Toon Zone Interviews Larry Schwarz on "Three Delivery"
Over the span of his career, Larry Schwarz has worn many hats. He began his career in show business as a child actor and stand-up comic. Later, he moved on to publishing with the seasonal H Magazine aimed at the Hamptons and as the CEO of VIAM Communications, which published the Vietnam Business Journal and Vietnam’s first countrywide Yellow Pages. Never one to stay still, Schwarz then moved on to found Rumpus, a multimedia children’s entertainment company that began with a toy line and expanded to on-line animation.
Currently, Schwarz is the founder and CEO of Animation Collective in New York City. He serves as the creator and executive producer of all of the studio’s successful television shows, including Ellen’s Acres for Cartoon Network and, Kappa Mikey and Speed Racer: The Next Generation for Nickelodeon. Now, he can add another show to his impressively long list of creations, with the pending debut of Three Delivery. Set in an unnamed North American Chinatown, Three Delivery follows three kids who battle an evil sorceror for magic cookbook pages between delivering take out. Schwarz was able to take some time out of his schedule to talk with Toon Zone News over the phone about Three Delivery and what it takes to run your own animation studio.
TOON ZONE NEWS: How long ago did you come up with the idea for Three Delivery?
LARRY SCHWARZ: I don’t know, a few years ago? It was kind of right when we started the company. We put out a bunch of different trailers and everything, and the actual style of it looked a lot different when we first did it. There was always interest in it, but we kind of got more interest in other things. Kappa Mikey took off right away, and we did a lot of work for AOL, so those kind of got pushed to the front. But it was always a show that I really wanted to make, so we kept on going with it. We got a bunch of really great broadcasters all around the world really interested in it, so we got a pre-buy, put together the financing, and did it.
TZN: Can you explain what it means that the show was “pre-bought?”
SCHWARZ: Sure. This is also different than some of the other shows we did, just in terms of how the actual deal was done. Normally, we own our own shows and we control the rights, so in order to do that, we have to put together the financing for it, so an individual broadcaster doesn’t have to pay for the whole show to be made. What we do is we sell it to as many broadcasters as we can, pre-sell it all over the world and try to put together the financing for it, and then we go into production. The different channels pay a license fee and are able to run the series for a certain amount of time, but we control the rights. The way this was different from other shows it’s also our first Canadian co-venture. We did it with Fat Kat Animation Studios in Miramichi City, and we did a sale to YTV in Canada, so they were one of our key broadcasters, as was Nicktoons in the US. We also sold it to the BBC and to Canal Plus in France.
TZN: When you pre-sell a show, does that change the way you approach it creatively, as opposed to a regular TV pitch?
SCHWARZ: Well, all our shows are really sold as pre-sells, and they’re not sold in development deals. Something I think that we’re good at and that I’m proud of is that we’re really able to do a lot of the development work ahead of time that the broadcasters would spend time doing. When we go in and pitch it, we hope we’ve thought of a lot of the things that would be then raised during the development phase. But we still do a development phase with the broadcasters anyway once they buy it as a pre-sale, because we want to be able to work with their viewers, and we also want to be able to take advantage of …in a positive way, not take advantage of negatively…but take advantage of their development people. We really think they’re great and we respect them, and also want to get their opinions on the thing and have another set of hands working on it and editing it. We do that all along throughout the whole process, not just in the development phase, but for every script as well. Some people don’t have positive experiences with this. We’re really fortunate because the broadcasters that we work with really respect us creatively and connect with us and really understand what we’re trying to do, and that’s why they bought the show in the beginning.
TZN: Can you elaborate on any of the changes they asked you to make after you pre-sold the show?
SCHWARZ: It’s not really like drastic changes, where they’ll say, “add a girl character” or something like that. The kind of main elements of the show are really there. We did some tweaks in terms of the artwork and design and things like that. They give notes on script and stories and structure and things like that sometimes, and we get the same kind of notes that we’ll give in the writer’s room. Things like “I think this character would do THIS, or I don’t think that would happen,” or whatever. It’s more of those kind of notes. The title of the show went through a bunch of different changes also, like Wu’s Guardians and things like that. We even experimented with some Chinese names for it until we settled on Three Delivery.
TZN: I remember you saying at the panel at New York Comic Con that this is sort of your love letter to Chinatowns and those old chop socky kung fu movies they used to show on the old affiliate networks.
SCHWARZ: Yeah, and it’s actually really cool because we did a screening of it this weekend in the library in Chinatown on East Broadway. This was actually down the block from the street that we always used to go and play on when I was a kid, and so it was kind of cool. It was the first time we really had kids see it. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, but we had a terrific turnout. It was amazing to see it with a group of kids because they loved it. What’s great is that they’re watching and you watch them and they laugh and think it’s really cool. I think Tobey was definitely the most popular characer in terms of what the kids liked. But then they asked a ton of questions afterwards, which I always think is a great sign. My favorite question…most of the questions were about how we make it, and they also wanted to know more about the characters adn what happens next, but one of the kids asked “When is it going to be on YouTube?” (laughs), which is really funny. But a lot of the questions were about animation, so we’re going to go back and bring a bunch of animators. We spoke to the librarian who helped organize the screening and we’re going to do an animation workshop with them one Saturday, because they really kind of connected with the show. So we’re excited about that.
TZN: Three Delivery looks and feels pretty radically different from shows like Kappa Mikey or Speed Racer. What new skills or techniques or challenges did Three Delivery present as an animated show?
SCHWARZ: What we’re proud of, really, is that we don’t really have a set studio style. What’s exciting for us is that we can do things both creatively differently in terms of storytelling and characters and things like that, but also visually different. The first thing that’s really cool about this is that it’s presented in 16×9 and that’s also our nod to the kind of films that we liked and reference a little bit. The fact that we can present it in that cinematic kind of aspect ratio was really interesting to us. We also really wanted it to have a real “drawn” look, and so that was more work for us, in terms of doing it in Flash and getting that line quality. Internally, there was kind of real pushback to using that really rough line at first, but it was something that we really wanted to do and we really wanted to go for that, and so we did. We also wanted the pacing to really be different than shows like Kappa or Speed.
TZN: The rough line really brings out a graphic novel quality to the artwork, which I remember you saying was very important to you as well at New York Comic Con.
SCHWARZ: We really wanted to do that. Even in the transitional elements, we kind of reference when the printer for comic books or graphic novels…I don’t even know what the term is, but when it’s kind of like not aligned right when you’re printing it, and you get that double image. That was really kind of stylistically what we went for with the transitional elements. I also bought a bunch of Chinese posters and stuff from China, and we kind of reference that a little bit in terms printing style also.
TZN: What would you say was the most valuable thing that you brought over from Kappa Mikey or Speed Racer in making Three Delivery?
SCHWARZ: I think that in everything that we do, we have a real focus on characters and stories, and who these characters are and making sure that we really develop them as real characters. Also that they relate to each other as real characters, and then we put them in stories hopefully that kids will find interesting. I’m really proud in Kappa, I think that over those 52 episodes, you really know those characters and you really believe in their relationship with each other. Not to be arrogant, but I see them kind of like the Seinfeld cast. You really know them, and you really know that they’re friends and everything. With Speed, I’m really proud that in the first episode, you’re really rooting for Speed Racer in that first race scene. And I think that that means right away that you connected and identified with that character.
With Sue, Sid, and Tobey, we wanted kids to care about them, to want to hang out with them, to believe their relationship with each other: brother and sister and a really close friend. And, you know, we wanted the comedy to be not as much like Kappa Mikey cutaways and things like that, but to really come from the way kids talk to each other and joke around with each other. Obviously, a lot of it comes from Tobey being a total cut-up, but we wanted to make it like those characters are real and that’s how kids really talk to each other. It is an action cartoon fantasy, but we really did want it to have that real element. There’s one scene in an episode later on about how kids talk to each other now, or don’t talk to each other now. They’re all sitting around a table in Wu’s Garden, and no one’s talking. Even though they’re all sitting in front of each other, they’re all just texting each other. I think that’s going to be one of the first of that kind of silent dialog scenes in a cartoon. I don’t know, I’m excited about that one.
TZN: Did you guys do very much kid reference to get the language and the style and the patterns of speech for the kids right?
SCHWARZ: I think so. I think that…as old people (laugh), we always try to stay as current as we can. We also look at some of our interns and things, and they look at the scripts and things that are more connected to their lifestyles. In terms of the clothing and everything in this, we looked at fashion forecasts and things like that for teens to try and predict that, “This is what kids are going to be wearing.” Knowing how long it takes for the show to come out, we try to make it current, but not make it so outlandish that it won’t be relevant a year later, since fashions and tastes change and things like that.
TZN: What was the working relationship like between you and Fat Kat? How did you divide labor between you two?
SCHWARZ: The exact split is a ratio set by the Canadian government, and I don’t handle that. Our business side and production side kind of handles it so I might get it wrong. But there’s two kinds of things: there’s a co-production and a co-venture. A co-production is where it’s the Canadian company that develops the intellectual property themselves. This isn’t that. This is a co-venture, and there’s a work split formula set up by the Canadian government. It goes on a point system, and each production entity in the co-venture are allowed a certian amount of points. For us, it was really important that we didn’t want to give up creative control of it at all, and I think it was important for our other broadcasters. So we looked for a co-venture partner that kind of really believed in our creative vision for the show also, and was on board with it from the very beginning, as the broadcaster was.
YTV was terrific and really, really supportive of it and a real champion of the show, and was a real ally in helping us find a studio that really did share our creative vision for it. It was important to us that we did all the scripting, the initial character design and background and setting up the world and all the scripts. It was also important to us to do the recording here because, as I said before, the relationship between the characters and having them be real was really important. So, though we cast it and recorded here, by law one of the lead voice actors had to be a Canadian citizen. I think we might have split eventually animatics half-and-half, but I don’t remember. We did music and everything here, too. I think the first quarter or first half, we did to make sure that we kind of like got the timing and everything down, and then the animation was then done up at Fat Kat. We did post there also, but the whole process really is a partnership, so we’re really involved in everything.
We’re spread out here in New York over three offices just because of the way we’ve grown. I have to go from office to office, but if I’m supposed to look at something at the 51st Street office and I have to be at 37th Street, they’ll come to me and we’ll watch it so I can give notes and they’ll do it. So it really wasn’t that difficult for us to see eye to eye because we’ve done it more locally, and Fat Kat was really receptive to our input. I think we organize our production line differently than other studios, and it was important for us to kind of have both production lines in sync. They were really cooperative with that. Amy Feldman, who’s our producer for this show, and Alan Foreman, who’s the art director, were both really very involved going back and forth to Canada a lot so we could all work together on it. And it’s been good. I’m a control freak and I was definitely nervous about it, but we’re really very lucky to have found such a good partner with it.
TZN: Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently in working with that co-venture?
SCHWARZ: You know, I think that we’ve had a positive experience. I think that you learn different things along the way, kind of specific things about how to organize things a little bit. Not that either of us is disorganized, but just to be aware that everyone animates things differently and has different production pipelines and stuff like that, so maybe a little bit more coordination on that in the very beginning, kind of a dry run. But, knock on wood unless something terrible happens (laughs), we have not had any really major issues with them at all. So far it’s a process that actually has worked really well for us and it’s a process that we’re hopefully going to do with our future shows. It’s something that I was nervous about, but we were lucky to find good partners. I think that the thing to look out for, and the thing that we did look out for, is that you’ve got to find someone just in the same way when people look for us to partner with us for a work for hire. Even though this isn’t work for hire, they’re really kind of our partners in it, It’s, “Are they doing it because they want to do it just because they want to do it to get the production in?”, or “Are they doing it because they really feel passionate about the project and can really contribute to it creatively and really want to do it?” That’s what we do for our own stuff. We’re fortunate that the broadcasters want to buy stuff from us. People are always like, “What’s your favorite show?” and I don’t have a favorite show. They’re like kids, kind of. I love them all. They all drive me nuts at certain points, but I’m really proud of all of them and you really want to find someone to partner with who really feels the same way about it.
TZN: Kung fu seems to be the new black in TV and movies. I did a quick count and, including Three Delivery, came up with something like 7 or 8 shows or movies that center around kung fu. Are you concerned about a kung fu overload in TV in kids cartoons these days?
SCHWARZ: For us, even though the kung fu is an important part, it goes back to characters and stories. That’s what we really wanted to do. When a particular style of animation is so popular and everyone is trying to those kinds of shows, or this kind of show, I think that what really separates them are whether you care about the charcters, and are the situations that they’re in really interesting? In that case, you can have lots of kung fu shows, or lots of characters about undersea creatures, or anything like that. I think it goes, “Do you really care beyond the kung fu?”
TZN: Did the emphasis on action in the show ever get you in trouble with the broadcasters? Did they ever tell you, “You have to tone this down” or something like that?
SCHWARZ: I think that what they really look for in this was an action show. Certainly there are network standards and practices which we have become experts in. Sometimes, they’re strange, like when kids can’t ride elevators by themselves. That’s one of the weirdest ones that I’ve found, but I think that you can’t have the kind of action that you would have if this were a movie. You always have to be careful, you kind have to play around with the impacts stylistically. People can’t get hit in the head or in the stomach or things like that. You have to be really careful with fire and everything. So there are definitely broadcast standards that are involved in it, but we kind of have experienced that before, and we said, “You know, we’re going to do it stylistically to hopefully make it compelling, but but that would still pass standards and practices.” You’ll see other standards and practices issues in it also, of course, like whenever they ride a bike, they have to wear bike helmets and things like that.
TZN: Earlier in your career, I read that you used to be a stand-up comic. Would you say that you learned anything being a stand-up comic that you’ve applied to making shows or running your own animation studio?
SCHWARZ: Well, (laughs) I thought that being a stand-up comic was hard, but running your own animation studio can definitely be more tragic, I think, than that. But I think that definitely, we are very proud of our timing and really emphasize that, and I think that in terms of the joke telling and the other stuff that timing really helped me with that. The kind of stand-up I did, even though I did it while I was in high school, would definitely not pass standards and practices, so I guess beyond timing, I don’t think too much of it applies.
TZN: You’re currently working on the first season of Three Delivery…what’s next for you guys?
SCHWARZ: Well, we’re still working on Speed Racer. We have 26 half-hours of Three Delivery that we’re working on. We just delivered a spinoff of Kappa Mikey to Nicktoons, called Dancing Sushi. If you see Kappa, we took the Dancing Sushi transitional elements because we had lots of fan mail about them and lots of fan postings that they wanted to see more, and we made a series of Dancing Sushi episodes. Those have all been delivered. We did, I think, 26 two- or three-minute episodes. And those have all been delivered. We are really fortunate to have two series now that we’re working on that haven’t been announced yet, but I don’t know if I’m supposed talk about them yet because the broadcasters don’t like it when I do, but we’ve already sold in two series. We are starting those actually now.
We have Thumb Wrestling Federation, our first live-action show, which has done incredibly well both in Canada on YTV and on the BBC in England. On the BBC, since its launch, it’s consistently been rated in the top 10 kids shows in all of England, and a couple of weeks ago it was number 2, so we are working on a fourth season of that now. That actually starts scripting later this afternoon. I can’t announce who, yet, but we’re going to be announcing a new broadcast partner for it in the US, which we’re very, very, very excited about. We have another live-action show …full human live-action, not just thumbs…but a combination live-action/animation show called Black Dawn that we’ve got in development and we’re trying to sell. That’s actually for older kids, like 11 to 17 year olds, so that is kind of older for us.
We’re also out there selling our other shows still internationally, like Three Delivery and Kappa and Ellen’s Acres, which was our pre-school show that we had done for Cartoon Network in the US. We’re kind of busy with that stuff. And also because of the success of Speed Racer, we have a bunch of work-for-hire projects now that people are talking to us about. We’re negotiating on a couple of big ones now, and hopefully we’ll get a chance to work on one of those. Those are great because it really gives us an opportunity to expand ourselves creatively beyond the kind of things that we would create and develop in-house and give us a chance to work on different kinds of shows. Things that normally we wouldn’t have a chance to do in a visual storytelling. With work for hire, we’re not always involved in the scripting, but when we are, it also lets us have the opportunity to do that. Especially when it’s a classic character like Speed Racer, that you kind of grew up with, it’s kind of like a dream to be able to work on that kind of thing, so hopefully we’ll get more of that also going.
Toon Zone News would like to thank Larry Schwarz for taking the time to talk with us, and also Sarah Worden at Animation Collective and Maria Poulos at Nickelodeon for setting this up. Three Delivery debuts on Friday, June 27, 2008, at 7:30 PM (Eastern) on Nicktoons. Visit the Three Delivery website for more information.