Archive for category Film

Email Interview With Robert Schooley

The Penguins of Madagascar is a quietly excellent cartoon: a madcap, zany show that redefined the Madagascar’s cuddly-yet-militaristic team in an over-the-top Brooklyn zoo. Its insular nature made it hard to keep up, but, like Community, rewarded followers with inside jokes, excellent character gags, and nods to past events. Recently, the show finished up their production run, and sooner then later the final episodes will be aired on Nick. [07/19/12 – Edit: Just learned that, today, the show was also nominated for a Primetime Emmy!] Executive producer and writer Robert Schooley took some time out of his schedule to talk about the show, the difference between CGI and traditional animation, and whether the Lunicorns were indeed a My Little Pony parody. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.

Peguins of Madagascar

TMB: The Penguins of Madagascar seemed to relish in being its own thing instead of hewing too closely to the Madagascar movies. How much of this was intentional from the start? Did Dreamworks or Nickelodeon have reservations in taking the characters in such a different and separate direction?

RS: It was a practical decision.  DW didn’t know what the Madagascar sequel stories would be at that point, so the decision was made to feature all of the characters but the four leads and exist in a separate continuity from the features.

TMB: As a followup, what were the challenges, if any, in defining the characters and the show outside of the films?

RS: Skipper was fully defined already, so it was a matter of finding new aspects to the other three to round out the team.   Because we were not really related to the movies, we felt pretty comfortable letting everyone develop naturally as we’d invent new comic quirks to have fun with.

TMB: Does the New York setting pose any issues? Since everyone who works on the show is in LA.

RS: Not really. Most of us are from the east coast anyway.  I’m sure if we were living there while writing the show more particular real world details might have shown up.

TMB: The director of the first Madagascar film, Tom McGrath, mentioned here that he wanted to avoid “zoo vs. wild” type contentions. Seems like you doubled down on that philosophy. Can you elaborate on it?

RS: It’s such a unique world with it’s own strange logic, I’m not sure the issue really came up much.

TMB: How did ideas for characters and plots come up? It’s impressive how rich and diverse the cast has become in just a few years.

RS: Hardest question to answer.  Most ideas just come out of looking to put a character through something.  A few stories came out of specifics to the zoo setting, like “Snooze at the Zoo” or webcam, but most were just coming up with funny ways to put characters in conflict with each other, nature or the world.

TMB: While I wouldn’t say the show had a “story arc,” it seems to have a very loose style that allows events, stories, and characters to be called back to, referenced, and revisited. Was there a fear about that being alienating to new audiences?

RS: Always a risk and probably something the network would rather we didn’t do, but all the shows we produce have a rough internal continuity.  We like to reward fans who watch every episode.  And in this DVR age it’s not hard to do.

TMB: I would like to talk about the animation for a moment. We’ve come a long way since Reboot. How challenging is it to make strong, cartoony movements (squash and stretch, smears and blurs, etc.) via CGI?

RS: We have really great animators in our studios working off very strong board poses.   It amuses me when people confuse rendering (i.e. detailed fur) to character animation. On a TV budget and schedule we can’t do the same lush rendering as a feature, but I think we do get every ounce of subtlety and personality out of these characters.  We are constantly amazed by the little extra touches the teams in India and New Zealand add to the acting.

TMB: Which do you prefer, traditional or computers?

RS: Apples and oranges.  I like both.  Kim Possible was a great looking show and I’d do that style again in a minute.  A big advantage to traditional is that you can create a much bigger world, since every set and guest character doesn’t have to be laboriously built.  And it can be a more stylish look, ideally.  But there’s also a great feel of spacial reality in CG that lends itself to the more sitcom sorts of stories that we do on this show, and yet, thanks to the process that’s been refined here at Nick, with genuine cartoon snap and timing that is genuinely fun to watch.

TMB: How did you get into the TV animation business? How’d you get tagged as executive producer of this show in particular?

RS: Started in the mailroom at DIC, a busy studio in the 80’s.  Started pitching stories to their shows, got hired on staff.  Eventually drafted to Disney, worked our way up to exec producer there.  We were recruited to run Penguins after they had already done a first version of a pilot that we came in to rework.

TMB: Favorite character? Favorite episode?

RS: Can’t really pick a favorite character.  Honestly they’re all fun to write.  I think Skipper is pretty special because Tom created him and can add little touches and ad libs in the performance that surprise and delight us.  But I think everybody has added unique touches to their characters. Danny’s King Julien is a constant exploration of how far you can push an ego.  I love when Jeff gets to play Kowalski as unexpectedly emotionally fragile.  Or when John decided Rico should sing like Michael McDonald.  And nothing made me laugh more than James when Private got angry at everybody.

Favorite episode may be “The Penguin Who Loved Me” because it’s the final Blowhole episode and it pays off a lot of running gags from the series.   It may end up being the last to air.

TMB: Now that production is finished on the show, what’s next for you and the Penguins? Rumor has it that there may be a movie in the works.

RS: There is a Penguins movie in production at DW, but at this time it’s unrelated to the series.  That could always change though, I guess.   We, and most of the staff and some of the cast are deep into the next series Monsters vs. Aliens.

TMB: Final question: Are the Lunacorns really the show’s jab at the My Little Pony fandom?

RS: One man’s jab is another’s homage.

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Welcome to the blog!

In the past few weeks, I’ve received a number of hits and views due to some wonderful connections I’ve made through Twitter and emails. To which I say: welcome! Thanks for the wonderful comments and observations.

The purpose of this blog is to essentially give equal weight and thought to  all forms of entertainment and attempt to delve into the pop culture lens across the board. Here, I discuss movies, TV, comics, books, video games, music, and cartoons in equal fashion, exploring how all those forms of entertainment are approach today and how they may or may not relate to each other. Many critics will explore, let’s say, feminism with either one character for a distinct genre, or several characters from one genre. I prefer to look at Ripley, Peggy Olsen, Wonder Woman, Lara Croft, Gladys Knight, and Korra with the same perspective and ponder, what exactly, is feminism today. No format or genre is outside my consideration. Everything is fair game, and I will try to discuss these forms of entertainment in a fun, informal, approachable manner, while indeed putting some thought into it all. Or at least try.

So again, thank you for stopping by. In case you wish to follow me elsewhere:

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Stick around! Good stuff is coming!

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The Gilded Age of Television

The television landscape may be doing some pretty great forms of entertainment, but the severe lack of diversity has been more problematic than critics seem willing to admit. Why?

I feel bad for Lena Dunham. The creator and showrunner for HBO’s Girls has gotten a lot of flack for the lack of racial, social and/or sexual diversity in her critically-lauded show, and it’s not really her fault. She has no responsibility to speak for an American society that now has more minority babies than Caucasian ones, or for the scores of homosexual people concerned over the future of marriage. The onus is really on the executives to greenlight and schedule shows that involve minorities, as well as promote them with the same rigor that they would their flagship shows. Girls have been receiving the backlash primarily on two fronts: 1) its very premise and characters make it impossible to deal with the real – and complex – issues plaguing the modern twenty-something, and 2) its pedigree have been exalted so much by both creators and critics that they seem unwilling or incapable of criticizing the very problem that the so-called Golden Age of Television represents. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that borderlines on conspiratorial; critics praising shows of a singular and narrow vision for their jobs encourage creators to create shows of a singular and narrow vision for critics to praise, and so on. This problem has extended from the AV Club to even our beloved Hulk.

Points 1) and 2) are noticeable in the promo photograph for Girls:

Girls Promo Photo

(Check out the parody here, which touches upon the larger point, even though I don’t quite agree with it.)

Look at it. Just look at it. Not a single person of color or minority – and this show takes place in New York, so no one will deal with the pressures of casual racism. Not one of them is gay, so they’ll never deal with the issue of coming out (or “passing”). Hell, not one of them is geeky or fat or even different in anyway, which are all real issues twenty-somethings deal with. This photo alone showcases such a strange and narrow vision of expectations, and the show, from what I’ve heard, only confirms it. Please don’t get me wrong. Denham has no responsibility to “speak” for those outside her singular vision (although this is a serious problem with auteur theory that critics fail to address – more on this later). But everything that is endemic about TV today is encapsulated right there.

We’re not in a Golden Age of Television. We’re in a Gilded Age of Television, an era that professes a greatness that masks the numerous issues that are facing the TV landscape. There is great television out there – from Mad Men and Breaking Bad, to Community and Happy Endings, to even shows like My Little Pony and Adventure Time and Regular Show. It’s stuff I truly enjoy watching, but even with this sample we can see how the “macronarratives” lean towards the heterosexual, WASP vision of the world.  (Yes, even MLP – Take a look at the comments section on Youtube for any showing of the episode “Over a Barrel.” And I know that a Youtube comment section is the seventh level of hell, but I still recommend looking because it did foster a debate worth having.)

The issue, as I see it, has always been concerning auteur theory, an ideal but extremely flawed method of thinking about collaborative forms of art that ties distinctive styles and techniques to a singular person. In the broadest form, it’s a fine way of thinking about film or TV, but over the years the inherent flaws of auteur theory – the danger of discounting those “other people” who worked on the film; the limits of tying inherently “free” techniques to one (often straight, male, white, and American) person; disparaging different forms, styles, ideas, and media as having intellectual merit over others – completely fell by the wayside. Critics were careful to note these problems at the beginning of auteur theory formulation; now, it’s as if these dangers were mere trifles. There are those creators that are defined “great” and those that aren’t, and it’s odd that those “great” people are mostly, well, similar to their physical and sexual traits, defined within intellectual paradigms.

Nothing represents that most distinctly then Roger Ebert’s takedown (and subsequent non-apology) of video games as art. It’s not that I agree or disagree with him, but it’s sad, borderline embarrassing, how Ebert frames his argument, then follows all that up with some arbitrary poll when his readers can vote whether they would rather play a game or read Huckleberry Finn. As if this whole thing amuses him, the masses of people with their over-the-top and implied-uneducated-and-therefore-unworthy opinions, because of course he’d never actual, maybe, sort of, kind of, think about the issue a little. This is the modern form of criticism. It’s no longer informative, debatable, self-aware, and cautious; it’s direct, declarative, non-ironic, and bold.

And even in regards to Murray’s misappropriated essay from above, after the general disappointment and backlash against it late in the comments section, you would think there would be some sort of re-thinking of the approach the issue of “micronarrative” representation over at the AVClub and in criticism in general. But in a recent Girls review, head editor Todd VanDerWerff posts the following comment in response to the continuing Girls backslash:

“People seem completely unwilling to extend this show even an inch of intellectual/critical charity, as if every minor deviation from their own reality on the part of the show’s reality is somehow a huge failure. It’s just fucking wearying.”

Which threw that idea out the window. (Which goes doubly so for this screed on a recent Girls review, at least the second half of it.)

I know Todd and met him a few times in New York and in Los Angeles. He is a very nice person and definitely has a solid head on his shoulders. I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean to come off glib or dismissive, but hearing “it’s just fucking wearying” is irritating. As if we’re supposed to, once again, follow that auteur theory road that Dunham is a part of, and play their game of television art and be satisfied, because those who don’t or refuse to or even have legit reasons for their dislike is “wearying”. Poor Todd and critics like him, forced to think maybe other people have a point.

This, I believe, is the inherent reason to the internet’s backlash to people like Ebert or to shows like Girls or to places like Cartoon Brew. They simply do not, or in many cases will not, acknowledge the flaws in their criticisms or attempt to explore, legitimately, the criticisms of other places. They will not participate in those debates in any meaningful fashion; not to say they need to at every single occasion, but it’s that they don’t even bother. I have my issues with people like Jim Sterling at Destructoid or Penny Arcade’s Tycho Brahe (aka Jerry Holkins) or Kevin Smith, but their willingness to mix it up with the average person and willingness to explore ideas garners more points from me (and most of the internet) than most critics these days.

If more critics fall to honestly explore the problems with modern television (well, in entertainment across the board), then this Gilded Age will only grow worse, these opinions will become “rules,” and criticism will no longer be the critical thinking/exploration method like the days of old, but the biased preference of “universal” rigidity of today – which is really, really male, straight, and white.

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