When the cable TV channel Nickelodeon set out three years ago to build an original library of children's cartoons, it did so by breaking from tradition and hiring single animators with a personal vision rather than large studios where cartoons are factory produced.
But one animator's vision, independent attitude and exacting work habits wound up being a little more than Nickelodeon bargained for.
Nickelodeon is expected to formally announce today the removal of director and producer John Kricfalusi from his own creation, "The Ren & Stimpy Show," Nickelodeon's most successful original cable program, because the program's delivery deadlines were not being met. Nickelodeon confirmed Friday that it was firing the animator.
Kricfalusi said on Sunday that the demands of jointly producing a cartoon series with a cable network were just too great. Kricfalusi wanted to stretch the walls of animation into forbidden regions, while Nickelodeon wanted to stay within the boundaries of good taste for its young viewers.
"Nickelodeon wants something for the show. I want something for the show," Kricfalusi said, expressing relief that he was now free to pursue other projects. "They're both very strong visions, and together they made for a really great show. But in pure reality, when you mix two really strong visions, it's going to take a long, long time to do the work."
One of Kricfalusi's former partners, Bob Camp, has been named the new master of Ren and Stimpy. Nickelodeon executives were in Los Angeles Friday searching for floor space to start their own animation studio, where Camp will continue working on nine 22-minute episodes that are now in various stages of production. The network was unable to say when new episodes will be ready.
"They have all my creative work," said Kricfalusi, who relinquished the rights to Ren and Stimpy to Nickelodeon two years ago to establish his young production company. Kricfalusi would not say what his future involvement with "Ren & Stimpy" will be, because his attorneys are still involved in negotiations, but he suggested that it will be minimal at best.
"In the long run, this will be a good thing for everyone," Camp said on Friday. "John is like a not-ready-for-prime-time player. The idea of him doing children's programming--it was good children's programming, great stuff, but he was not in his element."
Three years ago, Kricfalusi, Camp, Jim Smith and Lynn Naylor could no longer stomach the strict standards of the Saturday-morning cartoon Establishment. They broke away to form Spumco, a renegade studio where animation would be free to run as wild as their imaginations. Led by Kricfalusi, their ticket to independence was "Ren & Stimpy," a really twisted dog and cat version of Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, with Ren an irascible Chihuahua and Stimpy a bloated cat.
"Ren & Stimpy" premiered last season on Nickelodeon with six endlessly rerun episodes and became an instant cult hit, spawning college fan clubs, national media attention and loads of merchandising.
But in many ways, Spumco was a high-pressure creative boiler waiting to explode. Kricfalusi, who proudly claims to have been fired by almost every animation studio in town, was constantly fighting with Nickelodeon over deadlines, finances and the ribald nature of his cartoon.
" 'Ren & Stimpy' is a highly choreographed performer, where the drawings, the backgrounds, the color, the music are all like actors working together," Kricfalusi said. He believes that modern animation is devoid of real motion and visual humor because the stories are written in script form by writers, rather than on storyboards by cartoonists--the time-consuming method he employed on "Ren & Stimpy."
"We were doing what they did in the 1940s at Warner Bros., but we're not in the 1940s anymore," Kricfalusi said. "There's no training ground for this. We were reinventing the wheel."
"There are three shows that are in the offing here that were going to be our 'magnum opus,' " said story editor Eddie Fitzgerald. "John just needed more time. John's feels that traditional animation lacks acting. A little boy crying over his dead puppy is not acting; acting is what Kirk Douglas did in 'Detective Story.' The reliance the industry has had in cliched story lines doesn't require acting. So John tailored the stories around the need to act."
Kricfalusi, who has been known to submit storyboards for network approval and then animate something quite different, also bumped heads with Nickelodeon over content. Nickelodeon recently shelved two completed cartoons, starring a new character named George Liquor, because they were too offensive. One of the episodes, "Man's Best Friend," shows Ren bashing in Liquor's head with a wooden oar--in black-and-white slow motion a la "Raging Bull." Several sources in the animation community who have seen the episode say it's Kricfalusi's best work.
That's because his animation system was finally hitting stride, Kricfalusi said. One of the most discouraging parts of his break with Nickelodeon will be letting go of his employees. "You're talking about a production process that hasn't been done for 50 years," he said. "It's gone. It exploded in one day. It's torn apart, and now I have to put it back together. That's a huge waste."
Nickelodeon originally ordered 26 episodes of "Ren & Stimpy" for this season, and reduced that number to 13 to accommodate Kricfalusi's timetables. But since the new season began on Aug. 15, only 2 1/2 episodes have run (each episode contains two separate 11-minute cartoons).
In his defense, Kricfalusi says he simply needed more money, given the complexity of the product. Nickelodeon wouldn't raise the reported $400,000 budget per episode this season, as he requested, Kricfalusi said, so he sank his own cash into the completion of some episodes.
Another independent animation producer who has tangled with management suggested that the entertainment industry is not really clued into the demands of animation. "John can get excessive, but that comes with the package," said animation producer Ralph Bakshi, who recently had troubles with Paramount Pictures, which forced him to cut 50 minutes out of his summer animated film, "Cool World."
"Understanding the kind of creator John is--that he has nowhere to go financially, yet he still wants to make the shows quality-oriented while building a solid crew of animators--they should have allowed him to miss this season," Bakshi said. "It's like a ball team: you go with the talent you have. Each player requires different handling."
Executives at Nickelodeon would not comment on this story. But one animation story editor offered his view of Nickelodeon's decision to can Kricfalusi: "Nickelodeon realized they have one of the hottest shows in the country right now, and a potential merchandising bonanza if they can get new shows to the public. And John is sitting on the shows. That's something he's always done, and it makes him brilliant. It makes his shows fine art. But Nickelodeon wants product."
What would "The Howard Stern Show" be like without Howard Stern? That's the type of question now being asked in the wake of Kricfalusi's removal.
"You can be guaranteed by firing Kricfalusi, the cartoon will fail eventually," said one animator at a major studio. "They're not seeing the long run. Kricfalusi is the only reason why Ren and Stimpy exist. So to take them away from him would mean anyone else who would replace him would be trying to imitate him. You can't do that successfully."
"It won't be the same in a lot of ways," Camp responded. "John always pushes the envelope, constantly. One way it will be different, there will be a lot less conflict. The shows aren't as likely to be as weird or insane. But I think those are things Nick doesn't want."
Friends of Kricfalusi suggest that his firing is a blessing in disguise. They say he will now have time to explore other characters he can own and control. He has been developing "The Ripping Friends" for some time, a movie about "the world's most manly men, who fight to make the Earth a safe place in which to be manly."
"John is the progressive, creative artist," said animation historian Jerry Beck. "He's going to move on to his next plateau, create new characters, new ideas. The people who are doing 'Ren & Stimpy' will be stuck in a time warp for the next few years, not moving forward. In that way, I think this is good for John."