Cel Mates : A look inside the world of the people who make cartoons

Times Staff Writer

As Tom Ruegger gets excited, more and more smoke whirls around his head, much like a cartoon character, as if his head is working some serious overtime.

In fact, it’s actually cigarette smoke.

Even so, it’s a nice visual image to conjure up. After all, Ruegger is in the middle of a story conference for a TV cartoon series.

Taking part in the conference are a laughing group of comics, actors and dancers--all staff writers for Ruegger, the senior producer and story editor of Fox’s new “Batman: The Animated Series,” the returning “Tiny Toons” and the 1993 “Animaniacs.”


As animated--to boldly use the word--as everyone in the room is, the writers are extremely careful not to reveal too much about their latest project, “Animaniacs.” In fact, Ruegger is so guarded about the cartoon that he removed cells of the characters from his walls before a reporter came to visit.

The staff is eager to distract--and to talk about themselves, and just about everything but their show.

“Sherry (Stoner, producer and story editor) was the figure model inspiration for Belle in ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ ” someone shouts.

“And Ariel in ‘Little Mermaid’!”

“It’s true!” Stoner nods modestly and curtsies.

“Deanna (Oliver) won comedy director of the year for her work with Groundlings!” someone else points out.

“Did you get that?” Oliver says, leaning into the tape recorder.

Despite the staff’s obvious avoidance in revealing too much about the new show, the madness and the method are evident: They are out to complete a mission--65 half-hours of the show, which by its air date will have been more than two years in the making.

A cartoon is most definitely not just a moving comic book. It is not dissimilar to a live-action show, but without the limits of reality.

“Anything can happen in a cartoon; the only limits are the writers’ and artists’ imaginations,” Ruegger says. “We can show things that live action cannot. Within one shot we can show outside someone’s body and truck directly into their thoughts. There are many advantages to working in the animation medium. It’s a completely different reality.”

This different reality is fodder for kiddie programming.

The creative core of a cartoon can vary greatly depending on the show. As supervising producer of “Goof Troop,” animation veteran Bob Taylor (Terry Toons, “Pink Panther,” “Fritz the Cat”) supervises all of the stories as well, giving the shows “a single vision,” he says.

A single vision can be difficult, however, with many shows using staff and free-lance writers.

“If (writers) are new to a show, we’re given the ‘bible’ which has detailed descriptions of characters and setups,” says Marc Handler, a free-lance cartoon writer and story editor. “For example, the ‘Batman’ bible had ‘all stories take place at night,’ that kind of thing.”

Patsy Cameron and Tedd Anasti, the producer-story editors of Disney’s new “The Little Mermaid,” say of their series: “We considered 50 to 60 writers, all of whom we gave our bible. They presented us with six to eight premises. Some worked, some didn’t and some partially worked.”

Those ideas that “work” for the cartoon’s creative staff are then passed down to staff or free-lance writers.

While this is generally common practice, some companies prefer a more collaborative effort--involving the artistic staff, much the way Ruegger and his staff work.

“It’s our methodology to use the collaborative think tank, to get everyone--writers, designers, animators and the creator--in a creative mist to round-table ideas,” says Tom Burton, president of Calico (“Widget,” “Mr. Bogus,” and the upcoming “The Moo Family”).

“We usually have between a week and three weeks to write the script,” Handler says. “Then it goes to the producers and sometimes the executives. Then it’s returned to us and we do the rewrite. It’s a lot of hurry up and wait and then hurry up and wait, because when you’re finally done writing it can take up to a year to see your work on television.”

The process is lengthy because after the final rewrite, the script then goes to the storyboardists who “map” out details for the animators, who are often in Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines or China.

When the animators are finished, the raw footage goes to the editor who, with the directors and producers, goes over the show, trims scenes that seem long and occasionally asks for retakes. The film is then transferred to videotape. The composer spends about two weeks before an orchestra scores the episode and sound-effects are added.

Most live-action shows generally have 13 episodes a season, but some cartoons that air daily--”Captain Planet,” “Tiny Toons” and “Duck Tales,” for example--can require up to 79 episodes a season.

On “Goof Troop,” which airs on ABC once a week but every day in syndication, five story editors each have three to five staff writers. The large number of shows, Taylor says, “requires a tremendous amount of work.”

Once that many episodes have been made, new shows are not immediately made because the cartoons can be played over and over.

Jymn Magon, a story editor at Walt Disney Television Animation, points out that children will watch things again and again, whereas adults wouldn’t feel the same way about even their favorite show.

Whatever the length or whoever the characters, because cartoons are mainly directed toward children, considerations are often given to a message. Most cartoon creative personnel agree that children can tell when cartoons become condescending and react better when characters are put in situations that they can relate to.

Jim Jenkins, story editor and creator of Nickelodeon’s “Doug,” says: “Story drives our series and we always consider, ‘What’s the kid issue; what does Doug learn from the experience?’ For example, we don’t want to just preach, but in one episode, ‘Doug’s A Big Fat Liar,’ we show that lying can be a really stupid way to live and takes a lot more work than the truth.”

Shows such as “Captain Planet” and “Widget” are message-driven, with their characters encountering environmental issues throughout each episode. Nick Boxer, executive producer of “Captain Planet,” says that through the advice of experts, they can “present correct and authentic cultural, social and environmental issues.”

Says Burton: “The message is very clear, but if it’s not told in an entertaining way, it won’t get through.”

Mark Evanier, who writes all episodes of “Garfield” and “Mother Goose and Grimmy,” says: “I do very little toward conventional moralizing. I tend to think that the messages in cartoons are things (kids) already know. There’s a much more basic message that I learned from Bugs Bunny--you have to outthink the system and be prepared to cope with the stupidity around you. Our characters are good at figuring that out, and it gives out a very important message to kids. They must rely on their smarts.”

Paul Germaine, story editor of Nick’s “Rug Rats,” says: “We take our child audience very seriously, we don’t want them to feel patronized or talked down to. We try to deal with them in a realistic way--how kids can be mean and how they can be kind. We don’t have an overall message; we try to give children the quality that adults expect, TV that doesn’t talk down. The key is to show intelligence.”

“Throughout the batch of ‘Tiny Toons,’ Ruegger says, “the underlying message is two-fold: don’t underestimate the little guy and bullies can be tolerated to a point, but when the bully goes too far, you have to take a stand.”