The animators of Animaniacs take us inside the iconic cartoon series

Contributed by
Jan 26, 2018, 6:30 PM EST

Animaniacs is coming back! But until Hulu and Steven Spielberg can produce new episodes to air in 2020, all the original Animaniacs episodes are available on Hulu. So it's a good time to take a look back to the first Animaniacs and one small group of animators that helped make it so special.

In 1988 a little animation studio called StarToons sprouted up in the Chicago area. Jon McClenahan and his gang of StarToons animators were just beginning to realize that an animation renaissance was in the process of exploding, inspired by the Golden Age of American Animation from the '30s, '40s, and '50s. It would soon lead to work with Warner Bros. and Steven Spielberg, and to an Emmy for their work on Animaniacs.

SYFY WIRE chatted with StarToons' founder and animator Jon McClenahan, director Ron Fleischer, and storyboard and background illustrator Douglas E. Rice about their work for StarToons on Animaniacs. They all won Emmys for the work on the show.

McClenahan ran StarToons and over the 12 years it existed "produced more animation footage for television than any other American-based studio," he said. The studio began working for Warner Bros. in 1990 and did work on Tiny Toons Adventures, Taz-Mania, Histeria!, and Animaniacs. Since 2008 McClenahan has worked as a storyboard artist, animator, director, and consultant for selected boutique projects, and also taught animation courses at Flashpoint Academy and Columbia College in Chicago.

Fleischer has worked professionally in the animation industry for over 30 years, on projects that include Pinky and the Brain, Tiny Toon Adventures, The Powerpuff Girls Movie, and Liberty's Kids. His award-winning animated shorts, Lemmings and A Tooth Tale, have played to worldwide audiences in over 50 festivals; he is now working on his latest short, The Other Side. Fleischer is presently a tenured associate professor and coordinates the Traditional Animation Program at Columbia College in Chicago.

Rice is a comic book illustrator and teacher who created the monthly title Dynamo Joe for First Comics. He also freelanced for Comico, Dark Horse, DC, Marvel, Image, and Disney before moving on to TV animation at StarToons. Rice did storyboarding and background layouts for Animaniacs. He is presently teaching at Columbia College in Chicago.

The StarToons vets talked to SYFY WIRE exclusively about their experiences with Animaniacs, about their golden age of animation, and about that Emmy.

How did StarToons get started?

McClenahan: In 1988, after I had returned to my hometown, Chicago, from Australia, where I got my start in animation, I started my own little animation "studio," StarToons, consisting of me and an assistant and my wife, Chris, who worked for free. Chicago wasn't really buzzing with animation work.

Rice: Here in Homewood, Illinois, it was like the biggest secret in town that there was an animation studio right here in town that nobody knew about. There was a very small sign on the door that said StarToons, but no explanation as to what it was. And we would come and go and do animation work.

Fleischer: StarToons was the only animation studio in the United States that was actually doing half-hour animation, because all of the other shows were being sent overseas to Korea or the Philippines or Japan, or wherever they were going at the time. So our studio was doing hand-drawn animation rather than the preproduction being sent overseas and let them do it there. Warner Bros. kind of used us as a boutique house so certain cultural references wouldn't get lost in translation, and we could do a much better job than some of these overseas studios were doing.

How did you get involved in Animaniacs?

McClenahan: In 1990 I'd been able to get some freelance animation work on Tiny Toons for a Canadian studio, Kennedy Cartoons, still working from Chicago. But then after the first season, Kennedy had a falling out with Warner Bros. and started doing work for Disney.

Jon McClenahan and Ron Fleischer of StarToons

Jon McClenahan and Ron Fleischer of StarToons

My drawing style has always been a little wild, and I knew it wouldn't be a good fit with Disney, so I decided to go kind of "cap in hand" to the Warner Bros. offices in Sherman Oaks. Me, Ron Fleischer, and another fella. After a couple fruitless interviews we were fortunate enough to bump into Tom Ruegger in the elevator on the way out. I didn't know him and he didn't know me, but he overheard us talking, and so he asked us who we were.

I said, "We're from a studio in Chicago, and we were hoping to get some work on Tiny Toons."

"Do you animate?" he asked.

I said, "Well, last year I did animate on Tiny Toons, I did some scenes for Kennedy Cartoons."

He asked which scenes and I told him about some of my favorite sequences, and he digs out his business card and says, "Well, I'm Tom Ruegger, and I produce Tiny Toons. Let's go back up to my office and talk some more." Extremely fortuitous.

The long and the short of it is, I started hiring and training animators, and we got some small assignments from WB, and eventually entire shows to do. Spielberg liked our stuff and, more importantly, Ruegger did too, so when they told us they were creating a new series, our little studio was put on the vendor list!

Rice: I was on staff at StarToons for the better part of a year. … We were finishing work on Taz-Mania, which was one of the earlier shows. And we were working on Tiny Toons also, another Spielberg show. And then came Animaniacs, and StarToons was going to be definitely involved in what they called "pick-up episodes."

Every season a certain number of episodes came up, and the job of StarToons was to make five or six episodes on their own so the main studio could keep up with the output. Because we were a small studio we were able to do a little bit more, with each episode having more time to play with.

What was it like to work on the show?

Fleischer: For the Tiny Toons shows I was basically a technical director. I learned how to do some timing direction, and I would deal with retakes with the overseas studios, and I would cut all of the shots together. It was without a doubt the best series I ever worked on, and it was so much fun!

McClenahan: This was the next stage of the new Silver Age of Animation. TV animation had gone through a long period of stagnation. Hanna and Barbera had pioneered the concept of "limited animation," which was an amazing innovation, but after a while, the shows started smelling bad, if you know what I mean.

Animation had been on a long downhill slope from, say, the mid-'60s through the late '80s, but now the industry was starting to show signs of life. Don Bluth had started a studio that was a breakaway from Disney, and promised to deliver high-quality films, which made a lot of animators hopeful. Then in 1988 Robert Zemeckis worked with Richard Williams to produce Who Framed Roger Rabbit and suddenly the public's appetite for good, bouncy, fun animation had been reawakened! You know, slamming into walls and hitting people with baseball bats and dropping anvils on them!

Around the same time, Bakshi and Kricsfalusi had teamed up to re-invent Mighty Mouse, and that was really a groundbreaking style for its time.

So everybody was excited! I was excited!

And then when Ruegger talked to me about Animaniacs, I was like, drooling. For this new show -- Animaniacs -- they had decided to make short cartoons featuring a rotating ensemble of characters, and they were going to be, as Ruegger said, "as long as they needed to be." This was AWESOME, because it meant a return to the fun sensibilities of the Golden Age. No more 22-minute scripts that end up having about six minutes of entertainment in them.

Animaniacs - Pinky and the Brain

Pinky and the Brain

This was a new – and yes, VERY risky – approach. Warners would have to take these finished cartoons and piece them together to make 22-minute shows for the Fox network. Luckily the WB exec-in-charge, Jean MacCurdy, was best buddies with Margaret Loesch (the Fox exec), so between the two of them, they were able to green-light the thing.

What a risk Warner Bros. took in assigning big chunks of animation to our American studio! StarToons, of course, cost a fair bit more than the other Pacific Rim studios they were using: Akom (Korea), Wang (Taiwan), and TMS (Japan).

Another thing they did: full orchestral music! This guy, Richard Stone, the composer, was like the second coming of Carl Stallings. I was allowed to attend the recording of the music for one of our first episodes, and of course it blew me away. A FULL orchestra … I dunno, 40 or 50 musicians … on one of Warner Bros.' big soundstages.

Of course, none of the logistical challenges affected me in Chicago. Our studio got to work on the cartoons they gave us, and we only communicated with Tom and his people. They would supply us with the scripts, the voices, and usually the storyboard, and we would just roll up our sleeves and start having fun.

Eventually I think Ruegger started casting our studio to do a lot of the Yakko, Wakko, and Dot shorts, plus Slappy Squirrel. Slappy has kind of become my kindred spirit. Her curmudgeonly force is strong with me.

What about for you, Doug?

Rice: I had nothing to compare it to. I was like off the street, and I was learning how to animate and do animation work. I'd done comic books for years and years and years, and aside from the fact that there were heavy deadlines that really worked in my favor, everything else was new. And I was able to apparently adapt to the Warner Bros. style of doing things.

Douglas E. Rice of StarToons

Douglas E. Rice of StarToons

It was a dream come true. I'd been wanting to work in animation since I was a child. To be in a situation where I was doing animation expectantly, I really never imagined I'd get a chance to do animation, and here I was doing it. And the show was so brilliant. Animaniacs was such a wonderful concept for a series. And when they got around to something like Pinky and the Brain ... wow! What a great idea.

How was this show special to you, beyond the Emmy, of course?

Fleischer: The thing that spoke to me, and I think a lot of us that worked on it, is that Animaniacs hearkened back to the golden age of Looney Tunes, that wacky, absurd type of humor. It was really going back to that. It was also really smart. There were a lot of cultural references just like they did in the old Warner Bros. days with Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons.

There were a lot of cultural references. There were a lot of references that would just go totally over kids' heads. It had that smart-ass sense of humor. It had Bugs Bunny smart-ass style, his attitude. The Warner Bros. were a little bit of the Marx Brothers. The Warner Bros. really plays back to some of the classic silent comedies and sound comedies from the '20s, '30s, '40s. We were obviously older than the kids who were watching it, we who were working on the show. It really had that kind of appeal to us.

To me, it was pretty much the embodiment of everything I loved in animation and its humor and everything that related to the original Warner Bros. cartoons. That was my inspiration and motivation for getting into animation. So to actually work in what's known as the Second Golden Age of Looney Tunes was pretty much a dream come true.

McClenahan: As a very young animator back in the '80s, I had studied a lot of the classic cartoons, especially Chuck Jones' work. I had scrutinized his stuff frame by frame. I was amazed to see how he and his animators had pulled off certain effects. Absolutely eye-opening innovation! Jones' crew, Clampett's crew, Freleng's crew, the WB animators of the '40s and '50s, worked in "Termite Terrace" (a small building on WB's Sunset lot), and nobody bothered them, so they were free to experiment and do whatever they thought was funny. The results speak for themselves.

So I had already kinda caught that "fever." I wanted to work unfettered. I wanted to do funny stuff and have people laugh at it, not take it into a committee of lawyers and accountants and have them tell me what their market research had suggested would be funny. You know? Animaniacs was the prescription for that fever.

What challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?

McClenahan: My biggest challenge was finding good enough animators. I was extremely fortunate to have found a lot of amazing Chicago talent, and I feel like I was able to contribute to getting their careers going.

I always said, at StarToons we produced a lot of cartoons, but we also produced a lot of talented artists.

Here are some names you can Google: Spike Brandt, Tony Cervone, Jeff Siergey, Ron Fleischer, Perry Zombolas, Doug Rice, Tammy Daniel, Mary Hanley, James Tucker. Tremendously talented people. These guys all pretty much got their start with StarToons in Chicago.

Then we had a lull in our schedule, and most of those guys left Chicago and got jobs in Los Angeles. It was sad to see them go, but they never looked back. They became what the L.A. guys called "The Chicago Mob."

When we got busy again, we had to rebuild the team. We found guys like David Pryor, John Griffin, Vince Proce, Tod Carter, Phil Gullett, TJ House, Mike Owens … the next batch of talent. They're all doing very well now too.

Animaniacs - Slappy Squirrel

Slappy and Skippy Squirrel

Finding them wasn't the only challenge. Managing a bunch of artists is generally a pain in the butt (some more than others), and I hated the managerial duties … I just wanted to ANIMATE! But after a while I realized our product was starting to suffer because I wasn't investing enough of my time in training the new kids. So I had to cut back on my animation work and spend more time training. It was a good lesson for me. By training people, I was multiplying myself. It was frustrating sometimes, but worth it in the end.

Fleischer: The deadlines were a big, big challenge. The other challenge was keeping the work consistent through all the scenes. But I think the biggest challenge of all was working with overseas studios. Just trying to communicate with them. And especially on retakes, trying to explain to them what was wrong, especially when we weren't working with digital technology for things to be easily changed. It was literall,y painting on cells and characters were coming back the wrong color or the wrong shading. There were technical issues, so just communicating what's wrong and how to fix it was very challenging at times.

Rice: When you have a primary client like Warner Bros. and all of a sudden Tom Ruegger and his group are gone and the people in charge have no interest in who you are, they don't care who you are. They want to get animation from Japan by the bushel, and that's what they're going to do. They didn't know who we were. They felt they could do it themselves. You can't blame them for that ... we had no friends in Hollywood.

What was it like winning an Emmy? How did it come about? How did you find out?

Rice: It was never mentioned in the office. We were just doing the work. I didn't know the show was even up for an Emmy (laughs).

The high point, if you want to talk about how I felt, was when after two years of working on the material Jon walked in and handed me a couple pieces of paper and said, "Congratulations," and I looked at it and it was a Certified Daytime Emmy for the work on Animaniacs. And a letter of congratulations from Tom Ruegger saying it was for the work I did in storyboarding and backgrounds. So I got a certification of my own. It was amazing.

The first thing I did, I called my mother (laughs). The poor suffering woman had always had a worry streak about artists, because they didn't have regular jobs. She was very much about the work ethic. Anyway, I called her and, "Do you know anyone in the family or anyone you ever heard of who won an Emmy Award?" She thought about it and said, "No, I don't think so." And I said, "Wrong." (laughs) Oh, was she amazed. And ever since then she became a fan of what I was doing. It really opened her eyes.

McClenahan: The Warner Bros. TV animation crew was nominated for an Emmy just about every year. But when they were nominated for the first season of Animaniacs, they were extremely generous in inviting me to New York for the awards show. I say generous because Jon McClenahan was not a full-time member of their L.A. crew, I was just a subcontractor. They had their staff directors, but they always gave me director's credit for our episodes, and apparently I had directed enough of the first season cartoons that I technically qualified to be on the directors list.

Still, they didn't have to invite me. It was just a very nice thing they did. They faxed me an invitation. I say "they." It was Tom Ruegger, I'm sure.

My wife, Chris, and I flew out to New York and got booked into one of the fancy-schmancy hotels there in Manhattan, and we met the L.A. crew members and went out to one of the cool restaurants, and then we got all dressed up in tuxedo and evening gown for the show.

There was this long parade where we had to hike through all these New York back alleys so that we would end up coming up the "red carpet" into Radio City Music Hall in a continuous flow. There were lots of stars and big TV personalities … and then here we came, and nobody had any idea who we were! Oh well. We were just glad to be there.

When we took our seats in the theater, and it was all very interesting watching people who didn't win start crying and leaving the theater, and also the winners would leave and never come back, and then Dick Clark's people would hustle in some standby audience members to fill the empty seats so their TV cameras could always show a full theater.

And then Tim Robbins got up and gave some kind of lifetime achievement award to Mr. Rogers … and then he announced the winners of the Daytime Children's Programming … and … what!? Animaniacs won!

Fleischer: I wasn't one of the main series directors. I was a director by default. So I only got to do a few episodes, but I remember we went out to New York for the Emmys dinner before the actual Emmys show, which I wasn't going to. I didn't go to the Emmys show. I was there and I got to see Tom and a bunch of other people. We had a great time. So I got an Emmy Certificate. But all the others guys that went to the show got the actual statue. So if I'd rented a tux and went to show, who knows. But it's not about the award or having a physical statue. It's nice to just be recognized. To have that over my desk and inspire my students now with the work I've done, especially now that they all grew up on it and it's coming back again.

Were you surprised?

McClenahan: I was stunned! The whole crew got up and started making their way up the center aisle toward the stage, but I was on the far end of the row, so I thought, hey, I'll go the other way. Well, I got separated from the bunch and then had to stumble over some camera cables and push some technicians out of the way, and I still couldn't get to the stairs that led up to the stage, so I ended up jumping up onto the stage and scrambling up to the group as they were getting settled. I slid into the back row and tried to hide. I'm pretty sure nobody was paying attention to me anyway, except my wife.

Animaniacs - Goodfeathers


So after Ruegger gave the acceptance speech, we were led backstage to an elevator, and we went up along with Tim Robbins and Mr. Rogers.

When the elevator doors opened, there was a table full of Emmy statuettes, and we were told to grab a statue and a form to fill out. The form was for making the nameplate that goes on the statuette; they ship that to you later.

There were reporters up there who took pictures and asked questions. Naturally I just smiled and kept my mouth shut, and let the WB people do all the talking.

Then they let us go. You can't go back to your seat in the theater because the stand-ins have taken your place, so Chris and I walk out onto Sixth Avenue, and she's in her beautiful gown and I'm in my tuxedo, and I'm carrying an Emmy Award! We're hailing a taxi and people on the street are waving and cheering for us as they drive past! It was a fantastic feeling.

All in all, a terrific experience.

How does it feel to see the show available on Hulu?

McClenahan: You know, I'm sorry to have to admit it, but nowadays I live out on a ranch in Missouri, and our internet reception is spotty at best. All this to say, we haven't been able to enjoy any of the internet streaming programs unless we go back to Chicago to visit our kids. But it's wonderful to know that there's a whole new generation of viewers who will be able to watch some of the good old shows.

Rice: There's enough episodes out there that ought to be a new audience for it. The show is worth watching. It's got a lot of class. It's awfully silly. It's really, really silly. But it has class. Especially these days, you need some silly.

Regarding the new show, where would you love to see it go? What material would you like to see it tackle?

McClenahan: I think there's a great opportunity to just have fun again! I think this country has gotten very uptight, very polarized, and people don't seem to be experiencing a lot of joy anymore. I expect if Animaniacs follows in the tradition of its original creators, it will cover a lot of politically incorrect material and just poke fun at it. There's a lot of crazy stuff going on today to poke fun at.

I expect Slappy Squirrel can be a major force in straightening out this generation. I think the new Animaniacs will need to be a little sensitive about cultural polarization. Find things that everybody can laugh at, not things that will send some viewers running to their "safe space." That said, there's still lots of stuff to play with.

I'm a little concerned that none of the original Animaniacs crew have been contacted about the new productions. I think the voice actors are in, but nobody else, as far as I know. It makes me suspect they are planning on doing the new episodes in Flash, which I think would be a tremendous mistake. Nothing against new technology, but Flash is very limited in what it can achieve, especially with TV budgets and schedules.

Personally, I would KILL to animate another Slappy cartoon!

Rice: I think enough time has passed between the series that even though they're going to be using as many of the original voices as they can, I think the writers deserve a chance to explore some new territory. ... I think the show ended too soon originally, and they left a lot of areas unexplored. ... I would like to see them boldly go where no toon has gone before (laughs).