You studied painting in Europe as a young man – it sounds romantic and epic. Obviously you moved in a different direction, but was that time of your life an important part of what you’ve done since?
“It was! I remember confessing to my sculpture teacher in Portland that I was afraid if I went away for a year to go to Italy, I might lose touch with my classmates at the art school. He laughed and said that I was doing something way more important than any of those friendships: I was going to Italy to get my mind blown and I would never be the same. Those friendships would still be in Portland when I got back, or they wouldn’t – it didn’t matter at all. He was right, of course! I think about those days in Italy, where I turned 21, all the time. Whenever I talk at colleges, I tell students to take a year and travel, and not to worry about how relevant it is to their studies – it’s way more important to just get out of our little bubble and see something different! And of course Italy was unbelievably beautiful and amazing”
When you returned to the US, you worked with Will Vinton, the famous stop-motion director. Stop-motion is such a precise and painstaking art form; how did you like the actual creative part of that discipline? Do you feel that, given an opportunity, you could have remained in stop motion for your entire career? Is it something you’d care to revisit some day?
“What a great first job out of school (if you don’t count all the crappy jobs I did to make money before Will hired me). It was a complete filmmaking apprenticeship. You’re right, there’s nothing like stop-motion animation. It’s really meditative. I loved it, and I think I learned to multi-task in those days. I might have stayed with stop-motion it if I didn’t move to LA. There was just so much 2D going on here, I had to get into it.”
At the time the stop-motion Mark Twain film was released, the Vinton studio was at its peak, and the project received a lot of attention. Have you seen it lately, and do you feel it holds up?
“I remember really enjoying it the last time I saw it. To me, it’s a trip down memory lane. The film’s storyline is episodic, with short stories contained within the larger frame. It evokes really vivid memories of our little group making all those bits, in different parts of Will’s studio, which was a little cube of space attached to a Victorian house and a barbershop. I made some great friends there. I’m still in touch with them. Watching my own stop-motion animation, I have a kind of visceral response, as if those days and weeks in Portland are still somewhere in my cellular memory.”
What was your role on Return to Oz? How was it to be an integral part of such a legendary property?
“I animated a few segments – the Nome Spy that appears on rocks and rock walls and then goes down underground to report to the Nome King. It was great to work on that project, because I’m an Oz fan (the 1939 movie and the books), but I was afraid from the start that the film was doomed to not succeed at the box office, because everyone has such a deep connection to the 1939 version, and there was no way a film made in the ‘80s could have the same vibe (and director Walter Murch actually wanted to call back the earlier turn-of-the-century vibe of the books). So it was perceived as dark and kind of joyless, even though I thought it was really good. But Walter is a brilliant guy and I was already a fan – he’d done the sound and picture editing for “American Graffiti” and “Apocalypse Now” so when he came to Portland I always tried to ask him stuff about his career.”
You moved from fantasy to a kind of madness, with Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Were you part of the in-house team of creators when you made the Penny films? What was the atmosphere like within that inner circle?
“I worked with the other animation units (the ant farm, the fridge, the mouse hole dinosaur family) and we were kind of marginalized, set up in a warehouse workspace far from the Hollywood studio where the live action part was shot. So I didn’t feel like I was in the creative inner circle. But I had a lot of freedom and autonomy making Penny, so I was fine with it. It was one of the most fun jobs ever. In my small way I was really proud to be part of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” which I think was a great and absolutely unique show. There’s been nothing like it on TV since.”
Hey Arnold! seems like it was on a fast train from initial pitch to pickup to first airing. That was a decent leap of faith on the part of the Nick execs – was that due to your powers of persuasion or the charm of the property?
“Ha, all the above! Actually to me it seemed to take forever. But I think those mid-90s were a particularly good time to launch an animated series and find an audience. We were set to deliver the first episodes by end of ’95, but Nick held them till October ’96 because they had the idea to use “Hey Arnold!” as the opener of their new prime time initiative. So they actually sat on that whole first season and let us build up a stockpile of episodes. It made me feel like they had great confidence in the series. Our VP Herb Scannell said we didn’t have to worry about killing ‘em right out of the gate, that we had time to find an audience, but it turns out that when “Hey Arnold!” finally premiered, it got really good numbers and everyone felt satisfied that they had made the right moves.”
The music in Arnold was tremendously important to the stories; how closely did you work with the composer, and would any of those tracks ever be released publicly?
“Jim Lang was already a friend before we started “Hey Arnold!” But that Arnold pilot was the beginning of a long, fruitful relationship between us. He is a great musician, and it was always fun to spot an episode with him, tell him about the emotions that I would like to feel, and know that Jim would come back in a couple weeks with something amazing. I still play Arnold music to work to or when I drive around, and I think how lucky I was to have my own composer, making tunes that would always be personal and meaningful to me. Plus, he can be really funny and funky! Some of our tunes were released by Nickelodeon on collections. Nick should put out a strictly Arnold compilation though.”
Hey Arnold almost seemed Dickensian at times. The stories were rooted in some of the most realistic emotions ever seen in a kid’s show. Was that a conscious move, to stake out that territory?
“Thanks for the Dickens shout out! He’s one of my favorites. Yes, I wanted to find our own edge that would make us different from the other cartoon shows, and it turns out that our edge was emotions. We had real kids doing the voices, which already gives you a kind of emotional authenticity. No one can play a kid like an actual kid. And the leads were so strong, especially Francesca Smith, who played Helga, that the actors and the writers made a kind of feedback loop of creativity, and together we workshopped the characters into deeper and darker territory. I got a lot of support from Nickelodeon – they responded to the emotional authenticity as well. They liked the realistic kid emotions and the bluesy-jazzy soundtrack.”
Who/What/Where is Snee-Oosh?
“Good question! I spent my teenage years living on Snee-Oosh beach in Laconner, Washington. It’s on the Swinomish Indian Reservation, in the north end of Puget Sound. “Snee-Oosh” in Swinomish means “beach facing westward.” When I started “Hey Arnold!” I needed to start a loan-out corporation, so I named it after my childhood home.”
Your work with Bob Rogers and BRC – creating films for World’s Fairs and theme parks – they seem larger than life in scope. Do you have to do more, visually, in a compacted amount of time in order to hold the audience’s attention?
“Yes, all the projects that I did for Bob Rogers are “special venue films.” They come out of world’s fairs, which would be built to last for six months and then be taken down, but Bob has been focusing on more permanent venues in recent years. The venue itself is always different than a regular theater. It’s more of a complete experience, and that includes the architecture, lighting and sound design, and the visuals. And the running time for the shows is shorter – people in these special venues are on their feet more – so it’s more packed with details than a regular film experience.”
Dinosaurs and trains – two of the most popular boy concepts known to the entertainment industry. I guess the question is, what took them so long!
“Ha! I thought of “Dinosaur Train” probably in 1992, when Mathias was 3. I’d watch him playing with piles of trains and piles of dinosaurs. I told my wife, “If I made a cartoon show about dinosaurs on a train, I’d have all the 4-year-olds at hello.” And then I pitched it off and on for about 15 years – Nick Jr. passed on it, Cartoon Network passed on it, Disney Jr. passed on it. Finally my friend Linda Simensky moved to PBS and then she picked it up. The whole 15 years, I was worried that someone else would do it! It just seemed so… inevitable. Thank God it’s finally on the air and I can take credit for it.”