Martin Dr. Toon Goodman interviews John K about the new episodes of Ren and Stimpy, down shots, students, his influences and more.
Martin Dr. Toon Goodman: First off, John, congratulations on the Ren and Stimpy revival; were all looking forward to it, but I was wondering...youve always said that whatever you do, you wanted it to be new, even down to not even drawing the same expression twice. Were you at all disappointed that Viacom approached you about reviving Ren and Stimpy rather than asking you for an original series?
John Kricfalusi: Well, if you look at the first couple of seasons of Ren and Stimpy, you can see that we did new things all the time. Theyre the easiest characters Ive ever written for. The whole show is designed to be experimental. They dont live in one particular place; its just like the old comedies with the Three Stooges or Laurel and Hardy. You can do any kind of situation, tell any kind of story. You could do a philosophical story, a purely gag story, or a science-fiction satire. Ren and Stimpy are easy creatively well, its not an easy production to do but creatively it opens itself up to a million possibilities.
Dr. T: Are there any changes youll be making in the show?
JK: Well, theres nothing to tinker with it always changed. There really isnt any formula to change.
Dr. T: Is the show still going to have that throwback look, with bumpers, commercials and closing bits?
JK: Itll have some; it may not have quite as many because the stories are longer. They get longer and longer the more I do them. I tend to elaborate on everything. Every time I have a scene, something thats not meant to be that important, we get all excited about it, come up with more gags, and it just gets longer. The stories are all half-hours now. Theyre more intense than they used to be. More ups and downs.
Dr. T: It seems to be in your nature to enjoy proving people wrong whenever you can. Was that part of your motivation in agreeing to revive Ren and Stimpy?
JK: My main motivation was, I didnt have any work. Thats always number one putting food in my mouth. At the same time, its the best project I ever worked on, the most fun I ever had, the most creatively rewarding, and it put me on the map.
Dr. T: Well, good to see you have them back, then!
JK: Yeah, me too. I mean, its a riot. Were having a great time. Ive had to start a new studio from scratch, and its just a lot fun. Really exciting. We have all sorts of great talent and we have some of the best talent from the original series. Some of it is classic Ren and Stimpy, but some of it is all new.
Dr. T: Do you still have Richard Purcell, Robyn Byrd, Ben Jones and your other Spumco people?
JK: Well, Robyn Byrd and Ben Jones never worked on the original Ren and Stimpy. I do have Richard Purcell and Eddie Fitzgerald theyre all on the new show and they were on the old one, too. We have new luminaries such as Fred Osmond, Katy Rice and Nick Cross, my genius find here up north, so we have lots of great new talent and some of the old talent, too.
Dr. T: How long did it take you to get Ren and Stimpy back into production? Were you up and running right away?
JK: I was a little nervous at first that we might not be able to recapture the feeling we had when we were first doing it, so we started by taking one of the old scripts, Ren Seeks Help, that never got produced. As we did it, within the first week we came up with most of the rest of the stories for the season, all new. Once we started working on it again, it all came back and the new stuff is even weirder than the old stuff! We got into it real fast.
Dr. T: I see that youre only making six new episodes right now, and that must be a relief.
JK: Yeah, it is. We wanted to do thirteen episodes, which Im all for. But I was worried because I knew Id have to start a studio from scratch in Canada. It is a hard show, and I remember how I had to train everybody from scratch the last time and I knew I was going to have to do that this time. I figured that if we had thirteen episodes, then we might have six good ones and seven not so good ones. So I asked them if it would be okay if we made six the first season to buy us the time to train people. And it is taking a while to train people. This is the first week that Ive decided to delegate to some people whove got the style down and have them train others.
Creatively, its really exciting, we have a killer crew, and everyones having a great time.
Dr. T: Speaking of having great new talent...youve been very critical of todays animation.
JK: Oh, do you mean the last thirty-five years?
Dr. T: Yeah, lets take the last thirty-five years. Animation, in your view, seems to get locked down at the story stage and dominated by writers who cant or dont draw.
JK: Cant write, either!
Dr. T: The system is an assembly line of poor communication among compartmentalized workers, in your words, designed against creativity. Do you find that you have to totally retrain people when they come to work for you?
JK: Yes. Even people that worked for me before, because if they go work on other projects, they instantly fall into bad habits.
Dr. T: How difficult is it to retrain them into your system and style of unit-based animation?
JK: Extremely difficult. Its my biggest frustration.
Dr. T: For example?
JK: Heres a good example. Everyone in Canada basically follows the Nelvana system; many of the TV studios follow their methods, which are kind of similar to the DIC methods. So, when we were first doing storyboards up here, every person that was doing the boards did every single establishing shot of a new location from a down shot. They used to do that at DIC too, and at some of the other Saturday morning studios in L.A. And I always hated that its beyond me where the hell that came from! I think they think theyre doing live-action, but they dont do that in live-action. Who wants to look at the top of everyones head? Whats on there thats so interesting? I ask people, Why is this on a down shot? and they say, Well, I want to establish where everything is. I tell them: We dont need to see all that and you dont have to have an establishing shot as the first shot in every cartoon and every scene, either. Every single new location would open with a down shot, showing me where everything was I said, why dont you just have a hand pointing at where everything was? Yeah, heres where the toilet seat is, and heres where the empty beer can is! Who cares! Tell the story! Find out whats important about the story! Figure out a good, dramatic moment to get it started. When you read novels, they don't start by explaining: Well, in this room, where these characters are about to enact an incredible drama, theres uh, a chair..." They reveal stuff a little bit at a time; start with some kind of dramatic moment to grab your interest and catch you. The most amateurish thing to do in the world is to just tell everyone everything right off the bat. And especially from the top. It never looks good in animation; you cant animate characters walking while looking down on them.
Dr. T: You seem to have a pretty dim view of how students are trained in todays animation schools and programs. Have you ever thought about forming your own school or doing your own textbooks on animation methods and production?
JK: Well, we might start a school up here. Some of the quicker learners here, Im just now promoting them, and having them explain to some of the other people just artistic principles in general. Which they dont teach in school anymore. I dont care which school youre talking about they do not teach art in art schools anymore, and it drives me insane. I cannot believe the portfolios that come out of the art schools. I tell them all, just get your money back because they didnt teach you to draw! Even if theyre talented. Talented people can teach themselves, but theres only so much you can teach yourself because every single person has weak points, things that they dont see. If you dont have somebody to point them out to you, theyre going to stay weak. The whole point of paying $30,000 a year is to get somebody to tell you that youre wrong, not that everything you do is wonderful and creative. The animation schools dont teach even the fundamental, basic concepts of animation; they dont teach you how do construction. They say the words construction. They dont teach you how to do line of action. They say line of action. Everyones familiar with the terms, but nobody does them.
Dr. T: What do they teach, then?
JK: You got me! They teach five-minute life drawings. Everybody brings in these scribbles! Just pages and pages of scribbly life drawings. And I ask everyone, Ah, why does this look like a scribble? Cause I did it in five minutes. Why would you show a potential employer something that you drew in five minutes? How do I know you can draw a finished drawing? I know you can make scribbles, thats great. What good is it? And I ask the teachers too. The only reason they do it is because sixty years ago the Disney studio when Don Graham was teaching supplemented their life drawing classes with gesture drawing classes. But you dont give gesture-drawing classes to people who dont already draw well. If you can already draw the human body and you know how anatomy works, great now you can do a quick sketch. But theyre teaching you the last step first. So, if you dont know how to draw anything yet, go ahead and draw really fast! How the hell can you learn anything? You cant see whats there in five minutes. You cant do line of action with that. But meanwhile, the pose doesnt have any line of action because the model doesnt know anything about animation. Hes not doing a gesture that has a line of action. But they still do it because the last generation of teachers did it, and the previous generation of teachers did it, and so on back six generations or something. But no one knows why theyre doing it anymore. They only do it because it says in the curriculum: You must have gesture classes. You know what I equate it to? The fall of the Roman Empire.
Dr. T: How so?
JK: Because a few scattered bits of information from classical Greece were saved during the Dark Ages. Nobody knew what the hell any of it meant or what the thinking was behind it, so it became dogma. So the schools now are teaching dogma. They remember the words, but they dont remember the meaning behind the words.
Dr. T: Are there any disciples currently under your tutelage that we should look for in the near future?
JK: Well, I wouldnt call them disciples, but colleagues. As I said before, Nick Cross is really great. Another one is Helder Mendonca.
Dr. T: Perhaps your most controversial stance is the one you take on writers.
JK: I like writers. There arent any in the animation business. But I read all the time. Im a voracious reader Ive got about six books on my bed every night. Real writers, not these weirdoes that come into the animation business.
Dr. T: Youve always said that artists are the best writers and gagmen.
JK: No, I didnt say that I always get paraphrased and misquoted as saying that. Not every artist is a writer. Not every musician is a writer, but would you want somebody to write a symphony who wasnt a musician? Would you want somebody to write a science book who didnt know science?
Dr. T: Ah...not my science book.
JK: You write what you know. So why would you come into the animation business not able to draw and all of a sudden you want to tell all the people who do know, how the stuff works and what to do? You dont know anything about the art of it. I mean, yeah, physically you can write, but youre going to make every artist hate your guts, and youre going to make crap. It wont stand the test of time because its just not utilizing the media.
Dr. T: Lets talk about a subject dear to both of us Bob Clampett. How important was his personal guidance in your career?
JK: He honestly didnt give me that much personal guidance. Whenever I asked him how he did anything, he wasnt that articulate in explaining the creative process. He was just a natural, he was gifted he just did it. He was so good at it that he never overanalyzed it. He did tell me what it was like working at the [Warner] studio; he told me tons of stories about the people there. He was totally inspirational in that sense. And also, I was too young to really know exactly what questions to ask him to find out anything in a technical sense. I didnt know enough yet to ask any intelligent questions. But he was totally inspirational both in his work and his personality because he was as funny as his cartoons.
Dr. T: Your work, from Mighty Mouse up through The Ripping Friends, has always been marked by emotional intensity, surreal characters, outrageous gags, funny character design thats out of the Clampett tradition, but how would you say you differ from him?
JK: Well, I have a tough time writing short cartoons. I dont know why, because I love short cartoons. I guess Im long-winded. Maybe I get more into the psychology of the characters than Clampett does. Then, this is a different time period, and thats the main difference. He just grew up in a different world. I dont purposely try to be different than Clampett; hes my absolute favorite cartoonist of all time, and Id like to be able to do something half as good as his cartoons.
Dr. T: Clampett seemed to go through distinct phases in his career. From about 1937-40, he was into wild distortions, like in The Daffy Doc.
JK: Man, I love those black and white cartoons!
Dr. T: Then, like for a year or two he seemed to settle down into spot gags and celebrity-driven cartoons.
JK: You know what that is? Thats because he was finishing Tex Averys cartoons. He took over that unit when Avery left, and finished a lot of cartoons that Tex had already storyboarded.
Dr. T: Then he geared up again right around 1942 with Wabbit Twouble, and by 1943 he was doing some of his best work. Do you feel that your career has gone through distinct phases as well?
JK: Well, I dont analyze it, so I dont know. Youd probably be better at picking that up! I dont think about the last thing I did. Once its done, I dont even want to look at it. Im thinking about the next thing.
Dr. T: Wasnt it Bob Clampett who first referred you to Filmation in 1979?
JK: Well, Bob Clampett didnt refer me to Filmation; he introduced me to Milt Gray, who worked at Filmation and was a classic animation freak. He worked at Filmation doing crap, and he knew it was crap, but he was teaching a classical animation class at night. So Bob Clampett wasnt recommending Filmation to me. He recommended that I go meet Milt Gray, join his class, and then maybe Milt could let me know where theres work and get me in somewhere.
Dr. T: Milt Gray is one hell of an animation historian.
JK: Well, he and Mike Barrier did all those interviews in the 70s and 80s with all the classic animators. Its all in that book Hollywood Cartoons that Mike Barrier wrote.
Dr. T: Yeah, great book.
JK: I hated it. It was a whole book about how rotten everybody was! Its okay to have a little bit of criticism, but you know, youre talking about the best animation that was ever done. The book makes it sound like its the worst animation that was ever done. You should qualify it by saying: Well, Im criticizing things that I personally dont like. It doesnt mean that theyre wrong or right, just that he doesnt like them. All kinds of things that he said he hated I loved, and most people loved.
Dr. T: There were some harsh judgments about classics like Whats Opera, Doc? and Bill Tytlas animation in Fantasia...
JK: He hates it when they get over-distorted in cartoons I love that one! He said that when Clampett well, Im going to be guilty of paraphrasing ah, dismembers his characters, it makes him queasy. Well, it doesnt make me queasy, and it doesnt make 99% of humanity queasy. People laughed at that stuff! Thats part of what a cartoon is!
Dr. T: As far back as 1993, youve been coming up with ideas for feature films. If Im not mistaken, The Ripping Friends was originally planned for the big screen, is that right?
JK: Nope. I dont know why everyone keeps saying that! It was originally meant to be a satire of all the toy shows from the 80s like GI Joe and He-Man, all that stuff. And then after a while I actually liked what we were doing with it as we were creating it, and I thought, this would probably be really hard to do for television, maybe it should be a feature. But I had never made a feature, and I had no idea how to even go about selling a feature. I think I pitched it a few times but it never sold.
Dr. T: Is a feature film still in your future plans?
JK: Were looking to do a feature-length film with The New TNN. Were hoping that at some future point that we can make a feature film for the theaters, thatd be great. Id love to do a Ren and Stimpy feature; Id love to do a George Liquor feature. Or a Ripping Friends feature at some point. Id want to practice first on simpler characters like Ren and Stimpy.
Dr. T: So...what was the best Kirk Douglas movie of all time?
JK: Detective Story. I love that movie. There was another couple of great ones too Young Man With A Horn, which I think is the best movie about creativity and about artists ever made. And The Champion, the one where hes a boxer yeah, that ones great, too.
If you'd like to learn more about Bob Clampett or the history of animation at Warner Bros., please check out Beany & Cecil, The Special Editionavailable on DVD from www. facets.org and www.amazon.com. This collection includes some of Clampett's lost works as well as in-depth audio interviews that Milt Gray, Mike Barrier and others conducted with Clampett about his Warner years.
John Kricfalusi has been redefining animation for the past fifteen years. He is the creator of Ren and Stimpy, The Ripping Friends, and Internet classics such as The George Liquor Show on his own Website and Weekend Pussy Hunt for Icebox.com. He is an avid yodeler and a great fan of the films of Kirk Douglas...even when they use the occasional down shot.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.