Craig Bartlett's Charmed Past Life

by Joe K. Bevilacqua

Craig Bartlett. Photo © BRC Imagination Arts.

Craig Bartlett's career has been like one long free-fall from a plane and he has been enjoying every minute of it. The talented creator of Nickelodeon's successful Hey Arnold! animated series did not start out to be an animator but the many twists and turns of his life led him there, nonetheless.

With dreams of being a fine arts painter, Bartlett studied for three years at the Museum School in Portland, Oregon. He then studied for a year in Siena, Italy. Upon returning to the States he realized he did not want to be a painter after all. He suddenly realized he was more interested in animation. "I was seeing these Tournees of Animation," he explains, "Whole 90-minute programs of independent shorts and they were really creative. They were like paintings that moved. I thought that would be much more fun. It was turning out that my true calling was to be a storyteller, more than a painter. That's what I loved about animation. It is where the two things come together, art and story." After some more soul searching, he enrolled in the animation program at Evergreen State College, Olympia, Washington in 1981.

Places to Start
Barlett's first job after graduation was at Will Vinton Productions in Portland, Oregon. Bartlett says, "I spent 6 years there; two working on The Adventures of Mark Twain and a year on Walter Murch's Return to Oz, which was a Disney production. There were some really cool claymation effects that I did in that film." Around the same time Vinton's California Raisins were at the height of their popularity, Bartlett's next Vinton assignment was doing the Noid commercials for Dominos Pizza. It was a busy time for Claymation. Vinton had never been so successful and famous. Just as Bartlett began to think he had found a permanent home, his life took another turn.

Arnold in the clay short, The Arnold Waltz (1990). Photo courtesy and © Craig Bartlett.

"Pee Wee's Playhouse came on CBS and I really wanted to go and be a part of that," says Bartlett. "I thought, `That looks like the most fun show ever.' The mix they had. The different kinds of media. All kinds of animation." Bartlett put together a reel of claymation and sent it to the producers of Pee Wee's Playhouse who called him in because they were moving the show from New York, where Pee Wee had its first season, to Los Angeles. They had lost a lot of their crew and needed someone to direct the Penny cartoon, a featured segment of the Pee Wee show. So he dropped everything and said, "Yeah!"

"It's funny," he reflects. "That was really a turning point for me because I really had a great time at Will's and I loved being in Portland. It felt like home, since I am from the Northwest." But Bartlett knew that if he was really going to develop professionally and creatively, he had to move beyond Will Vinton. He knew he had to go to Los Angeles, where "anything is possible." So he moved to L.A. for the summer of 1987 to direct a season of Penny. The next year, in the spring of 1988, he and his wife moved permanently.

A Real Change of Events
During his first year with Pee Wee's Playhouse, a friend introduced him to Bob Rogers, whose company is now called BRC Imagination Arts. Rogers' specialty is World's Fair exhibition films. "Well, I got there and he saw my reel," Bartlett remembers. "He knew that I had done [Penny] and all I had on my reel were the little Arnold shorts I'd made on my own animation stand in my house. Actually, at that time I had only made one Arnold short in the summer of 1988 when I was unemployed. I think I had just moved to L.A. permanently and I had one week's work guaranteed when I got here. I shot a commercial and then I was just wandering around, trying to figure out what I was going to do now that I lived here." Bartlett entered that first Arnold short, Arnold Escapes from Church, in the 21st International Tournee of Animation, remembering that it was seeing the Tournees years before that had made him want to be animator in the first place.

Craig on location in Botswana for the filming of Postcards (left) and in Paris with the star of the film (right).

After seeing Bartlett's reel, Bob Rogers invited him to create a 70mm, IMAX size film for Expo '90 in Osaka, Japan. The big pavilion show would feature a musical, technological pre-show where Toshiba robots create animation. Since Bartlett had done a lot of table top animation, Rogers wanted him first to shoot a reference film that would have small scale models of the robots and pose them through animatics. Bartlett worked on the test film for the entire summer of 1989, then all through the next year doing the production. The end result was Robo Show, a 7-minute animated film that was taken to Osaka, Japan and installed with the real Toshiba robots. Bartlett calls it "some kind of crazy smoke and mirrors illusion thing with the robots hooked up with our illusion film."

"There I am in Japan for ten weeks, in the middle of winter. It was freezing. I was on the site of this insane World's Fair. It was particularly phantasmagorical." The theme of Expo '90 was flowers and ecology, so the pavilions were shaped like huge flower buds. Bartlett was very impressed with this "futuristic paradise." He felt as if the Japanese were already living in the 21st century. He loved how independent they were, that they had cartoons all their own.

A Few More Twists
In the summer of 1990, when Bartlett returned to the States it would not be long before he was working again. This time for a show that was just starting up through Nickelodeon's fledlging animation division, at a studio called Klasky Csupo. The show was Rugrats. Paul Germain, one of the show's creators, hired him as the story editor. "This was quite a stretch," he acknowledges. "I hadn't really written for TV and wasn't really familiar with the whole script thing. But Paul helped me a lot and the two of us story edited that first season. Eventually, I directed a couple of episodes. Through him I met several other writers, who I ended up working with on other projects and eventually on Hey Arnold! when I got that show."

Craig and Doug Miller discussing the storyboards for Mystery Lodge (top) and on the set of Mystery Lodge with Bill Cranmer (Cultural Advisor for the film and Hereditary Chief of the Kwakwaka'wakw tribe) and Bob Rogers. Photo © BRC Imagination Arts.

In 1992, Bob Rogers called upon Bartlett again, this time for a film for Expo '92 in Seville, Spain. The client was the Basque government. The Basque country is a small area on the northeast corner of Spain wedged against France. Rogers, Bartlett and a crew scouted for about 10 days all over the Basque countryside. They then put together an outline and pitched it to the Basque government.

"Mind you, these pavilion projects are all short films, 7 to 14 minutes," Bartlett explains. "It's weird to see people get in a big line, and queue up and slowly get into the place. That's why they have pre-shows. It's a long wait for a seven-minute cartoon. The whole idea of these special venue films is they've got some sort of new format or some unusual presentation so people feel like they are watching more than a film. That's what Bob specializes in."

The Basque film, Mi Pias Vasco, was live-action and shot with an IWERKS 360-degree camera. It is one "huge fish eye" lens that is the size of "a big spaghetti bowl" that points straight down. The lens is so wide it sees 12 degrees beyond a normal camera's peripheral view, over scanning behind itself. Pointing down, it can partially see upward. Bartlett went around Spain with this camera and shot the story of a child touring his homeland and talking about his country. "This boy has got this crazy camera and he is taking it around the Basque country on a family vacation. The idea was to go to as many great locations in Spain as possible as if this kid was taking you along."

Bartlett's background in animation did not prepare him for such a wild shoot: "It was so weird. I had to learn everything. The first thing we had to figure out was where to hide while we shot the film. So, often I was under the camera, on the ground, huddled inside the tripod. It was really fun. We quickly learned that in a 360 degree film, you concentrate on the near and far. So I would have the kid that was the star of the film close to the camera and the other people in the middle distance ten feet away. I would have things miles away. We put the camera on boats and in cars, hanging from cranes, and made it as insane as we could. I also under-cranked the camera for a lot of fast-motion stuff. It was meant to be just funny, like a kid's home movie." When the film premiered in Seville, Bartlett returned to Spain for the screening at the Expo '92 pavilion.

Craig Bartlett hard at work on Hey Arnold! Photo © Nickelodeon.

Stranger and Stranger...
Next, he continued his association with Bob Rogers, although he had an open invitation to return to Rugrats. Rogers hired Bartlett to direct a nine-camera film, similar to the CircleVision films at Disneyland. The film, named "Postcards," was sponsored by Korean Air for Expo '93 in Taejon, Korea. It took a full year from pre-production to completion and was shot in seven countries on a budget of US $4 million. "We just went nuts," Bartlett recalls. "We traveled all over the world for a year -- Korea, Paris, France, Botswana, South Africa, Grand Canyon, Canadian Rockies, Bali and Rio de Janeiro at Carnival. Completely filled up our passports." It was, however, intense and grueling work. Bartlett would hit the ground in some new country, set up and start scouting or shooting. He quickly got used to air travel and falling asleep on planes. The Taejon Festival played the summer and fall of 1993.

After that Rogers put Bartlett on his next project for the Southern Californian amusement park, Knotts Berry Farm. Another pavilion show, Mystery Lodge has become a permanent exhibit at Knotts. Mystery Lodge is based on a pavilion show Rogers had done for Expo '86 in Vancouver, Canada called Spirit Lodge. The story is based on the culture of the northwest coastal Indians, the Kwakwaka'xwakw who lived on the northern end of Vancouver Island in the town of Alert Bay. For the new film, Rogers went back to the same Native American advisors he had worked with before. Bartlett and Rogers went to the island in the fall of 1993 and visited with the chiefs of the tribe, took notes, attended Indian ceremonies and worked up a script for Mystery Lodge.

The illusion of the show involves an old Indian who comes on the stage, which resembles a big house made of cedar logs. There is a fire in the middle of the room. As the old native tells his story, the smoke of the fire starts to illustrate it. Bartlett created the special effects film that appears to rise out of the smoke using BRC Imagination Arts Holavision 3D system. Mystery Lodge went into production in the fall of 1993 and opened in late May on Memorial Day 1994.

Arnold, Helga, and Gerald in their current Nickelodeon incarnation, Hey Arnold! © Nickelodeon.

How We Know Him Now
In the meantime, in the spring of 1994, Bartlett developed a pilot with Nickelodeon called Hey Arnold! Bartlett says, "I think that was quite a stretch for Nickelodeon to believe this could be a series. By then I had three shorts to show them. The second film was called The Arnold Waltz and the third was called Arnold Rides His Chair. All three were for the 22nd, 23rd, 24th International Tournees of Animation. The third one was also for Sesame Street and it played a lot." Bartlett was also able to convince Nickelodeon of the merits of an animated Arnold by showing executives the Arnold comics he had drawn for Simpson's Illustrated. He believes it was "pretty cool of them, based on three little claymation shorts and some comics to think, `This could be a series.' I am very glad they made that leap of faith."

"In the ten years I have been in L.A. there were several moments when somebody really gave me a chance," he notes. "I think when Klasky Csupo hired me to be a story editor, that was taking a chance. Things that Bob told me to do, like, `Hey, go to Spain and do a live-action film,' even though I'd never done anything like that in my life. And when I brought my films to Nickelodeon and they told me to develop the Hey Arnold! pilot."

A great deal of change and development happened when Arnold went to series. The pilot had to establish not only who Arnold was but also classmates Helga and Gerald. Bartlett sees Arnold as a sensitive kind of daydreaming kid. His best friend Gerald helps him fill that roll while Helga is his nemesis who secretly loves him. For Bartlett, the challenge of the series was trying to figure out who the characters were and getting deeper and deeper into their personalities. "By now I think our characters have really cool layers, especially Helga. She is really complicated. The more you know her, the more you understand her and like her. I don't think she is a heavy at all."

By January of 1995, the Hey Arnold! series was in production, placing Bartlett back in the Nickelodeon family but this time heading up his own series. He has been there ever since. "I don't know how long this thing will go. I suspect it will end up having a seven or eight year run, if you can believe it. It will end up being the major job of my life."

Perhaps. Or perhaps Craig Bartlett will free-fall yet again and land in yet another magical place. If he does, there's little doubt he'll be ready to make the most out of it. "There was no way to know that any of the experiences that I had before would help. But I think they do. I just think that in a way -- maybe in the best way -- all those World's Fair films helped me. They made me think, `Man if I can do this, I can do anything.'"

Joseph K. Bevilacqua, a protege of Daws Butler (the voice of Yogi Bear), is a veteran radio comedy writer, producer, actor, as well as cartoonist. His programs have aired on public radio stations nationwide since 1980 and have been honored by The Museum of Television and Radio as part of their "Contemporary Radio Humor" exhibits. He is currently developing animation scripts with his wife and creative partner, Lorie B. Kellogg. Their comedy can be heard in RealAudio and seen in comic strips on their web site, "Joe & Lorie's Comedy-O-Rama."

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