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Animated Series Stuck in Doghouse : Television: CBS promoted 'Family Dog' for its spring lineup, but production snags will delay the Spielberg production until fall.


When CBS broadcast the Grammy Awards in February, the network used the music industry's highly rated ceremony as a platform to hype "The Family Dog," an animated TV series from executive producers Steven Spielberg, "Batman" director Tim Burton and onetime "All in the Family" writer Dennis Klein.

Despite rumors in the animation industry that "Family Dog" was overrun by production problems, CBS launched a promotional campaign to introduce America to a nameless mutt that looked like a cross between a bull terrier and a large rat. The Grammy spots arrived on the heels of a news conference with Burton and Klein, and a flurry of media stories and print advertisements--all suggesting that the series would arrive this spring.

But "Family Dog" is nowhere to be seen today--and won't be, CBS says, until the fall.

Sources working on "Family Dog" say the series has been plagued by a string of production problems stemming from the rush to meet CBS' spring deadline. When March rolled around, there simply weren't enough episodes for CBS to begin airing--which took no one attached to the project by surprise.

"We were on an extremely tight schedule, which only would have worked had every single traffic light been green," said Klein, who wrote all 13 episodes in CBS' initial "Family Dog" order.

"In my mind, I thought that deadline was a real long shot," said Frank Marshall, production executive for Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, which is co-producing "Family Dog" with Universal Television and Warner Bros. Television. Marshall also closely supervised "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" for Amblin.

"I've just been through animation before," he sighed.

Peter Tortorici, senior vice president of program planning for CBS, knew there was a good chance that "Family Dog" would not meet its schedule at the time CBS made the unusual decision to advertise a TV series without an airdate on the Grammys.

"That's why we didn't put the date and time on the promos," Tortorici said. "We hedged. We knew it was iffy. But we took the act of faith and planned and hoped for the best. We at least wanted to make sure we got the tom-tom beating."

The production delays on "Family Dog" have been blamed on everything from the shortage of available animation talent in the United States to unsatisfactory results from the cheap-labor, overseas animators who were subcontracted for the series.

But sources said that the predominant reason "Family Dog" fell behind schedule, panting for breath, is that the demanding cost and time constraints of network television are not compatible with the high level of design and animation that "Family Dog" is attempting.

The average animated feature film runs 70 minutes and takes two or three years to complete. In comparison, with 13 episodes at 23 minutes per episode, "Family Dog" will wind up with 299 minutes--more than four feature films' worth--of animation produced in about a year.

"Family Dog" animating director Chris Buck said the biggest obstacle was "getting used to TV, because TV is a real grind." Buck has a background in feature-length animation on such Walt Disney films as "The Little Mermaid" and "Rescuers Down Under."

"I'm used to having a little more time," he continued. "You have more time to fine tune. TV is a different time frame. You have to grind it out, and you don't have time to finesse things. It's a killer having to let the work go, and watch it go out half-baked. . . . The main hope is that it's still entertaining."

When CBS placed its order last May, the innovative "Family Dog" seemed the perfect cure for the last-place network, looking to take more chances with its programming.

The blueprint for the series was ready-made; Burton had designed the cast and title character years ago as a CalArts student. With writer and director Brad Bird, the off-balanced mutt became a critically acclaimed episode of Spielberg's NBC anthology series "Amazing Stories" in 1987, and Spielberg has reportedly been trying to strike up a TV deal ever since.

"Family Dog" takes a twisted look at suburban family life from the point of view of the household pet. Because the dog does not talk or think out loud--he's really just a dog--the humor is largely nonverbal, communicated through the dog's attitudes, actions and facial expressions. Therein lay the greatest challenge for the storyboard artists and animators.

"Most television animation, if you look at it, is very verbal," Buck said. "Most of it, like 'The Simpsons,' relies on dialogue for laughs. 'Family Dog' has to carry the story and tell jokes with acting and pantomime, and that requires a lot of finesse and intricate designs."

To complicate matters, most of the creative decisions for "Family Dog," at $600,000 an episode, had to be made up front because of the protracted time required to write, record voices for, storyboard, animate, edit and score a single episode.

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