Oxygen's flagship showcase of animation, X-Chromosome is almost a year old. Designed to bring the female viewpoint to television, Heather Kenyon reveals that it is doing even more than that.
In 1998 when Geraldine Laybourne, the creative spark behind children's powerhouse Nickelodeon, decided to start her own cable network dedicated to the needs and views of women, the buzz was incredible. A true media company for the new century, Oxygen Media began with a collection of Websites focusing on issues ranging from parenting and health to money and home repairs as they pertain to women. The Oxygen cable network launched on February 2, 2000 (Get it? 02/02/00) through a U.S. cable operator, MediaOne, to over 1 million subscribers, and offers a variety of diverse programming, all focused toward meeting women's unique needs and presenting their point of view. Backed by a promotional partnership with America Online, and partnered with Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner, Caryn Mandabach and Oprah Winfrey, Oxygen quickly proved that it was anything but kid's stuff, and everyone in the industry kept an ear out for the latest developments.
Kit Laybourne, Oxygen's Head of Animation and Special Projects, in keeping with the company's overall vision, vowed to create animated programming predominately by women, for women. Our Stories hit the Website in late June 1999 with the tag line, "Your Stories + Our Technology" and brought short minuets of real women telling stories and experiences recreated using different mixed media. They were short, funny, insightful, brilliant little bits. They are also addicting. (I dare you to go to oxygen.com today and watch just one.) In early June the cable channel's first primetime animated series for women and about women, X-Chromosome had been announced and a few early pilots went into production. Based on the quality of Our Stories, anticipation was running high. "Our goal is to create the first animated television series for women, exploring issues from a female point of view. We also wanted to build an outlet specifically for female animators, whose distinctive voices will help us develop a unique Oxygen animation style and outlook," said Geraldine Laybourne at the announcement.
Now this sounds like one of those promises that never comes true. However, in this lucky case, X-Chromosome has come true, and has flourished under Kit Laybourne and executive producer Machi Tantillo, who came to the upstart company after six years at MTV Networks. She left as the Director of MTV Animation, co-supervising the production of MTV's animated series, features, specials and shorts. The half-hour show combines a mix of 3 to 7 minute segments into a variety type show. "It was conceived as a place to incubate new ideas and new talent," explains Kit Laybourne. "We think it is important because animation has been an area of programming that has allowed a number of different cable companies to break out -- things like Beavis and Butthead, Nickelodeon with all the Nick Toons and Comedy Central with South Park has proven this."
Produced in a number of different styles the stories all have one thread in common -- they are sincere stories that come straight from the heart. "The biggest part of it is, when we pick a pitch we believe it is expressing what Oxygen wants to express to women through animation," explains Tantillo. "Is this character relatable? Is this what the creator is looking to do and does it reflect Oxygen's vision? What comes first in our mind is the story, the voice and the point of view of the lead character. The style of the animation? We just want to make sure it is doing a service to the story."
In the same vein as Our Stories, X-Chromosome segments feel as though they have been done by one woman in her living room, using a style that she has just kind of "made up." Now that isn't saying that the shows look unprofessional, rather they just aren't what one would expect from a slick media company that is on a schedule. These aren't your typical cartoons and they aren't your usual subject matter. Before sitting down to X-Chromosome be prepared to laugh, cringe, be embarrassed and cry. "The Oxygen team is small and so is the show's creative team, usually just a writer and director, so it is very intimate and direct. We aren't weaving through notes from 20 million different filters," says Tantillo. The results are shows that are lively, fresh and pertinent to today's viewing audience. Tantillo laughs, "I've watched shows with people and they are actually talking to the television. They jump up and yell, 'What are you doing that for?' which is a really good sign!"
But X-Chromosome does more than give a voice to the female experience. It is subtly introducing an array of animation styles to the U.S. viewing audience. Let's look at the production process for just a few of the segments. The Ruth Truth started as an animated on-line series and made its TV debut on X-Chromosome on Saturday, July 15, 2000. The show chronicles the adventures of Ruth Decker, an actress/comedian who lands a job working undercover for a detective agency that specializes in busting vendors who traffic in counterfeit designer goods, and is based on the life of the writer and lead actress Sheila Head. The series won Shockwave.com's World Internet Animation Competition's awards for Grand Prize, best in all categories and the best "Mixed-Media" produced for the Web. The show uses Jen Taylor and Randy Lowenstein's new technique to morph one still image into another to tell the story. The duo developed a system that combines photos and vectors to create a new form of animation in which the outlines of photo-painted elements are morphed into each other. This technique is now a patent pending system called Liquid Lines.
Avenue Amy is produced by Curious Pictures and directed by Curious Pictures' Joan Raspo and written by Amy Sohn, based off of her New York Press column. The satirical show brings to life the daily trials and tribulations of a woman's life in the Big Apple in a unique way. It sets brightly colored, rotoscoped actors against live-action photo collage backgrounds. You have to see it to believe it. Of course another star of X-Chromosome is Hey Monie, which uses Tom Snyder Productions unique Squigglevision technique and "retroscripting" process. (It is also the first network animated series based on an African-American woman and her friends.) Closet Case, a pilot by Theresa Duncan, was done in a water color technique, enhanced by After Effects, while another pilot Female Trouble, by Amy Sohn and John Raspo of Curious Pictures, combined 2D animation with live-action and After Effects-enhanced visual effects.
Bringing all these unique styles to X-Chromosome in a variety type format is teaching viewers that animation doesn't have to just look like "cartoons." Tantillo agrees, "What we have heard from our focus groups and our own guts is, 'Use styles that are innovative and present styles that are not the same old thing. We are in the midst of a digital revolution and while I am a big fan of traditional animation and I love pencils and papers, it doesn't ever hurt to employ what is out there. All those people that have been innovating new techniques and styles and mixed up mediums can only make it more interesting and people are looking for new styles and innovations." While the show's bumpers and ID's have been carefully created to showcase the individual segments and create a cohesive whole, the fact that the segments are so different is exciting, leaving the viewer wondering what is about to come next. "People like to choose. They like to have the option. It is a psychological thing -- maybe I'm making this up - but it seems to ring true that it is nice to watch a show and say, 'I liked that one. This one didn't work for this reason. I loved this one.' It is like a buffet and I think people like that," says Tantillo. With show's sometimes coming in from outside production companies directly to the editing bay creating the flow of each episode is a challenge that also keeps the show fresh and varied.
Some of X-Chromosome's "stars" have been split out and will appear as longer segments in the upcoming season. "We have a bunch of contenders! We backed some wonderful talent, much of it very experienced talent, women who have been working a long time and just waiting for an opportunity to be allowed to do what is really close to their heart and by offering them a platform to do that, and getting out of their way, we've been able to benefit from their wonderful creativity," enthuses Kit. However that doesn't mean that they are no longer looking for great ideas.
"We have, what we hope is an innovative way of shaking out the trees. We call it the RFP, the request for proposal, and that is a document that introduces the animation community and beyond to Oxygen and X-Chromosome. It establishes what we are, and then breaks down our deal picks right out front. We have three deal offers and everyone in the whole wide world gets the same three deal picks. It also explains what we are looking for. We don't like to narrow it down too much, but we try to describe the type of content we are looking for," explains Tantillo.
Kit Laybourne continues, "We are just beginning to figure out what new kinds of programming have the most potential. I think we have done some cool things, but I also think we can go a lot further. And that's what keeps us all jumping out of bed to come in every day to see where we can go further. It is energizing to have this freedom. You realize what a rare opportunity it is to be in a place where you can innovate and where innovation is normative. If it isn't innovative people here would look down on you!"
Going into the New Year, Laybourne explains how X-Chromosome, and in turn animation at Oxygen, will be changing: "We will be growing it in three ways. We will be taking some of the work we did before and putting a little more Miracle Grow on it. And then we have some new seedlings that we don't want to announce yet because we are still piloting. But they are clearly some new voices, or new plants, that we will start watering and giving sunshine to. Another thing that we are interested in doing, that we didn't do too much of the first time around, is to cull the world around us for interesting things that would be appropriate for X-Chromosome. One of the things that's happened in the year and a half since we started this process is that the Web has become a wonderful dynamic source of innovation. We are trying to concoct a number of different ways that we can tap into the power of this emerging creative group."
Using the New In New Media
The folks at Oxygen are also making it clear that they aren't forgetting why they are unique, offering both Websites and a cable channel. While they have been very progressive at crossing programming over from one platform to another, the case of The Ruth Truth is one such example, they are working toward further integration and using this unique advantage to offer their audience more. "We are trying really hard to figure out how to use the Web to promote television and storytelling and creativity in general among women. And it is really, really promising but what it requires is a deep level of tools and we are still building that infrastructure. It takes a long time to build these things, because to really be able to offer people a chance to create, you need to give them some wonderful tools. We are aware of that and we are working on it. The online world is showing us some really important things about connecting to our audience and about how to work really fast. It is also pushing us toward these wonderful new digital tool sets that are really deeply interesting. There is a pot of technology that gets stirred up just because we are working on the web that guys who are in a TV studio don't get exposed to. It really helps us in profound ways, and that is often missed by people." These digital tool sets are also offering the X-Chromosome creators an advantage, as Laybourne explains, "It is very empowering for the creators because they can try something and, the next day, change it, and try something completely new. The cycle of self-learning is so much faster."
Tantillo finishes by saying, "We hope we can get the word out and let people know this is the place to come." I think the content is telling them just that already.
Heather Kenyon is editor-in-chief of Animation World Network. After receiving her B.F.A. in Filmic Writing from USC's School of Cinema-Television, she went to work for Hanna-Barbera Cartoons. Currently, she is an International Board Member of Women In Animation and on the Board of Trustees for Trees for Life.