Rick DeMott chats with Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward about creating the series, its quick cult success and other stupid stuff.
Pendleton Ward's Adventure Time began as an Internet viral sensation as part of Frederator Studios' Random Cartoon program on Nickelodeon. Animation fans of all ages flocked to its slightly off-kilter humor and style. With simple designs, it reminded many of a pre-school show's look, but there was something subversive running underneath. The original short, and now the Cartoon Network series, are what they appear to be on the surface — an adventure series for kids. And yet at the same time, they have fun with the conventions of the kid's adventure series. In the end, the short and the series are one of the most original creations in a very long time. I had a great pleasure talking with the man who created it all — Pendleton Ward.
Rick DeMott: What shows influenced you growing up?
Pendleton Ward: I liked The Simpsons a lot. It made the biggest impression on me. The earlier seasons of The Simpsons. I had a big crush on Lisa Simpson. I think that's another thing that's important to me about [Adventure Time] is trying to make cartoon girls that other bizarre, especially awkward, children can have crushes on. Because they need that. I needed that. I had a crush on Patti Mayonnaise of Doug. And the princess from Little Nemo. I don't know if that's healthy or not.
RD: I think you turned out fine.
RD: When did you know you wanted to get into animation?
My mom's an artist and she knew animators. In first grade, I started doing a lot of flipbooks. I knew ever since I was tiny that I wanted to be an animator and make pictures move. I always liked to draw, so it was the ultimate way of conveying anything artistically or funny for me. I'm more of an entertainer than an artist. Cartoons were the easiest way for me to take control over something and make it really funny and entertaining. When I was a kid that was one of my biggest things.
RD: How did CalArts prepare you for working in animation, at first as a storyboard artist, and then as the creator of a show?
PW: The thing about CalArts is that it's a place where all these people who are interested in this one specific thing collect. You learn so much from your peers. It's like any college. You go there and make these friends for life. We're all passionate about the same thing. You drive each other on. You challenge each other to do stuff better than the other person. I went to school with J.G. [Quintel] who has a show on Cartoon Network right now too and we were always trying to out funny each other. We were all on Flapjack, all the same guys from CalArts went on to work as storyboard artists, it was the same close group of people.
The best thing about CalArts is its close ties with the industry. They have this show at the end of the year where you show your student film to Pixar and Disney and whoever else is interested in new talent and they all come and watch your films at this thing called the Producers' Show. Luckily mine got in, not every film gets in. Eric Homan from Frederator approached me and told me to pitch an idea to him. That was my first lead on anything was working with Frederator. I followed it and it worked out. I was very lucky. Extremely lucky.
RD: Did you have any mentors that helped you along?
Cornelius Cole III was my mentor. I went to a summer camp at CalArts. The California State Summer School for the Arts and I was lucky enough to get into that. Corny was there and I was able to meet him when I was going to high school. He would always play his film Heaven and Hell. It's awe-inspiring and beautiful. Every drawing makes you weepy because it's so intricate, but drawn with such a wise tenderness. Every drawing is moving past you at eight frames per second. It's overwhelming to watch. In high school, I watched it every year. At that summer camp, it always got a standing ovation. It was just a gorgeous piece of animation, so it inspired me and pushed me toward making animation.
But it's hard because I'm conflicted. As I said I don't consider myself an artist. I try to make stuff that is funny. I really enjoy stuff that makes you feel happy.
I try to find the simple-ness in making a piece of animation that makes you feel happy. I think there is something both innocent and stupid about watching a cartoon and feeling butterflies in your tummy. So I try to pull from that feeling. I describe my process as stupid but I guess it's really just simple. I try not to make anything too heavy. I try to take the meaning off of stuff so you don't have to think very much and you can vegetate and feel like a baby.
RD: The Random Cartoons version of Adventure Time was an Internet sensation with an older audience, why do you think they connected with it?
PW: What do all viral videos have in common? Sort of this random humor that people dig on. I don't know if it was all an older audience or just the Internet community that look up YouTube videos. This random bull-honk that people dig on. Short bursts of it that are really entertaining. I think it had a lot of that in it.
RD: How did it make you feel that people created their own fan sites and fan art based around your creation?
PW: It's cool, man. Neat. When I was a kid watching The Simpsons, I just obsessed over it. I freezed framed it, I'd look at the backgrounds and I knew there was a barbershop in the background called Harry's Shears. It was just a background joke that no one would have gotten unless they know. People just eat it up. It's entertainment. I think it's cool that people are digging on it. It's awesome. That's the reason I'm doing it. I'm trying to recreate the thing I had with The Simpsons for the next generation. I'm not comparing myself to The Simpsons. Those early seasons were beautiful. Beautifully written. Beautifully executed. I'm just trying to help kids in the same way The Simpsons helped me. I was able to take all those ideas from The Simpsons and giggle about them as I sat through Math class. I'd take them out into the backyard and pretend I was Bart on the trampoline.
RD: Between the Random Cartoon version and the series, there were some changes. What were some of the big changes you made?
PW: One thing is, I almost made the whole short by myself. My buddies from college were all living together after we graduated. And then we got this gig and my roommates were helping me with backgrounds and props and character designs.
I wanted the show to look better, in my opinion, than the short. I wanted the world to be more fully realized than the pre-school vibe that I had. I mean I didn't know how to draw backgrounds. I was just drawing triangles.
Ghostshrimp is sort of the world creator. Not a special title, but he's the lead designer on the backgrounds. When the storyboards get to him, the backgrounds are really simple. Just boxes for rooms. He really flushes those out and makes them really unique. Then in the backgrounds he puts in all these wild elements that tell stories in and of themselves. You could watch a show and pause it on a background and you could see a skeleton buried half deep behind the characters and he'd been reading a book. It's just cool to assume what happened to that dude when he was reading that book and how he got buried half way and died. That's the kind of stuff I liked to plug each episode with. Background elements that kids who are inclined to obsess over things will like.
I also wanted the characters to have volume and weight to them. A lot of people see this rubber hose style animation and comment on it, but really with the physics of the world we try to keep them all very real. I really want some logic in how the characters interact with the world. There is a lot of magic and there are things that explain away weird things that happen in the cartoon, but we try really hard to make sure that everything follows a certain logic.
RD: The show has a unique feel. What were some of the direct influences on the show thematically and style-wise?
PW: Anyone who went to CalArts. I would always pick up on styles around me. When I went to work on Flapjack, I just started picking up the styles of the guys working around me. Really, I'm sure you can see a lot of different stuff in there, but for me, I just copy my friends and they copy off me and we play off each other. Ghostshrimp has a really unique style. I don’t know what he is pulling from, but I think it's really unique to him and that's a big part of the look of the show is his backgrounds.
Tom Herpich has another unique style and he's one of the character designers. They base their drawings off of mine a little bit, but really all the character designers put their own character and personality into the drawings. Also all the board artists. There are eight board artists with all their own unique way of drawing the characters. I'm a fan of cartoons where the character can change. I like the personality of the artist coming through in the drawings. And you'll see that. You'll see Finn change from episode to episode and different artists have their own take on not only the key characters, but also the style of the show.
RD: There seems to be a subversive quality to the show. Can you comment on that?
PW: I think if you put a bunch of wisecracking adults in room together you can't help end up with something that's slightly subversive.
Pat McHale and I (Pat's my creative director), we both like nice things a lot. I'm a big fan of Miyazaki's Totoro. It's really beautiful and it makes me feel really good inside to watch it and I want to recreate that feeling. I'm just inspired by that feeling. I often times try to make things like that. We try to have moments like that.
But I really think there is humor for adults and kids. And I think the stuff for adults just goes over the kids' heads just like Pee-Wee did or like The Simpsons did. And that was another goal I had in mind was to make something that everyone can watch.
I know with my mom, she is tired of watching cartoons. I haven't stopped watching cartoons since I was tiny and I'm 27. So when I go home, she's always trying to make me change the channel. She can't handle listening to the voices of most cartoon characters. So I tried to have all the voices have a pretty naturalistic tone to them. I try not to have characters who are annoying for annoying sake. For the personalities of all the characters I try not to make them one note. Finn and Jake and everyone have a whole range of emotions, so they're not just the "annoying guy" or the "dumb guy."
RD: As a young creator how has the process been for you? What were some of the more difficult parts of the process you had to get accustomed to?
PW: I'm playing a lot of it by ear. I learned a lot as I went, in the beginning. Craig [McCracken] and Genndy [Tartakovsky] and those dudes where all pretty young too when they were all starting out. You just have to roll into it. We all graduated and we all love animation so you have your ideal in mind of the product you want make.
Because I worked as a board artist on Flapjack for a year I understood the executive note taking process. I've always liked the challenge of notes. The best note to me is "make it funnier." I'll sit there and do a joke as funny as I can and then I'll get a note that says "make it funnier" and I'll say, "ah, okay." Then you go and start from scratch. I've always enjoyed being challenged, so maybe that's a good personality trait to have when you're entering into this. I was confident that I could take a note, whether it was good or bad, and find the medium between what someone else wanted and what I wanted to do with it and I could make it good at the same time. If you have that attitude going into it, you can sustain the pressure that is on you.
RD: What are some of you artistic influences in general?
David Lynch comes to mind, because whenever I try to do scary stuff or creepy, I think of him. He does it so well. He makes my gut feel uncomfortable or he scares me and makes me want to vomit or jump out of my seat, which I think is an awesome feeling. And maybe, Japanese horror films too are awesome for scary stuff. Instead of cutting away, seeing the monster coming at you slowly. There is no boo moment. It's hard to watch that when the monster is right in your face.
For comedy, I really like The Office, both the American and British version. I think they're hilarious. I think though my favorite stuff is girlfriend/boyfriend romance stuff. There isn’t a lot of that in animation, so I like to put that in there. I liked when Lisa [Simpson] fell in love with her substitute teacher. I like stuff that pulls on your heartstrings. And not so much that it's sappy and makes you sick. I always liked it when I was a kid, but I don't think that I would have admitted it. I think most children do dig on relationship stories. Boys and girls. Even if it's mushy. It's so easily relatable to all ages.
My favorite stuff that has come through on the series is these moments that are really pretty to watch. There is one where Finn goes down under the ocean and he passes out. He's going down to save Jake, but he's unconscious and he's floating through all these buildings that have been underwater for centuries that are falling apart and he lands in this bed of glowing blue plant life. And it's gorgeous. And it's fun to have a moment to take a breath when you're watching cartoons. Not a lot of cartoons have time to sit and be mesmerized. Finn wakes up and there are these tiny shrimp tickling on his sea helmet and it's really nice. It's just a brief moment, but it made the episode for me.
RD: I agree that both boys and girls connect to the mushy stuff. Do you think that is something that's missing from typical boy-driven animation because they think that boys will run the other way?
PW: Maybe. That's a common misconception. I don't watch a lot of television to be honest so I wouldn't know if it's missing, but I know I appreciated it so I'm sticking it in my show whenever I can.
RD: I'm glad you're doing it because I think they're missing out.
PW: Thanks, man.
RD: How would you define the relationship between Finn and Jake?
PW: Finn is a passionate Indiana Jones type. He's a fiery little kid and he has strong morals so he seeks out justice and right doing. We based Jake's character on Bill Murray's character in Meatballs. The camp counselor. In Meatballs, there was this one scene where the kid is crying and wants to go home and run away and Bill Murray says, "hey, let's go to Tijuana." He didn't take him too seriously. Jake's like this 20-something year old dude who gives this crappy advice. But when Finn is really down and out, Jake will sit him down and give him some decent advice if he really needs it. But most of the time Jake is just letting him run into the fray. Jake is just excited with Finn's energy and Finn is just excited that Jake is hilarious. He is a jokey laidback guy.
I don't think they play off each other in the most dynamic of extremes. I mean one isn't one way and the other is the opposite. I made their personalities with a lot of range so that it felt like a couple of dudes hanging out. It should feel like me and my friends hanging out.
RD: How does it feel to have the show picked up for a second season?
RD: Does it help alleviate some of the pressure?
No, the pressure is always on. That's what the job is. I'm trying to be the best I can within the time allotted to me to create something that is entertaining to children across the nation. That's my responsibility. I take it serious. I take comedy seriously. I try to make something that is a quality product. I'm doing the best I can with an amazingly talented crew.
RD: So my last question is: how much would you pay to ride the Cat Bus?
PW: Gosh, I would pay [laughs]. I would give it a big hug. That would be my payment.
Read Rick's four-star review of the original Adventure Time short at Rick's Flicks Picks.
Rick DeMott is the director of content for Animation World Network, VFXWorld and AWNtv. Additionally, he's the creator of the movie review site, Rick's Flicks Picks, which was named one of the 100 best movie blogs by The Daily Reviewer. He has written for TV series, such as Discovery Kids' Growing Up Creepie and Cartoon Network's Pet Alien, the animation history book Animation Art, and the humor, absurdist and surrealist website Unloosen. Previously, he held various production and management positions in the entertainment industry.