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1997: The year of drawing dangerously

'King of the Hill' creators Greg Daniels and Mike Judge

A combination of creative talent and business savvy, Mike Judge and Greg Daniels are the force behind both Fox’s hit show “King of the Hill” and the recent resurgence of primetime animation. Judge rose to fame after his animated short “Frog Baseball” grew into MTV’s “Beavis and Butt-head,” sparking both controversy and popularity. Daniels worked as a writer and producer for the equally revolutionary “The Simpsons” for three seasons.

But their previous successes didn’t make it any easier when they were creating “King of the Hill.” “There was a lot of pressure at the start,” Judge says. “Not because it was an animated program, but because my name was on it.”

Both Daniels and Judge fought to keep aspects of “Beavis and Butt-head” and “The Simpsons” out of their new show, which was a pleasant change for Judge. ” ‘Beavis and Butt-head’ was a negative portrayal,” Judge says. “Now, (‘King of the Hill’s’) Hank actually says things that I would actually agree with.”

Daniels also didn’t want to carry the animation banner as one of few primetime shows. “With animation, any good show is like a credit to the race,” Daniels says. “And when bad shows automatically make good shows seem like flukes, it’s ridiculous.”

Judge says he grew up watching Bob Newhart and Mary Tyler Moore, but watches few of today’s sitcoms. For both, though, the value of good writing and strong themes make for success. “I think we did a lot of thinking and came up with a different philosophy,” Daniels says.

Eric Olson

Todd McFarlane, ‘Spawn’ master

When Todd McFarlane, the creator of the popular comic book series “Spawn,” was ready to make an animated version of his title, there was only one place where he felt creatively comfortable.

McFarlane’s dark antihero, whose HBO series is entering its second season, also found success on the bigscreen this year with New Line’s “Spawn,” but the creator believes the animated program can tackle some of the problems challenging animators.

“Most people treat it as a cartoon and then add the drama,” McFarlane says. “I see it as the other way around. It is a drama that happens to be animated.”

McFarlane would like to bring the dramatic and cinematic aesthetic of graphic novels and Japanese animation and combine it with ” ‘NYPD Blue’ writing.” Finding the writers to bring the two together, though, proves difficult.

“Most animation writers write juvenile stories because the majority of work is for kids shows,” McFarlane says. “So a writer who used to write for ‘Duck Tales’ can’t write the drama that this show needs. They want to, but their minds are atrophied. They’re caught up in the expectations of animation.”

Eric Olson

Haim Saban

The creation in 1996 of Fox Kids Worldwide, a joint venture between Fox parent News Corp. and Saban Entertainment, made Haim Saban one of the most powerful programming and production figures in the global toon industry. Not only did the deal place Saban — whose namesake company is responsible for such kidvid franchises as “X-Men,” “Power Rangers” and “Beetleborgs” — in control of the top-rated Fox Kids Network, but as chairman and CEO of Fox Kids Worldwide he is calling the shots for the company’s worldwide cable business.

This ascension comes after only five years as a major American animation and kidvid player. Before that, Saban (company and leader) concentrated on producing and distributing programming for the European market.

The notoriously press-shy Saban began his career in Israel in 1973 as a music promoter. Two years later he relocated to France, and by 1980 had set up Saban Entertainment in the U.S. to produce music for American TV series. His company’s first high-profile American toon series was “X-Men,” whose premiere in 1992 helped turn the fledgling Fox Kids Network into a ratings leader. A year later Saban entered the phenomenon business with “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.”

Michael Mallory

The return of Don Bluth

Controversy has dogged feature animation director Don Bluth since 1979, when he left Disney, taking a crew of top talent with him to form his own studio. A roller-coaster ride of hits, flops and financial troubles followed. But now, having completed the $53 million animated epic “Anastasia,” the first picture made under his and partner Gary Goldman’s seven-year deal with 20th Century Fox’s debuting feature animation division, Bluth is poised to become animation’s comeback kid.

Bluth’s first indie venture, 1982’s “The Secret of NIMH,” announced both his presence and his stated desire to raise the artistic level of feature animation. But it was his next film, 1986’s “An American Tail,” produced by Steven Spielberg, that really shook up the industry by outgrossing all previous animated features, prompting a retaliatory revitalization at Disney Animation.

The studio Bluth and Goldman set up in Dublin, Ireland, to make such films as “The Land Before Time,” “All Dogs Go to Heaven” and “Thumbelina,” went under in 1992. Two years later, they were pegged by Fox to start up the studio’s new digitally driven animation plant in Phoenix (which itself has taken some heat in animation circles for its non-union status).

After the release of “Anastasia,” Bluth and Goldman will resume development on an as-yet-undisclosed project for Fox, slated to follow the studio’s upcoming toon feature, “Planet Ice.”

Michael Mallory

Ralph Bakshi’s ‘Spicy City’

Ralph Bakshi has built a career on challenging the standards and expectations of the animation industry, which he continued with HBO’s “Spicy City” series this year. The title lived up to its billing as Bakshi, whose controversial X-rated animated film “Fritz the Cat” shook up animation in the ’60s, took full advantage of the cable venue in bringing a sexy, adult animated series to a television audience.

Bakshi’s influence spans not only decades but genres of animation. After starting at Terrytoon Studios in the early ’60s, Bakshi was named its director at the age of 24. Though he soon left for filmmaking, Bakshi produced the wacky and satiric “Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures” for CBS in the mid-1980s, working with such future stars as “Ren and Stimpy” creator John Kricfalusi. And while controversy still dogs “Fritz the Cat,” Bakshi’s films, including the 1991 Universal release “Cool World,” proved that animated films could contain adult humor and themes as well as the drama of their live-action counterparts.

Bakshi’s “Spicy City,” coupled with Todd McFarlane’s “Spawn,” helped HBO provide a latenight bastion for animated talent, combining the legend with the rising star and showing the potential animated drama had for reaching a new generation of future animators and animation fans.

Eric Olson

Tex Avery

Just as mainstream Hollywood elevated Jane Austen to A-list status, the animation industry has rediscovered legendary cartoon director Fred (Tex) Avery, who died in 1980. An influential figure at both the Leon Schlesinger (Warners) Studio in the 1930s, where he developed the seminal version of Bugs Bunny, and at MGM in the 1940s and ’50s, Avery’s cartoon world knew no natural laws except the force of humor. The American Avery renaissance (he’s already an icon in France) began with 1994’s “The Mask,” which replicated many Tex effects in CGI.

This season the revival flourishes with the syndicated series “The Wacky World of Tex Avery,” a collection of new six-minute shorts done in Avery’s gag-driven squash-and-stretch style, in addition to Cartoon Network’s original “Tex Avery Show.”

Michael Mallory

Fred Seibert, king of shorts

More than a year after leaving his post as prexy of Hanna-Barbera, producer Fred Seibert remains the animation industry’s leading advocate of the short format for TV cartoons. So far, two major cablers have bought his vision: Seibert previously created the “World Premiere Toons” program at Hanna-Barbera, which led to the creation and airing of 48 new shorts on the Cartoon Network, three of which have spun off into their own series, and now he’s on the verge of vaulting another similar coup on Nickelodeon under the “Oh Yeah” umbrella.

Seibert is one of a few indie producers with the ability to greenlight a cartoon. His passion for shorts and his unique relationship with MTV Networks (he was one of MTV’s first execs in the early ’80s) allowed Seibert to turn down executive job offers when he left H-B last year and continue to push the short format into mainstream TV.

“The most successful animated pieces have always been shorts and the characters that come from them,” Seibert says. “The list is endless — Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Tom & Jerry, the Simpsons — they all started as shorts. It’s a classic form, much like the half-hour sitcom or the three-minute pop song. We’re hopeful that some of these new Nickelodeon shorts will lead to new series and new, classic cartoon characters.”

Michael Goldman

Sue Rose and ‘Pepper Ann’

“Cartoons with a conscience” are important to Sue Rose, creator and executive producer of “Pepper Ann,” the animated series about a spunky 12-year-old at the crossroads of adolescence. Though the show uses animation to exaggerate pre-teen life, its themes are rooted in reality that kids can relate to.

Rose originally created “Pepper Ann” in 1991, as a monthly comic for the teen magazine YM. In October 1995, Rose pitched her treatment for the series to Disney TV Animation, which coincided with Michael Eisner’s mandate for “more female characters” from the division. Rose signed with Disney that December, and by fall ’96 “Pepper Ann” was greenlit for 13 episodes. The show now airs in “Disney’s One Saturday Morning” block on ABC, but was awaiting a renewal notice.

Rose’s other projects include “Angela Anaconda,” a cut-out animation pilot, and “Fido Dido,” a property co-created with Joanna Ferrone that continues to be an international merchandising phenomenon.

Rose’s success seems to lie in her philosophy. “The most important message that you can give a kid today is to be yourself; it’s not necessary to follow the crowd,” she says, adding a Fido Dido tagline: “Most folks are oddballs. That’s what makes us even.”

Wendy Jackson

Mainframe Entertainment

Sure, Pixar, DreamWorks and Disney are pushing the computer animation envelope on the bigscreen, but a Vancouver-based outfit with 220 employees has been quietly revolutionizing the children’s TV landscape for the past few years.

In 1997, Mainframe Entertainment produced 16 episodes of the cutting-edge “ReBoot” series and 13 installments of the CGI-driven “Beast Wars — Transformers,” the No. 1 show in its timeslot in North America for boys 6-11.

Last month, the org premiered its first of two Imax ride films, “ReBoot: The Ride” in Toronto, and will be bringing the film to the U.S., U.K., China, France, Argentina and Japan next year. The company went public in June and raised $32 million to develop its infrastructure.

Next on Mainframe’s plate is a computer-animated TV series based on the popular MDK game and a feature adaptation of the bestselling kid’s book “The Sign of the Seahorse” with Paul Allen’s Storyopolis. No wonder company prexy Christopher Brough seems quite happy these days. “Don’t take your eye off us,” he warns. “Next year will prove to be very exciting!”

Ramin Zahed

“Kablam!” creators

Bob Mittenthal, Chris Viscardi and Will McRobb never fancied themselves animation experts. But when the three Nickelodeon writer-producers were teamed up to develop a weekly comic book anthology show in live-action, what they ended up with is one of the most animated shows on television.

Over two years in development, “Kablam!” emerged as a fully animated showcase for innovative techniques often reserved for indie films and commercials.

“There’s a preconceived notion that the only kind of animation you can use to tell stories is cel,” Mittenthal says.

“But there are a lot of great animators who work in alternative mediums, who never had the opportunity to show their work to a wider audience,” Viscardi adds.

Talents creating original segments for the show include stop-motion/mixed-media animators Tim Hill and David Fain (“Action League Now!”), Steve Holman (“Life With Loopy”) and Cote Zellers (“Prometheus and Bob”), as well as 2-D artists Mo Willems (“The Off-Beats”), Mike Pearlstein (“Sniz and Fondue”), Emily Hubley (“The Girl With Her Head Coming Off”), and Mark Marek, who animates the series hosts, Henry and June, on a computer.

Recently nominated for an animated series CableAce Award, “Kablam!” will launch its third season in 1998 with three new pilots, including “The Brothers Tiki,” created by Wild Brain.

Wendy Jackson

South Park

Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s outrageous, irreverent Comedy Central series proved that you don’t need pricey computer animation to achieve cult status overnight. See page A. 20 for a profile of the dynamic duo and their twisted brainchild.