“I'm a late bloomer in animation,” says Fred Seibert. The founder of Frederator Networks and Studios was already 40 when he got into the cartoon game more than two decades ago. Today, he sits in the lobby of Frederator's office, a large suite in the corner of a modest Burbank office building. Seibert arrived from New York, where he and part of the Frederator team are based, the day before our interview. Once a month, he heads out here for a few days to work with the animation company's Burbank-based creative teams. In another office, Natasha Allegri is working on the Internet sensation Bee & PuppyCat. Here, in the lobby, Seibert is surrounded by posters, some of which boast of Frederator's successes, like Bravest Warriors and Adventure Time.
These days, Seibert helms a mini-empire of shows that are changing animation. Years ago, though, he landed in the industry by happenstance, holding down a high-powered job without much animation experience.
In 1992, Hanna-Barbera was at a crossroads, having long passed its heyday. Ted Turner had recently purchased the animation studio to go along with the cartoon classics that he picked up from MGM. Seibert worked in TV, but his background was primarily in branding. He produced motion graphics that served as station IDs for cable networks like Nickelodeon and MTV. Sill, when Seibert was offered a chance to run Hanna-Barbera, he took it. “The day I accepted the job, I went and read every unauthorized biography of Ted Turner that I could,” says Seibert.
While the studio head knew a lot about his boss, Seibert still wasn't too schooled in animation. Despite that, he was told, “It can't be any worse than it is now.” Seibert scored Bill Hanna's old, massive office— “The desk alone could sleep a family of four,” he recalls— but he could't settle in. For a time, he worked on a sofa. “I was so scared that I literally didn't sit at my desk for six months,” he says.
Seibert estimates that it took 18 months of “failure and inaction” to learn the job. Eventually, that happened. As for Hanna-Barbera, it turned around as well. With the launch of Cartoon Network in the 1990s, the old animation studio produced new hits like Dexter's Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls.
After Turner merged with Time Warner, Seibert struck out on his own. With Frederator, Seibert utilized some of the tactics that they were using at Hanna-Barbera in the nascent years of Cartoon Network. “The conventional wisdom was that writers write and animators draw,” says Seibert. “We took the position that we were going back to the future the way that the great cartoons had been made back in the theatrical days where animators wrote their own material.”
Also like the Golden Age cartoons, Frederator emphasized shorts. They make lots of those. The Fairly OddParents and Fanboy & Chum Chum, both of which became series for Nickelodeon, started out that way. So did Adventure Time.
Back in the mid-2000s, Frederator's head of fevelopment, Eric Homan, met a CalArts student named Pendleton Ward. A month after graduation, Ward turned up at Frederator's office with a short to pitch. The Burbank team dug his style, so Ward came back when Seibert was in town. “He started out the pitch with a guitar, singing,” Seibert recalls, “and I will tell you that in 10,000 pitches that we've gotten, no one else has ever started out with a guitar and a song.” Seibert was hesitant to pick up a pitch from someone who had only been out of school for a month. Homan talked him into meeting with Ward again. They picked up the Adventure Time short and it went on to spawn the most influential cartoon series of recent times.
“He was the Nirvana of animated cartoons in a lot of ways,” says Seibert of Ward. “You know how the day that Nirvana came out…everything before it felt old immediately. I think Adventure Time was really that kind of show. I think it continues to be that kind of show.”
With Adventure Time, Ward created a cartoon that, in many ways, resembles a video game. The stories take place in the various kingdoms that comprise the Land of Ooo. Each setting has its own identity, their own ruler and their own problems. The protagonists, Finn and Jake, get to explore these kingdoms as though they're levels of an old Nintendo game. The show combines surreal humor with intense, emotional moments.
Meanwhile, it's also playing with perceived notions about gender in cartoons (and games). Many of the kingdoms in the show are ruled by women. Adventure Time has also pioneered the gender-swapped episodes, where male characters become female and vice versa. The roots of gender-swapping characters are found in the fan world and have been popularized on social media sites like Tumblr (coincidentally, Seibert was the blogging network's first investor).
Natasha Allegri is the artist behind those gender-swapped Adventure Time characters and she's poised to launch Frederator's next hit. Her short Bee and PuppyCat, about a woman whose string of bad days takes a really weird turn when she finds a magical animal, was wildly successful when it aired on the company's Cartoon Hangover YouTube channel. Frederator saw the potential this had for animation. “The notion of this girl hero that spoke in a voice that not just women understood, but men understood also, was unbelievable,” says Seibert. “Immediately, our demographics went from 70 percent male to 50-50.”
The success of stands in opposition to perceptions that girls and women don't watch cartoons. That's something Seibert heard while pitching shows himself and Bee and PuppyCat might just prove that notion wrong. Last year, they ran a monster Kickstarter campaign that ultimately raised over $800,000 to fund new episodes, which launch Nov. 6. Recently, L.A.-based apparel makers We Love Fine began selling Bee and PuppyCat merchandise. There are also Bee and PuppyCat stickers that just hit Facebook. When those new episodes finally hit the web, there's no telling what will happen.
Seibert grew up thinking that he would work in science. “Then the Beatles came to America and I became a fan and like a lot of other kids, went out and bought a guitar and said I'm going to start a band,” he says. He got a job working in music before moving to television. He may have stumbled into animation, but he's made a huge mark there, bringing cartoons from cable TV to the Internet. “I kind of realized over the years that what I continued to be was a professional fan,” he says. “I could just be a fan of great people and figure out how I can help them.” For Frederator, that philosophy has worked out pretty well.
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