Interview with Awesome Cartoon Creator Craig Bartlett!
By Justin Shenkarow
Justin Shenkarow is an Emmy Award winning actor. He’s been doing voice-overs and animation voices as well as on camera acting for over 20 years. For more info on Justin, please visit his website at www.justinshenkarow.com. You can reach him at Justin@justinshenkarow.com or 310-867-1072
A native of Seattle, Craig Bartlett began his career in Portland, Oregon at Will Vinton Studios, where he learned the art of 3-D stop-motion animation working on feature films and commercials. Bartlett relocated to Los Angeles in 1987 to work on CBS’ “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” as the Director/Animator of the show’s “Penny” cartoon segment. He continued to create clay animated films – three of which starred a kid with a football-shaped head named Arnold.
A stint as Story Editor and Director for the first season of “Rugrats” introduced him to Nickelodeon, where he pitched the pilot of “Hey Arnold!” in 1994. “Hey Arnold!” went into production in 1995 and ran for 103 episodes until 2002, the series culminating in “Hey Arnold! The Movie” for Nick Movies/Paramount. “Hey Arnold!” reached over 40 million viewers a month in over 80 countries. Since then, Bartlett has written and directed “Party Wagon,” a TV movie for Cartoon Network, and several other feature scripts and pilots, including “The Jinx” for Nick Movies/Paramount and “Unstable Fables: The Three Little Pigs” for The Jim Henson Company.
The idea for “Dinosaur Train” had a long gestation – Bartlett first thought of the concept when his son Matt was 3 years old and was simultaneously playing with trains and dinosaurs (Matt is now attending college). Bartlett felt that the time was finally ripe when he was settled in at the Jim Henson Company, and Linda Simensky moved to PBS. Everyone joined forces to develop “Dinosaur Train” in 2007. The pilot was made in spring 2008, and ordered for series in October. Bartlett is currently producing the 40-half-hour order.
Justin: Craig, how do you get into creating cartoons?
Craig: I wanted to be an animator since I was in college. I finished up college in Olympia and decided to do animation. The whole goal for someone getting into animation is to have your own show. It was always in the back of my mind. I was working as a clay animator in Portland, and even then I was making my own cartoon shorts. I came down to L.A to do the Penny cartoons for “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.” They were 3D claymation, but they were flat on glass. The first “Hey Arnold” shorts were clay on glass. I made one for “Sesame Street” and two for an independent short festival. I said, “I’ll come up with a character and then build a cartoon show around it.” Harold and Helga are also in the original characters. Harold didn’t have a voice then, he had to wait until you came along.
Justin: What was the process like to take Hey Arnold from the inception of an idea in claymation to actually having it on Nickelodeon?
Craig: It was a really long road. I made the shorts in claymation in 1990. Paul Germain (for a list of Paul’s credits: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0314480/) hired me to be the story editor for the first season on “Rugrats.” That was really crucial because I learned writing and story editing. I would write scripts and story edit other peoples scripts. The story piece is really important. In the early 90’s, I had these shorts, and I started doing Arnold comics for Simpson Illustrated. I think in the summer of ’93 I finally pitched Arnold as a cartoon show. It was when Mary Harrington (for a list of Mary’s credits: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0364316/) was running the West coast animation division. She told me that she wanted me to develop the “Hey Arnold” pilot with her. I had Joe Ansolabehere (for a list of Joe’s credits: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0030651/) and Steve Viksten (for Steve’s credits: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0897267/) help me write the pilot and we finished it in the summer of ‘94. We did the pilot in the spring of ’94. When you came back, Justin, in 1995 to start voicing the series, your voice had finally cracked and sounded more grown-up. But, it was cool because it was even better for the character of Harold.
Justin: That was right after my Bar Mitzvah.
Craig: Exactly! And then we had to make an episode about that. It was a several year process making Arnold into a series. I thought, ‘Arnold’s my own character, and hopefully someday I can make it into a show.’ However, while I was developing it, I was learning to write stories which helped enhance the show.
Justin: Can you tell us about the new project you’ve got coming out on PBS?
Craig: I can, “Dinosaur Train” on PBS will be airing in the morning, during their preschool timeslot. It starts airing on Labor Day. They ordered 40 half-hours, which is an incredibly huge order. They ordered it back in October right as the economy was collapsing. We did the math and thought, ‘we have 11months,’ and we were like ‘sure, we can do this.’ Since then we’ve been completely hair on fire. We’ve been in post the last few months, scoring shows. It breaks down into 80 eleven minute cartoons. We always have to come up with filler because PBS runs about 28 minutes versus a traditional 22 minutes on Nickelodeon and other networks. PBS airs more because they don’t show commercials. So, we have a live action segment after each cartoon with Paleontologist Dr. Scott who comes on and talks about what the real dinosaurs were like.
Justin: That’s cool.
Craig: We’re doing it all at once and just now delivering our first 8 half hours. Considering we started in October, it’s pretty impressive.
Justin: That’s amazing. How did you come up with “Dinosaur Train”, what was the process like, how did it go from the idea to selling it?
Craig: It was an even longer process than Arnold. I made the first Arnold shorts in the late ‘80s, and it went on TV in October of ’96. I was working on Arnold; my son Matt was about 3 or 4, and he’d make up Dinosaur names. He had big piles of Dinosaurs and big piles of trains, and I’d watch him put his Dinosaurs on his trains and ride them around. I said to my wife, if I came up with a show that put Dinosaurs on Trains, I’d have all 4 year old’s watching it. It was such a simple concept. I’ll put Dinosaurs on a Train and they’ll ride around and learn Dinosaur facts, and that’s what 4 year olds are into. When I thought about it, I had just started Hey Arnold, and I did that for 6 years. When I was doing that, I became friends with Linda Simensky (for a list of Linda’s credits: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1066569/), and she heads up programming for PBS kids. Linda went from Nick to Cartoon Network, so when I finished up Arnold, I followed Linda over to Cartoon. We did some stuff there, like I did a TV movie and other projects. I was bummed when she left Cartoon Network and went to PBS. I said that at PBS you’re going to be doing preschool, and I have a preschool show I’ve always wanted to do called “Dinosaur Train”. She said let me settle in there and when I have the lay of the land, I’ll call you, and we’ll try to develop it. She actually did; she called me a year and a half later and was like remember that show “Dinosaur Train”. I was so thrilled because development execs never remember your projects. It was really cool. I met Linda on “Rugrats,” and we’ve known each other for about 19 years. I started the idea of “Dinosaur Train” when my son Matt was born and now he’s in his second year of college.
Let me say something about the development process: we’re always mad when years go by and you finally get a pilot made; on the other hand, the positives are that we have a lot of time to think it over. I thought about “Dinosaur Train” for a while and I got to flush it out. Also, I think with it now coming on TV, the 3D animation that we’re doing has real advantages for “Dinosaur Train” because you build the 3Dimensional Train, and a 3D Train looks way more convincing than one in 2D. The 3D technology is so much better than it was even 5 years ago and certainly tremendously better than 15 years ago when I first thought of the idea, so it’s great that’s it happening now and not back then.
Justin: I saw a little bit of “Dinosaur Train” when I came to see you guys the other day, and it looks amazing. I’ve never seen anything that looks so clear and beautiful.
Craig: I agree the lighting of it is very whimsical. It’s all forests, volcanoes, trees, skies and water. It’s lit so convincingly and the textures are so beautiful that I think that 4 years old are going to think it’s real and are going to want Dinosaur’s for a pet.
It’s really great; I’m thrilled with the way it looks. It’s all credit to Terri Izumi who’s my art director and over-seeing the art direction in Singapore.
Justin: How do you see the animation industry changing?
Craig: It’s changed a couple times since I first started. When I first started in animation, the new era of the 90’s was Nicktoons. The old animation was “GI Joe” and “Smurfs,” where it had to be a toy before it could be a show. The president of Nick when I started wanted to make original cartoons that weren’t toys. She demanded that something new was created, and that’s how ”Rugrats” came about. The ‘90’s was very creative driven, and a lot of original cartoons were produced. The creators loved it, and it was super creative, very fun, and personal. We’d write emotionally about our lives. It was sort of a nod to Charlie Brown, and I’d have to say that the “Charlie Brown Christmas Special” was the most influential show of my childhood.
Justin: Did you know that I did the voice of Charlie Brown for 2 years.
Craig: That’s awesome! The voice work on “Hey Arnold” was very important and we used real kids, and it gave us realism. I loved working with the kids voices and when you guys got into your characters, you’d come in with ideas and you were the characters, and that really informed the work and made the writing really fun. Franny led the rest of the group, because the whole show was about Helga’s tortured genius.
Now, we’re in this era where money is a lot tighter, it’s a lot harder to get something green-lit, things are more corporate, and people are more scared to pull the trigger. Now, when you do it, you have to do it with a quarter the crew, a third as much time and about half as much money. You’re doing it faster, cheaper, and more of it than ever before. I’m writing 80 half hour scripts from October till September 10th. It’s twice as fast as I did “Hey Arnold,” and it’s just me and Joe Purdy (for a list of Joe’s credits: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0700834/) and some freelancers. I like writing the key episodes, like the one where we introduce the new neighbors. Now, I’m writing the final drafts we’re recording at the end of the week, and I like to do the last draft so it goes through my computer and I can oversee everything. It works out that we’re doing about eight shows a month, which is crazy. What’s good about this era is that you’re constantly writing and working. The kids that are doing “Dinosaur Train” are really excited about their characters, and now we’re doing it twice as fast with twice the volume. We’re just jamming.
Justin: What tips do you have for people to try and break into the industry now?
Craig: It’s hard but the good news is that if you get in now, you won’t have the expectations that you had in the 90’s where everyone was working whether it was good or bad. It’s a good time for people to learn animation themselves on their desktop and build their characters and cartoons from there and make their own shorts. You can create your own sensibility and your own tone. You can do your own voice work and do your own music. I did the same thing; I shot my own “Hey Arnold” claymation shorts so people could know where I was coming from. But, I had to shoot mine on film.
Justin: When you did it, it was much harder than now.
Craig: I shot my shorts on 35 millimeter and 16 millimter film.
Justin: Any final thoughts or tips?
Craig: Watch “Dinosaur Train” coming Labor Day. It’s a small, small world and between the two us we probably know everyone in the industry. So, what goes around comes around, you really see that, and keep those relationships going. It’s really nice that we were all good friends on “Hey Arnold” and we can hang out and be friends now It was a good nurturing relationship. The kids that we have “Dinosaur Train” we feel the same way about. It’s tough when you’re a 12 year old boy because that’s a really hard time in your life, so I try really hard to make it great for them, and someday when they’re in their 20’s they’ll say “Hey Remember me” like you guys from “Hey Arnold” do!