King Star King, a Controversial, Mind-Blowing Series From the Wild Child of Animation

JJ Villard at work at Hollywood animation studio Titmouse
JJ Villard at work at Hollywood animation studio Titmouse
Photo by Ryan Orange

JJ Villard just lived through a stretch of weeks that felt like a single day. Near the end of production for his forthcoming cartoon series, King Star King, the budget grew tight. The five-person team that provided layouts was gone, although there was one more episode to go. Villard had to do the job himself. He worked from 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily, churning out one drawing after the next.

Now, in mid-April, Villard is sitting in his office at Hollywood animation studio Titmouse, going through the work that he somehow turned in on time. There's the eponymous King Star King with his chest exploding. Villard pulls up another drawing as he describes the scene: "He's drinking, smoking aliens and snorting worms and then - boom! - all the eyes come out of the clouds."

He proclaims, "The end animation looks beautiful!"

Villard speaks in exclamation points. At 34, he's a workhorse who has cultivated the image of a wild child. He's not a large guy, but he cuts a larger-than-life figure. Even in the office, he wears a grill on his teeth and big rings on his fingers. Today, he's dressed in a Pinhead T-shirt and cowboy boots, bouncing across the office between a desk and a seating area. Without prompting, he talks about the party days that he left behind to do the show and gushes gratitude for the opportunity.

He doesn't even remember drawing these scenes: The exploding creatures, the bulging eyeballs, the space shuttle that looks like a penis - all seemingly materialized from his overworked haze. Still, he's not done. That afternoon, he hops on a Skype meeting with the show's New York crew. They go through footage together as Villard makes his critiques.

He notes that something too closely resembles Spumco, the now-defunct studio that birthed Ren & Stimpy. Then, "Can we have the gun shoot instead of ejaculate?" and "Can we not have him ejaculate when she kicks him?"

King Star King has been in the works for three years, two of which were spent on the pilot. In the spring of 2013, the show was picked up for a season on Adult Swim, and production went into full swing. But earlier this year, Villard learned that the series would instead run as an online exclusive for the late-night cable network, available to all viewers.

Villard was initially upset. "It took me a couple days to get over it," he says.

(Adult Swim declined comment, citing scheduling issues.)

From King Star KingEXPAND
From King Star King

But now he professes to be at ease with the move to the web. He's seen how friends have canceled their cable subscriptions; now, streaming services have become popular enough to sustain exclusive shows (see: Orange Is the New Black). King Star King is part of Adult Swim's expansion in this realm.

But there may be more to it than shifting demographics. Villard acknowledges there were also issues with the content - "Of course!" JJ Villard finally had the freedom to make the cartoon he wanted, and Standards & Practices wasn't happy.

Villard was born in London but grew up in Malibu before graduating high school in Santa Barbara. He studied animation at California Institute of the Arts alongside Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward and Regular Show creator J.G. Quintel. As a student, Villard adapted Charles Bukowski's "Son of Satan" into an acclaimed animated short. The film screened at the Cannes International Film Festival and, ultimately, landed him a job at DreamWorks. Villard quickly went from making arty student films to working on Shrek sequels.

It was a survival mechanism. Even for students in the elite character-animation department at CalArts, jobs were scarce. Still, the corporate grind took its toll. He began drinking heavily. He left animation to focus on fine art, but that didn't work out.

That's about the time that Villard turned up at San Diego Comic-Con with sketchbooks that caught the eye of a Cartoon Network employee. A month later, he was pitching television shows. He describes his first attempt as "Lord of the Flies meets Beavis and Butt-head." It didn't make the cut.

But his work caught the interest of Adult Swim, the programming block targeting older viewers, which runs at night on the same cable channel that hosts Cartoon Network. He began work on a pilot called Happyland, which was set inside a theme park. Several months into that project, he handed a sketch book to Adult Swim's head, Mike Lazzo. At Lazzo's request, Villard ceased work on Happyland to start a new pilot based on one of the sketchbook drawings, and King Star King was born.

In the early days of production, Villard was still partying hard. There were strip clubs and booze and drugs. He would come into the office after long nights, recovering from a hangover, only to field questions from the animators. Villard couldn't run a show that way. He quit the parties and moved to a Hollywood neighborhood farther from the nightclub action. He couldn't mess up this opportunity.

But King Star King got a litany of no's from Standards & Practices. Off-white, brown and yellow were deemed objectionable: When those colors dripped, clumped and drizzled, they looked like semen, feces and urine. References to corporate logos, Starbucks in particular, didn't fly. Inevitably, one episode was altered because it showed bullying.

The show's female characters, meanwhile, wear pasties and tiny panties as they jiggle and thrust across the screen. Snow White is beheaded in the beginning of the first episode, triggering a quest to retrieve her corpse from a villain who spends his time stepping on the headless body. "It was pretty gross," Villard concedes.

He insists, though, that gender had nothing to do with her grisly end: "That could have been any character that we wanted to kill," he says, "but it just happened to be Snow White." In later episodes, he promises, female characters will be protagonists, not just punching bags.

Some artists left during the course of production. Villard believes that at least two quit because of the content, although that can't be confirmed. Titmouse supervising producer Ben Kalina, who was with the series for 75 percent of its production schedule, says that a bigger problem for employee retention during his tenure was the unusual style of the show. King Star King is filled with fast-paced action. The first episode uses 400 shots, double the number normally employed in an 11-minute clip. Some animators were let go because they just couldn't keep up.

Villard confirms that some of the people who left were angry at him. Others were apologetic. "I sympathize with artists greatly," he says. He cultivated the faster pace because he knows how short modern attention spans tend to be.

It wasn't all controversy for King Star King. In the studio during production, two artists talk about how fulfilling the job is, how they had the chance to add all sorts of weird embellishments.

Indeed, King Star King is wonderfully animated. From the scenes that whiz by at dizzying speeds to the mix of bright colors that spill across the screen like magical, possibly toxic, ooze, it's one of the most artistically unusual series to appear in a long time.

Since the budget was limited, wages were small and hours long. "I felt like Leonidas leading this team into suicide," Villard says. "At some point, I thought, why are these guys even following this insane person, JJ Villard?" But they did it and, in the end, they pumped out six 11-minute episodes, not including the pilot. They finished the final episode in early June, the night before a cast-and-crew screening at Titmouse.

Altogether, there's enough material for a feature-length movie, and the next step might be screening all the episodes in theaters. Villard is trying not to make much out of the drama. "We got a feature done in one year!" he says. "I can't even begin to tell you how grateful I am!"

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