Joe Strike continues his interview with Tad Stones about his 30-year career in animation.
Read Part 1 of The Tad Stones Interview in which he talks about his thirtysome years in animation, from Eric Larson's training program at Disney, his work on EPCOT, the influence of Jeffrey Katzenberg, Disney TV Animation and now his new project, Brer Rabbit, at Universal Cartoon Studios. We pick up with Tad talking about a short subject Fun with Mr. Future he was making for EPCOT.
They used the inside of Mr. Lincoln's head for Mr. Future and put a bowtie on him. His voice was Phil Proctor and he basically introduced you to the world of the future. It was an excuse to put these little animation segments together that showed how the computer would be used in the future, how energy can be wasted, little bits and pieces from these shows. It was a lot of fun but I couldn't even tell you where you find it now. It's one of those gems even Disney doesn't know it has. I went to a comic convention and was surprised to see its cels for sale.
Now when Michael Eisner joined the company, the merchandising people thought Elijah had arrived, they were very much pushing for the company to go into TV animation. Michael of course had started in TV animation at ABC - Scooby-Doo and all that. The Jackson 5ive was one of the shows done under his regime.
The first week Michael was there, he wanted to hear about TV animation, so they got a group of people together including myself and Gary Krisel from merchandising, who eventually became president of Disney TV Animation. Ironically, I think I was the only person at the meeting who had any animation background at all. Because I had pitched these guys, they said, We want Tad there. I happened to be on vacation and they called me: We know it's Sunday, we know you're on vacation, but would you mind coming to Eisner's house to talk about TV animation? And I'm thinking, Oh yeah, like I'm gonna say no, with this new guy coming in that nobody knows who I'm going to get to meet with in person?
Joe Strike: Approximately when was this?
This was in 1984. It was literally the first week Michael was on the lot, and it was that Sunday. I showed my old Mickey in Space thing. Michael was really intrigued with it, but he said, Wait a minute, Mickey is just too special. We shouldn't put him on TV.
JS: He changed his mind down the road a bit about that one. [ House of Mouse]
TS: Oh, yeah, after they slowly built their confidence over time. The only other thing he said was My kid loves gummi bears. He knew that any project called Gummi Bears would be a success. I remember we walked out of his house and said Boy he seems like a real sharp guy. I said, The only thing that was a little weird to me was the idea of doing a show based on candy that's like, let's do Pepperoni People. Flash forward a few years when I'm story editor/producer of The Gummi Bears, I thought better of it.
After this meeting I went back to features.
Later on I saw Michael Webster, who was then developing TV animation. He said, Why don't you come over and visit? So I went over to visit the budding TV animation unit, which was like one little hallway. He took me around and started saying things like Tad's thinking of coming over here. And I'm going like Oh really, I am? Basically Krisel popped up and made a pitch for me to go over there.
They made me an offer that was $40,000 more than I was making a year. I said wow and went back to Ed Hansen, the head of the animation department. I told him the kind of money they were talking about. He said, We can't offer you anything like that. Why don't you meet with Jeffrey?
Jeffrey said, Look Tad, it's not a one-way street. They think you can really help them out. Give it a try and if it doesn't work out we can have you back. So I went back to them and this time they made me an offer that was $20,000 less than their first one. I felt like, I've been scammed... I was so ignorant. They made me an offer; I didn't even get the concept of counter-offer, so who knows what I could've gotten. Then I went back and they said, You've already talked to Jeffrey, you can't back out now. I kind of went in with a chip on my shoulder, but at the end of the day I'm going `wait a minute, this is still like so much more money than I was making, so let's not complain too much.
The TV animation division's goal was only to sell one show the first season, that's all they wanted to do. They wanted to get in very small and grow very slowly. But Michael and Jeffrey said, You can't go in with one idea, what if they don't like it? What if they have something similar to it what are you going to talk about, the weather? So they did both The Wuzzles and The Adventures of the Gummi Bears, which was created by Art Vitello and Jymn Magon.
JS: This was for ABC now?
TS: No, they called everybody at once, pretty much; they took meetings in the order they called back. NBC called first, then CBS, then ABC. The show they had to sell was The Wuzzles, because they had this deal with Hasbro who was already moving on with the toys.
They went to NBC, who said, These are great we're taking The Gummi Bears. Uh-oh they picked the one that we don't have to sell. Then they met with CBS: You only got one show? Okay, we'll take it. They went to ABC: Sorry, we don't have anything to pitch to you.
Well, the two shows were put on the air across from each other, and everybody in the division said, How can you do that, that's wrong! I pointed out that in Hanna-Barbera's heyday, they were always across from each other it was a mark of success. We should always be so lucky to be across from a show of our own because that means we've sold three shows.
JS: In Hanna-Barbera's case, it would've probably been impossible for them not to be across from themselves.
TS: They would've had to create a new network, or new hours of the day.
Television suited my temperament wonderfully. My Disney career for the most part up to that point was doing a different job every two years: I did inbetweening, I did story, then got a chance to work at WED, then came and worked on these documentaries, then did whatever I was doing advising live action, then back to these merchandising-related short subjects with the classic characters, and just enjoying the variety.
When I got to TV I stayed there for the next well, from 1984 to last year, but my show changed every two years or so. I really enjoyed working with the same people, but doing new projects. Every show of course had a variety of episodes; it wasn't like doing one story line for four years. I got a storyline and we worked without a script, we did it visually. I still had my visual background of creating stories with pictures. That really helped to get scripts written, to say, No, no, no, let's go the visual way.
I started there in creative development; I think my title was manager of creative affairs.
JS: Sounds like a bean counter, almost.
TS: They really wanted me to take pitches from writers, do what a development executive does these days: not necessarily be a creative person myself, but recognize talent and garner them. The only problem was they wanted people to pitch them stuff for free. I was too much of an artist and writer on the creative side to be good on that side of the desk.
We had one of those famous gong shows coming up with Michael and Jeffrey where you just pitch one-line ideas, and they either like it or they don't and you move on. I think we pitched 23 shows at one time, and 18 of them were my ideas. These were very simple things, like Let's do the Trojan Birds and the Legionnaire Mice, or the Legionnaire Cats... Troy is going to be up in the trees, those are going to be the birds, and the cats are constantly trying to get up into the trees, they're Greeks...' It was kind of Road Runner/Coyote-type stuff.
It was never developed very much. It was pretty much a title and what I just said to you. Some got interest and some didn't. I remember Michael Webster said, We'd really like you to do less of your own and get more people doing it. I said okay, but I knew I had to come up with all sorts of shows to pitch two weeks from then.
Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers
TS: Getting back to the third season of the Gummi Bears, the network wanted a creative change and they had me step in as story editor and co-producer with Alan Zaslove.
JS: You guys were put together by the studio?
TS: The studio asked us to step into Art Vitello's shoes.
When I was made a full producer I went over the storyboards and gave notes and did drawings and was there at the recording sessions. The difference between Alan Zaslove and I was that I did story as well and I dealt with management. I didn't realize how much I shielded him, and we finally went our separate ways. He had to face them alone, and he'd come back and say, I can't believe what they're doing! Welcome to my world.
JS: He was more of just a creative guy?
TS: He basically did the actual production. He was one of the directors. He would watch over a lot my input to develop the art style. With Darkwing I had a big hand in that because I had certain ideas I wanted to do. We had two units and he would direct one of them and someone else would do the other.
JS: How was it working with him? You guys did a lot of stuff together; it must've been a pretty good working relationship.
TS: He's a wonderful man, really friendly. He's seen a lot and been around for a long time. I think he got coffee for the gang at Termite Terrace for a little while, or something like that.
JS: His credits on IMDB go back to The Alvin Show and Gerald McBoing-Boing.
TS: He did Clyde Crashcup.
JS: One of my favorite characters: I'll invent the telephone; that's tele for `tele' and phone for `phone.''
TS: Actually, what was even weirder was chess for chess or air for air. It was great working with him, it was an easygoing thing. In essence, because I created the show that was Darkwing's dad. Alan had no ego, it was about doing the best work, we worked back and forth fine. Again, because I had that story background going back to The Fox and the Hound where there's no script, you're thinking visually that's what I used on the shows, both coming up with the original ideas, I tended think more of a visual concept, how things are going to look to tell the story.
JS: Alan must've been responsible for the line in one of the very early episodes where Darkwing tells Launchpad, It's like the chicken said, `You knew the job was dangerous when you took it'. [The catchphrase of Jay Ward's Super Chicken.]
TS: We were all fans and we had grown up with that, so it was fun quoting stuff that no one at the studio caught, but we knew what we were doing.
Alan and I did the third season of Gummi Bears. I rewrote the bible, I basically built on what was there and tried to give us more excuses for stories. Then we pitched The Rescue Rangers.
That was my first show. I worked on the concept with Magon. At that point Chip and Dale weren't in it. We pitched it to Michael, Jeffrey and Rich Frank, who was in charge of television.
Everybody has their complaints about Michael now, but back then as far as I'm concerned, it was a delight having meetings with him. To see these guys who love movies and TV so much, and who love entertainment, to see these giants of the industry just talking back and forth and talking trash or whatever it was great to see the instincts at work. They know about Jeffrey's feel for the medium, but few people know about the hands-on Michael.
Anyway, we pitched this Rescue Rangers idea. They said, We really like the show, but we don't really feel anything for the main character. At the same meeting I had already pitched new characters for the second season of Duck Tales, which I wasn't on at the time basically when I wasn't doing a show I was kind of a development executive, and when I was doing a show sometimes Jymn would be the development executive.
Duck Tales was already on in syndication?
TS: That's right. George Lucas once said Duck Tales was our Star Wars. Of course, they never told us that on the inside.
JS: I remember seeing a poster for Duck Tales that for some reason was in the lobby of a tiny movie theater long before the show premiered, and I said Oh my God, they're going to do the Carl Barks stories as a series.'
TS: I wish they had done more of that. It's hard to argue with success, but the show got off on a very kind of a silly tangent, which was totally entertaining to kids. Magon loved the Carl Barks stuff, so there's kind of a mix. If you separate out the various episodes you could probably see that. There's almost two shows there, but mixing them together gave the overall series a certain flavor kids loved it. That's when Alan was brought in to be a director on Duck Tales.
Now back to the Rescue Rangers. At that time I pitched three new characters for Duck Tales. I drew some pictures and I said, Here's Space Duck, an alien duck; here's Bubba Duck, a caveman duck, and here's his personality. You know the big hit of last summer, Robocop? Kids, nobody knows the real hero is Roboduck! He eventually became Gizmoduck.
It was an old-fashioned, Here's one picture, I'm going to tell you a little bit about him, do you like him or not? A great character should really be that strong: You look at him, hear a few things about him, and say, Yes, I want to see more of him.
I tell you that for a reason. When they looked at the Rescue Rangers, it was a team of animals, Gadget was already in it, there was a chameleon, Monterey Jack was in it but he was named something else. The lead character was Kit Colby, a mouse who was an Indiana Jones type of guy, complete with the leather jacket and the fluffy collar. They went, We love the idea of the show, but your main character doesn't have it. I said Is it because they're not familiar, you're just seeing them for the first time? No, we got Bubba Duck and this Robo Duck, I understand his personality. Jeffrey said, Guys, it's just not a home run yet.
The meeting went on a little longer and we're saying Duck Tales is a big success, what other Disney characters can we work with? You don't want to do Mickey or Goofy, but there's Pluto and all that. Finally, I said, There's Chip and Dale. Eisner said, Great put those guys in that show, and Jeffrey says home run. That's why Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers got done. When people pretend Michael has not a creative bone in his body, I'm sorry, I saw plenty of it. I haven't talked to him in 10 years or something, but back then he recognized that's the puzzle piece this thing needed, and then it moved forward like gangbusters.
It changed our development, because now instead of one hero you have this dynamic, which was well established and gave us lots of stories about how they interacted with other characters.
So now Chip is wearing Kit Colby's jacket, plus we gave him a little Indiana Jones hat. And Dale, the goofier one I don't think we related it to Magnum, P.I. at the time, but we gave him a Hawaiian shirt.
There was no Disney Afternoon yet, it was just Duck Tales. Then they said let's team it up with Rescue Rangers. The Disney Afternoon was created the following year when TaleSpin was created. I remember that show got a big launch because the Afternoon got a huge launch, but there's a slight difference between saying Here's a brand new show, look how incredible this show is, versus Here's a new destination for you to tune into and part of that is this new show. I remember the guys who were doing TaleSpin were a little frustrated. Obviously it paid off for them, but still it wasn't the same kind of focus on their show.
JS: It was also like Rescue Rangers in that you're taking established characters and putting them into a new premise. Were they intending to use the Jungle Book characters from the start?
TS: You're always developing shows, and many of them don't see the light of day. They had developed a show called B Players. It was all the sidekicks from all the Disney features working on the back lot, or being out of work. In some ways it was like the later feature Cats Don't Dance: here's the actors, they've got their one part. Baloo did okay, he pops up here and there, but it was like how they get by, what are they trying to do. The show didn't go but it re-familiarized everybody with some of those characters.
JS: The concept turned up again in House of Mouse.
There wasn't a direct line there but very much that kind of feel. It was the work on B Players that put it in Magon and his peoples' heads to start with Baloo and Louie.
Anyway, I'm winding up Rescue Rangers, and now I've become kind of the creative executive developing shows. I would give notes on other shows, but I didn't give notes on TaleSpin, I actually had nothing to do with the series; it was more We need you to develop shows to go onto next.
More Than You Ever Wanted to Know About Darkwing Duck And Then Some
There was a Duck Tales episode called Double-O Ducks, which was Launchpad as a secret agent. It was a James Bond spoof, every show does one. Anyway, a show got pitched with that name. Jeffrey said, I love that name, I love the idea. This was well before Austin Powers; James Bond was not at its peak. We were like, Who wants to do a spy parody? Like a throwback to Get Smart?'' I tried to develop it with Launchpad and Gizmoduck, but I said, This is just a parody, it's got no sense of family, of characters, whatever, but I pitched it to Jeffrey who basically agreed and said, Redo it.
I took the obvious way and that didn't fly; now I have to create something. I got to thinking of the Green Hornet and the Shadow, all the comic book stuff that I loved, the Jules Schwartz/Silver Age era of DC Comics [the editor who revived the superhero genre in the late 1950s] Jimmy Olsen turning into Turtle Boy, Elastic Lad. Yeah, I'd like to do something with that. Then when we wondered What if Batman had to raise a little girl? The idea finally jelled. That's what gave the show the real heart, the real dynamic. Gosalyn [Darkwing Duck's adopted daughter] was kind of inspired by my daughter, who was only about two at the time. Looking back on it I wonder how I could have based it on her, but I just remember she was such a bundle of energy and incorrigible; it was like I was seeing her future and putting this little girl on the screen.
JS: What's your daughter's name?
TS: Brenna. She's 16 now and I'm sure she would be embarrassed by hearing about it again.
Suddenly we had a show that Jeffrey liked; we're moving ahead with Double-O Ducks. They make these little cloisonné pins that have Darkwing looking very much like Donald Duck with a mask, a hat and a white coat, a cape. It turned out that Double-O is a copyrighted name. At the time Cubby Broccoli [the late producer of the James Bond films] owned all the rights there is no double-O system in the British spy service, it was something that was created by Ian Fleming.
So guess what, we couldn't use that. Now we had a show with no name we could not come up with a name. We had a contest within the studio. We said we'll give $500 to whoever comes up with the name for this. Ironically, of all people Alan Burnett came up with the name Darkwing. With comic books on my brain, and Nightwing [Robin's new name after leaving Batman's side] you'd think I would've come across that.
JS: Or The Dark Knight.
TS: Alan pitches Darkwing, and I said, Great, that sounds dramatic, now I'm going to add on Duck to make it silly, and he won. Of course Alan left Disney soon after and did a little show called The Adventures of Batman with Bruce Timm. Maybe we whetted his appetite, I don't know. Anyway, that's how he got the name Darkwing Duck, and you look at him, he looks nothing like a spy, even though he would sometimes work for the spy organization SHUSH.
I also went into it in a calculated way by saying I've got to establish all the classic traditions of a superhero. If I want him to have a slogan, I want to hear it in every episode. He would always say, Let's get dangerous. One that was used intermittently was suck gas, evildoers unfortunately, many people misheard that. The other thing was a lot of fun was I went to the Shadow -`the weed of crime bears bitter fruit.
JS: I am the terror that flaps in the night.
JS: I am the blank that blanks the blank.
TS: It didn't start out that way. It started out with just the first line, but in one of our earliest scripts we had Launchpad trying to pretend he was Darkwing. He bursts into the scene and says, I am the road salt that rusts the underside of your car. We said Boy that was fun, then we came up with other ideas and that became the running gag, that Darkwing always said something different. It was always something bad that you wouldn't want to happen in a specific way: I am the bubble gum that sticks to your shoe. Those were fun, and fans on the Internet collected them all. (www-atdp.berkeley.edu/1623/students/keenahn/DWQUOTE.HTM)
That show was the most me, and it was the most fun because it was an original show. Going back to Rescue Rangers, I remember in one of the early episodes we had Gadget walking across the ceiling, and she says Wait up, unstraps herself and falls off the ceiling. Alan said, That wouldn't be her personality to do that. I said, Alan, we're creating this character, and if I say it's her personality, it's her personality. He kind of, Oh, that's right. At first we were thinking, She's the traditional girl. No, she's operating on a different level, and it's quite funny that way, the ditzy but brilliant, the clueless ingénue kind of thing. She doesn't realize how pretty she is, she doesn't appreciate what a genius she is, but everyone else is going crazy over her.
Darkwing is like that. Launchpad is there not because it's a spin-off of Duck Tales, or we needed a star or he was just a leftover. We wanted Darkwing to have an assistant, because I had been through that Double-O Ducks development, and he was in my brain. I thought he was the perfect guy to play off this personality.
That show was really fun because it was totally original. I could make up all the characters and use all those silver age comic book clichés on purpose not because we had run out of story ideas, but because that was the whole point of the show: I was going to make the evil Darkwing and call him Negaduck. People sometimes say, Gee, the origin doesn't quite match in this episode and that episode -
JS: You know, that's one of the things I thought about asking, but I was afraid I'd sound too much like a fan boy.
TS: One of my things for the show was I said If you pitch a concept for the show, think about a comic book cover Darkwing in a beard growing old - something that in one image sums up the concept. Some of my story editors still do that: they tell their writers pitch me the comic cover so I'll know what's inside. That was one thing. I said, Kids are going to tune in for the guy in the cape. Although the home life is part of our show, get him in the mask and cape. And I said, Go for the gag don't worry about continuity. I was thinking closer to the old short subjects Warners and Disney alike.
Darkwing was on a whaling ship in one episode, maybe he's in the old west, I didn't worry how he got there. In fact there's an episode called `The Secret Origins of Darkwing Duck.' We did three new origins for him, and I wanted to do another one where we had three more origins, except we ran out of episodes.
It was fun creating an original show, and in an era we may never see again well, Cartoon Network and other places have it where you didn't have a network to answer to, and you could just do whatever you felt was funny.
JS: Speaking of which, Megavolt is liberating light bulbs in one episode when Darkwing enters and overturns a basketful; Megavolt says, I'm tired of you always busting my bulbs! That was another line that made me say Did I just hear that on the Disney Afternoon?
TS: I didn't go after those so much, but sometimes they snuck past me. I was just about to bring up that moment. Doug Langdale was one of the guys who wrote Megavolt the best. He would come in with things like where he's knocking over jewelry stores not to steal the jewels, but to take the bulbs out of the display case. He would throw them onto the ground and go Run! you're free my children, you're free!! Not in a million years would I come up with that. He was just so great at hitting that character.
JS: One of the things I like about Darkwing Duck is how it struck a balance between being goofy, off-the-wall cartoon nonsense while at the same time making Darkwing believable as a hero; he's a klutz, yet he's also capable of taking on these villains.
TS: What was funny back then was how weird that was for the insular world of Disney TV. When I said I was going to have Darkwing talk to the camera, some of the development executives said How can you do that, that breaks the reality; if he gets hit by an anvil and survives, how can you have any jeopardy? I said, We have jeopardy because we say it's jeopardy. I told my writers that pretty much in every episode DW has a wrong-headed idea. As long as he has that wrong-headed idea fate will work against him. Once he figures things out and realizes `I shouldn't be jealous,' or `I shouldn't be whatever,' fate will be on his side. Between the comic book cover and that kind of dictum, the writers knew exactly what they had to do.
Some were just so much fun coming up with different ideas. We did one on the death of Darkwing.
JS: It turned out to be a dream of course, but there was a real poignancy to the story.
TS: Even though it wasn't an ABC episode, I called up their Standards and Practices person and said Let me run something by you. I'm going to have him not wear a motorcycle helmet he's too vain, and then he goes slam into a wall. She said That's great, because if he slammed into the wall and he got up and was okay we wouldn't want you to do that. The fact you show he would've died that's a great lesson.
That was a show where it was a whole different thing. We did our nod to Frank Miller's Dark Knight [a downbeat re-imagining of a brutal, middle aged Batman] with the idea of Darkwarrior Duck; what if Gosalyn was not in his life how would he turn out? It was like he would go overboard and turn into this terrible thing. That was the fun of the show.
JS: When you talk about DW getting a wrong-headed idea, the episode I remember is where he lets Gosalyn and Honker market research him into this nice, sweet kind of hero. He finally gets the public acceptance he's always craved, but in the process the criminals lose their fear of him.
TS: That's the whole turnaround: I dress like a bat because it's scary. Okay, once you take that away...
JS: One of things that frustrated DW was that he couldn't get taken seriously by the public
TS: Oh, good lord, Darkwing's ego was always getting in the way.
JS: That was another great episode where Darkwing is exploring his own brain and he opens this door to reveal a giant monster: Oh, no it's my ego!
TS: I thought the execution didn't quite make it. We wanted the brain to look really cluttered and it never quite got there. Sometimes we lost things in translation because we were doing so many episodes.
JS: You were doing things in that episode like freezing the action on a close-up, and then DW and Launchpad walk in front of the freeze frame of themselves to narrate what's going on - conceptually brilliant stuff on a weekday afternoon cartoon show.
Timing-wise we were very lucky. There's always a thing where you're doing a show, and then the competition comes out with a big hit. The boss turns around and says, Why isn't your show like that one? even though the concepts are completely different. The lucky thing that happened to me is that we took longer in our development than Warner Bros. did. While Darkwing was in the works, Tiny Toons came out. Remember how I told you at the beginning people were skittish about him talking to the camera or falling off a building? Well, the competition comes out with this very wild throwback show, which worked to our advantage. Suddenly everyone is not nervous about it.
When I was developing Darkwing and Magon was in the middle of doing TaleSpin, well TaleSpin was never meant to be anything like Tiny Toons, so it didn't help him at all. I was very lucky when it came time to jump on the bandwagon; we already had our own wagon.
Back then Krisel ran a tight ship. He'd be all over you in development and in the first three scripts then he'd go away and you got to do your show. Then when the first footage would come back and it would start up again, and then Okay, now we know what the show is, and it would level off. Then when the show was about to go on the air, panic struck again. Basically for the most part you watch out for your crew, let everybody do their creative best, and you get the best product.
One More Darkwing Duck Question:
JS: The statue of Basil; tell me about that. [Bopping the small statue that sat in Darkwing's living room on its head opened the secret passageway to his headquarters.]
TS: Remember, I shared an office with Ron Clements. Ron loved Sherlock Holmes and went on with John Musker and Burny Mattinsonto do The Great Mouse Detective. I wanted to put a nod towards my friends in features in there; why not Basil? We never talked about it, I just did it.
JS: The fan boy side of me wondered if Basil had inspired Drake Mallard to become a crime fighter himself.
TS: It was more of Hey, here's a detective, and Ron's a friend of mine, why not? That's why Darkwing is so frustrating to people: they insist on doing continuity, and I was actively anti-continuity. Saying, yeah, we have continuity because Batman met the Joker before, he's meeting him again, and he'll think `this time I'm going to watch out for the giant penny.' That was about as far as our continuity went.
JS: So if Negaduck was split off from Darkwing in one episode, and in another he comes from an alternate dimension - who cares?
TS: Pretty much. After we did the Negaduck episode, I really liked this character and I wanted to bring him back. They said how? and I said, What do you mean how? He's back. We just did it, and in the episode Life, the Negaverse and Everything we just created this whole alternate reality he supposedly came from.
Check back next month for the final installment of Joe Strike's conversation with Tad Stones in which Tad discusses life after Darkwing Duck, Aladdin and direct-to-video releases.
Joe Strike is a NYC-based writer/producer with a background in TV promotion and a lifelong interest in animation. He is writing a children's novel.