Inside Cartoon Network’s “Graffiti Stairwell”
In 2000, Cartoon Network got its own studio. It was an older office building in Burbank, a former outpost for a phone company where, we heard, the actress Angie Dickinson once worked as an operator. By the time the cable network moved in, it had already been well-established for running top notch original programming like Powerpuff Girls and Dexter’s Laboratory. Once they settled in, though, more creative madness emerged. The Powerpuff Girls movie was made here. Adventure Time now takes up the second floor. Regular Show and Steven Universe share a floor here as well.
Recently, I got to take a tour of the studio, which has recently been remodeled. It’s wild. There’s a pool table in the lobby, a stick hockey table in the Regular Show offices (J.G. Quintel likes to play) and a rooftop patio where bands play. More importantly, there is art everywhere. People draw on the kitchen wall (it’s erasable) and inside the stairwell (that’s more or less permanent). There’s an entire wall of Etch-a-Sketch boards, which are removable and it looks like they are in use a lot. It’s the sort of office building that looks so darn cool that you might offer to shred papers and wash coffee cups just to hang out there longer. My guide for the tour was Brian Miller; he’s the General Manager for Cartoon Network and has been around since the studio opened. Thanks to him, I learned a few things that fans might not know about the animation studio.
Every floor in the main Cartoon Network building has an “attraction,” i.e. something in the kitchen that you will undoubtedly crave as you’re laboring over a storyboard. The goal is to get people moving around the building. If you want a bowl of Lucky Charms, which seem to be pretty popular here, you have to travel to the second floor.
The coolest attractions, though, are the ones that keep you caffeinated. You know how offices typically have a coffee machine? The first person there makes a pot and you walk in like a zombie hoping that some else has already taken care of the brewing. Then, by 10 a.m., all the coffee is gone and now someone has to stop what he or she is doing to make another round. Or that Costco-sized tub of coffee has reached its end and you now have to lose your awesome parking spot to go to 7-11 and get a too-hot cup of Joe for your boss. It’s not like that at Cartoon Network. They have a machine that gives you what you want with the touch of a button, whether that’s regular coffee or cappuccino or hot chocolate. They have eliminated the need for 3 p.m. Starbucks/Coffee Bean runs.
That’s not all, though. They also have a Coca-Cola Freestyle. Perhaps you have already seen these at superior fast food spots. (There’s one at a Fatburger in downtown Los Angeles. That’s why I go there far too often.) It’s a beautiful machine, designed by Pininfarina, the company that makes Italian sports cars look hot. More importantly, though, it has more soft drinks than you can drink in a day, or even, a week…and this includes three different variations of Diet Dr. Pepper (regular, cherry and cherry vanilla). This might not seem like a big deal to you, but I rate soda fountains based on whether or not they have Diet Dr. Pepper, so it was the first thing I noticed.
There are seven Emmy awards displayed in Cartoon Network’s lobby – those are just for the “Best Animated Show” awards. Other Emmys have been presented to various people in the studio for individual achievements. That’s cool, but what’s a little cooler is Adventure Time’s Sundance Film Festival poster.
Those who watch Adventure Time might remember the episode “Thank You,” the Thanksgiving special from the third season. It’s an episode that’s short on dialogue and focuses on the physical interactions between a Snow Golem and a young Fire Wolf. It’s more like something you might catch in a movie theater than on television.
This incredibly touching episode also made it into the animated shorts competition at Sundance, an unusual feat. In fact, Adventure Time is the first animated series to have a short accepted in the prestigious film festival.
Next to the lobby on the ground floor of the building is Cartoon Network’s art gallery. When I visited the offices, they were in the midst of a show from Luke McGarry, an illustrator who has done a lot of incredibly cool posters for Los Angeles concerts and events.
Cartoon Network hosts a new show here every month. Sometimes the artists are people who work at the studio. Frequently, as is the case with the McGarry show, they aren’t. Some of the featured artists are up-and-comers; others a little more familiar. Robert Williams, the underground comics legend and founder of the magazine Juxtapose, has shown here. Kenny Scharf, the painter who came to prominence in New York during the 1980s, has shown here as well. Daniel Johnston, the artist and musician, gave a concert in the lobby when he exhibited here.
One of the most unusual artists to turn up in the Cartoon Network gallery was Henry Hill. Yes, that Henry Hill, the guy whose time in the mob was the basis for Goodfellas. Years after the gangster life, Witness Protection, the book Wiseguy and the release of Goodfellas, Hill started selling his artwork. Eventually, he landed a show inside the Burbank building. He was at the event, too. Hill died in 2012.
Cartoon Network shows Steven Universe and Clarence, seen in the art here, were both created by former Adventure Time artists.
Rebecca Sugar, creator of Steven Universe, worked on Adventure Time before getting her own series. So did Skyler Page, creator of the forthcoming series Clarence. Adventure Time’s own creator, Pendleton Ward, previously worked on the Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, as did J.G. Quintel, who helms Regular Show. Peter Browngardt, from Uncle Grandpa, worked on Flapjack too, as well as Chowder. Of the handful of pilots currently in the works at Cartoon Network, more than half come from people who have worked on other shows for the studio.
If you want a show on Cartoon Network, it helps to already have a job there.
How do you get that job? Miller suggests their intern program, noting that people come from across the country to be a part of it. Some of those interns go on to doing huge things, and Quintel was one of them. As for schools, he says that their artists come from a range of different institutions. However, there are a significant amount of Cartoon Network people who started out at California Institute of the Arts, outside of Los Angeles. New York’s School of Visual Arts has also turned out a number of artists now working for the studio.
Inside the Regular Show offices, there are large blocks of color on the walls. They’re based on the actual color design of the show. “We hired someone who took the palettes and created these swatches,” says Miller. “He came up with names that…silly names that are based on the show.”
In the offices, the lightest green used for Muscle Man is known as “My Mom.” Mordecai’s darkest shade of blue is “Slack and Blue.” The off-white used for Pops is “Fanciness.” They may not be the colors’ original names, but they’re cooler than the names of anything found in a Crayola box.
This is Cartoon Network’s lobby.
The first thing you see when you walk inside Cartoon Network’s Burbank offices is a living room. Actually, it’s the lobby, but it looks like a living room. There’s a room divider that resembles a fireplace, a big, comfy couch and a coffee table with an Atlas on it. There’s also a book case stocked with Encyclopedia Britannica, loads of art books and a cuckoo clock. It could be your great-aunt’s house, save for one thing. That’s the portrait hanging on a wall of Jake the Dog. He’s dressed more like a figure from a history book, but he’s still definitely the canine pal from the Land of Ooo.
Outside of the living room, there are topiary in the shapes of Finn and Jake. They were made by a prop-maker for the studio. There’s also a large flatscreen that showcases in-progress work. During my visit, I saw a lot from Adventure Time.
Certainly, the adventures of Finn, Jake, Princess Bubblegum and the rest have captivated audiences far beyond this studio. Inside here, though, they’re inescapable.
This is Cartoon Network’s lobby, where you can play pool on your break.
Where TV shows might only spend part of a year in production, Cartoon Network shows keep going. The Adventure Time team have been in operation year-round since the show debuted in 2008. They aren’t the longest inhabitants of the studio though. Ben 10, which is made in a building next door to Cartoon Network’s headquarters, has been going strong for more than a decade. “It’s had different iterations,” explains Miller, “but it’s always been the same franchise.”
“We’re fortunate that way,” says Miller. The people who work on the shows can keep doing just that, where, on other series, there might be a long hiatus between seasons.
Not all of the shows that run on Cartoon Network are made here. Things like MAD, Looney Tunes and other series based on classic franchises are handled at Warner Bros. animation lot, also in Burbank.
Even when they aren’t drawing for work, Cartoon Network people are still drawing. This is on a wall in one of the kitchen areas.
There are 15,000 drawings in an 11-minute cartoon. That might seem like a mind-boggling number until you walk through the offices for Adventure Time or Regular Show or Steven Universe. There are drawings everywhere from scratchy, detailed notes to big, brightly colored print-outs of background art.
We’re inside a room where the Regular Show team pitches episode ideas. There are large, white boards piled against a wall. Each board is covered with pieces of paper detailing the scenes of a potential story. Miller explains that there will be 300 scenes in one episode. The drawings are small, but still larger than what you’ll see in the rest of the office. Elsewhere, there are “thumbnails,” basically Post-It size works that might become part of something larger.
Cartoon Network sends episodes overseas for animation. There’s still a lot of work to be done in the office. Aside from the storyboards, there are the character, prop and background designs. The voice acting and editing are done here as well. Mostly, though, what you’ll notice inside the studio are the drawings, some so small that you can’t tell what they are unless you walk right up to them. To think, those are the ones that are good enough to post on a wall. I want to know what their digital trashcans look like.
Cartoon Network’s Graffiti Stairwell goes back to when they moved into the building. That’s when folks like Craig McCracken and Genndy Tartakovsky were working here. When the studio opened, the artists took spraycans to the walls. “We had a day where we all got in a stairwell and spraypainted and then found out that it was a safety hazard,” says Miller. “We did wear masks, but we still got in trouble for that.”
The spraypaint markings still remain. There might be some works from McCracken and Tartakovsky inside the stairwell. However, since the pieces aren’t signed, we can’t confirm that. Miller did point out a Batman that was left by Bruce Timm.
While the spraypaint days are over, artists continue their contributions to the wall. They tend to work in marker and few spots in the stairwell are left untouched. Cartoon Network characters old and new pop up frequently, but so do characters from influential series that are not affiliated with the studio. It’s a secret treasure for animation nerds; enough art to fill a museum exhibition scrawled onto walls hidden inside an office building.
Previously by Liz Ohanesian