John Cawley chats with Bob Boyle about the challenges the creator faces balancing production on two new shows, Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! and Yin Yang Yo!, which air on two separate networks.
In what is certainly a rarity, if not a first, one creator has two different shows airing on two different networks. Bob Boyle has accomplished an almost impossibility with the debuts of his Wow! Wow! Wubbzy! on Nickelodeon and Yin Yang Yo! on the Disney Channel. Such a feat is usually one done by studios, not individual creators. On top of that, both shows have received good reviews and ratings.
Bob and I go back nearly two decades. I was producing Bobbys World at Film Roman when we hired him to help on models. It was one of his first animation jobs on the west coast. Originally from New York, Bobs career began with freelance illustration for various publications, including The Nation and Business Week. Once in California, his portfolio showed up at Film Roman where he worked on such series as Bobbys World and Garfield and Friends. He then moved onto the Oh Yeah! cartoons via Fred Seibert. His work on the Oh Yeah! shorts lead him to positions at Nickelodeon on such series as The Fairly OddParents and Danny Phantom.
I recently dropped in to Bobs office at Film Roman in the new building that houses Starz Animation (formerly IDT Ent.). The office is filled with toys from various countries and decades. On his desk are some boards and model sheets for Wubbzy. We talked about how his amazing feat was accomplished. Ironically, both series were not officially created for animation.
I was working on Danny Phantom and Fairly OddParents. Lunchtime and evenings I would work on my own stuff. Lunch was almost always at Franks Diner. Id go in and the waitress would say chicken salad and I would answer chicken salad. She wouldnt even have to ask.
I had pitched a whole bunch of stuff. As time went on, I just hoped one would get optioned maybe. I got a few things optioned at Disney. I did a short for Nickelodeons Incubator program. With all the pitching for animation, it was a non-animated pitch that got things going.
Fred Seiberts Bolder Media had a deal with Random House and Nick Jr. to produce a series of books done by animators. The notice went out [to] the studio and fewer than 20 pitches for books were accepted. Wubbzy was one of them.
I asked if his book pitch was similar to an animation pitch. No, I roughed out every single page. At the time they stated they wanted 64 pages! And I thought, Thats a lot. So I did 64 pages. They were rough, but I turned in the entire book completed. Then about six months later they came back and said, We really wanted 24 pages. I just thought, nooooooo!
After that, the selections were taken to the network to see which ones might be worth going forward and create a pitch document for a series. The network chose five to go into animation, and mine was not one of them! I thought, Oh no, Im already out of the running. I had thought doing a book would be nice, but that doing a show would be fantastic.
So I went to Fred and asked him if I could continue with the idea on my own time and money. I told him I would finish the TV pitch and he could throw it in with the mix. If it was accepted, great, if not, there was none of their time or money wasted. Fred said, great! He knows Ill never stop when Im working on an idea. As I moved forward, I got a chance to see a bit more of what they wanted.
Bob finally gave his pitch to Nick. At first he feared it had not gone well. The meeting lasted only five minutes. But you know executives; you can never really tell what they are thinking. One might get all excited about a pitch, but never call you back. Another may sit there stone face, and then tell you they like it." In the case of Wubbzy, despite the short pitch, the series was picked up. We started production in February of 2005, he said.
Around the same time, Bob was finishing his pilot on Yin Yang Yo! at Disney. That idea came from a trip my wife and I made to Little Tokyo [in Los Angeles]. I saw a little girl wearing a shirt that said Samurai in Training. I thought thats cute, and then that a tiny samurai would be funny, and then went to what is the cutest animal and thought of a fluffy little bunny and it took off from there. Always hearing from folks in pitches that an idea didnt have enough boy appeal, or enough girl appeal, I thought why not do both. Have equal characters, or equal importance, boy and girl. Then give them that sibling rivalry.
Though that series was actually farther along than Wubbzy, Wubbzy still got out of the gate first. I was working on the pilot at Disney. Disney usually does three or so pilots and tests them before greenlighting a series. So I was in competition with some other series. And just a couple of months after Wubbzy went into production, Yin Yang Yo! got picked up. And thats about when I started pulling my hair out!
Bob had the difficult situation of setting up two different productions at two locations. It was pretty chaotic at first, especially when we setting up both shows. On both shows you have to find out what the shows are really going to be about, the tone the characters and such. And at Disney they love meetings. It is kind of a culture of meetings there. You had to meet with lots of people and present ideas. They have meetings about logos, and the music and everything. Luckily, I had Steve Marmel over there handling a lot of the day-to-day stuff. He took all the meetings that were not of much importance. We figured out after a while which those were.
Wubbzy was set up at the Film Roman studio, because the show is done through Bolder Media, Seiberts company. It is not a Nick Jr. owned show. They are invested in it financially, but it is almost like an acquisition for Nick Jr. It is sort of an in-between thing. And actually IDT (now Starz), is the company that financed it, so it made sense to come here.
Yin Yang Yo! was totally different. To keep costs in line with Disneys needs, the pre-production and recording were done in Canada. So at Disney we have a limited crew of around five people. We do the scripts and the key designs and new characters. We also do backgrounds, maybe five for each 11-minute show. We do some preliminary color things and then send it to Canada. Canada will storyboard it there; do the final designs and all the animation. So there was not an army of people to over see. At Wubbzy, if you are gone a day, all sorts of stuff gets tangled. But on Yo, it just runs smoothly along in Canada.
Bob was initially concerned about sending the work to Canada. But in the end it worked out. For example on the voices, we found some great talent. And the upside was they were people in the States had not heard a lot of before. When we did the pilot, we used some really top Los Angeles talent, but they were the talents you hear on lots of other shows. So we found what I think are some fresh voices, which might help us stand out a bit.
For the series, Bob would send the script and assorted designs up to Canada and they would send back a completed storyboard. We would pin it up on a wall and punch up the gags, make our revisions and notes. Actually it was great. Luckily we got a great storyboard crew up in Canada. And right now there is so much work going on here that the local talent is kind of spread out all over. It can be really hard to get six good board artists these days. In Toronto, I think we got the best of Toronto.
Adding to the uniqueness of Bobs achievement is that both series are totally different in draw and drawing. Wubbzy, which airs as part of Nick Jr., is aimed at the growing pre-school audience. Yo, is part of Disneys Jetix block, which gears for the more usual male 6-12 market. Making the mental switch between age groups was not a problem. It was pretty easy to keep straight. The shows are so different. They are not separated by a fine line. So it was easy to switch back and forth. Yin Yang Yo! is fairly similar in tone to some of the other shows I have been working on, like OddParents and Danny Phantom. So that style is almost second nature to me.
Not so second nature was the pre-school concept. It was kind of new to me, because I had never done any pre-school. All I had known was Dora [The Explorer] and that was kind of scary. Thats because the pace is so much slower and deliberate, and they are talking to the audience about things. I knew there was enormous testing with those and standard issues, so I was a little worried. But we [Wubbzy] got very few standards issues or notes. Mostly we would hear kids at that age wont understand this concept.
Was doing pre-school series as much fun? I think so. That is, if the show is successful, it is because I think we do the stories that make us laugh and smile. It has to be a story I want to tell. If its not, then its not worth doing. After all, you spend so much time working on a show you want to have fun. There is some stuff in the show for adults. Yes, it is for pre-schoolers, but there are things in there that make us laugh. Hopefully it will make adults want to sit and watch the show with their kids, and not be nauseated and want to leave the room.
I noted that it seemed as if pre-school shows, which get a lot of discussion from the advertising side, seldom get much attention from folks in and out of the business. I asked Bob if he found that Yo got more notice on the fan forums and general media than Wubbzy. No, but I know what you are talking about. I think part of it is due to the shows. As mentioned, when I started Wubbzy I thought I should try to see what it is all about. And it was hard to sit through. Obviously some shows work for kids, like Dora. The kids love the interaction, but I cannot sit through it. I think the difference is most adults can watch a Fairly OddParents or SpongeBob or a similar series that has some adult sensibilities. That may be why you dont see a lot of discussions on the pre-school stuff.
Visually in pre-school there is a lot of interesting stuff going on; a lot more freedom and more diversity. And maybe that is because a lot of it begins with books, or like Rolie Polie Olie, childrens authors. So you just tend to get more variety in ideas and approaches. Where in the more typical shows you get pitches from guys who have studied this limited world of animation and all have similar influences Hanna-Barbera, or Disney, or whatever. Hence everything sort of feels the same.
Artistically, Bob also had two artistic styles to deal with. The most extreme might be Wubbzys world, which is full of angles. Its just sort of a style I developed while working on Fairly OddParents and Danny Phantom. I did a lot of drawing, sketching and exploring. I used the style when doing the first book. Actually, my wife is Japanese-American, and Ive been exposed to a lot of Japanese culture. They have sort of a culture of cute there. It seems every company there has a mascot. I got to travel there a bit and collected a lot of toys.
"I think that is where I got the strong shapes and that kind of vinyl quality to the toys. The toys have really influenced my personal style and that of Wubbzys too. Theres a certain plastic or vinyl look to Wubbzy. The characters look like you could squeeze them and they would actually squeak. In fact, we actually use a lot of squeaky toy sounds in the show. If someone falls down, theres a fweep.
I wanted to try a unique look. For example, I wanted to keep the skies white, so the colors really can pop out. A lot of cartoons today are just filled with color. Nothing becomes important or reads really well. I thought, start with white, and it will make everything sing and stand out that much better.
Then there is Yin Yang Yo!, which is the extreme opposite! We have black skies and fire red skies. There are a lot of similarities in the design styles [between Wubbzy and Yo], but tonally they are very different. They are literally night and day. Wubbzy is candy colors, while Yo is dark and mysterious.
When it came to the characters, Bob also needed to think about the differences. When I designed Wubbzy, he had those dot eyes. I came from working Fairly OddParents where you had big, expressive eyes. And you do a lot of series. On Yin Yang Yo! we have the same sort of big eyes, which is a lot easier to get expression with. With Wubbzy, it wasnt as hard as I thought, after all the early Mickey Mouse had dot eyes. I think it adds to the charming cuteness of Wubbzy in that it is very restrained.
The one thing both series had in common was the use of Flash animation. I met with some people who had done Flash shows before we committed to doing it that way. They immediately looked at my design style and said that is perfect for Flash. The more I found out about it, Flash is like limited animation, very similar to the Hanna-Barbera style where they just have the feet moving. There are tricks and such to it that work with a stylized design. But we can do pretty much anything. At first, I thought we shouldnt do ¾ walks up to the camera, but weve done that type of thing. And it looks really nice.
There are definitely some shows where you say thats a Flash show and not in a good way [laughs]. But I think our design style hides the Flashiness of it. Definitely on Yin Yang Yo! that was an issue with the network. They were concerned about it. They had just done another series in Flash, and that series ended up testing very young. The network worried that some of that may have been because it was in Flash. So we did a test and we did all these crazy dramatic angles and action scenes. The network folks said, This is Flash? So we definitely had to overcome some resistance to the Flash process.
What is Bobs opinion of the Flash debate? Its really just a tool. Its like a piano. You can have a piano and a good piano player and youll have good music. Or you can have a piano and a bad piano player and youre going to get bad song. If you have good animators, they can do wonders with it. If you have bad ones you will get terrible stuff. It doesnt matter if they are using a pencil or a computer program.
When it came to using Flash, its been great on both shows. It allows you more control for a longer period of time. On Yin Yang Yo! we change things up until the day of the mix. You know you always get that great idea for a joke right before you go to the mix. You say, Oh, we should have done this! Now we can say what we should have done, and actually still do it. In a matter of hours, if it is not too complicated, we can change a little animation. On Yo we use it to punch up the humor a bit.
"On Wubbzy weve had a couple of shows that are 15 seconds short. You always wonder, how did that happen? But we have all the assets, walk cycles, backgrounds, characters and such. We can put together some animation in just a few hours. We drive the line producers crazy, but we do have that freedom to keep it going.
Now both shows are in post-production through the end of the year, so Bob can relax a little. Ive got some ideas I want to pitch. But I do want to get through this first. I have another pre-school idea I would love to do. I think the pre-school shows are a blast. I think there is a lot unexplored. I can see where animation people could have more fun with pre-school and bring more entertainment value to it. One of the things about Wubbzy was that we wanted to make it a pre-school show that was more about the comedy and entertainment. We do teach lessons and have morals, but we wanted a show where kids would laugh.
I got the impression that Bob was quite attached to Wubbzy. Very much! He is pretty much me. I feel he is very alive and part of my world. I would love to see a Wubbzys Macys day balloon. I think it would look awesome, the tail waving in the wind. I really hope that Wubbzy can touch some people and become part of a kids consciousness, the way that a Dora or a SpongeBob do. Having a character last a long time would be great. And I think that with pre-school you can do that. Madeline, Curious George and such have been around forever.
And he still has the future of Yin Yang Yo! to think about too. We would like to expand the universe of the show. Theres a whole mythology built into that story that we would like to unravel as it goes along. I would like to see the story arcs grow, the characters get different powers, find out more about their past, etc. I actually would love to see that show have a spin-off that is an actual anime style. Taking those characters and having fun with them, pushing them into a new direction, maybe more action, maybe more serious.
As I was leaving, I suddenly wondered what had happened to the Wubbzy book that he had written years ago. Thats funny. Because the book deal with Fred is still ongoing, with nothing in sight yet. And I just got the first manuscript for a merchandised Wubbzy book that will be out before any of those first pitches!
What more to say than to quote Wubbzy: Wow! Wow!
John Cawley is a producer of animation whose résumé includes Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, New World/Marvel, Film Roman and Sullivan-Bluth. Cawley, an author of several books on animation, has also written for comics and animation. He is a lecturer on animation production and an established mascot performer.