Alumni achieve success in entertainment world
Animators Phil Lord '97 and Chris Miller '97 return to campus this Green Key weekend to present a collection of their animated films, including two segments from their MTV series "Clone High, USA." Their edgy adult cartoons, which are currently on hiatus due to an unresolved controversy over the depiction of a 16-year-old genetic clone of Mahatma Gandhi, will grace the Loew Auditorium screen tonight at 7 and 9 p.m.
The crowd will get a chance to see episodes, such as "Litter Kills -- Literally," which have yet to be shown on prime time television despite the fact that Lord said that the show is "not dead forever." According to Lord, the show attracted an audience of 1.4 million, but that was not enough to prevent MTV from buckling under pressure from Indian politicians.
Despite the uncertain status of their show, Lord and Miller are not worried about the future of "Clone High." They are both currently working on their own projects and have signed a two-year contract to work for 20th Century Fox. Whatever happens, they have a marketable skill that will keep them in Hollywood. And this entre into a notoriously difficult industry is perhaps Lord and Miller's greatest achievement -- they've made a name for themselves as artists who can capture the attention of the 16-to-25 crowd.
"It is an intelligent, well-crafted, funny and stylish show," said Gabriel Schlumberger '96, another Dartmouth alum who works in the animation business. "Whether there is a place for intelligent, well-crafted, funny and stylish shows on TV remains to be seen," Schlumberger said.
Film and television studies professor David Ehrlich, who specializes in animation, said it was important to keep in mind the television industry is currently flooded with inexpensive reality shows. The success of shows like "The Osbournes" make it harder for MTV to justify the time and money needed to create shows like "Clone High," especially given the current weakened economy.
As far as Gandhi goes, Lord said he and Miller were considering changing the character's name to "Gary" or "Randhi," but from "Litter Kills -- Literally," one wonders if this would truly make a difference. In this episode the pint-sized Indian is inadvertently sent to prison because of his new neon orange warm-up suit. He nearly misses getting gang-raped by a bunch of burly inmates who turn out to be warm and cuddly.
"If you don't like ass-kicking, piss-your-pants comedy, then this show probably isn't for you," Lord says. But for all its attitude, Clone High is strangely heartfelt and sincere. In the new episode, the cloned Joan of Arc pines for her crush Abe Lincoln, who in turn comforts J.F.K. after the death (by litter) of his best friend Ponce de Len.
The actual animation, done in Korea, is similar to that of shows like "Ren and Stimpy" and "The Power Puff Girls." But on an emotional level, mostly because of its sophisticated script, "Clone High" reminds a viewer of shows like "Dawson's Creek" or "My So Called Life."
"Clone High" is probably best compared to "Daria," but it lacks that show's nihilistic undertones. It is its own unique creation, but one that reflects a sense of characterization that Ehrlich said Lord and Miller developed while at Dartmouth.
In fact, much of Lord and Miller's style can be traced back to what they learned as undergraduates. Both Lord and Miller wrote for the Jack-o-Lantern at a time when the humor magazine was at a peak artistically, though perhaps not financially. Miller, who was the editor, said they went "massively" in debt trying to create a good paper.
"It was my first real experience being in a room full of comedy writers and editing other peoples jokes," he said. "Once you get started, you can't walk away from that."
Miller had plenty of opportunity to develop his pet character, Sleazy the Wonder Squirrel, who became the anti-hero of a comic strip that appeared in The Dartmouth.
Sleazy was also the subject of Miller's senior fellowship project -- a five-minute hand-drawn animation titled "Sleazy Goes to France." Lord's senior fellowship film was a stylistically more interesting film, a surreal nightmarish adventure called "Man Bites Breakfast." Both films were well received at international film festivals and will be shown tonight at the Loew.
Miller and Lord are hardly an isolated example of the success Dartmouth graduates have found in the animation and film industries. While at Dartmouth, the pair knew and worked with students who went on to join projects such as Comedy Central's "South Park," Cartoon Network's "Samurai Jack," Pixar's "Finding Nemo," "The Sims Online" and "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."
While at the Jack-o, Miller and Lord worked with Erica Rivinoja '99, whom they later invited to write for them on "Clone High."
Rivinoja went on to write for "South Park" and is currently writing for Fox's new show "Grounded for Life." She has also worked on the MTV Movie Awards for the past three years.
Rivinoja is one of the few Dartmouth graduates to work in the animation industry who did not take Ehrlich's animation class, Film 35. In 1994, at least four students out of the 16-person class would end up working in the media industry, including Lord, Miller, Schlumberger and Sharyn Steele '95. It was Ehrlich's second year as a professor at Dartmouth, and the studio had only the most basic of animation equipment.
Despite the constraints, the class served as a catalyst for the future careers of several students. Perhaps the most important element in the success of the class was Ehrlich's support and encouragement.
"I'm surprised how many people from Dartmouth, and Professor Ehrlich's class, seem to have been bitten by the animation bug. It would be great to see the school offer a more comprehensive program," Schlumberger said.
Lord and Miller also acknowledge Ehrlich's contribution.
"David was a big influence on us. He was the person who kept pushing us. He believed in us," Miller said. At the same time, Ehrlich emphasized that he was not training students to become professional animators. He said he was as happy to see his students enter engineering or medical school.
Nevertheless, Ehrlich's passion for animation has rubbed off not only on Lord and Miller but also on students such as Schlumberger, who has been working for almost three years as a layout artist at Pixar.
Schlumberger works on what he calls the "first step into 3D." His team takes storyboards, models, sets and dialogue and puts them together on the computer, as if they were "directing the dress rehearsal of a play." His work at Pixar has been on their newest film "Finding Nemo," which will be released on May 30.
Another student in the '94 class, Steele, entered the field of live-action rather than animation. She went on to work at MGM for Steve Tisch, the producer of "Forrest Gump." Her most recent job has been as an executive producer for Gold Circle Films, which created the highest-grossing independent film of all time, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."
The next generation of students after Lord, Miller, Schlumberger and Steele also produced several film and animation professionals, such as Todd Garfield '00, who works on "Samurai Jack" at the Cartoon Network. Josh Nadelberg '98 creates 3D advertisements for video games such as "The Sims Online," while Andrea Gonzalez '99 works at J. J. Sedelmaier Animation Studio in White Plains, New York, where she has contributed to such series as "The Ambiguously Gay Duo," a regular feature of "Saturday Night Live."
Now that Ehrlich has been teaching animation at Dartmouth for 10 years, the equipment available to students has greatly improved, and more students than ever are getting interested in animation. Roughly 40 of Ehrlich's current students will be presenting their work on May 24 at the eighth annual Dartmouth Animation Festival.