Interview Transcript – Episode 9: Cheryl Johnson

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

CJ: You know, I wasn’t a huge fan of Scooby Doo as a kid. I feel like Scooby Doo is one of those things where either you loved it as a kid or you’re like “Eh, it’s kind of boring.” And I was definitely in the “Ehh I’m not that interested” camp. I had friends I grew up with that loved it, and I think if you’re into mysteries and horror and that kind of stuff, it’s right up your alley. So you know, when I joined the Scooby Doo crew, it wasn’t something I had ever seen myself doing, but it was fun to be a part of it, that’s for sure.

AL: When did you know that you wanted to work in animation?

CJ: I knew I wanted to work in animation when I was about 15 years-old. It actually happened on a trip to Disneyland. I had always been an artist, like ever since I was about three I’d been doodling and sketching. I knew somebody was doing drawings for all the animated movies I had seen, but I didn’t know how you got into it. So when I was about 15 on a trip to Disneyland, I was in this museum type part of Disneyland, I think it was called Drawn to Animation, and on the walls in there they had all of this concept art and animation cels, and sketches of characters for various Disney movies. I saw that and I thought “See, I knew somebody did that kind of stuff.” So from that point on, I was determined to figure out a way to get into animation. 

AL: And what was the path that you took to get there?

CJ: Once I reached college age I did a couple of community college art classes, I did some research into art and animation schools in California. I grew up in California so I knew that I wanted to stay here for college. And I went to a school for CG animation in the San Francisco area for a little bit because I thought maybe I was going to get into the CG side of stuff like Pixar or Dreamworks, that kind of thing. And I did that for about two years, and I realized that I hated the CG technology and the programs. It was really complicated and had a really, really steep learning curve. And I was missing my artistic roots. So from there, I actually looked up ArtCenter in Pasadena, down here in southern California and I saw that they had an illustration major. Through that you could enter the entertainment arts track, and through that part of illustration you would do concept art, character design, stuff that was much more animation specific. So I ended up making the jump from the San Francisco area to LA, went to ArtCenter for a few years, graduated and within less than six months I ended up at Warner Bros. on Scooby Doo.

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

CJ: The way I started working on Scooby Doo was a very, it was very roundabout. Getting jobs in animation tends to be that way, especially at the beginning. It’s a lot about who you know. So when I was going to college at ArtCenter in Pasadena, my neighbour worked at Cartoon Network. I found that out, got to know her a little bit, showed her my portfolio, and she was pretty impressed. She brought me into Cartoon Network where she introduced me to the recruiter and a couple other artists and an art director there. That art director she introduced me to referred me to the Be Cool Scooby-Doo! art director at the time, Richard Lee. And then he invited me to come onboard to Be Cool Scooby-Doo!. A season into Be Cool, he left, and I took over as art director.

AL: For those that don’t know, can you just describe what an art director is and what they do?
CJ: An art director on any production is in charge of a couple things. Mainly we’re in charge of the team of artists on the show. The artists include character designers, background designers, background painters, colour designers and prop designers. So it’s the art director’s job to make sure that they know what they should be doing each day, keeping them on track, making sure they have all the tools and resources needed to get that job done. The art director also works really closely with the production staff on the crew. The production staff are people that are in charge of budgets and schedules and managing assets. So I act as a bridge between the artists and them. And then the art director also collaborates closely with producers, show runners, episodic directors to make sure that their vision is achieved through the visual side of each episode, and across the entire series.

AL: What’s your favourite part of being an art director?

CJ: I think my favourite part is my daily interactions with all of my artists. It’s really fun to work with incredibly talented people, I’m constantly impressed by the ideas that they bring to the table. When I launch them on assignments, I’ll give them a pitch of what I’m thinking it could be, and they typically come back with something that was 10 times better than what I could have ever imagined, so that’s really, really fun, that collaborative part of the process. And it’s fun to collaborate with directors and producers and showrunners as well, and see, you know, get their input, see what they’re thinking for things. And then I think another really fun thing is when you get to encounter or interact with the voice acting cast. Doesn’t happen a lot when you’re on the art side of things because you’re kind of stuck in your office or stuck in your cube doing the daily art stuff. But occasionally you cross paths with them and that’s really fun.

AL: Do you have any specific memories or experiences with interacting with the voice cast?

CJ: Yeah, I do actually. On Be Cool Scooby-Doo! we had to go to a taping for a kids cupcake bake-off show. I can’t remember the name of the show. It’s kind of odd but, any show on TV, especially animated content will do crossover things with other shows, and in this case, for this episode of this cupcake show they were doing, it was a Scooby Doo theme. So they invited as many of the cast and crew from Be Cool Scooby-Doo! to this final shoot for this cupcake bake-off and of course some of the folks there were the voice actors. So, Frank Welker was there who does Scooby and Fred, Kate Micucci was there who did Velma on Be Cool Scooby-Doo! and then Grey Griffin was there who was Daphne. They, of course, they did the voices for the kids, and it was just magic. Especially hearing Frank do Scooby, you just never forget it. It was really great.

AL: Was it on the first season that you had worked as a background designer?

CJ: Yes, I started as a background designer and then after a season of that, I got bumped up to art director.

AL: Do you have a favourite background that you had worked on?

CJ: Oh, there’s so many. ‘Cause the thing about Scooby Doo, they’re in new locations every episode, which makes it a challenge but also makes it really, really fun as a designer. Let’s see. I think some of my favourite things that I worked on were the Velma’s mind’s eye sequences which we did in every single episode where Velma will have a revelation about which direction she thinks the mystery is going, and will explain clues and stuff she’s found, or she’ll go into the history of a particular thing in the episode and we would shift the style and have a lot of fun with that, so those were always really fun. Early, early on I did, I think for the third episode of the first season, they go into a chicken themed cavern that has chicken themed decor and like temple stuff in there, pillars, all that kind of stuff. That was really fun.

Photo courtesy Cheryl Johnson,

AL: What was the atmosphere like working on the show?

CJ: It was an interesting experience for sure. The show, like most shows in animation, had its growing pains. There’s a saying that every show has like the first season bump or first season growing pains where it has to figure out what it wants to be, how things are going to be structured, and what’s the pipeline going to be like. So, that was definitely a hurdle for the whole crew but once we got past that, things went a little bit smoother. But overall it’s an exciting property to be a part of because the characters are always in different situations, they’re always in new locations, so that comes with a lot of challenges but it also comes with a lot of creativity.

AL: Can you describe a typical day at work for Be Cool, maybe once for a background designer, and once for an art director?

CJ: A typical day at work for a background designer, you go in, you’ve got a whole list of designs that you need to do for an episode and that’s what you primarily spend your time on. You sit down at the computer, we all work digitally these days. And you draw away. On a good day, I could probably knock out three backgrounds on Be Cool Scooby-Doo! as a background designer. And after that you would submit them, they would go to the art director to give notes, they would go to the episodic director to give notes. The kinds of things they would be looking for is “Does this match the style, do we have everything we need in this background.” For instance if there’s a door that opens on one side of the room, do we have that door open and closed. Is there enough room for the characters to move around in and act in. And then after that it either gets notes and you hit those, or it gets approved and you move on to the next one.

An art director, it’s much more complicated. There’s a lot more moving parts as an art director. The biggest focus for me each day would be to keep the designs moving. So I would look at all the designs that I had to review each day – characters, props, backgrounds, colour. Give notes or approve things and move them on to the next person in the pipeline. I would check in with the artists daily, see how they’re doing, making sure they’ve got everything they need to hit their deadlines. Communicate that information with production staff. Meet with directors, showrunners, whoever I needed to, to make sure that they’re reviewing designs and that I’m implementing their notes. Yeah, that’s pretty much a day in the life of an art director.

AL: For a background designer, how many backgrounds would you typically need for one episode?

CJ: For one episode of Scooby we were averaging probably I want to say, anywhere between 60 and 70 backgrounds an episode. And these are 22 minute episodes, and we designed only key backgrounds here in the States. The rest of the backgrounds were drawn by our animation studios, and in this case, there were two. There was one in Korea and there was one in the Philippines. So we would try to give those studios as much information as we could for each new location that the characters visited throughout an episode. And it would be up to them to do kind of the small hook-up backgrounds like for instance, we would do a wide of a foyer to a haunted mansion. But if we cut to a shot and we see the floor, we’re not going to do that background, we’ll let them do that based off of the large key that we gave them. 

AL: What’s a typical timeline for one episode, how long do you have to get all the designs done and everything?

CJ: Typically we had two weeks for black and white, so that would be our background designers, our character designers and our prop designer. And then we would have two weeks for colour as well. So, background painters and our colour designer. Usually on Scooby Doo, episodes didn’t overlap. So that meant that they had a dedicated two weeks each department, the colour and black and white departments, to get everything done. And it was, it sounds like a lot of time, but frequently we were right up against those deadlines. 

AL: What were some of your favourite moments working on the show?

CJ: I think some of my favourite moments was definitely my brief interaction with Frank doing the voice of Scooby, I’ll never forget that. Oh, it’s been a while since I’ve been on the show so like super, super specific stuff I can’t remember super well. But I thoroughly enjoyed working with our production staff, they’re just such a hoot. It’s really important for an art director to have a good relationship with the production staff, because like I said, they manage schedule, they manage money. If they’re happy, you’re happy, vice versa. So I had a great relationship with them and enjoyed working with them all the time. Let’s see. There was one potluck we did and I brought in Scooby snacks as a treat. So I made these cute little dog bone shaped cookies with chocolate pudding to dip in, it was very good.

Photo courtesy Cheryl Johnson,

AL: Do you have a favourite episode at all?

CJ: Favourite episodes… oh, I love the one in the second season where they go back to Ancient Greece. The whole episode takes place in Ancient Greece. That one was really fun to work on and it was fun to watch. There’s one called, I think it’s called Gremlin on a Plane which was really kind of an oddball one in the first season but I thought that one was pretty funny. For the finale of season 2, if I’m remembering right I think it was a two-part long episode where we learn about Fred’s rivalry with another character, I think we learn about Fred’s past. It really does a deep dive into some of the characters that I hadn’t seen in other seasons of Scooby Doo, that one was really fun too.

AL: Do you have a favourite villain or ghost?

CJ: I’m very partial to animals, so any time there was a giant animal chasing them around I was pretty happy. So there was an episode with a big scary rabbit that was like a magician themed one, that one was great. The werewolf episode was super fun, and they were being chased around by a giant gorilla in a retirement home where Shaggy’s grandma was living, also really fun.

AL: What is it like to work on a show where they’re always in a different place and there’s so many different themes and storylines going on?

CJ: It’s complicated. It’s a lot to manage and it’s a lot to think of every episode. You’re constantly on your toes. In a more typical animated show you can rely on what’s called stock locations or stock props or stock characters, which means you can always kind of go back to those and expand it. With Scooby Doo, you can’t do that. The only place they’re going to be in all the time is the Mystery Machine. So other than that, you’re constantly making up new things. You’re making up new haunted houses, museums, I think we went to space in one episode, it’s all over the place. So it’s a lot to design, but it means that you can constantly be creative and have a lot of fun, and really push the boundaries of the show. Each time they come up with a new version of Scooby Doo the artists have an opportunity to explore even further. Some things that don’t change of course are like the colours of the Mystery Machine, colours of the characters, the main cast of characters. But the backgrounds can change quite a bit because of all the new locations they go to. They just always have to be spooky, that’s the number one thing with all the backgrounds.

AL: What are some of the challenges of working on a Scooby Doo show specifically?

CJ: I think just as you mentioned, it’s that they’re constantly in new locations. That makes it tough for the design team just because it means there’s a lot of work to do. And then I think in terms of writing, there’ve been so many Scooby Doo shows, there’ve been so many Scooby Doo episodes, so one of the big challenges is how do you keep it fresh without departing too much from what people know Scooby Doo to be. You take it a little bit too far, the Internet will come after you. We found that out on Be Cool Scooby-Doo!, that’s for sure. ‘Cause it’s a pretty different iteration of Scooby Doo, especially in terms of the way the characters look. Not everybody on the Internet was super happy with those decisions. But hey, you know, we’re trying to do new stuff and explore this beloved property that everybody knows so well.

AL: Going off of that, what was it like to help develop a completely new look for Scooby Doo?

CJ: Oh it was fun, it was really, really fun. It meant that, because I was on it so early on, I could put my own creative spin on it. The first art director Richard Lee was really open to that, and so was our showrunner Zac Moncrief. Everybody was really collaborative in that way. Yeah, it was fun. Really fun.

Photo courtesy Cheryl Johnson,

AL: And what was it like to have a lot of people on the Internet coming after the show you were working on?

CJ: I always find that to be kind of amusing. No matter what show I’ve been on, I’ll usually scour the Internet for YouTube comments or Twitter mentions or whatever at least once to see what people are saying, good and bad. I think everybody on the show interprets that a little bit differently. At the end of the day, some people are going to love it, some people aren’t, some people are going to be in the middle. I found that anybody who actually took the time to watch Be Cool Scooby-Doo!, once they got over the shock of the way the characters looked, were very, very pleased and thought the show was really funny. 

AL: There are a lot of people that refuse to try it because of the art style, what would you say to those people?

CJ: I would say go back and give it another chance. Go to YouTube, look up like a compilation of the best of moments from Be Cool Scooby-Doo!, and I think you would be pleasantly surprised. I think one of the things that Be Cool Scooby-Doo! did the best was really fleshing out Daphne as a character. She’s hilarious. She’s the wildcard of the bunch, she’s always up to crazy antics, it’s great. There’s a whole episode where she tries to be Fred the entire episode, how could you not like that?

AL: Because of a lot of the feedback and everything, the show maybe didn’t get to run as long as it should’ve. How many seasons would you have liked to have seen the show go on for?

CJ: I think we had one more solid, solid season under our belt. ‘Cause we were really starting to do some exciting stuff there at the end. Like expanding who each character is, going into Fred’s past, that kind of stuff. So, I think if the show would have gone one more season we could’ve taken that even further. Which would’ve been really, really fun.

AL: Was there any talk of doing another season or did it get cancelled while you were still working on the second one?

CJ: I don’t know, that’s kind of out of my purview as an art director. I do know that we were told we wouldn’t get another season about, I think we were maybe two-thirds of the way finished with that second season. Which is about normal for when they’ll let you know if you’re going to get another season or not in animation. It definitely didn’t come at us at the very end, we kind of knew it was coming.

AL: Why do you think that a show about a mystery solving dog has held up for over 50 years now?

CJ: That’s a really great question, and I think so many people wonder this. I think it’s because Scooby Doo himself is just such a lovable character. He’s the first talking dog character we’ve seen, and he’s influenced other characters since. Like if you look at Doug in Up, we wouldn’t have Doug if we didn’t have Scooby Doo. Scooby Doo is the dog’s brain personified. It’s hilarious. Everybody wants to know what their dog is thinking, and I think Scooby was the first, first of that kind ever on the screen. And I think another reason that Scooby’s so popular is that you can relate to all the different characters because they’re all slightly different from each other. So Fred’s the leader of the group, kind of like a lovable jock type, Velma is of course really, really smart. And Scooby and Shaggy are your goofy, cowardly friends but at the end of the day, when it came down to it, you know they’d always be there. They’ve always got each other’s back, and they’ve got the gang’s back. Daphne, to me, she’s like the least developed character. She’s mostly just a pretty girl it seems like. But they also call her, what is it, danger prone Daphne, I think in some seasons. But anyways, I feel like that cast of characters is relatable to a lot of folks. I think people love the mystery genre too. Everybody loves a good whodunit. And then of course the voice acting throughout the various iterations of Scooby Doo has been awesome too, everybody knows what you mean when you say “Jinkies” or “Zoinks” or “You meddling kids.”

AL: What was it like to be able to come work on a project with characters that are that iconic? 

CJ: It was great. Whenever I would go home and visit family, I never had to explain what I was working on, because everybody already knows Scooby Doo. I felt really honoured to be able to put my stamp on a property that’s so beloved and everybody knows so well.

AL: Is there anything else that you wanted to add at all?

CJ: I don’t think so. I’d work on Scooby Doo again, I’m sure it’ll come my way again. They’ll never stop making Scooby Doo, ever.

AL: If you were to work on another Scooby project would you want it to be something out there like Be Cool or would you maybe want to try a more classic iteration?

CJ: Oh I’d want it to be out there like Be Cool. I definitely would rather work on something that looks a little bit different from the classic Scooby Doo.

AL: Just before we end, do you have any recent projects you’d like to promote at all?

CJ: Sure, yeah, the one that I’m working on right now just got announced. I’m working on Baby Shark for Nickelodeon. We’ll have our first episode out this Christmas, you should check it out! It’s pretty adorable.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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