Toon Zone Interviews C.H. Greenblatt on Crafting "Chowder"
After a four-year stint as an advertising art director in New York City, C.H. Greenblatt realized that, “I didn’t want to spend my life fighting over how many frames of a commercial were spent showing a toothpaste tube.” The advertising world’s loss was animation’s gain, because after answering a want ad in Animation Magazine to Nickelodeon, Greenblatt landed his first job working on a new show created by Stephen Hillenburg called SpongeBob SquarePants. His work on the show earned him a 2005 Emmy nomination for Best Writing in an Animated TV Show and an Annie Award for Best Writing in an Animated Television Production in 2006. His next step was as a writer for Cartoon Network’s The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, where he also created and voiced the fan-favorite character Fred Fredburger.
Greenblatt can now add creator and executive producer to his list of credits as his show Chowder debuts on Cartoon Network. The cartoon about an enthusiastic cat learning to be a chef in Marzipan City has been generating a lot of positive buzz among animation fans. We caught up with Greenblatt via telephone to talk about his new cartoon.
TOON ZONE NEWS: How long ago did you come up with the concept for Chowder?
C.H. GREENBLATT: It’s something that I’ve been working on for a while. I think it was probably a concept that I was doodling back when I was working on SpongeBob. I was just kind of filling sketchbooks full of ideas, so probably the late 90’s, beginning of 2000.
TZN: So it’s been in development for a while, then?
GREENBLATT: Yeah, at least in it’s really early feel stages. I can look back and find some drawings from that time and see early doodles that became Chowder. He looked pretty different, but the basic idea was there.
TZN: When did you get to pitch the show and get it approved?
GREENBLATT: Probably about 3 years ago. We’ve been in production for the show for a year, and it took about 2 years from when I pitched the show to when I got the green-light.
TZN: Was it always about a cat that wanted to be a chef?
GREENBLATT: The original feeling was that I wanted to do a show that incorporated something kind of magical, and something that you could only do in animation. The first germination of the idea came from thinking about the Sorcerer’s Apprentice and that relationship, and The Sword in the Stone and Merlin and Arthur. I liked the idea of the young kid learning from the goofy old man that you see in that movie, so I tried to think of a relationship that was sort of similar to that, but I didn’t want to do magic because with the whole Harry Potter thing, who can do it better than that? So I thought cooking would be perfect because it’s something that everyone can connect to, but it kind of feels magical in a way. You throw a bunch of ingredients together with heat and you get something totally different. And you can eat it! So that was kind of the beginning point.
TZN: Are you into the whole “foodie” culture?
GREENBLATT: Yeah, I watch quite a bit of Food Network (laughs). Growing up in my house, my mom was really into it, and so Food Network would always be playing on the TV pretty much every time I’d go home. I grew up in a house where the kitchen was definitely the central room in the house, so it does have a lot of meaning for me. And I always did like to cook. I’m not a good cook, by any means. I can’t ever really get it to look like the pictures, but I do like it. I do appreciate it. I certainly like food.
TZN: Are there any plans to get any celebrity chef guest stars?
GREENBLATT: Honestly, that would be great. It’s not the kind of thing that we’ve even started looking into, but man…I wouldn’t be against it. There are certain chefs that I think it would be really fun to have as cameos at some point. It’s the kind of thing where if the show gets any notoriety, then it will certainly be easier to do, but at the moment we don’t have any definitive plans for that kind of stuff. It would be nice.
TZN: I read in an earlier interview with you that you said that the show is very outline driven. Can you go into a bit more detail on what that really means as far as production goes?
GREENBLATT: Sure, it’s essentially the same system that I was used to from SpongeBob and even from Billy and Mandy. Instead of having a script for the 11-minute episode, we start with just a general outline, which is about 2 to 3 pages in length. We try to keep ours under 2 pages. It just hits the main story points and gives you a sense of what the characters are feeling and what they need to accomplish, but it leaves the details open so the storyboard artist can go in and find their own solutions to those scenes. That way, they get to write their own dialog, they get to think up their own gags, and they’re not really constrained into any one solution. I find that if you get the right people for it, you can get a much cartoonier show. It’s harder to do because you need storyboard artists who can not only draw, but can think about story structure and about jokes and all those kinds of things. It’s a tougher way to go, but I think if you do it right, it’s more rewarding, especially for people on the show. I think the audience appreciates that kind of system, too. You look at the old Warner Brothers cartoons and they used something like that system as well, where they would have a story idea and then they’d go in and just sort of gag it up. I think when we’re trying to make something that seems really cartoony and really visual, it’s a good way to approach it.
Plus, it saves you having a script where it says, “The whole town chases him,” because that’s really easy for someone to write in the script, but it’s a pain in the ass to draw (laughs). If you’re going to put that into the storyboard, you better be sure that you really want that. And then you only have yourself to blame.
TZN: Does the board-driven method change the way you interact with the voice actors?
GREENBLATT: No, because by the time we get to the voice record, we have a full storyboard that has already been written, so we have a script at that point. Instead of typing it in the computer on the first pass, we take the storyboard, which is the “script” and just transcribe that into a full script. So when the actors come in, they already have all their lines, ready to go. It only changes the writing process.
TZN: Sometimes, a voice actor’s performance can really revamp a character. Did that happen with Chowder?
GREENBLATT: I don’t know that I’d say it revamps the character for us because I think I had a pretty strong idea of them, but I will say that it definitely evolved and enhances the character. I think that they find aspects of the character to bring out. With pretty much any show, you can look at the first two episodes of the season, and then look at the second season or third season, and you see an evolution. And part of that is because when you first start writing, you don’t necessarily have those characters completely defined in your head. When I did the first pilot, I didn’t know who Chowder was going to be, I didn’t know how many lines I could give a kid, and how good of an actor he was going to be. I didn’t really know exactly what he was going to sound like, but by the time we did the second or third one, well, I’ve got real actors to work with. The more we hear, the more we know we can give them. We can write to their voices and we can really play off what they can do. I think it really helps the writers immensely, so it kind of feeds both sides, I think. They help the characters grow by showing us what they can do, and then we know we can write towards them as a performer.
TZN: Are you going to be doing anything behind the microphone for Chowder?
GREENBLATT: Yeah, I do an occasional little customer cameo. A few incidental characters here and there. I do the little pet fart cloud Kimchi, but nothing major. I like pretty much staying on the other side of the glass so I can direct more, but occasionally, you’ll hear me walk up and place an order for something.
TZN: So no Fred Fredburger cameos or anything like that, then?
GREENBLATT: No (laughs). I mean who’s to say down the road, but at this point, it’s much easier for me to be able to direct it when I’m not in the booth, so I’m trying not to take on anything like that.
TZN: Is Chowder a hand-drawn show?
GREENBLATT: It is a hand-drawn show. It’s very traditional. It’s done by an established studio in China called Hong Ying, and they’ve been doing shows for years and years and years. They’re doing it all traditional 2-D. Obviously, it’s digital ink and paint, but everything is drawn by hand.
TZN: Occasionally, we get some interesting experiences when people are working with an outsourcing studio. Do you have any fun stories you can share about that?
GREENBLATT: Nothing that crazy, really. I don’t think anything beyond just the usual retakes that you have to do. There’s definitely some interesting e-mails that go back and forth, things do get lost in translation, but it’s been surprisingly smooth. I think we’ve been really lucky on that side of it. When we did the pilot, I think the hardest part was the technical aspect of how to make the patterns work. There was a lot of back-and-forth to get that right, but once they got it, they pretty much did everything that was asked for amazingly well. Occasionally we get an e-mail where I’m sure they’re giggling at what we say and we’re giggling at what they say, and who knows what kind of translation program they’re running it through. But as far as the animation, it’s been really good.
TZN: What shows, animated or not, do you think had the biggest influence on Chowder for you?
GREENBLATT: Oh, man. I don’t think I can point to any one thing, but I think you could say that probably the biggest influence on this was my memories of cartoons in the 80’s. Kind of what I’m trying to do is recreate that feeling. Not necessarily the look of it, and not necessarily the exact…it’s not nostalgia. I’m not trying to make it look like those shows, and I’m not trying to make it sound like those shows, but I am trying to re-create the feeling that I had when i watched those shows. There’s something kind of warm and silly and cartoony about it.
I think that you can look at a lot of painting styles of the animation of the 70’s for what we’re doing in the backgrounds with the watercolor look. I think you can look at sort of Sergio Aragones and Schoolhouse Rock for where we’re trying to pull a little bit from that kind of looser, rounder, squishier style, because that’s kind of how I draw. I don’t really do flat and stylized very well, and I’m certainly not going to do it better than shows like Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends or Samurai Jack. I wanted something that really felt tactile, like the world is full and cluttered and always teeming with life with stuff everywhere. And I wanted an art style that would really help push that through, so we pulled out stuff from Wizards and we kind of just did an amalgam of stuff to get the look that we wanted.
TZN: What would you say you learned on SpongeBob SquarePants and Billy and Mandy that you made sure you did or didn’t do on Chowder?
GREENBLATT: I think the most important thing that I learned from those shows is that it’s all about the character. That’s the most important part of the show. If people don’t care about your character, then they’re not going to tune in to the show. If they don’t care about your cast, if they don’t care about what’s going on, if they don’t really like them, then there’s no point. Certainly a beautiful show is nice, but I always felt like it doesn’t really matter if the show is pretty if the audience doesn’t care about it. If you get people to care AND you have a pretty show, then that’s awesome, but pretty isn’t going to get people to tune in for that long. I think that was something that I really learned starting with SpongeBob. Steve Hillenberg and Derek Drymon really tried pushing hard in the writing phase to make sure that no matter how funny and silly we were being, that there was something behind the story that you cared about. And that even though it’s just a silly cartoon, that there was some real emotion and something to relate to in the characters. I think that really stuck with me more than anything.
I tried to bring that into Billy and Mandy and approached them as real people. I’d think from my point of view, “What do I relate to in this story? What is it that I care about?” and then put that into the characters, and hopefully it came through that people could see some aspect of themselves in the stories that I did. We’re trying to continue that feeling here. For all the weirdness and strangeness, ultimately there’s still something real behind the characters to connect to, and hopefully the characters are people that find solutions to their problems in ways that are interesting and silly and unique and satisfying.
TZN: On the flip side to that question, I was looking over your blog and there are some entries that sound like you were just a little stressed out (laughs). What was the one thing you really wish you knew before you started in on the show?
GREENBLATT: Maybe just…I don’t know. (laughs) That’s a good question. I do wish I had gotten more sleep before I had started (laughs). I kind of went straight from Billy and Mandy right into it. A break would have been nice. So if there’s anything that could have happened, I wish I had some time off.
Everything has been going extremely well. The stress just comes from the stress of TV production, which is pretty grueling, but I think there’s a lot of self-imposed stress because I’m kind of anal-retentive and tend to like to make sure everything is done a certain way. I think the hardest transition for me coming in was being able to let go. That might be hard for a lot of people coming in, because you go from having an idea in your head and making it all yourself. You do the pilot for the most part with a very small group of people. I did the storyboard and did the models and then I did 2 more boards before the show got picked up, so at that point it was all in my head and it was all me. Then suddenly, I have to transfer that information to a crew of 30 people and have them take over, and it’s really hard to let it go and let it evolve the way it needs to evolve. I think that’s the hardest transition. It’s not that I didn’t know that was coming, but I think that was definitely the biggest struggle for me: to let it become something bigger than just me, but at the same time keeping it true to the idea that I had and keeping the reins on it. It’s like, how much control do you wield to keep it right and keep it entertaining, but at the same time give everybody creative freedom so they feel like they’re empowered as artists on the crew. That’s a hard struggle. I think it’s hard for a lot of people. Especially if you’re a control freak like me (laughs).
I kind of knew that knew going in that was something I was going to have to deal with. I think it was definitely my hardest struggle, and I think I’ve gotten better. I’m not saying that I’m a tyrant — I like collaborating with people, I like working with people. It’s just letting go. That’s the hard part.
TZN: There are recipes on the Chowder website. Did those come from you and the staff, or was that something that the web crew came up with?
GREENBLATT: Actually, Cartoon Network hired a nutritionist, and they put those up. So I haven’t seen the recipes yet. Originally, we were going to do something with that. One of the early concepts I had was that we would have 30 seconds of Chowder and Mung Daal as puppets over the end credits, doing a real recipe that kids could make. Just something quick and easy, and we actually did shoot some puppet bits, which may go on-line or to some other places, but we decided not to do the recipes because it was too hard to do in 30 seconds, so we just ended up doing another skit. That was something that I wanted to do, but honestly, there’s so much to do with the show I don’t have time to worry about recipes (laughs). So Cartoon Network helps out with that.
TZN: I was going to ask “when can you tell that the Grunty Flex-o-Beefarole has enough bravado?” but I think you’re probably going to have to look at the website to even understand the question.
GREENBLATT: I think it’s great that they’re putting personality into it. That makes me happy. And I will say this: I do think that it’s been really nice because all the different support groups in Atlanta that have to work on making this thing have really embraced it and really seem to get it. There’s a lot of enthusiasm out there, and that’s made me very, very happy, so that’s a nice feeling to see that they all do really believe in it and they all do really enjoy being part of it.
It’s a weird feeling, too. I went out to Atlanta to visit them, and…like I said, you start out where it’s just a little thing in your head and then suddenly you’ve got a crew of 30 people working on it, and that seems a little weird. And then you go out to Atlanta and suddenly you realize that there’s hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people out there who are all working on this dumb little idea that you started, and it’s a little strange and a little humbling and odd at the same time.
TZN: I’ve got two big, open-ended questions to finish us off. What makes you laugh?
GREENBLATT: Good question. I don’t know if I can say one thing, but I definitely like jokes that surprise me. I like subtlety, and I like jokes that feel like they come from a real personality, meaning that the person who created them had a real point of view and a sensibility about something. I think comics and shows that I tend to respond to have some kind of strange sensibility or some unique sensibility about the world and the way they see it, and they express that through their art.
TZN: What advice would you have for anybody who wants to get into animation?
GREENBLATT: Draw every single day. Never stop drawing. You can never draw enough, and you can never be good enough (laughs) in the sense that I mean…you know, never think that you’ve learned everything. There’s always more to learn and you can always be better and just draw everything. The more versatile you are, the better you have a chance of getting a job.
Toon Zone News would like to thank C.H. Greenblatt for taking the time to talk with us, and for Joe Swaney at Cartoon Network’s PR department for setting up the interview. Chowder will premiere on Cartoon Network on Friday, November 2, 2007, at 7:30 PM (Eastern/Pacific). You can visit the Chowder website now, as well as Greenblatt’s blog at nerdarmada.blogspot.com.