Andrew Farago catches up with Frederator Studios' Fred Seibert and four of the creators of the studio's Random! Cartoons venture with Nickelodeon.
Since 1998, Frederator Studios has become one of the largest and most prolific independent cartoon studios. Through their affiliation with Nickelodeon, Frederator is currently producing four television series and has more than 100 projects in active development and production for features, books, television, and video. Their most recent project to hit the airwaves was an animation showcase called Random! Cartoons, which premiered on the Nickelodeon and Nicktoons networks in late 2008.
I recently conducted interviews with Fred Seibert, the head of Frederator Studios, and several Random! Cartoons directors to learn more about the studio, several recently-released and upcoming shorts and just what makes an animated cartoon "random."
Fred Seibert, head of Frederator Studios
Andrew Farago: How do the Random! Cartoons differ from your previous Frederator showcases?
Fred Seibert: Random! Cartoons was a series unique to its moment in time. Like with all the others, we relied primarily on artists and animators who wrote their own films. Common to all of the shorts series was my production companion, veteran Larry Huber.
What a Cartoon! was nurtured inside of an existing studio, Hanna-Barbera, and depended on the support of the great staff that had built the company. We made 48 shorts with 40 different creators across the world. Veterans like Bruno Bozzetto and Ralph Bakshi, newcomers, including Genndy Tartakovsky, Craig McCraken and Butch Hartman, and complete indies like New Yorker John Dilworth.
Oh Yeah! Cartoons was our first project with Nickelodeon. Executives there were eager for us to introduce them to the talent bubbling in the industry. We created a mini-studio within Nickelodeon, and our 51 original shorts had 33 filmmakers, many with multiple shorts.
Random! Cartoons was 39 shorts created in an industry that had learned our methods and where all the networks and studios were making shorts of their own. New production techniques like Flash and CG had become viable. And, unlike our first two series, the talent pool had "grown up" with a healthy industry eager for new voices. The competition for cartoons to be great had never been more intense.
One of the clearest differences this time around was the complete diversity of the creators, a must in a worldwide environment we now live in. For the first time, we had pictures from creators [who were] Korean, Mexican, African-American, Japanese. And, not at all incidentally, after 99.75% of our shorts being made by men, we had nine women creators. These shorts are among the most exciting we've ever done.
AF: How did you recruit the artists and directors for the Random! Cartoons?
FS: Cartoons came into Frederator in three ways. Eric Homan is our vice president of development and led the effort to reach out to creators everywhere. Eric and I started together at Hanna-Barbera more than 15 years ago, and he's got a deep reservoir of good will among cartoon talent everywhere. He's a passionate regular at industry events, festivals and colleges, and, as president of programming at Channel Frederator, virtually around the globe. Eric led our development team of Melissa Wolfe and producers Kevin Kolde and Larry Huber to encourage creators to come into Random!
We love working within the walls of Nickelodeon Studios, and then with the other crews in town, talking to people looking for the chance to make their first commercial cartoons. We made six Random! cartoons with returning creators, but that's 33 creators we've never had a chance to know before.
New this time around was our effort on the Internet. We started Frederator's blogs in those prehistoric days of 2004, and the more we posted about new Random! pitches, the more new pitches cascaded in. The launch of Channel Frederator in November 2005 just added to the fray.
AF: What goal are you trying to accomplish with these shorts? Have any of the Random! Cartoons been tapped as potential ongoing series?
FS: Random! Cartoons fulfilled my goals from our first day. We've met some incredible talent and I'm sure we'll be working with everyone again many times over the years.
There are already two series in production (Fanboy & Chum Chum at Nickelodeon, and Adventure Time at Cartoon Network) [and] we're developing even more for series or feature films.
AF: All of the Random! shorts I've seen so far proudly label themselves as "Made in Hollywood" at the end of the credits. Is all of the animation for these shorts handled in the U.S., and is all of the work being done at one central location?
FS: Lots of cartoons are made in the United States, contrary to popular opinion, and as you say, we're darn proud of it. On the case of Random!, two thirds of the production is done stateside (most in California, but some in New York, Boston and elsewhere), with writing, boarding, design and color, direction, casting, recording, scoring and post production. Animation is often done across the world, from Canada to Asia.
Our Random! Cartoons production home base is at Nickelodeon Animation Studios [in Hollywood].
AF: One thing that I've really enjoyed about the various Frederator anthologies ( KaBlam! was a favorite back in my college days) is the range of style, format and tone that the studio is willing to try. Do you keep a general target audience in mind when creating each short, or do you expect certain cartoons not to go over well with certain audiences?
FS: We love it when viewers love our cartoons, and everyone on our team wants to find audiences for their shorts. We've always felt that style and tone are just two of the elements a filmmaker uses to make his or her film, and we don't feel limited by trends of the moment. We look to whatever inspires the creator, figuring it'll inspire everyone else too. We make shorts for all kinds of audiences, and we're cognizant of where they run and who's watching, like The Meth Minute 39 shorts for adults on the Internet.
Random! Cartoons is made for Nickelodeon and all the creators know their audience is kids. But, they're not limited by kids. In the end, our creators make funny cartoons with great characters, and we don't talk down to those kids, we make ourselves laugh and I think it's why so many of our cartoons have broad, popular appeal.
A note of clarification: Frederator didn't produce KaBlam! (though I sure wish we had). The very talented producer/writer Bob Mittenthal produced Kablam!, with Will McRobb & Chris Viscardi. I was initially involved with Action League Now!, but had to drop out when I went to Hanna-Barbera.
AF: Has the current economic downturn altered any of Frederator's plans for the next year or so?
FS: It's always challenging for everyone in a down economy, and Frederator's not exceptional. We're finding it harder to find financing for projects, but we feel more than lucky to be doing as well as we are today. In the final analysis, like all production companies making popular films, we're only as successful as our ability to make cartoons our audiences love.
AF: What is Frederator's current relationship with Nickelodeon Studios?
FS: Frederator's in the midst of a long run, special relationship with Nickelodeon. For 12 years we were exclusive producers, now we're "first look," with four series on the air, three in production (two at the studio) and a number in consideration. We happily continue to be network consultants.
AF: In the summer of 2007, you, Kevin Kolde and Eric Gardner founded Frederator Films, with the express goal of creating feature films under a $20 million budget. Do you have any features in progress at the moment?
FS: Frederator Films has a number of studio and independent pictures in various stages of development or production. You'll be the first to hear about them.
Doug TenNapel, writer/director Solomon Fix, Squirly Town
Mike Gray, creator/writer/co-producer Thom Cat, writer/director The Infinite Goliath
Kyle A. Carrozza, creator/producer MooBeard the Cow Pirate
Niki Yang, storyboard artist Two Witch Sisters, Victor the Delivery Dog
Pendleton Ward, cartoonist, Adventure Time and The Bravest Warriors
AF: How long have you been in animation? What's your background in the industry?
Doug TenNapel: I've been in animation since I worked on Attack of the Killer Tomatoes back in 1991. I've done storyboards, voices, casting, voice direction, writing, directing, animating and character design. I got my chops by animating for videogames and making my own puppet animation movies growing up.
Mike Gray: I have been working since 1995 after graduating college, though my degree was not in animation (I was self-taught initially). Instead, I have been lucky to have worked with, or to have known, several people who have taught me a lot about animation and/or shaped who I am today: my brother Doug Gray (a very talented animator and artist), Nick Stern (animator who began work in the '70s with Filmation), and the great Maurice Noble, whom I am proud to say called me one of his "Noble Boys."
I own my own company called "Pencil for Hire," and I do animation, illustration, writing, design and even some standup comedy.
Kyle A. Carrozza: I've been in and out of the industry since 1999. I worked at a CD Rom studio in Connecticut for two years, then after the studio went 3D (and shortly after dissolved), I moved to Southern California. I had no luck until Random! Cartoons came along. Since then, I've done some freelance storyboards, and one of my independent shorts aired on Comedy Central's Atom TV. I also did some comicstrip work.
Niki Yang: I graduated from CalArts in 2003 and started my first gig for Family Guy at Fox as a revisionist. There I was promoted to a storyboard artist. Ever since, I have been working as a storyboard artist on a variety of shows. I also directed three episodes of Slacker Cats (Film Roman) as well as my shorts for Random! Cartoons.
Pendleton Ward: My first gig in animation was my Random! Cartoons short, Adventure Time. I wrote and roughly sketched out the storyboard over a week or two weeks? I hadn't pitched to a studio before. It was exciting jumping into it not knowing whether I would sink or swim. I brought my guitar in to Frederator and played the theme song that I wrote for the short and did my best at pitching. While I was pitching I tried to forget about everyone in the room and I just looked at my storyboards on the wall. Tried to lose myself in the drawings and not worry about how anyone was reacting.
AF: How did you hook up with Fred Seibert/Frederator?
DT: I was working on my own show Catscratch at Nickelodeon and I ran into Fred from time to time. I once pitched to him back in 1997.
MG: A friend of mine sent me an e-mail that said there was an open call for pitches at Frederator for the new Oh Yeah! series. I called up Melissa Wolfe and was able to get a time to come in over the phone... it was amazing to me that you could just call up like that uninvited! You go in, pin your storyboards to the wall and then act out the cartoon in front of a group of people! My first pitch went ok (at least they were laughing) but nothing was considered in the right age range, so I took the notes I received from Larry Huber, Kevin Kolde, Eric Homan and Melissa Wolfe and revamped my pitches for the next time, which eventually led to The Infinite Goliath and Thom Cat being picked up.
KC: I had a friend who was working on [My Life as a] Teenage Robot who tipped me off that Oh Yeah! Cartoons was starting up again and that they were taking pitches. This, of course, was before it was re-named to Random! Cartoons. I already had a MooBeard storyboard drawn up, so I shortened it a bit and pitched it to them. Six revisions later, Fred gave me the green light.
NY: I heard Frederator was taking pitches for shorts, so I went for it. I was lucky that they picked my idea.
PW: Eric Homan is vice president of Development at Frederator. He contacted me after watching one of my films at an end of the year CalArts animation screening called The Producer's Show. Eric asked me to pitch an Idea to Frederator for Random! Cartoons. It was my first job lead after school and so I got to work trying to make it happen.
AF: Can you explain the plots of your shorts?
DT: Solomon Fix is about a teddy bear that is owned by a bad boy named Ned. Solomon just wants to be friends with the human boy and the human boy doesn't want a stuffed animal friend.
Squirly Town is about two squirrel executives who work at an acorn butter factory in the middle of the woods. Zoopie is the crazy, funny one and Lance is the uptight type.
MG: Thom Cat originally appeared in one of my self-published comics called Fluff #1, and I owe Larry Huber for giving me the idea to expand upon him as an animated pitch. Thom Cat is a genius inventor, a brilliant scientist, and a fashion trendsetter, but he is not smug...in fact, his personality and voice is a lot like Davy Jones of The Monkees (simply a laidback star). It's as if the favorite cat of the neighborhood (he is based on one of my own pets who was just that) was able to come by and have a chat with you when you fed him (and maybe even improve your central heating while he was over).
The Infinite Goliath is basically a parody all the most evil/powerful beings in popular fiction (Darkseid/Darth Vader/Dr. Doom, etc.) and made him have to lead the life of "Mr. Wilson" in Dennis the Menace... without being able to destroy anyone! His only "friend" is his cat, Mr. Bobo, who Goliath enjoys because of his insolence.
KC: MooBeard (Billy West) is a stubby little bull who scarcely looks bovine and has swell Little Orphan Annie eyes. He's got two peg-legs and long sleeves filled with gadgets (and no visible hands). He sounds like he's straight out of Long Island and he's got a cheerful disdain for everything. He's determined to make his childhood dream of being a pirate a reality, even if it means slumming it on a tugboat until he earns enough for a real pirate ship.
MooBeard's second-in-command/navigator/best friend Sailor Bird (Erica Luttrell) is an acid-tongued teenage bird girl who's seeking adventure as the direct opposite of her boring upper class upbringing. She's got a teenager's sarcasm, but she's having a blast working with MooBeard.
The villain, Dark Blade of Fire (Dave (Gruber) Allen), is a ninja ducky. While he's a very skilled swordsduck, he's really just one step above schoolyard bully. He stammers his way through threats and sometimes allows them to go on too long.
NY: Two Witch Sisters is a show about twin sisters, Dorothy Witch and Carrot Witch, who happen to be ridiculously different. Carrot, a hysterical, rambunctious fidgeter, who can't stand one second of stillness, was born five seconds later than her sister Dorothy. She has a very high level of energy which needs to be burned off, usually by breaking something or "creating" some mess that drives her sister Dorothy crazy. Carrot was born with a "special condition." She is prone to bouts of emotional hysteria, she transforms into a giant vegetable -- a carrot -- every time she has a panic attack... which is more often than you would think.
This very first episode is about the sisters meeting The Crying Bee Boy at the park. However he can only speak the national bee language, "Buzz-buzz." As usual, this "kind" witch pair tries to help the bee boy, even though they don't understand this foreign language at all. And as usual, Dorothy and Carrot make the situation more sticky and sour...
As for Victor, the Delivery Dog, Victor was born with an unconditional big heart and an uncontrollable big stomach. He works at a post office as a delivery man with his partner Mr. Papier, a magical envelope.
This very first adventure about Victor and his guardian Mr. Papier starts from an unfortunate lost love letter, which is assigned to them. Victor frantically tries to deliver this annoying express mail before his dinner time. On the other hand, Mr. Papier, who finds the express mail attractive, wants to help her get delivered even though all she is able to say is nothing but "You have to deliver me now!" Victor's heart overpowers his stomach and he decides he would rather starve than give up on this lost love letter, which could unify lost lovers.
PW: Adventure Time stars a little boy named Finn the Human and his pal Jake the Dog. They're just hanging, dancing in some grass when a super sad Rainicorn flies by. Those dudes chase after the Rainicorn and discover Princess Bubblegum has been tied up by an evil nutbar named The Ice King. They save her for sure.
AF: How many people worked on your feature?
DT: We had a pretty stripped down crew. I like working with small teams on shorts. Maybe five people helping out total.
MG: Thom Cat was done traditionally (hand-drawn) and the fantastic Director Jeff DeGrandis worked with SaeRom Animation, Inc. in Korea to produce animation that was far better than I have ever been able to draw Thom Cat myself. Luther McLaurin did great storyboards that far improved on my originals, and Kenny Pittenger's layout with David Eppen's background paintings really gave Thom's world a warm feel. The music from Andy Paley was so well done that we entered it in the Annie Awards (unfortunately it was not nominated). What really brought Thom to life though was the incredible voice talent of Jim Meskimen as Thom (also entered into the Annie's as a main character performance, also unfortunately not nominated), and Annie Mumulo as Melissa and Rusty. Ginny McSwain as voice director helped me to get the performances perfect and Meredith Layne (casting director) was a huge help in casting the right talent for both cartoons!
The Infinite Goliath was done in Flash at Renegade Studios, with a large portion of the cartoon being animated by my brother, Doug Gray, who was working there at the time. The entire intro sequence was animated by him in fact. Because it was done in Flash, I was able to direct the feature, and to do the final storyboards. The music was done by Geoff Levin, who did a terrific job, even performing on a real theremin for the Day the Earth Stood Still-like intro music. The voice talent of Kevin Michael Richardson as Goliath, Alana Ubach as Roger and Scott Bullock as Dr. Carnage performed like a seasoned sitcom, which was amazing to watch. Background design by Joseph Holt, painted by Tony Mora, Color Styling by Leticia Lacey (also on Thom Cat), and special effects by Ernest Chan (Goliath's "Kirby" energy eye glow).
KC: I had a director, Jeff DeGrandis, who I requested and miraculously got. I also had a cleanup artist, BG artist, prop designer, and color stylist. I did the final storyboards, key poses, and character designs myself. Since I had no previous TV animation experience, I had nothing to compare it to. Budgeting was never made my problem, but I wasn't really trying to do anything especially expensive.
NY: From artists, producers, voice actors, post house people to overseas animators, many people worked hard for my two seven-minute shorts. I don't know the exact number, probably 20 to 25 per show? It was an overwhelming blessing for a person like me who is used to making films all by myself. Frederator was absolutely supportive in all aspects and I was able to make the shorts exactly how I wanted. I was able to hire many talents that I always wanted to work with. It was an amazingly wonderful lesson and experience, because I was able to practice the whole filmmaking process, like voice recording, sound effect, music and mix. When you do your job in the industry, you often forget to look at the big picture of the forest because we only contribute our small part.
PW: At the time I hired my recently graduated buddies to create the artwork. Neil Graf did the coloring (now a retake director on King of the Hill), Julian Narino drew the backgrounds (now a storyboard artist at Laika) and Adam Muto drew the props (now a writer on the Adventure Time series in development at Cartoon Network.)
AF: Has your cartoon aired yet? Have you gotten any feedback from viewers yet?
DT: Solomon Fix has aired, but Squirly Town is being held by Nick to team up with another show promotion later in the year. I haven't had any feedback but TV viewers rarely find out how to give me feedback.
MG: The Infinite Goliath premiered on Jan. 17, and Thom Cat premieres on Saturday at 10:30 a.m.
KC: MooBeard was the second cartoon on the first episode. Yay! I've gotten lots of feedback on my deviantART account, on some message board threads I've found and... shhh... on a YouTube posting of the cartoon that I had nothing to do with. It's all been remarkably positive... and I say remarkably due to the general nature of people to complain on the Internet. Lots of people tell me they want me to make more. When they do, I give them Nickelodeon's address and ask them to write a letter.
NY: Two Witch Sisters has aired and was screened at Nick a while ago. I dare say that I got a tremendous response. Victor, the Delivery Dog will air on Saturday.
PW: It aired on Nicktoons Network, I think. Adventure Time was nominated for an Annie Award in 2007 and so a way was figured out for it to be put online so that ASIFA-Hollywood members could watch it and vote on it. And it was pretty well received online. Millions of people have viewed it and new comments have been posted daily on the various versions of it online for the past couple years.
AF: What do you have coming up next?
DT: I just got off of a storyboarding gig on Cartoon Network's Adventure Time. Now I'm writing and drawing a new graphic novel.
MG: I recently finished work as head writer/story editor (and also animated a few episodes) on a series called Ape Escape (which I worked on with my friends Director/Head of Storyboard Karl "ManToerge" Toerge and Producer Kevin Kolde) and that will premiere in 2009 on Nicktoons.
I'm also preparing to launch a web comic called Clumsy Love before the end of January. Along with working on my own new pitches, I am also collaborating with Karl Toerge on a series of his called Freakout, and I am getting ready to produce a limited-edition vinyl of a character of mine from a show pitch called Space Pussy, which has taken a long time to do on my own. Space Pussy, is an Adult Swim-type animated sketch comedy, and I will have a three-minute short on YouTube called Space Pussy Presents: Lady Blossom, Dog Prostitute! in the next month as a sample.
KC: I'm working on some independent films right now. Pitching, which I've done a lot of, seems a lot like throwing bowling balls at anthills and expecting them to go in. Also, I'm tired of waiting for a studio to say "yes" before I can make more cartoons, so I'm just doing so on my own and hoping someday a network takes notice so I can quit my day job. Speaking of which, if anyone is reading this who might want to give and artist an industry job and get him out of the medical records field, please look me up. Don't let me end up like Harvey Pekar.
NY: I am working on Fanboy as a storyboard artist at Nickelodeon and Frederator.
PW: Cartoon Network picked up 26 11-minute episodes of Adventure Time. So I'm running a show now. It's a lot of work. The show is looking really wonderful I think. Phil Rynda (character designer on Adventure Time) described the show as "a D&D fan with a sense of humor's wildest fantasy." That sounds awesome. So I'm shootin' for that.
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