With a degree in Fine Arts, the animator Ennio Torresan, born in Rio de Janeiro, has been living for over ten years in Los Angeles, where he currently works as head of the story department at DreamWorks. Following his award-winning El Macho (1993), he became director of an animated series created by Ralph Bakshi for HBO, called Spicy City. Later he was screenwriter and storyboard director for SpongeBob Squarepants, for Nickelodeon. His next step was directing Disney’s Teacher’s Pet, for which he won an Emmy in 2003. At DreamWorks, he has helped to create Madagascar (1, 2 and 3), Kung Fu Panda, Megamind, and, most recently, Turbo. He has also found time to continue working in Brazil, on projects like the 2D feature animation Até Que a Sbornia Nos Separe, produced by Otto Desenhos Animados. He also still nurtures the passion for comic books that began it all, and has participated in the Scrambled Ink collection, by Dark Horse Comics, with an autobiographical story called The Guy from Ipanema.
The success of SpongeBob hit Nickelodeon like a tornado – no one seemed to anticipate how hugely popular the show would become. How hard was it to scramble and assemble episodes in the wake of such media and audience attention?
“Steve Hillenburg (creator of SpongeBob), who came from doing his personal short animated films, wanted to hire artists who’d had the same kind of experience and drive as himself. He wanted independent filmmakers on his show. I was free at the time after my show being developed at HBO, “El Macho,” was canceled.
The artists who first worked on SpongeBob were unlikely to succeed in other more conservative, script-oriented shows. The top management at Nickelodeon didn’t care much about SpongeBob so they left us alone to “try out” the script-less approach. Shows like CatDog and Angry Beavers were more in tune with what Nick’s top management wanted. However, the Sponge became an uncontrollable hit after being let loose. I saw Steve fight many battles to keep its integrity (including one executive who hated Southern accents!). Steve fought hard like he always did and Sandy remained a squirrel from Texas. That executive is no longer there, and Steve today has an estimated net worth of $90 million dollars.
Please don’t be naive, this kind of success doesn’t happen frequently. I’ve seen wonderful charismatic shows crash and burn more often than not. There are so many things that have to happen in the right order for a show to hit this big.”
What does it take to connect to the mind of a child? Do you maintain a strong connection to your own feelings and point of view as a small boy? Do you find kids are similar in what they want to see, no matter where they live and grow up?
Your work is seen all over the world, and your personal projects have a distinctly international feel. Are all markets opening up to more diverse cultural themes in cartoons? Or is the industry divided between English and non-English speaking stories and types of characters?
“It seems that now more then ever, kids are in charge of what they want to watch. There are fantastic shows being produced straight to streaming video. Tinga Tinga and My Big Big Friend are just two of the most creative and well-realized shows these days. The first one was produced in Africa and the second was a co-production with Canada and Brazil. The world has become a much smaller place and great shows can be created and produced anywhere in the world.”
There are so many requirements for a cartoon’s global success – merchandising, ancillary products, etc. Is it possible for a smaller, simpler idea to find an audience these days?
“There is more competition now. There are more creators realizing their projects now than let’s say ten years ago. Streaming is changing the way we watch TV.
The way an idea goes viral these days depends on how much energy the creator can exert, and how persistent they may be. It took me five years to make my first short, which I had started in ’87. It was all animated on paper and shot on a 35 mm camera. There weren’t that many places to screen it afterwords. Today I could accomplish that in a fraction of the time and with much better tools, and it would be accessible to the whole world instantly.”
What are your hopes for the future of the animation industry?
“I wish there were directors as important as Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, PT Anderson, Francis Coppola, Luc Besson, Roman Polanski, William Friedkin or Jonathan Demme who would be doing new kinds of animation. I wish animation would grow up and venture in the world of adulthood. That’s my wish for the future of animation.”