- Tuesday, Jul. 26, 2016
J.J. Sedelmaier was born into the worlds of funny and art, infused into his DNA by his parents: mom Maria Svolos, a noted artist/designer, and dad Joe Sedelmaier, the legendary director known for his brilliant brand of humor that graced ads for then startup FedEx (“Fast Talker”) as well as Alaska Airlines (“Sky High Airlines) and Wendy’s (“Where’s The Beef?”), among many others.
J.J. went on to mesh those comedic and artistic sensibilities into an animation career spanning varied disciplines, including commercials, shorts and TV. Initially an aspiring comic book artist, Sedelmaier discovered the world of animation upon having the good fortune to break into the business at The Ink Tank, the iconic NY animation studio headed by R.O. Blechman. Sedelmaier first worked as a freelancer at the studio in 1980 and then got a big break. “He [Blechman] decided I was going to be his producer and I didn’t even know what a producer was,” recalled Sedelmaier. “If I didn’t have that opportunity to see what it was like to run a studio--without actually having a studio--I wouldn’t have been able to open my own place.”
That place, now marking its 25th year anniversary, is J.J. Sedelmaier Productions (JJSP), launched in White Plains, NY, by J.J. and his wife, Patrice. The studio built its reputation on commercials (for such clients as Adidas, Volkswagen, Slim Jim, SC Johnson’s Scrubbing Bubbles, 7Up, the resurrection of the “Speedy Alka Seltzer” character) while becoming a key contributor to ground-breaking animation series work which included the first season of MTV’s Beavis & Butt-Head, the relaunch of Schoolhouse Rock on ABC, and co-creating, with Robert Smigel the Saturday TV Funhouse cartoons for NBC’s Saturday Night Live. JJSP served as the exclusive animation house for Funhouse for the first three years, designing characters and animating such memorable fare as The X-Presidents, Fun With Real Audio, and Animated Outtakes. JJSP was the exclusive home of The Ambiguously Gay Duo.
JJSP developed the pilot for Harvey Birdman--Attorney at Law with Cartoon Network that helped initiate that network’s Adult Swim block of cartoon programs. The studio also collaborated with writer Stuart Hill to develop and animate for Cartoon Network a series of interstitial shorts based on the “Captain Linger” super-hero character. JJSP even worked with Cartoon Network’s architect Betty Cohen to help produce the in-house film that originally presented the concept of a Cartoon Network to the Turner Network.
JJSP also created all designs and animation for the first season of The Colbert Report’s Tek Jensen cartoon series. NBC/USA Network’s hit series Psych contracted JJSP to develop, design and produce two seasons of its interstitial cartoon episodes The Big Adventures of Little Shawn and Gus.
J.J. Sedelmaier additionally is known for translating print/illustration into film, and over the years has collaborated with foremost illustrators and artists, including David Levin, Al Hirschfeld, Garry Trudeau, Alex Ross, Don Martin, Neal Adams, Douglas Fraser, Al Jaffee, and Gary Baseman.
JJSP and its ensemble of artists, animators and designers have received more than 700 awards from various film and print competitions, with screenings in over 100 festivals in 25 different countries. Top honors earned include the Annie Award; New York Art Director’s Club Gold Cubes; Best Educational Film-Annecy Animation Festival; recognition from the Ottawa International Animation Festival; a primetime Emmy for Saturday Night Live; a Daytime Emmy nomination for Schoolhouse Rock; two New England Emmy Awards for a Boston Bruins campaign out of Arnold Worldwide; and awards from Promax, BDA, NY Festivals, Mobius, Telly Awards (including Hall of Fame), Gracie Awards, and Worldfest. In one year alone, JJSP swept the Cel Animation Category at the Broadcast Design Awards, with five BDA Pyramids. Several museums (Guggenheim, Andy Warhol, New York Public Library) have requested JJSP films for their permanent collections.
In the following edited Q&A, Sedelmaier, president/director of JJSP, reflects on the studio’s 25 years and counting, what’s next in the pipeline and his foray into academia as an instructor at NYU.
SHOOT: What have been the most important lessons learned in launching and maintaining a successful studio?
Sedelmaier: I’m first glad that we developed it as a mom-and-pop shop, setting priorities based on our lives. We live five minutes away from the studio so it’s been possible to dovetail life and family. You can do this your way and in that respect I was influenced by my dad having his own place and being militantly independent. You don’t have to be big, and running the studio your own way translates into work that tends to be of a certain character and sensibility because you’re independent--and desperately trying to remain that way. Being in White Plains instead of New York City has also been a plus. It takes an extra effort for people to come to see you. At the same time you’re not being needlessly hovered over.
We loved doing Beavis and Butt-Head. It’s work I’m proud of. But we ran away from it after realizing we were being consumed by a network and starting to lose our focus on commercials which allowed us to work in all these different styles and realms. We had grown to about 60 people for the series. We didn’t know any better. It was good we didn’t know any better. MTV had never done this kind of series before. We had never done a series before. We went in with the attitude that we will never have done a series before together with MTV. Then it became Viacom. I loved the work but we scaled back down so we could retain that independence which is at our core.
We came close again to building up with Harvey Birdman. We did the pilot and enjoyed the fun, juicy development stuff that goes into creating and into the pre-pro. We found it ideal to set the standard and then not have to be in the production jungle. We pulled back after the pilot. That’s why I have full respect for those people who dive right in and keep going, like those behind The Simpsons, The Family Guy and those series that endure.
With SNL we also didn’t want to get that big again. We had to leave because the budgets were so crazy tight. But I wouldn’t have changed a thing or traded that TV Funhouse work for anything. It’s funny that people thought we were still doing that work even after we stopped. We learned what branding was about--once you get so closely associated with work, that perception continues.
SHOOT: How has advertising changed over the years and how has JJSP been impacted by those changes?
Sedelmaier: Budgets aren’t what they were. Everything is so spread out improvisationally with online and viral where it’s advertising but not advertising. Everything is constantly changing. Everyone has to be nimble. I don’t know how large agencies do it. Sometimes not sure if they are being nimble or behaving like they’re being nimble. But in the big picture, you’re given chances to do stuff you never would have had otherwise. We work in all facets of animation. People think of our work as being in a certain niche. But we’ve become involved in varied forms, working with CG, live action. People don’t realize that even going back to Beavis and Butt-Head, that first season [Nov. 1992-May ‘93] was digital. I also think people better understand animation today. It used to be that you had to hold people’s hands and escort them through the whole process. Now it’s more accessible. Production and agency people are savvy, in some respects even more savvy about animation than live action.
SHOOT: What have been the highlights thus far during your tenure at JJSP?
Sedelmaier: The best thing about it all are the people I’ve had a chance to work with, specifically the artists and designers. I’ve particularly enjoyed working with amazing illustrators and artists--Al Hirschfeld, Don Martin, Al Jaffee who’s been doing Mad Magazine for years. Not just taking their drawings and figuring out how to make them move on film but to problem solve and collaborate. Last April we did three spots for Ford, one with Bill Plympton, another with artist/cartoonist M.K. Brown [National Lampoon] and one with Al Jaffee who had never had his stuff animated. He’s 95 years old. To see his curiosity, the giddiness of him seeing his stuff animated for the first time, to work with him, was a true joy.
It’s also been gratifying to take people’s perceptions of what animation was in the late 1980s and to help change those perceptions--because of Beavis and Butt-Head along with shows like The Simpsons and South Park. People respect animation more. They understand it has much more potential than just ducks and bunnies. To have that body of work from Saturday Night Live, working in different styles and having it seen by millions of people, was very special. We asked for a title card to credit us and that completely transformed us. In many ways, though, it was one of the reasons we stopped doing that work. We were getting typecast.
SHOOT: How did The Ink Tank experience influence you?
Sedelmaier: To work in that studio with Blechman was a great experience. He’s very quiet and introverted. I was comfortable speaking up and it turned out we made a good team. He made me his producer, then I took over repping the studio. He and I were running that studio the last three years I was there. After that, there was nothing left to do but open my own place with Patrice. I learned so much at The Ink Tank. It was a wonderful experience.
I also met great people there, including Jim Signorelli who became a live-action director at SNL. He ended up directing a film with Rodney Dangerfield, Easy Money, that my father was supposed to direct. Jim and I then came together with Robert Smigel and from that came the SNL work.
Dating back to The Ink Tank I’ve had one primary goal which continues today. I’m trying to constantly find people who are fun to work with. We’re developing something with a guy named Paul Mercurio who does warm-up on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. He has a law/investment banker background but he’s also a stand-up comedian and was a writer on The Daily Show. We’re working on something quite fun.
SHOOT: What’s next?
Sedelmaier: Hopefully more great work in collaboration with great people. I continue to write for Print magazine. I usually write about graphics and history. And I’m teaching a class at NYU. I’ll be teaching in the fall semester and am working with students now as they put their treatments together.