Steve Neilson and Joel Shemrock discuss the challenges of directing the new animated series.
For a pair of guys who’ve been trying to kill each other for some seventy-four years, Tom and Jerry still look pretty darn good. Through animated shorts and feature films, the Hanna-Barbera-created rascals have been relentlessly engaged in the ultimate game of cat and mouse. With The Tom and Jerry Show, a new Flash-animated series, Warner Bros. hopes to return the characters to their slapstick roots while also appealing to the modern viewer – no simple task, especially in an age where on-screen violence in children’s programming is anything but a laughing matter. It fell to Steve Neilson and Joel Shemrock of Ottawa-based PIP Animation to find a way to deliver some classic comedy without crossing the line. With their work on the 52 eleven-minute segments now concluding, the animation directors took a moment to describe – whilst speaking in perfect unison - this latest rebirth of the property, and share their thoughts on what’s changed for the iconic duo, and the animation industry, since the 1940s.
James Gartler: It’s pretty incredible how many animation legends have worked on these characters, not to mention how long Tom and Jerry have remained in the public eye…
Steve Neilson and Joel Shemrock: Yeah, they’ve had an amazing longevity. The main thing is that they’ve got a good chemistry between them and even though they’re enemies, there are also moments where they’re friends. It doesn’t matter what era it is – that’s endearing.
JG: Did you draw inspiration from those past eras in your handling of the characters? Did you look to the work of Chuck Jones or Gene Deitch as you produced these new episodes?
SN & JS: Oh, for sure! For this modern interpretation, our goal was to emulate those Oscar-winning moments of the past. Although we reference all the classics, the direction was to follow the timing, impacts and actions of the pre-Chuck Jones eras specifically, but we would still reference Jones, especially for emotion.
JG: Most kids today are probably more familiar with the bloody antics of Itchy and Scratchy than Tom and Jerry. How do you make milder on-screen appealing to the modern generation?
SN & JS: The writers did a great job of finding the balance and keeping the action funny in the violence, but yeah, you do have to adhere to changing times and the sensitivities of today. There’s no gunplay and we are careful how we use dynamite, for instance. It was our job to match the old school snappy timing and keep it lighthearted.
JG: Since Tom and Jerry don't speak, the comedy comes out of their expressions and poses. Are the character designs still easy to work with in that regard?
SN & JS: It is more challenging than with other shows, but we had a lot of great reference to emulate. We used multiple builds for each character, one being your robust standard rotation, another for the extensive library of expressions, and then you have gag specific builds. Some scene specific actions could only be hand-drawn.
JG: How does using Flash help to streamline the process?
SN & JS: These are still hand-drawn characters and you still have your line quality – you’re just reusing the drawings, which allows you to focus on your timing. If you look at it on your screen, you have a character drawing, but when you click on it, it breaks into ten different pieces, like torso, upper arm and lower arm, etc. And then you go into that and there are thirty different arms. Then you can go into a layer like a hand, which is even deeper into that build, and there are hundreds of different hands drawn-out.
Basically, it saves you from drawing the same exact part a thousand different times. You can concentrate on the quality a little bit more and how you’re manipulating that drawing.
JG: Are the days of fully hand-drawn television cartoons behind us? Is it only possible financially when outsourcing overseas?
SN & JS: For the most part, the reality of North American animation is that fully hand-drawn animation is not cost or time-effective. There are things to be said for digital animation and we have an advantage over our overseas counterparts. Our strength is our love and understanding of the timing and fundamentals of the classic animation style. You can see the difference where overseas animation tends to have even timing, as opposed to the snappy timing of the originals. We enjoy the challenge of blurring the lines between digital and classically drawn animation and we think we’ve achieved that.
JG: What has been the most satisfying sequence to direct?
SN & JS: Each episode has its own golden moments. It was a nice change of pace from the learning-based series we have done previously. It’s great just focusing on selling a joke! You know you have done your job when you watch the same gag dozens of times and it still makes you laugh.
We just finished a great action sequence, but you won’t see it for a while. We have science episodes that all revolve around them in a laboratory, and it’s a really fun sequence and a little bit of a nod to Japanese animation. One of our better animators really brought it for that sequence. It puts a smile on our faces every time we watch it. The episode is called “Cat-astrophe”.
JG: This will be the first time a Tom and Jerry series is produced and aired in widescreen, instead of cropped into fullscreen for broadcasting. Is it fun to be able to play in the widescreen format knowing nothing will be cut out on TV?
SN & JS: Although not our first 16:9 project, we prefer widescreen because it’s better for more cinematic staging. Its also nice being fully committed to that ratio instead of having to keep both formats in mind.
New episodes of The Tom and Jerry Show air Saturday mornings at 8am on the Canadian network Teletoon. Look for the series to debut on Cartoon Network in the US come April.
James Gartler is a Canadian writer with a serious passion for animation in all its forms. His work has appeared in the pages of Sci Fi Magazine, and at the websites EW.com and Newsarama.com.