I met Craig Bartlett in 1980 on the The Evergreen State College Cooper Point Journal, where he was staff cartoonist and photographer and I was production manager. We were young, barely 20, and following in the footsteps of Lynda Barry and Matt Groening, who’d been running the Cooper Point Journal not too many years before—it was a wonderful, exhilarating time.
Craig had studied art in Portland, Oregon, and Italy before switching to cartoons at TESC. He went on to be on the forefront of pioneering claymation at Will Vinton Studios in Portland (California Raisins) before moving to Hollywood to work on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Sesame Street, Rugrats, and Ren and Stimpy, among other projects. He made two classic claymation shorts, Arnold Escapes From Church and Arnold Rides his Chair for the International Animation Tournee. In 1994 he developed Arnold into a full-length animated TV series, Hey, Arnold!, which ran on Nickelodeon until 2002 and culminated in Hey, Arnold! The Movie. Craig is also the author of a line of children’s books based on episodes of Hey, Arnold!
Now Craig has just launched his second cartoon series as creator/executive producer, Dinosaur Train, a preschool animation on PBS for the Jim Henson Company. It premiered just a few weeks ago, on Labor Day, 2009, and immediately became the number 1 series on the PBS Kids website, averaging 5 million streaming requests per week.
V: Thank you for joining us today, Craig. Congratulations on Dinosaur Train!
C: Thank you. It’s so nice to hear your voice after all this time.
V: Yours, too. Wow, it’s been a lot of years.
C: I just found a picture from back then, the other day. This friend and I were in Safeway, in Olympia, and there was a polaroid camera display, you know? a demonstration camera—and we had just grabbed these huge geoducks shrink-wrapped in plastic, and we were clowning with them.
V: [laughing] That’s right—geoducks! I didn’t know they sold them in Safeway.
C: I know! I forgot too!
V: That was such a terrific job on that newspaper. I’d sit there every Wednesday, people coming in and out, and at some point you’d walk in and throw a bunch of brand-new cartoons on my desk. Every week, I tried to talk our editors into running a whole edition of just your cartoons. Seriously. They’d say, “We can’t!” and I’d say, “We’re a student paper. Of course we can!” But they wouldn’t. So I’d get to sort through what you’d brought and pick out just the ones I absolutely loved best. I wanted your originals because I knew someday you’d be big. I loved Norm Normal.
C: You know, I think I do have all those original Norm Normals. Drawn on that hilarious blueline paper. Remember? And when we shot them with that big camera to make copies for the newspaper, the blue lines would drop out?
V: The process camera. Yes. That’s what I did after I left Evergreen—I did typesetting and ran a process camera up in Washington for years. But you, you got out. How was that?
C: Yeah. I’ve been in LA for, let’s see—has it been twenty-one years now? I came down to work on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. That was such a great introduction to Hollywood. We were making the Penny cartoons at two different locations in the two years—two seasons, I think, that was it—one was a warehouse out in Chatsworth, and one was a warehouse at the beach. It was a little neighborhood in Marina del Rey, a bunch of warehouses just a few blocks from the beach. We were happy to go there! By that time I had moved to LA, but it was kind of you-can’t-get-there-from-here, that awful cross-town traffic. But I loved going to the beach. The beaches were empty, it was November when the LA winter kind of starts, the sky in the winter gets softer and prettier. I loved being there.
V: I remember when you moved. I wrote and asked your permission to run something of yours that I had, and you said yeah, sure, we’re moving to LA, there’s a lot of exciting stuff going on there.
C: Wow. Yeah, there was. It’s an interesting thing about life. It’s long. You make decisions. . .A lot of my goals I had when I was younger I’ve had to revise.
V: Do you like LA?
C: I do. I went up to Washington and visited my dad recently and took my daughter to the University of Washington in Tacoma and really liked it. You know—there’s that train station that’s now a courthouse, there are all these Victorian buildings. Have you seen that? The University of Washington has built a campus there. I was like, “What?”
[laughing] I have it in my DNA to love that climate. My kids, even though they grew up in LA, have the DNA to like it, too.
But I really do feel like Southern California has worked its voo-doo on me. I love the life, I love the people.
V: What about Hollywood, what everyone says about the shallow Hollywood life?
C: Most of my friends are extremely cynical about Hollywood, so we keep a healthy contempt for the whole thing. But if you’re going to do the work I’m doing, you do kind of have to be here, you have to be in people’s faces, they have to see you from time to time.
There’s a really interesting phenomenon we had with the Canadian actors on Dinosaur Train, because PBS didn’t have the budget, the Jim Henson Company didn’t have the budget, to pay the residuals (all my old stuff was with SAG [Screen Actors Guild] actors), so it was like, you had to go to Canada.
Before, you’d just pop down to the studio half a mile from the office. “But now I’ve got to go to Canada? It’s going to be insane!”
But it turned out the actors from Vancouver were so great, and the whole process was made such a lovely experience for me by the Canadians, and now I love it. I think, you know, I could move and do the production just to be there.
V: I remember when they were making the X-Files in Vancouver, but I never knew why.
C: It’s union. Actors can be in a union in Vancouver, but Canada offers a buy-out, one fee for the performance, and it includes their scale fee, but also an additional amount so you don’t have to pay residuals ever. Which works really well for the producers, and the actors like it because it pays better. To be contracted to do eighty shows like we did for Dinosaur Train—my god, the Canadian actors love us, of course! “That‘ll pay the bills!”
It’s a fun relationship to me—to have that kind of out-of-town aspect being part of the job description, to go up there for part of our gig. It’s fun!
V: And you can see your family in Washington.
C: Yeah. I can just hop in my rental car and zoom down.
V: Do you see a new Hollywood maybe appearing in Vancouver?
C: They’re always trying to. Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, they all think, “How can we make it so we can permanently have production going on? To live here full-time and do work for the entertainment business?”
V: I’m working with an Indian author on a novel about Bollywood right now, and I didn’t realize before how big Bollywood is, what serious money there is there. I thought it was supposed to be kind of silly.
C: They do! They make more features a year than Hollywood does. So of course they want some respect. It’s amazing—a lot of those theaters in India are stand-up, there are no seats, so they can dance when the inevitable dances come up. A Bollywood movie has like six or eight songs, and they know, “Oh, here’s the song, it’s time for us to dance.”
There’s animation going on in Mumbai, too—Bombay. A ton of the world’s animation has moved, from first us, then to Korea and Japan, and now more than ever Bollywood, in Mumbai.
V: It’s incredible what’s going on internationally these days. The computer industry has relocated a huge amount of their documentation departments to India because of all the computer stuff going on there now.
C: Start up production in India? Maybe.
We’re using an animation company in Signapore for Dinosaur Train. My producer and art director and storyboard artist, all, right now have just left Singapore to look at the Philippines. They’re meeting with people in Manila about possibly doing production there.
Everyone has to come up with their own way of packaging what they’ve got, to be in charge of it. Because if you’re one of the component parts, and your job is out-sourced, the packagers—LA is full of that, the marketers—they’re fine with it, they’re like, “India? Fine!”
Do you know about Skype? So cool! We’re doing our recordings from Canada via Skype, good ole free Internet connection. The important thing is you have to have a high-definition phone line to listen. And then of course the real audio is being recorded on a real digital line and being sent down to you. How cool is that? They’re even in our time zone! It’s nine in the morning there, it’s nine in the morning here.
I think that’s brilliant. It’s kind of the twenty-first-century promise that was made to us in the first place, what the US has to export to the rest of the world is communication. We’re not making cars anymore, but we’re making the latest cool way to communicate.
V: Craig, you’re a professional storyteller. Dinosaur Train is your second show you’ve created and produced yourself, in addition to all the shows you’ve created, written, directed. And you’ve got all those Hey, Arnold! books. What’s the most important aspect, for you, to telling a story?
C: In the case of Hey Arnold! it was more wide-open, it was anything that could happen to a kid. This show, though, Dinosaur Train, has a lot more rules. We know Buddy [the protagonist] will have to take the train somehow. I mean, we even did a few episodes out of the eighty episodes where they never got on the train. But we know kids have expectations: “I’ve got to get some train time in.” We know there are certain givens, but beyond that it ends up being about the characters.
V: So it’s the characters?
C: Yeah, it’s the characters. You’re trying to make an eleven-minute cartoon, so it’s not really long enough for three acts. We think, “What do we like about these characters that we want to continue to explore?” In the case of this show, who these characters are and what makes them go is still the most important thing. It couldn’t be simpler than the archetypical characters:
Don’s the funny, the kind of “dumb” one, like everyone gets it and then a second later he gets it and laughs. It’s really useful to have someone who’ll go along with anything, who has that kind of innocence.
I think the most fun characters are the two sisters, who are much more leaders, much more intelligent, shrewd. (I was the third kid after two older sisters, so I have the two alpha approaches to being a girl in these characters, like my sisters did). Like role-playing of who did what: one of them’s the alpha princess who thinks she’s always right even when she’s often not, and the other is more in-your-face, modeling kind of more kid behavior.
The advantage I have over people writing fiction is I have these real actors who’re going to come in and do these scenes. We were writing eighty episodes, just blasting them out, just blasting through the whole production in nine months, and I could hear their voices really early on. I could picture persuading the actors to do this or that. They were really good, just naturals. I would just think of those characters and their voices and how they sound. And we were off to the races!
It came out really fast and quickly, the storytelling was made very easy. We knew what we were doing.
We don’t base our characters on real people, but we might use things someone said, the way people speak. We did that in Hey Arnold! Even though there were human characters—they were a lot more realistic than the characters on Dinosaur Train—we sort of had particular people in mind.
V: That’s a huge issue in fiction: “How close to the bone can you cut in basing a character on a real person?” What’s the difference between, oh. . .
V:. . .exactly, authenticity and, you know, libel?
C: The first thing we came up with on Hey, Arnold! was premises of what could happen. Then we’d write up the premises and get them approved, and real often at that stage it was something that had happened to one of us as a kid. But then of course the characters got distorted all out of recognition. It’s not like you’re trying to change it to avoid libel, it’s that if we really played it like that it’d be boring. So we made it more interesting. Stuff like that.
And also, since Dinosaur Train is a preschool show, it’s even more formulaic. You know you have to touch on all these things in a certain amount of time, you can’t dilly-dally around. You’ve got curriculum. It’s got to be about something, kind of something really specific. And that’s real different.
Kids of today, there’s a really great term—what is it? I know—our audience for Dinosaur Train, the toddlers, are called Digital Natives because they were born in the digital era—you grow up with screens, you communicate by text, you multitask. You’re always doing more than one thing at a time.
We’ve got to get out of our kids’ way! They’re already there. If we say [old man voice], “Oh, these consarned devices,” you know, they’ll be gone.
V: [laughing] We’ve gotten even worse in our house, now, with laptops. We come down from our offices for dinner, and we’re both packing laptops under our arms. I mean—we work at home. It’s not like we had to pack them in from the car.
C: I know! The laptop’s on the dining room table, and it’s like, “How come you get to watch your computer during dinner?” So now nobody gets to say someone else can’t watch their computer.
V: I studied Computer Science almost twenty years ago with seventeen-year-old kids, these boys who’d been given computers when they were twelve and hadn’t looked up since. So they had the social skills of twelve-year-old boys, and here I was thirty, I was a woman, I’d already been to three colleges by then—they simply couldn’t understand why I wasn’t awed by their teenage accomplishments. It was bizarre. They lived in that virtual world.
C: We have a term for that: “raised by ducks.” It means they don’t know how to be with humans. That’s what we say when we’re talking about someone who’s just like ridiculous, but they don’t know it. They just haven’t learned how to be with people. I completely agree the technology stuff, the inventions, all are going to act as an impediment to people to be in society. It’s so easy for people to disappear into a computer.
V: I’m always looking over my shoulder for the Matrix these days.
C: [laughing] It’s exactly like that! The Matrix is really appealing to my son’s generation. They all go, “Yeah, that is kind of how it is.”
As a story, The Matrix really resonates with kids. The movies that influence kids’ ideas of how the world works, like the Star Wars movies, my son feels free both to be contemptuous of them—”What a bunch of crap”—but also to completely like parts—”That was a good episode.”
On a computer, human interaction is optional. So we say, “Oh, they were raised by ducks.”
V: You’re not on Twitter, are you? Are you going to go on Twitter? Or just sticking with Facebook?
C: I won’t do Twitter—I got spammed a lot on it. So I bailed. And the Facebook platform lets me put up albums and songs and stuff.
V: One of the things I always loved about your work was the surrealism. In the Arnold shorts—Arnold Escapes From Church and Arnold Rides His Chair—it’s totally surreal. My son and I watched them on YouTube, and he loved them! He laughed his head off! Norm Normal was like that, too. For years I’ve been trying to describe Norm to people: “He’s this normal guy, but he meets giant mutant rats at Three Mile Island, he winds up on a bus in Mexico, he carries a hole in his pocket, he comes up through the toilet, and his wife says, ‘Norm, where you been? I’ve been looking for you all afternoon!’” And they’re going, “Huh?” and I’m going, “It’s wonderful! It’s wonderful stuff!” If it were up to you, would you do more surreal work?
C: Norm was all about non sequiturs. Mostly because it didn’t have to be planned out, the early stuff I did was more improvisational—it was just me. I could take it wherever I wanted because I didn’t have to work it out with someone else. A TV series is going to be planned out with about fifty people, so there’s not a lot of room for improvisation, you’re going to pitch something that’s going to be made, and twelve people are going to come in and record it.
V: But little kids love surrealism. Is that just the general genre of cartoons—it’s surreal up to a point, but then it’s realism?
C: There’s a lot of stuff that’s kind of a given, and everything else is going to be a lot more. . .yeah, you start off, “Okay, we’re in a fantasy world.” And the funny thing is the normal rules that apply. Like they’ll still want to have lunch. That’s what’s fun about it. There’s all this crazy fantastic stuff going on, but now they’re having lunch, or something makes someone irritated, all this domestic stuff. They’re really recognizable human characters, but at the same time it’s a really cool combination of made-up fantasy and the way people always behave.
The nature of TV is way more collaborative. You have to have a blueprint all along the way. The nature of this work is not improvisational. Within the blueprint, there’s room for a little bit of improvisation, but not a lot.
V: So let’s get into the nitty-gritty of professional storytelling. In fiction, if you’re smart, you at least scribble something like a rough outline on a piece of paper before you start. Most unpublished writers don’t even do that. But for a TV show, you need storyboards, which are a heck of a valuable tool. In the context of storyboarding: what’s your first step in creating a plot?
C: Plot before starting storyboard. The plot is the “what’s going to happen” that turns a premise into an outline.
V: So what structure do you use (standard three-act or something else)?
C: I’ve stuck with the three-act structure for as long as I can remember. Sometimes I’ll not think about it, and realize that I’ve come up with a two-act or something, but three is usually the best way to approach it.
V: How do you pick your “hook”?
C: I refer to it as “the inciting incident,” I think from Robert McKee. What makes the story start? Something upsets the status quo.
V: Your act breaks?
C: This is pretty much planned out in outline. First in Act 1, the status quo is upset by the inciting incident. The protagonist then makes a plan and starts to do something about it, and that is Act 2, with all its complications, usually the longest act. Act 3 is the climax. This can be the shortest act, depending how long this takes to unfold. Sometimes this act is very short. And it needs to be funny and memorable, because this is what is remembered by your audience.
V: What about cause & effect—how much do you rely on it to move the story forward?
C: Actions must have consequences. They are very important to character development. Otherwise it’s all fake and no one cares.
V: How do you get from your original ideas to a finished storyboard?
C: I often have plenty of help. People who are better at boarding than me take it on. The important process for me is to “hand out” the script to the board guys. That means the edited dialog track is played and I describe—sometimes sketching—the action and staging.
V: So what’s the essential ingredient to telling a really good story, particularly the one it took you a long time to learn about?
C: I would say that the characters have to be believable, that their emotional connection to the story must seem real.
V: Given that you’re always working with basic archetypes—the two approaches to being a girl or boy, the mother, the father, the grandmother or grandfather, the boss, the underling, et cetera—how do you design conflicting traits, strengths and weaknesses, for a character?
C: This has to be based on the personalities you know—obsessed people, cowardly people, charismatic people, et cetera. Mostly the people whose actions make for funny stories—why do they do the things they do? And why is it funny?
V: I’ve read you especially like Helga from Hey, Arnold! Who are your favorite characters you’ve created? What makes them attractive?
C: Helga is attractive to me because she has layers: a deep inner life, big secrets—right there, she’s fun to write for because there is great subtext. She says one thing and means another. Other times, she’s way out front with her feelings. A private self and a public one. She’s very creative, so she can be a poet and an artist. Tragic and funny, Helga is often humiliated for her instant karma and our amusement.
V: [laughing] For our amusement. Now, TV is different from fiction—even novels—in that a series can be short or long, and if it’s long you don’t necessarily know how long until it ends. How does the longevity of a long-running show affect digging deeper into character? Is there always more to learn, or is there a point at which you just run out of things to say?
C: I guess I could run out of things to say, but usually we run out of [network] orders for episodes before that happens. I love series TV because the characters get deeper and deeper. It’s like a book with many, many chapters.
V: You’ve talked about how you based the characters of the sisters on Dinosaur Train on your own older sisters. Do you see yourself in Don, the silly, innocent younger brother? Or are you Buddy? Or are they really just separate characters from you entirely?
C: I’m more Buddy than Don, I think, because Buddy is very much like Arnold. But I really enjoy how the two boys have developed into sweet little goofballs, with their simple needs right on their sleeves, compared to the more intelligent, moody, bossy, and conniving girls. It cracks me up. I don’t think there is anything very radical there, but the boy/girl differences are very funny to me. The best thing about Dinosaur Train, in my opinion, is what has happened in the character development of the four kids, and I credit the kid actors who play them a lot.
V: Screenwriting is, basically, dialog. But dialog’s also a basic staple of fiction, and there’s a lot fiction writers can learn from people who write dialog all the time. What are your basic guidelines for creating good dialog? Subtext—hidden agendas?
C: Yeah, inner lives. Characters who say one thing and mean another. I try not to be too on the nose.
V: How do you approach the problem that real-life dialog is actually pretty boring?
C: I try not to over-think it. I prepare careful, detailed outlines that show what happens in each scene, then when I actually write the script—when I come up with the dialog—I try to get into a kind of trance and write as fast as I can and not get fussy. Then I reread the pages and edit for sense and humor and brevity.
V: The Arnold shorts are very focused on a particular time and place. (Arnold actually just sits in a chair in one.) But with an on-going storyline, you need a setting. How do you pick a setting for a particular gang of characters and their stories?
C: Arnold’s city was an idealized version of Seattle/Portland, so it was meant to evoke my childhood/early years. Warm and grungy.
V: What about “telling details”—how do you find them to bring a setting to life?
C: I love architecture as character. But the Mesozoic was a completely different challenge. In Dinosaur Train I try to make it like the coolest playground or vacation spot imaginable to a kid.
V: Do you, over time, branch out and take the characters into different settings to see what will happen, or do you keep the characters and setting integrated to keep your premise focused?
C: A TV series gets to grow new characters, and that just makes it better. You keep coming back to the main characters as you go, then back out to the new ones.
V: Writing and editing fiction is pretty much sitting in a chair hunched over a keyboard all day long. What’s the weekly schedule of the creator/producer of a TV animation?
C: Now I’m in post[-production], so that’s very different from the writing/recording part. But in a week, I have days when I do certain things. We meet internally on Mondays, meet with Hensons on Tuesdays, and I was recording Thursdays and Fridays, so the week built up to that, preparing scripts. Now I mix Thursdays and Fridays, and spot music and effects on Mondays. And Wednesdays are calm centers to do stuff like this.
V: Do you have funny or interesting or poignant stories to tell about working with some of the other really talented people in your industry?
C: I have really loved working in VO [voice-over] these last twenty years. You meet the most talented actors, who don’t have to sweat how they look, so they focus completely on creating this animated character for your amusement. They are yours for four hours and sometimes bring real magic.
Dan Castellaneta (Arnold’s Grandpa and Homer Simpson, among others) and Maurice LaMarche (Big Bob Pataki on Hey, Arnold!) were my faves—sometimes I’d get them together and it would be miraculous. And of course the kid actors, from Helga to Tiny Pteranodon. What is poignant is watching the kids all grow up.
V: Absolutely. There’s that issue of time going by, again. Craig, what do you, personally, get out of the whole world of TV and animation?
C: My career’s in a good place now, because I can confidently say that I’ve had a follow-up to Arnold that is probably an even more successful idea. And I know that these Dinosaur Train episodes work for my audience as well as Arnold did.
I followed my ambition to LA to try to make this career. Long, varied, and full of different things I made. What seems to make the difference was this: did the ideas come from me, relatable to my own beliefs on a deep-down level? Arnold and Dinosaur Train both fit that description, so those have been the best times.
This is another golden age for animation. I am in the right place at the right time. And it’s fun!
Craig Bartlett is the creator and executive producer of Dinosaur Train, PBS/Jim Henson Company.