons. My partner in this is a woman named Susan Miller, whos the producer of Ella Enchanted, Miramaxs first family movie. She is also a leading licensing/merchandising person she used to work at Warner Bros., then went off to her own company.
In order to work with a system that I know, weve teamed with Brown Johnson at Nick Jr. I think Brown is one of the best executives in the industry, and she happens to be the first person I met in television 23 years ago.
Were developing 50 projects again, but as books as preschool childrens books. The secret of our books is that were developing them not with authors and illustrators, but with animation people. We will have a load of books created solely by animation people.
We havent officially announced the project yet. Well probably put out a press release sometime in the next month or two. But Im very, very excited because the idea that I can make these 50 books with animation people means that I will have books for my network partner to scrutinize and be able to choose what they would like to go to series with.
It means that I will have characters actually designed to move in film rather than have to be reinterpreted for film. It means that the story was conceived by a commercially driven, character-driven creative work force who can move immediately into filmmaking when we go to series. And I really expect that well have the same level of success that weve had before in What A Cartoon! and Oh Yeah! Cartoons.
JS: It also gives them pre-exposure so theyre not unknown quantities when they hit TV.
JS: Are any particular names associated with the preschool project yet?
FS: No, its just starting up. Im developing it with Eric Homan, someone I used to work with at Hanna-Barbera.
JS: Anything else you can tell me about the family or adult features?
FS: I think the family ones are going to end up being funny animal movies. Part of the reason Im going there is so many of my cartoonists come out of the funny animal school and the television marketplace isnt particularly friendly to funny animals at this point. Its so foolish, but let people do what they want. Weve got at least five funny animal projects in the house.
JS: Any details?
FS: Theyre not in a place worth talking about yet.
JS: Same thing for the adult features?
FS: I have a bunch of titles that are in development, but theyre all very genre-like, extreme: I Was a Cheerleader for the CIA, Satan Was My Lab Partner, that type of stuff.
JS: And theyll all be creator/art/style-driven?
FS: Im trying to get one together with Bill Plympton, which would be one of the adult movies which I think will be awesome.
JS: Hes great; I remember when he did a single-panel cartoon for a long gone newspaper, the Soho Weekly News years before he started doing animation.
FS: Its interesting you say that because of the way this picture came up. I saw one of those cartoons in his self-published book, The Sleazy Cartoons of Bill Plympton. I asked him, Can you make that into a movie? and thats what were talking about.
JS: Theres a William Joyce illustration from one of his childrens books up on your wall. Are you working on anything with him?
FS: No, I love him though. I tend to develop talent rather than take talent that has hit a certain level. And Bill doesnt need me, I offer very little to him. He can go into anybody, make any deal he wants and do what he wants to do.
Bill Plympton and I, we go back, weve known each other for 20 years. In fact, hes going to be the first guest cartoonist in ChalkZone. You know the shows concept: anything thats erased will live in the ChalkZone world. So Bills characters are going to appear in an upcoming episode.
JS: Mixing in with the house style?
FS: Well, thats the great thing about ChalkZone: there is no house style its whoever happened to draw on the chalkboard.
So thats how you do it: you go out and tell a story, and hopefully people come in and populate your story.
Joe is a New York City television writer/producer with a lifelong interest in animation, and who remembers watching Astro Boy when it first aired in the U.S. His work includes numerous promotional campaigns and special events programming for cable outlets including Bravo and the Sci Fi Channel. He interviewed Disney animation director Mark Dindal in the November 2000 Animation World Magazine.