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The Creation of an Icon: MTV

In a personal memoir, Candy Kugel describes how she and a small team created an icon that would one day take the world by storm.

Download a Quicktime movie of the first animated MTV id! 2 MB. © MTV: Music Television.

Editor's Note: When our September television issue took a special focus on MTV, we were surprised how often the MTV logo was mentioned. It was on this note that Candy Kugel felt inspired to write her memoirs on directing the first "Top of the Hour" and subsequent campaigns that opened the door for many independent animators.

On Friday, July 17th, 1981 at 10:30 a.m., I attended a meeting at our Perpetual Motion Pictures offices with prospective clients from a place called Warner AmEx who were going to start a Music Television channel. They needed a network id; something to identify their network from others, sort of like a modern CBS "eye." They had a half dozen chromes from NASA of the original walk on the moon, a logo designed by Frank Olinsky of Manhattan Design, a promise for a sound track the following week, and one week in which to complete it. I remember looking at the final logo design, the chunky, baby block `M' and the dripping `TV,' and feeling how great it was. Graffiti art had been celebrated for the previous decade, yet this was the first type treatment I'd seen that screamed, "Spray paint on a wall." It was totally asymmetrical, as far away from the peacock or an eye as you could get; a design that made the `M' be off center, to allow for the `TV' to be on screen. It was also MTV's intention of changing the look of the logo every time the viewer saw it. All that was constant, were the proportions and the desire for it to look as "hands on" as possible.

This was a time when everything was shot on film, and since this was to be some sort of double run, I needed to mat in the MTV logo which would be shot with top lights onto the NASA chromes (shot bottom). Please remember that this was before HARRY, Flame or even good video compositing. I needed to do daily tests which were then processed overnight at labs. In the end, I had less than three days to produce all the hand-colored, purposely made to look "funky" flags which were done on tissue paper with watercolor markers.

But, let's step back for a minute. How did this come about and why was I doing this seminal work at MTV?

The New York Dichotomy

In the late 1970s there were two distinct groups doing animation in New York: the studios who were primarily doing television commercials and the independents who were making films from grant money. The independents generally came from art schools and film schools that had animation departments which propelled them into the world of film grants and teaching. The studio animators generally came from a tradition of apprenticeship. From the beginning I straddled both worlds. I had been a student at Rhode Island School of Design, heard a lecture by Jack Zander at Brown University and asked him for a job. During art school, I worked as an intern over summers and vacations at Perpetual Motion Pictures, a commercial studio owned by Buzz Potamkin and Hal Silvermintz. Therefore, I could learn my craft on the job, while having enough time to experiment independently while at school. RISD gave me a janitorial closet as my "room" and paid for their first animation disk and pegs which I bought before the film/animation/video department existed as it does today. I always wanted to do my own work, but the economics made it necessary for me to work commercially. I was very lucky. The first five years that I worked at Perpetual Motion Pictures, I had the opportunity to make dozens of one minute "editorial cartoons" for the monthly NBC news show, Weekend. I've always said that NBC paid for my animation education. As the pieces got more involved and complicated, the more experience I gained.

By 1978 I was a member of several, often mutually exclusive, organizations: I was a member of Screen Cartoonist Local 841 (the IATSE affiliate that insured animation workers of a minimum wage, unemployment insurance, vacation, holiday and severance pay, health and retirement benefits), the Union Animators' Group (made up of journeymen animators who thought the union as a whole underrepresented their needs and concerns), ASIFA-East, and George Griffin's group of independent animators (a group that felt that ASIFA didn't represent them, and used this monthly meeting as an opportunity to show works in progress and compare notes). I was an inveterate animation festival goer. I felt that I was an independent animator and found the freedom in independent film exhilarating. When I'd report to the Union Animators' Group about the films I'd seen, many would snort at the idea of moving sand or string under a camera and calling it art. When I'd try to rally the independents into thinking about unity as a protection against unfair labor practices, that joining the Union could possibly protect them, I'd get a similar jeer.

All this to say, that I was one of the few commercial animators to be present at the 1978 Ottawa Film Festival. I was actually there with the short Fat Farm, one of the Weekend pieces, which I directed, designed, animated and co-wrote. We wrote the pieces by committee at "story meetings" from which I would create a storyboard. For this film, I was uncredited and my way unpaid, but what a festival! Caroline Leaf presented her sand version of Metamorphosis, a tour-de-force of storytelling, Kathy Rose's Pencil Booklings where she had rotoscoped herself to be among her characters, La Traversee de l'Atlantique a la Rame, an incredible cut-out metaphor of marriage by Jean-Francois Laguionie, Sara Petty's Furies, with its beautiful color pencil drawings of cats and George Griffin's Viewmaster, an homage to Eadweard Muybridge. Work by Janet Perlman, Al Jarnow, Jimmy Picker, John Weldon and others was also screened. Five nights of screenings with work so varied in texture, tone and technique, it made one feel like film could look like or be anything. Many of them were done by women which was a major difference from the commercial studios where women were often relegated to ink and paint! Although there were commercials presented, the overall interest was in the independent fiction films.

Playing with Live-Action Footage

I returned to New York ready to start working on my own film in my spare time. I had actually finished my first independent film in 1977; an homage to Saul Steinberg, who asked me not to show it until he had a chance to make his own animated film. (I'm still waiting....) This time however, I wanted to combine still photos and animation. Ever since its inception, animation was combined with live-action to intensify its magic, contrast it with reality, show fantasy, etc. In commercials, we always shot live-action film footage, rotoscoped what was necessary, then animated to the live and combined the animation film and live-action film in an optical. Needless to say, this was very expensive and time-consuming. Many independents were playing with live-action footage in a variety of experimental ways: with plain rotoscoping, as Kathy Rose, George Griffin and Mary Beams were doing, with stills, like Al Jarnow, and some were using Xeroxes pulled directly from 16mm film. I liked the way the motorized stills looked and decided to shoot myself as an actress preparing for an audition. Audition was finally finished in 1980, but the initial storyboard appeared in Frames, George Griffin's publication, in 1978.

Within the year the Weekend show was canceled and my creative autonomy came to an end. It was at this point that I got to develop as a character animator because Perpetual Motion started doing half-hour television specials. It was liberating being able to make the characters act without worrying about the design or layout. However, I began to miss directing and designing, so Buzz Potamkin and I struck a deal. He would offer me the commercials that came in that didn't require a given designer, or that Hal Silvermintz was too busy to handle. So, I was animating a few scenes in Strawberry Shortcake in Big Apple City during the Spring of 1981, and was laying out and directing some Sunshine Baker and Aziza eye makeup ads, when a rush spot came in, in March.

The famous

A Taste of Things to Come

Dale Pon, who had just started his own advertising agency specializing in radio stations, had a client in San Francisco. This particular spot involved two DJs, Frank and Mike, and it was Dale's idea that we make them into celebrities. He wanted to have them in tuxedos, exiting a limousine, waving to a crowd of chanting fans, and entering a theater where they would be sipping champagne with famous singers. Now the last shot, Frank and Mike with the celebrities, wasn't a big deal. It could be shot very simply against a limbo background with the celebrity making the most interesting performance. But the crowds? The limo? There were plenty of 16mm archive houses around with footage of Hollywood openings, but if we were to go the traditional route and try to mat them in, it would have been weeks of testing in the lab and then trying to match the DJ's in a similar lighting and perspective. I'd been aching to try a new machine that Xerox was touting. One could bring 16mm film and they would continuously print it on paper. The machine was used for microfilm. So, we cut together a 16mm workprint with four or five shots of different film openings, different perspectives of crowds and theaters, day, night... It didn't matter since it would all be re-treated. We then took Xerox the footage.

Dale was going to California to shoot the DJs and I gave him a couple of drawings of positions that I needed the guys to walk in. He had a still photographer shoot them for me. They were shot without a motorized camera which gives it an even funkier look. Buzz got an okay from his uncle, and I went over to Potamkin Cadillac to shoot both the exterior and interior of a Cadillac limousine. Then we played with it. To fool the viewer into thinking that the crowds were all part of the same scene, we used marker and colored pencils to destroy any extraneous information and to use the palette to flatten the live and unite it. We Xeroxed the two dozen or so photos of the DJs on cel and painted them to separate them more clearly from the crowds and backgrounds. All that patchke added excitement to the piece. Everyone was delighted with the results and it was done in a very quick turn around time. Part of the challenge of the job did indeed come from time and budget constraints, but had I not seen other animated pieces using this Xerox technology, notably from NYU students, I don't think I would have used archival footage.

The Top of the Hour

This spot caught the attention of Fred Seibert who then contacted Buzz to do the "Top of the Hour" for his new Music Television network. He liked the hand drawn quality of the KNBR spot and needed that for the NASA chromes. He definitely wanted his audience to understand that this was not a puff piece for astronauts. He wanted irreverent, eye catching, funky and fast! So began a relationship between Buzzco Productions, MTV and Dale Pon. Buzz had just formed Buzzco Productions, taking Vincent Cafarelli and myself as his creative team. Fred Seibert and Alan Goodman left MTV and formed their own company Fred/Alan, who shared the 28th floor with us above the Omni Park Central Hotel. Dale continued to bring us radio advertising and Fred/Alan and Buzzco produced a show for The Playboy Channel called Hot Rocks. It was an exciting time working with both companies since they wanted stuff that didn't look like anything else. The conditions were such that encouraged experimentation and play. Naturally, I was full of ideas I wanted to play with: collage, retiming live, changing palettes. Cable television was beginning to define what it was and used animation to separate itself from the networks.

"I Want My MTV!"

Sometime in 1983, Dale Pon, then a partner at LPG/PON, landed the MTV national advertising account. In the beginning of 1984, he came up with the "I Want My MTV" campaign. Nancy Podbilniak was the writer and George Lois the creative director. The idea was to take rock and roll icons and have them demand MTV from their cable service while interacting with the MTV logo, which had the ability to change into anything. We were going to film the stars delivering their line, "I Want My MTV," but what would happen afterwards was still to be determined. I remember sitting in a car going out to Queens for the first New York shoot, with Hall and Oates, Tom Freston, then the head of advertising at MTV, and Leslie Fenn, the account executive. Tom asked me what it was all going to look like. I was armed with some MTV logos I had blown up on cels and cut out to be used as props with Hall and Oates. This was a gag written by George Lois, that the rock partners would be arguing over whose MTV it was and inadvertently tear it. I knew we were going to use the live footage. I knew we were going to animate the `M.' I knew we didn't want to use Xerox on the rock stars because we wanted too enhance their looks. Plus, I wasn't sure if we were going to layer effects onto the live-action or replace it. I could only say, "It's not going to be like anything else you've seen before," which seemed to satisfy him.

How Did They Do That?

Now as to how the MTV spots got to look the way they did, I need to go back in history once again! Whenever we did a commercial that had live-action into which we were placing an animated character, we would have to rotoscope it. Sometimes, if there was no touching or cross over, we would get a single image of the scene as a photograph. At all optical houses at the time there was always an "art guy," someone who would set type, make kodaliths, mats, and these "projections." Our camera service, owned by John Rowohlt, had such a service: a man named Gerry Guidali. Kodak had come out with a new paper that was less expensive, lightweight and fast drying. We wondered what it would be like to get them into the series since it was better quality than Xerox but less expensive than photographic prints. I had used high quality photographic paper in my film Audition and the images took a long time to expose and dry. It would have been prohibitive to use in a campaign that would have hundreds of images and tight deadlines. We used an internegative with Bell and Howell perfs and devised a crosshair system to keep them in registry and voila! The photo-roto industry was born! Using the camera as a photographic enlarger, punching the actual paper and exposing large numbers of frames in sequence had a revolutionary effect on the business. Until very recently with the advent of computers, these photo-rotos made it possible to get precise roto-ing without having to have someone back-breakingly sit at an animation stand and trace by hand the live-action.

In the late '70s and early 80s there was a new interest in tinting photographs. Although color photography had long been perfected, the quaintness of turn of the century color tinting of black and white photos was refreshing. There was also an art movement coming out of Milan, Italy, Memphis Milano, with its squiggles and bright primary colors. It was fun to imagine the combination of influences and how a piece could turn out. So, that was my plan to get an even exposure on the live-action so that I could bring out contrast in the coloring. Using magic markers and grease pencils on the cels to give the photos a hand-colored quality (and rouge the stars' cheeks), I kept the MTV logo as a black outlined cartoon character of its own, using the Memphis Milano-type palette. The combination of the silliness of the logo gags (I was joined in animation by Vincent Cafarelli and Jan Svochak), the straight ahead constant motion of the color tinting on the live (the color was followed through by Cotty Kilbanks and Lisa Fernandez) and the brightly colored logo, made Dale Pon dub it, "Eye Candy (Kugel)."

That Famous Moon Shot

This all was noticed again by Fred/Alan who decided it was time to update MTV's "Top of the Hour." It had been about two and a half years that they'd been using the original funky slides; occasionally changing the live action blast off beginning, a change so subtle it was virtually unnoticed. Since the national campaign had become such a success and people started to refer to that as the "MTV look," they contracted us to create the moon landing in that same technique. Unfortunately, the NASA footage left a lot to be desired. It was shot on 16mm, very high contrast and in reality, pretty colorless. The takes took forever, unlike the snappy timing we could do with gags. Therefore, we were forced to piece it together from a couple of different moon walks.

Neil Lawrence and I cut a blow-up dupe of the footage together, timed to the MTV theme music. This time through there was also footage of Houston and tons of computer screens into which we could mat the logo. The palette had to change with the function of the live-action, plus the sky was too black, we needed to break it up with sparkling stars. The rest of the high-contrast, out-of-focus footage had to be delineated in a way that the action could be read and could be fun. Magenta was added to aqua as the color of the astronauts' uniforms. Orange seemed an apt color for the surface of the moon and we enhanced the rockets' red flare.

Today, A Lot Has Changed

The MTV campaign continued through 1985, past Buzz's departure for Hollywood and Vincent Cafarelli, Marilyn Kraemer and myself starting Buzzco Associates. Over the years there have been plenty of people who have taken credit for the beginning of MTV. As they say, success has many parents. Failures are orphans. In the 16 years since its birth, I have found it curious that my name has rarely been linked with these early efforts, even though I designed and directed all of the spots. It's similar in a way to the sporadic and fluky crediting of animators in the old, big studios where the name of the actual animator or sequence director was sometimes forgotten. Somehow information gets lost in the shuffle of other people's reminisces of their own roles. In this case I was allowed great individual artistic freedom which is unusual if one is employed by someone else and answering to a corporate client. My only initial caveat being that whatever I did be "brand-new and cutting-edge;" that included the artistic influences of the time reinterpreted in a new way through interests and visions that were personally mine.

After our initial work on MTV, this crazy coloring style came into demand. We were asked to go further with it for other clients including HBO, USCI, VH-1, USA Network, more radio station spots for Dale Pon and the Teen Wolf opening and end titles for Buzz at Southern Star. For awhile there were lots of other studios using this technique. With the popularization of the Quantel Paintbox, the price of doing this directly to tape, without going through the film stage, made it seem totally pervasive. (Although I do prefer the hand drawn look with film images.) By 1987, we were much less interested in this particular style and were creating, A Warm Reception in L.A., our first independent short in which we used neon colors against a stark black background. This became the new "Buzzco look." Again, we've done scores of projects in this technique which has also been imitated by others. (Actually, in Audition I had an entire sequence with colored pencils on black construction paper, a precursor! But then that's another story....)

I still go to international animation festivals and love to see how themes and styles seem to cross-pollinate in this atmosphere. I was so taken by the graphic style of The Monk and the Fish by Michael Dudok de Wit in Ottawa `94 that I ached to use a big black paintbrush in our next film which ended up being The Ballad of Archie Foley. I'm not sure that the average viewer could actually tell that, but I sure noticed the proliferation of dots on the generation of films after His Wife the Hen by Igor Kovalyov.

Candy Kugel.

As for the state of the animation community in New York this last half of the `90s decade? There is no more dichotomy; no more intense rivalry between the independents and the union studios. Most independents do commercial work since grants have dried up considerably. There is no more union or union studios. In the mid-80s Local 841 got swallowed up by an indifferent Local 644, the camera union, which in turn, just last year, got swallowed up by the West Coast Local 600. Many studios and independents compete for the same work. In addition, many studios, even if they don't produce their own independent work, produce short pieces that compete in the international film scene. Here at Buzzco Associates, we try to produce enough income-generating work to allow us to keep making our own projects. Often, as in the case of the 30-minute direct to home video that we did for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Talking About Sex, we get to produce income-generating productions that we can treat as an independent project. The best of both worlds!

Candy Kugel is vice president and animation director at Buzzco Associates, Inc. in New York City.

Attached Files 
643-mtvmoon.mov2.08 MB