Animated Shorts 596: Tom McGillis and FRESH TV
Animated Shorts: Tom McGillis: FRESH TV
Every decade or so, a few animation studios come to the forefront that redefine what we watch. They do it with an original style, some bold subject matter and, probably the least appreciated element of it all, a little market research.
In the early days of TV, the first studios to do so were Hanna-Barbera and Jay Ward Productions (you think Ward didn’t use his Harvard MBA to its fullest advantage?). Filmation’s Norm Prescott had a ton of marketing savvy thanks to his days in the DJ business. Some of the more modern studios to have left a deep impression on our psyches include the now folded Klasky-Csupo (Rugrats, Wild Thornberrys, Duckman) and the early 90s incarnation of Warner Brothers.
It looks like a new studio is earning its stripes for its maverick approach and unique shows. Called, appropriately enough, Fresh TV, it’s the creation of Jennifer Pertsch and Tom McGillis. We had the pleasure of interviewing the absolutely charming Pertsch last June. Now it’s time to talk to her partner in crime, McGillis.
The truth is the multiple award-winning writer Pertsch just overwhelms you with her sweetness. Not that McGillis isn’t an unfriendly guy. In fact, he came off as exceedingly jovial and a true hardcore animation fan. Yet what this interview displays more than anything is both do their homework before they start putting words on the word processor. They have targeted a specific audience, tweens, and have been hitting that target again and again with shows like 6teen, the Total Drama franchise, and now the surf-centric Stoked.
Here’s what McGillis had to say:
NEWSARAMA: What is the origin of Fresh TV?
TOM McGILLIS: Fresh TV is two companies that came together; [the first is] Fresh Animation, which is Jennifer Pertsch and I. We founded it about 6-7 years ago with a show called 6teen. It was something we created while we still worked at Nelvana. The other half is Elliott Animation, which still exists. It was founded by George Elliott and his partner, Brian Irving.
McGILLIS: That’s right. Jennifer and I produced that while still within Nelvana, but we had our own independent IP company, but we didn’t have our own studio. Then 3-4 years ago, we looked around for the best studio that we could find and it was by far and away Elliott Animation. They were doing some really, really good work. Also, George is just so impressive. He has this amazing Rolodex of artists.
So we decided to team up and make Total Drama Island. We pitched it and Teletoon financed it. Since then we’re doing Stoked, a surf comedy.
NRAMA: I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer a few months back. She seemed just too sweet for words. What is she like to work with?
McGILLIS: That is very genuine. She’s really sweet. She’s never, ever, ever in a bad mood. She sometimes confesses to me that she breaks down and cries because there’s so much pressure on her. Yet she’s a really sweet lady with a golden retriever, two little girls; a happy family. She also watches about, and I’m not exaggerating, five to six hours of TV every single day.
Her dad was president of Universal Canada. He was in charge of distributing all their films in Canada. So as a kid, she and her brother watched all the Universal titles over and over again. They have virtually memorized something like 15 to 20 Universal films. She was literally crying when John Hughes died. He was one of her heroes. You see, his films were distributed by Universal, and she’s memorized just about all of them.
I think what’s also important is I graduated form high school in 1984 and she graduated in 1987. So we were part of the generation that lived and died for John Hughes films.
McGILLIS: I’m story as well. I have an honors English degree from McGill in Drama and Dramatic Criticism. I always wanted to write. Then I did my MBA at Toronto.
As you probably might have guessed, Jennifer and I used to work at Nelvana. Jennifer, for instance, wrote on about 15 Nelvana shows. I did a similar amount of writing. She and I were Michael Hirsh’s (ED NOTE: The president and main creative force at Nelvana) assistants. It was a situation just like The Devil Wore Prada. I was the senior assistant and she was the junior. So I did get to boss her around.
Still, we would often go to the board room and fantasize about starting our own company. From the start we were very much a creative team. We approached everything from the writing side. We don’t draw. We’re not artists. We write and find the artists.
NRAMA: Now let’s be honest. It’s pretty easy to tell a, for lack of a better word, a Fresh product. There’s the graphic design right off the bat, not even talking about the thematic elements. 6teen, Total Drama and Stoked share a lot of similar graphic elements; color palette, character design, what have you. I’m not saying that’s bad. I mean there was Disney, Hanna-Barbera…
McGILLIS: Klasky-Csupo. You know what’s funny? When people tell me that, I don’t see it at all. I do think Stoked and 6teen do have similar crews. The character designer from 6teen is now the supervising director of Stoked. It’s a very similar looking show.
6teen was inspired by the drawings of Luc Latulippe, a consummate illustrator. He does beautiful comics and illustrations for Wallpaper Magazine. They are always like S-curves and hard lines. We absolutely were completely inspired by him.
Now for Total Drama Island, the look is like an homage to a show called Clone High, an MTV show. There were all these characters in high school, but they were all clones of famous people. There was a character named Gandhi there, who was a skirt chasing, loser kid. There was a massive hoopla around him in India. One of the Ministers over there literally went on a hunger strike over it. So MTV closed the show down.
But the design of the show was so beautiful. Todd Kaufman and Mark Thornton, who are the directors of Total Drama, they worked on that show. They brought that to our show. So to me they feel like different shows.
I guess though, on the bigger picture, they do look like similar shows. The color palettes are similar.
NRAMA: There’s nothing wrong with having a house style. Ask Pixar.
McGILLIS: (Laughs) True. It’s not doing them any damage, is it?
Actually, we’re moving into live action. A show is in production already, pre-production anyway. It’s called My Babysitter is a Vampire. The writing style will be very similar to our past work, it will certainly look live.
NRAMA: Were you surprised over the reaction you got from Total Drama down here in the States? It was huge!
McGILLIS: Oh yeah. The reason we were surprised is when we first developed the show, the reaction was anything but. I thought it was going to be a big hit. I thought it was real clever, right? So did our distributor, Cake. They loved it.
Then when we took it to market, we sold to Teletoon in Canada and a network in Poland. That was IT. We had nothing else! I think we then picked up a network in Benelux. I was absolutely c****ing my pants! We got no interest from nobody else for like a solid year. They didn’t even want to talk to us about it.
They said it was too tall an order. That it was too high concept. There were too many characters. I thought we were dead in the water.
Then a year later, Nina Pitt at Cartoon Network bought it. Then—Boom!—it suddenly had good ratings in the U.S. Then everybody bought it. Now it’s in every territory in the world. If it isn’t there, it’s about to be. Talk about us being utterly, utterly shocked.
NRAMA: Honestly, I was shocked over the mania it draws. Personally, I hate reality shows. Yet, Cartoon Network can probably do a 24-hour marathon of the show and got away with it.
I’m just amazed at the level of conversation that our audience has about our show. They talk about voice talent. They recognize the intent of the lot of things we parody. They love the level of satire. I’m just amazed at how much they just get.
NRAMA: So how does it feel to see the Total Drama DVD come out?
McGILLIS: It’s so awesome! I just saw it on the net yesterday. It’s now also on iTunes. I understand the sales are already doing well, too. It’s a pretty exciting thing to see.
NRAMA: And how has Total Drama Action been treating you guys?
McGILLIS: Really well. I don’t know, but we’re already well into the production of a third season. It’s called Total Drama: The Musical.
NRAMA: Is it going to be like Repo Man?
McGILLIS: No. What we’re doing is Chris is flying some of the characters, including two new ones, around the world in the Total Drama Jumbo Jet. And where we used to have the Walk of Shame or the Chris Award? In Total Drama: The Musical we have the Drop of Shame. Whoever is getting kicked off has to put on a parachute and jump off the plane.
What we were really lucky about this is that almost the whole cast can sing. So what we did is whenever Chris rings a special chime, they have to sing. It’s that or they are going to get kicked off the show.
So, these are all reluctant teenagers. The last thing they want to do is sing and dance, especially if it’s in the middle of the Egyptian desert or something like that. That’s what they have to do. I think it’s funnier than the other two seasons combined. It’s absolutely ridiculous.
One thing we also did was spend a lot of time with our Canadian broadcaster because we want it all to make sense. After consulting with them, we came to the conclusion it really doesn’t have to make sense. It’s actually better if there isn’t any rhyme or reason to it.
We also got this amazing artist named Blaine Burnside. We hired Blaine because we wanted to make sure that when we choreographed things and he’s just an amazing storyboard artist. There are also two story editors on the show, Alex and Shelly, they went to school together and did a lot of musicals together. They are totally psyched about working with our music company to create songs that really work. The qualities of the musical numbers are really high.
McGILLIS: Oh really? NO! How cool is that? I would have never had thought up that one.
NRAMA: Not to skip on you. Is Stoked just a Canadian pipe dream of being dropped in the middle of a tropical island?
McGILLIS: (Laughs) Well, you know at Fresh we’re always looking for what our audience is at. We aimed Stoked at ‘tweens like all our other shows.
To kind of show you our reasoning, when we did 6teen, Jennifer and I actually went to a lot of class rooms and mall visits just to see what kids from 9th grade to 12th were into. We found out they were all watching sitcoms like Friends, Frazier and Will & Grace.
So we asked them why. We hadn’t thought of shows like that because it was pretty adult stuff. They told us no, they just appreciated more sophisticated comedy. They like denser plots and more plot lines. So we modeled 6teen after classic sitcoms.
Then, for Total Drama, we did a Canada nationwide focus group. We asked hundreds upon hundreds of ‘tweens what reality shows they watched. What they said is what they really, really liked Survivor, Fear Factor and Amazing Race. They also told us what they hated were shows like The Bachelor and shows like that. So from that we knew what we really had to do was amp up all the physical action through animation and take all the shows they hated and make fun of them.
Now for Stoked what we did is find out that kids love surfing. A lot of kids told us that they surf, although how they managed to surf in Toronto I have no idea. I think what they really mean is they all identify with surfers.
NRAMA: Yeah, I don’t see many kids in Winnipeg surfing.
McGILLIS: Right! But in BC (British Columbia), it’s all wetsuit surfing. It’s really cold and nothing like Hawaii or some place like that. What has happened in the last two generations since I’ve been a teenager, surfing has come to epitomize freedom, adrenaline and represent something exclusively teen. Is it a blast? I don’t know, it’s been a long time since I’ve been 18 years old, but that idea has somehow found its way to that age group.
The way I found out was one day meeting up with Jennifer and she literally had a stack of surfer girl magazines all around her. Then I went to this chain called Hollister’s. They have this amay…zing video juke box, and it has this incredible 4x4 live feed from the north shore of California. I mean I’m shopping in Toronto and these kids are watching surfing on this big screen. There were all these ‘tweens, standing there with their jaws wide open staring so longingly.
So I realized that even Hollister’s is set up like a surf shop. Jen was on to something. She had entered the zeitgeist of this world. That’s when we realized we had to make a show about surfing.
NRAMA: Well, one of the great animated films of the last decade was Surf’s Up.
McGILLIS: It was so great! Kids loved it! We also love Blue Crush. Also, do you remember a show called Rocket Power? It was a Klasky-Csupo show. It was all about kids with skateboards and surfers, all on Venice Beach. We went and looked at that too, and realized there’s been some time between Rocket Power and now.
I’ve also realized that one reason you don’t see too many animated shows about surfing is it’s really, really expensive to do water animation. We kind of blew the bank, we really spent a fortune, in animating water. We hired Darren Donovan, who worked on all the water sequences on Prince of Egypt, to do all our water sequences. He hand drew all those water sequences. It took him months to do them.
NRAMA: Sounds like you were very influenced by Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo.
McGILLIS: Well…I do think there were a lot of similarities between the two of us.
NRAMA: I’m not talking visually, but this is like the second time you’ve mentioned them.
McGILLIS: Maybe we are and I’m not aware of it. I do admit we’ve watched a lot of their shows. It’s not like we tried to emulate them. I would say John Hughes shaped our opinions more than them.
What I will admit is, like them, we have come up with our own distinctive style and we do have a specific audience we try to appeal to. We do it by taking their aspiration-al visuals, cleaning them up, taking out some of the dirty things they might have thrown in and provide something that we think is contemporary and absolutely gorgeous to this generation’s eyes.
NRAMA: So what’s the future of Fresh TV?
McGILLIS: That we’re moving into live action. As I said before, our new show is called My Babysitter Is A Vampire. It will incorporate special effects and animation. It’s for Teletoon again. It’s really, really funny.
Do you know what a Twi-hard is?
NRAMA: A what?
McGILLIS: A Twi-hard is a hardcore Twilight fan. It makes fun of Twi-hards.
BOOMERANG HONORING SCOOBY & POPEYE
Looks like Boomerang will be doing some serious old school this September.
They have announced that there will be a Scooby-Doo Marathon airs Saturday, September 5th & Sunday, September 6th from 2p to 9p. Everyone’s favorite Great Dane, Scooby-Doo, will be featured in a weekend marathon. The marathon will showcase the best Scooby-Doo episodes. No doubt this is a tie-in to parent Cartoon Network’s “origins” live action film and we shouldn’t be surprised if Scrappy Doo makes an appearance or two, unfortunately. At the same time, those original Doos of 1969 were some truly fine Saturday morning fare. Also, maybe, if we’re really lucky, they’ll also throw in some of Eric Radomski’s Get A Clue half-hours to show there’s still a lot of life in Shag and Scoob.
If that isn’t enough, Boomerang has declared Popeye The Sailor is the featured star of the Boomeroyalty weekends. You can never get enough of the Sailor Man, especially those Fleischer classics of the 30s. Popeye Boomeroyalty programming will air every Saturday & Sunday from 2p to 4p starting on Saturday, September 12th.