Birth of a Baboon
Joe Vitale turns the tables on Mike de Seve and interviews him about his career in animation and how collective became a reality.
From Beavis and Butt-Head to DreamWorks to Baboon Animation, Mike de Seve has been somewhere at the forefront of animation for 25 years. We sat down in New York recently to chat about his career.
Animag: What got you started in animation?
Mike de Seve: My dad bought me this little circus tent doohickey when I was, like, 3 that sat on a record player, with mirrors. You played these records with cartoon drawings that went around the label — crows flying, happy tugboats polluting, whatever — and in the mirrors they’d animate. I loved it. My dad explained to me how it worked, and I started drawing flipbooks a couple years after that.
Animag: Early fascination with animation led you to choose the obvious major: industrial labor relations.
De Seve: I went into the most boring major ever, dozed off sometime sophomore year, woke up three years later and said, “What the hell am I doing with my life?” So I threw my books away and went to New York to make movies. So my parents could say, “What the hell are you doing with your life?” Though they never did.
Animag: You ended up studying filmmaking at NYU, and then on to your first animation job, at Lancit Media, the Reading Rainbow guys.
De Seve: Yeah. It was a whole studio of people who spent their childhoods alone in some corner of their shag-carpeted bedrooms just drawing, and suddenly we’re all getting to be anti-social together. It was a blast.
Animag: That’s where the Baboon team formed? How?
De Seve: Well, individually we had squat to put on a show reel, so it was tough to get a decent job. But if we were a “collective,” suddenly our reel got better. Longer. It wasn’t just for show, because collaboratively we could produce more ideas — and better ones — than we ever would alone, and it was more fun.
Animag: I had heard that you then, as Baboon entered the same MTV cartoon short contest twelve times, won twice.
De Seve: Ha ha! Yeah. Number of monkeys, that was pretty much our strategy.
Animag: And as a result, you made some of the famous cartoon MTV station IDs.
De Seve: Yeah, they were fun. Then (executive producer) Abby Terkhule asked us if we wanted to direct this really cheap show about a pair of morons that laughed a lot and blew stuff up. Of course, we said yes.
Animag: You went from Beavis and Butt-head to DreamWorks features and kids’ series. How is it different to write on those kinds of productions?
De Seve: Funny is funny and good storytelling is good storytelling: getting your audience invested in your character’s dilemmas, heightening the stakes, ticking clocks. All that stuff is what you try to become an expert in. It’s the exact same skills in any demographic. You kind just have to watch your mouth more depending.
Animag: What makes a great cartoon?
De Seve: People talk about falling in love with a character, but I kind of think it’s not so much how you feel about the character, it’s how you feel about yourself after you watch that character. Like in a relationship — you’re with somebody because of the way they make you feel about yourself. A lot of times you watch a great show for the same reason.
Animag: For example?
De Seve: Spongebob and Phineas and Ferb. In both of those, the main character doesn’t win against adversity, like they say a character’s supposed to. These guys don’t even acknowledge the adversity, either because they’re too dumb or smart, but it’s so charismatic. It’s such a positive attitude that it make us feel great, like we can be that way, and it’ll work.”
Animag: In the international animation industry, what’s the country to watch right now?
De Seve: I think geography matters less now. We’re working on Angry Birds Toons now, and not only is their creative team a complete melting pot, it’s being done in several countries seamlessly. Technology makes that easy now. It’s cool to be part of the period where what we do for fun becomes a universal language.
Animag: Is TV still the most important medium for animation?
De Seve: What’s television? (laughs) Seriously, I think platform means less now, in practical terms. My daughter doesn’t care which rectangle she’s watching Peg + Cat on; she watches it on them all. It’s not a TV show, iPad show or laptop show, it’s a girl and a cat to her. Kids don’t care about the question. Maybe we shouldn’t either.
Animag: Where do you see animation in 2024?
De Seve: Our robot overlords will have to answer that.
Animag: Any advice for aspiring cartoon writers?
De Seve: Like any other vice: Do it with friends, it’s a lot more fun.
Baboon Animation is a U.S.-based collective of Oscar-nominated, multiple-Emmy-winning animation writers with credits on dozens of the most iconic animated shows of the last two decades.