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Continuing Ducktales week, I present to you a wonderful interview with Tad Stones, animator and writer for much of the Disney Afternoon! The main focus is mostly on Ducktales, but in a few months we should be discussing the other shows as well!
TMB: Let’s start from the beginning: how did you get your start in TV animation?
TS: I started in Disney features in the relatively new training program under Eric Larson about five months after Ron Clemments and about two months before Glen Keane. After suffering through inbetweening, I moved into Story on The Fox and the Hound, sadly in the years before everyone got a credit. I then boarded and produced an educational short which got me sent to WED Enterprises to work on EPCOT Center, I did a little stint consulting on TV projects like Donald’s 50th Anniversary then did some random writing and presentational boards for the Consumer Products folks. I returned to features and developed some original ideas for features. Then I was invited to meet at Michael Eisner’s house with him and Frank Wells just a week after they started. Michael felt that Disney Animation should be the premiere studio in whatever medium used animation. He had been a network executive for Saturday morning TV. I was invited because the Consumer Products guys had been given the job of putting animation on TV and they wanted me there.
After that meeting I returned to features but none of my projects moved ahead. I was actually thinking of leaving Disney to write science fiction stories while earning my living as a storyboard artist. I ran into Michael Webster who was running TV Animation under Gary Kriesel. I asked about storyboard work and instead he invited me on a tour of the office. I had forgotten they had wanted me from the start. They made me an offer and I met with Jeffrey Katzenberg who said they could really use me and “it’s not a one way street. You can come back if it doesn’t work out.” Although it turned out it sorta was.
I started as Creative Manager of the department but spent most of my time creating pitches for shows and giving notes until I became Co-producer and Story Editor of the third season of Gummi Bears.
TMB: Prior to your work on Darkwing Duck and beyond, what was some other shows you worked on? Any favorites? Any embarrassments?
TS: After Gummi Bears I did Chip ‘n Dales Rescue Rangers, then Darkwing. I pitched a comedy science fiction show after that but that’s when they started tilting toward doing feature spinoffs. So I did Aladdin, inadvertently created the direct to video business, Hercules and produced Buzz Lightyear of Star Command. I then began an action adventure series based on Atlantis which was cancelled in mid production when the movie performed poorly.
I was in development on a few more shows then shown the door in 2003. After some random pilot assignments including one for Stan Winston about robots, I produced The New Adventures of Brer Rabbit for Universal Studios then two animated Hellboy movies for Revolution Studios. After that? Almost two years of near unemployment until I began storyboarding for Bento Box Entertainment where I’m currently boarding on Bob’s Burgers. But I am also in post production of a pilot I wrote and produced at Bento for Disney Junior.
The favorite projects of my career are Darkwing Duck, Hellboy and a graphic novel I’m currently working on.
TMB: A friend of mine pointed me to this – http://youtu.be/ggmVm2ljDuw – Sport Goofy in Soccermania. It’s interesting, predating Ducktales, but released the same year (1987). Was Soccermania, to use today’s vernacular, a “backdoor” pilot to Ducktales? How was it working on the short? It’s odd that Disney would produce and air a short while developing a slate of TV animated shows. How did it come about?
TS: That was one of the projects I did for the Consumer Product guys where they got to know me. I wrote and boarded it then handed it over to a group of artists that I had brought together to do some animation on an EPCOT special I was producing. The special never happened but we turned the footage into a short called Fun With Mr. Future. The same group was going to do the animation for Roger Rabbit and needed some more experience. They took over the Goofy project and reboarded it. That group was led by Darrel Van Citters, co-founder of Renegade Animation and the late Joe Ranft of Pixar fame. Roger Rabbit didn’t happen until years later and few, if any, of those guys were on it. Then the Soccermania project was taken over by features who used it as a training film for young animators working with Ward Kimball.
Not only was it not a precursor to Ducktales, I was called into a meeting with Kriesel and Webster. Gary thought that the show was a disaster that could hurt Ducktales which was then in production or about to be. It was like they wanted to fire me for what I had done. I was able to laugh about it because it had been so long since I had been on it. Ironically, the first thing Darrell and the guys did to my boards was strip out all the “heart” and story moments to make it a long gag fueled featurette, all the same kind of stuff that I was giving notes about to put into Ducktales.
TMB: On to Ducktales: It’s a fantastic show based on the comics by the talented Carl Barks and Dona Rosa. How did you best determine how much of their works would be used for the cartoon? A few episodes credit Barks specifically. How much say did Barks have in the show’s creative direction? Did he enjoy working on it?
TS: Barks had no say in the production. I never met the man. Tedd Anasti and Patsy Cameron were brought in from The Smurfs to story edit. I remember their early pitches included “The Lobster Mobster.” Very young, gaggy stuff. They backed off that but still had a lighter touch on their stories. I think they created a lot of the new characters. Jymn Magon loved the Barks stuff, as did I, and story edited/wrote the big five part adventures. He was also the one to work with Don Rosa. I would’ve liked to have seen more Barks in it but in truth it might have been the mix of Jymn’s adventure work and the sillier adventures of Tedd and Patsy that created the mix that was so popular.
And understand that Ducktales was HUGE. George Lucas once said Ducktales was to syndicated TV what Star Wars was to the movies.
TMB: Scrooge McDuck is a fascinating character. At the risk of over-analyzing, Scrooge loves his family, but loves his wealth almost as equally. It’s an interesting dichotomy. Usually when the typical wealthy miser finds out “what’s truly important,” he falls into the “family first” trap. Scrooge often has that as being a central conflict to his actions, often getting hung up in the pursuit of wealth over his family’s safety. I suppose then my question is how much of this was cognizant to the crew during production? How did you approach that balance of “love of family” vs. “love of wealth”?
TS: The TV Scrooge was always a softy. His love of money or investments might start them on an adventure but if it came to a choice between the nephews and gold it wasn’t really a choice. Jymn certainly mined the Barks stories for ideas but really the show was more inspired by those stories instead of based on them. It wasn’t like the writers were constantly comparing it to the source material. Hey, early on I was giving notes to them and that certainly wasn’t my mandate.
TMB: You managed to get 100 episodes, which is fairly rare for a TV show, let alone a cartoon. How do you feel you best managed such a lofty goal? What do you think was key to such a development?
TS: Man, I always seem to be bursting bubbles in these interviews. The number of episodes was purely a business decision. They did 13 weeks of five episodes right off the bat. That’s 65. It was a huge hit so they did more. New characters were wanted to freshen the show so I pitched Alien Duck, Bubba Duck – a prehistoric duck and Roboduck. Eisner and Katzenberg picked Bubba and Robo turned to Gizmo. I think Jymn Magon was responsible for taking that one line description and turning him into a real character. I did more development on Gizmoduck, even naming him Fenton Crackshell but it was the writing team of Ken Koonce and David Weimers that fleshed him out.
TMB: What’s your favorite episode? Who’s your favorite character?
TS: I haven’t watched them since then but I’d say it would be Jymn’s five parter with the giant gold coins and lost temple. I had no favorites among the cast although I grew to love Launchpad when we redeveloped him for Darkwing Duck.
So, why aren’t we talking about Ducktales?
Think about it. We have blogs after blogs dedicated to Animaniacs, Gravity Falls, and Adventuretime. We have large fanbases for Freakazoid and Tiny Toons. The cult followings of My Little Pony and Rocko’s Modern Life are quite sizeable. But the Disney Afternoon block of syndicated animated TV seems to be only mentioned in passing. We’ll say they were great, but never exactly expand upon them. Sure, the animated block didn’t end all too well – Bonkers, Quack Pack, The Mighty Ducks, Hercules, and The Emperor’s New Groove don’t exactly garner much enthusiasm (for valid reasons), but the Disney Afternoon’s prime of Gummi Bears, Talespin, Ducktales, Darkwing Duck, Rescue Rangers, Goof Troop, and Gargoyles more than makes up for it.
Ducktales was the pinnacle of the group, the only cartoon that produced more episodes past its initial 65 episode order, making it to the coveted 100 (including a wildly entertaining gem of a film called Treasure of the Lost Lamp, to be discussed later.) Ducktales was based on the extremely popular Donald Duck comics from the creative minds of Carl Barks and Don Rosa, two talented artists who gave life and story to some of Disney’s most memorable ducks, including Scrooge himself. Taking the comics to the airwaves was no easy task, but the animation team took it on, and created a truly timeless show for the ages. Why aren’t we talking about Ducktales? I’m not sure, but I sure have plenty to say about the greatest cartoon of all time.
Ducktales – (1987)
Director: Bob Hathcock, James T. Walker, Alan Zaslove
Starring: Alan Young, Russi Taylor, Terence McGovern
Screenplay(s) by: David Weimers, Ken Koonce, Jymn Magon
Ducktales is, at it’s core, an adventurous, epic saga of a rich duck going through hell and high-water to save his wealth and his family equally. This is important and I’ll touch upon it later, but Ducktales is primarily focused on telling interestingly pulpy tales of hidden treasures, mysterious natives, time travel, robots and ghosts and legends, through which Scrooge McDuck and his plucky nephews battle. Beyond this are the various factions and issues that someone like Scrooge would have to deal with – associative (like a rivalry with second richest duck Flintheart Glomgold), personal (like feeling too old to continue) and business (like securing a deal with the navy to build stealth submarines).
The raw energy and charisma of the characters keep Ducktales moving along at a fun, exciting pace, and each episode is rich with details and character moments. Each episode is also rather unique, given the freedom of the premise to explore any deliciously pulpy idea to fruition. Robots run amok? Sure! Mansions and castles with secret rooms? You bet! Sea monsters? Holla! Don’t forget aliens, secret spies, Amazonians, and superheroes.
For the most part, Ducktales has their stories and tales told so well and so passionately, while maintaining a sense of fun, adventure, comedy, thrill, mystery and drama throughout. “The Treasure of the Golden Suns” five-part premiere is the epitome of all that, a strong intro to various players in the show, as well as developing the kind of relationship between Scrooge and his nephews through out the series. I love how they pace their episodes, too, allowing 5-7 minutes of set up or backstory before jumping into the plot (“The Curse of Castle McDuck” for example). It’s rare to see something like that in cartoons, where the general rule seems to be maintaining momentum and action as much as aesthetically possible.
One of the things that most impressed me is how Ducktales delved into that relationship between Scrooge and his nephews. Huey, Dewey, and Louie are not annoying brats that find themselves getting into trouble like so many cartoons tend to portray their younger characters. They are PART of the adventure, characters that Scrooge truly relies on to help. He doesn’t simply want them around; he NEEDS them. It’s a creative sensibility that seems lost to most kids networks today. They tend to focus on kid characters being the solitary hero in a world of “mean” adults, or shows about man-children-like characters being silly to evoke laughter. Ducktales shows that kids simply want to be PART of the adult world, and when Scrooge says “me and the boys can handle this,” it feels empowering to a young mind. Adults needing a kid’s help? Adults talking to kids like adults? That’s a rarity these days, and Ducktales nails it.
This unique approach to relationships is not only limited to Scrooge and his nephews. Flintheart Glomgold is Scrooge’s rival, and definitely a villain in the truest sense of the word, but it’s a rivalry that’s more ego based, that could be applied to both of them. Scrooge loves to “shove it” into Flintheart’s face as much as he does to Scrooge. The beginning of “Robot Robbers” has Flintheart winning a bid to build a bank, and he shows Scrooge around the construction site to show off instead of ranting about his victory with maniacal laughter. It’s a rivalry in showmanship over destruction, a much more deeper protagonist/antagonist relationship than one would think. Similar relationships exist between Scrooge and Goldie, a romantic pairing that wasn’t meant to be.
You know how when you watch those cheesy films with the father who’s so busy with his work he neglects his family, only in the end he discovers what’s “really” important? Scrooge McDuck represents the follow-up story. Scrooge struggles between his real passion for his “family” and his real passion for his money. He tends to get quite worked up in his pursuit for wealth and treasure that he forgoes the safety of his nephews and even himself. It’s a really interesting and nontraditional dichotomy to see Scrooge play between the two forces of work and family; while family always wins in the end, Scrooge’s struggle with it is a surprising change of pace from most TV, let along animated fare. It’s the element that dooms Scrooge’s relationship with Goldie, when most shows would “ship” them almost immediately.
Ducktales emphasis on its adventurous spirit and perception of business and success overshadows the questionable aspects of an eccentric tycoon’s pursuit of wealth and the effect it has on Duckburg, society, and the safety of his family. While occasionally dabbling in the aftermath of its premise – like in “Down & Out in Duckburg”, Ducktales is primarily concerned with adventure, the fun of adventure, and the “education” in relation to working hard, tough, and smart. It is this cartoon taken to its logical conclusion. To ask Ducktales to explore its own socioeconomic ramifications would be like to have an Indiana Jones film explore the actually practice of archeology and it’s anthropological effect on the cultures he ingrains himself. (When it does, it usually is not good. “Trala La” is rare miss for the show – sloppy, out of character, and kinda offensive.)
The show itself doesn’t condescend or simplify its storytelling (well, not too often). I was always surprised to find surprisingly twisty episodes like “Merit-Time Adventures” and “Duckman of Aquatraz” defy typical whodunits and present surprisingly complex tales. They’re clever and manage to keep up the pace without too much “cartoon” filler. And they’re also surprisingly violent, with characters shooting guns, missiles, and torpedoes quite frequently. I’m kinda surprised Disney didn’t raise too much hell. (They didn’t have to worry about S&P since the show was syndicated.)
I much prefer Ducktales approach to self-awareness and meta-comedy than, let’s say, something like Animaniacs. Ducktales focuses solely on telling its stories and having fun with the characters through the storytelling to wink-and-nod to itself. Sometimes it’s a goofy aside, like when Ma Beagle yells, ” What do you think this is, a cartoon?” at one of her sons in “Robot Robbers”. And “Scroogerella” uses a feverish-dream framing device to insert the characters in a batshit insane retelling of Cinderella. The four part “Catch as Cash Can” saga (which I think is slightly stronger than the “Treasure of the Golden Suns” saga) opens the ridiculousness up on full display when Scrooge and Flintheart have to deliver ALL THEIR WEALTH across the world weigh it on a giant scale. It’s such an outlandish concept, even in the cartoon/Ducktales world, but the commitment to it is so palpable that you can’t help be be engaged.
(And don’t think Ducktales doesn’t have its own share of hidden naughty jokes. In “Status Seekers,” Scrooge attempts to downplay his adventurous, free spirit to fight into higher society. He even tries to join a group of blue-blood snobs that call themselves the Association of Status Seekers. Writer Jymn Magon confirmed that this indeed was on purpose – and what I love is how it doesn’t call attention to itself. It’s a quick verbal gag, only mentioned once, and not beaten into the ground. You either pick up on it, or you don’t.)
Ducktales is also a bit more cartoonier than I remember, which is good. It’s nice to see effecting animation tricks – characters flatten, character fight-cloud, smears and blurs and jawdrops, squash and stretch, and so on – and as mentioned before, TMS does it all with aplomb. In fact, TMS animates an insane, elaborate mine-cart sequence in “Earth Quack” pretty much for the sake of showing off. The voice work is top-notch, to, with Alan Young as Scrooge nailing the highs and lows of the character when needed. And there’s a bit of a continuity in the show; well, I guess they’d be more like callbacks, but they’re callbacks that are integral to the plot and characters. Gyro invents a bathtub time machine, for example; they use it several episodes later when they have to time travel. The only knock against the show’s production is their eventual switch from TMS to Wang Studios. Wang does okay work, but it’s definitely inferior to TMS, and Wang does make some serious visual errors from time to time.
In the end, Ducktales is a strong, exciting piece of animation television. It’s dramatic, adventurous, and hilarious at all the right points, and even with introducing new characters – like Bubba and Fenton Crackshell/Gizmoduck – the cast and crew brings a life and an energy to everything that keeps viewers young and old glued to the screen. Save for a few rough patches here and there, Ducktales is a strong argument that indeed cartoons were better back then (not that I agree with that fully, but it can be made). It holds up better than Scrooge’s own money bin, and that’s saying something.
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