Monday, February 10, 2014

Five Questions for Animation Expert Jerry Beck

[[Photo caption:]] From left to right: writer Jerry Beck, Peabody voice actor Ty Burrell, 
director Rob Minkoff, and executive producer Tiffany Ward 

Jerry Beck is a world-renowned animation historian and cartoon producer. He writes about classic cartoon characters on Cartoon Research and blogs about the current industry over at Animation Scoop. His fifteen books on the subject include The Animated Movie Guide, Looney Tunes: The Ultimate Visual Guide, The SpongeBob SquarePants Experience: A Deep Dive into the World of Bikini Bottom, and The 50 Greatest Cartoons. His forthcoming book, The Art of Mr. Peabody & Sherman, is available February 18th in anticipation of the film Mr. Peabody & Sherman, out March 7th. A former studio executive with Nickelodeon and Disney, Beck is currently a consulting producer to Warner Bros., Universal, and Disney for their classic animation DVD compilations and teaches at Woodbury University in Burbank, California.

We asked the bona fide cartoon expert some questions about his career and about working on The Art of Mr. Peabody & Sherman with DreamWorks Animation:

1. What was it like working with DreamWorks? 

This was my third time to go behind the scenes on a DreamWorks film (previously I’d chronicled the making of Madagascar and Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee Movie). The DreamWorks campuses—both in Glendale, California, and upstate at PDI in Redwood City—are incredible, state-of-the-art factories of creativity. Imagine the best artists, writers, directors, and producers, all under one roof, with all the materials needed to create spectacular 3-D animated movies. It’s not unlike the filmmaking factories of classic Hollywood in the 1930s and ’40s. You can’t help but have a smile on your face just walking through the halls. Oh, and the commissary food . . . superb! My role was to explain the characters, concepts, and techniques in the book, but the crew made me feel like part of the production team—part of a family that made an incredible family film. 

2. Mr. Peabody & Sherman is based on the beloved 1960s classic cartoon by Jay Ward. Are you a fan of the original animated television show? Does the new film stay true to it? Any major differences? 

I love the original Jay Ward cartoons—Peabody and Sherman in particular. I think I learned more about world history from those original cartoons than I did in elementary school. As a guy who has taken cartoons quite seriously all my life, I’m happy to report that the characters of Mr. Peabody and Sherman are perfectly brought up to date in this new film. The original cartoons—funny as they were—were only five minutes long, and crudely drawn and animated in Mexico. To make a ninety-minute 3-D, CGI, full-length movie, a real story was required—one with emotional beats and spectacular visuals. The finished film is a template on how to update a classic cartoon character—start with a producer, director, writers, and crew that truly love the source material. That comes through here from start to finish.

3. Jay Ward’s daughter, Tiffany Ward, is an executive producer on the film. How important do you think it is to have a family member involved in this kind of project, which uses concepts developed by a singular artist? 

On a project like this, when you plot to revive a classic cartoon character, if you can get the cooperation of the original creator—or someone as close to the creator as Tiffany Ward was to her father—grab them! Her participation was essential to keeping the original integrity of the characters together. It’s important to remember what made these characters fun in the first place. That core knowledge of the characters central appeal is a crucial starting point on adaptations like this. It’s what makes those recent Marvel Comics movies so successful—they understand their classic characters and know who their audience is. Tiffany provided that role on this film and she had learned a lot of “what to do”—and what not to do—in previous revivals of her father’s property. Everyone was glad she was there. 

4. What’s a project you’ve always wanted to work on, but haven’t had a chance to yet? 

One of my goals—which I’m happy to say I’ve achieved—was to write books on cartoon characters I love. The classic ones like Looney Tunes, SpongeBob SquarePants, The Pink Panther, The Flintstones—and now, Mr. Peabody & Sherman. I was incredibly excited by DreamWorks acquisition of Classic Media last year, and I think it opens an opportunity for more revivals of classic cartoons—like Casper, Underdog, Little Lulu, etc. I love them all and I’m crossing my fingers to be involved with new works involving those characters. They shouldn’t just become a distant childhood memory. They should be revived and enjoyed by generations to come. I hope I’ll be part of making that happen. 

5. What animated movie or show on the horizon are you most looking forward to?

There is so much good stuff coming up—and animation is part of all of it. Even in live-action spectaculars like Godzilla, Avatar, and The Hobbit. In animation, I’m curious to see how Disney adapts a Marvel Comics property like Big Hero 6, and likewise I’m anxious to see Genndy Tartakovsky’s take on Popeye. As a big fan of The Big Bang Theory, I’m looking forward to DreamWorks’ Home with Jim Parsons. While working on the Mr. Peabody book, I saw much art from that film on the walls, and it looks hilarious. 


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