“Loud” Out Loud: An Interview with Animator Chris Savino
Every once in a while, if the planets align perfectly, a cartoonist gets to make a deeply felt personal statement in his work while he also entertains his audience. That fortunate confluence of events has taken place for veteran animator Chris Savino and The Loud House, his new series premiering on Nickelodeon on May 2. Savino, a lifelong fan of classic newspaper comics, brings his long-held love for the comics to his new series (and Savino, we humbly note, is a longtime Friend of Ol’ Hogan), expressing his affection in ways fellow enthusiasts will appreciate. Hogan’s Alley editor Tom Heintjes spoke recently with Savino about the making of The Loud House and how he channels his own passions into the program.
Hogan’s Alley: You’ve described The Loud House as being influenced by the Sunday comics you enjoyed as a child. How are you expressing that influence in animation?
Chris Savino: One hundred percent influenced. When I made the switch from wanting to do a comic strip to working in animation, I always had a nagging feeling that I turned my back on comics. I still do want to sell a comic strip--where it will be “printed” in the future and how to make a living doing it is anyone’s guess. I’ve put traces of comic strip influence in previous projects such as my Cartoon Network pilot Foe Paws, but it wasn’t until The Loud House that I realized this was my opportunity to pay homage--a love letter if you will--to comic strips. I knew that I wanted The Loud House to have the same feeling I had opening up the Sunday funnies, warmth, inviting, like visiting old friends. So the color pallet derived from the limited printed pallet in the earlier days of color comics. I use a lot of spot black and shadows to emulate the balanced black and white beauty of a daily comic as well. The “camera” tends to stay at eye height mimicking panels of a strip which also makes it easier for the animators. We also use comic tropes such as fight clouds, zips and some word sound effects.
HA: Have you attempted work previously with this strong an autobiographical element?
CS: Not really. Even the original version of The Loud House wasn’t autobiographical. Originally the idea was about a boy rabbit with 25 sisters. I didn’t even consider the fact that I am one of 10 siblings—I’m number 9--when coming up with the original idea. It wasn’t until it was suggested to me to make the characters human did I start to draw from my own life experiences. And it was then that everything started to fall into place. I used my sister’s names as a start. All “L” names with four letters each (Lori, Lisa, Lynn, Luan, Lana) and used the name of the street I grew up on, Lincoln, to name the lead character. I used my school name, my favorite teacher, etc. I think somehow making the characters human made the show more grounded in reality and relatable situations that it just naturally happened. I started connecting the dots between the chaos of my house to the chaos of The Loud House.
HA: In what ways would you say The Loud House is a departure from your past work?
CS: I wouldn’t say it’s a departure so much as an amalgamation of all of my past experiences. I’ve had the good fortune to work on a lot of great shows with a lot of really talented and generous people. I’ve learned a lot about what to do as well as what not to do in running a show. The one main departure I would say is that I really wanted to have a lot of heart in the story telling. It’s not to say other shows do not have heart, but I felt I could really push the amount of heart in this show to a new level. Of course I want the show and the characters to be funny and certainly hope that the audience laughs at them and with them, but I thought why can’t I also tug at the heart strings a bit? There’s no rule that says you can’t try and make the audience tear up a bit. There are a few episodes that I think might achieve that.
One other difference is the structure of our stories. It was decided early on that instead of the main character wanting X and going after X and running into obstacles and then getting X in a fun or surprising way, we would give the character X midway through the cartoon and have him or her deal with the consequences of getting what they wanted as well as upsetting the balance of the household. In the end the character will get X or even Y, but the balance of the household all be restored. Like in life there are always consequences, especially in a big family.
HA: Could you talk a bit about what comic books and comic strips, or even individual creators, influenced you in ways that shape The Loud House?
CS: Sure! Having older siblings meant there were some reprint books of comic strips always floating around the house. I recall having Peanuts books as well as some Pogo books. I always copied them. I liked the modern comics in the newspaper as well, but it was the older comics that really drew me in, pun intended. As I got older and was able to go to the public library by myself I started digging up some really great strips-Krazy Kat, Polly and Her Pals, Dennis the Menace--although that strip is still going, the earlier strips blew my mind. And with the advent of the internet I was able to learn about and collect so many more strips that I otherwise would not have had access to--Salesman Sam by Swanson, for example. So in The Loud House, any comic fan can see the direct influence, or maybe homage, that Polly and Her Pals has on me. Even Luna Loud’s amplifier brand name is “STERRETT.” The backgrounds certainly borrow lots of little details from that strip as well as some color choices. I try to also pay homage in some of the character designs as well. You might see some Segar Popeye design esthetic as well as Sterrett in their neighbor. As for Peanuts, that comes in to the timing and writing of the show. It wasn’t lost on me that the Peanuts characters were adults in kids’ bodies. They dealt with a lot of adult themes and issues. So in The Loud House, it was my goal to make the kids solve their problems on their own as well. If they could run to mom and dad every time then the show would be over. By not showing the parents it allowed the kids to recognize their problem and then work together to solve it. The timing of the show borrows from the Peanuts specials that we all know and love. It is slower and more purposeful. You can take a moment and just breathe with the character. This helps balance out the chaos of the show. I love the Peanuts specials so much, and I love how they make me feel; it is always such a huge compliment when someone says they show feels like those specials. If you listen closely you might recognize the engine sound of the family van as that of the rented car in Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown.
HA: Can you describe the premise of The Loud House and what went into fleshing out your initial concept of the show? What was your first germ of an idea, and where did it go from there?
CS: The Loud House is about an 11-year-old boy named Lincoln Loud, who has 10 sisters. Originally the idea was about a boy rabbit with 25 sisters and was more of a cartoony chaotic idea, but when it was suggested to make the characters human, the number of siblings was cut down to a biologically believable 10. Ten also worked so that Lincoln could be the middle child--five older sisters and five younger. Once the characters were human and the show developed into a more grounded, relatable idea, I started pulling from my own life experience growing up in a house with 10 kids. Early on, I thought the show would be Lincoln teaching us--the audience--how to survive in a big family, but I soon realized that not everyone has siblings, let alone multiple, so the decision was made to have Lincoln invite us in to his world and show us what it’s like to live in a house with 10 sisters. Lincoln breaks the fourth wall by talking to the audience, which I feel helps in bringing the viewer right into the chaos with him. From the beginning I made a list of character traits that each of the sisters could be choosing them by age as well as the best that would be in direct contrast to Lincoln. The show wasn’t going to be a boy versus girls, but rather many different personalities crammed into a small house having to deal with one another. As the series progressed, we were able to write stories that were from the other sibling’s point of view, allowing us to explore each of the sister’s personalities more deeply and also give them more facets than just their surface personalities from the original short.
HA: How did The Loud House come to exist in the first place?
CS: I joined Nickelodeon on an overall deal in the fall of 2012. Part of my deal was that I would create a short for Nick’s Animated Shorts Program, which would be going into its second season. I had to pitch three ideas, and the rabbit version of The Loud House was one of them--maybe someday the other two will see the light of day. The development team was keen to have a large family idea, so it seemed appropriate that they chose it. Next, I had to pitch what the short story was going to be. Early on it was about the boy rabbit trying to get out of his house without having to deal with his many sisters, who would undoubtedly want to interfere with the outfit that he had chosen for the day--an experience I often had growing up. But, through the development of the story, I realized that it wouldn’t be relatable for kids who didn’t have siblings so I chose to make the boy rabbit’s desire universal: having to go to the bathroom. It was at this time that the suggestion was made to make them human. And the final short came from that.
HA: Describe the writing process for an episode. How are script ideas developed? Is there a conventional writer’s room?
CS: The process for writing on The Loud House is a slight departure from previous shows I’ve worked on. I knew The Loud House had to be scripted so that we could keep track of and give equal screen time for all of the siblings. Originally I thought that because there were so many characters that it might be good to make The Loud House a 22-minute episode show rather than 11. During that time I did some research on 22-minute sitcom structure and played around with that mid-episode commercial break scene were a character got what he or she wanted and then for the second half had to deal with the consequences of getting it.
For The Loud House, this was perfect because when you live with so many people, there are always consequences to one’s actions or desires. Even though I ultimately decided to go with the 11-minute format, I was still intrigued by that commercial break “midpoint,” so all of our scripts have that midpoint. It’s always at the bottom of page eight of our 16-page scripts, and it kind of keeps the script in check. For example, if the midpoint is on the bottom of page nine and the script is 17 pages long, we know we need to cut page from the first half.
A typical story starts in our writer’s room. The room, which consists of our head writer/story editor Mike Rubiner and five staff writers, is run much more like a sitcom and less like a typical cartoon. Whichever writer is up next on the schedule will pitch out story ideas. We ask typical questions like “what does Lincoln want” and “what’s at stake,” etc. We really try to figure out what the emotional aspect of the story is going to be rather than why is it funny. The funny will always come, but emotional through-lines need to be hammered out first. We discovered early on that it’s not so much the answers we are looking for, but asking the right questions, and we ask alot of questions. My constant question is: “Is it believable?” Once we have a rough idea of the premise, and it is approved by the executives in charge [EIC], we as a room break the story into an outline, which is about four pages long. Here, we try to answer more questions and nail down the entire story beats before the writer goes off on his or her own to write the actual outline.
Typically, we’ll do an internal read-through of the outline and make any tweaks before it goes back to the EICs for approval. Once approved, the writer writes a first draft of the script--usually 16 or 17 pages--and once that’ done; the entire room will go through and together do a rewrite before it’s sent off to the EICs once again. Finally, we’ll get notes and address them in a second draft, which is also done by the room. Along with addressing notes, we’ll punch up jokes and dialogue before a final polish draft is done after script approval from the EICs. I think having the whole room involved in every rewrite and punch pass keeps a consistency across all scripts. Once the script is final, it can be handed off to the storyboard artist who, through the process of boarding, has the freedom to add jokes or visuals. A final recording draft of this script, inclusive of additions, is made from this. We start this entire process once a week.
HA: Music and songs play an important part in so many contemporary cartoons, like Phineas and Ferb. I know you’re a fan of cartoon theme songs. What role will songs play in The Loud House?
CS: Music to me, especially the main theme, plays such an important role in cartoons. It helps carry us along as well as augment emotions or action in any given segment. Because The Loud House plays more like a sitcom, there are times where there is no music except for transitions, but when there are action sequences, or emotional scenes, it really helps bring them to life. We really lucked out on our main title music. I hear from many people that it is such an ear worm and that it gets stuck in their heads all day! Success!