The Purpose of That X-Chromosome

by Heather Kenyon

Hey Monie introduces the first network animated series based on an African-American woman and her friends. © Oxygen Media. All rights reserved.

In 1998 when Geraldine Laybourne, the creative spark behind children's powerhouse Nickelodeon, decided to start her own cable network dedicated to the needs and views of women, the buzz was incredible. A true media company for the new century, Oxygen Media began with a collection of Websites focusing on issues ranging from parenting and health to money and home repairs as they pertain to women. The Oxygen cable network launched on February 2, 2000 (Get it? 02/02/00) through a U.S. cable operator, MediaOne, to over 1 million subscribers, and offers a variety of diverse programming, all focused toward meeting women's unique needs and presenting their point of view. Backed by a promotional partnership with America Online, and partnered with Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner, Caryn Mandabach and Oprah Winfrey, Oxygen quickly proved that it was anything but kid's stuff, and everyone in the industry kept an ear out for the latest developments.

New Voices
Kit Laybourne, Oxygen's Head of Animation and Special Projects, in keeping with the company's overall vision, vowed to create animated programming predominately by women, for women. Our Stories hit the Website in late June 1999 with the tag line, "Your Stories + Our Technology" and brought short minuets of real women telling stories and experiences recreated using different mixed media. They were short, funny, insightful, brilliant little bits. They are also addicting. (I dare you to go to today and watch just one.) In early June the cable channel's first primetime animated series for women and about women, X-Chromosome had been announced and a few early pilots went into production. Based on the quality of Our Stories, anticipation was running high. "Our goal is to create the first animated television series for women, exploring issues from a female point of view. We also wanted to build an outlet specifically for female animators, whose distinctive voices will help us develop a unique Oxygen animation style and outlook," said Geraldine Laybourne at the announcement.

Now this sounds like one of those promises that never comes true. However, in this lucky case, X-Chromosome has come true, and has flourished under Kit Laybourne and executive producer Machi Tantillo, who came to the upstart company after six years at MTV Networks. She left as the Director of MTV Animation, co-supervising the production of MTV's animated series, features, specials and shorts. The half-hour show combines a mix of 3 to 7 minute segments into a variety type show. "It was conceived as a place to incubate new ideas and new talent," explains Kit Laybourne. "We think it is important because animation has been an area of programming that has allowed a number of different cable companies to break out -- things like Beavis and Butthead, Nickelodeon with all the Nick Toons and Comedy Central with South Park has proven this."

A fresh form of portraiture, the Drawn from Life series communicates that the ordinary can be extraordinary. © Oxygen Media. All rights reserved.

Produced in a number of different styles the stories all have one thread in common -- they are sincere stories that come straight from the heart. "The biggest part of it is, when we pick a pitch we believe it is expressing what Oxygen wants to express to women through animation," explains Tantillo. "Is this character relatable? Is this what the creator is looking to do and does it reflect Oxygen's vision? What comes first in our mind is the story, the voice and the point of view of the lead character. The style of the animation? We just want to make sure it is doing a service to the story."

In the same vein as Our Stories, X-Chromosome segments feel as though they have been done by one woman in her living room, using a style that she has just kind of "made up." Now that isn't saying that the shows look unprofessional, rather they just aren't what one would expect from a slick media company that is on a schedule. These aren't your typical cartoons and they aren't your usual subject matter. Before sitting down to X-Chromosome be prepared to laugh, cringe, be embarrassed and cry. "The Oxygen team is small and so is the show's creative team, usually just a writer and director, so it is very intimate and direct. We aren't weaving through notes from 20 million different filters," says Tantillo. The results are shows that are lively, fresh and pertinent to today's viewing audience. Tantillo laughs, "I've watched shows with people and they are actually talking to the television. They jump up and yell, 'What are you doing that for?' which is a really good sign!"

New Style
But X-Chromosome does more than give a voice to the female experience. It is subtly introducing an array of animation styles to the U.S. viewing audience. Let's look at the production process for just a few of the segments. The Ruth Truth started as an animated on-line series and made its TV debut on X-Chromosome on Saturday, July 15, 2000. The show chronicles the adventures of Ruth Decker, an actress/comedian who lands a job working undercover for a detective agency that specializes in busting vendors who traffic in counterfeit designer goods, and is based on the life of the writer and lead actress Sheila Head. The series won's World Internet Animation Competition's awards for Grand Prize, best in all categories and the best "Mixed-Media" produced for the Web. The show uses Jen Taylor and Randy Lowenstein's new technique to morph one still image into another to tell the story. The duo developed a system that combines photos and vectors to create a new form of animation in which the outlines of photo-painted elements are morphed into each other. This technique is now a patent pending system called Liquid Lines.


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