Animated Series Stuck in Doghouse : Television: CBS promoted 'Family Dog' for its spring lineup, but production snags will delay the Spielberg production until fall.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When CBS broadcast the Grammy Awards in February, the network used the music industry's highly rated ceremony as a platform to hype "The Family Dog," an animated TV series from executive producers Steven Spielberg, "Batman" director Tim Burton and onetime "All in the Family" writer Dennis Klein.

Despite rumors in the animation industry that "Family Dog" was overrun by production problems, CBS launched a promotional campaign to introduce America to a nameless mutt that looked like a cross between a bull terrier and a large rat. The Grammy spots arrived on the heels of a news conference with Burton and Klein, and a flurry of media stories and print advertisements--all suggesting that the series would arrive this spring.

But "Family Dog" is nowhere to be seen today--and won't be, CBS says, until the fall.

Sources working on "Family Dog" say the series has been plagued by a string of production problems stemming from the rush to meet CBS' spring deadline. When March rolled around, there simply weren't enough episodes for CBS to begin airing--which took no one attached to the project by surprise.

"We were on an extremely tight schedule, which only would have worked had every single traffic light been green," said Klein, who wrote all 13 episodes in CBS' initial "Family Dog" order.

"In my mind, I thought that deadline was a real long shot," said Frank Marshall, production executive for Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, which is co-producing "Family Dog" with Universal Television and Warner Bros. Television. Marshall also closely supervised "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" for Amblin.

"I've just been through animation before," he sighed.

Peter Tortorici, senior vice president of program planning for CBS, knew there was a good chance that "Family Dog" would not meet its schedule at the time CBS made the unusual decision to advertise a TV series without an airdate on the Grammys.

"That's why we didn't put the date and time on the promos," Tortorici said. "We hedged. We knew it was iffy. But we took the act of faith and planned and hoped for the best. We at least wanted to make sure we got the tom-tom beating."

The production delays on "Family Dog" have been blamed on everything from the shortage of available animation talent in the United States to unsatisfactory results from the cheap-labor, overseas animators who were subcontracted for the series.

But sources said that the predominant reason "Family Dog" fell behind schedule, panting for breath, is that the demanding cost and time constraints of network television are not compatible with the high level of design and animation that "Family Dog" is attempting.

The average animated feature film runs 70 minutes and takes two or three years to complete. In comparison, with 13 episodes at 23 minutes per episode, "Family Dog" will wind up with 299 minutes--more than four feature films' worth--of animation produced in about a year.

"Family Dog" animating director Chris Buck said the biggest obstacle was "getting used to TV, because TV is a real grind." Buck has a background in feature-length animation on such Walt Disney films as "The Little Mermaid" and "Rescuers Down Under."

"I'm used to having a little more time," he continued. "You have more time to fine tune. TV is a different time frame. You have to grind it out, and you don't have time to finesse things. It's a killer having to let the work go, and watch it go out half-baked. . . . The main hope is that it's still entertaining."

When CBS placed its order last May, the innovative "Family Dog" seemed the perfect cure for the last-place network, looking to take more chances with its programming.

The blueprint for the series was ready-made; Burton had designed the cast and title character years ago as a CalArts student. With writer and director Brad Bird, the off-balanced mutt became a critically acclaimed episode of Spielberg's NBC anthology series "Amazing Stories" in 1987, and Spielberg has reportedly been trying to strike up a TV deal ever since.

"Family Dog" takes a twisted look at suburban family life from the point of view of the household pet. Because the dog does not talk or think out loud--he's really just a dog--the humor is largely nonverbal, communicated through the dog's attitudes, actions and facial expressions. Therein lay the greatest challenge for the storyboard artists and animators.

"Most television animation, if you look at it, is very verbal," Buck said. "Most of it, like 'The Simpsons,' relies on dialogue for laughs. 'Family Dog' has to carry the story and tell jokes with acting and pantomime, and that requires a lot of finesse and intricate designs."

To complicate matters, most of the creative decisions for "Family Dog," at $600,000 an episode, had to be made up front because of the protracted time required to write, record voices for, storyboard, animate, edit and score a single episode.

"Unlike a live-action show, where you shoot it and see it the next week, we wait nine months before we see the final version of ours," Amblin's Marshall said. "We can't just go out over the weekend, shoot a new scene and drop it in."

Klein, who also wrote for "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" and helped create "Buffalo Bill," said he still hasn't seen a completed episode of "Family Dog."

"I wrote all 13 of the scripts without being able to see a frame of anything that I had written," he said. "There were no chances for revisions along the way. There are two phases of animation, I have discovered. Phase 1, too soon to tell. Phase 2, too late to do anything about it. We're right in between the two phases right now."

Marshall, who stresses that Amblin's purpose in delaying the release of "Family Dog" is to make sure it will be of the highest quality possible, dismisses the early problems the series has suffered.

"There was something we experienced on 'Roger Rabbit' called the learning curve ," he said. "It takes weeks and sometimes months for animators to get the hang of a show. You know, what is the style, the tone of the show. Once that gets established, things go much faster and easier. We couldn't determine everybody was getting 'Family Dog' until the first show came back from the Far East, and by that time 10 more shows had already been shipped."

"Family Dog" may not be out of the doghouse yet, though. With a six- to nine-month turnaround from script approval to completed product, CBS may find itself in a situation similar to the one Fox faced last year if "Family Dog" turns out to be a smash.

When "The Simpsons" became a runaway hit in mid-season last year, the producers couldn't crank out new episodes fast enough to make the fall season. When "The Cosby Show" started up in September on NBC, "The Simpsons," which had moved opposite "Cosby" on Thursday nights, had only third-time reruns to show. Fresh "Simpsons" episodes finally arrived in October, but the series never regained its early ratings success.

When asked if he thinks "Family Dog" might be destined for the same fate, "Simpsons" executive animation producer Gabor Csupo said: "Yes. It's actually a general problem in the TV industry, that they tend to wait until the very last minute to order new episodes. . . . Once the ratings are coming in, if they are smart they will place an order soon. But if they wait until the 13 shows run out, it's going to be a burden on the production company, which happened to us several times."

CBS has already commissioned Klein to write five more scripts. And the network's Tortorici said that once CBS executives take their first look at "Family Dog" in the middle of May, they may very well increase the order before the series goes on the air. Tortorici is trying to remain flexible because, he said, the networks have largely fallen out of touch with prime-time animation.

"No question," he said. "All the normal timetables we work with on our other series are not appropriate for the animation process. We have to rethink and re-examine, so we can accomplish the same objectives with a different kind of product."

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