New Larson toon takes walk on ‘The Far Side’

Just when you thought it was safe to turn on the TV, those strange ladies with beehive hairdos, amoebas with attitudes, lovesick wolves and smoking dinosaurs are leaping back into the limelight. More than two years after comic strip lovers had to learn to live without their favorite piece of offbeat humor, after cartoonist Gary Larson’s retirement from his hugely successful syndicated comic “Far Side,” his characters are slithering back to life in a new animated special. The show is being produced by Larson’s own production company, Farworks, and a broadcast deal — possibly with CBS — is being finalized.

“I think I learned a lot from the first ‘Tales From the Far Side’ special, which I think aired around Halloween of ’94 (on CBS),” says the self-effacing Larson. “For the second outing, I wanted to pay more attention to storyboard and editing. I remain a neophyte in animation filmdom, but at least I think I got my feet wet with the first project.”

To embark on his second toon adventure, Larson teamed up with the same key people involved in the original CBS special: executive producer Toni Carmichael, the Vancouver-based Intl. Rocketship animation outfit (run by Marv Newland of “Bambi Meets Godzilla” fame) and a fellow Seattle resident, composer Bill Frisell.

Fans of Larson’s popular strip — including horror-meister Stephen King, actor Robin Williams and scientist Jane Goodall, who have all written forwards for his comic anthology books over the years — can rest assured that many of their favorite recurring characters will pop up in this project. “I believe we have 16 vignettes featuring many of the series’ staples — the cats, dogs, aliens, scientists, duck hunters and, yes, even a time machine,” Larson says. “And the storyline is brand-new. None of it has appeared in the daily strip.”

According to Carmichael, Larson began to kick around his ideas in April 1995, and initial storyboards were delivered to Intl. Rocketship two months later. The production went over the projected budget, costing more than $1 million. (The tab for the first “Far Side” special was about $85,000.)

“The toughest part of the project was having the animators capture Gary’s unique style,” says Carmichael, whose background in anthropology and archeology makes her perfect for a Larson project. “Sometimes, he would just look at a drawing and make a subtle change in the pupil of a character’s eyes, and that would make a big difference.

“But every little change involves time and money. That’s just the nature of the beast.”

With the exception of two short segments, “Tales From the Far Side II” is a traditionally hand-drawn, cel-animated cartoon. However, computer animation was used to create an otherworldly glow for a sequence involving a group of fairies and to add a special surprise in a scene about duck hunters.

Using little dialogue, the 45-minute project relies heavily on Frisell’s original music to bridge the gaps between the short sketches. The musician, who lives only four blocks away from Larson and jams with the cartoonist on occasion, says working on “Far Side” projects is among his favorite gigs.

“Gary put a lot of trust in me, but he also pushed me a little bit further than I’d go by myself,” says Frisell, who also recently composed new music for six revived silent Buster Keaton films. “There is a big similarity in the way we think. There’s always a part of Gary that seems to be in a half-dream state. I completely connect with him on that level.”

For many of the other people involved, being attached to a Larson project was the biggest attraction. “I grew up on ‘The Far Side,’ ” says 27-year-old supervising producer Dennis Heaton, who also worked on the first show. “When the opportunity to work on the sequel came up, I jumped at it. Gary’s humor relies on an absurd appreciation for arcane science, and reading his work feels like feathers tickling your armpits.”

When asked to compare drawing a daily newspaper strip to producing an animated special, Larson laughs and declares, “I hate them both!” He notes that there is a definite element of fear involved when making such a huge commitment. “With my own cartoon, it was just me being goofy by myself, but when it comes to an animated film, you’re working with 45 animators and assistant animators,” he explains. “It’s a whole different ballgame.”

At this juncture, Larson is toying with several different options for his film. He says, “We might prepare it for television or cut the project into little ‘Far Side’ shorts and screen them in animation festivals, or just go, ‘Hey, buddy, do you want to buy a film?’ ”

With the toon aiming for a May completion date, talks of more book deals and future projects with the likes of Will Vinton Studios and Jim Henson Prods. are under way. Larson admits he has been far from idle since he quit his day job doing the daily comic on Jan. 2, 1995. “It’s been a hectic time for me,” he says. “It definitely doesn’t feel like retirement. It’s safe to say I’m not thinking about doing ‘Far Side: The Movie’ right now.”

But Larson most certainly does not miss the daily newspaper grind of providing the world with his hilarious, distinctly skewed perspective of the world. “No, not really,” he says. “Been there, done that.”

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