Emru Townsend: At the other panel we were talking about science fiction and fantasy for big-screen animation. It sounds like that's one of the things you'd like to see more of, like a lot of us I suppose. I should ask one of the other obvious questions: Do you watch anime at all?
Greg Weisman: I watch some. Not a lot. I'm a story structure kind of guy, and anime isn't big on story structure. One of the reasons I wanted to direct the English dub for 3x3 Eyes was because I felt that each volume had a good structure to it. I find myself sometimes getting a little frustrated with stories that seem to go on and seem sort of stream of consciousness, let's put it that way. And yet at the same time, there's a lot about anime I really appreciate. The character, the action, I think they're great at those things. I shouldn't say they're bad at story structure, but it's a very different sensibility from a western sensibility. But I'd love to see Americans learn—and I think they are, although I'm not always sure they're taking the right lessons—I'd love to see Americans learn some lessons from anime more and more. It'd be great if as the audience widens, if the market begins to build, not just for anime from the east, but also from stuff that's feeding off that sensibility for the west. I'd like to think that down the road that'll open up some doors for those of us toiling out in Los Angeles.
Given how at this point in feature animation in North America, science fiction is pretty much written off, how do you feel it is on television? Right now, off the top of my head, the closest I can think of that's science fiction/fantasy that actually is watchable is the superhero stuff. Do you think there's really been any broadening of the horizons there?
From a fantasy standpoint you've got Samurai Jack, you've certainly got the Clone Wars shorts, which are pretty cool. And I say that with some measure of surprise—since I'm not a big fan of the most recent Star Wars movies, I had no particular reason to think I would be interested in three-minute shorts based on those movies, and instead they're a lot of fun.
On the other hand, if each movie had been three minutes long, they might have been a bit more tolerable.
Yeah, that's probably true [laughs]. And then you sort of go to the superhero stuff, which has trappings of science fiction in it, as part of that great bastard genre, which I love. The superhero genre is sort of a melting pot of all the other genres put together [laughs].
You've got a little horror, you've got a little science fiction, got a little this, got a little that.
Fantasy, yeah, all sorts of stuff. I worked on a show for Disney recently, just as a writer, I did a couple of episodes of a show called—believe it or not—Super Robot Monkey Team Hyper Force Go. It's a science fiction show. Giant flying robot, flying through space, living on an alien world. The team is a young kid and five cyborg monkeys. It's fun, it's a lot of fun. It's got a huge anime influence present. I mean, you wouldn't look at it and go, hmm, I wonder if anime influenced that. You'd know. And it's science fiction and it's fun.
I think after an era of shows like Recess and Rugrats and As Told By Ginger, where they were using animation to do things that years ago you'd think, Well, that's a live-action show, you wouldn't do that in animation—I think the pendulum swung a little bit in the other direction, now they're looking for some wilder stuff. Still comedy, maybe with some more action. Not just superheroes, but superheroes sort of leading the way towards a wider fantasy or science fiction point of view.
But it's still hard going. There's a certain tone that they're looking for. More than a certain genre, there's a certain tone they're looking for.
The companies, the three or four major players. And it's really hard to sell a show that doesn't match their tone. Not so much subject matter, but they're looking something real specific in terms of quirkiness, and a humour, and that kind of thing.
The humour is the essential component.
It really is. Even for a show that they are billing as an action show, they're looking for the humour in the action show. I don't think we could sell a show like Gargoyles today. In fact, I know I can't sell it, or the spinoffs.
Yeah, which is kind of shame. Again, aside from the superhero stuff, no one wants to go near—even Samurai Jack, I remember thinking the first time I saw it, in the first two episodes of the three-episode pilot, that this is pretty much a straight show. It's pretty stylized, it's got its gags here and there, but mostly it's straight-ahead. Then suddenly we get the talking dogs, and then the loopiness starts to come into play. I love the show, but I keep thinking that Genndy Tartakovsky and his crew have pretty much proven that if they really wanted to, they could do straight-ahead science fiction. And they've also proven that if they did it, with Clone Wars for instance, that people will watch. And yet there still seems to be a resistance at the executive level to greenlight anything beyond the established DC characters.
Yeah, I think that's true. I worked on the new Batman series for Warner Bros. as well, I wrote about five episodes of that, and that is a straight drama. I'm not saying it's got no humour in it, but it's an action drama, just as you'd expect Batman to be. It's certainly not an Adam West kind of thing. Although Adam West does one of the voices—not Batman.
Of course [laughs].
But I think that gets on the air by virtue of Batman being Batman. And Justice League, because it's got Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman and all these famous characters and stuff. And again, [there are] very talented people working on it, but it's not about the talent, it's about selling it in the first place. And without that huge kind of marquee value—Gargoyles had a huge challenge even coming after Batman: The Animated Series, in that it was an original property. We had to sell it from scratch, we had to convince people from scratch. No one could look and say, oh, Batman, yeah, I know Batman, or Spider-Man, I know Spider-Man. They had to take a flier on it and that seems to be something that is harder and harder to get, unless it matches that tone.
Do you think part of it lies with the economics? At the time that Gargoyles came out, the economy was definitely on an upswing at that point.
The economy was on an upswing and syndication was still a viable way to sell cartoons. And it's not now.
Cable wasn't fragmenting the audience.
Cable wasn't fragmenting the audience, but even before cable started fragmenting the audience, what really started happening was, you had first Fox, then the WB and UPN in the States scooping up all these independent stations. Even a big city like L.A. only had one independent station left back then, after Fox and UPN and WB came in. You go to a smaller market, and they have no independent stations left. So where are you going to syndicate this thing? Syndication, in the days of DuckTales, going right through the first couple seasons of Gargoyles, was an incredibly lucrative business to be in, in children's programming.
Then the networks scooped up these stations and you couldn't syndicate these shows, you couldn't get enough coverage to sell the advertising. So even before cable started fragmenting the audience—certainly not before we began to just sense that that was on the horizon, and videogames, and all sorts of things, and the Internet, [which] was nothing then, compared to what it is now—even before all that happened, the bottom fell out of the syndication market. And that had two effects immediately where I was at Disney at the time. We looked around, and we had no distribution. Syndication was going away, and we didn't at the time own a network. You have to assume that that threat of losing all distribution was the main reason—I'm sure not the only reason, it's not like I was privy to it—you have to assume that that was the main reason that Disney felt they had to buy ABC. But the Saturday-morning market never was as lucrative as the afternoon syndication market.
Saturday morning had been losing money for years by that point.
Right. And so the numbers from an animation standpoint go down, the budgets go down, you've still got very talented people working on it, but you're working them to death, on very tight deadlines all the time and you're spending less and less, and it begins to show up.