A Conversation with EARTHWORM JIM Creator Doug TenNapel

Animator. Writer. Cartoonist. Video Game Designer. Comic Book Artist. Doug TenNapel is all of these things, and in 1994 his many talents funneled into one project when created the critically acclaimed video game, Earthworm Jim. Originally released on Sega Genesis, the story follows Jim, a normal earthworm until  a "special suit" falls out of the sky and allows him to operate much like a human, at which point he is tasked to rescue and protect Princess What's-Her-Name. Earthworm Jim stood out amongst all other titles as being a unique, wildly rebellious dark comedy that played as a parody of other games. The television commercial, which featured an elderly woman eating live worms, was pulled from multiple networks due to complaints from nauseated viewers. However, that did not stop the game from becoming a hit; earning itself a sequel, toy line and animated series. Today we take a nostalgic look back at the career of the man who told us to "eat dirt" in the 90s, and discover all of the things he did that brought him to Earthworm Jim, and where that game took him.   

Jason Anders: Long before creating Earthworm Jim you worked in television animation. What led to your job as an animator on Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, and what was your experience on that series like? 
Doug TenNapel: That first job was a big one for me. I was like many artists who graduate from college and ask, “How am I going to ever get paid for what I love doing?” I had been a freelance illustrator for just over two years when that opportunity opened up and I lucked out to get it. My animation skill was clunky at best, but I figured my workaholism would make up for my lack of skill. After a year at that job I learned so much about how television animation worked. I learned to read an exposure sheet, make sure my shots hooked up to the previous and following content, and I had to work with others on a large crew. Many of the friends I met on that project in 1991 are still dear friends of mine today and we are dispersed throughout the entertainment industry working for feature, TV and video game animation companies.

JA: Did you meet John Astin while working on that show?

DT: I did not meet John Astin but our crew was far stranger than his role on The Addams Family! I did get a chance to meet his son, Sean Astin, a few years ago. He's a nice guy.

JA: In 1993 you were an animator on the Sega Genesis adaptation of Jurassic Park, easily one of the greatest 16-bit video games of all time! Tell me about your transformation to video games and the challenges involved.
DT: After leaving Attack of the Killer Tomatoes I went right back into unemployment despair. I was in San Diego and discovered that many of my co-workers on Killer Tomatoes were getting animation jobs in video games. This was news to me because for some reason I assumed all video games were made in Japan. There were a number of small gaming companies that were alive and well in San Diego. I started contracting on little-known titles and I quickly got a reputation for being able to animate really fast. Due to the limitations of the cartridges at the time, I could do all of the animation for a game in two weeks. That saved the developers a lot of money and I found enough work to keep me busy around the clock. I had a decent amount of animation to show other video game companies that were exploding at the time due to the sheer amount of games being made in the early 90s.

My first real job was at BlueSky Software. They hired me and paid me a little extra to not do any side freelance work. I became a company man and got to work as an animator on a number of titles at the same time. Within the first year they landed the Jurassic Park game and I was offered the lead position. I got to visit the Jurassic Park set and meet two of my heroes who were working on the movie: Stan Winston and Phil Tippet. The latter just found out that the movie wouldn’t be using his stop-motion work because they decided to go with computer animation on the dinosaurs.
There are moments were I’m just lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time - and on my day that I visited Phil Tippet, he was so upset at losing the Jurassic Park gig that he threw a stop-motion puppet of one of the Velociraptors into the chair right next to where I was sitting! I picked up the puppet and it felt absolutely amazing in my hands. This was the most high-end puppet I’ve ever touched. The machining of the armature was the best money could buy, and the foam work on top of the armature felt like real skin. It moved like a dream. I looked at Phil and asked if I could shoot the puppet and digitize the images for the video game. He put us in contact with the studio lawyers and they agreed to let us use it if we took out a $75,000 insurance policy on the puppet. 

Like my work on Killer Tomatoes, I wasn’t the greatest animator to inherit such a great project, but I worked long hours to get my stop-motion skills to some level using that puppet. I had done a lot of stop-motion puppet animation on my dad's 8mm camera since the 4th grade. The game was finished on time and on budget and while I find the gameplay a little clunky, that project taught me a lot about gaming and opened up an opportunity to work for Virgin Interactive where my career was about to step up far beyond what I could have imagined.
JA: Was it fun to animate Ren & Stimpy: Stimpy's Invention?

DT: I remember that we had to slam that game out pretty quick. My animation wasn’t great, but I really love John Kricfalusi and respect his work. We made the game really silly and just wanted the players to be able to get together and have a good time. That’s back when studios didn’t get too involved in our work because they considered video games voodoo. Games are, of course, voodoo. That may be the first time the studios were right about something.

JA: Let's talk about the origins of Earthworm Jim...

DT: That whole game happened because I met David Perry, Mike Dietz and Ed Schofield when I got hired at Virgin Games. I didn’t do well when I landed at that company. I inherited the SNES version of The Jungle Book Game and the crew and I didn’t click very well. Within a few months I felt like I made a big mistake leaving BlueSky, but David Perry and his crew had made so many hits for Virgin Games that they decided to leave the company to start Shiny Entertainment under direct funding of Playmates Toys. They were looking for an animator and I had become friends with Mike and Ed, so I was begging them to put in a good word for me. I was super desperate and not sure if Virgin Games would ever pan out for me. That unemployment knot in my gut was rearing its ugly head on the horizon.
Mike Dietz was also interviewing Larry Ahern (Day of the Tentacle, Monkey Island) and he didn’t get back to Shiny because he was on vacation in Hawaii. Shiny said they knew I could animate but wanted to know if I could be creative. They asked me to come up with a character that weekend and bring it in. I sat down and came up with Earthworm Jim and most of the bad guys. It was one of the easiest things I’ve created, but I was mostly just terrified of not getting the job. When I presented the characters to them they hired me. 

Once I landed at Shiny we started to goof around with Earthworm Jim as a game idea. We put together a pitch for Playmates but still weren’t certain they would let us do the game. We were entertaining doing the Beavis and Butt-head game instead. But once Playmates saw our pitch they agreed to make the game. That’s just another instance of how lucky I am. It’s hard to believe that something like that would happen, especially when life doesn’t seem to go the way I want it to when I really need it. But those first three years in animation took me from Killer Tomatoes to working on my own character that became a smash hit thanks to the Shiny team. 

JA: Do you have a favorite element that made its way into the Earthworm Jim games?

DT: My favorite part of the EWJ game was that the lead character is just a total idiot who does his best and ends up saving the world. He has become a symbol of my whole career! I like how he is a moron but has just enough competence and heart to be a hero. He’s a vulnerable worm that fell into a super suit that cannot be destroyed. 
JA: Only one year later saw the release of Earthworm Jim 2 - how did the idea of a sequel come about, and were there any story elements or characters that never saw the light of day?

DT: While working at Shiny, we always overdeveloped our games so there would be a lot of ideas that didn’t make it in. We didn’t come up with great stuff, we came up with a lot of stuff and threw out the things that were too stupid or too difficult to make. What’s left over becomes the game! We knew we would make a sequel because the game did so well with the gaming press. They went ape for it. I think we needed to just capitalize on the game engine and see if we could squeak out another game. Some of our ideas were a little too aggressive and the game suffered for it, but most people still respected what we were trying to do. I liked having that kind of support. This was at a time where gamers were more about playing and having fun than being professional critics. It was different back then.

JA: How surreal was it to see Earthworm Jim brought to life by Universal as an animated series and to hear the voice of Homer Simpson speak as a character you created?

DT: That was a surreal moment. The Simpsons had only been on the air for three years back then and Dan Castellaneta was a real catch. I remember listening to a lot of people trying out for the voice and his was the clear winner. Having my own TV series was an even bigger dream come true than the video game because I’d been watching cartoons a lot longer than I’d been playing games. I went from animating other people’s characters to executive-producing my own series. Suddenly, I was tracking Neilson ratings and monitoring a mass audience. I became aware of how a lot of people feel about my work instead of just me looking at an isolated image in my sketchbooks.
The Earthworm Jim series was animated by Universal, so I got to spend a lot of time on the lot. I remember driving my beat-up pick-up truck around the sets, sitting in on the record sessions and reviewing scripts. I didn’t have a lot of input on the show, I just did approvals and designed any new characters that showed up on the series. I was mostly just watching and learning how to make a show by experiencing it from the front row. 

JA: Do you have a favorite episode?

DT: I suppose my favorite episode was "The Anti-Fish". It’s just a really stupid, silly episode that I can’t believe exists!

JA: Is there a medium you most enjoy working in? 

DT: I like comics best. No offense to the other mediums I work in, they’re all a wonderful experience, but when I make a graphic novel I get to write and draw the whole story by myself with little collaboration from others. It’s where my storytelling is best, and I think it’s the most powerful medium for my skill set. 
JA: Creature Tech is such a wonderful, original story - do you think Fox will ever move forward on production of a film adaptation since they obtained the rights?

DT: I don’t know if they will, but they should if they want to make a lot of money and entertain the masses! Last time I checked that was Fox’s job so let’s hope they get to it. That graphic novel is one where I just made something very personal and I thought I was the only one who would like it. Come to find out a lot of us are on the same page. It’s a broadly American sci-fi comedy with mile-long flying space eels, so how could it not work?

JA: What is the last thing you drew?

DT: This:
JA: What are you working on now that you are excited about?

DT: I’m finishing up our last season of VeggieTales in the City for Netflix/Dreamworks and I’m excited about that. I’ve got a few pitches in the hopper I’m getting ready to take around to the studios this spring, and I am writing two graphic novels. I’m always excited about what’s next because that’s where I live. 

JA: What originally inspired you to get into animation?

DT: I got into animation because when a drawing moves, it seems alive. It’s a study of life. I love life and making drawings come alive is a great magic trick to pull off. I like drawing, but the drawing sits there and someone needs to make that thing come to life! 

JA: What inspires you now?

DT: All things that are true, good and beautiful. I find little patience in media that’s ugly, dark or false… and there’s a lot of that. 
JA: How has working in the industry changed since you first started?

DT: Well, the Internet happened. That changed a lot of problems that artists used to have with accessing a mass audience. The audience has a lot more power than when I started, as we are all digitally connected and we all consume a lot more media, so there is a bigger work force required to create that media. Unfortunately, the quality of storytelling hasn’t progressed much. If anything, I’d say we’re going backwards culturally.

JA: What advice would you give to those who want to follow in your footsteps?

DT: Turn around and run away! Seriously, I think someone who works harder than the next guy and gets a few lucky breaks can do what I do. It’s not easy, and I still feel that unemployment knot in my gut, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m an artist, no matter if I’m successful or not. I can’t change that.

JA: If you had to sum up your art in three words, what would they be?

DT: Fun, odd and thoughtful. That’s what I’m trying to do, anyways.
Follow Doug on Twitter: @TenNapel
Visit Doug's Website: TenNapel.com