Concluding our extensive interview with Tad Stones, Joe Strike talks with the animation vet more about Darkwing Duck and direct-to-video projects.
Life After Darkwing
I learned so much on Rescue Rangers that I felt I corrected on Darkwing Duck. I had just wanted to do 30% better, but my feeling is 70% of what I wanted came through. Even so, we still made mistakes. There were times when DW was a little more rubbery than I wanted him to be. We would do a gag where he reaches out of frame and pulls in something. Well, the storyboard guy instead of putting him next to the frame put him in the middle of the room and then suddenly he was Super-Stretch. We were writing something we assumed was a small room and layout would come in with a big room, and suddenly it was "this gag doesn't well it would if they drew the room smaller."
I was just chomping at the bit to do another show where we've got the process under control and everyone's trained to think this way, now we've fixed this and we're gonna be even better. I pitched a science fiction series. Everybody on staff loved it except the key guy. Gary Krisel just couldn't see it. We would pitch it, and he would parrot back, kind of saying "so where is this?" "Well, it's right here." It was almost like showing him a piece of black paper and saying "this is how space is going to look," and it was if he were saying "can you make it darker, can you put more black in it?" He just never connected with the material. It never even got pitched to Michael [Eisner] or Jeffrey [Katzenberg]. I never got past Gary, and that was something I had done totally on my time, I think I did 36 pitch cards in full color, and he just didn't see it, so it just kind of died right there.
Joe Strike: What was it going to be?
TS: The show's title was Warp Wild. Obviously everything gets reused because Warp Darkmatter reappeared when I finally got to do a science fiction comedy called Buzz Lightyear of Star Command. Warp Wild was about a space trucker who finds himself saddled it sounds exactly like Darkwing with kids, but it was a whole different dynamic. There was a robot maid, but she was an ex-military model and would kind of go psycho and drop back into her military model. Even though there were humans and aliens, it was very much a Darkwing-type comedy as far as broadness. Ironically I'm only a little bitter about this because I had done all the artwork on my own time
JS: You didn't have the direct access to Michael or Jeffrey you did in the old days.
TS: Back in the Ron Miller days the studio was so small I used to see Ron. I'd go up for one thing and you'd end up chatting for 15 minutes. That first meeting I had with Jeffrey, it's just on the subject I'm there to talk about and meantime he's taking phone calls, and then boom, you're out. I thought at the time "this is how it's supposed to work why did Ron have all that time to chat with me?"
JS: You were going to mention something you were resentful about.
I had done all that work on my own. So Gary took me out to lunch and said, "Hey, we're doing this show and da-da-da-da," and I said, "It's kind of like The Jetsons. I don't know why they thought I would be happy he didn't realize I'd done all that artwork on my own. I didn't make a stink about it either. But basically by pitching it as another show it meant I couldn't go back and pitch Warp Wild either.
Gary showed it to Michael and Jeffrey. The guys said, "This is just The Jetsons it's been done." Okay, at least my taste is on track. Later, Gary takes me out to lunch and I think it's my last chance to pitch my space show. He said, "No we'd like you to do Aladdin."
Aladdin, Iago and the Birth of Direct to Video Sequels
Now Aladdin was done by my good friends Ron Clements and John Musker. The studio had already done a Little Mermaid series so Aladdin wouldn't be the one to be adapted, but that was 13 episodes and this was going to be 65.
JS: Whose idea was it to turn Aladdin into a series?
It was kind of a no-brainer; you had this movie that made $150 million. Some of the episodes I loved more than others, the ones that had more of an Arabian Nights feel.
I had been thinking that while the genie is great, he's not a normal character. He's crazy because he was Robin Williams who could bring in all this Warner Bros. craziness into a Disney show. Few people realize that even before he shows up, Aladdin is a great movie. I thought Iago was a great character, he was funny, and mean, and Gilbert Gottfried's voice fit perfectly. I said "I want the parrot in there," but he was trapped in the lamp [at the end of the Aladdin movie], so we came up with a story of how he got out and ended up with Aladdin.
The big history-making thing that came out of the show was up to that time we would always do a four or five-part special that would be played vertically as a movie like on a Friday night, and then on Monday the series would start. Some were more episodic than others. I called up the Disney home video division and said, "By definition I'm doing a sequel to Aladdin; are you guys interested? They said "No, not really." We don't want to make a few hundred million more, right? Then they released Aladdin. It was huge, obviously. I called them again and reminded them we were doing the sequel to Aladdin. If we got it done in time, it could be out a few months before the series premiered. This time they said, "We'll get back to you."
Return of Jafar was made for about $3.5 million. It made more than $100 million domestically and created the home video market for Disney. Arguably and I won't deny this it probably played a hand in killing off Disney features in that now there's a lot of animation out there on video shelves. If you're a parent you're saying, "Do I buy tickets to the movie, or do I buy the new video that they can watch a hundred times?"
Anyway, our film was always intended as a feature-length story
JS: that set up the premise for the series.
Exactly, and it did fantastic. Now at the time I was told that Peter Schneider, who was in charge of Feature Animation was at a meeting with Michael Eisner. Peter said, "You shouldn't do sequels, their quality hurts the Disney reputation," and Michael said, "I'm not sure we should be doing these either." The next part of the meeting was, "It cost $3.5 million to make and made over $100 million. Well, what should the next one be?"
JS: End of discussion.
You can make the creative argument that Michael should have stuck by his guns and said, "No, it hurts the Disney name." When people say he's not listening to stockholders, well do you really want a stockholder to know that you said no to doing more of something that cost a pittance and made a fortune? When the argument is made that the management isn't listening to the stockholders, in some perverse way I say they're listening to them too much.
JS: I think where they went astray was trying to come up with a sequel for every film whether it called for it or not.
In general terms I would say the technical side very quickly got incredibly good. It comes down to, like everything else, story and character. The people involved think they're doing a great job, other people think they're not doing too well. It is what it is I've never gotten really upset with it. I'm not particularly fond of Return of Jafar, I don't even own a copy of it. I like the second sequel [Aladdin and the King of Thieves] with Robin Williams much better. I just felt we were so rushed that the story wasn't as strong as it could've been.
Plus I divided it up between Australia and our Japanese studio which doesn't exist anymore. It developed into an incredible powerhouse, back then it wasn't as strong. Jafar was divided right down the middle. When it was in production Jeffrey realized what a good job the Australia studio was doing in the first half. But there was a sequence that didn't move the story, it was just there for fun and it got cut out suddenly there was more Japan than Australia. The climax was all Japan and it didn't have the punch of the earlier stuff and it's just weak because of that. I would've loved to have seen a different mix there.
In the second sequel I tailored these sequence to the strengths of the studios. Japan did all the fantastic effects sequences the parting of the oceans, the magical things and Australia did all the personality stuff. It was a much better mix, the studios had several more years of experience at that point and the result was a better overall movie.
Aladdin started the part of my career where I was doing spin-offs from movies. I didn't even get to a quasi-original show until Buzz Lightyear, where theoretically were doing the show the doll is based on. It had a built-in star, but people sometimes made fun of the show because it wasn't CGI. John Lasseter had said at the very beginning that Buzz Lightyear is a toy character based on an animated show. The show he based it on would've been closer to Space Ghost or an adventure series, because that was the template. We couldn't do that because we still had to create a Buzz similar to the one that everybody loved in Toy Story; but he was a fish out of water, and we had a fish in water.
Buzz was the greatest spaceman, and we came up with the idea of a team of rookies that he would have to work with. They would realize he really is great, and they would all worship him.
Atlantis, The Lost Spin-Off
JS: At one point Atlantis was going to be the next movie-based series; what happened?
TS: It was the series that got killed on Friday the 13th. We were well into the development; I had a staff of 80 people and half the scripts written. The first show had been shipped overseas, the second was about to be shipped and another was in the pipeline. On July 13, 2001, Barry Blumberg [head of the TV Animation division] walked into the room and said, "You've got to shut down the show."
JS: When I saw the home video on the shelf and the box talked about three separate adventures, I assumed it was three TV episodes put together.
When the show was killed they wanted us to tie the three stories we had together. We actually did 10 new minutes of animation and re-animated some of the episodes. In no way can you look at it as one storyline, but it is one theme that I think works pretty well, and there are bits and pieces of it that I really love. I wrote the first third of it, a Norwegian tale with an undersea monster that was right out of Mignola. In fact, Mike Mignola did monster designs for us on the series. We couldn't get Michael J. Fox back to do Milo's voice, but we got everyone else.
We had just finished the script for the direct-to-video. It was going to come out first and set up the series, much as Return of Jafar had set up the Aladdin series.
JS: Was this what came out as Milo's Return?
No, it was an original story, it was very cosmic, very bizarre. It was one of those things I'm not even sure we could've pulled off: elemental creatures being summoned up, it was very magical and very strange. The movie had come out and we were back working on the series. The night before I got a call at home from Barry someone I had worked with in my WED days. Any time you get called at home it's never good. It's not, "Hey, I couldn't wait to tell you, you just got a raise, and we're gonna paint your office gold." We knew the movie hadn't done what they hoped. I figured they were going to pull the plug on the video, but he said, "That may be the only thing we do we're going to pull the plug on the series."
I called a meeting the next morning without telling anyone the news. Half the people thought it would be good news, bonuses or whatever. Everybody was floored when I dropped the bomb. Then we thought if they're not going to make the series there's no way they're going to go ahead with this video. These days it seems like they don't care what the first movie does, I'm sure there's a Black Cauldron II around the corner.
A lot of people thought the series was better than the movie in that the movie created these great characters who were barely seen; there were so many of them that other than in two sequences they didn't really get a chance to be played. Story structure-wise, they get all cozy and friendly and then they become enemies. Near the end of the film they actually pull a gun on Milo and that's a hard image to overcome, even though at the climax they're on his side.
JS: I remember loving the beginning of the film. It really took off and then it went into a middle section of them trudging through caverns that seemed to go on forever.
If they had called it Journey to Atlantis maybe it would've gone better because then people would expect the journey as part of the movie. But when you talk about it as Atlantis the Lost Empire you can't help but think, "When are we going to get there?"
JS: `Are we there yet?'
TS: Now after the climax they're definitely good guys again, they're friendly, and now we get to use them. We weren't going to use all of them in every episode. We said, "That's silly, in a half hour they're going to have missions all over the world and we'll take who we need, whoever's best for any given story. Now who are the best pairings to give us comedy?" If there's a certain theme you'd use certain characters because they'd play out that theme better.
The series was going to be about Kida [an Atlantian princess] in our world trying to see how Atlantis affected the history of mankind. We thought with a little more animation we can make her question what they did was it right to bring this crystal out of Atlantis that her father had kept hidden for millennia? She's not sure she did the right thing by exposing it. The studio wanted us to make a few minutes of connecting animation "and then we did this." Instead we animated a considerable opening and connecting material, and actually re-storyboarded and reanimated some of the stuff that was already overseas just to make those themes work better.
JS: A more organic continuity.
When you watch the sequel you don't say, "What a great feature story," but you do slip into each adventure before you realize what's happening to you, the transitions are pretty smooth. Everyone had favorites of the three stories mine was the last one that featured two giants a frost giant and a fire demon. They could've come right out of the pages of [legendary Marvel Comics artist] Jack Kirby. We added some effects to them and they really were nice.
JS: Was the cancellation a catalyst in any way to your leaving Disney after close to 30 years?
No, it was just that I actually had one of the last term contracts in television animation. When I started at Disney, you assumed you were going to retire at Disney. The television division was started with the same feeling of, "Let's get the best people in the industry, sign them to contracts and keep them." That started slipping away with the artists, but you would still keep your directors, producers and story editors under contract, because they're your key people. But then the Animation division caught up to the rest of Hollywood.
I've been told Clint Eastwood uses the same crew on most of his movies. It doesn't mean he pays them a salary inbetween movies. They go out and get jobs, and then he gives them a call when he's doing another movie, and they come back.
The idea of carrying a crew on contract was an aberration. You can argue the pluses and minuses of it, but it used to be there was a show coming up and they'd say, "Oh, let's see if Tad is interested in working on this one." So even though I was trying to develop a science fiction show, Gary Krisel would come to me and say, "You've got the comedy and the adventure background, I want you to do the spin-off of Aladdin." It was in terms of casting: who would be great to do this?
Now that no longer happens, and you can argue, "What a waste of experience." On the other hand you can argue that television is made fresh new ideas. If you keep going back to the same people, are you getting the best ideas? I'd say that on the production side experience pays. On the creative side, I would hope I still have some stories to tell. I understand this is how things work now, and there's nothing to keep me from going back and pitching a show to Disney. If they take the show I would develop it, and if it goes, boom I'm back at Disney doing a show.
JS: No hard feelings leaving? It must've felt funny
I didn't leave right after Atlantis. I had a little more time on the contract where I developed some shows. And then because I had some shows action-adventure shows in contention for ABC Family they extended my contract another six months while they were waiting to see if those shows went. They claimed they wanted to do boys' action adventure, which means at the very least Jonny Quest, if not G.I. Joe or robots or Batman. But ultimately that's not what people are comfortable with, because the same people run ABC Family and the Disney Channel, and even though they're supposed to be putting on different hats what seemed to be happening is, "Let's make sure we get the most value out of these things, so if we put something on here, it can be played on ABC as well or maybe even on The Disney Channel."
I had six months to get those ideas through the process to a certain point, and then they weren't going to go forward. Then just before I left they gave me something else to develop. On the International Disney Channel, the standard Disney characters are much more popular than they are here.
JS: The comics are still huge in Europe.
International wanted to develop some things based on the earlier features, so I did a little development on a Robin Hood series.
That movie, when you look at it, was made by middle-aged men, and all the characters were middle-aged men. Robin Hood, frankly should have been more in his late teens or at most early twenties. I took the liberty to change some designs. The fox got a lot shorter, he got a lot closer to Ken Anderson's original designs and there was just a younger spirit to whole thing. There were a few new characters: Will Scarlet was brand new I think we made her "Willi," she was female. It was a nice mix, but it was pretty much a throwback to Disney Afternoon.
It wasn't like I always wanted to do another Disney Afternoon show, but there was a need and I stepped in to do it. Taste-wise, what I was really headed more toward was some of the stuff we did on Atlantis, where an adult could watch this and really be entertained. The idea of taking animation, and trying to get other emotions besides just laughs, not just saying, "Look, there's a scary house," but to make you feel the house is scary for a reason. To actually use filmmaking techniques. Nothing they were doing was going into the harder action adventure.
JS: You wanted to go in this direction, push the medium a little more.
Ironically my last project there was closest to my first stuff when I first came to the company working on The Rescuers. That's not necessarily what I'd like to do throughout my career.
We only got as far as the character designs and the series bible they didn't even take it to script. The design part was fun, which is paying off for me now because usually I'd do just enough to hand that off to somebody on my staff. Designing a character myself was a lot of fun.
JS: Between Scooby-Doo, Robin Hood and Brer Rabbit, you haven't really gotten away from the funny animals just yet. Do you have a dream project in your pocket, or are you just waiting to see what comes your way next?
My dream project would be in a word, Hellboy.
JS: The Animated Series.
Yeah. While everyone's trying to do primetime animated comedy, this is something different; this could be like X-Files. People didn't go for it, not because they didn't take it seriously, but in the early days of television you had half-hour dramas like Dragnet. In essence Hellboy would be a half-hour drama or a spooky story. The problem is what do you hook it up to, what's the other show that fills out the rest of the hour, because they think in terms of hour blocks. Maybe you could link it up with a half-hour fantasy comedy that they might be an interesting pairing, but they would see it as a huge risk.
I just loved what Mike Mignola did with the comic. I could see it easily as an animated film, so I did a teaser reel using images out of his comic with the word balloons Photoshopped out. I panned and scanned them to a music track. I got to work with Mike on the Atlantis series, and he's now got a copy of that little pitch reel.
Once I got his input I was going to go back to work on it, but then I found out that Universal had the rights to the character and my pitch reel went on the shelf. The rights went from Universal to Revolution. Gulliermo del Toro is very serious about bringing in an animated series. The movie is Gulliermo del Toro's Hellboy; he took the spirit of the comic and put it on the screen and changed it. It's very much an action thing, whereas the comic is mood and atmosphere. The movie is nonstop; in fact you definitely want to see it more than once just to take it all in.
But Gulliermo feels very strongly as I do that the series should be Mike Mignola's Hellboy. When I did the pitch reel, I put Mike's name above the title, because you shouldn't really make any changes to it, except to flesh out the comic stories to last a half hours. That's the challenge and the fun, and then you would do original stories too.
JS: You may still get your shot at it if the movie really clicks.
Well, Gulliermo is meeting with a Japanese studio in a week or two. He knows I'm interested. We've yet to have a serious meeting - we've chatted about it a little bit. I would love to be part of it, that's my current dream. I just want to make it clear that even though I've chatted with Gulliermo about it, working on that series is wishful thinking on my part. His feeling is American TV won't do it, so you produce it Japan and then bring it here. That way [Cartoon Network's] Adult Swim or an outlet like that can afford to buy a show that's already being made that they would never fund themselves. Because there's no point in putting it on Saturday morning, it wouldn't be Hellboy.
That's my dream project. If I can't do that then I'd love to have a project that in some way would make animation acceptable to adults but not necessarily just a comedy. There's plenty of projects I'm working on: finishing up a live-action fantasy script
JS: Would you like to move into live action? A lot of animation directors have been making that move.
It's almost more of a long-form writing sample to say I can write different things. When I started Brer Rabbit that slowed things down on my script obviously. It's hard to... I wrote a half-hour for Disney on assignment and that was easy. When somebody's counting on you and giving you a paycheck, you find the time, you bear down and you get it done. I finished that the weekend before I started here at Universal.
When you're working on your own project, you go home after a full day, and you think, "Oh yeah, I've got a couple of hours, I should get to work on that Oh, look what's on TV!" It's hard to sink back down and get to where you were on the story, and think through enough to start typing again.
That script is one of the things that's in my way now, because as soon as I finish that I can go back to trying to create some original shows to pitch around town.
JS: Do you ever feel like, "Oh gosh, I should have stayed in features, that's where the real prestige, the real action is?"
That was a much more soul-searching question two years ago when there was still a Features division. You could say, "I wish I'd stayed in features and then gotten out in time."
I don't know, there was a period when every feature came out I got depressed. It felt like, "Man, they're changing so much, they're going into new ground" - and these are my friends who are doing this `and creating an impact on popular culture.' But then, well what do you think television does? Especially now, fans of Darkwing Duck are in their twenties and coming into the industry, but they know the character.
I shrug. It's one of those things where the old Superman comic books used to have "imaginary stories." You'd get an alternate view of the universe: what if Superman did marry Lois Lane? You kind of want that, "Gee, what if I'd." I do know that the television system fit my personality in that I loved new inspiration. The idea of doing one story for four years is still hard for me to get my head around.
JS: Which would've come with the territory.
Exactly. When I started in features I wasn't aware of it then, but I really was moving from animation into story, then a chance to work at Imagineering, working in live-action and back to features. Then at TV where I stayed, my show changed every year and a half or so, and it consisted of a lot of different episodes. I really enjoyed the idea of waking up in the morning and saying, "I want to do a story about an invisible Eskimo; yeah, Darkwing fights the invisible Eskimo." You go to work, and lo and behold, you're spending a half a million dollars doing the story of the invisible Eskimo.
No one has that freedom anymore, because now there are plenty of people saying, "Mmm, invisible Eskimo, not so much. Let's try another story."
JS: That reminds me of what I've heard about Termite Terrace: those guys were left alone to make whatever came into their heads and wound up creating classics.
What I heard about Samurai Jack was that they trusted Genndy Tartakovsky with an idea that was really unusual, they liked what they saw and let him do it. They certainly gave notes but they didn't try to take his idea and say, "Yeah, okay, but we need more gags, and he needs a pet." In the Atlantis series we had to put in a pet. They wanted a dog or a cat, and we put in a reptilian beast, but it was one of those moments where I had to choose my battles.
My battle was I wanted a Lovecraftian squid creature eating people. If I had to put in a reptilian pet, not a problem, because I'm getting to do this story where the creature is being fed people to keep it appeased. You don't necessarily see it on the screen, but if you logically think it through you go, "ewww!" And even then, I still had to hold back from what I would've liked to have experimented with. The studio chose to go chose not to go with the original ending which I really loved and was much creepier, and replaced it with some much tamer. This was in the first third of the direct-to-video that we eventually made.
JS: Again, talking about the change where you now work project-to-project instead of being on staff. That reminds me of when the movie studios lost their theater chains in the 1950s and closed down their animation units as a result. Did something similar happen to change the paradigm in TV animation?
You could look at TV right now and say this is a golden age there's never been this much animation. But because there's no longer just three networks paying for it, the ad dollars are spread very, very thin. You no longer have the money to bankroll more ambitious projects. Syndication changed things drastically when Masters of the Universe, and then later on Duck Tales came along suddenly you had this undiscovered territory, this time in the afternoon where it's like, "Look at all this money these things are making - we can sell more cereal!"
Then they started creating Fox Kids and all these other networks. Suddenly syndication was dead, because all the strong stations were now owned by networks. They weren't looking to buy from you; they were looking to buy from their own company, or looking to get out of animation entirely. Suddenly you didn't quite have the market and then budgets started coming down because the only reason why the networks are showing animation is they're required to by the FCC as long as the animation has educational or social value and you can argue how well they do that. NBC would not have animation on right now otherwise. The WB is like the only broadcast network is capable of buying something first-run and putting it on. They'll take something that isn't based on a movie, like Xiaolin Showdown. That's an original concept they created and put on.
It used to be that ABC got the first choice and we would run a few episodes on the Disney Channel as like a favor to them. Now the Disney Channel is the central thing, and after they've run a season, Kim Possible then shifts to ABC broadcast. So the cable channel is the go-to place for the new stuff and then they share the wealth with ABC. The economics just work out that way.
Yet Still One More Darkwing Duck Question
JS: Talking about all these direct-to-video features, when are we going to see Darkwing Duck: The Movie?
A new group of executives came into TV animation, and it was like the era before "One Saturday Morning" [a Disney-produced umbrella series that ABC ran from 1997-2000] didn't exist. That was seen as old-fashioned Disney. You don't see a lot of funny animal shows, in the Carl Barks sensibility, on TV anymore. All their series have to have that FCC social commentary in them, which is very restricting on its own.
Now they're starting to do more interesting stuff in my book. I love Doug Langdale's Weekenders show. At the time it started I said, "Why are they doing this show, they've got shows just like it." But I've come to love those characters and the sensibility of them. Now they're trying Kim Possible, Lilo and Stitch as a different kind of spin-off, not ignoring the old Disney characters.
We're never going to see a Darkwing direct-to-video because if you gave the people in charge of home video clues without saying his name, I'm not sure if they could even recognize who you're talking about. There's also people waiting for a Rescue Rangers movie, by the way.
I'm looking at doing some different things in animation that take me away from that kind of stuff. I enjoyed Darkwing at the time. I'm sure could get back into it, but I'm kind of going in different directions, not necessarily Brer Rabbit, but with Atlantis, there are tales to tell there.
But who knows? If I went back and pitched the Darkwing Movie, if I hit the right ears, I could say `look at all these superhero movies, look at all the money Hellboy made, they're doing a new Batman, sounds to me like the time to do a Darkwing Duck.
JS: We have to wrap up now. Thanks for your time and giving me the story behind the stories.
I hope I didn't make too many errors.
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.