A Fabulous Evening with Heather Kenyon

Dateline: New York, Feb. 7, 2007

Heather Kenyon, Senior Director of Development Original Series, took time out from her busy schedule at Cartoon Network in L.A. to present a series of lost pilots at the School of Visual Arts.

Presented this evening, in order of appearance were:

“Koi Pond” featuring Periwinkle by Aaron Springer

World traveler Periwinkle the platypus tries to do a good deed with disasterous results.

“Kenny and the Chimp” by Tom Warburton

A pre-cursur to the ridiculously successful smash hit “Code Name: Kids Next Door” (now in its 7th season) the tale of Kenny and Chimp is told in Mr. Warburton’s now famous style.

“Larry and Steve” by Seth McFarland

A surreal – and very funny – film mainly because of the eerie similarities between the two main characters and “Family Guy,” this is the story of how a dog and his stupid man came together.

“Utica Cartoon” by Fran and Will Krause

A hilarious example of how a hot dog eating contest can go horribly, horribly wrong.

“Jeffrey Cat” by Mark O’Hare

Detective Jeff Cat investigates a bizarre crime of man bites dog. Literally.

“Squirrelboy” by Everett Peck

The pilot that would become a series, Rodney squirrel inadvertently sabotages a father/son kite-off.

“Plastic Man” by Andy Suriano

Goofy to say the least, Plastic Man swears to renounce crime by saving the world from a watery menace.

“Welcome to Wackamo” by John McIntrye

A family of moles (I think – I won’t lie they were cute but I couldn’t tell WHAT they were) experience wacky hijinks when they try to install a fridge in their house…on the VERY high hill.

“Gondola” featuring Periwinkle by Aaron Springer

Periwinkle returns, this time to wreck havoc on unsuspecting vacationers in Venice.

After feasting on these animated delights Ms. Kenyon fielded questions from the eager animators in the audience, and what an audience it was! Those in attendance included Will and Fran Krause, David Levy, Bill Plympton, Nina Paley, Candy Kugel, Linda Beck, Don Duga and (of course) yours truly. Ms. Paley, creator of “Sita Sings the Blues” wondered what the differences were between today’s 6 – 11 year olds and small children of previous eras. To everyone’s surprise, Ms. Kenyon answered that kids today are more conservative than their predessors. She believes this to be the result of modern parenting techniques, where adults and parents are seen more as friends than authority figures. Children are encouraged to “use their words” and “express their feelings” more openly.

They are also more sensitive to other’s feelings, Ms. Kenyon pointed out. As an example, the focus group for the “Squirrelboy” pilot felt that the father was entirely too mean to Rodney, and they also did not understand that he was a pet, not the best friend, which opened up a bizarre series of questions such as “how can a squirrel be a pet?” “Where do you get a pet squirrel?” “Do you know anyone who has a pet squirrel?”

Getting stuck on a single element of a show can be the death of a pilot, even if that element seems relatively simple to adults, thus throwing the whole show into a lurch that the creators and executives never imagined. As another example, one of the reasons that “Plastic Man” failed to connect with kids was because they thought of plastic as hard, ala Tupperware, rather than something with stretchable properties. A weird hang-up for adults, but one that makes sense given the fact that the core audience for the program was born in 2000.

Ms. Kenyon explained the process that goes into a show’s creation as well. Once a show is pitched and optioned, it is sent to the legal department, who may spend up to a year working and reworking the contract (the longest Kenyon ever saw was 3). A bible, outline, scripts, boards and a pilot are then created, which can take between eight months to a year themselves.

This means that any cartoon currently on the air is like looking at a time capsule, a view of the world from two years ago. I asked Ms. Kenyon, given the long lead time to create a program, how she is able to tell what will be a viable show in two year’s time. She responded that a great idea + a talented person (often someone the network knows well who can create good work) +
excellent execution (i.e. great writing that can sustain a series) will remain standing after the development process is complete.

Which lead to the next topic, a character driven show creates great episodes. A person with a so-so premise can succeed if the characters are interesting and the episodes are noteworthy.
Sustainability is the key here. Network executives are pitched the same ideas over and over, so the ones with good character will stand out (the year they accepted “My Gym Partner is a Monkey” Ms. Kenyon heard close to 22 pitches for shows with monkeys). Needless to say, she’s not looking for anymore shows with monkeys! Or aliens or clowns. But she added that one day someone might come in with a show about monkeys in space that work at a circus, and it could be an excellent pitch. The trick, she said, is to not worry so much about what is on now – again, we’re looking at the past when watching TV – but to simply ask executives what they want NOW. And what CN wants are character-driven funny shows that appeal to boys ages 6 -11.

At the end of the evening, Ms. Kenyon described trends that she sees in animation, at least pertaining to Cartoon Network. Even today most of the shows on TV are 2-D, primarily because of budget. Also, cartoons will continue to be animated predominatly overseas in countries such as Korea, Taiwan and the Phillipines, again because of hours and budget. But some of the jobs that remain in the U.S. include script writing, boards and directing – a very good thing for future creators like myself.

Out of all the ASIFA events, this one was by far the most entertaining and informative one that I have attended. Ms. Kenyon will return May 6th for the 2007 ASIFA-East Animated Film Festival. When you see her, say hello and enjoy the films and food.

Just don’t mention monkeys.

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