Ian James Corlett: Animated Triple-Threat
Chances are you’ve heard Ian James Corlett in one of the innumerable animated series he’s lent his voice to: ReBoot (Glitch-Bob); Beast Wars: Transformers (Cheetor); Dragon Ball Z (Goku); Mega Man (Mega Man); Mobile Suit Gundam Wing (Quinze); Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century (Martin Fenwick); Ranma 1/2 (Dr. Tofu Ono); G.I. Joe[I] (Inferno); or in countless supporting roles in other series. But he is also a writer (Rescue Heroes, Rolie Polie Olie), a composer Yvon of the Yukon, Being Ian) and a series creator (Yvon of the Yukon, Being Ian). He recently spoke to Toon Zone about his career and history.
Toon Zone: Thanks for talking to us, Ian. First of all, where are you from?
Ian James Corlett: I am from a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia, called Burnaby. I’m the youngest in a family of three boys, who all grew up in and around our family business, which was a piano store. Which is probably a pretty odd setting and is the setting for an animated series that I created, called Being Ian.
TZ: So the show has “Ian” in the title and is set in a piano store like where you grew up. Can we call it autobiographical?
IJC: Well, it is loosely based on my life growing up as a young film buff and filmmaker in Burnaby, and the series mirrors lots of imaginative happenings in my life. Or, maybe not so loosely, since it’s set around the same kind of family and family business. We all worked in the family business ever since I can remember, basically, which is the joy of family businesses. My parents were there and so were we.
Anyway, the Ian character in the show is a guy with a huge imagination, who, whatever situation he finds himself in, will drift off into a fantasy world which has always got something to do with film. So, for instance, if he’s trying to get out of a task, he’ll imagine that he’s in the military and his Dad is choosing someone for a very dangerous assignment, and we’ll go to a short fantasy sequence of him imagining that he’s in the army. Or if he loses something around the house, he’ll drift off into an Indiana Jones-style fantasy sequence. He might be searching for his sock, for all we know, but he thinks he’s searching for the golden idol.
And there’s always several of these in every episode. These sequences are always done in sort of a different style and format from what the actual show is produced in. When I dreamt up the concept I thought it would be fun to have an animated show that was able to showcase different styles of animation at the same time. So it’s not what you would call a high-brow, animation-festival style of a show, but we do get a chance to use stop-motion and computer animation and different styles within the same show.
TZ: Ian is a young filmmaker, you say. Were you a young filmmaker?
IJC: Yes. When I was a kid I got interested in making little animated movies, basically just using toys and doing stop-motion animated films with my wind-up 8mm movie camera. When I was in Grade 6 or 7, I made a film for a school project, for a science class. I decided to do this thing on volcanoes and to do a little animated film with a cutaway of a volcano, showing where the magma comes from and all that kind of stuff. And then I spiced it up by having a little scene with these little cavemen running away when they saw the volcano coming, just to add a little drama to the science. Basically, it was my way of trying something more interesting than the regular written report, and it was trying to do something fun, probably so it didn’t feel so much like work. (Laughs) But the teacher suggested that I enter it into this little film festival that we used to have in Burnaby, and I ended up winning Best Primary School entry, or something like that.
I kind of got the bug from there, and, from that year on right up until Grade 12, I made films for these film festivals. In my last year of secondary school, in 1980, I ultimately wound up winning Most Promising Filmmaker in the BC Student Film Festival, which, for its time and the region, was kind of a big deal. I mean, it was shown in a downtown movie theater and had real judges and movie critics from the newspapers. And that was a bit of a coup, because the winner of that award was usually from the university category—whoever won the university category usually got the Most Promising Filmmaker because they were usually poised to go off on some sort of career path after university. But I would enter lots of films each year, taking the quantity over quality strategy, and my films were always comedies, and some of them were animated. And when I won it was kind of a big deal because I was the youngest winner ever. Anyway, I think they may have had a notion that I wasn’t going to go to university (laughs).
TZ: Really? What gave them that idea?
IJC: I don’t know, because there was a scholarship offered to the Simon Fraser University film school, which was the film school here in BC. And I went out and met with the professor and I knew what the program was all about. But I just realized it wasn’t really for me. Technically, I could have learned quite a bit there, but I think I would have been fighting forces I didn’t feel like fighting. I made silly, entertaining little movies, and film schools generally are a little darker—especially at that time, which was the punk era with lots of dark images and unusual films, and it wasn’t really what I did. I was into Woody Allen and Walt Disney, so I decided I wasn’t really cut out for it and decided not to do it.
IJC: Well, in any given year, I think the most I ever entered was five. But they were short.
TZ: About how long were they?
IJC: Oh, some would be as short as four minutes and some of them would be as long as fifteen minutes.
TZ: That’s still pretty long.
IJC: Yeah, yeah I know. I certainly had a lot more energy then (laughs).
TZ: Do you still have copies of these films?
IJC: Yeah, I do. I prefer just to talk about them, though. (Laughs) Some of them were pretty good, and some of them were downright awful, so it’s much better just to wax poetic about the old days and let people form their own imagery.
TZ: Well, that probably answers my next question. Is there any chance of your self-publishing any of them on DVD?
IJC: Yeah, probably not.
TZ: Well, it sure sounds like you had fun.
IJC: Yeah. My crowning achievement was getting the high school to let me make a film. I had the ear of the guidance counselor, who thought it would be a good idea to have a film made about the school as sort of a promo film. We lived on sort of a border district where you could cull students from the feeder schools. So, somehow I convinced this guy that it would be a good idea to do that, and maybe we could get more enrollments in the school. I don’t even know why it mattered. They’re all government-funded institutions, and I don’t know why they would want more kids to come to our school rather than another one. Anyway, though, that was the bill of goods that was sold, and they paid for the film. We even drew up an agreement: They would buy the film, and I would put in all the effort, and I would own the film afterward, but they could transfer it to videotape and use it for promotional purposes for as long as they wanted. My first deal!
TZ: That was pretty precocious deal making. I mean, you got ownership of the final product!
IJC: Yeah! So I own it, and that was one that ended up winning one of the festivals one year. Was that the last year I entered? It may have been. The biggest thing for me, though, was it got me out of classes, which I thought was just great. I was on official school business and making a movie, and I thought, “Oh this is just the best!”
TZ: These were all animated films you were making, or were some of them live-action?
IJC: Lots of them were live-action, but many of them were animated. I really can’t remember what the mix was. You know, there was usually a little piece of animation in the films, but some of them were completely live-action comedy.
IJC: I went older. My brother’s three years older than me, and I used to work with him and his friends, because they were all drama guys anyway. Wait, you know, actually they weren’t all. But they were certainly funny guys, and they were who I worked with a lot. But for the school film I used all the kids I knew from the drama club.
TZ: You won the filmmaking prize, but you didn’t go to university. What did you do when you got out of high school?
IJC: I immediately didn’t make another film. (Laughs) Yeah, I retired. I went to work, very pragmatically, in the family business. Like, now we’re kind of Hollywood north, but back in those days there wasn’t really a film industry in Vancouver. And what I was dreaming was to just get a job at a studio, as a sweep-up boy or the light holder or something, so I could kind of work my way through the system and learn how to make movies from the grunt work up. Because I knew I could probably do it. I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, but I was wanting to follow the same career path that Spielberg did. Learning directly instead of going to film school and those sorts of channels. But, you know, there was no business like that in Vancouver. And despite how much I loved California and visiting the studios when I was down there on vacation, I knew that was pretty much out of the question because of that darn thing called “the border,” which made it kind of difficult just to roam down there and find employment. I decided I didn’t want to be a starving art-film maker, so I folded up my equipment and sold pianos and keyboards and drum machines for awhile. I sort of set up my little home life and got married and bought a condominium so I would feel like I was at least grounding myself financially and looking toward the future instead of starving.
TZ: How did you get out of the piano business?
IJC: Well, it didn’t take long, really just a few years, before I decided I wanted to get back into something creative. So I decided to get into voiceovers for commercials. At that time Vancouver actually had a very close, tight-knit group of voice actors—probably like six or seven—who did ninety percent of the work in voiceovers that came out of Vancouver. At that time there was no animation work in the area, it was strictly commercials. But I would hear them when I traveled down to the US, and there were a couple of companies that were really churning out some fairly high-profile, funny, good voiceover commercials. And I thought, “Hey, that’s what I can do.” I had done voices for my own productions, and I was always a huge fan of old radio shows. I loved old radio shows and I would think, “Man, I was born in the wrong era, that’s something I would really like to do.” Anyway, I applied my energy toward trying to break into this voiceover market, and eventually after six months of shoe leather and lots of demo tapes, someone finally hired me. I was the character voice guy, doing the funny voices. Fast-forward a few years and I had pretty much quit the family business and was just doing voiceovers, when suddenly around ’86, animation work began to arrive in Vancouver. And I couldn’t believe it. It was like Los Angeles had come to me! And because I was somewhat established as a commercials guy, I started to get parts in this new industry and ended up doing literally hundreds of episodes of animation, starting in 1986 and still going.
IJC: Oh… Well, there’s my Frank Welker story. Which is kind of hard to bring up because it makes me sound like a blowhard. But it was an amazing little moment for me.
I was doing a guest session for Totally Spies, and I found myself sitting beside Frank Welker, who I think had a semi-regular part on the show. Well, I’m sitting next to him and of course I knew who he was. Any voice actor worth his salt would know when he’s sitting beside Frank Welker. Most people would not know who he is, I guess, but I remember him from a TV show, I think it was called The Burns and Schreiber Comedy Hour, back in the early 70s. Basically, it was sketch show, and he did great characters.
Anyway, I’m sitting beside him and thinking, “Wow, this is neat.” And you get little bits of conversation in between takes. I don’t know if you’ve ever sat through a voiceover session, but you record some lines, and there’s a little break, and you might whisper back and forth with whoever’s sitting beside you. So Frank leans over to me and says, “Hi, where are you from?” And I said “I’m from Vancouver.” And he says “Oh.” And we go back and record some more lines. And at the next stop he leans over: “So, do you … do you live here now?” “No.” “Oh.” And we record some more lines. And eventually I realize he’s asking me where I come from because we haven’t crossed paths before and he’s wondering why we haven’t met. And at the end of the session he says, “I haven’t seen you around but … you’re really good.” And I just kind of went “Waaaheeeeggghhhhhh!!” I just wanted to leave right there and retire. I thought, “Well, I’ll take that back to Vancouver, where the bulk of my work is and just kind of sit with that and recount it when I’m old. ‘Oh, there was a time I worked with Welker! Oh yeah!’” Anyway, he’s a very nice guy, very straightforward, wonderful guy to work with, and it was really neat, because he was kind of looking over my shoulder as I worked and was really interested. I mean, lots of people don’t say anything, whether they think you’re good, bad or indifferent. You know, it’s just another guy you’re working with, so, it was really nice that he went out of his way to say that. So that’s my Frank Welker story.
TZ: What are some of the current series you do voiceovers for?
IJC: I do supplementary voices on my series, Being Ian. I’m the voice of “Bill” in Sitting Ducks. I am in a series that I don’t think is currently running in the US called What’s with Andy? I play Andy Larkin. Really popular show up here. I’m Baby Taz in Baby Looney Tunes. I’m the father in Cramp Twins. I play Mr. Highpants in Yakkity Yak, which is doing well on Nickelodeon. Holy smokes, I know there’s others, but those are the current ones. Right now I’m working on a new show, called Alien Racers, in which I play an evil skeleton named Skrash, but it is just in the recording stage. That’ll be coming up at some point on the US airwaves.
TZ: How did you come to start writing?
IJC: While I was doing this voiceover work and reading these scripts, I started to get the bug in the late 80s. I thought, “I should try to write for some of these shows.” So that became my new focus, and I started writing for shows like Paddington Bear and Little Lulu. Donkey Kong Country. Rolie Polie Olie. Rescue Heroes. Lots of different shows. And from there, once you start writing some scripts you start thinking, “Well, hmmm, maybe I’ve got some original ideas that might fly.” And from that I started to create some shows. The first one we got off the ground—I was working with a partner at that time—was also the first show that StudioB produced on their own, called Yvon of the Yukon. And again, it’s a Canadian show, and it’s very popular in Britain and I think Australia as well, but it’s done nothing in the States, nothing at all. But it’s a pretty fun show.
TZ: No one has tried picking it up?
IJC: Oh they’re trying, but there’s just never been a sale. Who knows why. Maybe it’s just too funny. (Laughs) Yeah, I’m gonna stick with that. It’s too funny for Americans. It would just make people uncomfortable. (Laughs) No, I have no idea.
TZ: Wait, it was called—
TZ: This is gonna turn into an Abbott and Costello routine.
IJC: I know, I know. Can you imagine what it was like working on it? (Laughs) Finally we just nicknamed it “SE,” and it became much easier to deal with. It was a big problem. Anyway, that was one of the shows I developed and ultimately got produced. And I continued writing and doing voiceovers. And then on to Being Ian, which, from the day that the broadcaster said “Yeah, I think this is something we might like to do” to getting an episode actually aired, was five years.
TZ: Wow. Is that typical?
IJC: It’s not atypical, anyway. You know, some shows are quicker, but any way you cut it, it’s a few years. But this one was particularly long, because we missed some government financing. To get a show done in Canada, producers like Studio B have to tap into certain funding agencies, or you really wouldn’t get a show off the ground. And in 2002, I think it was, the government funds just sort of dried up, and it basically set us back by about a year. But the rest of it was just working on developing the series and getting it all together.
TZ: A lot of first novels are autobiographical, but this is, like, your third series. When did you first get the bug that said, “Hey, my early life would make a good cartoon”?
IJC: Well, in my case it was like, “Okay, hmmm, maybe I’m starting to run out of ideas.” (Laughs) The actual impetus, it’s kind of funny, was Malcolm in the Middle. It had just hit the airwaves, and I was watching the first episode and thinking, “I just love this show, it’s so funny” and it really struck a chord with me. Actually, to get ideas for animation, I’ll watch other types of programming, or even go to music and books. I really don’t like to look at animation, because the minute you start trying to do something like a SpongeBob or like another animated show that might be popular, you’re just copying them, and you’re two or three years too late anyway. So I like to look at other types of media. And Malcolm struck a chord, and I found myself wondering why I found it so funny. Well, it’s a good show, but the light bulb that came on for me was “Hey, this is like my life.” Because essentially there’s three boys in that show who have funny parents. So I thought, “Maybe that boy dynamic is really hitting a chord with people.” So that was kind of the impetus for me looking at my life. And then I thought, “Yeah, how many other kids grew up working at a piano store? Not many. That sounds like a cartoon.” And that’s really where it started coming from. And, fortunately, we’ve got really good writers on the show, and it’s turned out to be a really funny, funny thing.
IJC: Yes! As a matter of fact, a lot of the real-life ideas wind up being B-stories in a script. For instance, the summer before we actually started real work on the series I had borrowed a… a… what do you call it? Oh, a pressure washer.
TZ: A pressure washer?
IJC: A pressure washer!
TZ: What’s a pressure washer?
IJC: You hook it up to a hose and plug it into the wall and you blast anything in sight. Yeah, so I borrow this thing and as I’m doing this domestic job I’m thinking, “This gives me such a feeling of power! It’s like ‘I’ve got a weapon!’” And I really started to get into this stupid pressure washer. And as I’m working I’m thinking, “You know, this would be a really funny B-story for an episode.” You know, Dad gets a new gadget, and it consumes his life! Sure enough, we did end up using it as a B-story. And in the story meeting, Blair Peters, who’s the executive producer and one of the partners at StudioB, when I pitched this idea, the eyes just about bugged out of his head, because he’d had the exact same experience. It’s one of those Dad-domestic moments that’s universal. You get some wacky piece of gear and you just go nuts. It’s like, “What else can I pressure wash?!” I woulda been doin’ the roof if I coulda got up there!
So that’s one story that wound up in the show. Another one was a camping trip. Our family was notoriously not campers. But it was one of those things that my dad felt that we should do. “We should go camping, because, uh, it’s in a book somewhere: Families go camping.” So. We did. Badly. And a similar storyline ended up in the series.
Lots of stuff like that.
TZ: How’s the show doing?
IJC: So far so good It’s running here in Canada on YTV. The initial order was for twenty-six episodes. Usually a short season order is for thirteen, so they wanted two seasons right off the bat, and we just got news that they’ve ordered an additional twenty-six. So the show’s doing really well. It just started airing in January, and the kids are talking about it and liking it, and obviously the broadcaster is, too. StudioB is looking after the distribution side of things and they’re actively trying to get something happening in the US, but there’s nothing to report just yet.
TZ: With a pick up for another twenty-six episodes, you’re not thinking about the next series after this, I assume. Or are you?
IJC: Oh, are you kidding? I’m working on a series of a totally different genre right this second! I can’t even talk about it yet because it’s not even formed. But it’s something that I’m testing on my son, who’s seven, so I use him as a guinea pig. I want to try to do an action series this time. You know? Different rules, different style, different everything. I’ve kind of done my emotional piece, the show that actually means something to me. So now I’d just really like to do something that’s really big. Like, there are “big” comedy shows, like SpongeBob or Fairly OddParents, but it’s the action shows like Transformers and Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokemon that kids just absolutely seem to eat up. And I just want to try and see if I can move into that genre and see if I can come up with something.
So that’s what I’m focusing on right now, a large-scale action animated series. I wish I could tell you about it. I would, but there’s so many things swimming around. And actually I’m having a meeting with a major producer-player at the beginning of March, and that’s what I’m gearing up this pitch for. And literally my laptop is open right now and it’s open to this page with lots of, well, junk on it. And nothing’s complete yet. But I’ve got the building blocks for it. I just got to bring out the sandpaper for the fine work.
TZ: So, now I’ve got to ask you the “favorite shows” question. You say you don’t like watching other animated shows for inspiration, but what animated shows do you like to watch, just for fun or relaxation?
IJC: That I just like, you mean? Well, I like SpongeBob. I really like Duck Dodgers in the– What century is it?
TZ: I think it’s just Duck Dodgers now.
IJC: But in the theme song there’s a century.
TZ: Oh, right, it’s… um.
IJC: Something-something century.
TZ: Right. Oh, great, now I’m blanking.
IJC: Well, actually, that brings up another funny little thing. I’m really into theme songs. I’ve written the theme song for both of my shows.
TZ: You have musical training?
TZ: Oh, what am I saying? You grew up in a piano store!
IJC: Yeah! More things I can get my fingers into. (Laughs). Actually it’s pretty neat when I look online and see kids talking about the show and saying, “Oh, I love the theme song.” And I’m like, “Hey, that’s great! I hoped you would!” (Laughs) But, you know, theme songs often don’t get noticed, so it’s pretty neat when kids start mentioning them.
Anyway, back to shows that I watch. I like SpongeBob, I like Duck Dodgers. And I don’t even want to say The Simpsons, because that’s almost a given. It’s hard for me to talk about influences, because, as I said, I go to other media for that.
IJC: Movies. Love, love, love watching movies. Some of my all-time favorites are Albert Brooks movies. I mean, I really love Woody Allen movies, but as far as something odd, that I wouldn’t mind mentioning in an interview (laughs) I love Lost in America. That’s one of my favorite movies. I don’t know if I relate to the characters or to the situation or what it is.
TZ: “You lost the nest egg?”
IJC: “You must not use the word ‘nest’, you must refer to it as ‘the round thing with sticks where birds live’!” I just love it. And another Albert Brooks movie, that is not as complete a film, but is fun to watch, especially given today’s world of reality TV, is his Real Life. Such a funny movie. It’s, like, talk about ahead of its time. There was no reality TV when that came out, but here he is parodying it. And it’s really funny to me.
So comedies are really big to me. But I like all sorts of movies. And I’ve really become addicted to RottenTomatoes.com. The older I get, the less time I have to enjoy movies, so I really don’t like taking a whole lot of flyers and going “Ah, hey, that looks good, I’ll try that!” Because the problem is I have to sit through a movie even if it’s bad, just to see how they resolve it, or just to see how bad it gets, or if it gets any better. It’s part of my filmmaker instincts, I guess. So if I start watching a bad movie, I generally sit all the way through it and then I feel crappy afterwards. (Laughs) “That was a waste of two hours!”
So I love looking at RottenTomatoes, for foreign films, which I love, as well as blockbusters. As long as they’re good. Like Sky Captain, which I saw and thought was just a really fun, well-done movie. And generally I hate CGI effects in movies. But because this was entirely CGI, except for the actors, and it was really well done, I really enjoyed it. On the other hand there’s I, Robot, which I watched the other night, and the big, famous sequence of him racing through the tunnel I just found so disappointing, because it felt like I was watching a videogame. With Will Smith’s face kind of cut in to the windshield. There was no basis in reality at all. Or, worse yet, I’ll watch a movie that’s set in 2004, and it’s got a car chase, and the cars are CGI. It’s just… Huh? Show me Bullitt, please. There … is a car chase. So, anyway, I’m rambling. But bad, bad CGI is just the worst.
TZ: Well, the worst right now for me is that we have to wrap this up. Thanks for talking to us, Ian.
IJC: You’re welcome! Oh and watch for my show, Being Ian wherever it may turn up on your TV! In Canada,, on YTV, Tuesdays at 6:30 and Sundays at noon. Sorry, promotion is in my blood.