Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Craig Bartlett Talks Hey Arnold!, Steve Viksten, The Ultimate Collection, and a Potential Season 6

Fans of Nickelodeon’s beloved '90s animated series Hey Arnold! can now own the entire animated series with Nickelodeon Home Entertainment and Paramount Home Media Distribution's brand-new DVD boxset, Hey Arnold!: The Ultimate Collection!

To celebrate the release, Flickering Myth writer Red Stewart got the chance to speak with Hey Arnold! creator Craig Bartlett! A American animator who has been working in the animation and television industries since the late-80s, Craig is best known for creating the cartoon serials Hey Arnold!, Dinosaur Train, and Ready Jet Go!.

Check out Red's awesome interview with Craig below, via!:

Mr. Bartlett, thank you so, so much for talking to me sir. Hey Arnold! was one of those shows that had a profound impact on me in terms of life and creativity, so to be able to speak to you is a great honor.

Thank you, I love hearing this! These are great days for Hey Arnold! because so many people who literally grew up on it and were kids watching it are now out in the world being pros, you know writing and drawing. I can’t believe the talent of the people who are doing Arnold fan-art now. So it’s really cool to see people grow up and respond to it.

No, for sure. For me, it was more about the life lessons the show taught. Thank you so much again.

You bet, my pleasure.

This is a show that seems to keep on giving for you. Two years ago we had the 20th anniversary, last year was the Jungle Movie, and now this year we have the Ultimate Collection coming out on DVD. I know you’re busy with Ready Jet Go!, but what’s it honestly like knowing that one of your creations continues to have a lasting legacy almost a quarter of a century later?

It’s so great, it’s super satisfying because you see this collection and you get to see everything, from the very first claymation short that I made to the first 2-D pilot and then all the episodes with the two movies. And so you get to see the whole arc of the show. I was just talking about how the techniques have changed and changed again since we started. The claymation short was something else entirely! But the Nickelodeon Arnold pilot that we made was shot on film. I remember that it was edited on a moviola [laughs].


Now they’re completely lost in time. That’s how long the show’s been around, it’s crazy.

No, you’re right. Everyone seems to be switching to flash animation, like Arthur transitioned to it. I understand that things change, but luckily the show remains a constant.

That was the goal!

[laughs] One of the reasons it resonates so much is that you and the writers tackled a lot of mature themes and topics that are still relevant today. You talked about child neglect, poverty, homosexuality, bullying, etc….I’m wondering, how did you all strike a balance between not being too subtle and not being preachy?

Oh, that’s a good question. We knew we shouldn’t be preachy, we were always trying to be more gritty and realistic, but we also said the lesson learned has to come….you know, it’s always a little bit ironic. The victory is very tiny, like the characters will get what they hoped for, but then it has to get taken away or “that was meant to be.” You might get a little bit further along in trying to convince somebody of something or change someone, but really tomorrow’s going to be another day and it’s going to kind of go back to the status quo. And that was partly because we were making a TV show, and we knew you want to return to the status quo. The funny stories, the set-ups are still there, however we were also trying to make the kids learn a little bit.

There were examples. Like Harold started out as a pretty one-dimensional bully and we thought, what can we do with Harold? I wanted to redeem him just episode-by-episode because in the beginning he was like, if Arnold did something wrong, he was going to pound him. So there was a threat of violence. And I wanted to make it that finally Harold would like Arnold so much that he would never pound him. It was fun. It was sort of like they were really alive [laughs].


And every time we did another story, we had a chance to grow them more. But you know, here we are, almost 25 years later, and they’re still supposed to essentially be who they are.

That makes sense. Keeping true to the characters, but also giving them room to grow. And speaking of Harold, one of my personal favorite episodes was that one where he’s attracted to the new classmate [editor’s note- “Hey Harold!”]….

Oh Big Patty?

Yeah, Big Patty! And it’s always stayed with me because I had a similar experience where I liked a girl but I wasn’t sure if others in my circle would have liked her. It always almost brings tears to my eyes seeing it.

I thought the Harold/Big Patty thing was great. We did a little bit with Harold and Big Patty with that episode in particular. Steve Viksten wrote the first one where Harold and Patty hit it off and at the end he’s going to stand up for her. Steve loved the movie Marty with Ernest Borgnine, and he always wanted to do a Marty story, and that’s where we landed with Harold and Big Patty.

It was great because then, once we did that, Harold had grown up even more: he’d evolved even more, and now there was something to watch- what’s going to happen between him and Big Patty? And so, I love how the kids who were fans and are now adults, how they love to do all these hook-ups between the characters, and they’re always shipping for like “no, no Harold and Rhonda!” [laughs]


I personally find it kind of hilarious and it just goes to show that there’s something sticky about the characters. People really like the one character with another and they’ll be rooting for them. It makes me laugh to think of fans being serious about it, like “well, what kind of relationship would Harold and Patty have when they were 30?” [laughs].

Well, that just goes to show how these characters continue to stay with people and how well you and the writing team did to make them stand out, especially in an ensemble cast. And I’d just like to give my condolences for the passing of the talented Mr. Viksten. I know it’s been four years, but he was one of the greats. He contributed to several of my favorite shows including Recess and obviously Hey Arnold!.

Yeah, if you get a chance, you could always see who wrote the episodes in the credits. And he, as you know, wrote some great Rugrats stories too.

Yeah, that’s right, he did Rugrats as well.

He had a huge influence on the humor of Rugrats and on the humor of Hey Arnold! And Steve could do poignant as well as anybody too. Some of Steve’s stories were the saddest ones. We all really liked to write sad stories [laughs]. But, you know, some better than others. And Steve was a great, great writer.

For sure, he and the writer’s room deserve huge props.

We were really lucky too. It was cool. It was kind of unusual what we were doing in the mid-90s. For most of the cartoons, people wanted to write them in storyboard. However, we wanted to write scripts, record them, make radio plays, and then hand out the radio play to the board team to draw. Therefore, it was more tight and restricted than when the board artists could write their own stuff, but it was just the way that we set it up. We were doing something a little different; we weren’t doing what everyone else was doing.

Oh, so the voice artists influenced the storyboarding and animation?

Super true. Often, I would have the storyboard team come to the recording sessions because of that. Like sometimes you can literally draw something and show it to cast and say “see, this is what we were thinking.” And the kids loved it, the actors who cracked the artists up, to be able to see the process. You know, people always love watching an artist sit there and draw a picture in a minute; it’s always amazing.

And yeah, the actors very much participated in it. When I think about it, the show’s characters developed into who they were partly because of the people who played them. Dan Castellaneta brought so much to Grandpa, Tress MacNeille to Grandma. And for Big Bob and Miriam Pataki, Maurice LaMarche and Kath Soucie turned them into who they were. And Francesca Smith, who played Helga, was just amazing. She would come in and record and I would realize what she could do and then I’d go “man, I’ve got to write a scene like that.” And it actually influenced the writing of Helga knowing that we were writing it for Frannie: that she was going to come in and crush it [laughs].

So yeah, the actors brought a ton to their characters and it was really fun to see them. We recorded once a week for, I don’t know, a part of the year, and the other half they were off doing something else. But I worked steadily for about six years on Hey Arnold! and we saw a lot of those actors over the years. People truly got to know each other and what they could do and it was a fun way to go. Making that many episodes with that many people, what a blast! I’m so glad I got to create so many. It’s amazing to look at them all now and go “wow, that is a lot.”

No for sure. And speaking of that, I was surprised to see that you actually cast kids to play the characters in Hey Arnold! Usually adult voice actors and actresses take on that responsibility, as you have experienced with Ready Jet Go!. What’s the difference between working with younger people to develop these characters compared to working with adults?

Kids really do bring a kid mentality to their work, because that’s who they are. Some of them are like little grownups, like Francesca and Anndi McAfee, who played Phoebe, they were little adults [laughs]. But the truth is a nine-year old kid has a different sound. The thing that happens is, when they grow older, they can still approximate that sound, but they don’t have that little unformed valve that a nine-year old has where they are literally growing their teeth in. It’s so funny how, by using a child voice actor, it made an authentic sound that I think our audience responded to; they believed they were looking at a kid character and you could tell.

And that’s what I liked about it. The actors were little and they turned into teenagers and basically all those kids got to grow up together. They were friends, the kids who were in the cast of Hey Arnold! They loved hanging out, it was a great bunch.

I’m glad to hear that they had that connection and that that the chemistry came out in the show. And speaking of children, when we’re talking about cartoons that are geared towards kids, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on current shows that try to depict tougher issues. Censors are laxer these days- I mean yes, you can’t show blood anymore, but you can be more open about societal topics, and so writers are being more direct in their scripts. But I’m wondering, do you think it’s more effective to be restrained and quieter when using a children’s series as medium for these discussions?

Yeah, I mean I kind of…we always were really about the story. And also, I would say that we were very free in that time at Nickelodeon to just do whatever stories we wanted to do. The difference between doing that and a curriculum show like Dinosaur Train where you’re going to teach science is that we literally didn’t have to teach anything: it was more about entertainment. So that meant that our messaging was more subtle because we were just concentrating on telling a story.

That’s definitely true. Themes can come naturally when you have a well thought-out story. Now Mr. Bartlett, I know that you are often asked about a potential season six for Hey Arnold! and that you want to do it. For fans of the series, could there be a connection between the sales of the Ultimate Collection and Nick being convinced to green-light season 6?

[laughs] That’s great, yeah, let’s make that connection!


We can tell people “if you only buy the Ultimate Collection, then we we will get a season 6!” [laughs]

It has happened in the past where DVD sales have resulted in a show coming back, like Family Guy.

Yeah no, absolutely. For sure. I’m really thrilled that it’s out there. It’s a perfect Christmas present, and if everybody gets it maybe that will move the series forward.

That’s right, it is coming out in time for Christmas in terms of a potential present for…really everyone. This is a show that has aged so well that you could introduce it to newer generations.


But Mr. Bartlett, once again thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to speak with me. I never thought I would get the chance to talk to the creator of one of my favorite shows!

No, thank you very much. It was great. It was nice talking to you!

Flickering Myth would like to thank Mr. Bartlett for sitting down with us.


Also, from NERDIST:


Hey Arnold was always kind. The adventures of Arnold, Gerald, and Helga were like formative friendships for many of us who grew up with ’90s Nickelodeon. In a sea of cynical and edgy shows, Hey Arnold was sweet, and friendship focused. Its legacy is its moral compass. That impact is one of the things that means the most to Bartlett who spoke with us about the 20th anniversary of the beloved show. “There’s somebody for everyone in that group, and that was our purpose from the outset.”

The show was also stylistically unique with its iconic animation style and character designs, all of which came from the shows origins as claymation shorts. Whether it was Gerald’s cylindrical high top, or Arnold’s football shaped head, the recognizable designs are something that Bartlett and Co. still hear about it today. It’s because their bespoke styles got to the heart of what the show was about: learning about yourself by understanding others. “It’s the sweetest, most flattering thing of all, to think that we put these characters out there–that we really love–and people found someone to identify with.”

Nerdist: Nickelodeon in the ’90s was the home of what’s now seen as a renaissance in animation. What was it like to be a part of that?

Bartlett: Well, it was the mid-’90s when Hey Arnold came out, and that was a great time for animation. It seemed like they were handing out shows, and there was definitely something in the air; it was incredibly exciting. Nickelodeon kept expandin, and they moved into the studio where they are now in Burbank, and we moved with them after three seasons. Before that we’d been in a more humble setting, but those were the days that everyone loved the most. The crew who worked on the first three seasons of Hey Arnold in this dumpy little place on Vineland–they loved that best. I remember there was this great big room with these little desks, and everyone would catch the same cold each winter. It was totally funky in there but, you know, the journey is the destination.

Nerdist: The DVD collection contains some really interesting stuff. Are you excited to share the pilot and the shorts with fans?

Bartlett: I am! You know the pilot we shot that on 35mm film, and it was all hand inked animation. You look at that now and it’s like a long gone craft. But when I see it it feels great, because it reminds me of how it all started. I’ve always wanted that version to be available. There are a few different versions, but this the one that I really love. Later, the pilot was used to create “24 Hours to Live” in season one, but I always particularly loved the original pilot. There’s something so fun about creating a pilot because you’re laying out what you want this entire world to be in eight minutes!

Also my super funky 8mm “Arnold Escapes From Church” is on there! That’s how actually Arnold started, he was made of clay! I created Arnold in the summer of ’88 when I first arrived in L.A. and had worked on Pee Wee, and was doing the Penny Cartoons which were made in the same style of this flat shooter clay. So when I had the chance to work on Arnold I’d learned that technique, and so I animated three stop motion Arnold shorts in my own living room!

Will you be grabbing the Hey Arnold Collection? Can’t believe you never knew that football head started as claymation? Jump into the comments and let [me] know!

The Hey Arnold Ultimate Collection is out now!


Hey Arnold!: The Ultimate Collection is available to purchase now in North America, and contains all 100 episodes of Nickelodeon's hit animated series Hey Arnold!, The Jungle Movie, plus many amazing bonus features, including: Hey Arnold! The Pilot, Original Claymation Short: Arnold Escapes from Church, Drawing Arnold, The Jungle Movie: Table Read and Unboxing The Original Jungle Movie Development Art.

More Nick: Nickelodeon Announces 'Rocko’s Modern Life: The Complete Series' DVD Set!

Originally published: Tuesday, November 20, 2018.
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