This week’s Featured Interview with artist Gary Baseman will be a five part series, a new part of the story released every day of this week. Welcome to Garypalooza!
Toward the latter end of Gary’s time in New York, he got a call from a little television network by the name of Nickelodeon: they wanted to see if he had any ideas for television shows. “Nickelodeon called me and asked if I had any ideas for an animated television show,” he said. “I lied to them and I said I did.”
“So, I came up with a dozen ideas and went off to pitch them–and they loved one of my ideas,” he said. “I did a full pilot and they spent 375 thousand dollars on the pilot and still loved the idea–but didn’t love the finished pilot. So, we decided to redo the entire pilot again–same characters, same idea. We did it all again, spent another 375 thousand dollars and, right when they were going to make decisions on pick-ups, Gerry Laybourne–who was the president of Nickelodeon–left and Herb Scannell came in.”
“I was working with the fourth season crew of Ren And Stimpy and Tom McGrath was my director, who is now a big animation director: he did Madagascar and other features. It was brilliant and so funny,” he noted. “But, with Herb coming in, they wanted shows like Rugrats or something safer. [Our show] was still a sweet show and not as brutal as Ren And Stimpy–and I love Ren And Stimpy. It had a lot of heart. But, they didn’t pick it up. That’s when I decided to come back to Los Angeles more determined to get a show on the air.”
Just like that, Gary came out West, back to his hometown, and started pitching shows. “We pitched all around and Disney loved two of my ideas,” he said. The show ended up becoming Teacher’s Pet, which was a critical success. It had a stellar team, featuring director Tim Björklund and writers Bill and Cherie Steinkellner, but eventually ran into problems.
“Disney bought it and it ran for three years. They did a feature film too,” he said. “Critically, it did really, really well. But, we got caught up in the ABC vs Disney Channel battle and we were one of the last TV shows running one day a week on Saturday morning. Nowadays, no show will flourish running one day a week: it has to be seven days a week. That’s what kids demand now. It’s a whole different generation.”
Although there were problems surrounding the show, it was successful: it won multiple Emmys, a BAFTA award, and many others–not to mention a feature film adaptation.
Happening almost concurrently, Gary further dominated American households by doing the art for the game Cranium, which is likely the most successful board game of the past decade.
“The Cranium people were crazy wonderful,” Gary said. “They started off as two Microsoft people who wanted to come up with the ultimate game. They were up in Seattle working with a design studio that introduced them to me, and initially they were very scared of me. They were actually more controlling than Disney. They were just so family-friendly and lovely. Their strength was that they were able to find other producers and create new games with new characters–and they kept winning Game of the Year. That was what really got them. They went from these two guys to a team of 100 people.”
Gary’s role and Cranium marketing eventually shifted, becoming less about characters or art and more about people playing the game. “We had to show what the game looked like inside: what does the game look like inside? Look at kids playing the game!” he said, with a little laugh. “You don’t think they’d turn the box around to see it? It’s sort of like how Apple can sell a product nice and clean and beautiful and smart and have respect for their audience versus how Microsoft can have so much going on and so much information: you don’t see anything. It’s all noise.”
The company ended up selling to Hasbro and isn’t quite what it used to be. “It’s still a wonderful game,” Gary says, as he also notes how wonderful the people he worked with were.
While working on the television show and the game, Gary was also pushing into new territory: having art shows. He along with friends and fellow illustration artists like Mark Ryden and Kenton Nelson were starting to show around town. He eventually had his first big show in Pasadena at Ted Mendenhall. “I saw that I could create my own body of work,” Gary said of these experiences and growing as an independent artist. “I didn’t have to work in the boundary of editors or art directors. I loved it.”
“From that, I was off to paint more. It got to the point where, at the end of the series, I made a concerted effort to paint more. I was going through a change since I was going through a divorce. I was trying to remove myself from commercial work and concentrate on personal work. I wanted to explore what I could create on my own if I didn’t have any boundaries, if I wasn’t on assignment all the time, and if Disney executives or magazine editors were no longer telling me what to do. I wanted to take the time to do that, to concentrate on my own paintings and projects. I’ve been doing that for the past seven years or so now.”
“I’m so fortunate,” he says. “And, growing up in Los Angeles–which I just love more than anything. In fact, as much as, I enjoyed New York, it just ate me up.”
For more on Gary, give him a follow on Twitter and a Like on Facebook. Gary also has a new show VISCOUS currently in Milan’s Antonio Colombo and will also be sharing work at Pictoplasma in Berlin on April 14. Gary will also be having BASEMANIA at MondoPop Gallery on April 14 and will be painting a wall in Rome on April 15.