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An interview with 'Bravest Warriors' director Breehn Burns

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Breehn Burns provides the A's to critic Robert Lloyd's Q's in this "Bravest Warriors" interview.

I return again, compulsively, to the subject of "Bravest Warriors," a Web-based cartoon series about four teenage heroes — Chris, Beth, Wallow and Danny by name — in the intergalactic, multi-plane 31st century.

It is one of the best things, animated or live action, currently going in the variable, many portaled medium I will call television: full of beauty and mystery and goofball weirdness, peopled (if that's the word) with small creatures like Impossibear, Jelly Kid and Catbug, a dimension-traveling blue cat with ladybug wings and the voice of a child (an actual child, Sam Lavagnino); subject to fits of unpredictable metaphor and simile ("It's like trying to use the president's mouth to make out with God's middle name"); and a host of strange adventures, not the least strange of which are set within the spiritual kingdom of love.

The series -- its latest episode, "Season of the Worm," premieres Thursday -- resides at Cartoon Hangover, the YouTube home of Frederated Studios, producers also of "The Fairly OddParents," "Fanboy and Chum-Chum" and Cartoon Network's most exalted "Adventure Time," whose creator Pendleton Ward also created "Bravest Warriors" as a 2009 pilot short. (The physical resemblance between the series is unmistakable.)

When it came time to make the pilot into a show, Ward, busy with "Adventure Time," turned to Breehn Burns, a friend and collaborator already known for "Dr. Tran," a series of shorts about a 5-year-old boy mistaken (by the cartoon itself, in a way) for a doctor and an action hero. Burns shares development credit for "Bravest Warriors" with Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi (creators of "The Adventures of Pete & Pete" and currently executive producers of Nickelodeon's "Sanjay & Craig") and Frederator studio head Fred Seibert, but it has been his baby above all.

I recently interviewed him by email. He had this to say, or write.

What do you know about the makeup of your audience? Who is "Bravest Warriors" pitched to? It's kid-friendly in its way but can also be pretty sexy or disturbing at times.

Breehn Burns: We were reviewed once by someone who compared us to Adult Swim and "Family Guy," and to me, it's clear that reviewer wasn't our intended audience. I'm not the guy to ask about age demographics, but I think the show is for people who've grown up with Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon but are ready to see something with less censorship. When I was a teenager, I had "The Simpsons," "Beavis and Butt-Head" and "Spike and Mike's Festival of Animation" to fill that role. I don't think our show is particularly harmful to children either; it's probably fun to watch something that feels made for older kids.

How did you get started in cartoons? Are you schooled, self-schooled?

Self-taught mostly. I grew up in San Diego, where "Spike and Mike's" is based, and started submitting cartoons I'd made using, like, Photoshop 3 or something and a Media 100 Editor they had at my high school. We had a lot of success distributing our own films. Over the years I've directed around 20 independent shorts, which is a great training ground for show-running cartoons, because you learn to do everything yourself.

Tell me about connecting with Pen Ward and how you came to work together.

Pen roomed with a friend of mine at CalArts and later was living in Burbank before "Adventure Time" got a greenlight. I was looking for a roommate and called Pen to see if he had any ideas. He had just moved out of a place that day and was going to sleep in his car until he found another apartment, so the timing was perfect. We worked together on a couple things, and he did an adorable walk cycle for one of my "Dr. Tran" shorts. When "Bravest Warriors" started getting developed, he was busy with "Adventure Time" and asked me to help out.

How did your work on "Bravest Warriors" begin?

Summer 2011, Pen asked me to develop the show and create a "pitch bible," which is basically a cute little book with descriptions and drawings that tells people how the show will work. Frederator was going to pitch it for TV and had Conan O'Brien potentially attached to produce. I'm not sure what happened after that, but the project went away for several months, and when they came back to me it had turned into a YouTube series, and Conan was no longer involved.

What did you make sure to (were asked to, or wanted to) take from Pen's pilot? What did you want to change?

I was very aware that Pen's original "Bravest Warriors" pilot was made in a pre-"Adventure Time" world. It's fantastic, but has a similar feel to the Tracey Ullman "Simpsons" shorts (when looking back at them after decades of "The Simpsons"). I wanted to carry the spirit of Pen's original pilot into something more sophisticated, and knowing we'd get compared to "Adventure Time" set the bar unbelievably high.

How does "Bravest Warriors" overlap with "Adventure Time," aesthetically and philosophically? How do they differ?

Our main characters were designed by Phil Rynda, who also designed ["Adventure Time" heroes] Finn and Jake. He got a bit more complex with the Bravest Warriors, which makes them a little harder to draw. We started off trying for a different background style, with Steven Sugar designing the worlds in Season 1, but eventually time and budget issues led to us hiring a lot of "Adventure Time" staff as freelancers, so a lot about the two shows looks similar. The separation in tone between "AT" and "BW" is one that's always widening, since my scripts began with more of Pen's voice in mind and have grown to look more and more like the inside of my brain. But always at the forefront are smart, proactive characters and unbreakable bonds of friendship.

Tell me about Jason Johnson, your history with him (and "Dr. Tran") and his contribution to "Bravest Warriors."

Jason Johnson and I have been writing together for almost 25 years, and he's been involved with every "Bravest" script. We made all our "Dr. Tran" cartoons together (he co-writes and does voices), and back then, with tiny budgets and few resources, we had to write those films in a very limited way. Working together on "Bravest" has meant we could pull out all the cool ideas we never got to use and see them fully animated. Catbug and the Paralyzed Horse both sprung from older, unused ideas.

Discuss the meaning and importance of love of in "Bravest Warriors" ...

Working on the show has taught me about infusing love into storytelling. Honestly, my old films were usually driven by passion and anger. The part I admire most about Pen's creations is how the security of friendship and love is a constant. He's told me about how he generally never wanted Finn and Jake to get in fights on "Adventure Time" and how difficult that can make things for writers who go right to relationship conflict when coming up with stories. "Bravest Warriors" has a similar challenge. Conventional wisdom says, "Story is conflict." I want characters who love and respect each other, and who will never betray each other. But on the other hand, they're teenagers with hormones and crushes and drama. We're always looking for the balance.

... and the meaning of beauty ...

Making independent cartoons, I usually overcompensated on the graphic end to make up for what the animation lacked in ... animation. I'm also a painter and used to work in illustration, so I get obsessed with evoking a feeling through light and color and making every frame as beautiful as possible. For "Bravest," I try to capture a nostalgic beauty that takes adult viewers back to an idealized summer, somewhere around 10th grade. On Mars. In the future.

... and of melancholy.

The melancholy in the show stems from the characters' search for love. The older Chris sees Beth in a very different way than the younger Chris. Danny's lack of early, parental love makes him want to be a father figure to others, but he isn't ready. Beth has always looked up to her dad, but has to grow beyond him to become her own person. Wallow wishes he could love everyone equally, but in the season three scripts we're writing now, he finds out how strong his feelings can be.

Did you know when you introduced the Emotion Lord that he would turn out to be Chris? How far ahead do you plot the mythology?

I knew the Emotion Lord would be Chris. It's hard to resist an embarrassing future-self character that shows up to remind you of how doomed you are. I usually think pretty far ahead on the show, but sometimes it's challenging to hang on to those ideas when you're writing episodes, because it starts to feel like handcuffs. It's more fun to be surprised by your own stories.

Discuss the contributions of Will McRobb and Chris Viscardi. Of Fred Seibert.

I can't say enough good stuff about all those dudes. Fred let me aim very high, and gave us the freedom to take the show in unusual directions. Will and Chris were producers on Season 1, and they helped keep our insane ideas grounded in the reality of growing up. They guided the heart of the show.

Is there anything about the next episodes you're willing to reveal?

Hmmm. Beth confronts her father. Hamster Mitch has a crisis of faith. I really hope Danny catches a break. And Interphasic Hump-Gnats peeweezle right through to Wallow's slapsies.

About the next season?

For Season 3, Jason and I are writing six 11-minute episodes. The story picks up several months after the end of Season 2, but it's probably too early to talk about details.

Will there be any changes in the way the cartoon is made, or who's making it?

The finale of Season 2 is the last episode I'm directing. I'm stepping down as show-runner. It's the best job I've ever had, but after all this time working without a full staff, I just need to sit in a dark room and exhale for like a month. It's a demanding show, which has been almost three years of working seven days a week with no vacations, but I'm so proud of every episode. Our new show-runner, the amazing Tom King, boarded the first-ever episode of "Bravest Warriors," "Time Slime." I've been filling him in on an encyclopedia's worth of information over the past week or two, as he gets started directing "Dan of Future Past," our first 11-minute episode.

How does your production process differ from network animation?

Our process is very similar except for the number of employees. We've got a fraction of the staff they have on a network show. We rely on freelancers, many of whom have been very good to us. But when things go wrong, we don't have a lot of safety net and big delays between episodes are common.

What are the yardsticks of success when you're based in the Web?

That may be a question for the Frederator folks. I think everyone is still trying to define it.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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