Interview: Unleashing Animated Friends Old & New with Butch Hartman
If you were a kid coming of age in the late 1990s/early 2000s, then Butch Hartman’s work was an essential part of your entertainment diet. Between the perennial classic The Fairly OddParents (still releasing new episodes after sixteen years!), the fan favorite Danny Phantom, and the wildly absurd T.U.F.F. Puppy, Hartman’s work has occupied a critical space in contemporary animation. On the eve of the release of his latest cartoon for Nickelodeon, Bunsen Is A Beast, the COMICS BEAT sat down with Hartman to discuss his new show, storytelling influences, his recent experiments with social media and YouTube, and the areas of his career that are the most meaningful.
Hi Butch! What is going on in your world? You have your new Nickelodeon series, Bunsen is a Beast, new episodes of Fairly OddParents, you have your ongoing YouTube series, you have some upcoming comics projects… You have so much going on! How are things?
I’ve had a lot of dreams my whole life. Lately, I’ve been able to dip my toe into each one of them: I’ve always wanted to make my own cartoon series, and now I’ve just started my fourth one. I was able to sell a comic book about a year ago with a good friend of mine Jordan B. Gorfinkel [ed. note – past editor of Birds of Prey] for Lion Forge called the 3 o’Clock Club. Now I’m working on my YouTube channel (just passed 100,000 subscribers!). I’ve been really getting into social media lately. I have my Noog Network, which is my app on the iPhone store. That’s going strong. We’re still improving on that and adding more stuff to it.
And yeah, I like doing all kinds of stuff and just keeping myself busy all the time.
What was the inspiration behind your newest cartoon Bunsen Is A Beast? How did that idea come about?
It’s a show about fitting in. A lot of us feel insecure when we’re in school. And this show shows that no matter who you are, you can always find a place to fit in. I don’t want to smash the kids who watch the show over the head with that message. We always aim for comedy first, but that’s the underlying theme of the show. I mean here’s a beast, a little beast, and he’s not even the worst beast in the school. Sometimes the humans are worse than he is….
We started making Bunsen about a year ago. Prior to that, for about three years, I had this one drawing in my office at Nickelodeon. It was a drawing of a little boy facing a little monster. It kinda looked like something out of a children’s book. I always keep ideas in my office, just in case one of the execs drops by and says “What’s that?” The head of Nickelodeon at the time, Russell Hicks, came by and saw the drawing and said, “That looks great. What is that?” And I said it’s “Bunsen is a Beast. It’s about the first beast to ever go to human school.” And he said, “Well, let’s get working on that.” That was probably back in 2013.
Something that struck me about Bunsen, and tell me if this is going too far, is that it seemed it could be seen as a show about accepting and befriending refugees. I mean… Bunsen is the first beast to attend a human school, he’s different than all his peers, but he’s acclimating to this new culture as, say, a modern American kid. Was this bit of social commentary intentional as you developed the show?
A little bit. The main thing was to work out a way for Bunsen to meet his (human) pal Mikey. How did these two meet? The other underlying aspect of the show that I love is that it’s about two different kids from two completely different worlds learning about each other: Mikey learns about the beast world and Bunsen learns about the human world.
Were there any comic book influences on Bunsen? Whether in the design aesthetic or the approach to its storytelling?
A lot of my designs were influenced (and a lot of people don’t know this) by the Harvey Comics I read growing up. Richie Rich, Little Lotta, Stumbo the Giant, Hot Stuff the Little Devil, Casper the Friendly Ghost… I was very into that stuff. Not that I think about it all the time—I probably haven’t opened a Harvey comic in thirty years—but I definitely learned how to draw from those comics. A lot of their influence filters into my work.
For the design for Bunsen and the whole show, I had to really move away from my regular style. I had to really reinvent myself for this show. I didn’t think Nickelodeon wanted the same kind of show that I had done before. They didn’t want the same thing. You have to keep reinventing yourself to stay with the times, to stay relevant, to challenge yourself.
And staying on that theme, Bunsen is your first Flash animated show, whereas all your other shows were traditionally animated. What was it like making that switch?
It was very easy actually. The only challenging thing about Flash was that, because our schedule was so quick, we were a teeny bit limited in what we could write. We couldn’t do anything too extravagant. For example, we couldn’t do a lot of costume changes and stuff of that nature because that would require different rigs and different builds. Whereas in Fairly OddParents, I could just draw Timmy Turner in a different costume. This show has been done on a tighter schedule and just little bit more limited in the writing, but we’re still having a great time. We find ways to be funny, even with the limitations that we have.
How long have you been experimenting with the YouTube channel? It’s been several months since you’ve launched it. What have you experienced in terms of interacting with fans all over the world as well as just doing cool stuff?
I started the YouTube channel about 14-15 months ago, and initially, it was just a channel to answer people’s questions or answer their comments. Then I started seeing which videos did the best and started leaning towards making those particular types of videos. I learned that people really love the process of animation; they don’t really get to see it very often. Or, if one of my shows has gone out of production, then viewers like to see what I would have done had I extended it. For example, I did a video about my show Danny Phantom, where I imagined what the characters would look like and where they would be ten years later. That video got a million views! It was so cool because the audience really responded to the idea of well, “Here’s what I would have done had we gone on.” There’s been a lot of love for the things that I’ve done [from fans] and I really appreciate it. It’s just another way to get in touch with the fans, and keep them excited and interested.
Plus, I really love doing it and it’s a lot of fun. I think I’m a performer at heart and I love interacting with the fans. When I saw that the response was positive, we just kept going.
Besides Bunsen, you’re still working on new Fairly OddParents episodes and that show’s been on since 2001. Actually, even before because it used to be featured on Oh Yeah! Cartoons…
It first came out as a cartoon in 1998. And then it launched as its own series in March 2001.
Cosmo & Wanda are up to their old tricks on The Fairly Oddparents! Courtesy of Butch Hartman & Nickelodeon
How does it feel that it’s still going strong? You still have new episodes coming out, and there was a recent all-weekend marathon of the show on Nickelodeon.
The show is now on Nicktoons [a sister network of Nickelodeon] and we’re excited about that. I’m excited that the show is still running after fifteen years. We have a whole bunch of episodes that just started airing. I’m also excited for the kids who weren’t even born when the show first came out can experience it.
It’s funny, because when I pitched this interview to Alex Lu, Managing Editor of the Beat, he responded by saying how much he loved Fairly OddParents growing up.
That’s awesome! Tell him I’m glad that my plan for world domination is working! [Laughs]
I wanted to chat briefly on something that I’ve noticed on your social media in recent months, which is your move towards experimenting with watercolor paintings of nature, especially birds. What does it mean for you, as a creator of cartoons (and just as an artist generally), to explore the possibilities of social media as a means of disseminating different types of art?
I always want to grow as an artist. And I think what every artist wants is an instant reaction to their work. They want to see if people like it. I only started painting these watercolors very recently. I thought I would start painting birds because they lend themselves so well to painting: they’re so colorful, they’re all different, and they all have amazing markings.
If you’re not a painter (and I didn’t consider myself a painter), once you complete a painting, you wonder if this is actually a good painting. So you say to yourself: “I know! I’ll just put it online to see what they say about it!” For me, it’s a good way to test if people are responding to your work. Back in the old days, you’d have to get a gallery show, rent the space, hang your work on someone’s wall. Who has the time to do that anymore? As much fun as it is to paint, you want to see if people like it. It’s encouraging to hear some positive feedback. So, I really did it because I’m searching for constant approval of my work! [Laughs].
Moving away from the from the entertainment material, do you have a moment to talk about Hartman House, your non-profit organization? How would you describe the purpose of Hartman House? And what does that work mean to you, as perhaps, as a complement to your day job as a cartoon creator?
To be honest with you, Hartman House is the reason I do the work for the most part. My cartoon work, my art work, all the stuff I do in entertainment is wonderful and it is my life; I love it. But the great thing is that now we have the avenue to give back through the work of Hartman House. We give kids scholarships, we help build homes in different countries, we support several orphanages. To give you one example, there’s a great charity we started supporting about a year and a half ago called Watersprings Ranch in Texarkana, AR. They take in abused children. They have several houses on their ranch, you know, one for girls ages 3-5, one for kids 11-13. All the houses have house parents who live with these kids. It’s just one example of what Hartman House supports.
What’s next for you?
The main passion for me is the Noog Network, my app. We’re adding new programming, new cartoons, and live action shows all the time. Right now, we’re adding more to the Noog world to give kids more to do when they visit. That is my main focus right now, because I want to make that app the next big kid’s channel. We will keep that moving forward as much as we can!
Thank you so much for chatting with me!
Bunsen is a Beast premieres on Nickelodeon USA Tuesday, February 21, at 5:30PM (ET/PT). Visit Nick.com, Facebook, Instagram and the Nick App to learn more about Bunsen is a Beast. A sneak peek will air on Monday, Feb. 20, at 7:30 p.m. (ET/PT) on Nickelodeon, and a full-length episode is currently available on Nick.com, Nick On Demand, and the Nick App, available for download on iOS, Apple TV, Roku, Android, and Android TV.
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