Red Stewart chats with Craig Bartlett about Hey Arnold!…
Craig Bartlett is an American animator who has been working in the animation and television industries since the late-80s. He is best known for creating the cartoon serials Hey Arnold!, Dinosaur Train, and Ready Jet Go!.
Flickering Myth had the privilege to interview him for the release of the Hey Arnold!: The Ultimate Collection DVD set, which will be out on November 20th in North America. And I, in turn, had the honor to conduct it:
Mr. Bartlett, thank you so, so much for talking to me sir. Hey Arnold! was one of those shows that had a profound impact on me in terms of life and creativity, so to be able to speak to you is a great honor.
Thank you, I love hearing this! These are great days for Hey Arnold! because so many people who literally grew up on it and were kids watching it are now out in the world being pros, you know writing and drawing. I can’t believe the talent of the people who are doing Arnold fan-art now. So it’s really cool to see people grow up and respond to it.
No, for sure. For me, it was more about the life lessons the show taught. Thank you so much again.
You bet, my pleasure.
This is a show that seems to keep on giving for you. Two years ago we had the 20th anniversary, last year was the Jungle Movie, and now this year we have the Ultimate Collection coming out on DVD. I know you’re busy with Ready Jet Go!, but what’s it honestly like knowing that one of your creations continues to have a lasting legacy almost a quarter of a century later?
It’s so great, it’s super satisfying because you see this collection and you get to see everything, from the very first claymation short that I made to the first 2-D pilot and then all the episodes with the two movies. And so you get to see the whole arc of the show. I was just talking about how the techniques have changed and changed again since we started. The claymation short was something else entirely! But the Nickelodeon Arnold pilot that we made was shot on film. I remember that it was edited on a moviola [laughs].
Now they’re completely lost in time. That’s how long the show’s been around, it’s crazy.
No, you’re right. Everyone seems to be switching to flash animation, like Arthur transitioned to it. I understand that things change, but luckily the show remains a constant.
That was the goal!
[laughs] One of the reasons it resonates so much is that you and the writers tackled a lot of mature themes and topics that are still relevant today. You talked about child neglect, poverty, homosexuality, bullying, etc….I’m wondering, how did you all strike a balance between not being too subtle and not being preachy?
Oh, that’s a good question. We knew we shouldn’t be preachy, we were always trying to be more gritty and realistic, but we also said the lesson learned has to come….you know, it’s always a little bit ironic. The victory is very tiny, like the characters will get what they hoped for, but then it has to get taken away or “that was meant to be.” You might get a little bit further along in trying to convince somebody of something or change someone, but really tomorrow’s going to be another day and it’s going to kind of go back to the status quo. And that was partly because we were making a TV show, and we knew you want to return to the status quo. The funny stories, the set-ups are still there, however we were also trying to make the kids learn a little bit.
There were examples. Like Harold started out as a pretty one-dimensional bully and we thought, what can we do with Harold? I wanted to redeem him just episode-by-episode because in the beginning he was like, if Arnold did something wrong, he was going to pound him. So there was a threat of violence. And I wanted to make it that finally Harold would like Arnold so much that he would never pound him. It was fun. It was sort of like they were really alive [laughs].
And every time we did another story, we had a chance to grow them more. But you know, here we are, almost 25 years later, and they’re still supposed to essentially be who they are.
That makes sense. Keeping true to the characters, but also giving them room to grow. And speaking of Harold, one of my personal favorite episodes was that one where he’s attracted to the new classmate [editor’s note- “Hey Harold!”]….
Oh Big Patty?
Yeah, Big Patty! And it’s always stayed with me because I had a similar experience where I liked a girl but I wasn’t sure if others in my circle would have liked her. It always almost brings tears to my eyes seeing it.
I thought the Harold/Big Patty thing was great. We did a little bit with Harold and Big Patty with that episode in particular. Steve Viksten wrote the first one where Harold and Patty hit it off and at the end he’s going to stand up for her. Steve loved the movie Marty with Ernest Borgnine, and he always wanted to do a Marty story, and that’s where we landed with Harold and Big Patty.
It was great because then, once we did that, Harold had grown up even more: he’d evolved even more, and now there was something to watch- what’s going to happen between him and Big Patty? And so, I love how the kids who were fans and are now adults, how they love to do all these hook-ups between the characters, and they’re always shipping for like “no, no Harold and Rhonda!” [laughs]
I personally find it kind of hilarious and it just goes to show that there’s something sticky about the characters. People really like the one character with another and they’ll be rooting for them. It makes me laugh to think of fans being serious about it, like “well, what kind of relationship would Harold and Patty have when they were 30?” [laughs].
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