What is your name and your current occupation?
Craig Bartlett, creator and exec producer, Dinosaur Train, PBS Kids.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
Matt Groening used to say that you need to do 10 years of awful jobs before you get to the good ones. I washed dishes, washed cars in the Northwest in winter, waited tables, worked in a pea cannery – that one was the worst. It was hot, steamy, deafeningly loud. And we were canning peas! Who eats canned peas?
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
I worked for Bob Rogers on several special-venue films, for worlds fairs – I made two short 360-degree films, one for Basque Spain and one for a Korean worlds fair that shot in seven locations around the world. We also did permanent installations like Mystery Lodge at Knott’s Berry Farm, and the Shuttle Launch Experience at the Kennedy Space Center for NASA. Those jobs were always fun because they got me out of town and out of our little entertainment bubble. Also I got to get intensely into subjects I was interested in, like the space program and Northwest Indian art.
How did you become interested in animation?
I grew up wanting to be an artist, so I went to art school in Portland for a traditional art education. But it seemed to me that the whole fine art world was too serious. Then I saw the “Tournee of Animation” that played in our art museum’s theater, and the short films I saw there seemed to combine fine art with storytelling, and they were just weirder and funnier than the stuff I was studying. So….. I ended up making my own animation at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I grew up in Seattle, but moved to a much smaller town north of there, about halfway between Seattle and Vancouver BC, for my teenage years. That move was key, because I was living on a rocky beach in the middle of nowhere, with no kids for neighbors and a canoe to get around. So my teenage years were about a lot of alone time, hanging out on the water in small boats, making up my own fun and creating a huge inner life. I got into animation out of college by finding a job in Portland at Will Vinton Studios, the only game in town at the time. Will is the “Claymation” guy, who did many short films and the “Noid” and the “California Raisins,” among other things. I joined a very small group – there were only 8 or 9 of us, and we worked for years on a claymation feature about Mark Twain. I stayed there for most of the Eighties, and learned the basics of stop-motion animation and filmmaking in general – we shot our stuff in 35mm, built the sets and the armatures and the clay figures, lit them, loaded the cameras and downloaded the shots in a closet that was converted into a darkroom, took the film across the street to Technifilm to be processed, picked it up the next day, and cut the shot into the reel if the editors would let us. It was a blast, the perfect first “real” job.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
I get to do all my favorite parts of making “Dinosaur Train” – working on the stories, writing the scripts, recording the voice actors (which sometimes involves going to Vancouver BC, which is like going home). In the middle of a production schedule, like we are now, there’s a lot of other stuff going on. Storyboards turn to animatics, which I give notes on in various stages, animation comes back from overseas and we spot the music and sound effects. Sometimes I track a little guitar for the “ditties” that the characters sing. I always go to the mixes. I love all post production, because most of the hard work is already done, and you’re just making the episode a little better, getting it to make a little more sense. And now, in spring, there’s a lot of promotion for the show, which involves travel to PBS, banging the drum for the show.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
I like seeing the characters come to life as you go. A TV series is like a book with dozens of chapters – things just grow and grow. It’s a collaboration with writers and artists and the actors who play the characters, and it just gets satisfyingly real. The characters take on lives of their own, and when I’m writing for them, and I can plainly hear them, and I know what they would say and how they would react to a situation, I think, “this is why I got into this business.”
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
It’s a drag that everything must come to an end. The fans of “Hey Arnold!” that are grown up are still writing to me and asking me to finish what we started with that series. But it ended – because Nickelodeon decided that they had enough of it, and as my friend Sue Bea Montgomery says, “He who holds the gold calls the shots.” So there you go. At least I’ve learned something from my mistakes, and try to make things end well now. I ended the Arnold series with a dare to Nickelodeon to make a movie – with a cliffhanger, like a throwdown. And they didn’t make the movie. So I try to be more responsible now. But things end, and I can’t change that.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
Hollywood takes itself too seriously. The business aspect, the making of money, kind of flies in the face of the inherent silliness of cartoon making. This is epecially irritating since everything has to be done so cheaply.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
We write on our Macs in Final Draft, use Photoshop and digital drawing tablets to draw the show, cut the sound and music together in Pro Tools and Final Cut, and the animation is done overseas in Maya. All on computers.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
When Miyazaki came to town for an “evening with” at the Academy, Matt Groening got me into the inner circle, some cocktail party to honor him. John Lasseter, who seems to be Miyazaki’s handler as soon as he sets foot in the U.S., came bounding over to say hi to Matt and invite him to meet Miyazaki, and Matt just collared me and brought me along. Miyazaki was very small, in a white suit with a trim little beard. He looked like an asian Colonel Sanders. No words, we just bowed to each other. I was very happy to meet him. His interview that followed was hilarious and full of amazing information, and they showed clips, all the great stuff, including my fave: the night sequence in “Totoro” where the kids wait for the bus in the rain and Totoro comes, and then the Catbus.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
It was hard getting through the teenage years – they were lonely and angsty and I didn’t have many people to talk to about it. I knew I had to get out of my small town, but I didn’t even know where to go. I slowly blundered my way into a career. Thank God my wife encouraged me to pull up stakes from Portland and try LA, I don’t think I would have had the nerve to do it myself.
Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
I’m finally taking music seriously. I get a huge kick out of it. Who says there are no second acts in American lives?
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
When somebody says it’ll never work, they may be wrong. Some of my ideas have languished for years because nobody wanted them, and then finally saw light of day. All new ideas necessarily sound absurd at first. I think Einstein said that, but probably better.