Interview: Ren & Stimpy creator John K on his Simpsons 'couch gag' & his dislike of much of modern animation

Next month, the Encounters International Film Festival returns to Bristol for a series of film showings, talks and other events featuring a wealth of talent including Withnail & I and The Rum Diary-director Bruce Robinson, and artist and director Sam Taylor-Wood. In the Animated Encounters stream, the clear headliner is Ren & Stimpy-creator John K (aka John Kricfalusi).

The Canadian animator has recently created a 'couch gag' for The Simpsons -- the sequence in the titles that changes every episode (and that has become increasingly abstract over the years). John K is only the second ever outsider to create a sequence -- the first was, controversially, Banksy (you can watch his sequence here). We caught up with John (below) to find out more about the Simpsons project, his overall approach to animation and what he's got planned for his talk at Encounters.

DA: How did you come to work on a 'couch gag' for The Simpsons? 

JK: "[Head writer] Al Jean emailed and asked me if I’d be interested. I had lunch with him and Matt [Groening] and we tossed around some ideas. Then I went off and did it."

DA: What did you want to do with this sequence?

JK: “Matt asked me to break all the Simpsons rules. 'Draw them off-model,' [he said]. I can’t even draw my own characters on-model, so that was an easy task. I also wanted to test out a bunch of animation ideas I had already been experimenting with on some Adult Swim station IDs.

"I have been looking back at 30s 'rubber hose'-style cartoons and analyzing what was unique about them. That was a freer time for animators, I think -- the animators had a lot of creative leeway and were expected to make the scenes be fun and inventive. They were always trying new ways to move things and weren’t restricted by all the rules that came later.

"Myron Waldman told me that Max Flesicher was always on his case, [saying] “If you can do it that way in real life don’t do it in a cartoon". Today we are expected to conform to a huge list of arbitrary rules and subconscious formula. If you do anything creative you get fired.”

DA: Someone here described your sequence as "The Simpsons reimagined by a rather hungover Picasso". Would you consider this a compliment? And what would The Simpsons be like if you took over a whole episode?

JK: “I’ll take that as a compliment, sure. If I did a whole episode, it wouldn’t be so fast-paced of course. I had to squeeze a pile of ideas into 35 seconds.

[If I did a whole episode], I would definitely keep on experimenting with the way they move and the acting. I’m sure I would do of my trademark long scenes of two characters interacting with each other without a cut. I would [also] want to do more stuff with Marge. I loved animating her and was inspired by the way the Fleischers animated Olive Oyl.

"I couldn’t animate a whole half hour myself, so I would hire other animators (and designers, painters, etc) with strong styles and cast them according to which parts of the story would best take advantage of their individual talent.

"That’s what I always try to do. Instead of forcing everyone to draw exactly the same like most productions today do, I try and get each artist to bring some of his or her own ideas to the cartoon. My one rule is to make all the ideas be in support of the story. I let the characters’ emotional states inspire the appropriate visual treatment. I try to keep the artists (and myself) from going off in tangents.”

DA: Did you find working with someone else's characters and a fixed format constraining?

JK: "No, not at all. I like working with strong characters. Understanding the characters is what gives me the ideas of how to visually have them perform. I guess the only constraint was the short time frame."

DA: What's your talk at Encounters Film Festival going to be about?

JK: "I’m going to show clips from old cartoons and talk about some of the fundamental qualities inherent in the animated cartoon medium -- basic tools that have not really been taken advantage of for decades. Almost every studio I have worked at (outside of my own) has looked down their noses at anything that takes advantage of what cartoons do best and I have never been able to figure out why. It seems like producers and executives all want to compete with live action on its own terms. [That's] like trying to play a saxophone in a straight jacket.

"I’m going to compare the clips from the classic cartoons to clips from some of mine that have been inspired by them. The one thing that I think we could really learn from live action is acting. Cartoon acting has traditionally been pretty generic -- so I’m going to show clips from my favorite actors in classic films and then show clips from my cartoons that have been inspired by live acting."

DA: The performances in classic films often aren't naturalistic by modern standards. Do you still need a certain measure of stylised acting in animation performances?

JK: "Which performances aren’t 'naturalistic'? First of all, no art is 'naturalistic' -- it’s all stylized. It’s filtered through the medium and the artists’ perception of his subject and his/her physical dexterity. If you want naturalistic, just walk down the street and call on your neighbours and watch them mow the lawn or wash the dishes for 90 minutes and see how entertaining that is.

"On the other hand, great art distills some truth and humanity. Kirk Douglas distills all the conflicting emotions and forces in the human male. I think he is pretty realistic: he acts just like my Dad did when I was growing up. He just leaves out the boring parts."

DA: What is the 'magic' of animation that you don't get with live-action performances?

JK: "Well I wouldn’t expect Kirk Douglas to turn himself inside out or to fly apart when he sees a pretty girl. I am going to show a bunch of clips of cartoons doing impossible things that you can’t do in other media."

DA: You describe the your animation as being about 'crazy movement' rather than movement from crazy pose to crazy pose. What does this bring to your animation, and how does it affect the way you work to achieve it?

JK: "Series TV, because of its tight schedules and budgets generally is 'pose to pose'. If I’m doing something very short, I can spend more time animating myself. And when I animate, I don’t want any of the drawings to be boring. Inbetweens are boring and tedious to draw. They’re filler. I don’t like filler of any kind personally. My attention span is too short. I just want the good parts."

DA: Why do people still remember Ren & Stimpy (above) so fondly?

JK: "Well, you’ll have to ask the people who remember them. My guess is because it was the first cartoon in a long time that revived the idea that cartoons could be cartoons."

DA: What are you working on currently?

JK: "I’m planning my presentation for Bristol’s Encounters. Then I’m going on vacation."


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