How Come Arnold's Head is Shaped like a Football?
Craig Bartlett '81, creator of the "Hey Arnold" and "Dinosaur Train," can tell his story in very few words:
"I graduated from Evergreen, I moved to Portland and it was about a decade later when we moved here [to California] and we had Matt, our first kid, and I have a daughter, Katie, who is 17 and a senior and looking to go to college in the northwest in the fall."
If you have a bit more time to get to know this genius bundle of Greener creativity, here are some of the high points of a recent telephone interview touching on his work as artist, cartoonist, animator, writer, filmmaker, producer, director, and proud member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
EXPRESS: Where are you right now, where do you live?
CB: I live in Glendale, which is one of the communities of L.A. between Pasadena and Burbank. I drive everyday to Hollywood, which is a 20 min drive. The studio is Charlie Chaplin's old studio on the corner of Sunset and La Brea. It's a landmark and for a long time it was an original black and white studio for television shows in the 50's. Later it was turned into A and M records … so there is all this cool mojo … The Stones come here, Paul McCartney was here last spring so it's really chill, a lovely place to hang out!
EXPRESS: You didn't start out to be an animator…
CB: I wanted to be a painter. I went to the art school in Portland and spent my first two years there getting that kind of classic art training. I went to Italy for my third year. When I came back, the art school wouldn't accept all my credits. Actually, that's how I landed at Evergreen. I was like, well fine, if you aren't going to transfer those credits then screw it, I'm going to go somewhere else. I wound up going to Evergreen to finish.
I loved my Evergreen experience. There was a 16mm camera on the 4th floor of the COMM bldg. I got a work-study job running the camera … somebody there showed me how to make it go … My crowning achievement was something called "Shove a Burger." It was about super-fast food.
Peter Randlette and those guys over in media loan, those guys were really awesome. And Marge Brown, she was great. She was really dry and funny. I didn't even realize she liked me until, you know for a long time I thought she hated me. It was just her way. She'd call me "shit for brains."
EXPRESS: Any other outstanding evergreen memories?
CB: Well I hung out a lot in the meadow. At that point someone had a teepee in the meadow and there was a joke about how you could write a contract to live in a teepee or you know build a pile of dirt and move in. I went to the beach a lot. You know the trail from school to the beach? I loved that. And the bike shop – I built a whole new bike out of parts that I got from the bike shop.
I loved being in Olympia and at Evergreen. I loved being in the little bubble we were in. I was really, really happy, but I graduated and I had to go.
EXPRESS: So you went…?"
CB: Growing up in the northwest, I was very ignorant of Hollywood until my mid-twenties when I got a job at Will Vinton Studio in Portland (Oscar, Emmy and Clio award-winning director and producer of animated films, famous for his use of claymation). Even then, I only had the vaguest idea of what they did in Hollywood. I was in the northwest working for Will through most of the 80s, learning the ins and outs of how to load cameras, get film processed … it was a really cool film-making apprenticeship. The group at Will Vinton was really small and we were really close. Then the Pee Wee thing happened …
EXPRESS: You mean, as in Pee Wee Hermann?
CB: Yeah, I saw the Pee Wee cartoons and it was such a crazy show I had to be part of it. It was the craziest…that was some messed up stuff! The design was the most radical show on TV. I was like, I gotta meet these people. I sent them a sample reel that I'd made of my Vinton stuff and they asked me if I wanted to come down and do the Penny cartoons. That was the most important phone call I ever got.
EXPRESS: I don't know what the Penny cartoons are?
CB: Remember PeeWee's Playhouse?
EXPRESS: Yeah, I loved it, in a perverse sort of way
CB: Exactly. Remember the little claymation girl who had pennies for eyes? That was my first show in L.A. The reason I moved away from Portland was to come down here and do the Penny cartoons for PeeWee's Playhouse. It was really fun. It was sort of the back door way into Hollywood.
Working for Pee Wee was like taking all those kid shows we watched when we were little and putting them all in a blender with some LSD and making some crazy kaleidoscopic thing – that's what it was.
EXPRESS: What's he like, Pee Wee Herman?
CB: He's not like his character at all. You really get the idea that he's saving it all up – he's not going to use an ounce of extra energy and then when the camera's on, he goes nuts. In meetings, he'd be real inward and all hunched down, avoiding eye contact and kinda going like "uh, ok what are we looking at…" The first time I met with him I went to shake his hand and knocked over a bottle of Calistoga water and flooded his storyboard. It was like "oh, am I nervous? It was one of those horrifying … oh my god.
EXPRESS: I heard you worked on the Mystery Lodge at Knotts Berry Farm.
CB: I love that Mystery Lodge is now 16 years old. And so you can still go in there and see that film/illusion space. I did that when I was working for Bob Rogers who I met right after I moved to California. Bob was into "themed entertainment." He used to do world fairs. He would go from one to the next making pavilion films. Generally what was cool was about those films is that people expect them to be a really kooky format and so I made two different kinds of 360 degree films. One was for EXPO '90 in Osaka. That was my first. We made a show called "Robo Show." Industrial robots doing this Fantasia-like dance with illusions of creatures and things coming out of smoke and fire.
I got to do this wonderful traveling and saw all these wonderful things. We had people driving us around and ate wonderful food. I just couldn't believe how cool it was. I still got to see the world.
EXPRESS: What are you doing these days? You're a dad? You have a new show about dinosaurs riding trains…?"
CB: Matt was 3 and he was playing with dinosaurs and trains and I would look at him and I'd look at my wife and I'd say, we should do a show about putting dinosaurs on trains. And I was right. Matt was 3, now he's 20 and it just shows how some ideas have a long gestation period. The development process seems like it does take a decade or more to get stuff from the first meeting to when it gets made. But I got the show "Hey Arnold" and I worked on it for about 8 years.
EXPRESS: The shapes of the heads, Arnold's head…why?
CB: There's a really good answer. Groening [Matt Groening, creator of the Simpsons and Bartlett's brother-in-law] told me it's good to create characters that can be recognized even in silhouette. You look at the Simpsons and you know who is who even if they are in silhouette so I did the same thing with Arnold and Gerald, using geometric shapes.
EXPRESS: And the dinosaurs? I love the "Dinosaur Train," by the way.
CB: Oh good! I'm so happy that happened. As soon as I saw it come back animated, I new how big it would be, that kids would love it. It's the whole reason I do animation and I love that I am doing preschool. A four year old, as far as they are concerned, it's all real. That unfiltered authentic joy … I am really glad I got into it.
EXPRESS: How is it working with PBS?
CB: It's one of those nice things where it turns out to be true that the PBS pursuit of curriculum in TV entertainment is not cynical, it's for real. They do a lot of in depth study about how very small kids learn and behave and in a way it's kind of shocking. I just went to NY to participate with WNET which is the NYC PBS Affiliate. They held a two-day symposium about education and learning. They wanted to focus on what kids are learning from TV and other media. What we learned is that for the majority of very small kids, most of their waking hours they are looking at some screen or another. It's shocking how little they go outside. I heard that kids go outside 90% less than the last generation did. How can media encourage kids to go outside? Anyway, I was there and I was very impressed with how non-cynical and sincere PBS in is their role to try to help kids learn.
Lisa Henson (Jim Henson's daughter) talked about the origins of Sesame Street and then I came out and sang the [Dinosaur Train] theme song and another song called "Dinosaurs A to Z" and I showed a little video of my son, Matt, when he was three with a little Thomas the Tank train and a little family of dinosaurs that he put on the train and it KILLED, man!
EXPRESS: Are you successful enough that it's all old hat? Do you still get excited if you see, say, Springsteen walking down the street?
CB: NO I love stuff like that. Generally my rule with fabulous people is if you don't have a real question for them don't approach. Don't just go up to them and say "oh my God I am a huge fan!" But if you have something real to say, go for it.
I went to the Oscars on Sunday with Bob Rogers (founder and chairman of BRC Imagination Arts). Bob Rogers got me into the Academy 15 years ago. I am in the short film division. I love it. Award season is so great, there are so many free screenings and premiers. Every year I buy a ticket to the Oscars. I buy the cheap $50 dollar so it's a 100 bucks for 2 seats up in the "nose bleed" section...You dress up...It's always a blast.
EXPRESS: We should wrap this up and let you get back to work. Any last minute Evergreen memories?
CB: I was there one spring break and my roommate, Nathan, didn't have enough money to go home and neither did I. He suggested we ride our bikes around the Olympic Peninsula. Of course, it was March and it rained the whole trip – it hailed in Humptulips! We slept at the beach. He slept under a log. I slept in the men's room. I was so cold and wet that I slept under the hand dryer and once in a while I would put my hand up and make it go! And a drunk guy came in around dawn and looks at me and said "spring is here" and walked out the door. I guess spring means people are sleeping in the men's rooms. Any way, we rode the next day in a total downpour and our brakes barely worked. We went down this long hill and I heard him screaming "stop, stop!" I turned around and Nathan had gotten off his bike and thrown it over the side of the road into the woods. He was screaming "who the f…'s idea was this trip anyway!" We decided to lock up the bikes up and hitchhike home. Which only took an hour! The next week we drove back and got the bikes.
EXPRESS: You're a great storyteller. Will you come back and talk to students sometime?
CB: Sure. That would be a good way for me to catch up on the media department and see what is happening and new.