The Secret Life of Jonny Quest by Lance Falk
The following was posted by Lance on AOL's Jonny Quest board.
The Secret Life of Jonny Quest
by Lance Falk
I wrote the following for John Freeman, the Editor of Titan Publishing in London. His company produces a huge amount of top quality SF, Comic, and related magazines, books, etc. (They just started a fantastic monthly B5 magazine, BTW. No fluff like the Starlog produced Trek mags).
John produced a monthly Real Adventures of Jonny Quest magazine for a time. It mostly reprinted the Dark Horse Comics and had various back-up features. He commissioned me to do a "Behind the Scenes" JQ article. It went over well, but sadly, the magazine itself got cancelled before the article had a chance to see print. John has kindly given me permission to do what I want with it. I hope you enjoy it.
John Freeman edited and reworked the article, VASTLY improving this, my first paying prose work. He didn't change the meaning or delete anything I said, but he did smooth out the wording a lot to make me sound smarter than I actually am! He did a great job and I wanted him to have proper credit as well.
So, now, without further delay..........
THE SECRET LIFE OF JONNY QUEST
The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest writer Lance Falk reveals some behind-the-scenes secrets on the making of the world-famous show...
Jonny Quest is a PAIN.
That's right. You heard me. Jonny Quest is a pain.
Think about it. Since 1957, Hanna-Barbera was famous for its relatively simple Flintstones, Yogi Bear, and Huckleberry Hound-type shows. Then, around 1962, they decided to do something delightfully crazy: the first realistically styled animation for television - the original, the classic Jonny Quest. Like I said, crazy. Lots of Hanna-Barbera staffers thought so too. A feature film was one thing, but to do this style of show on a TV budget and schedule? It would be incredibly challenging, at best.
Well, it wasn't easy. I've spoken and worked with many of the original Jonny Quest crew over the years and they all tell me how difficult that show was to do. The mere mention of Jonny and Company usually starts a flood of stories about how the relentless demands of the Classic Jonny Quest show meant missed weekends, holidays, etc., to get the shows ready by broadcast deadline and yet...
Jonny Quest was a TRIUMPH.
Lucky for us - and you Jonny Quest fans of today - common sense about producing animated shows took a back seat. Doug Wildey and his crew were more than able to cope with this new challenge and for many people (myself included) those Classic 26 Jonny Quests are still the best adventure animation, ever. Only Warner Brothers' current Batman and Superman shows come close for excitement and artistic vision.
We had a taste of that mixture of pain and feelings of triumph those original creators must have had when we began work on the current Real Adventures of Jonny Quest series, now airing the world over. For myself and others, the show was both the most fun project ever - and the hardest work at the same time!
However, like I've said, Jonny Quest is a pleasure to work on in spite of the difficulties involved creating each show. It's still a very unique series after all these years and the work we put into making it was well worth the trouble.
Unique. Why, you ask? Well, I have a theory or two. It's Jonny Quest's 'air of reality' that really puts you into the thick of the action. There are no fancy costumes here. No super powers. The Quest Team always saves the day with intelligence, cooperation, a cool gadget or two, and a great deal of courage. These feel like real people (just a bit better than average).
Don't get me wrong. I love the super hero cartoons and comics, but Jonny Quest's unique, 'real world' approach is such a breath of fresh air. The villains, more often than not, pay for what they do (usually accidentally, by their own hand). This, to my mind makes our heroes more effective. Jonny Quest is a lot closer to Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones than it is to Super Friends. (In fact, Steven Spielberg has cited Jonny Quest as a primary inspiration, and I think this shows in a lot of his work). Overall, it's much more accurate to compare Jonny Quest to the best in literary or live action adventure cinema than to its fellow animated fare.
Because of my long-standing love of the series, I can tell you it was the thrill of a lifetime to finally become part of a team tasked with chronicling Jonny's new adventures. Our group (which created the second 26 Real Adventures episodes of its current 52 episode run) is trying to give the whole thing a modern spin, while respecting the tradition of Doug Wildey's Classic 26 shows. To many of us around the office, "Mummies of Malenque" is the 27th episode. "Rock of Rages", the 28th, etc.
So just how are The Real Adventures created? Well, here's a look at how we do it. But a word of warning first: I'm not about to give you a detailed step-by-step animation lesson here. Others have done it better than I (and with more space available!), but I can give you a peek from my humble perspective. Prepare yourselves for a Rough Guide to creating the very best of animated shows...
First we come up with a story. Luckily, Doug Wildey built the Jonny Quest series with great thought. It's a superbly well conceived show with endless possibilities. Spy adventures (Calcutta Adventure), Horror (The Sea Haunt), Mystery (Werewolf of the Timberlands), High Adventure (Shadow of the Condor) and so on. A rich tapestry indeed. While I lean towards the spy/adventure stuff, our terrific story editor, Glenn Leopold favours the monster and ghost stories (though we've certainly crossed over on occasion). This gives our batch of shows a nice mix. Jonny's universe is so full of adventure potential, we could easily think up situations for years. Glenn, myself, and our two Creative Producers (Davis Doi and Larry Houston) would bounce around ideas until one of them stuck. This "Brain Trust" of four works well together and we seem to have a common vision for the series. My place in the team is the Classic Jonny Quest expert and "Continuity Cop" to keep everything in line with the original series.
After a suitable idea is agreed upon, a one or two page "Story Premise" is passed around various executive types for approval. We begin getting our first notes at this stage and make the appropriate adjustments.
The next step is a four to ten page plot of the story in question. This outline is pretty specific and can even have bits of dialogue. Another batch of notes later, then finally..
Ours run from 35-40 pages, depending on notes. We have a few drafts after that which involve fine tuning the dialogue and plot elements. From here, the approved script goes to a number of departments. Model designers (headed up by Jim Stenstrum and Richard Ory) begin work on the characters, props, vehicles, and anything else that animates. Background designers, led by Drew Gentle, begin work on the new environments which Jonny, Race and the others will visit. It is also at this time that storyboard artists, (under the guidance of Victor DalChele) begin to translate the script into a visual form a bit like a comic book panel-by-panel.
It's great fun to see the new monsters, guest characters, and cool gadgets on paper. Though I'm lucky enough to have a little input with our designers, I seldom feel the urge to exercise this courtesy. Our artists are terrific and their instincts are right on the mark. By the way, a small model pack usually amounts to about a 100 drawings. Background designs are dozens of rendered illustrations and storyboards are nearly a 1000 individual panels! This is for every single episode! This material now goes to a few other departments.
Our Animation Director, Mike Milo, writes extensive notes on the timing of each scene for the animators. Allison Leopold's color key crew determines the colors for all the models. Al Gumer's team of painters take the background designs and render them as painting guides for the overseas production painters. Also, at this time, our Casting Department begins contacting specific voice actors.
Once in a while, I bug Kris Zimmerman, then later, Donna Grillo, our Voice Casting Directors for a specific performer. Both ladies are nice enough to indulge me when they can. (though they don't have to). This way I got a few Babylon 5 cast members (Jerry Doyle, Andreas Katsulas, and Peter Jurasik) to our sound booth. Is this a great job or what?
Attending a recording session is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the job and this is where the story really begins to come alive for me. Our Voice Director, Kris Zimmerman, can play our voice actors, (regulars and guest stars) like well-tuned instruments. The writer is present to supply an alternate line or a character motivation if needed on the spot. Kris has a real knack for understanding how a line needs to be read to deliver my intent. She's great.
If a story involves any computer animation, we begin working with the CGI house as they translate characters and environments into the electronic medium. Our group of shows has been lucky to feature the work of Sony Imageworks, Blur Productions, and others. Being a real classic show fan, I confess a bit of resistance to the CGI inserts for Jonny Quest, but the topnotch quality of the computer footage has brought me around a bit. The largely CGI show, The Edge Of Yesterday, is one of my favorites.
Track Readers take the edited voice tapes and painstakingly translate them to detailed notes which will assure correct mouth animation for even non-English-speaking animators (voices are done first, contrary to a common assumption).
All this material (and a few other things) is then sent to Mook Studios in Japan.
Which brings us to...
Now, using all our detailed material, Mook does all the drawing that you actually see on screen. All the Animation, Background Painting, Visual Effects (like explosions), camera work, etc. We love Mook's work. They did the Aeon Flux series for MTV and many of the better SWAT Kats episodes for our own Production Team, a few years back.
There's a lot of back-and-forth communication between our Producers and Mook. Often, we'll have to send a few drawings to clarify a specific visual point. The CGI house is doing all the computer animation at this time, too. Then, a short time later, Mook sends us the rough cut footage, which brings us to our final stage...
We look closely at the footage for continuity problems and other things which need to be redone for a number of reasons. Mook has to do these shows at record speed, so a number of 'retakes' will crop up. It is also here we can punch-up a few key scenes to improve the overall impact of the story. That done, Mook gets to work redoing the asked-for retakes (while simultaneously working on the next few episodes in the assembly line, I might add - there's no rest for them!).
When the footage is edited down to a precise length with the retakes and computer animation edited in, The Producer sends the episode to our Music and Sound people. They work with music composers, sound technicians, Foley artists, and so on, adding all the sounds except dialogue to the film. Keep in mind because this is not live action, all sounds must be added, even footsteps. This adds a real breath of life into the story. It has a heartbeat now, you might say.
When all three tracks of sound are ready (Dialogue, Effects, and Music) we go to the mixing stage. It is here that the volume is balanced, scene-by-scene, between these three competing audio elements. All three become prominent at one time or another but the mixers are careful not to 'drown out' anyone's fine work. It's quite a balancing act.
This part of the production may sound very dry and technical but actually it's one of the most fun sessions to attend. The completed show is seen for the first time, on a big screen, and the rich sound is heard through the best speakers it will ever know. I've often joked we should send the same sound system to each and every viewer so they can really appreciate the great sound work.
Right around this time, we send the film to a production 'Post house' who will add special video effects, credits, and other last-minute wizard-like fine-tunings.
And, there you have it. A simplified story of how we put together an episode of The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest . The Producer (Davis or Larry) supervises and approves EVERY aspect of EVERY show (several shows at once, too!). I got to do a lot of this post supervision for "General Winter" The whole process of creating 26 episodes takes us approximately six months, at the rate of one finished episode per week (this is a FAST schedule).
Because we and Mook are working simultaneously on as many as eight episodes in different stages, there is a great degree of overlap between shows. Our various Production Coordinators, Production Assistants, and other support staff keep things organized and keep our priorities straight. We artists are notoriously disorganized!
I wish I could have mentioned every name involved in bringing one of these episodes to you, but there's hardly enough room and I know I'd accidentally omit a few important people. So, the next time you watch an episode, please freeze-frame those lightning-fast credits. Everyone there works so hard for you.
I'm really proud to be on the team. They're the best.
Most animated television programs go through similar birth pains, but as I've mentioned earlier, Jonny Quest is a particularly complicated style of show to do.
Yeah, it's a pain. But you want to know something?
I wouldn't have it any other way.
RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH
As a writer on the series, I can tell you a lot of research goes into each Jonny Quest episode about the mostly real locations around the globe. We also base our various inventions on actual cutting-edge (or even common) technology. Most of the monsters involved are based in part or entirely on actual legends, requiring more research (My library card's pretty tattered, let me tell you).
Not exactly The Smurfs, is it?
As you already know, our characters - Jonny, Hadji, Race, Doctor Quest, Jessie, Bandit, our villains and 'guest stars' - have more specific and subtle personalities than most 'cartoons'. Their dialogue must sound especially natural and appropriate for the person in question. So we had to watch a lot of the Classic Jonny Quest series to get a handle on their personas (which was a pleasure in itself, anyway).
There's also the challenge of telling a detailed, complex adventure story in just 17 to 19 minutes. Believe me - in one episode of The Real Adventures, we give you more story per-minute than most shows, animated OR live action.
An overall emphasis on action rather than Mystery or Environmental Stories. There's also the very real tightrope of censorship issues in dealing with an intrinsically violent property such as Jonny Quest. I often find myself envying Jonny's comic book writers and even the fan fiction. They have fewer such restrictions, if any. Considering the premise of this show and its characters, it's very tempting to handle the material in a more grown-up fashion than what's appropriate for our potentially young audience.
Just as the writers research heavily to come up with some of the stories, the artists on the show must be accurate about the background scenery, local fashions, vehicles, etc. Our realistic characters, vehicles, props, environments are much harder to draw than the world of The Flintstones or Scooby Doo!
NOSTALGIA ALERT Here are some things from the original Jonny Quest show which were brought back for the second batch of 26 episodes: The Dragonfly Jet Race's boss, Mr. Corbin Dr. Zin "Jezebel" Jade Pasha the Peddler The Gem on Hadji's Turban The Robot Spies
© 1997 Lance Falk
Lance Falk has been a designer in the animation business since 1986, bouncing between Hanna-Barbera and Warner Bros. He has also written a half-dozen SWAT Kats episodes and nine Real Adventures of Jonny Quest. He currently lives right near the epicenter of the famous Northridge earthquake and shamelessly spoils his two dogs, Winston and Peaches.