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Paul Dini: Jayme Blaschke Interviews
© Jayme Lynn Blaschke
August 14, 2004

Los Angeles resident Paul Dini is a man who likes to keep himself busy. Ever since he got his start working for Lucasfilm on the Ewoks and Droids animated series, he has written an produced a dizzying array of animated programming. Best-known for his Emmy-winning run on Batman: The Animated Series, Dini has also produced the popular Superman and Batman Beyond cartoons as well as writing for the groundbreaking Tiny Toons series. Apart from his television work, Dini is also the creator of the irreverant Jingle Belle and Mutant, Texas comic books, and has collaborated several times with artist Alex Ross on lavish, oversized graphic novels for DC Comics featuring some of the most iconic characters in American pop culture history.

Let's start off with your most recent project: How has the response to Duck Dodgers TV series been thus far?

Everybody seems to have liked it very much. The ratings are good and the kids think its funny. And what adult and teenager viewers we've got out there seem to like it, too.

What direction do you expect the series to take from this point?

Probably more of the same.

Do you have any more franchise crossovers planned along the lines of the Green Lantern Corps episode?

Probably not. You know, it's hard to say at this point if we're going to do any more crossovers. At this point, we don't have anything on the horizon.

Was there any particular challenge inherent in building and expanding upon Chuck Jones' Duck Dogers universe?

I think the biggest challenge was not to go back in and try to do things that Chuck and Mike Maltise had done before. I think everybody was expecting that we do that. We deliberately tried to stay away from the catch phrases they used and the gags they did, because we knew a lot of people would be expecting to see them.

It was kind of a double-edged sword. We knew people would want us to be faithful to the old Duck Dogers, but on the other hand, we felt if our series was ever to have any sort of longevity, we had to go beyond that and let it be its own thing in its own universe. It still springs from Chuck's original cartoon, but yet is off blazing its own trail and developing its own continuity and its own rules.

We wanted to broaden the Martian world and also redefine Marvin's position there. Also, we wanted to play a little with the relationship between Dodgers and Cadet. To a degree it is Daffy and Porky, but to a degree it isn't. We wanted to create our own take on their relationship and make it very true for our show. If people watch the show from season to season, they'll see things they like about the characters every year and their relationships grow a little bit more every time you see them. It would've been hard to do that if everything had been the battle for Planet X, which was the original cartoon.

You've worked mainly in animation, but you've done live action as well. What are the advantages of working in animation over live action?

Well, budget for one thing -- as far as location and creatures and things like that go. Everything in live action has to be either specially constructed if you want to go to a different world, or rendeered in CG. It gets very hard to create different locales and different effects if you have to do it live, whereas in animation, it's a little easier because you work with a talented team of artists who can visualize the stuff and draw it. Basically, anything you can imagine, you can have happen in a cartoon. That isn't always so easy in a live piece.

Did you play Dungeons & Dragons when you were younger?

Not really. I had a lot of friends who did, but I was never one for structured games. I mean, I understood the parameters of it, but game playing kind of left me cold on many levels. I would go over to a friends house, and he would have a huge Dungeons & Dragons layout, complete with a giant table like you'd use for running a train on. He'd have armies and kingdoms and everything. I thought the figures were kinda cool, but as far as getting into it, it was just not the game for me. I have an appreciation for it, but I don't do it.

So what approach did you take when you were writing on the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon show?

Because the show itself had very little to do with the game, it was mostly characters on a quest. I could relate to it on that point. Certainly, there are similarities. The idea that you have characters that are named after the different characters in the books, and also you've got objects of power and a mission to undertake. But as far as the game itself, it bore little resemblance in regards to saving throws and hit points, things like that.

Going back to some of the episodes you wrote, in one, "Valley of the Unicorn," you had an evil wizard dehorning unicorns. Was this any kind of environmental statement against poachers in Africa and the illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn?

I don't even remember! I wrote one draft of that script, if memory serves, and then another writer came in and did his own take on it. I think there may have been something like that. I barely remember that episode, but I think, yeah, there may have been something like that in the thrust of it.

Do you ever look back at those early efforts of yours and critique them? Think about what you might have done differently?

Not really. Occasionally if something I've written comes on, then I'll take a look at it. There are cartoons of mine that I look back on and I like, and some of them I just don't care for very much, depending on how they were rendered or the job I felt I did on it, or whatever the conditions I was working under the studio were. Some stuff I think is great, some stuff I think is "Eh." Leaves me cold. That's just the way it goes sometimes.

Some of your very first work was in the Star Wars universe, with Ewoks and Droids. From that perspective, what's your take on the new Clone Wars animated shorts?

Ewoks was so much better.

No, I'm kidding! The thing with that was, by the time we did Ewoks and Droids, that was kind of the state of the art for Saturday morning cartoons. We couldn't really do everything we really wanted to do with those, but I look at what Genndy Tartakovsky did for Cartoon Network and I think that stuff's just great. The advantages he has are 1) He's a tremendously talented guy, 2) He's working on a network that really, really champions creativity and sticks by their creators. That was something we just didn't have when we did those shows originally, because we were dealing with a regime at the network that just wanted safe children's programming. Every time we wanted to stretch it a little bit, they would kick up a fuss over it.

There's no way you could see anything like the animated Clone Wars even today on the big three networks. They wouldn't like it, they wouldn't understand it, they'd be fearful of it. They would just say "It's not for us. We don't see the entertainment value in it." But Cartoon Network is a forum for interesting cartoonists. There, you can flourish.

With Ewoks and Droids, we tried to give it as good a look as we could, and tried to make it feel special as part of the Star Wars universe. But, like I said, with Saturday morning TV you're dealing with the corporate mentality that just wants to do everything safe and sweet. And that's what we were stuck with, time and time again. Ultimately it became a battle that was just not worth fighting. It became, "Okay, let's just try to do the show the best we can. Maybe it'll be good."

Even with the clout of Lucasfilm backing you?

It gets to the point, "We've got X amount of money tied up in this. We don't want to make waves." We did get a lot of respect from the network. The network was a lot more lenient on us than they were on any other show at the time. But basically, there was no Cartoon Network there. There was no Samurai Jack. There were no Powerpuff Girls. There was nobody to get out there and be the trailblazer.

In that day and age, Muppet Babies was the best you had on TV. That's the show people now in their 20s look back on and say, "Oh, that was kind of good." For the time, it wasn't bad -- I mean, compared to everything else out there. And then what happened was Nickelodeon came along, and they really championed cartoons. They got things like Ren & Stimpy and Rugrats and some of the other early shows that got a teen audience as well as kids. Suddenly, animation began to look kinda good again. Soon after that, you got The Simpsons on TV and Beavis & Butthead and all the rest.

When you see Clone Wars, do you ever get a twitch and think, "Boy, I could do something really neat with this"?

I would rather just enjoy it for what it is -- for the job Genndy and his artists are doing -- than to try and recreate it in my mind or try and go back to that. The four and a half years I spent at Lucasfilm was a lot of fun and it's a very special part of my life, but I don't think that I can go back and do it again. I'm just more interested in my own projects and characters.

I have a great amount of fondness for the Star Wars universe, but I feel like I've done my time there, and now it's time to go back to what I was originally, and that's a fan of the stuff. I enjoy what other people bring to it, whether it's George himself or somebody like Genndy with the Clone Wars. I feel like this is their playground now, and I would just rather watch them having fun than to try and attempt it myself.

What do you consider your personal high point with Tiny Toons?

You know, the first season of that was kind of fun -- just working on everything with the different writers and artists, having Steven (Spielberg) give his input into the creative process. It was all a blast and a learning experience because the chains were off as far as the network goes. Fox was very supportive of the show. They were actually very enthusiastic about the content of our shows.

I can't really point to one particular episode, although anything that Bruce Timm storyboarded for director Art Vitello which then went overseas for animation at TMS came off looking really, really good. There were a couple of cartoons that were like that, and they really shine. They're just really, really pretty to look at and they were a lot of fun to work on.

I think the "Summer Vacation" video was particularly good. That was a high point because that was mostly Tom Ruegger, Sherri Stoner and myself just working on it and writing it and seeing it get done. That was fun. Sometimes we'd hit a stride and write about certain characters, whether it was Elmyra or Plucky or Buster, and we'd be just coming up with ideas, one after the other. We'd be creating our own cartoons and showing them to the other writers and directors and saying, "Hey, how about this?" or we'd be jamming up stuff together and making each other laugh.

And, like I said, Steven was very supportive of everything we did. When the cartoons got on the air, I think the fact that we were having fun showed through in the individual cartoons. By and large, it was a good experience. It set the stage for everything else.

Okay, then, same question for Animaniacs.

That really wasn't my show. I never really worked on it to any great degree. I did a little bit of guest writing here and there. I did one Pinky and the Brain cartoon, and a couple of the Chicken Boo cartoons. I'd come up with a weird idea, "How about this? How about that?" and they'd say, "Oh yeah! Can you write up something?" So I'd write up something funny, a short cartoon, or a bumper or something. Sherri and I wrote the first Minerva Mink cartoon at Steven's request. We had a meeting with him on another project, and somehow we got to talking about this girl mink character. Sherri and I did a lot of work developing the character together, and then she ultimately took Minerva and wrote most of her first cartoon.

But other than contributing a little bit on that character and maybe one or two others, I really didn't have much to do with Animaniacs. Again, I was just sort of sitting back, watching the show and enjoying it.

Have you any involvement at all in the new Batman animated series?

Nope. That's not my show.

Do you have any advice to offer someone putting together a new Batman series?

No. I wish them good luck. It was fun playing in the Batman universe, and now it's someone else's turn. I'm anxious to see what they do.

Still, you haven't entirely left Batman behind. You're developing more direct-to-video movies, right?

Yes. I wrote a script for one, which would be the Batman: The Animated Series version, and I am writing a few episodes of Justice League. Batman does show up there, but as far as the new Batman series, I don't have any involvement with it.

I understand that the new Batman direct-to-video you've written teams Batman with Green Arrow. How did that pairing work out?

I can't really talk about that movie until it's green-lit. The script is in, but I don't know when or even if they're going to proceed with it. I'd hate to go off and talk about it at length, and then find out that they've shelved it.

What's the process for having it green-lit?

It's all up to Warner Home Video. It depends on what their needs are. If they want an original Batman, they'll put it in the works. Or, if they'd rather do something else, they'll go with that. I think what happened is that they wanted to see the script, and they'll make their decision based upon how they feel about it, or what they feel is their best bet as far as a direct-to-video project is concerned. It could be something totally un-Batman related, but still animated. It was an awful lot of fun to work with Alan Burnett on the script, titled "Batman's Super Team-Ups." Alan wrote the Batman/Green Arrow team-up segment, I wrote another chapter in the ongoing Batman/Zatanna relationship, and we both jammed on the big Batman/Elongated Man finale.

What can viewers expect to see from Justice League in the coming year?

Again, it's not really my show, and I'm not really qualified to talk about what they have coming up. Usually when I work on a show, I'll get together with Bruce and the story editors and say, "What about this?" and I'll come up with a story. That's how we did the Christmas one. But as far as being privy to what goes on day-to-day with Justice League, it's not my show, and I'm not in a position to make comments on it.

Okay then, how about this: What happened with the proposed Green Lantern Corps series?

What happened with that was -- this goes back about two years. Spike Brandt, Tony Cervoni and I were developing Duck Dodgers and a couple of Loony Tunes-based projects. We had all wanted to do something with Loony Tunes and Spike and Tony had done a trailer for a Duck Dodgers feature, which was really, really impressive. It existed in pencil test and some of it, in fact, is even used in the title sequence of the show. It looked like Duck Dodgers was our best bet to get a series going, but there was some hesitation back and forth on whether they would pick it up or pick up another show. So we were looking at other options for other shows to develop. We had developed a Loony Tunes show as well, a traditional Bugs and Daffy short cartoon show, and we had also looked at some DC properties. I'd done an initial development on the Green Lantern Corps, and Spike and Tony took those ideas and started doing a lot of designs, which were kind of a looser interpretation of a lot of those characters than had been seen before. A lot of those designs showed up in "The Green Loontern" episode.

We wanted to do a story about a young man from Earth who gets his hands on the Green Lantern ring, and about how he is the fish out of water among all these aliens. When you'd see him among the group of aliens, he'd be just as odd-looking as any of them, because they all come from different planets. I think the look of the show was inspired more by Disney features like The Sword in the Stone, where they caricature the humans slightly, but still keep the element of heroism around them. It was not going to be like the Bruce Timm Batman universe. We wanted to open it up a little bit and take a lighter tone, at least visually, with it.

But then what happened was Cartoon Network saw it and liked it, but they liked Duck Dodgers too. Basically, when it came time to select a show, they went with Dodgers, and that's what we did.

With the success of Justice League, Teen Titans, Batman and Superman, is there potential in the future to revisit this Green Lantern Corps series?

I think anything's possible. I think a lot of that's predicated on what happens with the character in other places. I think that any of the DC characters, properly developed, could sustain their own show. But what determines whether characters get their own show is their visibility outside of comic books.

For instance, now that Constantine (Hellblazer) is in the works as a movie, I'd think you'd be more inclined to see that as an animated series of some sort. Not that there's anything in development on that, it's just that you have a bigger audience that is aware of the property. If it has some tie-in to a younger audience, so much the better. Whereas if you have a character like Green Lantern who's been around for years -- and is certainly known to a lot of comic book fans -- I don't think you're really going to see a Green Lantern animated series unless there's a movie of some sort to really hammer the character home in the public's consciousness. If there was a summer tentpole movie where everything was designed to sell Green Lantern the way everything was designed to sell Batman 15 years ago, absolutely you'd see an animated series about Green Lantern. He'd have become like Spider-Man or the Hulk or Superman in everyone's mind. But until that day, I really don't think you're going to see much Green Lantern outside of Justice League and the comics.

At this point I think that in people's minds, Green Lantern -- as interesting as he is -- is kind of interchangable with the Flash and Martian Manhunter and all the other characters. I hate to say they're B-level characters, but they're simply not as well- known as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman in the mainstream.

What influence have the old Fleischer animation shorts had on your work?

It showed me -- and this is something that I learned early on, watching them as a kid in college -- was that you did not need a lot of dialogue to tell a story. You could rely heavily on stylization and mood and action to convey pretty much all the emotions in a seven-minute short. Superman does not talk much in those shorts, if at all. It's usually the villain or the mad scientist or whoever his adversary is, outlining their plan. There's just not a lot of dialogue there -- maybe one or two brief scenes with Clark and Lois, but everything else is conveyed through the animation of Superman, whether he's fighting robots or a gang of guys in a flying car or something. The emotion is conveyed by the animation, the music and the posing of the characters.

I think those are things that are really important for aspiring animators and writers to look at as a way of telling a story dramatically. So often I'll watch action-adventure shows, and where all of them falter is that every beat of action has to be explained and talked about. That really sucks the life out of them. I don't even think you're aware of them, because it's become such a cliché, such a formula for doing an animated show. A hero will say, "Look! The bad guy's coming!" Well, you can see the bad guy's coming. "We've got to stop him!" Yeah, of course you've got to stop him -- you're the hero! All of those things that have become standard clichés of action animation writing are not there in those Fleischer Superman cartoons. I don't know how they really got started. Maybe it was just to overcome cheap animation on TV.

I think a lot of it was the insistence of network executives who just found themselves getting lost in the script. Some of them don't have the vision or the imagination to look at a script or a storyboard, so they just want every point hammered home. The excuse they give is, "Oh, a child can't follow it unless there's dialogue in every scene." Well, yes they can, but here's your over-written script anyway.

How does scripting for animation differ from scripting for comics?

I find them very close. I change some things. I call a lot of shots in both, pretty much the same in comics as I would in an animated script. I try and approach it as if I were drawing it. I don't draw my own comic book stories because I think I've gotten spoiled with animation -- I've worked with so many tremendous artists that I see the way a certain artist would lay out a page before I see the way I would lay it out. I think, as long as I have access to these great artists and they're up to doing comic book work, why not go with them rather than me taking a year and a half to draw a 10-page Jingle Belle story? Not to say that I couldn't do it, it's just that I prefer not to. Again, I like seeing the way it looks when other men and women who have worked on the book have done it. It makes me more excited to see how they render the character.


Continued . . .
 
Jayme Lynn Blaschke is fiction editor for RevolutionSF.

 
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