Courage the Cowardly Dog premieres this month on the Cartoon Network. Bob Miller interviews John R. Dilworth, the show's creator, on taking the award winning short to series.
John Dilworth doesn't think of animation as a career, despite the numerous shorts he's produced and directed for Nickelodeon, PBS, MTV, HBO and the Cartoon Network. His films, The Limited Bird (1989), When Lilly Laney Moved In (1992), The Dirdy Birdy (1994), and Noodles & Nedd (1996), have won awards throughout the world. This includes The Chicken From Outer Space (1995), the Academy Award-nominated short that has spawned the new series, Courage, the Cowardly Dog, which premieres November 12 at 9 pm on Cartoon Network in the US. "I just enjoy it more than I do anything else," Dilworth says. "To actually see and manipulate your designs or characters so that they move and express emotion and tell a story -- that's animation. It feels natural for me." Dilworth started animating in college, at New York's School of Visual Arts. But he says, "You can't rely on a school to teach you what you believe you should know. You need to take the responsibility. "All of us come with certain intuitive abilities, and whether or not we choose to use them is a conscious decision. I was aware that I had a very strong intuitive ability, and so I let that determine my decisions regarding what I should take, what would improve my talents, things like dance and the history of dance, creative writing, playwriting, and life drawings. And then of course history, because most of our stories and the way that we interact with people are just the sum of everything that's come before us. History appeals to me." Instructors and Influences Even today Dilworth continues to develop his craft, absorbing details from every facet of the Fine Arts. "This season I went to the Metropolitan Opera, and I learned a tremendous amount by the staging, the way they would maximize the most out of a frame, a setup, through all the singers and the ensemble, and even the beautiful way they move sets as a transition. "I love the old classic Charlie Chaplin shorts, for their comedic timing and characterization. The animators that make me laugh the most are Bob Clampett and Tex Avery for their use of breaking the laws of animation and still retaining a law within that. Their exaggeration. Mostly I appreciate the timing, and their use of music...I listen to a lot of music. Everything from classical to rap. Even the very fast tempos that John Hubley used to do with jazz, and how he would interpret jazz for narrative use. "Contemporary influences? There have been a few. Michael Sporn. Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell -- maybe not narratively, but just for sheer dynamics of action and technology. Some of that stuff that appeals to me the most are Miyazaki's Porco Rosso and My Neighbor, Totoro, the mix between fantasy and innocence. All that stuff is great. A woman ink & paint artist, Janet Scagnelli, taught me a lot of finishing tools and abilities I needed to complete a film. Cel painting is a true art. "Artwork. You just look at any of the masters and spend time with them. One of my favorites has always been Cezanne, just breaking reality. Or Van Gogh. I looked at some of his real work, not just the stuff we see in catalogs or the post card stuff, his real work. A lot of the good canvasses are in Amsterdam over in Europe. "I don't believe you could be narrow culturally or intellectually when you're creating cartoons. If you look at the old classics from the '40s, from anybody, it's loaded with culture, and references to things that people have experienced, to music and sound effects to even writing gags, social commentary, parody. Those were people that are very, very aware. They didn't put out gags superficially," he says.
A Continuing Education
After graduating college with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1985, Dilworth became an art director at Baldi, Bloom and Whelan Advertising, but would always work on his own films in his spare time, providing much of his own funding. "I would go home and work on this psycho-drama opus [The Limited Bird] at night for two-and-a-half years," he says. "After that I went to work for animation studios [Michael Sporn and Jumbo Pictures on Doug] as just an in-betweener or as an assistant or cel painter. I would always be working on films." And always learning from his work. Dilworth explains, "For about a decade, I always felt that I was maybe five years behind where I thought I should be, and only because I spent so much time doing something on my own and figured it out so I knew it really well before I moved forward."
Dilworth continued with When Lilly Laney Moved In (1991), and a Nickelodeon pilot in association with Jumbo Pictures, Psyched for Snuppa (1992). During this time, Dilworth formalized his theories on color and design. "What I look for a lot is non-traditional colors in contrast, and it's all a part of the design," he says. "I see color as design. Whereas a black-and-white drawing of a design is only just a stage. It's not a final stage, unless it was going to a black-and-white medium. "You have to consider relationships. Nothing stands alone. Everything is a relationship of something else. It's whether something is the rear end of a horse, or a cloud. The other information around it reveals whether it's a cloud or the rear end of a horse. So when you see a design, you're never looking at the design isolated. You can't, or it would be a mistake. You must see the whole thing. And even then, you have to determine if the color in that scene reflects in the next scene. Things that come after and before it. Relationships." In 1991, Dilworth founded his own production company, Stretch Films, incorporating in 1994 "just for tax reasons," though in our interview he insists, "I've always had Stretch Films." Dilworth's studio produced Smart Talk with Raisin (1993), which aired during Liquid Television's third season on MTV, and became a part of the home video, The Best of Liquid Television. The director followed with Angry Cabaret (1994) for MTV and the internationally-acclaimed The Dirdy Birdy (1994), where, during the making of the film, he refined his sense of timing. "I refer to a beat as something between four frames and eight frames," he says. "Eight frames are enough to register something. The rest is pure intuition. You can actually train timing to somebody if they want to learn it, but I don't think they really appreciate the orchestration of images combined as a whole to leave an impression that's directly related to the plot. The pieces are just a part of the whole," he says. "You see it from beginning to end, in all of its elements. The story has to be as supportive and add an equal level as the color, as the designs, as the music, as the sound effects, and as the pacing. It all has to work together. "In Dirdy Birdy I wasn't looking at the whole picture as a whole. I was still learning then. In Psyched for Snuppa and When Lilly Laney Moved In I wasn't pleased with the timing at all, and realized I didn't know it well. I spent a lot of time learning about timing on The Dirdy Birdy as a homework assignment. It's so important the number of frames between when Dirdy Birdy revealed his love to Furgerina and her reaction. That really had to be studied until it became something that was intuitive."
In other words, Dilworth experimented with the animation, studying the results from his pencil test machine. "As we were discussing earlier, you learn as you go. In animation you must see the stuff move. You have to see it move in the time that you anticipate it would move. That's the only point of reference."
In 1995, Hanna-Barbera and the Cartoon Network sponsored The Chicken from Outer Space. It introduced Courage, the Cowardly Dog, who lived in the middle of Nowhere with an elderly farm couple, the kindly Muriel and her cantankerous husband, who delighted in scaring the dog with a fright mask. When an evil chicken from outer space lands, Courage has to overcome his terror to protect the family. Chicken was noteworthy because it was mostly pantomime; dialogue (all by Howard Hoffman) was limited to grunts, screams, cackles, the Farmer's "Booga-booga-booga!" and Courage's sole line, "This shouldn't happen to a dog. Ouch!" The short was eventually nominated for an Academy Award, Annie Award and CableACE Award, and was so popular among viewers that the Cartoon Network wanted it as a regular series.
Meanwhile, Dilworth created, wrote, directed and animated Noodles & Nedd (1996), whose characters later appeared in five one-minute shorts on Sesame Street (1997). He also produced a series of animated shorts called Ace and Avery for the Cartoon Network and Children's Television Workshop, which premiered on Big Bag (April 1998).
By 1998, Dilworth and the Cartoon Network agreed on a series format for Courage, the Cowardly Dog. For its first season, the show would be 26 eleven-minute cartoons (13 half-hour episodes). To accommodate the production demands of a TV series, Stretch Films expanded, and Dilworth hired producer Robert Winthrop (formerly from Robocop at MGM) to manage the operation.
"I was just talking to an executive of a huge place," Dilworth relates, "and the question on their mind was, `How big does one want to be? And for what outcome?' I like the idea of being this boutique, and nurturing this specific style and direction of thought.
"I think what's naturally occurring is a mix between having a responsible business and really just wanting to be an artist. Is it possible? If you meet the right executive, or network, as a player or support group that finances that or contributes financially to it, I think it's possible. And with the series that we're doing now, the gamble really worked out for them.
"We've been incredibly lucky to have the right-minded people, the executives, at the network, to allow creative people that they trust to deliver them something that's ground-breaking. Hopefully. And to have the trust that those creators will not blow up on them, as has happened in the past with other networks and situations."
Part of the "ground-breaking" involves formatting the series to the wide-screen format of HDTV (suggested by this author) and the use of digital technology, which Dilworth uses to enhance the show's environment. "We're actually using CGI and texture-mapping to create a sort of realism that's balanced with the color scheme," he says. "It isn't like we're putting flat character colors on 3-D backgrounds, because that's very obvious. We've adjusted the color of the characters to fit within the world that they're existing in, that's full of textured sand and wood and wallpaper and sky, so that the end result is sort of a believability level. That's what I really wanted to get across. "On Noodles & Nedd, we go out of our way to remind you that it's hand-drawn, by a limited color and a flat world and by a simplistic design. On Courage, I wanted to achieve some sort of believability, so that you wouldn't think that you were watching a cartoon and would get into its world." Dilworth's directorial approach involves avoiding wipes, dissolves and camera pans when possible. Why? "Because there are no camera moves in life," he says with a chuckle. "You don't truck out on your face because we're sitting at the table. It doesn't fit. If it doesn't fit, it doesn't fit. If I don't feel the need for it, then I won't put it in. I'm certainly not going to put it in just to remind the viewer that they're being manipulated." Dilworth elaborates, "I use camera moves; I just don't use them in Courage -- a lot. Because they're not necessary. In the series, things are happening so quickly, the suspense doesn't require a lot of camera moves, or fades. What it requires is a lot of images thrown at you so that you decipher them, immediately, and then you move on." When it comes to sound effects, Dilworth tries to avoid stock sounds in favor of fresh material. "I contribute a lot of that to the sound designer that I use, a friend of mine, that I like very, very much: Michael Geisler. I love sound. I look for any sound that makes me laugh. Except for music. Then, it really depends upon what we're trying to portray. Either suspense or comedy or action. And even then, I want nothing that's common. I'll give you an example. Last night we were working with our musicians in trying to come up with a theme for Courage. They had written a lot of material and there were a few bars on this one piece that I really liked. Once we isolated that, we were able to expand it to create this bigger theme.
"To further complicate the matter, I was inspired to think of layering the theme with virtually any other funny sound that you'd want. The theme would play a little bit, have its own little tempo, and then it would stop to accommodate a crazy laugh, and then continue. Or over that would be a person singing, or a funny sound. The theme could be endless. Virtually, the theme could just run and run and run and just encourage anybody to put anything they wanted into it, and thus change it to make it funnier. So I can imagine when the CD comes out, it would be thirty minutes long, just the most bizarre ingredients added to the main theme. It was just a lot of fun."
Compassion... As for telling a story, Dilworth says, "It's the most difficult thing you can do. So I'm most appreciative of writers and artists and other individuals who can think narratively, but can also open and allow the oddest things to occur. Flexibility is what I'm looking for. The ability to have the unexpected ingredients, and to make it work, to integrate it in the story so that it doesn't feel gratuitous or out of place."
Dilworth also looks for "humanness," which he defines as "the ability to portray a real emotion, a real reaction of somebody. "Look at Dirdy Birdy, when he's mooning -- when he's expressing his love to Furgerina -- you're just seeing him one-dimensionally, and when his heart gets broken, he really takes it hard. You know, there's a whole 'nother dimension to him. Then when he's encouraged, he recovers. Even as hard as Furgerina was in that film, she has sympathy for the bird.
"That sort of compassion is stirring through all my films. In Lilly Lany, when Lilly brought home the cat to Frank, Frank hated the cat. He wanted to throw the cat out. But the cat did some little tiny thing to Frank and he just buckled over.
"And even in Smart Talk with Raisin, when her brother was getting into trouble, she almost had to excuse why he was such a troubled kid by showing home movies of her brother a little younger than he is, and reveal the influences that made him the way he is. So there's all this compassion.
"Compassion is very good. To be able to identify with any character or thing. You know a rock could be compassionate, I guess. Even by being so non-objective. It's just a rock. But when it rains on it, it gets flooded. It just stays there.
The Personal Stuff
During the making of Courage, what has John Dilworth learned in his growth as an individual? He responds candidly, "The one thing I learned -- beyond anything else -- is greater tolerance, and patience, with others. Period. That's it. "I don't think there's any way on God's earth that you're going to accomplish anything where you don't get along with everyone -- and that in itself is an art. That requires that you put aside your ego, any kind of judgements, and personal belief systems that you have, and consider people's personalities or their performance or their attitudes. The most important thing is, that you get the project done. And you have to have some semblance of a good time. "The Tower of Babel, all those guys speaking different languages, they couldn't build that tower, right? Right. That's what I've learned. And I'm an incredibly impatient person with people. I can sit down at a desk and draw for hours and hours and hours and generate thousands of drawings in a day [but] I just have no patience with people. And I think that's what I've really come away with, doing a big project like a series.
"On the little films and commercials, it's compressed. And the time schedules are smaller, and there's less individuals. So there really wasn't a need to push myself as much as I did on the series. But the ability to get along with people, and to surpass all that sort of banality that gets in the way...it's your obligation. That's my personal belief. Otherwise things become undone, like a blanket that's worn out and there's just a few fibers pulling it all together. It could easily fall apart.
"I have a pretty demanding quality standard, but it could be adjusted if a certain feeling has been captured. Model details, proportions, are indisputable. That must remain. But if you capture the essence of something, you can overlook a lot of the inaccuracies of the model -- to a degree. Let's say 60 percent. You can take 60 percent of something being 'on model' for a creative decision.
"One experience I had was working with an artist that did not 'plus' the material that we gave him. And that's a bad thing, if you can't be inspired to take something further. Most of the time, though, the artists were able to see other things that they were able to add.
"Drawing is such an intuitive thing, anyway. When I expressed the idea of feeling a drawing, it's like being so receptive as to have your own drawing what you put down on paper reflect back to you in a sort of energy, that you're able to determine. Working on a long-form property requires you do somebody else's style, but I still think it applies. You're making a conscious decision on the lines that you make, so that they best reflect the style and design that you're imitating."
The Grand Payoff To those who want to be successful independent filmmakers, what advice would Dilworth offer? "I've always said, I want to make this film, and I've just found a way to do it," the director says. "I do it by making commercials or working for somebody else, making money to produce it. Over a period of time, if the work that you're doing is of any merit, opportunities sort of come about. They materialize. And you have to decide if it's something that you have to get involved in. And then you have to nurture relationships with people that have similar minds, you know, that think alike. The rest is up to your own personal judgment. Who do you want to get involved with? And what do you want to do in terms of project to project?
"Obviously I'm not a great politician. I don't really play the game of patting somebody on the back and giving them a big grin and all is well. I have real trouble with that. I tend to be more honest. I think lately I've been more honest, but withholding that honesty for a later time. It's that sort of judgment that you have to employ.
"If I decided not to get involved in the commercial aspect of doing a series or something like that, and instead just doing independent films, the issue would be, how does one finance that? There are certainly many artists who are much older, more advanced and more successful than I who can tell you how they did it. They teach. They work for others. They freelance commercials. Some that are luckier get grants. Some get hired in a larger studio like the National Film Board of Canada and they get work through there. Maybe others get an inheritance. "It really becomes a matter of a moral decision that you have to make with yourself. How much compromise are you willing to take? How much are you willing to dilute in terms of your ability to create something that's totally unique?" In summing up the nature of his work, John Dilworth confides, "My problem is that I think cinematically. I don't think for the television. I don't think for a specific medium. I want it to be the biggest experience that I could possibly give. Maybe because in life you can't get that in your own life. I just like to make people laugh. "My biggest, most rewarding experience was being in a festival in Bilbao, Spain, soon after The Dirdy Birdy was finished. Bilbao is a really beautiful city. They had the most extraordinary theater. It was so ornate. Gold-gilded and everything. It was a very large theater. It was packed. And they played The Dirdy Birdy. I left the theater because I can't see a film that I've made; I can't be in a room and watch. When a film is done, that's it. I'm no longer responsible for it, other than it being the messenger. "But when I left the theater, I heard the sound of that place, laughing and laughing and laughing, and then when they came out, and people would have big grins on their faces, that was it. I couldn't be more happy in my whole life. I couldn't think of anything else. I had no other problems. That was it. It was a tremendous high. It wasn't that I was thinking, 'Oh, wow, I did something great,' I was thinking, 'I made all these people happy.' They were laughing. It's what I wanted to do. "The thing is, I want to make people feel good for the moment that they get." Bob Miller is an animation professional who has written extensively about the industry for Starlog, Comics Scene, Animation Magazine, Animato!, Animation Planet, Comics Buyer's Guide, and APATOONS. He served on the first season of Courage, the Cowardly Dog as storyboard supervisor and is currently working at Film Roman storyboarding episodes of The Simpsons.
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