Sean Akins, one of the big men behind our favorite little block, tells Toonzone about his role at the network his feelings on Toonami, and much much more!
Click Read More for the first half of the interview,
Toon Zone: So, Sean, what are your official job titles and responsibilities?
Sean Akins: Oh, wow, a really difficult question right off the bat (laughs). My official job title is "Creative Director for Cartoon Network," but I specifically deal with franchises. I manage Toonami and Miguzi—Miguzi more from a promotion and brand image perspective, while with Toonami I'm slightly more involved in the programming. So I'm kind of in control of both franchise's look and feel. On the Toonami side, I'm a little more involved with programming, but that's sort of a group decision. There's a bunch of different factors and people that weigh in on those discussions.
TZ: Has any of that changed with Toonami since you started?
SA: Not really. It was kind of like that from the beginning, though it wasn't necessarily spelled out.
TZ: Something that has set Toonami apart from the crowd is the amount of detail and attention you guys give to the packaging. What was your favorite style?
SA: It was the goth stuff, that Old English text that didn't play very well. We thought that was the best, but I think we were a little too early. It was new, and people hate and fear new things. But as soon as that stuff went away, you saw every brand imaginable using that typeset and start working it into their image. So I think that we were, maybe, eight months ahead of our time, when it came to that. Nike did their whole line of girls athletic apparel with that sort of style, Tommy Hilfiger started doing that sort of style, the Nike thing extended into the Jordan brand, and Jordan was doing Old English. I'm not saying we had anything to do with it-I think it was kind of a bunch of different designers and different places seeing what worked and then taking brands there. But we got out of the gate a little bit faster.
TZ: You were ahead of the game?
SA: Yeah, sort of. Not really ahead of the game, but I think we just made that decision a little bit early and people were a little like shocked by it.
TZ: I think everyone was glad to see the pipes get a rest.
SA: Oh my God, we were so over the pipes. Like, that was ridiculous. That thing went on for way too long. That wasn't even supposed to be an official thing, and it just ... ugh.
TZ: It just came about?
SA: Yeah. Thank God the pipes are gone. It was just depressing. The funny thing is, after we got done with that particular redesign, we put them up side-by-side on a print out, and there's no comparison. Like, the pipes are so awful. The new stuff had life and was so much more dynamic and visually arresting when you saw it. It allowed us to really kind of stand apart from the rest of the stuff on Cartoon Network, making our own strong identity. That's what I like. That being said, I don't dislike the current look. I think the current look has been very successful too. It's sort of what you would expect. The thing I liked about the goth stuff was that it was so unexpected.
TZ: You had Rurouni Kenshin on then, which it kind of fit with.
SA: If it works good enough, it feels comfortable. Certainly if you had gotten a bunch of people in a room to guess what the next Toonami look was gonna be, chances are it would have never ended up there, which was what kind of pushed us in that direction.
TZ: You wanted to surprise us.
SA: Yeah, but we think the current look is very good. It's very meat-and-potatoes, kind of what you would expect.
TZ: It's kind of simplistic but works well.
SA: Give ‘em what they want, exactly. That being said, I think it's very successful too, but if you ask me for my personal favorite, it has to be just this last one.
TZ: The intros: Toonami always used to give shows a thirty-second custom intro, but with the new look, some shows get a seven-second one with the original intro while others get a full thirty. How does that get decided?
SA: A bunch of different factors weigh into that. A lot of times, when you get a show from a distributor, they're thinking they're going to extend this property to other areas, vis-a-vis DVDs and CDs. If they have a signature theme song they're attached to, they want to hear that.
TZ: The Rave-olution.
SA: Right, exactly. You see where I'm coming from. We always felt the "Toonami Intros" were another way to extend the Toonami brand. And once you've made that decision, it is sort of second nature to remove the original opening. You don't want to see two opens back-to-back-that would be just kind of silly. So, if the distributors are real sticklers and want to hear the theme song, we put the short intro on it. If we're allowed to do what we want to do, then we usually give it its own intro and remove the one it came with. That's something that started with some of the first Toonami incarnations.
TZ: Back with Moltar.
SA: Way back when. Mainly, it started back when we were picking up some older shows, shows with just horrible intros. They were just awful. We still get in trouble with a lot of fans when we talk about it. A lot of fans want to hear the old, horrible theme songs-why they want to hear them, I have no idea, but I assume it ' s because they just don't get to hear them and feel like they're missing out. If we had never done any of this, there would be no clamor to hear those theme songs.
But, it's something that the fans responded to, one of those things that gets batted back and forth all the time. I thought it was our chance to sort of flex our muscles a little bit, to further the brand. But if the fans look at it as something that they're losing rather than something they're getting, then it's not worth our time and effort. We used to pour our hearts into those things, and we still do on the ones we get to do. But if people just think "Oh, this is Toonami's intro, they're blowing away the real intro," then maybe we'll stop doing them.
Anyway, I always thought what we did was top notch. I thought the opens we put on were better than the opens already on there. But like I said, it all comes down to what the fans want.
TZ: You know there's a website devoted to them online
SA: The Arsenal, you mean? We go there all the time. That's how I check and make sure everyone's doing the work I've assigned. I know if I don't see it on the Arsenal, it hasn't been on the TV. So that's my little quality control, the Arsenal.
TZ: One of my favorite intros was the GI Joe one, where you guys took the old monologue and updated it.
SA: Yeah, that was a great one. That was one of those that we had an opportunity to do. Everyone was so familiar with the existing open because it had aired on domestic, so it didn't seem so much like a loss. And it was only on at night, I think, so you get a little more latitude.
TZ: How do you decide which shows get strong promotion? Rave Master didn't get advertised until the day it aired, and Gundam SEED's long promo has only aired a handful of times.
SA: I wish I knew the answer to that question (laughs). It's several factors. Running a network is a super-complicated thing, and we're just one spoke in the wheel. We try to get whatever promotion we can get, but if the network's doing other stuff, then they have to promote that as well. Sometimes, a show that's acquired takes a backseat to an original production. So if it's a show we're kind of getting for not much money and trying out, it's always going to get bumped for a show that we've spent all this money to create.
TZ: Like, Justice League Unlimited would take precedence over Rave Master.
SA: Yeah, that's correct. I mean, it sort of shakes out like that. Sometimes the rules aren't quite hard and fast. But, generally speaking, it only makes sense that a show originally produced by the network would take precedence, because the investment is higher and you have to support your investments. At the same time, you ' re trying to support all the shows on the air and all the different brands, and you have a Sophie's Choice at times.
I'm not the guy that makes the final decision. Sometimes I'm the horse that gets shot, so it just sort of depends on timing-what else is going on, what we have going on, and what other shows we want to support. Because we have a long block, with many different shows on it, we can't air a promo for every different show, and we have to pick the ones we think will be most helped by the promotion and the ones we want to most associate the brand with. It's a mess. It's like a big battle every month.
TZ: So, what happened with Sara and the Clydes? They got redesigns, and people are saying Sara looks like a Halo character.
SA: (laughs) I think the redesign for Sara was somewhat successful, even though it's still a little unfulfilling. We're going to continue to redesign those things. We're limited on the animation end and don't have the ability to just create new animation every week. And some of the stuff, we're not totally satisfied with. But you have a budget, you make one shot to get a bunch of animation, and you have to use that for a certain period of time before you can make new stuff, just to kind of make it work financially. We liked getting Sara off the monitor, letting her be a 3-D character-that was the major step for us. I agree with some of the haters out there who think it's not up to standards; I think we can certainly push that, and that's the plan. The Clydes, on the other hand, I think are fantastic.
TZ: They're like mini-transformers.
SA: They don't really transform, but they're like little bumblebees. We've always tried to just take chances with the Clydes and just make them different. They're supposed to be fun, just a fun part of the block, and a fun piece of geometry that the animators can play with. We can have some fun making little pieces up, and I think those things are fairly well designed. I like the way they look, but then again, they're not permanent either. They'll be going away sometime, whenever we redo everything.
TZ: Last year, you had the floating Emoticons, as some called them.
SA: Yeah, I thought those were awesome. We built like eight or nine expressions, and you could just slide the bar back and forth to where you wanted it. I loved the fact that they floated around and looked like sunflowers. We got a lot of flak for our image being so hard. We tried to make the happy, fun little Clydes bounce and stuff like that a little bit. And I thought that kind of worked. As a matter of fact, I've always been into all the Clydes we've done. I think they've all been fairly cool, from the very first one.
TZ: The Satellite one?
SA Yeah, it looked like a really simple satellite that a third-grade CGI artist could render and model for us-which is, I think, what happened. But it ' s easy to make the secondary characters cool-the ones that don't have a lot of emphasis and don't do a whole lot. It's harder to do a primary character that you need to connect with and invest in emotionally. If it's a character, you want to hear what that character's saying, so it's a little bit more difficult.
TZ We were all shocked when TOM died the first time.
SA: I know, that was awesome. That was a tremendous success; it set the bar for us. We've done other animation that rivaled it, but we've never been able to cliffhanger it and put so much emphasis on it. It was a perfect storm: supporting the brand, the window in the calendar, all that sponsorship support-it was just one of those things that happened. I don't know if we can ever have it happen again. But we're trying to do big things like that, and it's just difficult to get all that together.
TZ: Cartoon Network seems to have struck a deal with Ninja Tune for music. What are the limits of the use of their label, if any?
SA: Toonami actually struck that deal. That's just "us." So, we have access to much of the Ninja Tune library, excluding some artists who have co-producer credits on their stuff. If it's artists that Ninja Tune owns outright, we pay Ninja Tune a kind of blanket license to use a lot of their CDs and a lot of different artists. It works out well for us: We get access to a lot of the music that we think is very, very good as well as a lot of different types of artists and styles, like DJ Food and Amon Tobin and a bunch of different guys. We still continue to work with other outside artists on an individual basis. Dangermouse still does a lot of our individual beats; we're working with Mad Lib; we're working with Animals on Wheels. There's a bunch of different guys we're working with, guys that we like. The Ninja Tune deal was a great way to get a lot of stuff that we didn't have to compose ourselves, that we thought fit the brand, and that we could make cool spots out of.
TZ: Speaking of spots, how do the commercials and intros come about? Does the whole gang get together, watch a few episodes and decide how they go about?
SA: Usually it's a tight-knit group that does the work. There's not many of us-maybe four or five guys would spearhead a project like that. The shows will come in, and I'll review them and figure out who's best suited for which project. I usually try to assign producers to shows they like or projects they'll have fun on. That because the emotion generally comes through in the work. If you have a guy or a girl who's working on something he or she doesn't like, I can usually feel that when the final product comes around. So I try to work around with the personalities inside the group, and there ' s kind of a lead producer who ' ll take on a project. But everyone kind of watches it, so it's really a group thing.
We're a family here at Toonami, so everybody is always up on everybody's business. It's fairly organic-there's no hard-and-fast rules-but generally one person will write the script and send it around if it's a promo. For the opens, it falls on the back of the editors. Those are straight editiorial set to music that builds to a logo reveal. You can't really script that; you have to start cutting it. That's their paticular contribution, their creativity. I'm truly blessed to have a lot of really talented people on the team, and that's kind of how it goes down. We have some of the most talented editors in the area, I think, in my group at Williams Street.
TZ: That's what sets you apart from the crowd.
SA: I hope so, but I don't know. Sometimes it seems like it's killing us, and at other times it seems like it separates us from everyone else.
TZ: So, when Miguzi was introduced at the upfronts, there was an elaborate backstory explaining how Erin, the host, came about this underwater spaceship. Will this story ever be revealed on air?
SA: We're trying to, and we're hoping to get the greenlight to make a lot of animation. We certainly want to tell those stories, but this environment is not really designed to do long form stuff, so it may not ever be possible. The quantity of that animation depends on the funding we can get. You know, just having her look at the camera and wave costs me several thousand dollars. But we're trying to get to a place where we can do specials and stunts with that environment and cast of characters, like Toonami was doing them. It would have a whole different tone a creatively, but it would be sort of the same deal. We certainly want to try to build to something that could sustain some shorts or maybe a 22-minute special. All that stuff is on the drawing board right now, and we're trying to write stories that we'll find compelling and see if we can grow that into something of that nature.
TZ: When it was announced it would be an underwater spaceship, some of us thought that it might be the remains of the Absolution.
SA: We almost did that. Just the fact that they're on a spaceship at all is sort of an homage to where we came from. And it was funny, we just tried to set up a yin and a yang with Toonami and Miguzi. Toonami's outer space, Miguzi's inner space; Toonami has few characters, Miguzi has a lot of characters; Toonami is darker and cooler, Miguzi is brighter and "funner." So we had all of that to play off of. That's another great thing to do when you're running a group of creative people. You have to give them a variety of things to work on or else they get burned out. That's kind of how the idea came about. Even though Miguzi's certainly targeted toward different demo and age group.
TZ: It's rumored that you were a driving force behind Tenchi Muyo and FLCL. Does the "Approved by Sean Akins" seal give a show a greater chance of being acquired?
SA: Not at all. It probably gives it less of a chance. Tenchi came out of Toonami; it was one of the acquisitions Toonami drove back in the day. Fooly Cooly was kind of the same thing, but my nom de plume doesn't hold any water around here. Jim Samples, that's the guy who makes things happen around here.
Continue to Part 2 at Toonzone