GoH interview: Chris Savino and Ursula Vernon [FC 2013]
Q: Could you give us a brief introduction?
Chris: [...rattles off storyboarding, animation, writing and directing credits for shows noted in his Wikipedia article, including Rocko's Modern Life, Ren & Stimpy, Dexter's Lab and The Powerpuff Girls...], written a few episodes of My Little Pony, which is probably what some of you care about - it's so cool to see people who appreciate what you've done; we're so sheltered by TV, we never get to see you, so for all of you, the full house.
Ursula: Ursula Vernon, artist and author; did finally finish the webcomic Digger, which won the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Series . . . I do a series for children called Dragonbreath, 8-12ish, I also do a lot of art, I do furry art, I go to furry conventions, I love you people man . . . *applause* . . . and that's sot of what I do.
Sprout: So Chris, you've done a lot of awesome TV shows, so what exactly have you done for each of those throughout your career?
Chris: Currently some of you may know I'm branding my own idea, Bigfoot & Gray: On the Run; either live action, or books, or comics - trying to build up a following for it, and right over here is [Carl Furillow?], who plays Bigfoot in the live action version - show them your shirt - it's fading, you can tell he plays them a lot.
I guess I'll start at four, drawing Peanuts from the comics pages; if I lost my right arm I'd not be able to do anything else . . . I was lucky enough at 19 to get a job on Ren and Stimpy. Coming from MI, I was probably the only cartoonist in a 50-mile radius, got brought here to . . . realise I didn't know a god-damn thing. So now you start over, I was lucky enough to get a job on Rocko's Modern Life as a designer, just looking over shoulders and never content with the job. I did my job, but I was always curious, and now I'm 20 years from then meeting people I know; you have to make friends, really good connections - there's some really talented people who have a hard time finding jobs with their personality. I try to help people out like Dom DeLuise[?] did, give them design packets from shows so they can copy like I copied
I feel like I don't have a style twenty-three years on, but people say "that's a Christ Savino". I really wanted to do storyboards, Rocko's had no room, [...], so I was accepted into the fold of Dexter's Lab. I was told "you're not going to get the job because Andy and Craig only hire people from CalArts", and I wasn't, but I got the job, I . . . I thinking this was my chance, they were very open with what we were learning, . . . so my curiosity was 100% piqued, so that led to me running the later seasons of Dexter's, Powerpuff Girls, and [...] it's the people you meet who will give you the jobs . . . currently at Nickelodeon where I've been given an overall deal to be on the team to develop new shows at 2013, 14, 15 - there are some really awesome things coming - and hopefully I get a raise from them.
Ursula: It's actually kinda a funny story, or at least random. I had no interest, I even did a painting "Why I don't do childrens's books" [gory sequel] consisting of a hamster with a butcher's knife gesturing. Then through a strange series of events, Sabrina Jeffries, big historical romance author, she was at a dinner one day and told an anecdote about a weird artist friend she knows. The agent sitting next to her asked: Does she do graphic novels? Those are kinda hot right now.
She goes home, "Agent wants to see your stuff", she says "do you want an agent?" - "What would I do with an agent?" - "That's not what someone says when they say they'll get you an agent". They called me up and say "do you have representation", I had no idea, "I stay home and paint hamsters". "Let's try again. Do you have an agent? I am now your agent (I had to go back and confirm this), can you do a children's graphic novel about this?" I don't want them to get bored; "can I have six weeks?" The agent said "let's give you eight", and I did this little short story with paintings of shrews, and now I am living the illustrator's dream, sitting in a room where you have someone slipping food and money under the door. So I do children's books now because they started paying me to do it against all odds.
Sprout: So you had a sign, 'Will animate for food'?"
Chris: I never did a single bit of animation in my life!
Sprout: Rabbi Robot, coming soon to Toys"R"Us.
Sprout: You have those masks - not the ones on your altar in your dark dark place, but in your house.
Ursula: Yeah, one of these things I collect, Barong masks, a legitimate collection, from Indonesia . . . so they're these really hideous looking fangy, toothy masks, and carved out of woods, people wear them in rituals - lions and dogs and eagles and they have ducks and [...] I think they're really cool. As interior décor they're a little startling to people, and I have a lot of them now.
Q: Do you wear them?
Ursula: You can wear them, but there are things you have to look at in the mouth, and there are not may opportunities for me to get into ritual Balinese dance in north Carolina.
Chris: I have a question: Do two barongs make up a right?
Q: Do you come up with these beforehand?
Ursula: That was a purely spontaneous dreadful pun.
Sprout: I like how Kevin was nodding vigorously to me at the amount of masks.
Ursula People put 'em on eBay after getting them on vacation and they're like $15-70 and all of a sudden I have like 30.
Q: Most people might not realise this but you have a crazy food blog
Ursula: Kevin and Ursula Eat Cheap, the long-suffering man in the front who's podcast . . . and it lasts an hour and we eat really bad packaged food. We branched out from ramen into weird frozen foods, and fans started sending us stuff, so we've eaten haggis in a can . . . accompanied by some very good beer and hard cider. Sofawolf sponsors it, sometimes it is a lot of fun, sometimes a gruelling death march; sometimes we're just take a bite and then another to confirm it's terrible, and are like "nobody should eat that".
Q: What's it like to direct an animated TV show?
Chris: For TV? I mentioned early that I'm very [...]; I did grow up thinking I wanted to do feature films, and I quickly realized you could be working on something in the year 2000 and not see it on the screen until four, five years later, and I realized Ren and Stimpy was about a six to nine month turunaround – you could make mistakes on episode 2 and correct them on your later episodes, and I think it takes a little bit of OCD to be a director or showrunniner, because as you're writing episode 10 of, say, Johnny Test, you are recording episode 9 but then you're storyboarding episode 7 and you're in post-producution on episode 1, so you've gotta wear all these different hats, 20 minutes in the editing room, line producer says you've gotta get in to work on this episode . . . so it takes this little kind of OCD, I know it takes 96 steps to get to my office . . . but don't quote me on that.
Beyond that, TV animation is a collective, you have to rely on everyone to do their job, and do it better than you, and you' gotta know to hire those people and trust them to do their job, because ultimately it's gonna filter up through you. E. g. Carl took the storyboard right where it needs to be, and letting all of them spill through to the last moment when you deliver. My motto is never be satisfied, just run out of time. [...] Nowaday I don't have that craziness; I must be out of my mind, I want to be doing stuff 8 to 5, now I get in, I sit, I get coffee . . . as a director you get used to that thing, it's hard to turn it off.
Q: As far as your food blog goes, would you actually eat any packaged food?
Ursula: The address is on the websites, we haven't found anything we wouldn't eat . . . we ate durian. It has to be in a sealed container, I'm sure there are lovely . . .
Kevin: I will never eat natto[?] again.
Ursula: Yeah, civet cat coffee, where they take the beans out of their . . . matter; supposedly it's sterile and the civet cat will only eat the best. I say, it's a weasel, I know what they eat, [...] but we will at least try just about everything. There are things I was not willing to take more than a sliver at the end of the fork, often there are things that . . . we got something from Indonesia . . .
Q: Have you tried Balut? it's like duck egg, it's old enough to have bones and feathers and you hardboil, and eat it.
Ursula: If it's pre-packaged, we will try to eat it. Honour would demand.
Sprout: He said natto was on the list.
Sprout: He will eat anything because he eats Taco Bell.
Q: How many books have you written? Have you ever been eligible for the Caldecott Medal?
Ursula: Just don't do it when Game of Thrones or Neil Gaiman has one . . . I did six books in Digger, two novels that Sofawolf did, one they're set, one is Nurk; my first children's book, the one I wrote in 8 weeks. Then there are. . . what number is this - this is the 8th Dragonsbreath book, so that's what, 17? They they bought 11 of those things and they're coming back for 12. I don't think any are eligible since they're not fully illustrated, and honestly some of that stuff is mindblowing - I go "I'm gonna go and slit my writs now..."
Q: It's a silly one, but how is Chris able to come to America? I know he's Russian...
Chris: ["ganadi" - grandpa?]. Sadly his parents had passed, in the mid-to-later 70s. I don't think there was a real issue with emigrating to here; he was raised in Chicago. I heard him speaking on the phone and then he spoke Russian Russian Russian McDonalds. I think he was five or six when he came here.
Q: When you're developing an idea, do you think "here's my target market"? How much do you develop for yourself, or aim at a certain demographic?
Chris: It comes down to toys. It'll get down to it.
Some people are like six shooters. I got a show about a pirate, you don't like that, I gotta show about a clown, then a clown pirate. I'll doodle for a while, you draw, then write some things, and the writing dictates to the design; then something clicks - you go: "so this is a character that wants blank." Executives go "click, that's what it's gonna be". Once you have that, you can hang anything you want on that as long as it meets that theme, you can do a great show. I speak out of experience of seeing other people do that.
I've not done it yet, but I've spent at least ten years on Bigfoot & Gray - but it's not because I can't let go of my creations, but it takes that long to figure out who they are. It's almost like they're human, you get to know who there are over the years and try to get the courage about going up to them: "I have a show about this" and they go "nope", makes you wanna slit your wrist. For all they know you could have gone in there and come up with the idea a day ago, so it's not personal.
Developing characters is a hard thing for me, and developing in the TV business. Who knew everyone wanted a yellow sponge on a shirt in a sea? But that wasn't the point, it was a very optimistic character surrounded by a pessimistic group of characters. You want to avoid those high premises where it's like "A num who becomes a stripper", but she could be a terrible character and then it doesn't go anywhere, and then you're going to have a very limited amount of material. With SpongeBob, the world is his oyster. There's a SpongeBob movie that's being done right now... maybe I just said something I shouldn't have said right now . . . but they have characters with longevity.
That's my goal, to have characters with that kind of longevity, and with comedy you know comedy is tragedy that happens to someone else. When you're in that show, you think about the shows that are successful, and the toys that work with that, and you think "Maybe I'll make it more anime like" and you can't do that, kids know that, they don't like being spoonfed. If you're smart enough and fast enough to get on that bandwagon - or before it becomes a thing - you'll win. Nobody knew Sponge would be a hit, but Steve was in the right place, right time, right character - it was his foresight to see what was going to be a hit.
Q: Sort of the flipside of demogrphaics, influences . . . Kracken[?] had a lot of hentai and Japanese stuff in his training, what do you think are your influences?
Chris: You're right; growing up in MI, family of ten, we didn't have a lot of money. VCRs weren't invented - it was whatever was on. Warner Bros. cartoons were a big influence on cartoons, I didn't realize how effective . . . we did have the Sunday paper, and I would draw all the eyes on a piece of paper, and then all the noses on a separate sheet, and then all the mouths on another, and pick, and put them together and put them together, most of my life until up in high school I wanted to do comic strips, until someone said animator I didn't realize that was even a career. Having old characters, Mad magazine was already around the house . . . [there were people] I would copy their stuff, maybe when people look at my style they see a newspaper.
It was less about the design, more about how to make a cartoon in seven minutes, but [I'm] still learning, still being influenced, still being inspired by people. I think any person who says "I'm done learning", they're lying, you never stop learning and developing yourself as a style.
Ursula: As Chris said, it changes a lot, there have been a lot of people I say oh god, I need to learn how to do that - the art nouveau stuff, I need to learn how to do that swirly stuff. If he had access to vectors I think he would have.
There's an artist, James Christensen, there's these little dudes and little scenes ... I was into D&D when I grew up, I wanted to be Keith Parkinson, and then grew up to be something else. Women in scantily clad chainmail vs. the hamsters were remarkably easy. I had this vague idea I wanted to do a comic, nothing came of it, then I had the idea, people do this thing, on the web, that are comics, then I did comics in color, it was gruelling, then I picked up Bone and I realized, "I can do a page a day in black and white".
I have no idea about where the weird little lizards came from; this is where the Dragonbreath come from, I have absolutely no memory - I was like "I will put a T-shirt on one of them"; OK, that kind of works, and you can tell it's a very elaborate and high thing: "I will put a T-shirt on this thing".
Q: Going back to the demographics, you were talking about how when designing characters and you're selling it to kids and a network, and you also have adult fans, where do you come in consideration when developing a storyline or . . .
Chris: I think one of these things - and I'll go back to Dexter's Lab - one of the things we decided at the time; Cartoon Network was very young at the time, so were were like "try anything"; it wasn't much about the demographic, or the kids; we're adults, we'll try to make things that make us laugh. Some of us are still kids, but we're grown - farts make us grown, farts and cheese.
Ursula: There is nothing amusing about cheese.
Chris: It's hysterical! ... But there's a lot of jokes I'll get watching comics later, Bugs Bunny really was sexy[?] with that dress, but kids don't get that. Then executive practices come in, "kids don't know that word", and I'm against that, I watched the show Gray's American Year, they'd said [...] I found out what that word is; I didn't need someone to dumb it down. I hope we're elevating kids to ask questions and look up words and do that joke which was far too risqué for them to get.
Sprout: Funny story, when I was a kid I watched the crap out of Ren and Stimpy and my uncle would laugh and it was never funny.
Ursula: I watched Pee-wee's Playhouse, and I feel very strange . . ."Phil Hartman, we hardly knew you", did Pee-wee upskirt the mailman?
[KT drew a picture of Burping Cheese in underwear.]
Q: How did you get into My Little Pony?
Chris: I lost a bet . . . Lauren and [...] and Robert Zetin[?] were starting up, and Lauren was able to procure writing down here, we worked together on Powerpuff Girls and . . . Amy Rogers may have been writing on it, we'd worked together on Dexter's and Powerpuff, I asked here she's looking for it.
You get into cartoons, you say "oh, I'm a cartoonist", and then you say it's about writing, you cheat a bit, I don't wanna draw a marching band, I'm gonna figure out a way to avoid it . . . you write a script and people can visualize the cartoon, and you've saved weeks of drawing.
So I called here, and she said "we need writers" and the schedule is tight, shipping off to Canada to storyboard and animate, there's only one chance to get it right before it goes off to animators who won't know, so it had to be in the writing, Ep. 16 and 17, it happened I had a full time job, so I tried it. I've never written stuff like that, hmmm, MLP, a rehash of what we did . . . but no, hah, we can elevate, rather than have a pablum. So I wrote one and they asked me to do a second one within that first season. So I had a full time job and I had to pass on further writing, but I think people have moved onto other things, Care Bears, and Amy is . . . Amy is head writer on Care Bears. So they look back and see what characters can we pull back, Pound Puppies - "freakin' Pound Puppies I have to work on, let's make it good".
Because of MLP it doesn't have to be babyserve, it can be real characters with something to say.
Q: You've animated and drawn, but you've written the best - let me guess - "Stairmaster". Where did you get your start from animating to writing?
Chris: When we were on Dexter's Lab and Powerpuff Girls, we were doing an outline-driven show where you have a four page outline breaking down the story, tone, jokes, dialog; it was up to us to board it out, write the jokes, dialog and I think you discover things, there are things a writer cannot know visually unless you started drawing and then it starts speaking to you, so we are all about that, scripts never, [...] McCracken, Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends, and there's no way you can do a show for [2s?], you need a bigger arc, app breaks half way through, it needs to be scripted, also we switched [gears?]; we started hiring writers, so I asked if I could write one.
"We have this episode with two 11 minutes in, can you write one?" So I didn't even know how to write a final draft, but as an artist you're storyboarding it, but as a writer you're hitting in those little details almost timing it, the script went well, and he said "can you write a 22 one?" and I said "Sure, but she said you have to write the outline as part of your payment, and then you write with the storyboard in mind, and the physical act is easier - what is a storyboard 400 pages, four a page, that's 1200 drawings . . . when all you have to do is write words, that's kind of a breath of fresh air. But I would never switch over, turn my back on the physical act of drawing a cartoon.
Q: As far as Pound Puppies go, I agree with you having MLP in the DVR; I'd always get the first five, ten minutes of it. I'll be the one to ask, I know you only wrote two episodes, but who would be your favorite pony?
Chris: It has nothing to do with girl ponies... I really liked Snips and Snails as, not because they're boy ponies, but because there's a little bit of naughtiness in there. There was an entire sequence that was cut out for them that was cut; this one scene was turned into five scenes, but she said "yea, but we need to get to the story", the Ursa Major thing — and when it becomes easy, you keep writing. I was still trying to figure out who they were, but because I was, I don't think they ever showed up again.
Q: Yes, they have! They've had a lot of awesome scenes together.
Ursula: I admit shamefully that when I started doing a webcomic I . . . I really enjoy Oglaf - don't Google that. It's anything at all, anything I do, there's a lot of food stuff, but you get to know the creators; even if you're not a fan of their stuff you go 'They're the nicest guys everywhere". I really enjoy Two Lumps - the author . . . he scares the living crap out of me. They're great people; I wrote the introduction to one of their things, just terrifying. Webcomics cycle in and out.
Cartoons, I do watch MLP, my favorite is Fluttershy. I don't know if there's anything on other than that that's really blowing my mind on the cartoon front; there was a stretch when I decided I had to watch every episodes of Thundarr the Barbarian; he did not get anywhere near the time he needed on his cool horse! It think they said "We have a cool horse, our work is done".
Chris: Just the model sheets on that . . . mmm. Interesting, when I'm actually doing the thing, I don't think I've watched as many cartoons as I did when I was a kid - it's like pizza all day, you don't go home and eat a pizza at night - but I still look forward to being influenced by people.
Q: So you've sat through pictures and seen that, so say there was someone here who has a really great idea, how do they do that, can anyone do that? Do they need to be in the biz? - and the second part, I'd like to hear about your show.
Chris: Stay away! You're taking a bit about . . . the Internet, people are going to find you, before then you had to be in LA or self-publishing, Comic-Con wasn't as huge as it was, executives go to APE and literally are going shelf to shelf looking at books they can option and develop; but there are so many more avenues as a creator - I think having something that exists in a different format is the best way to go, because people can see where it is going to go. Until you see people acting out in a graphic novel or webcomic, or on online, on YouTube, sometimes there a disconnect, "if you'd just let me make this, you'd see". Talking about animation is like dancing about architecture, the truth is in the cartoon itself, but unfortunately it's a business; a lot of time, money - they have to be sure, and having something that exists already is that much sure.
Do you have to be in the business? No. Should you put yourself out there? Yes; but there are people out there dedicated to looking for that thing, the exec in charge of development calls this guy with a webcomic; they like his style, they say hell yeah, they say what is this show gonna be based on his drawing style. Forget about the other jobs, we can provide those.
I pitched Bigfoot & Gray, they optioned it, it never went anywhere, so I tried to go the way "let me put it out there", as an animated pilot thing, or a comic like I'm doing now, writing episodes and chapter books . . . they're very hot now; don't anyone try to write one, I'm trying to get in!
I just feel really good about making this stuff and getting it out there. I have a full-time job, it's not like I am hungry and getting kicked out of my apartment. I don't care if it's one person or a hundred or a thousand [...] but people have to know me as not just MLP, but something else. With the Internet, take advantage of it. Maybe it came too late in my life - I'm only just now getting it, but kids who live and grown up with it, that's how they're gonna be seen, and I think there are going to be more success stories that come off that than a kid in Michigan, writing an ass-kiss letter and sending pictures across snail mail.
Q: I'm guessing Nickelodeon don't have a pile?
Chris: They don't have a slush pile. They do have pile of pitches, you have to go through a process. They are doing a shorts program, they made ten two minute shorts, the went to writers, comedians, artists; there's not just this brand parameter they're gonna stick into, they'd go for everything - live action, CGI, stop motion, they made a two-minute film. Whether it makes anything, it doesn't matter, you can shop it around. Out of those ten or twelve, I think three of them are being developed into series. It's a good conduit, at least anything you can make something - we all have this need to make something.
Sprout: I'm fairly new to your work; a lot of what I've seen is the Pear . . . because it's fascinating, and I go "What is that?" and I . . .
Ursula: One of those random acts of the Internet, many many years ago I did this paitnings, I had mammoth garlic and bighorn pears, and there was this guy with big teeth and I wanna put that on fruit, so I did this pear with those big teeth, and I did a painting, and a little chipmunk taking a photo of it - and then one day people put the words LOL WUT under it, and it got on 4chan - hive of scum and villainy - and it started to be the go-to meme when someone has done something so unbelievably stupid you cannot adequately express how unbelievably stupid they are.
It was very popular for a year or two; nobody had any idea who had done the painting - occasionally people would show up and say "I know that pear!", and I like drawing pears because there's straightforward and have a neat texture, so if you go into the art show there's a few [fursuiters?] . . . and occasionally people come up with "you mean someone did a painting of this?" So I merchandise it and we had pins made and resin casts from a site.
KT: I did fan art of it; Fluttershy staring down a pear, "Don't you 'LOL WUT' me!"
Ursula: Every now and then, I see someone with an tatto and I go "was there a better artist you could have found?" I put it under CC because I was convinced that there are some things not worth taking on, like 4chan.
Q: What tips or recommendations do you have for writers without that artistic talent to draw on?
Chris: Again, stay away; I'm trying to get work here . . . oh, well, I'll tell you.
In Dexter's Lab he was doing timing sheets, a word version of how many frames it takes to do X, bar sheets or animation sheets or flow sheets. He said, "have you ever animated?" and he said you can't do this because you don't know the value of a frame - but in my head I said I have a sense of timing and how things should play out, and what makes a joke funny, and how a character move - or not funny. So first time I got to do sheets was I took over and I was doing one of the four-minute monkey ones, and he came to me and he said "these sheets are better than four weeks of the previous director, good job", it was because I had a sense of timing.
I felt I would say "yes, if you've never done storyboarding, you can't see it in your head", but I'm not saying that; as a writer, you are probably writing it out as it's playing out in your head. If the character takes a pause, put it in there so you feel as a reader, "I get it", so allowing the cartoon or video game to play through your head — only three lines of description at most before you have to skip a line and write more. People want to see a ton of white that flows quick, you're not bogged down with telling the careerer or director what to do.
Your job is to convey your idea as simply as possible, but that doesn't mean you can't have timing. I will take as much as I need to explain to the board artist, oh, there's a beat there — you don't have to be an animator, but you do have to be creative to convey your ideas on page. You don't want someone to mistakenly misread what you've written and go at it a wholly different way - that's up to you. You're the first of many steps to a great piece of content, of entertainment, so writing up a script that's 100% is the first thing; and if you enjoy it, I think you're there.
Sprout: So Chris, I know you have been to furry conventions . . .
Chris: I think this is the first . . . I think some would call you a furgin.
Ursula: The number of people helping you with that . . .
Chris: It is my first, I know I've been [dealing with?]; I was really flattered and I assumed it was My Little Pony, I can see where it fits in, and I thought "This could be great", I've been to Comic-Con and they sit 24 hours behind a screen, and there's this one day when they can come out and be who they want to be, a fetish thing or a roleplay thing or a cosplay thing, it's wonderful.
Ursula: Did you see the mammoth? It's awesome.
Chris: It's really nice, these people have a place they can congregate . . . so far, so good. I'm enjoying it, I'm honored to come, and glad to be here. [With the fursuiters] I feel like I wanna go out there - they're the normal people and I'm the weirdo. I hope I can mingle with them and not feel out of place.
Q: How did you get into the fandom?
Ursula: I'd been drawing for ages, and you remember Yerf, I thought "it's cool, there's a name for these things. I was painting and people said "have you been to a con? You should come". I got a dealers' table, there was an element of couching behind a table - a fox comes up and was talking to me and I said "uh huh, I gotta ask, how are you not sweltering under there?" - "Yeah, it is very hot." OK, it's cool, it's talking to me, nothing has exploded, and I made a lot of money for a college student, and it kinda went on from there.
Q: What's your favorite pizza?
Ursula: Not haggis. I like Hawaiian, with the ham, though it was weird, in the South I got actual ham, not Canadian bacon; what is this place? It was unsettling. What do I say if I want Canadian bacon?
Sprout: They go to a guy in the back, with a Canadian maple leaf...
Sprout: I wanna say thank you for coming to our convention, very happy to have you here; I hope everyone here is. Final thoughts?
Chris: Goodness . . . again, stay away from my job. Like I said, I was given an chance early on in my life - I like to give back as much as possible; if you see me in the hall, don't be afraid to stop me and ask questions, I will stand there all day, I promise.
Ursula: A very noble sentiment. I actually have a panel for that. I'll be shameless, Sofawolf is selling copies of Digger, you should go check it out. Thank you for having me, "I'm on the stage next to the guy who's done MLP, how are they not throwing their panties at you?"
?: Two things don't make a right . . .