Interview: Tom Warburton & Mo Willems

This week marks the big premiere of season two of Cartoon Network’s runaway hit, Codename: Kids Next Door. The adventure series follows the exploits of five eager yet bumbling 10-year-olds on missions to thwart the super-evil forces of Adulthood. The series first premiered on December 6, 2002, and became an immediate hit. This past May, Codename: Kids Next Door became the highest-rated show to date for Cartoon Network in 2003. With a new season about to premiere, and Seasons three and four in the works, things are looking up for the series creator Mr. Warburton.

Recently we had the chance to talk to Tom Warburton and Mo Willems (head writer for Codename: Kids Next Door and creator of Sheep in the Big City) to ask about the upcoming season, possible movie plans, and more.

CNF: The Fansite: First off, let me ask both of you a little bit about your past experiences in animation. How did you get into the business of cartoons?

Warburton: I went to a small college called Kutztown University, in Pennsylvania, as a graphic design major. I hated graphic design, but I thought it was the only way I could get a job in the arts. One night a friend asked me, “If you could do anything at all, what’s the one thing that you laugh at people paying you to do?” and I immediately replied “make cartoons.” Well, she told me that’s what I had to do, and like an idiot I listened to her! I cobbled together as many animation classes as I could at college, and after graduation headed to New York City with my art portfolio and a list of every animation company in the city. I interviewed everywhere, and finally a small studio called Buzzco got tired of me pestering them and gave me a job. Because it was a real “Mom and Pop” studio, I learned every step of the animation process. After that, I got some work on Nickelodeon’s Doug as a layout artist. Then I worked at a commercial studio for five years, where I got to contribute to the first season of Beavis and Butthead. I moved to character design for Pepper Ann while I pitched my pilot ideas to Cartoon Network. I made a short called Kenny and the Chimp, and (because I knew they weren’t going to pick it up for series) I immediately pitched them KND. Right after I finished the KND pilot, Mo called me up and asked if I wanted to direct on Sheep in the Big City. The Kids Next Door pilot ended up winning the Big Pick, and now look at the mess we’re in.

Willems: My background is kind of the reverse of Tom’s. I went to NYU film, so I took enough animation classes to learn the fundamentals of cartoons. One of my student films, The Man Who Yelled, was picked up by the Tournee of Animation, which led to making a short for Spike and Mike’s Festival. Those films in turn led me to Sesame Street, where I made over 40 short subjects and worked as a script writer for the live-action street sections. So, while Tom was learning animation by working along side seasoned pros in a commercial house, I was slogging it out at home, learning mostly by trial and error. Besides a brief stint doing layout for Beavis and Butthead, I got my first taste of studio animation when Nickelodeon greenlit The Off-Beats series of shorts, which led to Sheep In The Big City on CN. Sheep was canceled right as Codename: Kids Next Door was gearing up, so Tom asked if I wanted to head-write the show. He only asked me so he could get back at me for all the stuff I pulled on him when I was his boss, but I called his bluff and said ‘yes’.

CNF: The Fansite: You both have considerable experience in cartoons. What are some of your favorite animated shows?

Willems: I watch SpongeBob Squarepants for fun. The timing, animation, and design are impeccable. It’s amazing that they’ve managed to make such a great show where the a main character is a nice guy.

Warburton: Steven Hillenburg and his crew really are amazing. They can take a simple idea, like an old chewing gum wrapper, and develop a whole story around it.

Willems: We could too, as long as it didn’t have to be good.

Warburton: As a kid I was a huge fan of the “Duck Twacy” cartoons. I used to write my own “Duck Twacy” scripts as a kid and show my family. I’m also into Japanese anime like Naruto and Rurouni Kenshin.

Willems: Tom actually speaks Japanese—

Warburton: Poorly.

Willems: —poorly, which I guess is some kind of dialect. Any-hoo: Tom’s loaned me his Miyazaki collection, every film of which is amazing. And I also loved the old Warner Bros. cartoons as a kid. Particularly Chuck Jones’ stuff.

CNF: The Fansite: Codename: Kids Next Door features kids that rebel against evil adults. What do your parents think of the show?

Warburton: I came from a strict family, whom I love, but as a kid I was always told what to do by adults. Pretty quickly, I noticed that while adults act like they know everything, a lot of them are clueless, which is kinda what the show is about. When my dad saw the pitch for KND, he said, “Oh great. That’s just what we need: more ill-behaved children!” and I knew the show would be a hit.

Willems: My parents have no idea what I do for a living. I think they tell their friends I’m a swami or something…

Warburton: I think that there’s a misconception that KND is just about how horrible all adults are. As you’ll see in the upcoming season, some of the adults, like the kid’s parents, are really nice people. Kids Next Door is about Numbuhs One through Five running around trying to stop a few crazy adults who are trying to control their lives. The Operatives aren’t bad kids. I wasn’t that rebellious a kid either. I was more goofy, running around in the woods and building crazy contraptions and stuff like that.

CNF: The Fansite: Speaking of the new season, what should we expect from the show this year?

Warburton: Lots more action, and funnier episodes. The first season was just a warm-up. Season two expands the KND’s world. We’re going to explain more about the Global KND Organization and meet a bunch of new Operatives, like Numbuh 86, who’s in charge of decommissioning for the entire KND.

Willems: We’ve also got a really cool “art” story drawn in different cartoon styles!

CNF: The Fansite: Any plans for a Codename: Kids Next Door special or feature film?

Warburton: Right now we’re too busy writing and storyboarding season three, but I would love to do a movie sometime after that. I mean, there are more than enough stories to tell. How was the KND started? How did our team meet? What’s up with Nigel’s hair? But for now, we’ve started to write more full twenty-two minute stories where we can better explore our characters and their world. Season two ends with a two-parter, and we have three of them in season three. Each one is like a mini-movie within the show.

Willems: We’re also starting to drop little hints about our team’s origin, that will hopefully add up to something for a larger story later on.

CNF: The Fansite: Where do you guys come up with the vehicles and weaponry for the show? Some of it is pretty intricate.

Warburton: Well, we’ve got an amazing design department! In the stories we’ll explain the purpose and “theme” of the weapons or vehicles, but they go out and find all kinds of wild ways to put them together. It’s incredible the amount of work and detail these six guys put into something that is only on screen for a few seconds.

Willems: What’s extra cool is that the devices could actually work!

Warburton: Yeah, they figure out how trigger systems and how stuff like that would function if these were really produced. I’m constantly blown away by their amazing drawings.

CNF: The Fansite: Any chance of Kenny and the Chimp appearing on Codename: Kids Next Door?

Warburton: Actually Kenny and the Chimp are in the background of the pilot episode, “No P in the OOL.” I’d love to eventually make some more Kenny shorts eventually.

Willems: Kenny’s almost a Looney Tune, and KND is more about telling stories.

CNF: The Fansite: Any advice to aspiring animators?

Warburton: RUN! Find another career and don’t look back! Seriously, animation is not the most stable career choice. It’s hard to find regular work and the pay isn’t always great. But if you love cartoons and you love to draw, there’s no better way to make a living

Willems: You need four things to become an animator: luck, a work ethic, talent, and an electric pencil sharpener. The electric pencil sharpener is probably the most important thing, because you’re going to have to be willing to draw until your hand falls off.

Warburton: Any animator will tell you how important it is to keep drawing all the time. And don’t be afraid to copy different styles. If you’re going to work in a studio, you’re going to have to learn how to draw in various styles. So you should practice that now, while trying to develop your own style as well.

Willems: Also remember that there are other jobs in the business that don’t demand drawing skills. We have editors, production assistants, producers, script supervisors. But regardless of what your job is, you do need to love cartoons.

Warburton: Everyone on KND works very hard and does more than their job title implies. It’s about teamwork and bringing together everyone’s talent with the goal of making a great, funny show week after week after week.

CNF: The Fansite: A lot of people have e-mailed the site asking how exactly to get “their ideas” made into shows. How did you both pull it off?

Warburton: There are a lot of great ideas out there and Cartoon Network is always getting flooded with production bibles for shows. But the best idea in the world doesn’t mean a thing if you can’t make the film. You need to know how cartoons are made and be able to put together a great staff that understands your vision.

Willems: Animate a few films on your own and learn from the mistakes you’ll inevitably make before you try to develop your own show. And be patient. If you spend your time honing your skills and sensibility and you’re funny enough, the networks will come to you and you’ll be ready for them.

CNF: The Fansite: Recently Cartoon Network released the first Codename: Kids Next Door action figures. How does having your characters immortalized in plastic make you feel?

Warburton: It’s unreal and totally thrilling. Back when I was working on Sheep in the Big City I saw a poster for the show at a bus stop. It was amazing to walk down the street, look up, and see something I was helping to make. And then when KND premiered, I went to the movies and saw KND popcorn bags. Now they’re planning all sorts of merchandising and stuff and I sit there in disbelief. All this is based on some doodles I made at home a few years ago! It’s pretty cool.

CNF: The Fansite: Codename: Kids Next Door is doing very well in ratings. Aside from being happy, how do you feel?

Warburton: It’s a high to know that people are really responding to the show and watching it. When we started I was told I’d be lucky if the show pulled in a 4.0 rating in our demographic, but as the season went on we started getting 5’s and 6’s, and the numbers kept going up. Now we’ve hit a 7! Hopefully we’ll keep pulling in this numbers.

Willems: I got a 7 with Sheep once, but that was just the number of people watching…

Warburton: Uh… actually I lied about watching that episode.

Willems: Make that a 6… Sigh…

CNF: The Fansite: Is it hard making up the acronyms for the show titles?

Willems: I’m not sure, we subcontract that out to a group of unemployed Russian cryptographers.

Warburton: It’s actually kind of fun. You pull out your dictionary and your thesaurus, look at the word R.A.I.N.B.O.W.S. and come up with “Running Amuck In Nature’s Bounty Observing Wild Simians.”

Willems: It’s just that easy!

CNF: The Fansite: Well, I’d like to thank you both for doing this interview,

Warburton: Thanks. And we hope you like the shows!

Willems: Ahem…

Warburton: Oh yeah, and don’t forget to visit Mo’s website. It’s Mo-tastic! Can I have my money for saying that, Mo?

Willems: Sure. Now remember a quarter is a lot of money…