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Interview: Chris Grine Talks “Chickenhare”

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Over the last 20 years the children’s animation industry has been developing a more than obvious curve towards the surreal. Some will insist it was Jan Švankmajer who started the movement. Whilst others will argue till they are blue in the face that it was some crazy guy in a log cabin who animated using pig’s bladders and a bottle of Head & shoulders. In my opinion it all started August 1991 with a cat and a Chihuahua in John Kricfalusi’s Ren and Stimpy show. The bizarre and often twisted humour pushed the boundaries of children’s cartoons. It paved the way for Joe Murray’s Rocko’s modern life that ran from 1993. 1996 saw David Feiss’ Cow and Chicken before Joe Murray returned in 1999 with a little something called Spongebob Squarepants, which has dominated the market since it’s release and for the first time since I can remember (huge gaping hole in my research here) … saw an animated TV show work its way up to a feature length movie AND reach #1 at the box office.

Regardless of when it first appeared … it’s obvious that a cartoon that appealed to all ages was the key to a successful franchise and meant it was very lucrative for the studio that owned it. Eventually these studios had to find their ‘golden egg laying goose’ and get a hold of their title that “appealed to all ages” for reasons that you could fill an entire book with “appealing to all ages” translated to “messed up crazy s***”.

Pushing the boundaries of kids TV series is a risky business though. Whilst Fairly Odd Parents was an instant success, series like Jhonen Vasquez’ Invader Zim (whilst a huge cult classic) was a flop as far as TV ratings and complaints were concerned.

Therefore the more logical place to go to for unique concepts with minimal risk was the independent comics industry.

A couple of months ago Skwigly revealed that Sony Pictures Animations had bought up the rites to produce Chris Grine’s popular comic series Chickenhare. Anybody who has read or looked into the series can clearly see that Sony has recruited they’re first allie in the war of the bizarre franchises… and it’s definitely going to be hard to top it for originality, character design and visual style.

In anticipation of having to pick a side in the fight for animation dominance Skwigly was lucky to be able to interview Chris Grine’s regarding his once in a lifetime deal.

Did you see your book becoming an animated feature when you started it?

HA! Not in any realistic way, no. I had always hoped it might someday finds it’s way into the right hands and somehow it did.

How much creative involvement (and dare I say ‘control’) are you given with the development of the movie?

I worked with SONY ANIMATION and DHE in the very early stages on what the story might look like. They haven’t yet reached out to us to have me involved further.

How much input do you have with the style of the animation? Your panels are beautifully coloured but I find it hard to see an animation achieving that kind of texture.  Is it going to try to be loyal to your art style or are you allowing it to go in a different direction?

I would love to see the film adapted closely with my style, because that’s how I see the characters. Based on how other books have been adapted however, I don’t really know how much of my “style” will make it to the screen. Honestly, as long as they’re true to the characters I would be open to a new look and style for the world. I can already see some issues with my style having problems translating to animation, for example the eyes. The eyes are just beady dots that work fine on the page, but I fear they wouldn’t have any real emotional impact in an animated world. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the eyes changed as well as other aspects in order to make things work better. For me it’s like when you get all those really cool pin-up art pages in the back of graphic novels by all kinds of different artists and you see all the possibilities fresh eyes can bring to that world. I can’t wait to see some concept art down the road.

Over the years comic writers and artists have been given more and more rights over their own work. How did you find the process of writing up all the contracts with the studio?

Luckily I have a very good representative, Ken F. Levin, who handled all that nonsense for me. Even then though, it was stressful at times, but always interesting and exciting. I learned a lot from the process and hopefully if I should ever find myself in that situation again, I’ll be more prepared for the roller coaster I’d be getting on.

Will we be seeing action figures for sale anytime soon?

I hope so with every fiber of my existence! I would love to be able to go to the toy store and see some Chickenhare toys sitting on the shelves!

How does your deal affect your production of upcoming books?  Does knowing that your story is being made into an animation make you look at scenes in a different way?

It doesn’t really affect it at all. I have the story worked out for a five book arc, of which book three is currently unfolding online.

Your artwork feels very European in style, which is very refreshing to see. Who are your biggest influences?

Jeff Smith is a huge influence on my work, mostly in the use of black and white. Stan Sakai (Usagi Yojimbo), Ben Edlund (The Tick) were also important to me. My regular nine-five job is as a greeting card artist at Hallmark and I get to sit next to some fantastic artists and animators everyday and I’m always inspired by them.

The panels that you illustrate are very cinematic in appearance and use a lot of filming direction in the layout. Have you studied film language in the past?

No, not at all. I am however a giant movie fan and I’m always playing scenes out in my head trying to get the best angles or the most “cinematic” looks as possible. It makes it more fun for me.

Dark Horse is famous for supporting independent comic creators, are they still involved in the production? If so does that mean you have Sony animation AND dark horse in the same meetings with you? Must feel pretty damn cool.

It isn’t the publishing company it’s Dark Horse Entertainment, and yes it is very much involved with the deal. I’ve only had talks over the phone to date and mostly one at a time, but there were a few early on brainstorm sessions that included all sides in a conference call. Cool? Certainly. Slightly intimidating?  You bet. Mostly though it’s been really fun to get to meet people in other fields from mine and get to put our heads together to try to bring my stories to life. Very flattering, and very fun.

A lot of reviews praise your books on the incredibly unique character designs, and any doubts are easily quashed with your Robots with stuff gallery. Can you give us some clue as to where a turtle with a goatee comes from? What is your character design process?

Abe came from an early sketch I had done of a regular turtle sitting on a rock and I remember thinking he looked too plain and needed something to give him personality. So I added a top hat, followed quickly by a beard which was done for the sole purpose of amusing myself. In fact, most of the characters in my stories came about by trying to make people laugh. I never wanted to have characters that were too serious even though the situations they often find themselves in are dire. The character of Banjo early on was just a monkey, but there simply was no hook to him, and then one day I was just drawing him and I gave him some hoof-like feet and fangs… next thing I know I’m digging through old reference material looking for devils and mythological creatures. From there his story wrote itself.

Have you ever drawn anything and thought… no… that’s too far?

For Chickenhare? Sure. I do have to keep in mind it’s an all-ages title after all. In my own personal drawing, or drawing for friends I typically don’t have a filter… AT ALL, which sometimes horrifies them but mostly makes them laugh. I like the world of Chickenhare because it can be as odd as I want it to be, but I do try to ground it in some kind or reality so it doesn’t get too wacky.

So you’ve had a comic published by Dark horse, an animation being made by Sony…. What’s next? Computer games?

I don’t think I’m finished with publishing yet. I have several other ideas bouncing around in my head. For now I’m still loving the world of Chickenhare and when I have extra time there is always a small comic related job waiting to be tackled.

 

Visit www.chickenhare.com for more details and Chris’ comics.

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