Interview, Studios, Warner Animation

Interview With Matt Sullivan, ‘Bunnicula’ Story Artist

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On February 6th, Warner Bros. Animation’s Bunnicula debuted on Cartoon Network and the sister network Boomerang. Based on Deborah and James Howe’s 1979 novel of the same name (a personal favorite of the interviewer’s), the series tells the story of Bunnicula, a vampire rabbit who victimizes vegetables. Bunnicula makes lots of mischief, and said mischief often attracts other supernatural creatures. When this happens, it falls to Bunnicula and his friends Harold (a sweet-natured but not-too-bright mutt) and Chester (a smart but extremely nervous cat) to protect their owner, Mina.

Matt Sullivan is one of the story artists behind Bunnicula. He graciously agreed to sit down with us and tell us a little about the making of the show!

AJ Howell: How did the Bunnicula TV series come about? How did you decide that Deborah and James Howe’s novel was the book to adapt?

Well first off, I wasn’t part of the development team. It was originally conceived by producer/director Jessica Borutski and Maxwell Atoms, who you may know as the creator of The Grim adventures of Billy & Mandy. According to a recent interview with Jessica on Animation Scoop…

“Two and a half years ago, Sam Register, who is head of Warner Bros Animation, told me they have the rights to this book called Bunnicula. It’s about a vampire rabbit who drains vegetables, and I knew that was something I’d love to develop, I loved the idea of it. That’s when it started. The first thing I did was just a one page drawing of Bunnicula’s expressions, and a vibe of what he would look like. I sent that back to Sam, and he said “We love it, this is great! Let’s keep moving forward,” and from there we started storyboarding the pilot. From day one, I loved the character, because he’s very cute, but he has this polar opposite side where he can also have a demon face or be completely scary at the same time and I like that contradictory personality type.”

How did you become a part of the Bunnicula crew?

I’ve been friends with Maxwell Atoms since sixth grade. Early last year, he asked if I’d be interested in doing a few freelance storyboards on a new Bunnicula series. And that was pretty much it. I wish there was a better story behind it, but I basically needed a job.

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The series is different from the source novel in many ways. What changes did you make?

There are numerous differences between the book and the show. As a storyboard artist, I was not responsible for these changes, but I’ll try and explain without spoiling too much. I personally believe these changes were made for the sake of television, and to expand the universe in order to lend itself to animation better. The book lends itself more toward a feature film than an animated series, if anything.

In the book, it’s never really proven if Bunnicula is actually a vampire. In the show, he pretty much is. He’s weakened by sunlight, he can fly by transforming his ears into batwings, he can turn into mist, has no reflection in a mirror, all the typical vampire stuff. He can remove his own head and other various limbs. Instead of drinking blood he drains vegetables of their juice. Unlike the book, different vegetables give him different abilities. Again, these were added to give the show a more supernatural/spooky tone. It takes place in New Orleans, which is a perfect location for a series like Bunnicula.

In the books, Harold the dog is something of an intellectual. In the show, he’s kind of a lovable goofball. Not so much dumb as he is mellow. Things don’t tend to bother him like they do to Chester. Giant cockroach? No problem. Zombies? Neat! Ghosts in the plumbing? Awesome. That’s basically Harold. Everything is cool, and Bunnicula’s weirdness doesn’t bother him at all. The reason for this change, as far as I know, was because the cast already has a stuck-up paranoid intellectual, and that’s Chester. I believe it was done to give each character more distinct personalities.

The biggest change I can think of is the main human protagonist, Mina. In the original Bunnicula novels, Bunnicula, Chester, and Harold were part of the Monroe family. If I had to hazard a guess this was done in order to attract more of a young adult/female audience. I’m really not sure. I like to personally think of Mina as a distant cousin to the Monroes. Yeah…yeah… that makes it all better right? I’m not the executive producer, so I don’t really know. She’s a really fun character though. She’s interested in creepy things that might unnerve a more mundane individual. She’s interested in things like ancient torture devices and voodoo. Definitely not a girly girl!

James Howe is credited as a consulting producer on Bunnicula. How did the original author’s involvement impact the show?

I’m not sure. I worked from home and never met the man. I would have loved to, though.

What’s your typical workday like?

I swig about 3-4 cups of coffee, then sit down at my computer. We use ToonBoom Storyboard Pro, which is pretty much industry standard by now, though some of our board artists use Photoshop or other programs. I’ll spend most of the day making rough thumbnails. Once I’ve settled on the staging, I’ll try and assemble an animatic to see what works and what doesn’t. As a board artist, it’s not necessary to make an animatic, but I find it helps me personally. Others simply prefer to pitch their boards from within Storyboard Pro. I’m probably the one who kinda overdoes it. In fact, my first storyboard was 22 minutes, a typical half-hour episode in length. I found out much later that we were doing two 11-minute episodes per show, so either they had to cut out half my work, or they turned it into a two-parter in post-production. I would have felt bad about it, but I was having so much fun drawing monsters and horror stuff it didn’t really matter.

The only thing that bothers me are standards and practices, cutting out edgier gags and such to make it more acceptable for children. It’s got a good balance between cute and scary. We try and make it spooky but not overtly frightening. That’s just how it goes when you work for a large corporation. Angry parents won’t think twice about suing Warner Bros if Bunnicula scares their kids. Those parents are lazy and expect cartoonists to raise their kids for them. Just my opinion, not that of Warner Bros. But I digress…

Since I work at home, I don’t have to commute into Burbank. Thank goodness. Every few weeks, I’ll head to the Warner Bros lot to pitch my work to a room full of artists, producers, actors, and very concerned film/TV executives. Usually after these meetings, everyone will give their opinions. Of course, they’ll cut out certain things that might be too intense for young children. Pity, too, because it’s not often you get to work on a fun, dark, spooky show. The temptation to fill it up with a ton of horror staples is quite strong.  You have to check yourself when creating your storyboard. Well, at least I do. If it were up to me, every episode of Bunnicula would be more like Friday the 13th or Hellraiser.

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What appeals to you most about Bunnicula?

The supernatural elements and the overall atmosphere, not to mention that I love the style of the show! We have rich, dark backgrounds and solid character design. I’m not much of a fan of the super flat, pseudo-anime, this-is-clearly-flash, why-is-it-so ugly school of character design that has plagued American animation for years. This is a fun show to draw, and it’s not as limited by the constraints of the book.

What are your hopes for Bunnicula? Where do you hope to see the show in, say, five years?

I just hope people watch it. I hope it’s able to find an audience. I’d naturally like to see it renewed for several seasons, there’s so much potential. Five years? Hopefully it knows when to end like Breaking Bad and doesn’t go on forever as a shell of its former self.

Like any show I’ve ever worked on, I always hope it appeals to as large an audience as possible. Especially after months of eyestraining, backbreaking work that is often harshly criticized by Reddit or and 4chan. I want to see fan art and gifs aplenty. I want bad fanfiction and a large fan base of nerds who argue about minute details and scrutinize every frame looking for animation errors. I want it all, dadgummit!

 

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About AJ Howell

AJ's love of movies began when his mom took him to see The Lion King on a warm California day in 1994. He left the theater with his mind blown and with a strong desire to become a filmmaker. AJ's fascinated with films of all kinds, but animated films have always held a special place in his heart, particularly Disney animation, the work of Chuck Jones, and Bill Melendez and Lee Mendelson's Peanuts specials. His favorite animated films include (but aren't limited to) Frozen, Beauty And The Beast, Surf's Up, The Bugs Bunny/RoadRunner Movie, and Toy Story 3. Along with films, AJ also loves pop and rock music, hiking, the beach, comic books, traveling, writing, acting, and baseball.
  • Fred M

    So on point with the flat character designs on TV. This guy seems to know what’s up.

  • Rachel Wagner

    Really interesting to hear the background behind the animation. I am unfamiliar with the property but will have to check it out.

  • Alexandria Lynn

    Wait, they made a Bunnicula cartoon? SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY!!!!!

  • Nairo Camilo

    This guy, he may not know the accurate answer to half of the questions, but he knows what is going on
    XD
    I’m loving the series actually. I like it being in New Orleans and the pets’ owner Mina. She is kind of a weird-loving geek