Rick DeMott maps Jimmy Neutron's amazing rise from DNA Productions in Texas to theatres and televisions sets around the world as Nickelodeon's next big thing.
Where did Nickelodeon's Jimmy Neutron come from? It seems like overnight kids have become enamored with Jimmy, a boy genius with big hair. It didn't start with a TV show like The Rugrats nor a feature like Toy Story. Since February of 2001, Nick has been airing Neutron interstitials, but that's not really the beginning either. If one really wants to discover the origins of Jimmy and his robot dog Goddard, one needs to take a time machine back to 1995 when Texas-based DNA Productions got their first out-of-the-box 3D software package and started to fiddle around with a elementary-school-aged rocket aficionado named Johnny Quasar.
Jimmy-creator and founder of DNA Productions, John A. Davis, had been tooling around with an idea ever since the early 1980s about a boy genius, who runs away from home in a homemade rocket-ship. When his company got their first copy of Lightwave, he unearthed an old script and storyboard and started to work on a 40-second short entitled Runaway Rocket Boy. Once completed, the lab coat wearing Johnny Quasar flew his rocket from Earth into space, introduced himself by waving to the camera, dodged some asteroids and zoomed off into the outer reaches of the universe. Davis and his partner, Keith Alcorn, liked the short so much they decided to create a show bible in an attempt to pitch the project as a TV series. In the meantime, the short was entered in a Lightwave demo competition at SIGGRAPH, the world's largest 3D software and animation convention. Subsequently, Runaway Rocket Boy took home two "Wavey" awards for Best Character Animation and Best in Show.
Upon the successful run at SIGGRAPH, the short garnered a lot of press in trade magazines. That's how Ace Ventura writer and director Steve Oedekerk was introduced into the mix. "I saw a photo of an early incarnation of Jimmy and Goddard in an off-the-beaten-path CGI magazine. Basically, I thought they looked fun," remembers Oedekerk. "I'm a huge fan of computer-generated animation, and at that time, one of the few that thought a CGI television series was even possible." Oedekerk gave DNA Productions a call and requested a tape of the short, after which he requested to see anything else the small Texas studio had on the character. After seeing the show bible, Oedekerk was hooked; he wanted to help DNA pitch the project to various studios.
With Oedekerk's O Entertainment involved, Oedekerk, Davis and Alcorn created a refined look for the Johnny character. The lab coat was dropped and a more icon-ical hair-do was formed. As Davis says, the character aged-up, but became more of a kid in the process. Now entitled The Adventures of Johnny Quasar, DNA Productions created an expanded short based on the original demo. Then in the fall of 1995, their studio pitching tour began and ended after the first stop!
This Kid IS on a Rocket Ride
"It really just blew us away," says Albie Hecht, Nickelodeon's president of film and TV entertainment, and later executive producer on the feature. "The animation was so sparkling, and it has that future-retro style." Upon this reaction, Nick ordered a 13-minute pilot episode to be created. After a long period of further development, the pilot started production at the end of 1997. As part of the initial pitch, Oedekerk boasted how with 3D technology, assets created for a TV series could also be used for a feature and visa versa. And Nickelodeon bought that 100 percent. So when the execs went to Dallas to meet the filmmakers and check out the studio, they asked about a feature.
"That's when my jaw dropped to the floor," says Davis. "That's the holy grail of what I would want to do." From a production standpoint, Davis then suggested doing the feature first. This way Jimmy's world could be created at theatrical quality then those assets could be used on the TV series. Nickelodeon understood the technical advantage of doing the feature prior to the TV series, but was worried about not being able to build an audience for the feature without the series coming first. That's when Nick came up with the idea of creating and airing short interstitials leading up to the feature's release.
So in the fall of 1999, Nickelodeon gave the green-light to start production on the feature script. This is where the world and characters really started to take shape. What Nickelodeon liked so much about the now-called Jimmy Neutron character was that he was a genius, but still liked kid-type things. This concept mirrored Nick's programming philosophy of "making kids' dreams come true."
Davis and Oedekerk dived back into their own childhoods and looked for things that captured their imaginations back then. Oedekerk says, "We thought about what a kid would create if he had the ability to create any kind of gadget." With that in mind, Davis expanded on the character's love of rockets, which spurred the creation of the amusement park rocket scene in the film. "It's just a great kid fantasy," explains Davis. Many of Davis' own influences, like Ray Harryhausen and The Thunderbirds, made their way into the film. The giant chicken monster, Poultra, is an homage to Mothra of Godzilla fame. The shows and films he loved as a kid had neat gadgets, secret passageways and cool creatures, all of which worked their way into the world of Jimmy Neutron. Oedekerk stresses that the project was a very collaborative process, taking ideas from various people including his 6-year-old daughter, Zoe. She came up with the burping soda invention and even gets a special thanks in the credits for her contribution.
After three months of pounding out a script, in the beginning of 2000, Nickelodeon gave the go-ahead to start production on the feature. Now, DNA Productions, which had been 20 employees, needed to expand to 120 employees for the very tight production schedule of 24 months. Using Lightwave and Messiah, DNA Productions started creating the Jimmy Neutron feature, in addition to several interstitials. The production marked the first time that a 3D animated feature was being completely produced with out-of-the-box software. Regarding the influence that this may have on the industry, Davis says, "It really concentrates the power on the artist as opposed to teams of code writers." Davis gave an example of Pixar's Renderman software, which requires so much code that artists have to work through code writers to create their art. Using consumer software allowed DNA's artists to have more hands on control. The easy-to-use software also enabled Davis to hire less experienced artists, who had been working out of their basements, but showed innate talent through their work. Those talented rookies combined with more experienced 3D artists added to the creative environment.
The Power of Nick
In November 2000, the world was introduced to Jimmy in a trailer, featuring clips from the interstitials, which played before Rugrats in Paris. Then on February 5, 2001, the first interstitial, "New Dog, Old Tricks" aired on Nickelodeon. To build the buzz even more, the interstitials lead viewers to jimmyneutron.com, for Shockwave games, and Nickelodeon Magazine, for an ongoing comic strip. Kids responded so well that streams of the Jimmy Neutron trailer ranked #2 on nick.com. The announcement of the Jimmy Neutron feature rolled out during the 14th Annual Kid's Choice Awards, where Jimmy served as a presenter. This appearance introduced the character to 4.3 million kids 2-11, 1.9 million teens 12-17 and 4.4 million adults.
The trailer for the feature debuted in front of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider on June 15, 2001. Then starting in July of 2001, Jimmy become a spokesmen in Trident gum commercials. To top off Jimmy's success, Nickelodeon signed a deal with Jive Records to release the film's soundtrack under the new Nick Records label. Adding to the attraction, the soundtrack features such popular singers as Britney Spears, *NSync, The Backstreet Boys, Lil' Romeo and Aaron Carter. Needless to say, by now, Jimmy Neutron ranks in the top 25 cartoon shows among kids 6-11 on the Q-Scores report, which tracks viewers' impressions of various characters and shows. And Nick was worried no one would know who this character was?
When asked if he ever thought his Johnny Quasar character would go as far as it has, Davis plainly replies no. But he does say he always had faith in the character and gives much praise to Nickelodeon for putting faith in him as a first-time writer/director and DNA Productions as a first-time feature studio. The future of Jimmy Neutron is even more impressive. He'll be presented as a balloon in the Macy's New Year's Day Parade and will have an expanded line of merchandise coming in 2002. This all leads up to the debut of the TV series, The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, in April 2002 following the 15th Annual Kid's Choice Awards. When asked how he feels the series will influence the TV industry, Davis says, "It will definitely raise the bar." And in this writer's opinion, if the TV show looks half as good as the feature, there will be no truer a statement.
Rick DeMott is a freelance writer, working in Los Angeles.
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