Toonzone Interviews "Fanboy & Chum Chum" Creator Eric Robles on "Nicktoons MLB"
The career arc of Fanboy and Chum Chum creator Eric Robles is a great American success story — a testament to the power of hustle and moxie. With two hard-working parents, Robles and his sister had to take care of themselves as children, which often meant hanging out at the local 7-11 with friends to hang out, read comic books, and play video games. He loved animation as well, launching into self-study after discovering the Dragon’s Lair video game. However, he attempted a career in law enforcement after graduating high school once he realized that his parents couldn’t afford to send him to art school, but his love of art and drawing led him to do sketches in the backs of his exam books anyway. The drawings caught the eye of one of his teachers, who happened to be the brother-in-law of animation veteran Stephanie Graziano. After a bit of prompting, Robles filled a sketchbook over a weekend and gave it to him for Graziano’s consideration, and was surprised to get a phone call within a week offering him an internship at Graz Entertainment. Once there, Robles would bring home any model pack he could to study and copy them overnight in the one-room apartment he was still living in with his parents. Robles would drop off the drawings on the desks of all the directors and producers in the mornings, and within a week-and-a-half, he was offered a job as a character designer with a salary higher than both his parents’ income combined. He said “thank you” to their support by saving his money for two years to buy them their first house.
Robles’ career in animation has been running ever since that moment, about sixteen years ago, with the crowning achievement so far being the greenlight from Nickelodeon for Fanboy and Chum Chum, a CGI animated comedy series about the misadventures of two hyperactive kids who think they’re superheroes 24/7. The show has been a success for Nickelodeon, launching its second season just recently. The duo have been successful enough fast enough that they were included in the cast of Nicktoons MLB, the new baseball video game starring Nickelodeon cartoon characters and Major League Baseball players. Toonzone was able to speak with Robles over the phone recently about Fanboy and Chum Chum’s debut on video game consoles everywhere.
TOONZONE NEWS: I have say I was pretty inspired by the story of how you broke into the animation business while I was doing the research for this interview.
ERIC ROBLES: Well, thank you sir! I forced my way in. I said, “You know what? I’ve got to make this happen,” you know what I mean?
TOONZONE NEWS: Yeah, though I have to admit it sounds like the secret to your success was, “work your butt off and don’t sleep a lot.”
ERIC ROBLES: (laughs) You know what? There’s some truth to that, I’ll tell you. When your parents tell you that you have to work hard, there’s some truth to that. It’s a lot of sleepless nights. I really don’t remember sleeping much throughout my 20′s.
TOONZONE NEWS: How involved were you in making the Nicktoons MLB game?
ERIC ROBLES: The game itself has a team of guys who are pretty much doing the strategic planning and what have you, but they did approach me on the general things to think of when they were creating the characters of Fanboy and Chum Chum in general. And that being my expertise (laughs), I was very happy to give them a lot of pointers in terms of the goofiness of the show and the silliness of the characters.
TOONZONE NEWS: Do you remember anything specific that you were telling them, “This has to happen” or “Make sure you don’t do this?”
ERIC ROBLES: Well, you know, I basically like treating the characters like they’re just real serious cartoon characters. There’s real squash-and-stretch and they don’t take anything seriously, you know? I really wanted to make sure that they didn’t lose sight of that because in some other shows, you have cartoons but they don’t treat them as cartoons. The thing about Fanboy and Chum Chum is that they literally are squash-and-stretch, full-on animated cartoons. So the goofiness of the characters should definitely be out there no matter what, whether it comes to gameplay or promotion on the characters. And they’re really really cool about really implementing a lot of those kinds of things in the game. Fanboy has got this really fun, goofy sort of pitch that he does. When he goes up to bat, Chum Chum is kind of levitating a little bit with that little jump he does. There’s a lot of little cool things that they’ve implemented in the game. Also, I don’t know if you’ve had time to check out the game yet?
ERIC ROBLES: It’s AMAZING! It’s actually the Frosty Mart Stadium, and that was really unexpected. When I saw that I literally just lost my head because that thing looks so amazing. I mean, I live in this world day after day just creating the show and going to the Frosty Mart is such a big deal for the characters in general. That’s kind of like their hang out, their spot. The Frosty Freeze is just their drink, they love it. Now to see it as a full-blown stadium and the crowds of people in there, it’s just …it really blew my mind.
TOONZONE NEWS: That wasn’t something you were expecting, or that you knew was coming at all?
ERIC ROBLES: No, not that end of it. When they mentioned the game, they were just picking my brain about the characters and about the show in general, and they took it upon themselves to say, “Hey, you know what would be cool? If we actually did a stadium based on the Frosty Mart.” When I started seeing some of the conceptual designs coming in, I was like, “Whoa! This is going to be insane!” I was just kind of like, “Yeah, just make sure you slather the place with elements from the Frosty Mart itself,” but they definitely went above and beyond.
TOONZONE NEWS: So you actually spoke with the video game folks a few times during the process.
ERIC ROBLES: Yeah, there was some slight back-and-forth. Of course, I’m kind of in the midst of the show (laughs), so they definitely take it on themselves to respect the show in general and implement a lot of the silliness that comes with the show.
TOONZONE NEWS: Was any of the other show creative staff other than the voice talent involved in the game?
ERIC ROBLES: No, I have these guys working day and night over here. We really didn’t have time to get involved in actually designing the look of the stadium or the look of any of the specifics in there, but they basically had a map already. If you go to the design of the show, it’s all pretty much worked out, and what they did was they really respected that and made an extreme version of what the Frosty Mart would look like as a baseball stadium. So you’ll see a lot of design elements that come from the show and from our artists, and you can definitely see the influence on the game itself.
TOONZONE NEWS: I know there’s some other video game tie-ins where they pull in a writer or something and have them in there, but I guess for a baseball game, narrative doesn’t really figure into it much.
ERIC ROBLES: Yeah, I think because there are so many characters and players involved, they definitely stick to a lot of the taglines or a lot of the things that are easily recognizable for the characters. If it was just a Fanboy and Chum Chum game in itself then we’d have to be involved in that on every level.
TOONZONE NEWS: Speaking of which, has anybody talked to you about that? Has anybody brought that up as a possibility?
ERIC ROBLES: Not as yet, but these things come up out of the blue. You’d be surprised. It’s the kind of thing where you get a phone call and it’s, “You know what? We’ve been thinking of this for the past couple of months,” and you’re like, “Really? OK, so what do we do?” So, it’s not out of the question. This game in itself kind of came out of the blue. I wasn’t expecting this and then they were just kind of like, “Hey, we’re going to do this,” and the next thing you know it’s being done. But we have a lot of real fun games on Nick.com that are Fanboy and Chum Chum-related, and I don’t know if you’ve seen those but those are really fun. I really get a lot of say in those as well because it’s a creator-driven show, so it’s one of those things where a lot of things get filtered through my office. I’m always in the know and I always kind of want to get my hands involved in it as much as I can so that the show always has that essence of the original idea itself. That way the kids can always feel like the characters are being true to what the watch on the show.
ERIC ROBLES: Oh, my gosh, well the thing I love about the show in general and the thing I love about making it is probably the hardest thing about making a show like Fanboy and Chum Chum — it’s that there’s not one episode that’s like the last. It’s this crazy freedom that they gave me here in making the show. It’s like, “Well, what kind of show is this?” And I said, “Well, it’s about two goofball characters who wear their costumes all the time. Imagine if a kid can wear his Halloween costume every single day,” right? It’s a really simple concept. But now you add all these different elements, and the elements that are involved are just basically things that I want to see that would be awesome. If I want to create a Harry Potter-type character, then I create Kyle the Conjurer. Basically, he’s a wizard who got kicked out of the Milkweed Academy for Wizards and got sent to public school. Now you’ve got a full-fledged wizard but he gets no respect because his first day of school, he’s wearing this cape and the teacher immediately says, “Oh, OK, you’re one of those kids. Why don’t you go sit with those kids in the back.” You know, if I want to do a show about a Viking, I’ll just put a Viking in the refrigerator. Fanboy and Chum Chum find a Viking. Great! It’s so open to interpretation on how you want to create a show and where you want it to go. So a game in itself would be such a blast. Even if I were to do my own Fanboy and Chum Chum baseball game in itself, I’d probably make Fanboy a bat and Chum Chum a ball because they’ve got that squash-and-stretch crazy element to it.
TOONZONE NEWS: Or they’d have some kind of crazy power-ups.
ERIC ROBLES: Absolutely. Actually, we have a special coming up I believe in November called “Brain Freeze,” and it’s based off of the movie The Hangover, where Fanboy and Chum Chum get the worst brain freeze ever. They wake up without their underwear, and now they have to put all the pieces together to what happened the night before so they can find their underwear. What I like doing is that on every episode we do what I call “the prize.” The prize for the kids. If you watch an episode, there’s always going to be some weird twist or some weird craziness that happens at the end of an episode. For the special, we went all-out with it. I’ll let you in on a little secret, but we actually gave Fanboy and Chum Chum powers for the very first time. It’s definitely pretty mind-blowing, but that just kind of opens up another door to what the series itself lends itself for. If we ever do a game or something like that, it definitely opens itself up to what your imagination allows it to be.
TOONZONE NEWS: I have to say that’s probably the most unexpected inspiration for an animated kids show episode I’ve ever heard.
ERIC ROBLES: (laughs) Well, you know, at the end of the day this show is called Fanboy and Chum Chum, but a fanboy relates to everything that we love, whether it’s video games, whether it’s animation, whether it’s movies, whether it’s board games, or whatever it is. It’s a passion. It’s something that excites us and that we become fans of. I really believe that this show takes that route. I didn’t take that traditional route where it’s one kid who’s obsessed about one thing, because growing up, I was obsessed with many things. You can kind of put that word out there and say, “You know what? A fanboy is what you want it to be.” And in Fanboy’s case, he’s a fan of everything, and that’s what allows us to make all these great episodes and all these great specials we’re doing this season. We can take him in all these different directions and really kind of have a blast with him. The core to me is always maintaining the main character. If the main character is always strong, you can put them in any scenario or any situation, and the kids will follow, because you’re always going to go on this adventure with these two characters that you’re very familiar with. Going back to the game route, if we make a game, you’re always going to be going on whatever crazy adventure. You’re going to go to some Viking world or some barbarian world, or you’re going to go to some crazy Frosty Freezy Freeze Monster Bun Bun world (laughs), or whatever that is, you know? And that’s why, tying that all in to the baseball game itself, you really get to have a blast seeing these characters play in what would be their world of the Frosty Mart Stadium. Of course I’ve been kind of busy so I haven’t been able to play so much, but what makes it cool is that you actually get to hear and play with all the other Nicktoons characters in this game. For me, I’m a big Nickelodeon fan. I always have been, so in playing this game, you’re hearing Gir as an announcer, you’re hearing him making these random, left-field comments. You’ve got Invader Zim, you’ve got all these great characters, even from a show like Avatar or the new ones like T.U.F.F. Puppy, but you’ve got all your classic ones like Ren and Stimpy, and Powdered Toast Man. It’s such a cool concept of putting the classics and all the new characters together in one world.
TOONZONE NEWS: Now, I read that the Dragon’s Lair videogame was one of the touchstones that inspired you to think about a career in animation.
ERIC ROBLES: Oh, dude! I was going to say, you’re totally in my heartstrings now (laughs). When I was a kid, that game was the ultimate. It was the thing that inspired me for animation in general. I’d do my chores and my parents would give me my allowance, and I really sucked at the game, but there was this kid who was super-awesome at the game. So what I would do is I would literally give him my quarters so I could see what happens in the next level.
TOONZONE NEWS: (laughs)
ERIC ROBLES: I swear, man, I didn’t care. I would give him my quarters because I just wanted him to keep playing and I wanted to see the animation and the story that happened when watching this game. I was obsessed with this thing.
ERIC ROBLES: I know! It was mind-blowing, right? There was nothing out there…I mean, come on, fully animated? And especially Don Bluth animation? Classic Disney, but he made it his own thing at the time. You know, if you look at Fanboy, he’s got real thin legs and big hands and big feet. My inspiration, even back then, was the Don Bluth characters and how lanky Dirk the Daring used to look.
TOONZONE NEWS: Yeah, he had those giant boots and that really big head and the helmet that made it look even bigger.
ERIC ROBLES: Dude, I love it. Love it. Huge fan of that.
TOONZONE NEWS: You were an old school fanboy reading those comics at the 7-11 when you were a kid. Are you still a comic book fanboy?
ERIC ROBLES: Absolutely, I definitely make my rounds to the local comic book store out here. The one I have closest here to Nickelodeon is House of Secrets, which is kind of a safe haven for all us animation guys that are out here in this world.
TOONZONE NEWS: I bet it’s pretty interesting on New Comic Book Day.
ERIC ROBLES: Oh, totally. It’s kind of fun. A lot of old friends, a lot of new people that you kind of meet, and we’re all kind of just get together in this one spot. It’s kind of bizarre. I’m still a fanboy myself. I’ve been doing this for about 17 years and I still get excited when I see Bruce Timm or any of these other guys around, and I go, “Man, I love this world!” You know what I mean? These are the guys that are making the stuff that gets you excited, makes you want to draw and be better at what you do.
TOONZONE NEWS: What are you reading now?
ERIC ROBLES: Actually, I just picked up one of the latest Supermans. I haven’t gotten into any of the latest stories to see where he’s at right now, you know? And I guess there’s a new Teen Titans out that I need to catch up on, but I’m hearing mixed reviews on that one right now.
TOONZONE NEWS: You mentioned there’s that “Brain Freeze” episode coming, but can you tell us anything else about upcoming episodes of the show?
ERIC ROBLES: Yeah, we’re just on our second season now, so we’re starting to air those. We have four specials this season to look out for. We have “Brain Freeze,” which is going to be a blast for the kids in their own right and if you’ve got kids and you’re watching it as an adult, you’ll totally get all the little things in there that remind you of The Hangover. We also have a Halloween special that we did this season, where we have an awesome villain in that one (note: check out the video clip from the upcoming Halloween episode “There Will Be Shrieks”). We have a Christmas special that we did, which is going to be awesome. That’s with Man-Arctica and the boys kind of dressed up as his elves, let’s just say, and they get themselves into some crazy trouble in that one. Then we have this really epic one, man, which I’m really excited for everyone to see. We actually have Fanboy and Chum Chum as real superheroes and villains. We set this up in an earlier episode and we liked the concept so much that we decided to move forward witha ctually making a series within a series, where Fanboy is Fan-nihilator, the ultimate villain, and Chum Chum is Super Chum, your classic superhero character, and they get themselves into some crazy adventures in this special. All these that I’ve mentioned are half-hour specials, and they take their roles real serious…and of course, when I say “serious,” I mean very “over the top.” So it’s the first time you’ll see them as these full-on, new-designed characters. Obviously, it’s Fanboy and Chum Chum, but in these really awesome costumes, and Chum Chum is just super-buff and big and he’s got this funny little head, still, and these guys in the CG department have just been doing an amazing job just sort of capturing what we do naturally in 2-D.
Toonzone News would like to thank Eric Robles for taking the time to chat with us and the PR teams at Bender/Helper Impact and Nickelodeon for setting it up for us. Nicktoons MLB is out now (read Toonzone’s review here), and Fanboy and Chum Chum‘s second season is currently underway on Nickelodeon.