#22. A Conversation with Prudence Fenton
JA: So let's start with where you began your career, creating animation for MTV; how did you become involved with the network?
PF: I was working for a stop-motion animation company located in Washington D.C called Broadcast Arts. Basically MTV was paying artists 7-10K to come up with anything you wanted to make, as long as the last two seconds ended in the MTV logo. Broadcast Arts made a lot of them, like M-Sandwich, Subway M, M That Fell to Earth, Cats Jumping the Ms. I came up with the pink elephant snorting flowers, spraying them on to his leg and morphing into the M.
JA: You were a special effects & animation director for the series Pee-wee's Playhouse, where you would win 2 Emmys for your achievements; tell me about your memories working on the show, the challenges you faced, and also how you became involved.
PF: I became involved again through Broadcast Arts. I had moved to New York City before they did, and was working for Peter Wallach Enterprises- another small animation production company. Broadcast Arts needed someone to come over and start interviewing people for this TV show they had landed- Pee-wee’s Playhouse. For an entire month I interviewed a significant part of the talent pool of New York City. I had a big book of interview sheets and took polaroids of everyone I met with- 400 people. I interviewed people from Saturday Night Live, and even Abbey Turkule who went on to work for MTV and who I worked with on Liquid TV. I met amazing animators. The first artist I hired was Wayne White who was astounding. He was the most prolific artist I had ever seen. It was nothing for him to draw 100 designs per day. He told me to bring on Gary Panter because he was good friends with Paul. That was easy, and he was just as prolific as Wayne. And then Gary insisted on Ric Heitzman. The three of them were equivalent to an army of artists. One outstanding animator I met was David Daniels- famous for the loaf cut animation. Because he knew animation cameras, I had to hire him as a cameraman per Steve Oakes. But I knew we would get him animating. He animated the rabbits on the opening. The Aardmans were hired to animate Penny the little feminist. I spent the entire summer with Nick Parks and Richard Gollel. They always took photos of their sandwiches because they were so much bigger than what they got in England, but I digress. We decided that Penny needed to have many voices because we wanted to get stories from real little girls. I would interview them and the boys would edit their stories and animate to the track.
Phil Trumbo directed the stop-motion animation part, and Stephen R. Johnson directed the pixelated Peewee inside the playhouse. Broadcast Arts had this huge room with the Playhouse set under the motion control camera. We did black and white video tests twice a day for 7 weeks and would walk down to the live-action stage to show Paul our results. Paul really earned my respect because every comment he made about the camera move improved the piece. I loved working with him because he just knew how to make it better and better. Over the years he took a lot of suggestions as well, and had such a sharp eye. I recall showing him a piece from Penny where one of the animators had carved his name into the clay- Paul saw it!
The big challenges every year were finding the right talent. The first year was easier because Broadcast Arts was an animation company. The second year I had to find everyone and the studio to shoot in Los Angeles. I had never worked in LA before. It was like starting from scratch, but I managed to find a great team. However, finding the right Pennies to interview in LA was very difficult. I needed to get 7 year olds from east LA. Otherwise there were too many stories about hot tubs, shopping, and wicked stepmothers. Another challenge in subsequent years was getting Paul’s approval on animation. I had to go to the live action set everyday, and often had to wait around until he could see me. But that was not a hardship. I loved being at that set. I got to fill in for the flower puppeteers and operate the flowers. Sometimes I had to be there to direct Paul and whomever else was on greenscreen. I got to choose with Paul the stock footage that went behind them. Actors hate greenscreen. I had to show them where I was compositing them into and try and get a similar lens that the stock footage had, and similar lighting, but "hello", it was greenscreen, so subtleties of lighting were not so easy back then. I mean we are talking 1987-1990. You can’t believe the change in equipment. If we did this show today, I could do most of the compositing in my house on my iMac. Instead I spent thousands of dollars sitting in online bays late at night to get cheap rates.
JA: In 1994, you produced and co-created a music video for Peter Gabriel, Steam, for which you received a Grammy Award for Best Short Form Music Video; you would also work with the music artist later as an executive producer on his video Big Time; tell me what it was like to work with such a legendary artist, and also what it was like at this time to have so much recognition from the industry.
PF: Actually, Big Time was produced in NYC in 1987 right after Pee-wee. Stephen Johnson, who directed Sledgehammer, was the director of Big Time as well. I took a lot of animators from Pee-wee and worked that production out of Peter Wallach’s studio. Peter Wallach line-directed a lot of the animation. For example that first opening shot of Big Time where there is a pan over the mud and flowers, and the mud comes alive and bubbles up- that was a 24 hour shoot. Peter was amazing that way. Once he was on to something you just had to go with it, even if it took 24 hours. He also never liked to start animating before 4 p.m. That is when the stop-motion animation Gods came out in Wallach World. That video also won a Billboard Award and an MTV Award. David Daniels also did a couple of loaf-cuts for that video. He would just work quietly for days making the loafs and then all of sudden be ready to go into the studio to shoot.
The Steam shoot was a whole other deal. I was working at Colossal and had just finished season two of Liquid TV. Stephen Johnson called and asked me to come produce it, but we had to make most of it in London. Fortunately I had made a lot of commercials in London, so I called my pals there and we set it up. We did the motion capture in Los Angeles with Brad Degraff’s equipment and since he was starting at Colossal, it was his first gig there. Then we flew to London with Peter and prepped for the three day shoot and four week posting schedule. Peter is great to work with. He drove himself to the set, he was part of the team. So much of what we shot was on blue or greenscreen, that when he had to dance and sing, he made the entire crew dance with him to keep the energy up. It was lots of fun. London crews are great to work with. And of course since there was so much compositing we lived in the post-house for 4 weeks. Peter would drop in and bring us presents.
JA: What originally inspired you to become involved in the entertainment industry?
PF: Honestly, I have to say I got into it by accident. I was attending the Corcoran School of Art in Washington D.C., and was animating a character of mine called Arthur Bird on Super 8 film. After graduating there were only two places that did animation in D.C. and Broadcast Arts was one of them. I knew I liked working in film. It just really fit my problem solving and visual abilities.
JA: You would become Executive Producer and Story Editor for the award winning MTV series Liquid Television, which would bring Beavis and Butthead to the network; tell me about your involvement in this series that would also go on to win a Primetime Emmy.
PF: In 1989 I went to work for Colossal Pictures as executive producer of commercials for their NY division. They had just merged with a company called Noyes & Laybourne in New York City. My memory is a little fuzzy as to how this came to be, but I think MTV was looking to do a TV show, and we thought that we could come up with a show of shorts. Both Colossal and Noyes & Laybourne had also done a chunk of MTV IDs, so we all knew the MTV drill and had the relationship with them. We wanted to make a show where we would change the channel before the viewer could. We wanted to put all kinds of animation into it and use it as testing ground for mini pilots, where MTV could then pick property and make a series. It took two years to develop the show and make a deal with MTV. When it finally got the go, I moved out to San Francisco to work with Japhet Asher and Colossal Pictures’ west coast office. It turns out I was the only one with real TV show experience. We found a great computer animation company to do our opening titles which won the Primetime Emmy. Mark Mothersbaugh ( Pee-wee opening composer) wrote the music for it.
JA: Let's talk about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which you illustrated using 35 animators from around the world to be part of a Sting, Bruce Springsteen, and Peter Gabriel world tour; tell me about the process of seeing this project through, and also about the recognition it received.
PF: This project came at the time of the 1988 writer’s strike. Everyone was out of work except us because our script had been written by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948. The project was funded by Amnesty International and Reebok to show during band changes for their seven continent tour. Once again, Stephen Johnson asked me to produce this film on a shoe string budget. My first task was to get us to the animation festival in Zagreb Yugoslavia, and meet a bunch of animators who would be sympathetic to our cause. We had Terry Thoren- then editor of Animation Magazine - guide us through the world of the animation festival and throw parties in our hotel rooms to meet everyone. By the time we left the festival, we had hired 26 animators. They were to fax us their storyboards and we would call them back and discuss their take on the article. Back then the fax machines used that roll of thermal paper. So I would go to Stephen’s house in the morning and there would be a ream of paper on the floor covered with storyboards from Belgium, Latvia, Poland, England, France, and Portugal. We met with Jack Healey- head of Amnesty International- to show him the storyboards and he said you have to travel to Europe and meet with everyone. So it was one of those 16 cities in 16 day trips. We met with everyone and saved Aardman as the last stop in Europe. Again, we called on our pals at Aardman Animation to do the opening and closing of the film. Peter Lord, David Sproxton, and Richard Gollel worked on this. (Nick was busy animating on Wallace & Gromit.) Jack Healey called this film his 6th band.
JA: You have also done visual effects and animation for shows like Unsolved Mysteries and Pee-wee's Playhouse Christmas Special; you would eventually become a producer for yet another award-winner, Disney's One Saturday Morning. How did you become involved with Disney?
PF: I met Peter Hastings just as he got a big deal at Disney. He was the main writer on Pinky and the Brain and Disney had hired him to come make cartoons for them. It was at this time that Michael Eisner had decided that he wanted a branded block of cartoons for Saturday morning. They asked Peter if he would do it. Peter came up with this great opening for flying through the days of the week and then coming to Saturday morning. He asked me if I could help him make it. That is how I became involved. And then of course it evolved into a whole virtual set and lots of shorts – all of which was right in line with my experience. It was really fun. We could come up with an idea on Monday and put it on the air by Saturday, and the branding idea worked. ABC Saturday Morning was number 1 for two to three years.
JA: In 2002 you would be named development producer for The Emporer's New Groove; tell me about the original concept for that film, and how it came to be what it is now.
PF: Actually, I inherited that film. Two other teams had already worked on it. They had long ago decided that it would be a film about Kronk and not about the Emperor.
JA: Tell me about the projects you have directed, including the opening segment for Michael Jackson's Moonwalker.
PF: I didn’t really have big aspirations to be a director. I directed the motion control camera movie for Moonwalker, and the cut-outs of the Jackson 5 on the piano keys, but then I brought in Dave Daniels to do some loaf cutting animtion of the Jacksons. I could always find people more creative and inspiring to do the directing. My talent was recognizing talent. I directed Fat Girl and Driving While Black because there was no budget for anyone else. I also storyboarded most of those series as well. Budget necessitated my directing career.
JA: Do you have a favorite cartoon of all time?
PF: George Pal's Puppetoons. These puppetoons were replacement animation cartoons commissioned by Phillips Radio done in the 1930’s. They take my breath away. Invader Zim is another big favorite of mine and of course, Pinky and the Brain.
JA: What one word of advice would you pass on to those aspiring to break into the industry?
PF: One word advice: Energy. If you have the energy to keep trying, to do film, then you will get there. Making films takes a lot of energy and endurance. What is likely to get someone hired repeatedly is if they have great energy and spirit.