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Platform International Animation Festival: Toonzone Interviews "Adventure Time" Creator Pendleton Ward

A graduate of the CalArts Animation Program, Pendleton Ward went on to work at Frederator Studios and wrote and storyboarded for The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack before going on to create the hit series Adventure Time in 2010. Following the “Awesome” Cartoon Network panel at the Platform International Animation Festival, Toonzone News caught up to Pendleton Ward and sat down with him for an interview.

TOONZONE NEWS: Could you tell me about how you first got into drawing? What were some of your influences when you were younger?

PENDLETON WARD: How far back? Because I started drawing as far back as I could remember. In, like, preschool I liked to draw. I didn’t have any influences then, except for my mom, who is an artist who lives in San Antonio. She’s an abstract painter named Bettie Ward.

TOONZONE NEWS: When did you first start developing your own style?

PENDLETON WARD: I think you just copy stuff until you find your own way. I probably traced a lot of Jhonen Vasquez’s Johnny the Homicidal Maniac and Squee! I drew the Simpsons a lot. In second grade, I would just draw portraits of Bart and sell them for like a nickel to my friends. I drew everything. I just drew everything I liked that was on TV. Ren & Stimpy, Beavis and Butthead, you just draw all your favorite stuff. I would draw Mario levels when I was a kid on paper and then in my head imagined moving through them. Everything. I’d draw everything except bowls of fruit. I didn’t like that.

TOONZONE NEWS: What made you decide to go to CalArts?

PENDLETON WARD: I applied and was accepted. I knew about CalArts because I also went to a summer program there for art called Seesa but now I think it’s called Innerspark. It was for high school kids, so I knew the campus. My mom put me in a lot of art programs and art schools, and she really supported me when I wanted to become an artist, which I’ve always wanted to draw. So I’m lucky to have my mommy send me to art programs.

TOONZONE NEWS: Where did the original idea behind Adventure Time come from?

PENDLETON WARD: It came from a sketch. My sketch book. I doodle, and then at one point, Nickelodeon was looking for one-minute long pitches to make one-minute long shorts. This was seven or eight years ago or so, and I saw that doodle of Finn and Jake and I put my friends’ personalities into those characters and tried to make it into a story. That’s where it came from, it was just a sketch.

TOONZONE NEWS: When you developed it as a series, where did ideas for episodes come from?

PENDLETON WARD: Ideas come from everywhere. If you’re sitting there talking with your buds, that’s an idea, that’s just how it happens. You brainstorm with your friends out loud and you figure out what’s good and bad, and you write it down. That’s just brainstorming.

TOONZONE NEWS: Adventure Time is such a unique show. It’s like nothing that’s been seen before.

PENDLETON WARD: To me, it’s just Dungeons & Dragons, that’s all, and I’m role playing these characters. There’s magic and everything straight out of D&D that I played when I was a kid. It doesn’t feel weird to me, it feels normal because I grew up watching Ren & Stimpy and crazy cartoons, and it all feels normal.

TOONZONE NEWS: Did you ever expect it to become so huge?

PENDLETON WARD: No, of course not, no one can expect anything ever. It’s neat, I’m glad people liked it.

TOONZONE NEWS: Is there anything on the show you wanted to do that Cartoon Network said no you can’t do because it goes too far?

PENDLETON WARD: That’s pretty rare that we get that note. They let us experiment. There was one episode that was called “Thank You” and I wanted to do a day in the life of a monster that lives in the world, and the story follows this creature, this snow golem, as he wakes up in the morning and realizes he’s out of breakfast food, and he goes and picks pears off trees. I thought there might be resistance to that idea because it’s not a story about Finn and Jake. Finn and Jake are hardly in it, but they let us do it, and it was really cool, and it was a great, amazing episode that was written and storyboarded by Thomas Herpich. They let us do all kinds of stuff there. If there’s anything too messed up, I don’t even want to do that anyway. I don’t try to sneak stuff past Cartoon Network. I just like wholesome, funny, good stories.

TOONZONE NEWS: You do voices for the show too, right?

PENDLETON WARD: Mm-hm.

TOONZONE NEWS: How did that happen? Was that something you had wanted to do?

PENDLETON WARD: No.

TOONZONE NEWS: You just fell into it?

PENDLETON WARD: Lumpy Space Princess started because I wrote and storyboarded “Prisoners of Love”, which is the first appearance of Lumpy Space Princess and when I pitched it to my friends and the other storyboard artists on the show, I did the voice for her in the pitch, and it stuck. I can’t remember who thought it was a good idea for me to do it for the actual cartoon, it might’ve been me, I can’t remember, but that’s how it started. But I’m less of an actor and more of a stay in my house by myself and drawer.

TOONZONE NEWS: Could you tell me a bit about the collaborative process in terms of working with other people. Were there challenges and benefits?

PENDLETON WARD: Benefits of working with other people?

TOONZONE NEWS: In terms of developing your own idea, changing it to be suitable for an audience.

PENDLETON WARD: I don’t know, we just try to make it funny when we’re writing it. We just try to make it fun for us to watch. We structure the episodes traditionally there’s a three act structure. A beginning, a rising action building to a climactic moment, and then resolve it. It’s pretty traditional the stories that we tell, the kind of stories we’re doing, so I feel like that’s how we prepare it to be seen by an audience.

TOONZONE NEWS: You’re working on a video game, right?

PENDLETON WARD: Mm-hm.

TOONZONE NEWS: How is writing that different from writing an episode?

PENDLETON WARD: For me it wasn’t different. I co-wrote the script with James Montagna who directed the game at WayForward. I just wrote a really rough pass of the script, and James did all the hard work by filling in the gaps. I think he understands the amount of dialogue needed to fill up a game. It’s just like writing a Choose Your Own Adventure. Every pathway sends you off in a whole new novel. It splits out like a tree. So James really helped me with that, but for me, I wrote it just like I was writing a normal episode about the Ice King stealing Finn and Jake’s garbage and Finn being upset about it, and Jake was like that’s fine he can take our garbage why not and Finn is like no, it’s the principle, we have to stop him from taking our stuff and we have to punish him so he can learn a lesson because he’s a child. That’s what the story is. They follow Ice King around, get the garbage back, and beat him up.

TOONZONE NEWS: What other projects are you currently working on?

PENDLETON WARD: That’s it, I’m just working on Adventure Time. That’s all I can do with my time right now.

TOONZONE NEWS: Any dream projects you have, if you care to share?

PENDLETON WARD: It’d be fun to make like a ten million dollar video game, if that happens. That’d be fun. That’s what Ocarina of Time is, so I hear, that’s my understanding. Those big games that everyone loves cost that much money and those take four years or so. Four or five years with a huge team of people, so I’ve been thinking about it, just researching it.

TOONZONE NEWS: You do a lot of interacting with fans.

PENDLETON WARD: Sure.

TOONZONE NEWS: What’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened when meeting a fan?

PENDLETON WARD: I’ve told this story a couple times, but I always feel like a jerk when I tell it. But anyway, the story was, I was leaving a signing because I was hungry, and I cut off the line, and then the line came around, this was in New York, and this one person was calling out to me, and she was really sad, she needed my signature on some paper so that she could give it to someone, I think it was her daughter. When she saw me leaving, she was so desperate to get me to sign that paper, it was so tragic for her to not get that. It was a very intense moment, and it made me think about Star Trek episodes. There’s one Enterprise episode with Scott Bakula where he goes down to a planet that’s full of people that were starving and the planet’s going to implode or something and he was like oh, I’m sorry, I can’t help you because the Federation wouldn’t approve of it, so I’m not allowed to interfere.

TOONZONE NEWS: The Prime Directive.

PENDLETON WARD: The Prime Directive, and the people on the planet were like okay, but really they would’ve been like this lady and they would’ve torn him apart and said please, please, that’s what she was saying over and over again, please, please, please. So that was a really weird moment for me that my autograph meant that much to her. I feel like if you need my signature so badly, and I’m trying not to sound like a jackass while I say this, but you should just write it. Write my name down. I feel like if it’s a life and death situation, if I could save a planet with my autograph, I think you all should just write it down. Write my name down on everything you want to save that life or to save that planet. That makes sense to me. The End.

TOONZONE NEWS: What does it feel like having people draw your characters, dress up as your characters?

PENDLETON WARD: It’s neat. I like that I think venturing into making cartoons was a big social experiment for me, I like influencing as many people as I can. That’s where “mathematical” came from because I was trying to create slang. Like “cornholio” was something I would say all the time, and I wanted to do that same thing and give people a word to repeat to see if it would work. It’s just because it’s interesting to me. I don’t think about it much deeper than that. I just think it’s funny.

TOONZONE NEWS: Great. Thank you so much.

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