Apologies in advance for the poor audio quality; feel free to read along as you listen.
Looney Tunes Cartoons arrived this week as part of streaming service HBO Max’s launch-day content, and executive producer Peter Browngardt went to great lengths to make it stand out. Part homage to the original classics, part contemporary cartoon for new and returning audiences alike, this series of shorts, segments, and intersititials puts the “Looney” back in the toons, and it’s all the better for it.
I had a chance to chat with Browngardt ahead of the series’ launch to dig into the creation of the behemoth, taking on nearly a century’s worth of history, characters, and lore. Though only 10 episodes are available at launch, there will be 1,000 minutes of new animated content created for the title when it’s all said and done. Browngardt talked about their ambitious production process, especially during the tie of the pandemic, and plans for the future, as well as digging into the deep past of the series in order to source out inspiration. You may be surprised to find out just how far he went.
Listen above, read along below, and be sure to check out Looney Tunes Cartoons on HBO Max!
Sir, first of all, how are you today and how are you holding up during the quarantine? That obviously is, first and foremost, on everybody’s thoughts today.
Peter Browngardt: Yeah, for sure. I’m doing well. I have a family of three children, and of course my wife. We’re in Burbank, we’re doing well, my son just finished first grade today.
Peter Browngardt: We’re celebrating with a lunch for him for that, and hanging in there, respecting the quarantine, and doing our part.
Good to hear. When I get to talk to voice actors and animators and producers like yourself, a lot of times people say in these specific difficult times that we’re having, animation is a solace and escape for people. But at the same time on the professional side, a lot of them are saying, they’re actually seeing an uptake in the amount of work, just because animation is an easier production process to go through during these times. Have you seen a lot of changes, either professionally or personally, in the animation business?
Peter Browngardt: I mean, yeah. The great thing about animation is you can do it anywhere. As long as you have a computer, or some art supplies, equipment and internet connection, or electricity, I should say, you could do it anywhere. We pretty seamlessly transitioned. I mean, there were some bumps in the road, but we left the office. I think it was around March 13th maybe, the Warner Bros. Studios animation students, and we transitioned to working from home really, really quickly. Everyone took their equipment home. Warner Bros. told everyone to just take their computers, and their Cintiqs, which are screen drawing tablets that we draw on. There was some tech glitches here and there, but where we’re at full capacity. We’re full production. We’re doing everything from writing, all the way to a final mix. We actually did a final mix, where we have our mixer, Charlie, is allowed to go on the lot by himself. We have a back and forth, he sends me previews, I give notes, talk to him on the phone. It’s been really productive. It’s funny, some artists, some of the crew, there has been a little different production, and some of them are more productive than ever. I think it’s a case by case, but as a whole, we have close to 50 people working in Burbank. We’re all working.
That’s crazy though, just to think of the logistics involved with that. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but you have roughly 20 years in the business, both from the artistic side, the production, writing, and creating side. Would you say that your experience in the industry, I don’t know that you can ever really be prepared for something like this, but would you say that flexibility, that ability to adapt, has that prepared you for this, being able to take on this challenge?
Peter Browngardt: Yeah, no, absolutely. I think also we were kind of a well oiled machine going into the pandemic. We’ve been all working together. I started the project in the fall of 2017, then we started production early 2018, probably January, I think was my first hire. We were were moving. I think that we all knew each other, we knew the process, we know our pipeline, and we have great production people, great production manager, great line producer. Just, it’s all your people, right? It comes down to having great people and great directors, great art director. It’s just… Supervising producer, Alex Kirwan. I mean, it’s just, we had a really solid team. I was really proud of the team I was able to put together for this project. Artistically, it’s probably one of the best productions I’ve ever been involved with, as far as, the level of talent is pretty unreal. I think it reflects in the results. I’ve been really super proud of the shorts and quality.
Yeah. I’ve had a chance to check out three of the full episodes. Six of the story segments, three of the interstitials, which were just absolutely fantastic. They’re both this nostalgic nod to the originals, they have that familiar feeling to it, but they also have this new energy and a really clean look. I love that you guys went back to some of the original music too, then freshened that up a little bit. So, 20 years in the industry for you, but I believe this is your first time involved with a Looney Tunes title. Is that correct?
Peter Browngardt: Yeah. Yeah. It all started where I met with one of the creative executives at Warner Bros. Animation that I had known from another company. She had just started, pretty early, started at Warner Bros., and she called me. We usually had a lunch about every year or so. Usually, I would probably gear towards just doing original things.
Because, that’s my passion. I never would have done that in the past, but I have such an affection for Looney Tunes. I was like, “Well, she’s at Warner Bros., now.” I went to lunch, and she was talking to me about a different project. I was like, “I don’t know if that project is right for me,” but at that lunch I just said, “Can I direct a Looney Tunes short? Just one, let me do one, because, I just love it.” It’s why it hit me at an early age, and I started watching them real young, learned about the two famous directors, and all that. I think she was like, “Well, we have this new thing in development, I’m doing a large amount of shorts. You should come, and sit with Sam Register.” I went, I met Sam, and I didn’t have anything prepared, other than just, I always knew what I would do with it. It’s this, I just said, “I would just go back to my favorite era of Looney Tunes, and try to capture in 2018 or 2017 time, what I feel makes those shorts and those characters so great.”
I think certain things helped, Mickey Mouse shorts happening at Disney. Certain things in the business happen, and it makes it okay to do it, you know? Throwback stuff, Cuphead. Certain things, I think help this retro, it’s okay if it looks a little retro, it’s now cool. I just wanted to do that, because that’s just the way I think it should be. It wasn’t necessarily cool. Yeah. I think it’s cool, but that’s what those characters should be today. That are with the style and energy. I just verbally pitched. I said, “I feel I know what I could do with this.” I would go back to the mid ’40s era, where Bugs has a lot of energy, Daffy was still Daffy. Trying to capture that surrealism, energy, visuals, funny drawings. Nothing will ever touch the classic shorts, nothing will, but you can love that. You can use them as a source of inspiration and passion to try to capture that magic, and share it to a new generation, add some modern humor to it, add some modern look. The art direction, look more sophisticated, some sophisticated art direction, make it look great.
Yeah. I think we’re on the same page there, because I love that era, those classics that you talked about, but I also love what you guys have done with this modern version. There’s not a whole lot of modern touchstones or contemporary nods to anything. It feels timeless. It feels you could have just lifted some of these stories with a freshened, cleaned-up animation in the modern era, which I love.
You were obviously excited about having this opportunity, but was it daunting when they were like, “Yeah, we’re going to need 80 of these stories, so get to work?”
Peter Browngardt: Yeah. 800 minutes, or it’s 1,000 minutes, we’re actually doing 1,000 minutes.
Peter Browngardt: 800 will be on HBO Max. Another 200, who knows what will happen with those, but it’s great. The great thing about it is… There’s a couple of things that I think, as somebody who’s worked a while in the business and have a lot of experience putting shows out, was that we had no standards and practices. I think that was the biggest thing. We didn’t have the show sold to HBO Max, because there was no HBO Max.
This was an initiative made through Warner Bros., just as a company to go, “We need to bring these characters back in a great way.” With Sam Register’s wisdom of going, “The only way to really do it, if you want to bring it back, is to not constrict these artists with standards and practices, and all these little things that you have to deal with.” We hadn’t sold a show. They just gave us a budget to make it, because they knew they could sell it. Who’s not going to buy it? Somebody’s going to buy Looney Tunes, right?
Peter Browngardt: Well, they just said, “Go.” We just started making them. Sometimes we went a little too far, and sometimes we maybe lost track, but we needed to do that to try to find and capture that, because those guys didn’t have standards and practices. They just had Leon Schlesinger going, “Make me laugh, then we’ll go over the budget.”
Peter Browngardt: That’s pretty much it. To be honest, that’s what we had. We’d have meetings with Sam and Audrey [Diehl], and we just show them. It would go… Early on, Sam would be like, “Great, let me see the next one.” I’d go, “When is it going to drop?” When are we going to go, “Well, that might be a little too much, or that might be a lot.” They really let us, and I’m a responsible producer and director. I’m not going to do something that feels out of line with these famous characters that I love, respect, and honor. I’m not going to try to shift what they’re not, I’m going to try to honor what they are.
Yeah. I think that definitely comes through, too.
Peter Browngardt: Yeah. Another big thing was, right away, control of the stories. I said, “I want to have every short at my fingertips on the server.” I want every short; there’s almost over a thousand. I think it’s something like 1,030, or around 1,030. Some haven’t been released in years, and super hard to find. Of course, I asked Warner Bros., “We don’t have that, we have the DVD releases and all that.” I was like, “Oh, I already own those. I need all of them, I want all of them.”
While looking for talent and artists, I interviewed this one guy, and I really liked his stuff. “I was thinking of you for a storyboard artist, I want to talk to you.” Went to lunch. I talked to him, and at that lunch, I mentioned that I was trying to get after him. He goes, “What do I have?” I go, “You have all the shorts, QuickTimes?” “Yeah. Every single one.” I said, “Well, I was planning on hiring you anyway.”
Peter Browngardt: We would’ve got it from an outside source, and we cleaned up there. That was just a resource that I don’t think anyone’s ever had before. The makings, where we could look up at in a matter of seconds. Look at any short, scan through it, find the joke, find the shot, find the background we wanted to reference or be inspired by, or just watch the whole short.
We did that within meetings with the full team, where we would just watch a short, and I would break it down, go through it, and dissect why I think it works. We really looked at the structure of Looney Tunes, the story structure, there is a structure there, and how gags… how they really started, and really broke down their personalities, their archetypes. Other thing we did, a big thing was we didn’t try to mix up the casting. We didn’t put characters together that really never have been together.
I think that really is a big thing, because they were designed to work off each other, those characters, in specific ways. It was certain things that just pinpointed things, that by watching the old shorts, go, “Why are we changing this? This is why it worked!” We did backgrounds, we wrote the stories the way we try to do the animation with that story, reanimate, stuff like that. It was just a lot of that to get what we’ve got.
Exactly. Before I run out of time with you today, I definitely want to dig into that archival research that you did a little bit more. Probably my last question for you, but going through those lost or forgotten episodes, what’s maybe the craziest gag or sequence, or even a character that you pulled out, that maybe you didn’t use directly? Or, maybe influenced some of your approaches for these new episodes?
Peter Browngardt: I had seen a lot of them already. The big thing was one of the touchstones, which is a release of a black-and-white Porky Pig shorts, which Jerry Beck shepherded out. That came out right when I started this project, and I watched all those. There was definitely the partnership of Daffy and Porky. I mean, I was familiar with it. Before starting this project, I’d seen some of the more ’40 shorts, the mid ’40 shorts, where they were teamed up. Playing the shorts like, “Baby Bottleneck.” Stuff like that, where they’re a team. I’d never seen a lot of the black-and-white ones. I said, “Man, they haven’t even released them.” I even have a laser disc collection. Remember laser disc?
Those are some of my favorite trends. Now look, I’m a big film nerd. I really respect animation, and I try to find the best versions of all the products that come out. That being said, I just feel that’s one of the stories of our series. I think once it all comes out and people start seeing and recognizing, is that the team of Porky and Daffy is one of the great comedic team-ups ever done in cinema history. I just think they put those characters together, it’s so funny, the [Bob] Clampett ones, the [Tex] Avery ones, the Frank Tashlin ones. From the late thirties, Porky was created in ’35, and he was the first star, then they teamed him up with Daffy. Tex Avery created Daffy. Bob Clampett animated the first Daffy Duck scene. It’s just, those two characters are very special to us, and are some of our favorite shorts we did, and some of our favorite comedy to write and reduce. I feel that was going back into the history of looking at it.
That was something that got lost, because what happened was, Chuck Jones wanted to put Daffy and Bugs together. In order for that comedy work, he had to alter Daffy’s personality. Daffy Duck became this petty asshole, pardon my french.
Peter Browngardt: But they did that, because Bugs had to have somebody to play off of, right? For that comedy to work, which I get, and some of those shorts are some of my favorites. But the duo from the late ’30s was such a Laurel and Hardy type, or Abbott and Costello type duo, that it’s just so much fun, because you’ve got those two archetypes of this crazy Daffy Duck. You got this, everyman Porky Pig wants to do the right thing and wants to be responsible. That just, it’s the outcome. It’s just fantastic. We just put them in all these different adventures, and it’s just been so much fun. That really was the big one for us.
Yeah. You guys have definitely tapped into that magic. Honestly, I could just geek out with you about animation history all day, but unfortunately I’m out of time. Thank you so much for your time today.
Peter Browngardt: I appreciate it.