If you’re a fan of Cartoon Network’s series Adventure Time, you know that there’s a lot of unique voices that go into the creation of the surreal adventures of Finn and Jake. Adventure Time: The Art of Ooo from Abrams shows you just how much goes into making the hit show – combining in-depth interviews with creator Pendleton Ward and many of the writers and artists on the show and hundreds upon hundreds of drawings, designs, backgrounds, paintings and more. It’s the most in-depth look to date at the series, and a must-read for both hardcore fans and those who want to gain insight into the creative process of an animated series.
The book’s gotten a big release, with an introduction by Pan’s Labyrinth and Pacific Rim director Guillermo del Toro. We talked to author Chris McDonnell about the immense work that went into pulling this project together, the creative process of Adventure Time, and more.
Newsarama: Chris, I’m a pretty obsessive Adventure Time fan – I’ve gotten drawings of the characters from more than 200 different comic book artists, I go through backgrounds and storyboards the creators post online, and I even do an Adventure Time podcast, “Ancient Psychic Tandem Warcast.” But I’ve got to say, your book goes into the show with a level of detail that even I found impressive.
Chris McDonnell: Thanks. (laughs)
Nrama: How’d the book come about?
McDonnell: I had some correspondence with Pendleton Ward, sort of friendly emails about contributing to some anthologies I was doing, just like doodles and things. And I did a doodle book called “Sasquatch’s Big Hairy Drawing Book” in 2011 or 2012, and I sent Pen a copy to get a blurb from him.
And got it, and that was pretty much as we’d talked before, but we know some mutual people including Tom Herpich and Jesse Moynihan, who are both storyboard artists on the show and know the Meathaus crew. I don’t remember if Pen saw the Ralph Bakshi book I did, but that is the best comparison to what I did with this book, in terms of writing it and designing it and putting it together.
And then just one day I got an email saying, “Want to do a book?” And I said “Sure!” And we talked it over and the project started.
Nrama: How long did it take to put together?
McDonnell: You know, I have some time-tracking software on my computer, and I think it was 800 hours just sitting in front of the computer, not counting my week-long trip out to Los Angeles. From start to finish, it was over a year, while doing other work simultaneously.
Nrama: You just mentioned your trip to LA – sounds like you did a lot of interviews for this.
McDonnell: I did some in person while out on the trip, though the primary purpose was art gathering. But I got some in-person interviews, and interviews via phone and email and texting even, with a number of people in a “virtual” room. ”
Nrama: What’s the most important thing you feel you discovered or were able to determine about Adventure Time and the creative process while working on this book?
McDonnell: It’s just like a remarkably personal process that these storyboard artists bring to each episode. The amount of creative freedom they have is just remarkable – from the top on down, from Pen and Adam (Muto), all the artists they brought to the show are people whose individual voices they want brought to the screen as clearly as they can.
It’s not a commercial kind of thing – you might find some unique voice in independent animation, but not usually in a studio television show. Near the end, almost offhand, Jesse Moynihan says he’s just writing almost what just comes into his head, and that’s very unique for commercial entertainment, and what’s exciting to me.
Nrama: That’s something I noticed in the book, and that I see more and more watching the show on a week-to-week basis. The comparison I keep making is Louis CK’s show – it can be very different in tone and style from episode to episode. But in this case, you have a wide variety of creative people, and a tone that can vary visually and narrative-ly each time out.
McDonnell: Exactly. And depending on the board team, you get a very distinct voice.
Nrama: And you have with things like Steven Universe or Over the Garden Wall or the Cartoon Hangover shorts such as Bee and Puppycat or Manly, more of these people going off to do their own shows, and bringing their voice to their own creations.
McDonnell: Yeah, absolutely.
Nrama: What was the biggest challenge in putting this book together?
McDonnell: Well, it’s a very large book! (laughs) I wanted to make sure every single spread was a composition unto itself, that there should be something visually exciting. So I wanted the book to be beautiful, and also readable.
So every single page was a puzzle that needed to be fit together, and then you back out a little bit and think of every chapter…it’s what anyone who’s designing a book goes through. I enjoyed it, though! So the biggest challenge was just working through the constant push and pull of writing and designing, sometimes simultaneously.
It was actually a really smooth process! My wife tells me there was actually a lot of angst I don’t remember, but with it done, I don’t remember a lot of the problems I saw along the way.
Nrama: The book also gives a lot of insight into Pen Ward and his process – and it’s always interesting to me how he reveals these different parts of himself in these interviews…there was that Rolling Stone one recently where they were very shocked to find he’d stepped back from running the show on a day-to-day basis…
McDonnell: Right! I mean, he’s still storyboarding and writing! That’s still a full-time job!
Nrama: Well, the perspective some people had was, “you’ve created this huge TV show, why don’t you want to do more and more and more?” But the thing I get from Pen is, he just likes writing and drawing and hanging out with people who like to write and draw, and that’s what comes through in the show and in your book.
McDonnell: Right, absolutely.
Nrama: But I’m curious – what kind of insight do you think you got into Pen’s mindset, and what inspires his creative process and how he brings in collaborators to the show?
McDonnell: I don’t know if I have more than what you described. What I have understood and seen for myself is that he’s a guy, he’s a cartoonist, he’s a creator, and he’s saying exactly how he feels in these interviews – the part that he really enjoys is drawing and coming up with stories and collaborating with people he respects. All the other stuff that comes with the territory of this massive hit show – it’s just noise, you know?
It’s a really unique world that Pen and all the show team have created.
Nrama: How close to the publication date were you still revising the book, because you had things in there for episodes like “Food Chain,” which just aired around the time this came out.
McDonnell: We were in the last few rounds of layouts before I got any Season Six access – artwork, etc. When I went out for my main art-gathering, I had access to the entire server, all the production art, plus all this personal art from all the creators.
But – the folders for Season Six on the server were still empty or just barely beginning to have content. At the end of the book you’ll see my acknowledgements to people who helped, and that was the last thing on the book as of April, and that was around the time I got access to “Food Chain. ”
I’ve been designing books since 2008, and it seems like we’re really cutting it close when we’re putting out a book! It’s still a very short amount of time to get something printed and edited and shipped to warehouses and bookstores from there.
Nrama: Well, I love that detail in the book – you have like six pages on “James Baxter the Horse” or several pages on “A Glitch is a Glitch,” and that’s a nice way of saying, “here’s what it is to bring in these unique voices or styles for an episode, and the creative process behind that.”
That makes it more than “here’s a show with a lot of good creative people working on it,”
it’s “here’s a show that can encompass all kinds of creative visions.” Also, I just love that dang horse.
McDonnell: I definitely wanted to highlight these unique, one-of-a-kind episodes in the book – they’re remarkable. And it’s indicative of the approach to the whole show, how these individual voices can come through so strongly even in this collaborative production of a television show.
It’s really unique to have a guest director on your animated series. It feels like you’re watching an independent animation festival in some ways, but you’re still watching the same show – just with a completely different approach.
Nrama: It’s become something very evolved from the pilot – very philosophical and all-encompassing. I feel like I’d be bored if it was still just “save Princess Bubblegum from the Ice King,” and I get the sense they’d be bored if that was still the show they were making.
McDonnell: That’s another thing I took away from doing the book – the key to the show’s freshness and its longevity and its strength in moving forward is letting people tell stories that are important to them.
They might tell funny stories, silly, lighthearted stories, or deeper, philosophical stories depending on their mood – some storyboard artists were saying they were bringing ideas to the writers to turn into outlines the artists could then turn into storyboards and episodes. There’s that kind of collaboration on the show that makes them invested in making the best show they can make.
And that’s a recipe for creating interesting stories by engaged, excited creators anywhere. Contrast that with a show where people feel like they’re a cog in a machine, and you’re going to get much less inspired results.
There’s a huge, unique opportunity for the individuals who work on Adventure Time. Pen and his team were searching out specific artists – and we talk about in the book about how that was very difficult – that they respected, and who were very often already telling their own stories with their own comics.
Right now, he’s got the crop of people who were working on the show, and are inevitably going to take those experiences to their own shows – I know Rebecca Sugar has adapted some of those techniques of working on Adventure Time to Steven Universe, and then you’re going to get the next generation of creators influenced by those shows, and some of them are going to make big, big commercial productions too.
It’s going to have a huge impact, Adventure Time – the people who worked on it are going to continue spiraling out and continue making so many other projects that other people can enjoy and have access to.
Nrama: Do you see yourself doing another book like this for another show, or in general, what else do you have coming up?
McDonnell: Ever since the Ralph Bakshi book, this is what I do! (laughs) I fell into doing these kinds of books, and I love ‘em! I’ve been fortunate to have some diverse subjects on the books I’ve worked on – Bakshi, Adventure Time, Bill Plympton – they all have subjects with unique artists’ voices in them.
In the future, I’m sure I’ll make some more books – not sure what they are yet. And it sounds like there won’t be another Adventure Time to do a book on – because there’ll never be another show out there that’s just like that.
Adventure Time: The Art of Ooo is in stores now.