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Interview with Jessica Borutski (‘Bunnicula’)

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Canadian-born, LA-based animation artist Jessica Borutski is no stranger to cartoon rabbits; her previous experience in animated series production includes the controversial redesign of the Looney Tunes character ensemble for 2010’s The Looney Tunes Show, as well as a brief stint on the franchise’s latest incarnation Wabbit, not to mention her own short film The Good Little Bunny with the Big Bad Teeth. More recently she has been paired with Maxwell Atoms (The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy) to breathe new life into Bunnicula, originally a series of popular children’s books created by Deborah and James Howe that began in 1979, detailing the adventures of the titular rabbit with vampire-esque qualities along with his companions Chester the Cat and Harold the dog. Skwigly spoke with Jessica to learn more about both the appeal and challenges in reworking a children’s classic for a modern TV audience.

As this show’s relatively new in the UK it would be really great to learn about your background and what led to you working on the show…

I started with Warner Bros in 2008, where I was asked to redesign the Looney Tunes for The Looney Tunes Show. That was a really fun experience because I got to work with characters that had inspired me as a kid to get into animation itself, so I was able to give those characters a fresh new look based on my own style. I started my ‘Hollywood’ animation career there, I’m Canadian so before that I was working at a lot of Canadian studios and game studios. From design I quickly moved my way up to boarding and from there I started directing. That’s when they told me about the Bunnicula property and how they wanted to make a TV series. That was right up my alley because I love cartoon rabbits, so I said “Yeah, let’s develop it!”

Had you been familiar with the books before it was brought to you?

Yeah, when I was a little girl I remember being in my public library at school and seeing Bunnicula on the shelf. I remember thinking Wow, that looks like a really cool book – I never read it though, because I was not a big reader as a kid! But I thought if I was to read, that would be my book of choice because it looked really fun – I mean, a vampire rabbit, what’s not interesting about that?

The first Bunnicula book A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery by Deborah and James Howe

The first Bunnicula book: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery (1979)

Has anything been specifically contemporised from those books to develop it as a show for modern audiences?

To be honest, the series is very different from the book. The only thing we really kept true to the book is that Chester and Harold’s personalities are very much the same as in the book, and Bunnicula is a completely different character, the way we present him. In the book he doesn’t talk – in the show he talks gibberish but he still talks and has all these crazy superpowers onscreen, which in the book never happens. Also the book is about two young boys and their family in middle America, while the series takes place in New Orleans and the main child character in the show is Mina and her dad. So it’s a very different take.

From what I’ve seen there’s quite a lot of mileage in the Bunnicula character as far as crazy things you can do with the animation. Did you go into the series knowing the full range of things you could do with the character, or was it a bit more open?

When designing Bunnicula I had a very clear idea of the type of character I wanted him to be. Visually I wanted you to see him and think Wow, what a cute little energetic bunny, and then be surprised when he can all of a sudden become menacing. I think that creates a really dynamic character, he’s very fun to animate. I always had that in mind, to make him extremely dynamic but very appealing so when you see him you just want to pick him up and squeeze him.

Bunnicula (©Warner Bros)

Bunnicula (©2016 Warner Bros)

There’s also a bit of darkness to it, a little more than a lot of shows for that age demographic. Are there considerations for how far you can take that side of things?

We’ve been very careful because our demographic is a Y-7 rating here in the US, so we always try to go further but we hold back all the time. I love horror movies, 1950s horror especially, the classic Dracula and Wolfman, all that stuff. I love the floor-lit lighting and the creepy music, and was trying to bring a lot of that to the show, but you always have to just make sure it’s not too scary. When we do get scary we’re lucky to have a character like Harold in the series, because he will come in and say something silly and then everything’s okay. So we always break the tension with some comedic relief.

What software is it animated in?

We use an amazingly talented studio in the Philippines called Snipple and they do all the actual animation, so they use Flash, but very traditionally, without symbols and things. My direction on the animation has always been smooth and snappy, I really love snappy animation, pose-to-pose. And then the paintings, background-wise, are all done in Photoshop by our talented painters in-house at Warner Bros.

I would not have thought Flash, I’d have to say. When you see it used for a series usually studios take the route of limited, asset-based, but this is really very fluid and very dense.

Yeah, that was the goal!

Also you’re co-producing with Maxwell Atoms, had you worked with him before this project?

No, it was the Executive Producer Jay Bastian who thought that we’d make a really good team. I had known (Maxwell’s) work on Billy and Mandy, which is sort of in the same vein as a cute, supernatural show, so he had the experience of producing it. He really helped me figure out exactly how I wanted to produce Bunnicula and was really great to work with, because he’s got a very dark, twisted mind!

I guess, having this prominent a role in a show, are there any particular surprises or challenges you’ve found yourself facing, producing or directing?

I think every episode has its hurdles. A lot of time is spent just trying to figure out how big the stakes are gonna be, because we never want to make it too dramatic and upset the kids, so I’ve found that the hardest thing has been the happy medium of trying to keep it interesting for kids but not dumb it down too much.

Looking back at this first year of the show do you have a firmer sense of the characters and what types of stories work for each character dynamic?

Oh yeah, definitely. I think every series is the same way, at first it’s like meeting new people, you’re unsure of them, you don’t know what to expect and the next thing you know you’re best friends! So I think that next season we’ll know these characters a lot better, they’re our friends now and we can work a lot better with them.

Has the original Bunnicula creator seen the show?

Yeah! I actually met James Howe, he came to LA a few years ago and we had lunch. He gave us his blessing and he’s actually a huge fan of the show! He realizes that it’s very different from the book and that we had to do that to adapt it to a cartoon series. We’re just so happy that we did right by him and his book – it would be a shame to create a series where the original creator hated it! So I was happy to hear that he was happy.

Are there any particular favourite episodes or moments that audiences should watch out for?

Well, my favourite episode would probably be Chester’s Shop of Horrors, I love the way that was boarded by one of our talented board artists Karl Hadrika, it’s a really nice story that plays off of Chester’s character and his dynamic with Bunnicula, which is kind of like a love/hate relationship, so I enjoy that episode a lot. I also like Bride of Bunnicula too – where Bunnicula falls in love – it’s a fun episode.

Catch all-new episodes of Bunnicula every Monday at 4:15pm on Boomerang.
To see more of Jessica Borutski’s earlier work visit jessicaborutski.blogspot.com

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