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"My Intended Audience Was Everybody"
An Interview With Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures' John Kricfalusi
Animato #16, Spring 1988)

By Harry McCracken

Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures is something that you might not think a present-day Saturday-morning cartoon show could possibly be: a source of delight for many animation fans. and the focus of considerable controversy. On the following pages, we offer two features in response to your letters requesting that Animato do something on the show. The first is this revealing interview with John Kricfalusi, the show's Senior Director.

Kricfalusi, a graduate of Canada's Sheridan College, has toiled on many Saturday-morning shows he doesn't think much of, from Filmation's 1970s Mighty Mouse and Tom and Jerry cartoons to Heathcliff to Richie Rich and Laverne and Shirley. He's more pleased with his work on the new Jetsons episodes and the Ralph Bakshi-produced animation for the Rolling Stones "Harlem Shuffle" video. And, of course, of his work on Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures. Harry McCracken interviewed him in March.

Anlmato: I understand there are some misconceptions about the show you d like to clear up.

Krlcfalusi: Mostly in the Amazing Heroes article (issue #129). It made it look like Ralph was a director on the show, which never was…in fact, he had hardly anything to do with the show. He was the producer. He was the perfect producer. He sat back--he hired me, I put together the crew. I told him about the old Warner cartoons, the Disney cartoon

Legion of Super-Rodents

Storyboard drawings from the "Legion of Super-Rodents" episode. All Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures illustrations © Bakshi-Hyde Ventures/Viacom International, Inc.  
s, the MGMs, and how they all did it. There was one director behind the whole actual particular cartoon who'd follow it all the way from story to the end of the picture. And he thought that was a great idea, and said "Well, that's how we used to do it too, back at Terrytoons."

Was he involved creatively at all?

The furthest he went creatively was in the first few weeks, during the stories. We would have to pitch all our story ideas to him, so he'd either like them or not like them. A couple of times, he wouldn't like them, and I would fight for them. Like "Petey Pate." He hated the idea at first. And you know, it was a regular producer/director type thing, so I had to talk him into it. And in that respect he was great, because he trusted us enough that, "Well okay, even though I don't see this, you must see something in it." And once he heard the voice track, he said, "Okay, I see, the guy's really going to lose his cookies, he's not just a stock super-villain."

So basically, he was a sounding board. But once we got our stories okayed we went ahead and did them. Elwy and the Tree Weasels was an idea that Bob Jacques and I had at lunch. On the way to lunch in the car, we were laughing about his experiences on the Bagdasarian picture. And I said, "wouldn't it be cool to make a cartoon about this!" So we started making fun of the Chipmunks…just a bunch of jokes knocking back and forth.

After lunch, I went to Ralph and said "Hey, why don t we do a takeoff on the Chipmunks," and pitched the idea to him there. The whole story was basically figured out at lunch. And he said, "Great! I love it."

So Ralph pretty much stood out of your way and let you go about your business?

For the most part, yeah. He would complain about general things, like we didn't use Mighty Mouse enough in the cartoons. So wed go back and put more Mighty Mouse in.

You were intentionally trying to recreate the old Hollywood cartoon studio system with the units?

Exactly. I've been trying to do that ever since I got into the business. As soon as I found out how compartmentalized the industry was, I realized, "Well, no wonder the cartoons are so bad." 'Cause it wasn't for a lack of talent. When I first came down, I was naive, I thought, "Well, they're going to welcome me with open arms, because there's nobody with any talent down there." And it turns out there's tons of people with talent; it's the system that's all screwed up. As long as there's departments, nobody talks to each other. The storyboard department doesn't talk to the layout department, which doesn't talk to the writing department. Each one of these departments has a department head, and they're all jealous of each other, and they all blame each other for all the mistakes.

Even the actual direction duties are split up between about eight different guys. One guy records the voices, another guy times the storyboard, another guy times the sheets, one guy is the story editor. All these jobs should be covered by the director.

None of these guys talk to each other. So you get a storyboard that has a pose on a character with some kind of expression, say George Jetson talking to Jane. And Jane's giving him shit about something: "Now, George…" So that's the line. Then, in the picture on the storyboard, they're just sitting there with normal expressions on. Then the layout artist will look at the storyboard and he'll basically trace the model sheets. Because he doesn't have a soundtrack, he doesn't know what the inflection is. So he'll draw her happy: (repeats line with cheerful inflection) "Now, George…" And by the time it goes through, you've got the wrong expression for the inflection of the voice. This kind of stuff happens all over the place, because nobody understands what anyone else has done.



The Bat-Bat.

Did returning to the unit system solve those problems pretty well?

Oh, it completely solved them. There's no communication problem at all with the unit system. But it depends on the director, too. If you're a lame director--and we had a couple of those who didn't understand why we were doing it in the first place--then they wouldn't talk to people.

So the actual talent of the people involved made more of a difference than under the usual system?

Yeah. Under the other system, everybody's afraid of buggering something up, so they take the safest, easiest way out: 'I'm not going to do anything here that stands out." Because the other departments are going to look at it and say, "That's not what we meant."

Well, in our system, all you have to do is go to the director and show it to him: "Is this what you meant?" And he'll say yes or no. So there's no problem, because there's someone who knows what's going on in the cartoon right from the beginning to the end. With the department system, nobody knows what the cartoon's about until it's finished--then everybody goes "Oh, that's what it's about." This way you know exactly what it's about, right from the beginning.

Was doing two short cartoons rather than a half-hour also an attempt to get back to the older short-cartoon format?

Well, that was a format that they had already been using on Saturday moming….they do some half hours, and some two eleven-minutes. Actually, eleven minutes is a really clumsy format for a cartoon It's not enough to tell a story, really, and it's too much to do a gag cartoon. So some of our stories were pretty awkward because of that.

So if you had the ideal setup you would have gone with shorter cartoons?

Oh, definitely. We were always talking about doing three six-minute cartoons, and making a couple of bumpers to fill up the twenty-two minutes. But for some reason, it's very hard to convince the networks to do that.

One of the other things we did that none of the other studios did, was that it was an artist who hired everybody. I scoured the industry, basically, and got as many talented people as I could, all under one roof, which nobody else has. Every other studio has two or three really talented people in it. We took those two or three talented people for every studio, and ran them all into one studio.

Did the group get along pretty well?

Yeah, they got along great. Everybody felt like they were really doing something together. Except for, like I said, there were a couple of safe directors that were hired because Ralph was worried that the crazy directors would be irresponsible, which they weren't.

It was a real team sort of thing. People worked overtime every night--we were working sixteen-hour days. We just wanted to prove to people that it is possible to make a real cartoon, and keep it on a cheap budget. That was another thing everybody told us: 'The reason you can't do expressions and strong poses is because it's limited animation. It won't work." And I always had the theory: "Why riot? Limited animation needs strong poses even more than full animation."

So the emphasis on poses and expressions and designs was made to cope with the limited movement?

My style is very strong poses and expressions anyway, but I just could never figure out why people wouldn't do it in limited animation. I would do it anyway, full or limited. But with limited you especially need it, because there's nothing else happening. If you're just going to have them standing there taking to each other - well, what the hell is that? That's worse than a comic book. A comic book has poses in it. I'd rather see less inbetweens and more poses. Most of the studios, what they'll do is put a ton of inbetweens in a head bob. What's the point? Get rid of those inbetweens, and save some money. Put that money into the artist who draws the poses. Let him draw some strong poses, and move them fast from pose to pose. It was all invented by Chuck Jones in
The Dover Boys.

How much of the actual animation was done overseas? Did you do all the poses here?

We did every single pose. Every pose, every expression, right here, and marked them onto the sheets.

Did that make it hard for them to mess up things overseas?

Yeah, but in fact, they weren't going to mess things up anyway, because the team we had overseas, at the James Wang studio, Cuckoo's Nest, I had trained them about two and a half years ago on
The Jetsons. I did the same system over there that I brought over here, basically. I did a mini-version of it. I was sent over there to supervise layout on The Jetsons, so I put a team together, and asked Hanna-Barbera to send me the soun

Elwy and the Tree Weasels.  
dtracks. They thought I was crazy. I could hear them on the phone: "He wants the soundtracks?" And here's someone else going, "Just humor him, man ... He's crazy. Who knows what he wants them for?"

What I wanted them for was so that we could pose everybody to the inflections, which they thought was a real revolution. So anyway, I trained the guys over there, the Taiwanese guys who can't even speak English to do this. I taught them how to exaggerate, how to draw cartoons basically.

So when we started
Mighty Mouse, I called up James Wang and said, "Listen, we want to get the guys I trained back on The Jetsons to do this show." So he gave us all the guys, and they went crazy. They took the opportunity to go from layout artists to being animators. And with our poses all right on the sheets, we did half the animation work for them, but it still left them free to do a really good job.

Basically what they did was they broke it down, did the assistant work on it. But it gave them a chance to understand what they were doing, and do a good job of breaking it down. We sent them old films and stuff, and they did a lot of the smeared inbetweening that they used to do at Warner Brothers.

All in all you're quite pleased with the work they did?

I think it could be a lot better, but for people who've never had a chance to do anything before, I think it's the best stuff they've ever done overseas, except for
The Brave Little Toaster, which was heavily supervised by Americans.

You talked about Chuck Jones influencing the show's style ... Can you talk a little bit more about the people who influenced the show?

Well, my personal biggest influence is Bob Clampett, as far as exaggeration and drawing style go. Chuck Jones, Tex Avery...

Were the old Terrytoons an influence at ail?

Oh yeah, as soon as we started
Mighty Mouse, I wanted--I didn't succeed in this-- I wanted to get the Tenytoons flavor in there. I loved the cheesiness of that drawing style. I love Jim Tyer, Carlo Vinci…But there !s just something about the Terrytoons style that only those guys could capture, and I wanted to capture it.

In the beginning, what I wanted to do was hire all the layout artists a week or two early, before we actually started production, just so we could watch the old films and really nail the style down But because of budget problems they didn't want to chance it. Well, then wasn't really a budget problem yet, but they thought we were going to have budget problems. It ended up that we could have afforded to do it.

So basically, I printed off a bunch ol stuff off the TV and made some model sheets from the old comic books thal those guys drew. And at first, a lot of people were really worried about this. Some of the old guys that Ralph hired, some of his old friends that he hired to give them jobs, would look at the model sheets made from the comic books and say, "Well we can't use these, he looks totally different in them all!" And I said, "Yeah, like an animated catrtoonl Get expressions in each different pose."

In some of the scenes we kind of got it, but for the rest, not really. I would have liked to.

I hear people comparing the show to
Bullwinkle a lot. Did Jay Ward have much influence on you?

Not in the least...I'll let you in on a secret: I can't stand Jay Ward. Well, I don't hate Jay Ward. What I mean is, I hate being compared to
Rocky and Bullwinkle. It's just a different style of humor. In fact, I love the drawing style. I think it's a compliment to me, though (being compared to Jay Ward), because what they really mean is it's one of the few funny TV shows. There just haven't been any, so of course they have to drag the odd one there was in. But you might as well say we were influenced by Roger Ramjet. It's a totally different style.

From "The Littlest Tramp:" Big Murray and Polly.

Was Bakshi's other work an influence at all?

No. Again, it's just a totally different style. That's Ralph's style, and he's the only one who can do it.

To tell you the truth, I admire Ralph personally. I think he's the best producer there is; he's the only guy who'll stand up for what he believes in. The problem is, what he believes in changes from minute to minute, and you can see that in all his pictures. I've never seen a Ralph movie that you can follow from beginning to end. There's something going on in his head that's not on the screen.

Was using a character like Mighty Mouse, who's never been very interesting, a blessing or a burden? Did it allow you more freedom than you would have had making, say, new Bugs Bunny cartoons?

I would never want to try doing Bugs Bunny cartoons. That could only be done by the guys who did it. Especially since Carl Stalling is gone, Treg Brown…Mel Blanc has been gone for thirty years, even though he !s still around .... But yeah, you couldn't do Bugs Bunny. Mighty Mouse, you don't care. It's kind of fun to take a cheesy character and make fun of him.

Look at that Daffy Duck cartoon they did (
The Duxorcist).... We could do a better job than that, but still it would obviously be a cheap imitation. But with Mighty Mouse, I didn't feel like we had to do it the way they did it originally. I didn't have to live up to a Terrytoon. We could just take the character and do something different with him. With Bugs Bunny, it would be sacrilege.

Was it a struggle to get Mighty Mouse into the stories?

Yeah, it.was at first. It really took us a while, because we kept coming up with more interesting characters all around him. When you get a character like Bat-Bat, you just want to do everything with him. I think that was a mistake, too.

It just took us a while to get used to him. I think this year, if we were going to do it--I don t think it's going to happen-- I'd have a much better handle on the character. I'd just make more fun of him. Near the end, when we were doing weird things with him, the way he was flying through the air like he was swimming, with Scrappy on his back…I think we were just starting to get the hang of it, to just make him totally living in his own world. He wouldn't be swell-headed, but just really into his hero-ness, but at the same time not seeing what a buffoon he is. I feel what the character is a lot more now than I did at the beginning of the series.

I've heard that you didn't want to do Scrappy, but they told to to put in a cute kid.

Well, it's not that
they told us. In the beginning, Judy Price said, "Now remember, Ralph, this show is early in the morning, 8:30…we need heart." So Ralph, in his own ingenious, blunt way, came up with some heart: "Let's put an orphan boy in." So we came up with Scrappy. I think if one thing hurt the series, more than anything else, it was that, trying to write dumb stories around Scrappy. If we could make fun of him totally, it would be all right. But first of all, we were having enough trouble with Mighty Mouse, and then you had to spend almost half the time with this orphan kid ... You've got nothing left for adventure, action, or humor.

He seems a little too grotesque to be a really heartwarming character.

The design, you mean? The problem wasn't the design. If you saw the original designs - he's cute, it's a caricature of Jerry Mouse. The problem was, a couple of the early directors totally buggered it up; they just didn't understand that design. Because it was a caricature, they would say things like, "Well, his head's way too big for his body. That body could never hold up a head like that." So they would redesign it themselves in the cartoons, give him this little pea-head, stretch his arms out ... There were some Filmation people in the beginning that worked on some of that stuff, and they did this horrible, disgusting job on it.

In other shows, he looks really good. Look at him in "Witch Tricks." Some of the better layout artists drew him there, and he looks great. Or he looks pretty good in "Elwy and the Tree Weasels," when he shows up in the Zagreb section.

Do you think the show will have any influence on Saturday morning cartoons in the future, or will it be something that just happened once?

Oh boy, that's a hard one. In a way, right now, it's starting to make waves. It's getting good- ratings, but not so much that it's an out-and-out hit. And it doesn't look like III be doing the show this year, because Ralph and I are having one of our yearly fights, and I think it's gotten really bad this time. And if he does it himself, it'll be just another thing worthy of the name "Ralph Bakshi." It'll make no sense at all. So that'll be the end of it.

If the show does come back, it'll be with a new team?

It will be with a new team, unless I do it. It'll be the old Ralph Bakshi story of the revolving door. You've heard all the stories, I'm sure, about all his features and everything. People walking in one day and, "You're still here?" And that's exactly the way he is. I was the one who stopped that, because basically I let him heap all of his abuse on me, rather than on everybody else, so everyone was pretty well protected.

So you think the show would only have an influence on the way things were done if it was a hit?

We'd have to keep it going. If we could do one more year, and really do it right, 'cause I think I know what are all the problems are, I think we could hit this season, pretty easily.

In fact, one of my complaints about the show is that it's not wild enough. It's ambiguous. You don't know whether it's supposed to have heart, whether it's supposed to be an action show, or whether it's supposed to be wild, because of some of the story problems. The ones that really worked, I think, worked But there's only three that really worked.

Did CBS interfere? Or were they supportive? Neutral?

They tried to interfere, but Ralph kept them off our backs. He was great at that. They indirectly interfered. They'd say they wanted this, that, and the other thing, but then Ralph would interpret it his way and then have us put it in the scripts and stuff. But as far as once they read the scripts, they didn't make much in the way of changes.

Some of the changes were hilarious. We had one, it was on "Bat-Bat." Remember the hot party where the udder shows up? They said, "Make sure that there are the correct number of teats on that udder." Nobody knew, and they said, "Well, how many teats does a cow have?" Somebody said four, and somebody else said six. So we put down five, just to play it safe.

They were really dumb changes. It was nothing like when I was at Hanna-Barbera, and you'd get pages and pages of changes. I have to give Ralph all the credit there. He just stood up for me. He is a pretty hard guy to fight.

It's what I kept asking the producers at the other studios all the time: "What's the big deal? Why don't you just say no?'" And they'd tell you something really stupid to deal with it. Just say nol What are they going to do about it? Not put it on the air? How's that going to hurt you, Bill? Joe? You guys are-multi millionaires. Joe Barbera's s always complaining that he can't get humor into cartoons anymore. Just do it. You've got your money. If you think you can do a funny cartoon, do a Goddamn funny cartoon. Why do they let the networks run their lives?

Maybe because there's more money in doing what the networks want them to do?

Well, there's the next sale. You don't want to get them mad because they won't buy your show next year, they'll go to DIC. They'll do that anyway! The thing is to get a hit on the air. You get a hit on the air, they're going to come back to you no matter what you do. That's all they really care about.

They're idiots when it comes to figuring out how to get a hit on the air. If you sell them the show and just do what you believe in, you'll get a hit. As long as you do every stupid little thing they tell you, there's no control over who's going to have a hit and who isn't. You just wonder which one's going to become a hit. It's certainly not because somebody did better quality than somebody else. Why did The Smurfs become a hit? A bunch of blue guys is all I can see there. It wouldn't matter who did it, or what decisions were made on the show. There's nothing in the show that could possibly make it a hit. There's no control over it.

When you were putting together the show, was your intended audience yourselves, or people you age, or kids, or who?

My intended audience was everybody. I just want to make cartoons for human beings. I don t think cartoons are only for kids, but at the same time, I think kids will love anything as long as it's visually interesting. My theory is that kids cannot follow stories. They don't know what the hell is going on in a cartoon. What they like to see is funny visual things happening. Why do kids watch Bugs Bunny? They don't get all the jokes. Why do they watch Rocky and Bullwinkle? They certainly don't get all the jokes in that. But if the characters are funny looking and do funny things, the kids like


The Cow.


At the same time, that's no reason to slough off on the writing. Make it so that other people will like it too. I want to see "cartoons" not be a bad word. I don't want people to instantly turn off when they hear it: "Oh, a cartoon." rd like it to be a word that excites people, adults as well as kids. "A cartoon! Oh, great!" I'm sure at one time it did. In the theatrical days, the forties, when the Warner Bros. bullseye came on, I'll bet the whole audience stood up and cheered, because it was just like watching your favorite short, the Three Stooges or whoever.

Are you pretty pleased with the reception the show's gotten?

Critically, yeah. Not so much with the ratings. It's weird, too, because the Nielsens are all screwed up this year. Every kid I talk to loves the show. I can't figure out why the ratings are just kind of average. It's really strange, and I just don't believe that asking 1200 people gives you a real cross-section of America.

But at the same time, there's problems with the show. It should be jam-packed entertainment. There's also those "cheater" cartoons (the compilations of old Terry footage.) Right away, the kids are going to tune out on those. No kid is going to stand for something like that.

Were those strictly to save on budget?

Yeah. That was the idea in the beginning, but it turned out we had enough money to do them real anyway. Ralph kept worrying--he's kind of a paranoid about this - he kept worrying that somewhere along the line he was going to make some catastrophic decision that would completely blow the budget. He always wants to put away a lot of money, which handicaps the rest of us on the reality of making these films.

It turned out we did everything on time, on budget, in fact under budget, so we had this money left over. So he blew it in the post-production, just redoing things over and over again He'd redo songs for those dumb cheaters. Why waste money on those things? Nobody's going to watch them anyway. Just cut together the best possible footage you can from the old Terrytoons, if you're going to do that. But he'd look at it and say, "Well I don't like it. Let's do it over again." Ralph, it's a cheater! Please put the money into a real cartoon!

Are you optimistic about the future at all?

Pessimistic and optimistic. It's a weird combination. I have no optimism for Saturday morning. As long as there are networks, there's going to be garbage. In fact, as long as there are other animation studios out there, there's going to be garbage. The only chance is if my crew and I manage to sell something, and continue what we did on
Mighty Mouse, and not do our mistakes. We're getting better, we're experimenting.

Right now, I've got a bunch of projects that I'm out there pitching. And I pitch them to the networks too, but I don't have much hope for them. There's just too many problems there.

It'll take a little while, but were going to sell something. In fact, were pretty close now on a couple of things. It make take doing something really cheap for cable or something like that, like pulling off a
Crusader Rabbit, just to get something going. But once we do that, than we can hopefully get bigger budgets.

So you're less worried about a big budget than about having the freedom to do something interesting?

Oh, definitely. Give me $100,000 and I'll do a cartoon that might be better than anything anyone else is doing. It's talent and inventiveness, is what it it is. The money helps, you like to be able to do something again if you get it wrong or something. You like to do what you should and make it fully animated. But fully animated by itself doesn' t make a good cartoon. Like Don Bluth films. Itt's just a bunch of guys flailing all over the place. What the hell is that? That's not acting. It's full inbetweening.