On February 7th, an overflow crowd of New York animators, students and fans packed a School of Visual Arts screening room for a rare behind-the-scenes look at Cartoon Network's pilot-making process, hosted by ASIFA East. Heather Kenyon, the network's Senior Director of Development (and former Animation World Network editor) was on hand to present nine pilots, only one of which - Everett Peck's SQUIRREL BOY -- eventually made it to air.
The first and last pilots shown were created by SpongeBob movie director Aaron Springer and starred 'Periwinkle,' a globe-trotting, Mr. Bean-ish platypus whose naïve enthusiasm inevitably resulted in disaster. The 2-minute shorts were created for the fast-growing mobile content market, "a huge thing for us," according to Kenyon.
Tom Warburton's Kenny and the Chimp had the title characters wreaking havoc in a clueless scientist's laboratory. (When Kenny is exposed to swine flu, his head immediately turns into a piggy bank.) The cartoon proved to be a precursor to Kids Next Door, with that series' immediately recognizable characters design already in full bloom.
Another precursor was 1996's LARRY AND STEVE from FAMILY GUY creator Seth MacFarlane, made for the network's early "What a Cartoon!" pilot series. The title characters, a self-assured total moron and his intellectual dog had previously starred in MacFarlane's college project and ultimately evolved into FAMILY GUY's similarly-voiced Peter and Brian Griffin.
New York, independent animator-style came from Fran and Will Krause's Utica Cartoon, The minimalist 'toon, set in upstate New York, featured a funny-animal quartet pulling out all the stops to win a hotdog-eating contest.
Mark O'Hare's JEFFREY CAT followed a feline police detective unraveling a mystery, DRAGNET-style in a world mixing funny animals, a slobbering pet dog and human beings.
The pilot for Everett Peck's SQUIRREL BOY came next. After the screening, Kenyon explained how testing the show with its target audience helped it evolve into the series that eventually aired. (Changes included giving squirrel Rodney a new voice, clarifying his relationship with his young owner and soft-pedaling the father's antipathy towards the pushy rodent.)
A pilot for DC superhero PLASTIC MAN came from CLONE WARS character designer Andy Suriano. The cartoon was more REN AND STIMPY than JUSTICE LEAGUE, full of extreme reactions and splattery design. Kenyon revealed its title was one reason it didn't go to series: kids perceive plastic as hard and rigid, not loose and stretchy.
POWERPUFF GIRLS director John McIntrye's WELCOME TO WACKAMO featured the slapstick travails of a put-upon, funny-animal family man. (Perhaps intentionally, a major gag involving a refrigerator and an endless outdoor flight of stairs evoked memories of Laurel and Hardy's famous short THE MUSIC BOX.)
After the screening Kenyon fielded questions regarding Cartoon Network's methods of choosing and developing projects. Given the backgrounds of the pilots' creators, it was no surprise that previous credentials played a major part. She described an eight-month process of "yellow-lighting" pilots, storyboarding and running them past a five-member 'creative council' of network big shots. Kenyon outlined what she looks for in pitches, beginning with "funny is good" and going on to list a mini-bible for a series featuring some drawings, a one-paragraph description of each main character, and "three to five story ideas, each with a beginning, middle and end."
Kenyon cautioned against submitting monkey-based shows, noting that Cartoon Network already had two monkey stars on air (MY GYM PARTNER'S A MONKEY and CAMP LAZLO), or anything featuring clowns: "clowns are never funny."
- reported by Joe Strike