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Gabor Csupo
East meets West
Emru Townsend: You're originally Hungarian, yes?

Gabor Csupo: Yeah.

Were you involved in animation in Hungary, like at Pannónia?

Yeah. As soon as I left art school, I went to work for Pannónia studio in 1971, and I stayed there until I left in 1975.

So when you ended up coming over here, what was one of the first projects you worked on? I know you worked on Max Headroom for some of the sequences there...

Arlene and I started our own animation studio at the end of 1981, and then for a few years we did a bunch of commercials, music videos, and movie titles, and anything that moved on the screen we tried to do, but no long form... the very first time we got involved in storytelling animation was The Tracey Ullman Show, with The Simpsons. And then from there on we got into the production of 13 half-hours of that show, and then we got the Rugrats pitch over to Nickelodeon, which--they bought it almost on the spot, they loved it so much, and they ordered 13 the first year, and then 26 the next year, and another 26 in the end, and so we finished 65 episodes.

One thing about Rugrats--and this is also part of the appeal of the first three seasons of The Simpsons--was that stylistically it was more in line with something you would see coming out of, say, Pannónia. It was less along the more Western traditions of... well, I hate to say Disneyesque, but--

I know what you mean. Yeah, we definitely have a lot of European influence in our design and look because we love the European illustrators and artwork, and even the American artists who we like a lot, they are also influenced by European illustration.

Have you encountered any resistance to that, to bringing in a "foreign" style into the American mainstream?

I don't think so, it's just that sometimes we have a harder time to sell it, because not everybody is so open-minded about different styles of design, but in the long run, we are realizing that American audience is ready for a change in the look of a cartoon universe, where... In my opinion, my biggest frustration was when I came to this country and looked around, although I saw a lot of inspired good work, I always felt that everybody was just imitating the already successful formulas of Disney and Warner Bros., and nothing new was flourishing out of this unbelievable possibility of an artform. I was surprised that no one would try to tap into new kinds of designs, and daring drawings, that everybody was just drawing the same kind of characters with a little bit of a different haircut and a different outfit, but nothing was new. And I thought that mixing good storytelling with kind of a different type of a more daring, edgy design would probably get more attention than if we just tried to imitate the ones which were on every TV channel.

That's of course one of the striking things about Rugrats, is that the character designs are certainly different. They're still appealing, though. At least I like them.

We wanted to design them so that they're not exactly your cutesy kind of baby. But at the same time, through character and the way they act and speak, you learn to like them, to love them. And maybe that's the explanation of why the show, through the years, the more it's running, the people get more accustomed to looking at those characters. It became so successful, it's a [major success] for Nickelodeon right now; I believe Rugrats is the #1 cable show in America--you know, original programming--including all cable, and that is very good for Nickelodeon and for us, actually.

That's not surprising. It has sort of that wide appeal, for anyone between the ages of say, five and fifty-something.

[laughs] Yeah.

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