Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing the one and only Pendleton Ward, the creator of one of my all-time favorite cartoons, Adventure Time.
It’s Thursday and I’m working at my lame retail job. I have to do this because, sadly, having a sweet Tumblr blog doesn’t really pay the bills. I work at a toy store in an outlet mall. I’m the assistant manager and I’m waiting for my boss to show up so she can cover for me while I do this interview over the phone in my car. I don’t think there’s a phone on the face of the planet that can get decent reception in our store, so the parking lot is my only option. Plus, my car’s fancy and lets me do hands-free calling, so I can record Mr. Ward’s angelic voice through my sweet, sweet speakers.
It’s 6:00pm and the interview isn’t until 6:30. I’ve got all my questions typed out along with a few extra questions sent in by fans of the Albotas Facebook page, and the batteries in my tape recorder are brand spankin’ new. Let’s do this!
My boss rolls in around 6:10. Cool. I check my phone. Missed call. WHAT!? I check my voicemail. It’s a lady from Cartoon Network asking if I can reschedule my interview with Pen Ward for an earlier time. No biggie. I call back to tell her yes, but the call drops in the middle of her saying something. Stupid store reception.
I tell my boss I’m heading out to my car to handle this biz. I grab my list of questions, duck back to the break room to scoop my recorder, then bounce to the parking lot. I hop into my car and my phone starts ringing through my car’s stereo system. Technology’s so rad. It’s the Cartoon Network lady telling me that Pendleton Ward is on the line and ready for some hardcore interviewing. Sweet. I reach for my list of questions.
Aw crap. They’re not here. I must have left them at the cash register at work. No bigs. I tell tell the Cartoon Network lady I’ll be back in a few seconds. I just have to get something.
On any other day I’d be parked a few footsteps away from my store’s entrance, but today the mall was unusually busy, so I had to park mad far away. Typical.
I make a dash back into the store and head to the register where I left my typed-out questions. What the pootie!? They’re not there! okay, maybe I did bring them to the car, but in all the excitement I couldn’t see them or forgot where they were. Maybe they were under the backpack on the passenger seat.
God I hate running.
So I’m running back to the car, searching all around the front and back seats, and don’t find the questions. Eff it! We’ll do it live! I only have 15 minutes with this guy. He’s a busy dude, so I make with the questions.
Hello, sir! It’s an honor. Sorry I’m out of breath. I just ran. Okay, so! Adventure Time: how did this come from something crazy in your brain to a real show.
In short: Frederator — that’s the studio that runs the show — I did a storyboard pitch and they liked it enough to give me a shot at making that pilot that you saw on YouTube. That’s how it started. I was just in the right place at the right time and I pitched something that they liked.
Did you ever think like, “Alright, yeah. This is gonna be like a big deal. Everybody’s gonna’ love it.”? Did you kind of know it was a different, weird thing? Or did you not realize it until afterwards?
I know people were saying it was weird when I made it, but to me it was never weird. it was just what I wanted to make. It was just — I was trying to make something… good. I was trying to make something that I thought was funny and fun to watch. That’s all I was shooting for. I was trying to make something that I thought I would like to watch.
It’s spawned like all this craziness. Like fanart, cosplay, and there’s a lot of mashups like Adventure Time mashed up with other stuff like Daft Punk, Calvin and Hobbes, Game of Thrones. What’s your favorite Mashup of Adventure Time with something else that you’ve come across?
I saw some Totoro inspired drawings recently that I thought were really nice.
“My Neighbor Jake” by JJ Harrison.
The music in the show is a mix. There’s chiptune stuff, there’s metal stuff; do you make the call as far as musical style in a scene? Do you say “I want metal here. Give me some beatboxing here.” or do you leave all that noise to somebody else?
I put in my requests to the composers, but really it all comes from them. Sometimes I’ll ask for metal, but they always make it unique. They always take my boring music score suggestions and make them really unique — really interesting. That’s Tim Kiefer and Casey Basichis who are the copmposers. You can find more of their music if you look them up. They had a band for a while. It was called Casey James and the Staypuft Kid. I think they have a MySpace page.
So how did you meet them? Did you know these guys pre Adventure Time?
I met them when I was going to school for animation and they were going to school for music at CalArts.
There’s a heavy element of videogamey-ness to Adventure Time. They’re running around in dungeons, fighting bosses and stuff. Did you grow up as a gamer?
Only recently did I consider myself a “gamer” — a game enthusiast. But when I was a kid I played D&D. That’s where all those dungeons come from — those dungeon crawl episodes.
Oh, man! What did you play as in D&D?
What class? I was always a thief usually. I was usually like a gnome thief or a human thief.
Nice! I always played rogue! Did you ever try your hand at DMing with some of your crazy stories and junk?
Uuuhhh… um, no. I’ve never played played DM. I wanted to, but I don’t know. I’m a better player, I think, than I am a Dungeon Master.
Yeah. That’s not for me. It’s too much work and stuff. [Editor’s note, this part of the interview totally got me back into D&D and I’ll be DMing my first campaign soon. Pretty stoked. -brownkidd]
Natasha Allegri’s gender-swapped Adventure Time characters.
Now, the Fiona & Cake episode — that’s a LOT of people’s favorite episode. How did that episode even happen?
Natasha Allegri was designing the gender-swapped characters, Fiona and Cake, and I saw them and I liked them so much that I made an episode. That’s how it started.
Okay, so, for the past ten years I’ve been with a girl who has three kids and we’ve tried to instill this notion in them that you don’t necessarily have to get married when you grow up. Because there was a time when they were on this kick of, like, ”Ugh, I’m so nervous about having to get married after college!,” and we’re like ”You’re in 4th grade! Shut up!” But that episode, I don’t know, I thought it was so empowering – especially for young girls – like, you don’t need some guy. You don’t need someone else to define you. Now, was that episode always meant to have a heavy message like that or was that just something that just happened as it happened?
I don’t remember how that came about. It happened naturally. I don’t think anything is ever planned or intentional. Everything on the show comes out naturally because we only have so much time produce these, so it’s just organically, however the story unfolds or whatever the message is. I usually try to avoid messages altogether, but I think I’d asked Rebecca to write something in there — Rebecca Sugar.
You mentioned you only have so much time to produce an episode. How long does it usually take from start to finish?
Nine months,start to finish.
Geeze! So what all does that process involve?
We start in the writer’s room or we write an outline and then we hand it over to the storyboard artists who get four weeks for writing and then drawing out the pictured story. Through the whole thing we always tape what we’re doing so they can print want we’re doing and I guess record it. When the backgrounds are designed and the characters are all designed based off the storyboards that the storyboard artists do, we just take the stuff and it gets shipped overseas where it gets animated, then we edit and mix the sound effects and music together. Um, I’m probably leaving some parts out, but they’re a lot of the processes that we go through.
On the Season 1 DVD we see behind the scenes of Adventure Time. It was pretty amazing, but why did you choose to go more of an unconventional behind-the-scenes route?
Uh, I don’t know. I wasn’t trying to be unconventional. I just wanted to make it funny. I wanted to do it myself — I did it on my phone. I mean, I just wanted to make a short film. I think it’s fun. It was fun for me — a fun side project.
What would you say to anyone — a kid OR a grown-up — who wants to make cartoons? What’s a good place to start? What got you where you are now?
I mean, I can tell you that anyone who’s working here, it’s because they’ve been working really hard on their own, producing their own ideas, and making short films, or making comics, or painting — if they have a blog where they paint and they put their paintings up and go out posting somewhere — always creating or crafting something: that’s the best place to start. If you want to work in the industry, you need to already be working really hard on your own stuff and just making stuff all the time so that people can find you and find your work, and so that you can be improving on your own craft as well.
Okay, now this is the very last question I have for you. It’s a pretty important question. If you could be any food, what food would you be.
Hmmm… any food… A pea. A cute little pea. A little pea pod.
Hahah! Alright, I like it! Awesome. Thank you very much, man, for your time. I appreciate it.
Epilogue: So it turns out I left my list of questions in the break room when I went to get the tape recorder. The same tape recorder which started crapping out on me during the interview. I accidentally had it on the Voice Activated setting and it couldn’t pick up some of Pen’s answers through the car speakers. Luckily it wasn’t too bad and I could decipher most of it. Man, the stressful junk I go through just so strangers on the Internet can read neat things. I love you guys.
Big thanks to Cartoon Network for hooking this up and an even bigger thanks to Pendleton Ward for being awesome at life.