Toonzone Interviews Jay Bastian on "The Tom and Jerry Show"
Jay Bastian’s career in animation started with a lengthy stint at the legendary Hubley Studio, as well as stints as Manager of Development and Acquisitions at Lightyear Entertainment and as a freelance format producer for the Story Channel. In 1998, Bastian moved to Cartoon Network, where he developed and supervised production of a wide variety of shows, ranging from Sheep in the Big City, Justice League, Megas XLR, The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy, The Secret Saturdays, Ed, Edd, N’ Eddy, and Chowder.
Bastian moved to his current position as Vice President, Series, at Warner Bros Animation, in 2009, where he worked on cartoons including Young Justice, the DC Nation short films, Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated and several of the Scooby-Doo direct-to-video movies, and The Looney Tunes Show. Bastian is also attached to the latest revival of Tom and Jerry, and on the eve of the show’s premiere, we were able to chat with him via phone about the new series.
TOONZONE NEWS: The Tom and Jerry Show was first announced at the Cartoon Network upfront last year, but how long have you been working on the series?
JAY BASTIAN: You know what, someone else asked me that and I didn’t know then, and I really should know (laughs). We’ve been working on it, obviously, for well over a year. These things take a long time to actually make, so it’s been the last couple of years. Even figuring out the pitch before that takes a while longer as well.
TOONZONE NEWS: How did you guys decide on Tom and Jerry for a revival now?
JAY BASTIAN: The reality is that Tom and Jerry, as you know, has never really gone away in the past several decades. We make one movie a year for home entertainment, where we pair them up with Sherlock Holmes or Wizard of Oz or different things that make it a bit more of a big story, and that seems to go really well. We also did a Tom and Jerry series a couple of years ago, and it seems like they were due for another one. International loves it, domestic loves it, everybody seems to love Tom and Jerry, so it seemed like the natural thing to do.
JAY BASTIAN: They don’t. It’s a completely different crew, and for the show, we went to somebody who really knows those classic characters well, who is Darrell Van Citters. The home video movies are made by Spike Brandt and Tony Cervone. We wanted to actually come up with a whole different group. Now the characters are obviously the same, and we want to tap into what has made the characters so evergreen and so lasting for so long, because they are characters that we can really relate to and laugh at. There’s a real dynamic there that not everyone gets. People like to talk about the Chuck Jones Tom and Jerry cartoons, which he admitted himself he never really understood the characters (laughs). Which is funny because he obviously understood Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner and so many other characters, but I don’t think that he ever fully had the right take on who Tom and Jerry were.
So we talk a lot about who we think Tom and Jerry are, because a lot of great people worked on them long before we came along. What I think makes them great is that they feel more like brothers than they do adversaries. They kind of have each other’s back when they need to, but at the same time, they’re all too quick to one-up the other or hit the other one in the head with something large and violent when they can (laughs). But at the same time, I don’t think Tom necessarily wants to eat Jerry. He likes getting his goat and he likes causing him physical pain (laughs), but I don’t think he necessarily wants to eat him. Sylvester clearly wants to eat Tweety, and the Coyote definitely wants to eat the Road Runner.
TOONZONE NEWS: One risk I think you take whenever you’re going to work with an established property like Tom and Jerry or the Looney Tunes characters is that you’re automatically going to invite comparison to the originals.
JAY BASTIAN: Absolutely.
JAY BASTIAN: It is a massive responsibility, I think, and you want to do it right. I worked on The Looney Tunes Show here, previously, and I think that was the first time that I really worked on a big production of classic characters. Before that I’d always worked on original characters at Cartoon Network. You want to be true to who these characters are, even if for example, on The Looney Tunes Show, you’re pushing them into a different situation. We were pushing them to a more traditional sitcom-type situation. But you don’t want to feel that, “That’s not really Daffy Duck” or “That’s not really Bugs Bunny.” You want to be true to the characters. For The Tom and Jerry Show, it’s much closer to the classic feel. I think they look a little new, but at the same time, it’s very much the classic look and feel of Tom and Jerry that we’re creating for the show.
TOONZONE NEWS: When you say “classic,” exactly what do you mean by that? Because Tom and Jerry have been around a while.
JAY BASTIAN: (Laughter) What I call classic are the original shorts from the 40’s and 50’s…and maybe from the early 60’s.
TOONZONE NEWS: So the Hanna-Barbera shorts for sure, and maybe some of the Gene Deitch era?
JAY BASTIAN: Well, I’d never call Gene Deitch or Chuck Jones “classic Tom and Jerry.” I feel like they were experiments that some people think worked and some people think didn’t, but this is much more of the MGM Hanna-Barbera feel. I think Darrell has been a big influence for that, and that’s what we’re going for in the vibe and sensibility of it.
TOONZONE NEWS: How do you see what you’re doing as different or distinct from what Hanna-Barbera was doing in those classic theatrical shorts?
JAY BASTIAN: Well, there’s a couple of things that we’re doing. One is that we’re doing 11-minute shorts, which is different than the classic shorts because you have to tell a bigger story. But at the same time, you don’t want to throw out the running around the house and knocking each other in the head stuff that makes Tom and Jerry Tom and Jerry. There certainly has to be a certain level of violence there to make it feel like it’s right (laughs).
But we’re also doing something with this show where we’ve got four rotating scenarios. There’s one where we call it, for lack of a better word, the “classic” scenario, where they’re in a house, and they have reoccurring owners. Spike and Tyke are in it, when they need to be, in the backyard, and we’re telling the classic house story. Then we’ve got three other scenarios that we rotate in. One is where Jerry is a mouse in a lab, where there’s a professor always trying to come up with new inventions and new things, so they can up the ante on each other, whether giving one another super powers or the ability to fly or whatever it is. It’s a way to give them something new in the arsenal. The same with another scenario where we’ve got Tom is the cat of two witches. There are two witch sisters that are kind of like the old ladies in Arsenic and Old Lace, where they just love being witches, and Tom has access to spell books and magic wands that he and Jerry can get into all new trouble with. Then the fourth scenario is cat and mouse detectives, where they’re essentially working together. Again, they’re still very much Tom and Jerry, and they like to push each other down the stairs occasionally, or do something when one ticks the other one off, but at the same time, they’re working together, which they did in a lot of classic shorts to try and solve a mystery.
TOONZONE NEWS: Obviously, you’re not going to be able to do all 4 of those in a single episode.
JAY BASTIAN: Yeah, we have 26 episodes, and do two 11-minute shorts in each episode. You’re most likely to get a classic and something else in every episode.
TOONZONE NEWS: The new cartoon is being done with Flash or After Effects. Was a purely cost-driven decision, or was there some specific reason why you went with that technology rather than going traditionally hand-drawn?
JAY BASTIAN: Well, you know, Flash got a bad rap early on because, I think, people that weren’t as skilled at animation were using it. I think people thought, “Oh, it’s just a cheap, ugly way to make cartoons.” But I think Flash in the right hands doesn’t have to look cheap or ugly or bad (laughs). It’s like a tool, like a pencil or a paintbrush or anything else. If you know how to use it, you can still make it look good, and there’s a lot of advantages to Flash like being able to control models and different things that are sometimes harder to do in hand-drawn.
TOONZONE NEWS: Is this the first Flash cartoon that you’ve worked on directly?
JAY BASTIAN: You know what, it may be. It was a big deal when Craig McCracken wanted to make Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends in Flash, but I didn’t work directly on that. I think Craig was very quick to point out all the advantages that you have in Flash. And I think the shows that are done well in Flash, you don’t even think of them necessarily as Flash.
TOONZONE NEWS: I think Craig McCracken had even made a comment that he was doing Flash animation before there was Flash animation. As soon as it was made available, he was like, “Oh, this is what I’ve been looking for all this time!”
JAY BASTIAN: (laughs) Yeah, right! Exactly, exactly.
TOONZONE NEWS: Has that tech change affected the way you do things, or has it affected anything doing this show in particular? Have you had a moment when you went, “Oh, look we can do THIS now!” or “Gee, I really wish we could have done some other thing the old way.”
JAY BASTIAN: For the most part, we really try to take every show case-by-case. What we think is going to be best for the show. Obviously, there are going to be limitations for budget and schedule and things like that, but for the most part, we want to make a show that we think is going to look right. It looks the best it can. Flash is just a style choice sometimes. We want to make it look a certain way, and maybe Flash will help us make it look that way. For this new Tom and Jerry, we want to make it look classic but we also want to make it look like you haven’t seen it before.
TOONZONE NEWS: I like the way the new show it doesn’t always fill in all the lines. That feels pretty novel to me.
JAY BASTIAN: Yeah, he’s taken off a lot of the holding lines, which immediately gives you a different look to it.
TOONZONE NEWS: You’ve touched on this a couple of times already, but violence has always been a prominent part of Tom and Jerry. I think you’re old enough to remember back when they aired all those really horribly bowdlerized Looney Tunes cartoons out of concern for all the violence in them.
JAY BASTIAN: And they were RIDICULOUS choices, too! Elmer could shoot Bugs in the face, but they’d freeze-frame on the cloud of smoke? Instead of seeing the firing? I didn’t even understand the choices they were making (laughter).
JAY BASTIAN: It came up right away, with Cartoon Network, and we all agreed that the only way to do Tom and Jerry is to have a certain level of violence. With standards and everything the way it works now, it is technically a PG show, but it’s not like we’re trying to push the envelope. We just want to make it feel like real Tom and Jerry and not some softened, lesser version of it.
TOONZONE NEWS: I noticed on your resume that you had actually worked with Faith Hubley very early in your career. Can you point to anything from that experience that you would say influenced what you did later on in animation, or on this show in particular?
JAY BASTIAN: I don’t know how I can tie it to this show in particular, but she was an amazing mentor to me. I just thought the world of her. She was just a real powerhouse. She taught me so much of how to both work very hard, but also be creative. And she was the most independent filmmaker I’ve ever met (laughs), where she was able to raise money for her films to do exactly what she wanted to do. I can’t say enough about how influential and how impressed I was in working for her.
TOONZONE NEWS: Is this your sole gig at the moment, or is there anything else that you’re working on that you can tell us about?
JAY BASTIAN: Another thing we can talk about is that there’s a new Scooby-Doo that we’ve got coming out. A cool Scooby-Doo that I’m working on, and it’s really funny and great. It’ll be a while until it’s on the air, but it was just recently announced. The last Scooby-Doo we did was a little more intense, and a little scarier. This new one is much more cartoony and silly. It’s like Tom and Jerry, still being true to the essence of who these characters are, but I think people are really going to like it. What we’ve got so far is really funny.
Toonzone would like to thank Jay Bastian for taking the time to talk with us, and Winson Seto for arranging the interview. The Tom and Jerry Show premieres on Cartoon Network on April 9, 2014, at 5:30 PM (ET/PT).