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'Ren & Stimpy' and Its Creator: A Parting of Ways : Animation: John Kricfalusi fought with Nickelodeon over deadlines, finances and the ribald nature of his cartoon.

September 28, 1992|DANIEL CERONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the cable TV channel Nickelodeon set out three years ago to build an original library of children's cartoons, it did so by breaking from tradition and hiring single animators with a personal vision rather than large studios where cartoons are factory produced.

But one animator's vision, independent attitude and exacting work habits wound up being a little more than Nickelodeon bargained for.

Nickelodeon is expected to formally announce today the removal of director and producer John Kricfalusi from his own creation, "The Ren & Stimpy Show," Nickelodeon's most successful original cable program, because the program's delivery deadlines were not being met. Nickelodeon confirmed Friday that it was firing the animator.

Kricfalusi said on Sunday that the demands of jointly producing a cartoon series with a cable network were just too great. Kricfalusi wanted to stretch the walls of animation into forbidden regions, while Nickelodeon wanted to stay within the boundaries of good taste for its young viewers.

"Nickelodeon wants something for the show. I want something for the show," Kricfalusi said, expressing relief that he was now free to pursue other projects. "They're both very strong visions, and together they made for a really great show. But in pure reality, when you mix two really strong visions, it's going to take a long, long time to do the work."

One of Kricfalusi's former partners, Bob Camp, has been named the new master of Ren and Stimpy. Nickelodeon executives were in Los Angeles Friday searching for floor space to start their own animation studio, where Camp will continue working on nine 22-minute episodes that are now in various stages of production. The network was unable to say when new episodes will be ready.

"They have all my creative work," said Kricfalusi, who relinquished the rights to Ren and Stimpy to Nickelodeon two years ago to establish his young production company. Kricfalusi would not say what his future involvement with "Ren & Stimpy" will be, because his attorneys are still involved in negotiations, but he suggested that it will be minimal at best.

"In the long run, this will be a good thing for everyone," Camp said on Friday. "John is like a not-ready-for-prime-time player. The idea of him doing children's programming--it was good children's programming, great stuff, but he was not in his element."

Three years ago, Kricfalusi, Camp, Jim Smith and Lynn Naylor could no longer stomach the strict standards of the Saturday-morning cartoon Establishment. They broke away to form Spumco, a renegade studio where animation would be free to run as wild as their imaginations. Led by Kricfalusi, their ticket to independence was "Ren & Stimpy," a really twisted dog and cat version of Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, with Ren an irascible Chihuahua and Stimpy a bloated cat.

"Ren & Stimpy" premiered last season on Nickelodeon with six endlessly rerun episodes and became an instant cult hit, spawning college fan clubs, national media attention and loads of merchandising.

But in many ways, Spumco was a high-pressure creative boiler waiting to explode. Kricfalusi, who proudly claims to have been fired by almost every animation studio in town, was constantly fighting with Nickelodeon over deadlines, finances and the ribald nature of his cartoon.

" 'Ren & Stimpy' is a highly choreographed performer, where the drawings, the backgrounds, the color, the music are all like actors working together," Kricfalusi said. He believes that modern animation is devoid of real motion and visual humor because the stories are written in script form by writers, rather than on storyboards by cartoonists--the time-consuming method he employed on "Ren & Stimpy."

"We were doing what they did in the 1940s at Warner Bros., but we're not in the 1940s anymore," Kricfalusi said. "There's no training ground for this. We were reinventing the wheel."

"There are three shows that are in the offing here that were going to be our 'magnum opus,' " said story editor Eddie Fitzgerald. "John just needed more time. John's feels that traditional animation lacks acting. A little boy crying over his dead puppy is not acting; acting is what Kirk Douglas did in 'Detective Story.' The reliance the industry has had in cliched story lines doesn't require acting. So John tailored the stories around the need to act."

Kricfalusi, who has been known to submit storyboards for network approval and then animate something quite different, also bumped heads with Nickelodeon over content. Nickelodeon recently shelved two completed cartoons, starring a new character named George Liquor, because they were too offensive. One of the episodes, "Man's Best Friend," shows Ren bashing in Liquor's head with a wooden oar--in black-and-white slow motion a la "Raging Bull." Several sources in the animation community who have seen the episode say it's Kricfalusi's best work.

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