We’ve landed an exclusive interview with painter and animation director/creator/musician Chris Reccardi. Matt Holdaway discusses Reccardi’s upcoming solo shows at M Modern gallery (“Cosmodelic”), Limited Addiction and Seattle’s Roq La Rue. They also chat about his story boarding work on Rob Zombie’s upcoming “The Haunted World of El Super-Beasto” and his prior work on Ren and Stimpy as well as his three upcoming animation pilotss. We also discover Chris’ mod pop musical side and discover that he’s scored several popular animations. Check out Matt’s in-depth interview with the artist and see a few behind the scene’s of Reccardi’s cat fighting world. (This is a three page interview, be sure to click the next page to continue at the bottom of each scroll.)
If you have enjoyed an American cartoon in the past 20 years or so, chances are you have enjoyed the work of Chris Reccardi. Ren & Stimpy, Power Puff Girls, Samurai Jack, Sponge Bob Square Pants, Shrek the 3rd, Cow and Chicken, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends and more all have his thumbprints on them.Beyond his animation work, Reccardi’s paintings have been in solo and group shows at the M Modern and the Limited Addiction Gallery. He recently wrapped up a show at Roq La Rue Gallery in Seattle and has an upcoming show on November 1st at M Modern in Palm Springs. His style is a smooth blend of Mod and Sci-Fi, opening portals to far away worlds and yet is still familiar.
Riccardi is currently working on a solo album and has scored multiple cartoons.
I had a chance to catch up with Chris and here are some excerpts from our conversation:
MH- Let’s talk about your paintings and upcoming shows. What was your motivation to begin displaying your paintings?
CR- I started in 2000 with the “Burning Brush” art auctions. When that ended, I was asked by Jay Nailor at M Modern and I didn’t say no. I didn’t intend to keep it up, but people keep buying the stuff, so many thanks to you whoever you are.
MH- What themes do you enjoy exploring within your paintings?
CR- Right now mostly just strong design and appealing color. Fictitious musical instruments, vehicles, and of course the female form. I generally tend to come up with stuff that I wish existed, but doesn’t. like a Steam-Powered computer. It wouldn’t have to run on coal either. But I guess some things are too ahead of their time.
MH- Do you have a theme for your upcoming M Modern show “Cosmodelic”?
CR- In general, it’s dedicated to Music and some favorite songs of mine that have strong visual or social themes. But themes can get too confining, so some of the new stuff is just stream-of-consciousness.
MH-How has Lynne Naylor influenced your work?
CR- This’ll be hard to keep short. If you have someone that talented in your life, the influence is unavoidable. It’s like if Brian Wilson lived with me, I would probably end up writing songs (hopefully) that sound a little bit like “Pet Sounds”. She is an incredible draughts person (or “drawer” if you’re from Long Island) and the unequaled master of drawing females. Her sense of design is unmatched and the way she has developed her own approach to applying it to the female form is genius. Her girls exude pure sensuality and innocence at the same time. She can also draw funnier than hell, and has drawn some of the manliest muscle men I’ve ever seen. But as importantly, she has introduced my ignorant ass to the work of some great artists: Eyvind Earle, Richard Powers, the Provensons, who have been a huge influence.
MH- Much like your animation work, your art is current, however there is a classic feel or at least classical aspects to your paintings. Which artists have been influences on your work?
CR- All of the above, and most recently David Weidman who I am absolutely addicted to. When I was growing up it was Roger Dean.
MH- How did you first get involved in animation?
CR- I came to L.A. because I was hoping that my sister’s husband (Disney Animator Chuck Harvey) could help me get into the business. I was never an animation geek (outside of early Fleischer Popeye, which were just cool to watch stoned) and didn’t go to art school, so even with Chuck’s leads, I couldn’t get hired anywhere. But I persisted, because anything is better than a $4.50 an hour stock room or warehouse job. My first real in-house animation job was when John Kicfalusi, who was producing “The New Beany and Cecil show” at D.I.C. decided to give me a chance as a layout artist. My drawings were pretty lousy, but they needed new people badly. “Roger Rabbit ” came out that summer and a sort of renaissance in the animation biz happened after that. Mostly because some execs figured that you can make real money off of the shit.
Chris Reccardi’s studio
MH- Are there animation elements you like to work into your paintings?
CR- I suppose the composition, depth and design is unavoidably influenced by years of storyboarding, layout and character design in animation but most importantly, simplicity in design which is crucial in storyboarding—how well something reads from a distance, as if it were on a small TV screen—-that’s how I try to approach each piece. If it doesn’t read as a 1 inch drawing, it ain’t gonna make a difference as a 4-foot painting with gorgeous colors. That tends to work in any painting style.
MH- Which current artists work do you appreciate?
CR- I like Chris Mars, because his work exudes pure misery, and he can paint real well. Glenn Barr is another Bastard (a highest NY compliment).
MH- How did you approach your first solo show?
CR- I waited until the last minute and tried to finish on time. Oh, you mean artistically? I tried to keep it simple. I did what I always do, draw a bunch of shit in a sketchbook for months and pull the best stuff, and then work the color out in Photoshop first—which saves wasting paint. But I’m doing less and less planning nowadays, more straight painting.
MH- Do you notice a different type of response and reaction from people to your work between animation and painting?
CR- The people who come to art galleries smell better. Unless they work in Animation. There’s some crossover in fine art and animation taste, but gratefully, many of my collectors are mid-century modern homeowners who are looking to embellish their living space, which I am honored to participate in.
MH- There are currently many artists approaching painting from a direction near yours, yet your work always feels unique. How do you avoid being cliché?
CR- You mean, it isn’t cliché? Wow. Well I try to invent stuff instead of copy it, but a Rickenbacker 4001 bass is too damned cool to ignore.
MH- Your work is very fun and playful. Are you ever tempted to create more sinister work?
CR- Not for the sake of it. That doesn’t naturally lend itself to painting for me. I had enough of it in my childhood, so I don’t have the urge to relive it on canvas. I get a lot of that out in animation. But there’s a piece or two in the next show that can probably be considered “unpretty,” on a content level, that is. MH- Which cartoon has been your favorite to work on?
CR- Certainly one of the most interesting projects to come my way, was storyboarding for Rob Zombie’s upcoming animated feature “The Haunted World of El Super-Beasto” which had an all-star crew of industry heavy-hitters. My assignment was to storyboard a super-violent and sex-ploitative girl fight between the film’s two female main characters. Naturally, I turned to YouTube for reference, and once again my innocent and naive mind was stunned at the sheer volume of “Cat Fight” material available. Anyway, it was a unique project because I had to reference alot of girl fight and porn stuff, which you usually don’t get paid to do, and then intelligently plan and stage twelve-15 minutes of high-action from a script that might as well have been written by a 14-year-old boy. But it was just raw, immature guy fun. I hope they make a sequel…. with live models this time. And beer.
Reccardi Storyboards for Zombie’s “…El Super-Beasto” catfight scene
MH- Which animation show was the most rewarding and why?
CR-I would have to say Ren & Stimpy. But rewarding like getting ten root canals, and then growing new super-teeth later. There was the torture in the beginning of being young, inexperienced (and lousy) and trying to learn under an emotionally disturbed genius (John K.), and later directing shows (at Games) and staying up all night doing everything myself because the talent was spread too thin and new talent was scarce. The rewards came later, in the form of improved drawing skills and the personal stylistic discoveries that can only come from the experience of working on such a creative show.
animation development screen shot
MH- Are there cartoons you have worked on that you felt you were able to fully exhibit your personal style?
CR- Yes, the few pilots I’ve created, but there really is no “one” style—it’s whatever the show demands. As far as the series I’ve worked on, I’ve tried foremost to realize the style of the show and its creator. Doing this for many years has not weakened my own style, it has strengthened it by making me adapt to new styles and influences. Too many punks these days come into a trade and want to show everyone how great they are. They may have talent, but you can’t beat the experience of doing something for years and absorbing new influences. I still believe in the old-school Zen approach: to have humility and apprentice under a master—then one day you will BE a master.
MH-Which show gave you the most freedom?
CR- Again, Ren & Stimpy. Firstly, In the form of content, since you can’t really do some of that subject matter nowadays, and secondly we were able to have a lot of creative control—Me and Mike Kim, Tom McGrath, Lynne Naylor—we were able to storyboard, animate, do voices and even music. But Samurai Jack and Spongebob also gave a lot of freedom to write and come up with crazy shit.
MH- Many of the cartoons you have worked on, while definitely modern, have a classic feel. Are there specific classic cartoons you pay homage to or styles you like to incorporate?
CR- I don’t know if it’s a conscious thing because if you love something you absorb it and it comes out in your own work. But the different types of shows I’ve worked on naturally draw on many influences, such as Samurai Jack (Miyazaki, Anime), Powerpuff Girls (various U.P.A. cartoons, 60’s Japan) Ren & Stimpy (Bob Clampett cartoons, Hanna Barbera), and the pilot Lynne Naylor and I did The Modifyers (Hans Eidelman, Ronald Searle).
MH- Are there specific writers you enjoy working with?
CR- You’re opening up a can of worms, and I’ll try to keep it brief. With the exception of a couple of guys who write outlines for Spongebob, I despise most animation “writers”. They are a big reason why most modern cartoons suck. TV bosses love writers because their shit is lame, generic, unfunny and unimaginative enough that a typical executive can understand it.
The best “writers” I’ve worked with are Cartoonists. Really talented ones, guys who are kind of fucked up and unordinary. Bob Camp, John Kricfalusi, Aaron Springer, Mike Mitchell, Dave Smith. Guys like us come up with a simple outline and add gags, character and even plot elements freely without the limitations of a script. If you’re a talented and funny cartoonist you can write, you can draw what you write, and you can make it funny and you know the medium, so you write stuff that takes advantage of it rather than mimicking bad sitcoms. This requires a very talented cartoonist to do effectively, one with a director’s vision and these are few.
Obviously, the craft of writing has its importance, especially wording things effectively so that the reader, whether an executive or artist, will get the points clearly. And shows like The Simpsons and South Park are obviously funny and well written, but they are different products than what I’m talking about—stuff that’s hilarious, visually sophisticated and unpredictable, like early Popeyes, a handful of Bob Clampett cartoons, and Ren & Stimpy. Most of these shows were written with a group of funny cartoonists, and then turned into an outline by a staff writer whose job is to organize and structuralize the story. That’s it. Fortunately Cartoon Network is attracting a whole new generation of funny/talented cartoonists with the new Cartoonstitute Shorts program. I hope that this new breed of cartoons will prove how much more entertaining Cartoonist-written shows will be. There, you asked.
I’m So Sorry Madelaine H.
MH – Are there specific Cartoonists you enjoy working with?
CR- (deep breath) Aaron Springer, Craig Kellman, Charlie Bean, Don Shank, Genddy Tartakovsky, Craig McCracken, Paul Rudish, Lynne Naylor, Justin Thompson, Carey Yost. I’m sure I left some out. Bob Camp was one of my favorites – one of the funniest and most intelligent guys I ever knew. Of course, by the end of Ren & Stimpy we couldn’t stand each other. All of these people are brilliant in many ways and each have a unique style.
MH- If a young artist would like to become a storyboard artist, what preparations could they make?
CR- The truth is, from my experience, they either got it or they don’t. The guys who kick ass at it are natural storytellers, and they’ve usually been drawing some kind of funny shit since childhood. My grade-school art includes lots of comics which were just dirty or violent little pieces to escape the horrors—and mediocrity of reality. If you’re a youngster and you HAVE got it, you can benefit greatly by acquiring copies of great storyboards, and work by great cartoonists (I was told to study Harvey Kurtzman early on) and then doing a storyboard of your own—make some shit up— then seek out a talented professional (see above names) to show your stuff to. If they tell you you’re good, or have potential, then ask for some kind of job, if they haven’t already offered it. If they tell you you’re NOT good, do yourself a favor and believe them. There’s plenty of other jobs in life to excel at—some are even more rewarding, like being a porn producer, or feeding the poor.
For storyboard, I wouldn’t waste a single dime on art school. Unless you just want to go there to party and get laid, which again you should be able to achieve without actually enrolling. Believe me, the guys that SHOULD be teaching storyboard are too busy making funny cartoons to take a teaching job at a fraction of their animation industry salary, so seek them out instead.
MH -The timing of your work is amazing. Does it come naturally for you to think in such terms or are there tools you use to help yourself achieve this?
CR- It’s just a case of knowing what you want – you know, timing a specific joke or action to achieve the emotional impact to want on an audience. The drawings play a large part. You can have the slickest timing in the world, and if the drawings don’t support it either by not being broad (or subtle) enough, it won’t work.
MH- Is there an animation project you worked on that surprised you with its popularity? Is there one that didn’t do as well as you thought it would?
CR- Well Ren & Stimpy again, because I was on it from the start of the series, and I honestly thought we would all be fired and no one would get it. It first struck me when John and the crew were invited to do a signing at Golden Apple (in Hollywood) and when I showed up, the line stretched for about 3 blocks. Later, that year my sister calls me up and tells me her and her Wall Street cronies stay up after partying all night just to watch Ren & Stimpy on Saturday morning stoned. I heard – Samurai Jack didn’t do as well as expected, which surprised me because of the talent on the show, and its originality. But perhaps it appealed to mostly boys which is only half the demographic. It’s a shame because aside from being a beautiful show, there were some truly funny episodes, especially ones I wrote and boarded with Aaron Springer.
MH- Many of your works are with characters and settings that were originally exclusive to cartoons. Are there any characters or stories you would like to see imported into the cartoon medium? CR- Well yes, except it never seems to turn out as well as the original medium no matter how well done. If it could be done right, anything by Roald Dahl, and Edgar Allen Poe. The best adaptation I’ve ever seen is U.P.A’s of “The Telltale Heart”. (For those of you who’ve never seen it, it’s included in the special features portion of the Hellboy DVD, for some reason.)
MH-Do you watch cartoons for fun?
CR- Yes, CNN news. Very silly stuff on there. My favorite is the Iraq War. Except it’s not funny, and Smurfs is written so much more believably.
MH-If you are able, would you like to talk about your upcoming animations?
CR-I’d love to, but I guess I can’t give details until it’s in the can. I’ve been brought in house at Cartoon Network as part of a new artist-driven development program called The Cartoonstitute. I’ll be creating and producing three original pilots over the next 18 months, with the intention of picking one to go to series. The first pilot is in preproduction and will be going to Animation soon. It’s called Meddlen Meddows and started out as nothing more than two weird character drawings 12 years ago. I hope it attracts the “stoner” demographic, which whether any one in TV wants to admit or not is a huge part of the ratings. “Cartoonstitute” is a very unique program, and unprecedented. I owe a lot of thanks to Craig McCracken (Powerpuff Girls, Foster’s creator) and Rob Renzetti who spearheaded the whole idea and brought it to Rob Sorcher, the new Chief of Content at Cartoon Network, who totally made it happen.
MH-Which cartoon did you work on push you past your boundaries? What did you learn?
CR- Well, these pilots I’ve done are excruciating because you have to conceive, draw and produce something that has no “always” yet to fall back on, so your ass is on the line. It’s harder to be funny with my own characters, because I don’t really know them well yet. I scored and performed all of the music on The Modifyers (Nickelodeon), which was about the hardest job I’ve ever done. Of course most other composers are quicker and more experienced at it than me.
MH-Which Background Painters work do you admire?
CR-Joe Holt, who is designing and painting the BGs for my current pilot is blowing my mind. He is a fantastic fine art painter as well. If he gets into galleries, his stuff will kill.
MH- Samurai Jack is almost infamous for no black lines around every character. Did you have an influence on that decision? Did you enjoy working in that style?
CR-I’m assuming you mean no outlines, or as we say “self-color line”. That was Genndy’s idea, who was wisely utilizing one of the advantages of digital ink & paint—the old school method required an inker to hand ink all of the outlines in the same color as the character, then paint in the character color on the opposite side of the cel. It was a lot of work and only looked good on Disney features. With digital ink and paint it’s half the work. I was not involved in the initial design for that show, and was working on a pilot, Imp, Inc, during that period.
Rue Des Mensonges
MH-I have heard that it is very difficult to make a cartoon in America. Networks are nervous to fund anything they don’t believe will lead to affiliated sales, executives are more concerned with counting beans than exploring creativity, many of the artists and writers end up being dictated to by creating via committee and the end result is often far different and much more homogenized than where things started. Is there truth to this? What could you tell us about the nature of the American animation industry?
CR- Gee. Is that a question or a statement? Well said. But it’s like any other big business in the corporate world today; it’s controlled by markets and market analysis, and the need to get the most advertising dollars from advertisers for new programming.
The sad irony is, if I’m not mistaken, that SpongeBob is like the most successful cartoon on TV, and it is an outline-written, storyboard artist -driven show about an idiot who is a sponge and his retard friend who is a starfish. It’s smart and funny as hell, and yet you could never sell a show like that to the other networks. Another untold truth is that there are some very UNtalented cartoonist/creators that have sold shows that stink and have damaged the network’s faith in the “creator-driven” system. But every few years, trends change, regimes are overthrown. We will see.
Chris Reccardi in the studio
MH- Which shows did you create the musical scores for?
CR- I scored the entire Modifyers pilot, used live drums and everything. I played upright bass on the Ren & Stimpy themes, and scored parts of “Hard Times for Haggis”, “Hermit Ren”, “A Hard Day’s Luck” and “Ren’s Brain” as well as the aforementioned “Imp, Inc.” I will probably score at least one of my new shorts. I played guitar and backing vox on “The Happy Happy Joy Joy” song which got used in a cake commercial last year. That’s where the real money is. I’m in the wrong business.
MH- Any upcoming musical projects we should know about?
I’ve been working on a solo album forever, but most recently have put together a new group Cosmopollus which started as a fun commitment to play live at Lynne (Naylor’s) recent solo show, “Arlice’s Odyssey” at M Modern in September. But since, a string of gigs have come up, so we’re rehearsing a lot, and building up a good live show.
MH- I really like your song, “Sigma Five”. Did you compose and perform that work? Is that you singing?
CR- Yes, all the instruments and vocals. All vintage keyboards I might add—a Fender Rhodes, ARP Odyssey, Arp Solina String Ensemble. We are falling over instruments at home. It’s ridiculous.
MH- I downloaded the tracks on your website. They are awesome. Is an album going to come out anytime soon?
CR- I plan on taking time off at the end of ’09 and finishing it. That’s my dream. That, and having a normal non-working weekend.
Reccardi? Yes. In all his psycho-pop glory
MH- Is there somewhere I can hear more audio tracks of yours?
CR- Call me up! I’ll be posting on my website and MySpace over the next few months here.
MH-Are you going to make animations for your music?
CR- That is another dream of mine—to be used as part of a live performance. I have one storyboarded. I just need to figure out how to not sleep at night.
MH- When doing musical scoring for cartoons, do you have to think in the same way as when storyboarding?
CR- Usually, yes. I mean, at times you want to lay low and not step on the action or mood, and other times you want to enhance it. The general rules of pacing apply, but there are exceptions to any rule. You can have a waltz over a violent beating if it’s funny and done right. It should be the director’s call, not the composer’s. But if you’re both, you can anticipate these things up front.
MH-Cartoons, music, and painting are all what you do for real. They are like the coolest things ever. How can you top it? What do you do for a hobby? Juggle chain saws? Build robot monkeys?
CR- One should know that it’s all very hard work and not always fun. But I’ve had all of the shit jobs, so I still appreciate it. To answer your question: Snowboarding, Beer.
Sixty-Six a just released print by Reccardi