Interview Transcript – Episode 6: Chris Battle

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If you want to follow Chris, you can find him on Twitter and Instagram, @chrisbattleart.

Chris Battle’s redesign of the Scooby gang for the opening title sequence of Scooby Doo! Frankencreepy (2014). Photo courtesy of Chris Battle.

AL: What’s your relationship to Scooby Doo, did you grow up watching?

CB: Definitely. As a kid who grew up in the 70s and the 80s, Scooby Doo was a big part of that, along with all the other Hanna-Barbera cartoons. But I definitely grew up as a young child watching the original Scooby Doo, and then of course I got to see all the other versions, like when they started having the celebrity guest stars like Sonny and Cher and Don Knotts and Batman, and even up to the old Scrappy Doo episodes in the 80s there for sure. Yeah, we go way back.

AL: Do you have a favourite Scooby Doo related memory, whether that’s from watching or some other memory?

CB: You know I just really remember watching a lot of the episodes while either at the kitchen table or on the living room floor with a pad of paper and actually trying my best to draw Scooby Doo while watching the cartoon. Given the fact that I did wind up drawing cartoons and occasionally doing Scooby Doo, that’s a pretty cool memory.

AL: How did you come to work in animation?

CB: Well, growing up in Los Angeles, it’s a pretty neat place to grow up because instead of it being some kind of far-fetched dream, wanting to work in entertainment, whether it’s music or acting or special effects or whatever, it’s not seen as something ridiculous, it’s like an actual career choice and you often will know somebody who maybe works in entertainment. So I grew up just always wanting to do cartoons, maybe comic books or comic strips or animation, I just wanted to draw funny pictures for a living. So my parents would always take me, whenever I got a chance, to meet animators whenever they were maybe releasing a book or had an art show. I even got to tour Disney Animation Studios when I was a kid. But the way that I really actually finally got into it, after I graduated high school, class of ’89 – this is right before the big wave of animation was taking off. I think the Simpsons had maybe just started their series, maybe Beauty and the Beast was coming out, Who Framed Roger Rabbit had already come out. I just needed a job, so I started working at the Hanna-Barbera retail store. There were very few of these shops in local malls where it was just like a lot of the Disney stores you see now, but it was all Hanna-Barbera themed. They had Flinstone rocks and Jetsons spaceship stuff and all kind of merchandise you could ever want with cartoons playing in rotation. And it was actually run by Hanna-Barbera Studios, so as part of being employees they wanted us all to take a tour of the studios so everybody would know how cartoons are made. Of course I was already way ahead of them on that, but I was very happy to go there and meet all the artists.

And the artists from the studio would often come by the store to buy all the merchandise and our manager said “When they show you that employee card for their discount, make sure next time they come in you give them extra special attention, because they’re the reason that we have our jobs here.” So I got to know the head of design there at the time, Scott Jeralds, your audience might be familiar with him because he came up with A Pup Named Scooby Doo and he was producer on a lot of the later movies as well, and my manager just dared me to show my work to him and I did not want to, but my manager just told Scott “This guy draws cartoons too!” and Scott said “Well, why don’t you show me some of your work.” and I sheepishly showed him a few of my little doodles that I’d been doing. And he said “These are pretty good, if you have more finished artwork why don’t you come over to the studio some time, come visit me and show me your portfolio,” which I eventually did. And he was pretty impressed with it because I didn’t really have any professional training and I didn’t go to art school, but he just said “Why don’t you keep in touch and maybe something might happen, we might need an extra hand or something.” And about a year later he called me up, he had left Hanna-Barbera and was heading up the new MGM Animation. They were working on a new Pink Panther cartoon at the time, along with plenty of other Hanna-Barbera artists, and he said “Would you like to come in and start doing design for a living,” and that was my beginning.

AL: I had no idea that those retail stores existed.

CB: Yeah, they didn’t last long, I think it was only about two or three years. There were two here in southern California, and there was one in Florida at Universal Studios where they had a big simulator thrill ride, kind of like Back to the Future ride, I think it was called the Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera. And then when Turner Broadcasting bought Hanna-Barbera, they just slashed all the retail stores because there weren’t a lot of them at the time. It was very short-lived, but it was kind of cool.

AL: Do you remember a specific moment that sparked your interest in going into character design or had you just always had an interest?

CB: Oh, wow. I always did, yeah. Everybody will always remember there’s that time where as a kid you used to love drawing. And I never grew out of that, that was my one thing. All kids have a thing, you’re good at sports or you can do this, you can do that. My thing was always drawing, and I really loved it. My parents encouraged it so as a child, I knew that was a job that people had. I do remember when I was maybe five or six we went to Disneyland, and I think one of the little souvenirs my parents bought me was a little flipbook. It was of Donald Duck trying to hit a baseball and instead the baseball like hits him in the face or something like that, but you would just flip through it. And I learned from an early age that cartoons are made up of people’s drawings and that there are really people who draw them and that’s their job. So I always knew that could be a possibility. And I always thought maybe I could be the next Charles Schulz or maybe I could draw Spiderman for a living or something. But as I got older I realized that I liked doing the funny stuff, and my drawing real superhero stuff, drawing real people realistically was very hard, and cartoony was a lot more fun. And I just really started working towards that. But I really kind of got into it by accident, because I thought you had to be an animator, drawing all those 24 frames a second. But then as Scott Jeralds had told me when I met him, he said “No we don’t do that for television, they do that all overseas in Korea. All you really need to do is to be able to draw well.” And that was my in, luckily.

AL: How did you come to work on Scooby Doo! Frankencreepy?

CB: That came after many years in the business. I have been very fortunate, I’ve been working steadily for probably over 25 years now in the business. At the time that project came up, I was working at Warner Bros. Animation on Teen Titans Go! and they’re always making new Scooby series and also new Scooby digital movies, either for DVD, Blu-Ray, or now digital streaming. And it turned out a friend of mine from my Cartoon Network days, Paul McEvoy, he was the producer on Frankencreepy, and what they often do with a lot of the movies – the movies will have more of a traditional style to the classic style, but always, they try to do something different for all the main title credits. So they contacted me, because they knew I was right there on the other end of the lot, and they just said “We were thinking of doing something really kind of graphic and stylized for the opening titles, something like Samurai Jack, which I worked on, or Dexter’s Laboratory. So they gave me a little animatic of what they needed, a bunch of mysterious shadowy figures, and then the Scooby gang running around throughout this backdrop with all these spooky characters. So (they said), “Do some stylized versions of the characters, and they’re probably all going to be in silhouette, getting chased by the Frankencreepy character,” so that’s what I did.

AL: What was your first reaction when you were asked to do it?

CB: Oh, well I was like you know, it’s another job, it’s like “Yeah, sure, that sounds great.” Actually, quite often in animation you’ll have a short break, like maybe you’ll have one or two months off between seasons of a show, and sometimes you might take that time off to relax or other times people will call you up and have some projects for you to work on. Especially within the studio because they know they only have you for a limited time, before the next season starts up. So I had just been enjoying my time off, and it was probably the last week before I was going to return to a new season of Teen Titans Go! so it’s like “Okay, I was getting ready to work anyways, why not.” And it’s funny, you kind of don’t really think about it at the time, because it’s just another job, you have to get it done. But somewhere in there you kind of realize “Huh. I’m actually drawing one of these classic characters that I watched as a kid or that I used to draw on the pad on the living room floor. So it was kind of cool getting to do that, and then also you realize how challenging some of those classic designs are, because there’s a reason they’re classics. They’re so well designed. The Iwao Takamoto design of Scooby is an absolute classic, you really can’t mess with that too much. There’s nothing that needs to be fixed. So trying to do something slightly different is a bit daunting.

AL: What part of production were you brought in on, did you get to see what the movie was about or any clips from it before getting to work on your redesign?
CB: No, it was really just that opening title sequence. So it was just a short animatic, which is kind of a rough animated storyboard that they’ll do for sequences. So it was really just for the title sequence. And they gave me a list of what they needed, just like “mystery man on the phone #1, mystery man in the doorway” kind of stuff. And then there was the Scooby gang being chased by Frankencreepy. I think I might’ve at least had a design of Frankencreepy to work from. But since it was all going to be in silhouette, I didn’t really need that much detail. No, I had no idea what the storyline was going to be, all I needed to know was he’s the monster of the week and he’s chasing them.

AL: What is it like when you’re coming into a project like that on freelance?

CB: Well it’s always kind of interesting to dip your toe in another project like that. Because sometimes when you are busy on another project that’s full time, you don’t have time to do everything. And you often can’t commit to a big job like that. But if somebody just says “Hey, here’s a little side project just for fun, you want to try designing this classic character,” or something like that, it’s always a lot of great fun to try that. And it’s not like your regular job where you’ve got to be worried that a whole series is depending on your designs. There’s not much pressure in it, so you can kind of relax and have fun. Especially in that one, where they gave me a very specific look to hit, they wanted that graphic look. It’s not like they were just like “Invent a new Scooby Doo we’ve never seen before that we could base a whole series off of,” it’s like nope, just the title sequence. Do that thing you do, have some fun with it. So it was pretty easy in that regard. 

AL: What is it like to work on a project when you’re working on it by yourself and you’re not necessarily in a room with the rest of the crew?   

CB: It’s very easy to focus on it, because I do that quite often. Most of the time, I’m in a studio working with a whole crew for over a year or more depending on how many seasons you have. But every once in a while, I will do a freelance project, some of them even remotely for other studios that aren’t in town. So it can be easy to remain focused on that. It can be a little difficult when you’re trying to do a whole bunch of different styles. If they don’t really have an idea of what they’re looking for, when they just ask you to do three or four different new versions of this classic character. That can be a little nerve wracking at first. But once they respond to it, and maybe say “We like that one, use the head from the other one,” or “Go in this direction,” it’s pretty good. And especially if you’re doing classic characters, because we all know who Scooby Doo is, that’s easy to get into doing that.

AL: What was it like to try and recreate Scooby Doo in that type of Samurai Jack style?

CB: It was very easy because for probably about seven years, I worked with Genndy Tartakovsky and Craig McCracken on shows like Dexter’s Laboratory, Powerpuff Girls and Samurai Jack. So, much of that style is ingrained on my own personal style, it’s very natural to go to. Really, since the characters really are iconic at this point, we all know what kind of clothes they’re going to be wearing. And since it’s the classic ones you’re like “Give Fred that ascot,” you know, “Give Shaggy the flared pants.” I wasn’t having to modernize them or anything like that. So it was quite easy to do, you know. And also, it’s part of the style that we had on Samurai Jack, it’s all about simplification and very strong shapes. So you really don’t have to get into the detail of the characters. Like Scooby is a very difficult character to draw if you’re drawing the classic one, because of his body and his knobby legs and everything. But when you’re simplifying it to get to a more graphic style, it makes it a little bit easier, because he is hard to draw if you’re doing the classic one.

AL: Was there anything in particular that you wanted to accomplish with your redesign?

CB: Basically I was really just trying to have some fun with it. Because whenever anybody gives you a classic character to do, you would like to have a little bit of fun. And sometimes if it’s going to be for some like major redo, it can be nerve wracking like I said. But for this, it was just for the title sequence, so really, they just laid it out, just what they wanted. They just wanted something graphic and modern, and it was just going to be for that quick sequence, so I just thought “Well, I’m going to have fun with this because I’m drawing the Scooby gang, that’s kind of cool.” You try to have as much fun as you can have drawing cartoons for a living. Even though it’s a job, we all got into this because we love cartoons, they make us happy. And I think that when you’re having fun with something, it translates into the final product.

AL: And what was it like to also create those other characters like the mystery man with the phone and other ones?

CB: There wasn’t too much to that, I tried to keep them close to the storyboard and just to create an interesting silhouette and try to communicate what was going on, like whether somebody was on a phone but you don’t have all the line work and everything, fingers on the phone to show what’s going on. Much of good design comes with communicating something with precious few shapes. When speaking about silhouettes, the silhouette of a character is something that we discuss even when designing characters that aren’t in shadows, like when you – take for example Mickey Mouse. If you saw a silhouette of Mickey Mouse, you’d know that’s Mickey Mouse. If you saw Batman in silhouette, you know that’s Batman. So it’s very clear to the audience what this character is. So it really leaned back into those classic design principles that we use so in a way, it was kind of easy to do somebody and not have to worry about all their details, like what their hairstyle is or what their clothes are, because they were just in silhouette. 

The opening title sequence of Scooby Doo! Frankencreepy (2014), featuring Chris Battle’s designs.

 

AL: Speaking of the silhouette, what is the process when it comes to designing the basic silhouette for animation?

CB: Well, you’re just trying to create something that communicates something very quickly and visually. Because if you look at the shape of a character, you just want to be able to tell a lot more about that character. Like if it’s a character you’ve never seen before, the way they’re standing, or if they’re skinny or if they’re large. Are they threatening, are they friendly, things like that. Can you tell what they’re doing, do they have their hand on their hip, or are they pointing at something. You want that to be able to read to the audience. Now what helps is when it’s classic characters like Scooby Doo, we know who Scooby Doo is. He’s got that big thick neck and the pointy ears, and those skinny legs and the big soft padded feet. So as soon as you get him in a silhouette where people know that’s Scooby Doo, well then you draw the skinny guy with the scruffy hair and the flared pants, and we know that’s Shaggy. And so you go on down the line with the other characters as long as you draw this fit guy, and maybe you can tell from his hair or if you can see that the ascot is there, you know that’s Fred. And you just go on down the character line and pretty soon you can tell, even standing there in the dark, that’s the Scooby gang. 

AL: You mentioned that you had drawn a non-silhouette version just for reference, what kinds of details dissipate when it goes to just the silhouette?

CB: Definitely a lot of all of the clothing like wrinkles and things like that. You know when you picture Shaggy, he’s got a lot of loose fitting clothing. You don’t need to have that much stuff, and especially Scooby because Scooby is the most complicated. His classic design, he’s got those really bony legs and there’s real dog anatomy that’s at work in there. So that is really challenging when you’re drawing it real. But since we’re doing it in a simplified form, I didn’t have to have all that real anatomy, which again, goes back to me deciding as a child not to have to learn to draw real, but draw cartoons instead, because real anatomy is hard.

AL: In your opinion, what contributes to a successful silhouette in animation?

CB: Like I said, if somebody can just see it right away, especially if it’s in the dark, that they can tell who that character is. Or, even if they’re not in the dark but it’s a complicated action scene where somebody is doing some kind of crazy martial arts move or a superhero pose, if it really sells the action. And it really has an impact. People can look at that scene and go “Ooh, wow, look at that cool freeze frame of them kicking that guy and they’re flying through a window,” or something like that. As long as it has an impact with the audience, you know you’ve succeeded. 

AL: What was it like to work on a Scooby Doo project specifically?

CB: That’s another one of those things where you realize after you’ve done it, that you just worked on something you watched as a kid. And you’ve kind of fulfilled this whole cycle of people who are inspired by a given film or music or whatever. And now you’re part of the history of that project. And maybe there’s a kid watching now, that’s going to be their favourite thing and they’re going to get inspired to become an artist too. It’s kind of a cool thing about working on those legacy projects. You become part of something that’s much larger than you and you’re actually sort of part of the history of it, you know.

AL: What was it like to contribute to a redesign of iconic characters rather than drawing the typical classic designs over again?

CB: Well that is always the fun part, as I’ve had a chance to redesign several classic characters. Sometimes for just development in-house that never sees the light of day, sometimes for things that make it into actual production. But you know, as an artist, you want to be able to put your own stamp on things, because sometimes you may look at something, be it a design or if you like movies, you can watch a movie and see how the story goes, or if you hear a song played, you think “I have my own ideas about how they should do this song.” As a creative you always have those ideas and sometimes rarely do you ever get to put them into practice. But with this it’s always fun when they ask you to put your spin on it, because so often part of animation is you have to adapt to a show’s style. And usually that’s the creator of a show or the art director, they’ve set the tone. And it is part of your talent and skill set, that you have to draw like them, adapt like them. But when somebody comes to you and wants your particular spin on it, well that’s just a real bonus, that’s a lot of fun when somebody asks you to do, especially something that is so famous and iconic as Scooby Doo.

AL: What’s your favourite part of being able to see your versions of classic characters in productions?
CB: Probably one of my favourite parts, it’s definitely one of my favourite things about animation as an art form as a whole, is that it’s not just you who does it all, it’s a huge group effort. I’ll do the drawing, but then a storyboard artist will create the scene, and they’ll have cleanup artists who make our rough artwork look all pretty. Colour designers will choose the colours for them, and they’ll go on top of the background and the environments are the people who draw those and the people who paint them. We have sound effects, we have great voice over artists. All these people who put together all these little pieces of this giant machine and it becomes a cartoon. And that’s just the magic that we all fell in love with as kids. And to know that you played a part in that, along with all of these other people, we’re all making each other’s work look better, that’s the real magic that comes in for me, for sure.

AL: Are there any challenges when you step into a project where you’re working with iconic characters?

CB: Well normally it’s just the whole thing of, if they’re really going with your designs and it’s not just development or something. That when they’re actually going into production, that can be nerve wracking if you haven’t figured out very specifically what you want to do. But luckily, some projects I’ve been on where I figured out how I wanted to do it and the studio gave me all the support, or in the instance of Scooby here, it was just for that one sequence, and they were very direct on the guideline, they just said “You just do your thing, we love that drawing or that Samurai Jack style,” and that’s it. And that was just nice on that one, no worries on that.

AL: I wanted to chat a little bit more about what it’s like to work on a redesign for characters you had grown up watching, a little bit for Scooby but also on your work on that Flinstones series that’s coming up?

CB: It already premiered in the U.K. on Boomerang UK and a couple other overseas markets, I don’t know if there’s any plans for it domestically. But that was one that had a long development process, like back in 2016 I was one of several artists that they had, who had already taken a stab at trying to do a new Flinstones thing centered on the kids. I did a bunch of development, it almost went to pilot and they said “Eh we’re not going to, we decided not to do that, we’re going to try to rework it.” And I thought okay, that’s fine, it was another thing I did on break between seasons of Teen Titans Go! and then in the fall of 2017 on another break between seasons, they called me up and they said “We circled back around to your designs and we want you to do them. We know we only have you for a month or two so can you just design the whole show for us, we’ll just take you for as long as we have.” And that sort of thing is just pretty exciting when you really get handed the reigns for that and it’s nice, like I said, when they say “You do your thing, we like that. Just keep going with that.” When you have definite ideas, and especially when doing these legacy projects, sometimes there’s so much that has been done before. It’s very easy to cherry pick what you like and what you don’t like. You can go back to the original designs, you can skip over maybe those ones from the intermittent years, and maybe there was a more recent one that also you can pick from. If you really have a feel for it, or you really have definite ideas it can be a lot of fun.

AL: Does growing up watching a series make you more particular or possessive over the original?

CB: I tend to never be very possessive over things. I know there are certain people who can be very traditional and some people who are like super deconstructionist about classic things. I kind of fall somewhere in the middle, but I do lean more towards a deconstruction because you know, we all grow up with things that we love, and as the years go on we could probably look at it with fresh eyes. Be it an old movie or a comic book series or music, and you can still love what you love about it, but you can probably acknowledge what needs fixing. Personally, I’m always up for new takes on classic materials, whether it’s movies or television shows, new reboots. If they’re done well and they’re done with a real creative flair, I really like to see something new. But at the same time, I know what I like about a classic thing. So I think often that’s what some of the studios like about my work, is that especially from a business standpoint, whenever they announce a new show, everybody already gets upset that they’re going to screw up something that they love. But then, if they know that the creators of the new version actually have a love for the old version, when that’s apparent, that seems to work out well. So my area that I work in is that I’m always familiar with a lot of the classic stuff and I’ll always have a nod to that, but I don’t hold it so tightly, and be that precious about it that it can’t change from like the 1960s version of whatever the title is, so I guess that’s my little sweet spot that I work in there.

AL: With Scooby Doo especially, but also with a lot of other older cartoons, a lot of the fans are particularly protective of the original and what that show meant to them. What is it like to step into a show where you may be critiqued quite a bit by the fans?

CB: Well, it always goes without saying that you can never please everybody. As we’ve seen time and again with new things, initially, everybody will be mad. Sometimes you hope that maybe after something comes out and people watch something, that they might enjoy it. Or even if they say “I like that old one better, but I can see there’s some things I like from this.” And sometimes projects are for different audiences. If you see somebody getting upset over one of the DC animated movies that were like PG-13, rated R kind of things for adult comics fans, and somebody says “My six year-old watched this and she got really upset when Wonder Woman decapitated that demon,” it’s like “Well, sorry, it wasn’t for children, this is for adults.” And likewise some series are for little children, and they’re not for older kids or necessarily for 33 year-olds. But really, I think it’s a testament though to how beloved certain franchises are, so sometimes you will try to do your best to honour an old show, but you hope that people can enjoy a new version. And also these days, you definitely know that another version, another reboot is really just a few years down the road. So if somebody doesn’t like this one, they can like the next one, you know. I definitely don’t take it personal at all, because in the end, it is just a job and hopefully it’ll be a job that you can really put your heart into in some way or another. So it’s not too rough if people don’t respond well, because hopefully somebody will like it.

AL: When it comes to Scooby specifically, why do you think that the franchise has held up for over 50 years now?

CB: Everybody loves dogs, that’s a major thing. Everybody loves them. Even if a kid can’t have a dog, they can dream about having a dog who would be as much fun as Scooby Doo. And who doesn’t love a good, safe scary mystery thing, you know. Even when you’re a little kid, you like monsters. You don’t necessarily like a full on horror movie, but every kid likes spooky monsters to a certain degree. Especially going back to the original series, those are some of the best, fun, spooky monsters that you can imagine. It’s like a lot of other things that everybody falls in love with. Like well, you know, something that name drops them directly like Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the perfect intersection of comedy with spooky horror stuff and of course as they all call them the Scoobies for a reason. I think that mix just works great.

AL: If you were given the opportunity to design a villain or a monster for a Scooby Doo project, what would it look like?

CB: Wow, that is a tough one. I think going back to what I just said, if I could hit that intersection of spooky with comedy, that would probably be pretty good. It would definitely have to be something big that would seem threatening, but also goofy big as well.

AL: If you were given the opportunity to work on another Scooby Doo project, if you had the time, would you take it?

CB: That might be fun to actually do that, yeah. I just dipped my toe a little bit in the Scooby sandbox, and it would be fun to really take a deeper dive on that for sure.  

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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