Like many kids, Chris Savino enjoyed a steady diet of cartoons and comic strips when he was young, but didn’t realize that animation was a career choice until late in high school. He immersed himself in all the animation books he could find in his local libraries, and discovered the Ren & Stimpy “Big House Blues” pilot episode at an animation festival. After learning that Ren & Stimpy was becoming a new series on Nickelodeon, he mailed a letter and some art to John Kricfalusi, which ultimately led to a job offer to join the staff of the new show. So at age 19, Mr. Savino left his home in Michigan for Los Angeles and a career in animation.
Since then, Mr. Savino has racked up credits on shows like Samurai Jack, Dexter’s Laboratory, The Powerpuff Girls, Ni Hao, Kai-lan, Johnny Test, and Kick Buttowski: Suburban Daredevil. A submission to the Nickelodeon Shorts program led to The Loud House, the first series greenlit from the program and loosely based on Mr. Savino’s life growing up in a household as one of 10 children. On the eve of the show’s premiere on Nickelodeon, we were able to talk with Chris Savino via telephone about the show’s origins and more.
TOONZONE NEWS: You’ve mentioned in a few other interviews that the original pitch for The Loud House was with rabbits, and that Nickelodeon’s Jenna Boyd suggested going with people. How did that fit into the whole timeline of the development of the show?
CHRIS SAVINO: It was pretty early on during the shorts process. I had pitched the idea for the show with the rabbits, which they liked because they did say they were looking for a “big family” pitch and it fit what they were looking for. The idea for short was trying to make it down the hall to the bathroom. The meeting went well, they approved the story after I had read through it with them, and then literally, Jenna pulled me aside as we were all leaving the room and said, “Consider making them human.”
You know at first, I was against it. Just in my mind, I was totally against it because I knew I wanted to do funny animals, but by the time I got to my desk I realized she was absolutely right. I don’t know if she had a foresight about what the audience was looking for at the time, or maybe it was time for a human show, or that she knew that the show that I wanted to do and the stories I was hoping to tell would be relate-able with humans, or the fact that Nickelodeon had just bought 3 funny animal cartoons and that she was just looking out for me that, “It’s probably more likely that they’ll buy a human-based show over a funny animal cartoon next.” She was absolutely right, on all fronts I think. Honestly, I don’t think I would be doing any of these interviews if I had kept it rabbits. But you know, it didn’t change anything. Later on when we talked about it, I think the hook she was trying to get at was that it doesn’t change the core idea. You’re still doing the exact same show that you wanted to do.
I’m celebrating my 25th anniversary today. Exactly 25 years I’ve been in the industry, and if I’ve learned one thing, it’s to listen. That doesn’t mean “listen” in the way that you think the word “listen” means, but listen to where ideas come from and listen to input and why people are saying certain things. I really did listen to what she said and I really did figure out why she was saying it. Had I not listened to her, it’d be a different story today I think. It may have been a good short, but that’s probably all it would have been. In listening to what she had to say, and really figuring out the “why” of it, it makes perfect sense now.
TOONZONE NEWS: Was it always based on your own experiences? You did grow up in a very large family.
CHRIS SAVINO: I did, it was 10 total kids: 5 boys and 5 girls. But you know what’s funny? When it was rabbits for that short period of time, I had never even thought about my childhood. I didn’t connect the dots. Maybe that’s what she was seeing: that when it’s humans you do connect those dots. I kid you not, as soon as it switched from rabbits to humans…and I have the art. I took the model sheet of the rabbit, and I erased the ears and erased the triangle nose and erased the bunny tail, and Lincoln is literally the exact the same model as a rabbit as it is a human, with just those few changes. Just his hair and maybe the color of his shirt. And plus pants. But it wasn’t until it became a human that it connected to my life growing up. The Loud House isn’t autobiographical, per se. It’s more just when an idea comes from experience. They say write what you know, and there’s just something about it that feels authentic. I think that it started to bring more of an authentic air to the ideas and characters than it had been with rabbits, and not just silly slapstick versions of real characters. Maybe it wasn’t as multi-dimensional as it became as well.
I did start pulling from little pieces to feel like I was pulling it from my own reality. The 25 rabbits sisters had all “B” names because that was the one letter that had as many female-sounding names as I could think of. We narrowed it down to 10 sisters really fast, and then I thought, “Well, my sister’s names all start with ‘L’ and they all have 4 letters, so I’m going to start there.” I don’t know where my mom got the idea to do all “L”s and all 4 letters, since it doesn’t exist anywhere else in the family, but that’s what she did. So Lori, Lisa, Lynn, Luan, and Lana were those 5 sisters. When I had to come up with 5 more 4-letter “L” names, strangely enough, they all existed in my life. There was our wiener dog Lola, and there our mother-in-law’s wiener dog Luna. Lily and Lucy were 2 names that my wife and I had on our list of baby names if we had a girl, and we loved those names a lot. The last name was Leni, which was kind of a hold-over from when it was rabbits. It was based on the character Lennie from Of Mice and Men: the big, super-sweet guy that doesn’t know his own strength character. I just changed the spelling to be four letters, and I knew that the “Leni” name existed in history as a woman’s name. Of course, her character changed through the process of development.
It was so cool to pull it from my life, and I think my sisters would be flattered by the notion, but their namesakes don’t really match their personas. Personally, I wasn’t pulling from that. I do think that it was less about boys vs. girls but more character traits vs. character traits. Once you know who Lincoln is, the characteristics of those other characters can directly contrast or directly conflict with this boy who wants to just do stuff in this crowded house.
TOONZONE NEWS: What about Lincoln’s name?
CHRIS SAVINO: The only name I didn’t have was Lincoln. When it was rabbits, I think his name was Warren, which was just a play on words because rabbits live in a warren. But as soon as I started pulling from my life, I was like, “Of course, I grew up on a street named Lincoln.” And as soon as I said it out loud to people, like, “What do you think of Lincoln?” they were like, “Oh that’s great! I’ve never heard that in a cartoon before!” So it’s Lincoln, and it worked as an alliteration as well.
The name of the show was The Loud House when it was rabbits, but there was no connection to a last name. It was just loud because they were 26 kids. But when I was going into punch-up mode of the storyboard of the short, I was throwing around ideas with Scott Kreamer, one of the gentlemen who’s at Nickelodeon. He’s now a DP on Pinky Malinky. I asked him if he wanted to help out and he said, “sure,” so he emailed me after he left and said, “I just want to make sure as I’m going through this tonight that the last name of the family is ‘Loud,’ right?” And I replied immediately, “It is now!” (laughs) It had never even occurred to me. But the alliteration with the “L”s it all just kind of fell into place. And every time one of those nice little moments of happenstance took place, it just reassured me that Jenna’s suggestion to make them human was right.
TOONZONE NEWS: Have any of your siblings seen episodes yet?
CHRIS SAVINO: Yes, it’s super cute. They’ll send me videos. There was a creator video on Nick.com and they all got together one Sunday morning and watched it on TV together, which was really cute. They’ll send me snippets of texts or whatever saying they’ve seen the episode and they love it. I think that they’re just flattered that their names are synonymous with this cartoon now, and I think that there’s pride in it all the time how they’re telling this person or that person that they ran into about the show. I just feel really lucky that they have a sense of pride about the show and the achievement of the show. And my brothers too. Two of them have already texted me like, “Gosh darn it, there better be a Michael and a Frankie in there!” I’m like, “OK. I’ll find a spot for your names.” Maybe not in the family.
TOONZONE NEWS: On the flip side of that, though, do you ever worry about hitting too close to home, or pushing buttons that maybe you shouldn’t?
CHRIS SAVINO: With my family?
TOONZONE NEWS: Yeah.
CHRIS SAVINO: You know, I was the only one who drew in my family, but the one thing that my siblings all have is a sense of humor. I think they find humor in everything. I think it’s the one thing that got us through a lot of tough times growing up is joking about it. Not in a bad way, but to help you get through. I feel like if you can laugh at things, it really helps to kind of heal you. So I think they see the humor in everything they do. I never really have pulled from anything that they have done and applied it directly to a sibling. Lincoln is usually the guy that does all the screwing up.
It’s just pieces, too. Like I was a fidgeter in second grade, and I had to have the seat taken off my chair in front of everybody. It was an embarrassing moment and of course, I remember it like it was yesterday. That isn’t a whole story, but it’s something that could make its way into a story, and I think that there’s flavor of authenticity in there. If you’re watching it, you’re like, “Gosh, that had to have happened to somebody in their life. How do you make that up?” So it’s more about the feeling of authenticity of the show rather than specific ideas. I think all the writers and even the storyboard team, most of them have siblings and most of them will bring something to the table like, “Oh, when I was a kid, this happened…” And we’re like, “That’s great, we should use that!” It just feels authentic rather than like we are revealing someone’s deep dark secret as a child that they don’t want revealed.
CHRIS SAVINO: Well, you know, I’m for either way. It depends on what the show idea demands. We have 11 characters to deal with, and if it was storyboard driven…if I was a storyboard artist and I got a premise that was about Lincoln and Lynn, I would focus solely on Lincoln and Lynn and very easily forget about the other 9 characters in the household. So we have to make sure that the others had a presence in the house, even though the story could have been about Lincoln and Lynn. Even if it’s little, they need to be there. I felt that in order to give all the characters their equal screen time and their equal say and equal existence in every episode, it needed to go scripted.
So the show is scripted and we work really hard on turning in…I say the scripts have to only be 95% there, so you’re leaving a tiny bit of room for the storyboard artist to discover things as he or she is storyboarding through the script. Like, “Oh, this character is standing here, there’s a really good opportunity for this joke or this line or this reaction.” They have that freedom to embellish the script. But, on the other side of that, if a board artist boards exactly the script, then it’s still going to be a good storyboard, I believe. Because when you’re putting visuals to words, you can’t help but better the words alone. And so far, so good. I think that it’s rare that a storyboard team loves the scripts that they get because sometimes there are holes or maybe it’s not funny, but we really really are lucky to have not only a great writer’s room but also storyboard artists who appreciate the amount of work that goes into these scripts, especially with all these characters. It’s almost like a choreographed dance sometimes. To see the storyboard artists recognize that and then take it and put visuals to it is kind of a sight to behold. There’s a lot of overlapping and weaving of characters going in and out of the scene like a farce comedy might do, but it’s handled so well and so simply at the same time…it sometimes boggles my mind. I feel like I’ve hired people who are obviously better at doing both of those things than I ever would be.
TOONZONE NEWS: You have said that newspaper comic strips were your first real artistic inspiration, and it’s occurring to me now that juggling a really, really big cast is something that a newspaper strip can do more easily than animation. Strips are on a page, and people have time to look at it.
CHRIS SAVINO: Right (laughs). And yeah, I say “ogle” it because to me, it’s like you pore over these drawings. I would say that if the strip Family Circus was a multi-panel strip instead of a single circle every day, all those panels would probably look the same. Let the characters be funny and fun and the thing that I pay attention to, not the camera. You don’t want to disorient people by cutting too much. That’s kind of one of the rules we do up front. Characters are funny, the camera is not. Don’t bother doing a down 3/4 shot or an up 3/4 shot just for the sake of doing it. If you want a dramatic shot, by all means, put it in there, but do it because it’s what the shot needs.
It’s simple staging, and it’s also that we knew that someone else would have to animate this stuff, and the fact that we went to (Toon Boom) Harmony was a product of that. I couldn’t imagine a poor animator who had to draw all 11 characters by hand in one scene running around, and then do 12 drawings per second for it. They would go out of their mind. So knowing that somebody had to animate all this, we were like, “Let’s keep it as simple as possible,” and that dictated backwards how simple the staging would be. Kind of left-to-right, and the builds in Harmony are straight-on, so let’s just keep all the shots straight on. That way our animators don’t have to worry about tweaking a build to make it look like an up 3/4 shot. They can just spend their time animating. That kind of dictated backwards to really reinforce the reinforce the comic strip angle, where you don’t have to move the camera around. You can just let the characters be who they are, and pay attention to that rather than the filmmaking of it. It’s just simple-simple-simple is kind of the mantra.
We do this thing here which is that everybody’s position or job is to make the job that came before them better and the job ahead of them easier. It translates all the way through to animation. We send our shipments with as much information as we can give to the animation studio, so that they aren’t fixing any problems that we may have sloughed off down the road. They can spend their time doing what they do best, which is bringing the cartoon to life. I think it shows in the post-production part of it. It’s a really smooth post-production process. I’ve been in some real bears of post-production, where you’re literally re-writing the cartoon and re-structuring it in post, which is the worst time to do it, obviously. Our post-production exists, but it’s mainly sitting with our first pass edit and just making some of the jokes play funnier or the scenes edit better or just trimming it down if it’s 15 seconds too long. Sometimes, it’s hard to even do that. The show’s kind of worked so well as a first-pass work print it’s hard to figure out what to cut sometimes, and that is a classy problem to have when you’re in the editing bay rather than, “Oh my God, this story doesn’t work and this hole is big enough to drive a truck through. How do we fix it?” That, to me, I think is a result of the success of the people on the crew doing their part in making the job that came before them better and the job that comes after them easier.
TOONZONE NEWS: I had two questions to ask just to round it all out. As I understand it, you pretty much went straight from high school into Ren & Stimpy and the animation business. Was it all on-the-job training in that 25 years of animation? Or did you ever end up spending time at CalArts or any of those animation schools?
CHRIS SAVINO: Good question. Well, for a year after high school, I installed alarm systems so there was that experience. But if you ever need anything installed, let me know (laughs). You know…I’m being humble for a little bit…I left Michigan at 19, and I was pretty much the only cartoonist I knew and the one person that everybody went to to draw stuff for them. So you get a little bit of an ego, and you think you’re the best cartoonist in the world. Then you get out here and work for the best cartoonists in the world. People who are making Ren & Stimpy, people who literally changed the face of animation with one show, and who worked in the industry for a long time, and I realized really early on that I didn’t know ANYthing. You think you know stuff just by reading books but it is just the on-the-job experience. After the first season of Ren & Stimpy, I was like, “I got to figure out how to make a cartoon.” I had no idea really what it was all about.
There were some very generous people over on Ren & Stimpy that allowed me to pick their brains about things, or look over their shoulder more or less, but I took a step back and was like, “Well OK, I have to start from the beginning.” I took a job in-betweening, because I thought, “If I want to be an animator, this is what I’ve got to do.” So I was in-betweening and in animation for a year or so beyond that, and what it made me realize is that I don’t want to be an animator. I guess I’m too impatient for it. I quickly realized TV was the place I wanted to go and I didn’t want to make characters move so much as I wanted to tell stories with characters. Funny or not — I guess funny is objective — but telling good solid stories was where I felt I wanted to be, and I think I was lucky enough.
I say this all the time: I was in the right place at the right time. I met a guy on my bus trip in to where I worked in Hollywood at Playhouse Pictures, who was wearing a Nickelodeon jacket. One day, I finally got up the nerve to ask him if he worked at Nickelodeon, and he said, “Yeah, I’m working on this show called Rocko’s Modern Life, we’re just getting started, you should come in and show your portfolio to Joe Murray.” I’m like, “Yeah!” The next day, I brought my portfolio and got off the bus with him, and I knew that’s where I wanted to be. I knew that Nickelodeon was making great television at the time, and I wanted to be part of that. I was again, right place right time. I got a job, and the cast and crew of Rocko went on to do amazing things after that. SpongeBob came out of it, and Mark O’Hare did the Citizen Dog comic strip and the voice cast went on to do amazing things. Heffer became SpongeBob, and Steve Hillenburg made SpongeBob, and Dan Povenmire and Swampy Marsh did Phineas & Ferb. The show really just paved the way for all of this talent to nurture themselves, and find out who they were and what kind of shows they wanted to make. Joe and Nickelodeon gave them that freedom.
It took me quite a bit longer and quite a few other jobs and roles before I was able to get The Loud House off the ground, but I felt like it wasn’t about time, it was the Right Time. All my experience of the past 25 years has led to this. It’s not a minute too soon or a minute too late. But yeah, I did learn on-the job-fully, to answer your question. I didn’t go back to school, but you’re always learning, you’re always picking up stuff from people. “Oh, I like how this person does this, and this person does that,” and you kind of make it part of your own style. Over the years, you kind of develop what your point of view is, and hopefully you get an opportunity to share that with other people.
TOONZONE NEWS: I expect The Loud House is consuming your life at the moment, but I did want to ask if there’s anything else you’re working on that you wanted to plug. Anything new related to Bigfoot and Gray, for instance?
CHRIS SAVINO: (laughs) You know, The Loud House should have its day in the sun. Bigfoot and Gray is near and dear to my heart because it’s my interpretation of the kind of cartoons I loved growing up. It’s one of those things where you have to have a project. Even though The Loud House is consuming and it’s a lot of work, I feel like it’s still a group effort. It’s not “my” thing. So Bigfoot and Gray is something I do at home, and it’s my way of doing something that’s wholly my own. I do a comic of it and I try and post the progress of it to keep me honest and get it done. I can’t lie and say I wouldn’t love to do it as a cartoon some day, but right now it’s The Loud House first. Anything that happens with Bigfoot and Gray would be icing on the cake, but I’m quite happy with what I have currently.
Toonzone would like to thank Chris Savino for taking the time to talk with us, and to the team at Nickelodeon PR for all their assistance in getting this interview together. The Loud House is currently available on nick.com, the Nick app, and Nick On Demand. The show premieres on Nickelodeon on Monday, May 2, 2016, at 5:00 PM (ET/PT), with new episodes premiering at the same time on weekdays through May.The thread view count is 1344