Continuing the ''Looney Toons'' tradition -- A look at Steven Spielberg's new series, ''Tiny Toon Adventures''
If you want to understand the essence of Tiny Toon Adventures, the new $25 million syndicated cartoon series that marks Warner Bros.’ most serious commitment to animation since the long-gone glory days of Looney Tunes, there are certain things you don’t need to know. You don’t need to know that they’re using more than twice as many drawings as the standard weekday afternoon cartoon or that the scoring for every episode is done with a 35-piece orchestra. You don’t really need to know that it’s taken nearly a year and a half to produce the 65 episodes, that Warner Bros. Animation put together a 100-person production team from scratch, or that Warner’s had to use five overseas animation houses to finish the job. You don’t even need to know that the executive producer and driving force behind the project is Steven Spielberg.
In fact, all you really need to know is one little word: anvils.
Yes, anvils. Good old-fashioned ”Acme” anvils. You can hardly have a conversation in the cluttered San Fernando Valley offices that serve as Toon production headquarters without somebody bringing up anvils or 12-ton safes or giant mallets, Acme’s complete line of blunt-object products.
”You know how many anvils hit Plucky Duck in ‘The Anvil Chorus’?” asks Art Leonardi, the man who directed that particular Tiny Toons episode, one in which the kelly-green Plucky is smashed, in time to the music, by one anvil after another. ”Forty anvils hit him. Plus eight cannons. And that’s all in six minutes. Kids are gonna fall to pieces when they see that. They like mayhem.”
At least that’s what they’re counting on at Warner Bros., where Spielberg and his creative team are trying to claim the Looney Tunes slam-bang legacy without relying on the classic Looney Tunes characters. Instead of Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig, Tiny Toons will introduce a whole new generation of wise-cracking creatures: Babs and Buster Bunny, Calamity Coyote, Elmyra, Hamton the pig (described by one writer as ”an anal retentive little guy”), and the aforementioned Plucky Duck.
Until recently, kids’ afternoon television has been a low-budget dumping ground, filled with poorly animated space adventures and decades-old reruns. Three years ago, the Walt Disney Company took a chance on higher-quality programming with its animated DuckTales series, and now Warner’s is raising the stakes.
”Warner’s is taking this entry into animation very seriously,” says Tim Sarnoff, vice president of production management for Warner Bros. Animation, who is quick to point out how much has been spent on things like digital audio, more-drawings-per-second animation, and storage techniques guaranteed to preserve the shows for at least 100 years. ”From the beginning, (Warner Bros. executives) have paid more attention to quality than to cost.”
That refusal to compromise, says Tiny Toons producer Tom Ruegger, is a direct result of Steven Spielberg’s involvement. Clearly, the man who directed E.T., Jaws, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind doesn’t have to take no for an answer. ”He is very concerned about the look of the series because, after all, his name is on the marquee,” Ruegger says. ”Occasionally we’ll send over a sequence that might be good enough for me but maybe the shadow or the texturing or something about the background won’t be up to Steven’s standards. He’ll call us on that and say, ‘Let’s not cut corners here.”’
Spielberg has micro-managed every step of the production process, approving every character, every script, every storyboard, every background design, and every voice-over. There will be 65 first-run episodes of Tiny Toons, 13 weeks’ worth of afternoon cartoons carried on 135 stations. And not a second of it airs without his advice and consent.
”He has very wild ideas,” Ruegger says. ”He was always stressing that he wanted these to look like a movie, not a TV show. He wanted to stay away from close-ups and head shots. He wanted over-the-shoulder angles and aerial shots, things you might not be able to do with a live-action camera.”
Warner Bros. first approached Spielberg in 1987 to make a Toons feature film. By late 1988, it was decided to do a TV series instead. And by January 1989, the 100-person production staff was being assembled. ”I think the realization was that we could reach a broader audience by going to television,” says Jean MacCurdy, vice president and general manager of Warner Bros. Animation.
MacCurdy’s office looks as much like a day-care center as an executive suite. The sofa is overrun by stuffed versions of Babs, Buster, Plucky, and Dizzy Devil (a younger, goofier version of Bugs’ nemesis, the Tasmanian Devil). Tiny Toon porcelain figurines cover an end table. Toon puzzles and games are piled in a corner. She has even turned her carpet into a putting green with a Buster Bunny golf pennant protruding from the cup.
The new characters are meant to be thought of as adolescent toons, with personalities of their own. Hamton, the new pig, doesn’t stutter and neither Babs nor Buster ever says, ”What’s up, Doc?” But even if they’re not meant to be relatives of their famous predecessors, they are certainly the same species. ”Hopefully, there will be a built-in acceptance of these new characters because they do look somewhat familiar,” MacCurdy says.
As much as he wanted to continue the Looney Tunes tradition, Spielberg saw no point in trying to compete with the legendary shorts made by such directors as Friz Freleng, Tex Avery, and Chuck Jones in the ’40s and ’50s, the ”golden age” of Warner animation. ”You’re never gonna match, particularly under this time schedule, the quality of the cartoons they made,” says Ruegger, pointing out that, at their peak, the Looney Tunes teams made about 30 six-minute cartoons a year.
Even so, Warner Bros. did hedge its bet: The classic characters make cameo appearances as teachers at Acme Looniversity. And, as tradition demands, Tiny Toons features plenty of pain jokes. There’s a game show called ”Win, Lose, or Kerplowie.” There’s a snooty-looking grown-up who says in one cartoon, ”I’m the chairperson for Adults Against Funny Cartoons, and I’ve already counted 16 acts of mindless violence in this cartoon.” She gets hit, of course, with an anvil.
”But we don’t use guns,” notes story editor Sherri Stoner. ”No war toys or tanks or bombs. We’ve kept it to strictly cartoon violence: anvils and dynamite, but nothing you could find in your mom’s house. Unless your mom is really weird.”
Although Tiny Toon Adventures is meant primarily for children, the writers and directors have tried to include a satiric edge so the shows work for adults, too. For example, one scene, in which Elmyra is trying to give Dizzy Devil a bath, is a nonviolent parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, right down to the close-up of Dizzy’s glazed eyes and, finally, soap bubbles swirling down the drain.
”This show really was designed for a kids’ audience,” MacCurdy says. ”But we’re also doing something the old guys did. Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng both said that if they could make each other laugh then they felt they were successful. All I know is we’re making ourselves laugh.”
What hasn’t been so funny has been the up-against-the-wall production schedule. Although story meetings and character design sessions began in January 1989, full-fledged production didn’t start until three months later. MacCurdy and Ruegger had to scramble to hire people from all over Hollywood: writers, directors, layout artists, storyboard artists, editors, and background designers. Andrea Romano, the Toons voice-over casting director, auditioned 1,200 actors in less than three months, a far cry from the days when the late Mel Blanc provided practically every Looney Tunes voice. Romano cast more than a dozen regulars, including Don Messick (the voice of Scooby Doo and Boo Boo Bear, among others) and former Saturday Night Live cast member Gail Matthius.
At the height of the production frenzy early in the summer, it was not uncommon for dozens of episodes, each in a different stage of development, to be working their way through the Toon pipeline. Each one took 34 weeks to finish, including 14 weeks of preproduction and 14 weeks at animation houses in Japan, Korea, Canada, and Taiwan, where the meticulous work of drawing and painting each frame was completed. Then there was editing to be done, music to be added, and, inevitably, retakes of shots not up to Spielberg’s standards.
”What we did was impossible,” story editor Paul Dini says. ”We are the bumblebees who didn’t know it was impossible for us to fly.”
”Children’s television has always been thought of as this ghetto,” says Ruegger. ”But we don’t think of ourselves as doing just another show. Right now, at least at this company, this is the golden age.”