Tuesday, January 29, 2008
BOONDOCKS PRODUCER CARL E. JONES
from Silent City Magazine Jan 2008
This October, The Boondocks, returns for a second season on Cartoon Network. The animated show, based on the national comic strip created by Aaron McGruder, was the highest rated premiere in the network’s history. It was nominated for both Image and NAACP awards and last April won a Peabody Award for the episode ‘Return of the King’ in which Martin Luther King, Jr. awakes to today’s culture.
Most animated shows endure a lengthy production schedule and The Boondocks is no exception. The work involved was so much that McGruder asked Carl Jones to illustrate the strip while he focused on the show. Eventually the comic strip was put on hold to focus entirely on the producing the series.
First developed at Fox, the deal never happened and the show found interest at Cartoon Network where fifteen episodes were produced. The Boondocks focuses on Huey and Riley Freeman who move from the south side of Chicago to live with their granddad, Robert or ‘Pops’ in the quiet suburbia of Woodcrest, Maryland.
The show premiered in November 2005, and after much critical and commercial success and a little controversy, the show is poised to shake up the neighborhood again. We spoke with Carl Jones, who illustrated the comic strip and went on to serve as producer for television series.
I awake Carl Jones at nine in the morning this summer. He sounds groggy and says he’ll call me back in about an hour. It’s nine a.m. in Los Angeles and he’s spent a late night working on the show. He calls back an hour later and the sound of city life permeates our conversation. Jones’ voice is deep and occasionally punctuates sentences with ‘man.’ He’s laid back and affable, and although I won’t reveal his age, he carries on like an adult who still has a sense of wonder about him. He retains the surprise of experiencing Chuck Jones’ Road Runner cartoons or seeing Star Wars as a kid.
He’s a father and is getting to do what he loves, produce cartoons for a living. His father was in the military and Jones was born in Germany, living there only a year. Back in the states his father worked several jobs.
“He was a jack of all trades. Always had a hustle, some type of sales job – insurance, car alarms,” Carl recalls.
Carl points directly to his father for encouraging art, not only because he drew as well but because he’d bring a pack of paper home from work and hand to it to his young son.
“I’ve been drawing as long as I could hold a pencil,” he says. “I would go through the stack of paper when he was gone. I always thought it was a goal to go though all the paper before he got home the next night. I would go through all the paper and he’d say ‘you need to turn it over and use the other side’ before I bring you anymore paper home.”
Carl went through the paper his father brought home. Somehow that translated to a habit he still has. Like many artists, he draws something when a blank piece of paper, napkin – whatever, happens to be in front of him, tending to fill up the whole page.
“I sketch a lot. I can’t help it. It’s a part of me. It’s almost habitual. I was a kid who got in trouble for drawing on walls, the hallway. That was me, crayon, whatever. I don’t know, there’s something about a blank wall, anything that was large and blank felt like a canvas to me.”
In time, comics came along, emulating what he saw in favorites Master of Kung Fu, Silver Surfer, and X-men and then television shows like The Hulk and Wonder Woman.
He cites Star Wars as a catalyst for opening up his imagination, what the possibilities were.
“When I saw it the first time it changed my life. Just seeing that scale of ingenuity and imagination, it just blew me away. I liked the idea that you do it on the big screen and have people look at it. It fueled my creative energy.”
Television also offered up animated shorts by Chuck Jones, famous for Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. Carl cites Chuck Jones as his biggest influence.
“I just loved to watch the energy in the drawings and the animation itself was incredible but the design element, the way he would approach things,” Carl says. “And Tex Avery, that stuff was really fun to me.”
He attended high school in Fayetteville, North Carolina and moved to Philadelphia afterwards where his mother was from. Not long after he lived in High point where his wife’s from High Point before moving to Los Angeles.
“On the east coast I was doing freelance work, storyboard work. I was interested in a project with one of the The Play Pen producers at Warner Brothers, doing promotional animated shorts for the movie House of Wax.”
Freelance jobs weren’t enough to take care of responsibilities. There weren’t many jobs, mostly factory work, but there wasn’t a whole lot of money.
“I think I get from my father, I’ve always had a hustling talent. In Philly I had three tables of CD’s, movies, toys, socks, jewelry, whatever. I would set up right in front of the Gallery Mall on 11th and Market and work down there and make my own money, work for myself. I always had that in me.”
Instead of doing freelance work from North Carolina he knew he should relocate to Los Angeles. So, he and the family moved west.
Carl met The Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder walking down the street.
“I always admired his work and loved the strip. I talked to him for a second and we exchanged information.”
At the time McGruder was working on The Boondocks pilot and Carl was in the process helping develop The Play Pen with Roc-A-Fella films, Beanie Siegel and State Property. The two stayed in touch and McGruder told him about meeting deadlines for the cartoon and working on the show at the same time.
McGruder hired Carl to help draw the strip in the style McGruder originated.
“Basically Aaron wanted the style to be consistent. It took a little while for me to get it. Of course some of my own stuff was going to come through but I tried my best to stick with the way he did it.”
The Boondocks animated show was supposed to be picked up by Fox but was not. Time went by where McGruder was till trying to sell the show and Cartoon Network/Adult Swim came along and picked up the show. The amount of work became overwhelming and they stopped working on the strip to concentrate on the television show.
“We’re looking at ways to bring the strip back,’ Carl says, not wanting to give too much away. “The strip was cancelled because we couldn’t do the strip and the show at the same time.” But he’s optimistic citing the different outlets to bring the strip back.
There were two studios in Korea that were used for the first season’s animation duties. Producing an animated is not the same as producing a normal sitcom. There’s no sets to be used on a regular basis. Each episode of an animated show ahs to be created almost from the beginning, drawn and redrawn.
Culture issues or not, the show ran into a few issues. Overseas studios handled storyboard work and when they got the animation got back a lot had to be redone. There needed to be so much revision the crew had to re-board a lot of the shows from scratch.
“In some of the stuff we do on the show there are so many subtleties. It’s like a subculture within a culture. So if you don’t completely understand that, it’s hard to get the acting right, get the jokes right - you don’t understand the joke or the timing. We have translators for the script. That’s one layer. The next layer is getting into the type of humor we’re doing.”
He explains that during the first season, McGruder went to Korea and the animators asked him why the character Huey never smiles. McGruder was trying to explain and was unable to get the idea across until he mentioned Malcolm X. Then they got it, then they understood it.
“Little things like that, bridges we have to cross. We spend a lot of time communicating so it gets done the right way.”
The production is always looking for ways to make the show look better. With the source material, the original carton series, there was always a Japanese anime influence. But given that the strip was experienced and produced in such a small space, limited space, the television show can now increase the amount of details within the show by placing the characters in neighborhoods, other people’s homes, courtrooms with R. Kelly, etc..
“Aaron always had a thing for anime, to bring anime culture and urban or black humor together. It’s something that’s never been done before,” Carl says. “You know in anime, the story’s so bad you want to turn the sound down and watch the action. You never saw an anime show that told jokes. I love anime, in terms of stories they’re hard to relate to. There’s things we love about anime and things we love about comedy. Aaron wanted to bring them together.”
The first season Carl was involved more with writing, more so than the second season because the production side was much more demanding. We have a small writing group, we sit around and think about a story and Aaron would go off and write it. Rodney Barnes who writes a lot of stuff too. It was a small group of people, Aaron would write it and bring it back and we’d all punch it up.
The production rolled from season one directly into season two. After season one was finished everyone celebrated one day and then the next day it was back to work.
“We didn’t have time to break and regroup, man.”
Season two was slated to begin airing in July but was pushed back till October.
“We went over our schedule a little bit. Adult Swim wanted twenty shows, which is typical and we settled for fifteen. I know why we didn’t do twenty the second season, which was, we realized how difficult it was to get fifteen out. It’s difficult to twenty episodes, just production wise.”
But some of the delay may have come from self imposed pressure and further attention to the look of the show. With the new season there’s a higher scene count and extra characters so the task requires more designers, more backgrounds in the episodes which means more drawing, more painters and designers. Needless to say, a lot of work goes into every show.
“After a completing a season, I want to say yes!” Carl says with obvious enthusiasm. “Once it’s done you really feel good all the work you put into it. The extra work actually shows.”
Producing the show has a long list of duties. Carl oversees most aspects of production. From time to time he will get in and do storyboard revisions or character designs. In summation, his job is to make sure everything is working towards McGruder’s vision, that everyone is communicating what was on the script page visually. This also includes the voice directing.
“We have a very talented voice director, Andrea Romano. She’s been around a long time so she’s really good at what she does. Like I said the type of comedy we’re doing is so specific and the characters we’re doing – you have to know who these characters are to really know how the line should be read and how the jokes should be played. I have to be there to make sure all those things come together. I have to make sure the style of the show looks like traditional anime. We all work together as a team.”
The second season also introduces new characters; some that Carl thinks will help The Boondocks have a breakout season, taking the show to the next level. Returning are Regina King (Huey and Riley) and Johnny Witherspoon (Pops) as well as Mos Def, Sam Jackson and Charlie Murphy. New actors to the show include Lil’ Wayne, Cee-Lo, Busta Rhymes and Snoop Dogg and Fred Willard.
“It’s crazy, man,” he says with a deep chuckle.
I ask him about working with Johnny Witherspoon. There’s a brief pause in the conversation. There’s traffic in the background.
“What’s it like working for Johnny Witherspoon? Oh, man, he’s hilarious. Witherspoon is one of the funniest guys I know,” Carl says and then pauses again briefly. “He’s really that guy, he’s really Pops, he’s really the guy you see on TV. You feel like you’re in sitcom just being around John. I love John, I love him the death.”
Carl will be heard on the show this season voicing the character Thugnificent. It’s something he always wanted to do, voice over for a character. He performed incidental characters in the first season, now performing a central character poses a big opportunity.
“I play this character named Thugnificent who has a crew which is made up of Snoop, Busta Rhymes and me. We move across the street from the Freeman’s and turn the neighborhood upside down and granddad is pissed off about it. That was fun, man.”
After hearing his performance the first time all he could think about was wanting to do it over. He said it felt like an out of body experience.
It was a weird feeling. What’s crazy about it I’m there. I’ve sent that the show is made from ink and paint and pencils but when you see it on the screen sometimes you forget all that. It comes to life and you actually see these people as real people. It’s strange. I’m there when they record their voices. You get so consumed by the show and the story they’re telling, you look at these people as real people. Like, Riley and Huey are real people. I know if you print that it’s going to make sound really crazy. But seriously, that’s the magic of animation.”