On the issue of using the web as a platform for TV: ‘I’m all for it,’ says Sam Register, senior VP and creative director of Cartoon Network Online. ‘I think it’s great, but I think it’s a different goal than we have.’ Web Premiere Toons, which debuted last year with 50 completely original characters, is changing gear this year with a classic revival of Cartoon characters. ‘My goal,’ says Register, ‘is to make really cool on-line entertainment. If we can put it on the network as interstitials or possibly a pilot, for me that’s gravy, not the goal.’
So is classic cool? Well from what Register says, that may not be the point. The toonco has a massive library of characters, many of which have been forgotten. ‘Not forgotten in a bad way,’ Registers insists, but compared to the stuff that’s on the net now. . . ‘it’s not Dexter, it’s not Spongebob. It’s not fresh, new and cool.’ So the idea is to make them fresh and cool. But instead of developing completely new series for TV, it made more sense to play around with the concepts on the web via short treatments.
Twenty toons have debuted on Web Premiere Toons since September (all still viewable on www.cartoonnetwork.com), with weekly offerings spread out over the rest of the year. This month saw the debut of a webtoon by The Ren & Stimpy Show creator John Kricfalusi that revives Yogi Bear. The toon is one of six coming off the slate at Spumco, John K.’s animation studio, with the others reinventing characters like Fred and Barney and the Jetsons (which he worked on in his early days at Hanna-Barbera in the `80s). Billy West is a tentative contributor, most likley with a Huckleberry Hound revamp. West is known for his voiceover work as Fry on Fox’s Futurama, Ren and Stimpy from The Ren & Stimpy Show, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd from Space Jam. . . oh, and the red M&M from the TV commercials. The other retro revival participants are San Francisco’s Wild Brain (which is working on Hong Kong Phooey) and Spazzco, and New York-based Funny Garbage (which develops Cartoon Network’s site).
The funny thing is that the classic cartoons may not even be that good, but it’s the characters that the Net was and is known for. ‘There are people who grew up thinking Hong Kong Phooey was the shit,’ says Register. And even when you explain it now, it still sounds cool (so, there’s this kick-ass karate dog who is voiced by Scatman Crothers), ‘but,’ chimes Register, ‘when you actually watch a Hong Kong Phooey cartoon. . . ‘ not so good.
Character is key, on the Net or otherwise, good animation or bad. The ‘entertainment-only plays,’ as Register calls them (citing Icebox as an example), were based on ad revenues, pumping out product for as little money as they could. ‘It’s not that their content was even animated that badly,’ he says, ‘and some of the best animation out there is very, very simple, but there were just bad stories and bad characters.’
The idea behind Web Premiere Toons originated as a response to content that was popping up on the web. ‘We got caught up in the web animation flurry just like everybody else,’ admits Register. ‘Everyone thought, `Wow, this is going to be huge, and we’re going to put all this original animation up on the web, and we’re going to turn it into a TV series. . . ,’ but wherever it ended up, people thought there was going to be money at the end of the rainbow. What we all learned was that it was a pile of BS, and that even if we could get traffic, it didn’t equate into dollars.’
Technology is a lure as well. With Flash and Java so accessible, web and TV production companies alike are taking advantage of low-cost, high-quality animation with a quick turnaround time. But, says Register, ‘Cartoon is a content company. And yes, we can think how animation has changed in the traditional animation world: They have programs that do in-betweens and they have ink and paint machines, and there’s lots of stuff that has changed in the animation business, but I don’t necessarily see that as a user on the other end. If I’m sitting in my living room watching The Powerpuff Girls, I’m not going to say, `Wow, they used an ink and paint machine there.’ They can’t tell how animation has changed from Yogi Bear to The Powerpuff Girls.’
It works the same on the web, he says. There’s all sorts of new technology that gives on-line animation a quality look and feel. ‘I’m psyched that all these companies are trying to be the leaders because they’re all going to make better products if they’re competing against each other,’ Register continues. But he himself will just sit back, take classic properties and render them with the best tools possible. ‘Flash? Great! The next thing? Better! But I’ll have Scooby Doo no matter what.’
The original model for Web Premiere Toons had pilot potential as a consideration, but as Register mentions, that didn’t pan out. ‘We considered it,’ explains Web Premiere Toons creative coordinator Dave Bartin, but wanted to steer clear of ‘shorts that didn’t play well in a two-minute format, but were obviously designed with half hours in mind,’ he says. ‘We realized that it would give us a style of animation that would make the site feel incomplete.’ They didn’t want a pilot factory. Instead, they wanted something that was strictly a two-minute cartoon. ‘It could have legs, it may have series potential,’ but that wasn’t an assumption and by no means an end result. Bartin stresses that the Web Premiere Toons are created to develop and cater to ‘a community.’ Cartoon is going to build around the toons with ‘contests, an academy awards approach, using the voting functionality as a way for the shorts to compete.’ The tone is somewhat blue-sky, and at press time, a concrete scenario for the ‘winning’ short hadn’t been established.
The real prize goes to the animation biz on the whole. ‘I think the web is great for the business,’ Register considers. ‘It gives a wide stretch of people who have a lot of talent-or who have some very interesting ideas that may not work for Nickelodeon, Disney or Cartoon Network-a way to get their cartoon seen by a large group of people. They don’t have to go through five or six executives. Those people have to work with advertisers and they have to pay for content, so there’s a reason that they’re tough to get through. I think even though we’ve had this adjustment in the market, the web isn’t going anywhere and animation on-line is only going to get bigger.’ Especially, we have to remember, for a company like Cartoon Network that sits, Register justifiably gloats, in an enviable position: ‘Every web space should have a 24-hour cable network.’