Craig McCracken, creator of the new animated series "Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends," never had an imaginary friend of his own, one that "had a name and had a form I could define." But as an artist, a cartoonist and an animator -- most notably the inventor of "The Powerpuff Girls" (and you thought it was Professor) -- he has, in a sense, "hundreds of them. I just draw them and then make them do stuff, instead of having one that's next to me all the time."
It's too early to say how many lunch boxes, Halloween costumes and collector's edition replicas "Foster's," whose feature-length pilot episode premieres on Cartoon Network on Friday, will spawn; no one understood the power of "Powerpuff" when it debuted in 1998, either, or could have predicted it would become a billion-dollar industry, or be watched and loved in more than 145 countries. But "Foster's" is sweet and funny and even action-packed, though the action is more Keystone Kops than battling superheroes -- a little more Bubbles than Buttercup, yet mindful of its inner Blossom.
Set in an orphanage for abandoned imaginary playmates, it is visually steeped in what McCracken calls "bubblegum psychedelia," a curlicue neo-Victoriana rendered in an explosive but perfectly balanced palette that recalls at once the '70s, the '60s, the '50s, the '20s and the 1890s. Along with his old friend and collaborator Genndy Tartakovsky of "Dexter's Laboratory" fame, McCracken continues to make the handsomest cartoons on television.
"Right after we finished 'The Powerpuff Girls Movie,' " says McCracken, "I took about six weeks off to kind of detox and calm down, and then I just started randomly doodling new stuff." Cartoon Network had expressed interest in another McCracken series; "Powerpuff," which delivered the last episode of its sixth and possibly final season a few weeks back, was running its course, its original team scattering to new studios and solo projects.
McCracken began to conceive of the doodles as imaginary friends, "and to think of the imaginary friends as kind of stray dogs. "My fiancee [Lauren Faust, a 'Powerpuff' alumna and story supervisor on 'Foster's'] and I have these two dogs that we got from an animal shelter, and we were always wondering about their life before they came to us."
The stars of "Foster's" are 8-year-old Mac and his buddy Bloo, a bullet-shaped blob with big eyes and an off-center smile, who relocates to the home after Mac's mother insists they separate. (Imaginary friends in this world are visible to all.) Of course, they are not about to separate, and Mac will spend all his spare time at Foster's, with Bloo's new roommates Wilt (tall, red, sporty, helplessly helpful), Eduardo (bullish, purple, fearsome and timid) and Coco (she's a bird, she's a plane, she's a plant), along with stuffy manager Mr. Herriman (a 7-foot bunny in a morning coat), Madame Foster and her groovy granddaughter Frankie.
While the pilot is inevitably concerned with establishing the premise, subsequent episodes will concentrate on the comedy of character and of familiar domestic relations made (just a little) strange. The first regular episode concerns a trip to the mall (Wilt, ever over-accommodating, never gets inside, stuck as he is holding the door open for other customers); in later ones Eduardo will hide a puppy; Bloo will hatch a scheme to sell cookies to pay for a new roof; Mac will occasionally have to deal with his obnoxious idiot older brother, Terrence; and everyone will go bowling.
McCracken's office at the Cartoon Network building in Burbank is small and crowded with colorful things. The walls are busy with pictures and bright patterned fabrics; there are "Yellow Submarine" statuettes and "fuzzy thrift store guys that I've accidentally been collecting over the years." "Watching over me" are pictures of George Harrison, Jim Henson and Brian Wilson, and there are posters by the British designer Pete Fowler ("He does all the 'Super Furry Animals' artwork"), and one for the movie "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." "These are things that are inspiring the show."
Character is all in "Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends." " 'Powerpuff' is a little more campy and tongue-in-cheek and kind of parody-oriented," says McCracken, "and 'Foster's' is really character-driven. It's a cool concept, but what makes it funny is the characters and what they do.
"With 'Powerpuff,' new characters that we would introduce to the series typically had to be villains -- I always had to have good versus evil, I always had to have the day being saved. You really couldn't just explore one character's personality for 11 minutes, or a simple little event in their life, you had to bring the crime-fighting element into it. I wanted to have a show where I didn't have a concept that I was obligated to address every episode."
McCracken says his new star, Bloo, is "this selfish character, but not in a malicious way -- almost like a real little kid, how they think that their idea and the thing they want to do at that moment is the most important and coolest thing ever. Bloo has that kind of enthusiastic selfishness, and then Mac kind of balances him, where Mac is a little more aware of what Bloo's actions might affect other people.
"This was never planned, but Mac and Bloo are very similar to how I was when I was a kid. Bloo was like me when I was really young, and Mac was kind of like me when I got a little older." Indeed, there is enough of a resemblance between Mac and McCracken -- the square head, the thick hair -- to consider Mac an unconscious self-portrait. (McCracken's mother is convinced it's him.) Not to mention the phonetic intersection of their names.
The whole show is done on computer, using Macromedia Flash, Adobe Illustrator and Adobe After Effects. The move from hand-drawn animation to digital allows for greater control and consistency and closer oversight -- half the animation is being produced just down the street from the Cartoon Network offices, whereas "Powerpuff," like most American cartoons, was outsourced to Korea. It also affords increased expression.
"I've given up a lot of drawing, but I brought more animation back to the cartoon," McCracken says. "And now part of the humor of the show comes from how stuff is moving -- which in a typical overseas production you would normally never even dream about. Just how a character walks can evoke so much personality, and nine times out of 10 in a hand-drawn overseas production you never know if they're going to be walking the same way one show to the next. With this process, they'll always have that walk."
McCracken, who attended CalArts, learned animation the old way, "drawing everything by hand"; he is not schooled in the mysteries of Flash. But he points out that the new show "still all starts with drawings -- all of our designs and backgrounds are drawn by hand" and that the technology has developed to the point where "you can apply a lot of the philosophies of hand-drawn stuff to it.
"We're treating Flash just as a tool," he says, "and we're not letting it do our job for us. We're kind of breaking it. Because digitally you can make stuff look perfectly smooth. And we go in there and say [to the animators], 'Take out frames, make it look more like you would draw it, put some flaws in it.' And it gives it a little more life."
McCracken's ambitions are big, though not in terms of mere mogulhood, which seems to have affected him not at all. He just wants to reach as many people as possible, in the sense of making something that can touch everybody. He cites the influence of the Pixar movies like "Toy Story" -- "They make them for kids, but the characters are well thought out and the stories are well thought out" -- and the old "The Muppet Show."
"I would watch it as a kid, but my older brother would watch it, my older sister who was in college would watch it, my mother would watch it, my father would watch it. I didn't want to make a show that parents are like, 'OK, you're watching that thing, I've got to leave 'cause I can't stand the screaming.'
"I was worried I wouldn't come up with something that I loved as much as 'Powerpuff.' I created that 12 years ago and have been in love with it and thinking about it the whole time. And the minute I came up with 'Foster's,' I was, like, 'I love this, I can't stop thinking about it.' I'm really excited about this show and these characters and this world."