How The Zoogs Got Their Groove (an interview with creator David Fremont)

How The Zoogs Got Their Groove (an interview with creator David Fremont)

I am delighted to share some of my recent conversation with David Fremont, an accomplished artist, animator, designer, and author. I reached out to David to learn more about how he created the Zoogs that gave Disney Channel its identity from the late 1990s to the very early 2000s. To learn more about David’s new children’s book series, Carlton Crumple Creature Capture, click here.

Interstitial artwork for Zoog Disney

Allison: Well first, why don’t you tell me about the graphic novel you mentioned?

David: Well, I’m doing a graphic novel series for kids called Carlton Crumple Creature Capture [the first in the series is called Catch the Munchies!]. It’s about this kid who believes in monsters and goes and hunts them. The first book is actually about monsters who try to eat all the fast food in the world, so Carlton’s already obsessed with monsters, and he works in a fast food restaurant. Of course, the monsters come into his restaurant; he’s a believer, so he chases them around with his friend, Lulu. The first book is about that and then, it’s kind of like The Night Stalker for kids; he deals with different monsters each time. The second book is called Tater Invaders, and it’s about a potato monster that lives underground. The first book is out now, Catch the Munchies!

It’s fun to make a project where you get to draw and write and design and storyboard. You know, all the stuff I’ve done with animation and illustrating and writing, I get to put into one thing.

Allison: So cool! When they’re separated, do you feel like you enjoy the print medium or animation more, or is it just that hybrid that you like, having all the elements involved?

David: I think it’s the hybrid because I was doing a web cartoon called “Public Pool” for Dreamworks TV, which is for kids, too. But I had a lot of creative freedom; I got to write and create the characters and do the whole story with my buddy Jimbo Matison, who I used to work with at Colossal, which we’ll get to with the Zoog thing, because he actually worked on that, too. So it’s fun to be able to do all those things, you know, to get to utilize a lot of the things that I like to do.

Allison: I can definitely relate to that.

David: I said at a previous chat that you get to be in control of this imaginary world, and I think that’s really fun.

The Zoog Days

David: When I lived in San Francisco, I worked at an art supply store and met a lot of my friends that I still have today, artist friends. We all wanted to work at this place called Colossal Pictures, which was almost like the Hollywood creative hub of San Francisco, and it was like the one cool place that stuff that I wanted to do was happening. I always had it in my head like, “Colossal Pictures does animation and stuff, so maybe I could get a job there.” I didn’t graduate from college or anything, so I kind of just went to San Francisco, joined a band, and worked in an art store. I did comics for awhile, so I would talk to people that would come shop at the store who would say, “I work at Colossal Pictures.” And I’m like, “You work at Colossal Pictures, man?” I was always starstruck, like, “How’d you get a job there?”

So eventually my friend who also worked at the art store, Eric White, he’s a pretty popular painter now, but he was the first one to get work there [at Colossal] as a cel painter. He would paint animation cels, so he did a test or something and he got in there. A few months later, I did an animation test, and they called me after and they were like, “We need another cel painter,” so I went in there, and that was a really fun job, because you’re just working with all these sort of ragtag artists. We’re in the back room painting cels and drinking too much coffee. It was a lot of fun, just a really fun place to work.

In the other section of Colossal, they were doing animated things for MTV’s Liquid TV, so I wanted to get into there. I started showing my portfolio around. I showed it to one of the directors, named George Evelyn. One of the managers there, Scott Tolmie, he liked to connect people with other people. He was very positive and really into my stuff, so he was like, “Talk to George; show him your portfolio.” So I did, and he’s like, “You should pitch something to Liquid TV.” I was like, “Pitch something to Liquid TV?” That was like a total dream. So I remember they were taking pitches for Liquid TV. Colossal would produce the things and then give them to MTV, so MTV kind of had the final say. I put something together and pitched it to them. It ended up not getting picked up for the show, but then my friend, who also worked in production, Jimbo Matison, his thing that he pitched called “Crazy Daisy Ed” got picked up, and I was all bummed out. He was like, “Dude, you should work on my show.” And I’m like, “Really?” So I went and worked on this cutout stop-motion show. I learned a lot from him, too, about doing it yourself because these were super low budgets. But then I did some character design and stuff for that, but then I started getting pulled in to design some characters for this George Thorogood music video and started to do these other projects, while on the side I was also working as a freelance illustrator for magazines and rock posters and stuff.

Allison: Yeah I saw that; that’s so cool.

David: Yeah, so I was kind of doing both things; I would work during the day and then at night I would go and do my freelance illustration. I started doing some fun jobs for Colossal.

Crazy Daisy Ed on MTV’s Liquid Television

They would get all the artists that worked in the studio to put in ideas for designs. It was almost like the studio was pitching. Disney would reach out to Colossal Pictures and these other studios, and then the artists there would put in ideas, pitch a group of ideas to them. What happened at Colossal was, they had the higher-up at Disney, I think it was Geraldine Laybourne, she talked to Colossal about if we had any ideas for this project coming up; it was going to be these creatures called Zoogs. It was when computers and TVs were starting to fuse; it was the early days of that. These are the monsters that live in this place called the Zeether, and they connect the TV to the computer screen. There was a whole little song and stuff that went with it. So I did a lot of abstract creatures and monsters and stuff like that. I did a bunch of pages of all these little creatures all over the pages and gave them that. Then Colossal pitched them all and came back and said, “She [Laybourne] really likes your designs.” That was kind of a big deal for me.

Colossal was a pretty big company, and it broke up, it disbanded—everybody had to leave. But it came back together as a smaller unit, like more of doing design jobs and smaller animation jobs. I was working with Drew Takahashi, who was the founder of Colossal, so that’s when the Zoogs happened. We were in a smaller version of Colossal. So anyways, they picked some designs from these sheets, so I expanded upon those. And then we had a team of creatives, which included George Evelyn, Jimbo Matison. So we were all brainstorming about what this world is gonna be, what it looks like. They’re used for interstitials, so in between programming, little Zoogs would be popping up onscreen and talking, like station IDs. Remember, the Disney logo would come up with these little characters, so we all had creative storyboards and all kinds of things put in for the initial Zoog song. There’s an intro song. I can’t remember exactly how it went.

AM: It’s on YouTube (song starts at 0:17):

David: Yeah, it actually is. It was a lot of fun making these designs. I think my favorite one was Browser the dog, Bowser or Browser, he was a little three-legged dog. I think there were six or seven altogether. The idea when I did the designs was, I was trying to make them look like a combination of animals, humans, and robots, all together.

Allison: It worked!

David: Very abstract kind of quality to them.

Allison: Basically all of the first iteration of those characters, those were yours? You designed pretty much all of those guys?

David: Yep.

Allison: That’s amazing.

David: All of the first designs were pretty much exactly the way that I drew them. Some things had to be polished up; I think George Evelyn polished up the look a bit. George designed the background, which was the Zeether. Our styles were very compatible together. He has a very cartoony style, so he came up with all the shapes and weird things in the background. I was also helping write and create. That’s what was fun about it; even though you were designing, you also pitch in on the creative ideas and all that, so then, I remember specifically when they debuted them on TV, we were actually on a trip with my little boy and my wife to Disneyland. So, I’m like, “It’s gonna premiere when we’re at Disneyland.” I remember being in the motel room and seeing that the TV had Disney Channel, so I turned it on. There’s the little Zoogs popping up on the screen. I was trying to explain to my son, “Daddy drew those.”

And then, I remember turning it on at home, watching this show called “Bug Juice.” It was about kids at summer camp. Milo, my son, would watch it, characters would come on there [during commercial breaks], people would like, read off emails or something on the air. Like, “This person said this, emailed this question.” It’s interesting how it was supposed to be cutting edge, like, you can see these guys on the computer. Now it’s all fused together, which I guess they predicted.

Allison: It’s amazing; it sounds like you weren’t given a very thorough description of what they were looking for. Like, “Okay, the creatures are called Zoogs, they live in the Zeether, that’s somewhere between the TV and the computer, good luck!” It’s amazing what you came up with, running with those few details. One thing that I love to do is read old news articles. I read one about the project explaining that you guys put together a modular animation kit, offering different actions the characters could do, that Disney could mix and match. How did they bring it to life in the interstitials based on what was given in the kit? Did someone at Disney have to put it together?

David: I remember there was a big book of stuff, but we were also making the animated sequences. I mean, I wasn’t, but the actual animation interstitials they were putting together at Colossal, so I know there was some greenscreen stuff that they had to fuse the Disney logo into and stuff like that. I remember the editing lab, looking at the stuff coming back. A lot of that was done at Colossal, and Disney got the stuff we made and fused it together with their programming. I do remember the big book of all my designs, George’s designs, storyboards, all the character designs, and their positions, model sheet, all that stuff.

Allison: There’s one on YouTube where all the characters [Zoogs] are at a camp. So I don’t know if you or George drew it, but there are little trees and a post that said Camp Glitch. I thought that was really clever; there were all kinds of things like that.

David: There was a lot of stuff we created that I don’t think I used. I think it was a really expanded world, and I think there were plans to expand it into a show or something like that. That was on for awhile and then at some point, I remember seeing something at a store, a toy store or something. I can’t remember, but the Zoogs were on the cover, and they weren’t my designs. They had redesigned them with backward baseball caps, and totally generic-looking. No offense to whoever redesigned them, but they just sucked the life out of them.

Allison: So you weren’t consulted at all before they changed them?

David: No. I think it was even after Colossal wasn’t a company anymore…I just remember someone saying that they redesigned the characters so that they could be more human looking, and I was just like, “No!”

Allison: That’s awful. How long did it take to complete the original designs?

David: Well, I just remember doing a batch of drawings, and then one day it got approved, and then, the ones they really liked they picked out, and said, “This would be good for Mic, or this would be good for Zoogina,” just polishing those up, so I think a few weeks on those. And then the rest of the stuff, once we had the designs down, we started doing storyboards and creating the world.

Allison: So they had come up with all the names, or did you come up with names for them?

David: They came up with the names, definitely. I remember the main guy was Joe Zoog.

Allison: I think they kept a lot of names after they revamped them.

David: Yeah there was Joe Zoog, Browser, Zoogina, a two-headed guy…I think his name was Mic.

Allison: Yeah, he [the character MZ] had the microphone coming out of his head.

David: It was very different from what Disney Channel was doing, even with the look of it. And that was all Gerry Laybourne. It was what she wanted, something that didn’t look super Disney. [Laybourne was President of Disney/ABC Cable Networks from 1996-1998]; she had good sensibilities. It’s because she liked my stuff (laughing)!

Allison: Well, of course! She went over to Disney after she had been at Nickelodeon for so long, so I kind of wonder if that’s a little more of that Nickelodeon edge she was trying to bring to them.

David: Yeah, that’s actually true, she did have Nickelodeon stuff under her belt, so I think it kind of went along the lines of that. It did kind of have a Nickelodeon feel to it, you know.

Allison: I’ve never framed it that way until this conversation, but that makes complete sense now.

So now that Disney+ is a thing, I wish they would at least do something on there where you can see some of these old interstitials. That would be so cool. If they approached you and asked you to revive the Zoogs today, would you do it?

David: Yeah, I would totally jump back into it; it would be fun. That would be interesting to see where they’re at; to go back and dig into the Zeether and see what they’ve been doing, fuse them back into the Disney Channel world and the computer, I guess.

Allison: Yeah, now that we have streaming, it’s a whole different take on TV plus the Internet, so it could be really interesting.

David: That’s interesting that that’s your nostalgic cartoon, you know what I mean? My stuff was Saturday morning cartoons, Sid and Marty Croft, Looney Tunes, Hanna-Barbera, I’m still like, at my age, I have a friend I worked with at Colossal who collects all the old Hanna-Barbera toys. I’m like “Whoa, those are cool!” I still have that kid thing in my head, “Where’d you get that Magilla Gorilla Doll?!” It’s too bad they didn’t make any Zoog toys, you know. Just some little figures I could have to look at later, you know.

A Zoom selfie from the conversation

Allison: Did you get to meet any voice actors for the Zoogs at all? Did you have any say in that or was it all on Disney’s end?

David: I don’t even remember when they did voiceover. I think it was all through Disney. I don’t think I met any of the voice actors from the Zoogs or remember who did them.

Allison: I’m gonna investigate this.

David: That’d be a good one. It was fun for me meeting, like later on, not Zoog-related, but to meet Tom Kenny, some people through Nickelodeon, the guys who did the Ren and Stimpy voices, I got to meet a lot of those guys. That was cool. Billy West, he was great. (David developed a pilot for Nickelodeon and worked with Mary Harrington, a well-known Nickelodeon producer of the 90s/2000s).

AM: Well I’ve asked you a lot of questions about this period of your life, and it’s great to hear about what led up to that, the experiences you’ve had working with other networks, and it’s cool to hear what you’re doing now. I really appreciate your time today. This has been really cool.

DF: Thanks a lot for reaching out. It’s fun to talk about. I’ve just been doing a couple of these Zoom interview chats for the book, so I’m getting more used to it. It’s fun to talk about the creative process. I like to hear about it; I read these articles, too, so it’s fun to be part of it, thank you again for reaching out.

Allison: And the other thank you is for creating these characters that were so important to me and other kids who watched them. That’s a big deal.

David: Yeah, it is cool to hear about your generation remembering, and my son remembers. At Colossal when we did the launch, they made a big giant cut-out of the Zoog characters, and they cut the faces out so you could stand behind them and take pictures. Somewhere, I have my son’s picture with a Zoog.

Allison: That’s so cool!

David: Yeah, it was a lot of fun.

Many thanks to David Fremont. Check out his new book series! 🙂

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