Joe Strike talks to executive producer Paul Young about Cartoon Saloon's international hit series.
What's black and white and red all over its nose?
That should be "who" actually, and the answer is a young martial arts student known simply as "Skunk." He's the star of the aptly named series Skunk Fu!, a CW4Kids Saturday morning series that recently joined Cartoon Network's weekday schedule.
Skunk Fu! is the first series out of the Kilkenny, Ireland-based Cartoon Saloon animation studio, an entity previously known for its work in TV commercials. The show has become an international hit currently airing in over 120 countries -- not a bad first try from an outfit started by a bunch of college chums as a sideline to their studies.
Skunk Fu! is the creation of Aidan Harte, one of the company's first staffers, who has since gone on to study classical sculpture in Italy. Thus it fell to Skunk Fu! executive producer Paul Young to trace the show's history. According to Young, its foundation was laid during a 2002 Canadian film shoot. Harte and Hyun Ho Khang, the studio's sales rep, were taking advantage of downtime to brainstorm series ideas. The fact that Khang's agency happened to be named "Skunk" was not far from their thoughts...
"They were trying to think of a show featuring a skunk. They both love kung fu movies and came up with a kung fu show set in China and developed it from there."
In thinking about who the other characters would be, Harte and Khang took a chromatic approach: "It's basically a very yin-yang concept -- what other animals are black and white?" Seeing as how zebras are exceedingly rare in China, a panda seemed like a far more natural choice. (A natural choice that another studio far away was also making at approximately the same time... )
"Panda and Skunk have a kind of Karate Kid relationship -- that was the kernel of the idea. We wanted an ensemble comedy show with different personalities, so we brought in a lot of characters for Skunk to bounce off of. Also, the idea was that Skunk would learn from the other animals of the Valley. A lot of actual kung fu styles like Crane or Monkey are named for animals -- 'preying mantis' is a kung fu stance. So it was natural to bring in characters he can learn from. After Skunk and Panda, the main characters are Rabbit -- he's cute-looking, but gung-ho, the toughest warrior in the Valley -- and Fox, who's Rabbit's romantic interest.
"It's a very creator-driven show. Aidan did all the character designs and tested them in Flash as he went along. He'd already done an awful lot of work with the software, using it back in 2001 for commercials and coming up with painterly effects, making it look like traditional paper animation, not Flash. Before we went into production, we brought over experienced Flash animators who did a lot of tweaking, turnarounds, and built a library for the series."
The Skunk Stays in the Picture
The studio got its ducks -- not to mention the show's pandas, skunks, rabbits, foxes and assorted other beasts -- in a row for its pitch at the 2003 European Cartoon Forum in Varese, Italy. "We were very nervous beforehand -- it's a very risky thing to do in a way, to expose yourself to so many people at one time. If you do a bad pitch and then bring a show next year, people might go... "
Young falls quiet for a moment, preferring not to verbalize what a failed pitch might have meant for the company's future prospects. "We had a packed auditorium," he continues, "with a lot of distributors and buyers. We had 45 minutes to pitch, to screen our first animation test and a longer trailer. The response was fantastic -- the press said Skunk Fu! was the standout show, the one most likely to succeed. That was a great start for us."
The BBC picked up the series after Cartoon Forum (as did Ireland's TG4) and began airing it this past July. (The show premiered on TG4 on September 24th, two days after its U.S. debut on Kids' WB!) Officially, Skunk Fu! is a Cartoon Saloon, Cake Ent. (the show's distributor) and Telegael co-production for TG4 and Germany's SUPER RTL. The show is produced in English, with the same voice talent heard in both the U.K. and U.S. versions. For its runs in the country of its origin, however, it's dubbed into the native Irish language. As Young likes to point out, the series airs "on every continent" and in the aforementioned 120-plus countries. Its Saturday morning ratings on Kids' WB! (and now on CW4Kids) convinced Cartoon Network to acquire the show as well, where it currently runs as a weekday 10 a.m. strip.
It would have been a huge success for anyone, but was even more so as the maiden effort of the company that began as a partnership between Young and Tomm Moore during their school days in the animation program at Dublin's Ballyfermot College. "We did websites and CD-ROMs on the side," Young recalls. "I did illustrations and Tomm did the animation." After college ended in 1999, the pair set up shop in Kilkenny with a grant from Young Irish Film Makers. "We spent the summer with 12 friends doing a promo/pitch for a feature film. We stayed in business doing commercials and the like and brought people we knew from school as the business grew. Aidan's now a partner, as are [director] Nora Towmey and [producer] Ross Murray."
Enter the Dragon
For a comedic show, Skunk Fu! gives perhaps surprising props to Chinese mythology, but it also adds a Western twist. "There's a dragon because the show needed a nemesis. In the backstory we showed in our trailer at the Forum, Panda and Dragon were once friends. In Chinese folklore dragons are a force for good -- but we've flipped it over to make him bad. In our version, Dragon tried to save the animals from a drought by making it rain," an act of hubris beyond his Heaven-assigned duties.
"Heaven punished him by taking away his power over fire. Now he has to stay inside an icy [extinct] volcano. He's become bitter with Panda and the rest of the animals as a result, and wants to take over the Valley.
"The rest of the backstory was that the shortsighted Stork accidentally delivered Skunk to Panda because both are black-and-white. Since he's a North American animal, he's your fish-out-of-water growing up in a Zen background; the comedy comes from Panda being calm and collected while Skunk is an overexcited character. It's a clash of cultures: the Zen master trying to keep cool while his student is getting himself into trouble because he's not following instructions."
As Pepe Le Pew would tell you, you can't have a cartoon skunk without his scent, an intrinsic part of the show's humor. And in an age where no cartoon seems complete without at least one fart joke, Skunk Fu! takes the gag a step or two farther. "Because he's not surrounded by other skunks, he doesn't quite understand or control his 'stink power.' It only happens when he's surprised, and then it's very effective -- but he can't force himself to do it.
"We also realized early on that we couldn't have him use it all the time because it's extremely potent. Sometimes the other animals use it to get themselves out of a sticky situation and deliberately surprise him. When he does use it, he can knock out a whole forest of ninja monkeys [the countless evil minions of Baboon, the Dragon's henchmonkey], but everyone else is knocked out too. It's a last resort -- the nuclear option. For the most part though, Skunk resolves things by normal kung fu or by outwitting the ninja monkeys, who aren't very clever."
Invasion of the Martial Arts Mammals
Skunk Fu!'s band of beasts aren't the only critters martial-artsing it up in an imaginary China this summer. DreamWorks' high-profile (and skunk-free) Kung Fu Panda is days away from opening, a coincidence Young chalks up to simple synchronicity. "We found out a while ago. I suppose these things happen; we didn't know whether to be worried, scared, or excited.
"I'd guess Kung Fu Panda may have been in development just as long as Skunk Fu!, but entirely independently of our show. We're obviously over here in Ireland and have no connection with anybody involved with the film or with DreamWorks. It's one of those cases where two ideas come out of the blue at the same time. We went public with Skunk Fu! at the Cartoon Forum in 2003 and we'd already spent about a year and a half on and off working on the concept. I think we'd already gone on the air before we heard news of Kung Fu Panda coming out."
With their first series an international success, Young and the rest of Cartoon Saloon are looking ahead to a second Skunk Fu! season while developing a trio of new shows they hope to bring to the market later this year. They've also set their sights on the big screen with the feature film version of that long-ago promo/pitch summer project from the then-new Cartoon Saloon, Brendan and the Secret of Kells. "It's a mixture of Irish mythology and actual history, based on a thousand-year-old illuminated manuscript, The Book of Kells."
Directed by Tomm Moore, the film "is a co-production with the people who did The Triplets of Belleville and it's nearly finished. It'll be in theaters here in January, distributed by Disney. It's going to be one of the only pure 2D features coming out and it's an amazing film, animated on paper and with painted backgrounds. We're currently in negotiation with U.S. distributors."
It's probably another case of synchronicity, but even as DreamWorks develops a spin-off Kung Fu Panda TV series for Nickelodeon, Cartoon Saloon is brainstorming a feature-length Skunk Fu! movie. "It would deal with Dragon actually coming out of his mountain and Skunk somehow being the key to defeating him. We can't do that in the series because Dragon would be able to easily annihilate everyone. In the same way, we wouldn't have much of a series if Skunk were able to control his stink power and knock everybody out by just farting. The show would be finished early on."
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.