The creator of Cartoon Network’s OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes chats about his hot new show and the secrets of his success. The series premieres August 1 at 6:30 p.m.
This story was written for Animation Magazine issue #273.
When Ian Jones-Quartey was only 15, he put together his own home computer from some spare parts he could find. Then, he saved money to buy a scanner, uploaded his drawings and created his own webcomic. Years later, after graduating from New York’s School of Visual Arts, he cold-called every animation studio in the city until he landed his first job at a commercial studio. It’s that kind of creativity, persistence and enthusiasm that has helped the toon veteran work on shows such as The Venture Bros., Adventure Time and Bravest Warriors, and become the supervising director and co-developer of Steven Universe. His much-anticipated new show OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes has already attracted a die-hard following, after its premiere in August on Cartoon Network.
The series started its life as a Cartoon Network pilot short called Lakewood Plaza Turbo, which was then retooled as a mobile game on CN’s Anything app last year. Jones-Quartey even participated in a “game jam” session in Portland, Oregon, where participants created a variety of different games based on the property.
“I first pitched the show six years ago when I was a storyboard supervisor on Adventure Time,” Jones-Quartey says during a recent phone interview. “I really wanted to make a show that was super fun and had everything that I loved when I was a kid. So, it became a cartoon about young friends who get to fight robots.”
Billed as the nexus of gaming and animation, the show was developed to play on all screens while offering a solid storytelling experience for viewers. Each episode follows K.O. (voiced by Courtenay Taylor), a bright and optimistic kid who tries to be the greatest hero he can be in the videogame-inspired world of Lakewood Plaza. The voice cast also includes Jones-Quartey himself, Kate Flannery (The Office), Ashly Burch (Adventure Time) and David Herman (MADtv).
“One of the greatest things about our show is that it had a chance to get its own footing through several different media,” says Jones-Quartey, who is also the creator of the award-winning webcomic RPG World. “When I made the pilot in 2013, it had a more global perspective. As more people started to work on the show, it became more about the characters in this world.”
The fluid, fun visuals of the show were also very important to the artist/creator, who grew up watching Tom and Jerry and Looney Tunes shorts on TV. “The look of the show is inspired by animation itself,” he explains. “I wanted to create something that was rough around the edges, so we came up with a style that was really based on pencil sketches. The goal was to make viewers feel like they could draw these characters and their world as well. I think anyone who grew up with cartoons can really enjoy this show, because I wrote it for myself.”
The 30-person pre-production team based at Cartoon Network’s studios in Burbank are ruled by storyboards. “Storyboarders have total control over the art style in the episodes,” says Jones-Quartey. “They also get to write most of the dialog. Every episode has its own individual look, which is something I learned from working on Steven Universe and Adventure Time. It keeps the shows alive. I’m not a fan of the shows that stay on model 100 percent of the time. I prefer things that are wild and crazy and go off-model. I also enjoy working with our animation partners in Korea, Sunmin Image Pictures and Digital eMation, whose work I trust enormously.”
When asked about the secret of his success as an animator, Jones-Quartey is quick to share some solid advice. “I’m kind of jealous of young animation fans today because there is so much high-quality animation produced by people who really care about what they’re making. I grew up at a time before Flash animation was popular. Today, you can use your skills to do feature-quality animation at home. The most important thing you can do is not wait for someone else’s permission to become an artist or creator. Don’t call yourself an ‘aspiring’ cartoonist or animator. Just do it. Take advantage of your freedom and flexibility to make the art that you want to make. Then, put it online and show it to as many people as you possibly can!”