Interview w/ Sean Szeles, Storyboard Artist on 'Flapjack' and 'Regular Show'

He's worked on a string of fan favorite animated show including El Tigre, The Misadventures of Flapjack, The Drinky Crow Show and Regular Show, but would you believe his dream job was once delivering pizzas? Lucky for us he fell back on his insane artistic skills which have helped Cartoon Network's latest 'toon (Regular Show) earn a nomination for an Annie Award for Best Childrens' Television Production. Not too shabby.

When he's not busy writing songs or directing short films, Szeles enjoys taking care of stray cats, sketching, making with the funny and sipping Kool-aid from complete strangers. Good thing too, cause we just brewed a fresh gallon!
Thanks for taking some time out to share with us, Sean. Would you care to have a seat on our vintage, furry Alf head bean bag chair while we chat? A bowl of candy corn perhaps?

No problem SK, I'm glad to be here in your dungeon. I don't approve of killing any alien life forms and making them into chairs, but seeing as it's that or sitting on the cold, damp concrete- don't mind if I do! No candy for me though, thanks. We're not that familiar with each other and I'm allergic to razor blades, but some mysterious red liquid to drink? Yes, please!

How long have you been in the animation industry?

I've been working in the animation industry for about 7 years. Pretty much non-stop since graduating from CalArts in 2003, except for the first couple months where I delivered pizzas, which was actually a life-long dream and was pretty fun.

Did you have many favorite cartoons that you watched on Saturday mornings as a kid?

I can remember watching the Smurfs a lot and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles the most on Saturday mornings. But I pretty much watched everything. It seems that I watched most cartoons in the afternoons after school like Tail Spin, Rescue Rangers, Duck Tales... a lot of Disney stuff I guess. Then came along Animaniacs and Batman which were probably my favorites at the time. Then, when Cartoon Network came onto the scene, I was re-introduced to all the Hanna-Barbera faves and Tom & Jerry, Looney Tunes, and the Fleischer's Popeye, which is probably my favorite old cartoon.

Awhile back I had a chance to catch up with co-creator of El Tigre, Jorge Gutierrez, and he seems like a really great guy. What lessons did you learn as part of the Art and Editorial departments on that show which you've taken with you to other shows?

Your perceptions are correct, Jorge is a great guy! I've learned so much from Jorge over the years that it would take too long to write it all down. Mainly I learned how to navigate the crazy waters of having a vision and trying to get that vision actually on the air. Making animated tv shows is a huge compromise and a lot of other people would piss and moan about changes they'd have to make. However, Jorge always seemed to figure out his own way to address notes that would not only would make himself and the note-giver happy, but would actually make the show better as well.

I also learned things like how important it is to find people you trust who can execute your vision for you because you can't do everything yourself. You're going to have to relinquish some duties to other people, so find some good ones. El Tigre was a crew of crazy talent and it felt like we were all in it together, doing everything we could for the good of the project. And I think as our leader, Jorge gave us the confidence to do our best work.

I also learned invaluable information about storyboarding, timing, and how to sell an idea from Supervising Producer, Dave Thomas and Director, Gabe Swarr.

As a writer and storyboard artist on Thurop Van Orman's recently concluded series The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack what creative influence did you have on the overall tone of the show?

Well, I came onto Flapjack for Season 2, so the overall tone of the show was already set up. I did have more influence on how the individual episodes I worked on came out, though. I think I always tried to push the epic aspects of the adventure story just because I like epic stories and it seemed fun to contrast that with the silliness of the jokes. I am also really influenced by a lot of British comedy, so I tried to write a lot of scenes filled with witty banter.

Thurop really gave us board artists full reign to do what we wanted to do. We worked in pairs, so each artist brought their own sensibilities to the episodes. Of course, if things weren't shaping up appropriately, Thurop and the Creative Director (JG Quintel, or John Infantino) would jump in and help us figure it out. It's not like we we're flying blindly, though, because we'd always be working off of a story outline written by one of the writers.

That's actually another way myself and the other board artists had influence on the tone of the show. There would be weekly writer's meetings where we'd all gather to generate story ideas. In the meetings we'd play various writer's games like, for example, starting with a random drawing, and then passing it to the next person to write a first act based on that drawing, then passing it along to the next person to write a second act, and then on to the next person to write a third act. We'd generate a lot of crazy and not-very-useful ideas, but there would always be a couple of gems in the bunch. The staff writers would then take those gems and flesh them out into outlines. For season 3 of Flapjack, I actually transitioned to writing outlines and it was interesting to see how the different board artists would approach a story you wrote.

Oh, and I was also able to write a bunch of songs that ended up being in the show so that was awesome too!

Speaking of tone, you've been most recently involved with former Flapjack director J.G. Quintel's The Regular Show which, alongside the likes of Adventure Time and Superjail!, shares a bizarre sense of fantasy/comedy. Do you believe that these shows are part of an ongoing trend to bring the surrealism of indie animation to the mainstream?

I don't see it as some sort of movement or anything, but it's more like everyone's just trying to make shows that they like. The creators now might just be into more "bizarre", or less mainstream, things. If anything I think more than trying to be surreal, we're actually trying to bring more realism into cartoons. I realize that may sound weird, but it's like we're trying to get away from cliche cartoon characters and acting and going more for how real people act and react to weird situations. I think you'll see that reflected in the writing and the down-played voice-acting. It can still be cartoony, but also can be more subtle and not so in-your-face at the same time. Although to some it may seem like we all just do drugs and see what comes out and that it's all random, we really try hard to make stories that work and are believable to the different worlds that these shows inhabit.

As a writer, what makes these kind of stories entertaining for both adults and children?

I think it helps if the the story has heart, and a focus, and somebody to root for. I guess it's good to find themes that are relatable to everyone. Also, I think it's important not to talk down to kids or try to dumb-down your content. The silliness and visuals will entertain kids, while maybe the more dialouge-based jokes will entertain adults. It's a balancing act, but really I try not to pay attention to it too much and just write things that entertain myself.

Have you ever considered developing your own animated show or comic book/graphic novel?

Yes, I've considered it. I've also considered watching tv instead. I consider that option a lot.

No, really I would love to have my own animated show someday, but I realize how much work that entails. Perhaps a graphic novel would be a better to get my ideas out there. I did do a weekly webcomic Through the Port-Hole with Dumm Comics for about a year in 2008, so you can check that out if you'd like. It's in the archives here:

Whatever happened with your project: Millionaire Cheetah?

I guess it's on the back-burner. It was an idea I generated back at CalArts which I developed for a while, but could never figure out how I wanted to do it. It could be a show, a children's book, or just a short film I guess. Actually, I would most like to do it as an independent short film, but it would require a lot of time, work, and most importantly motivation. Someday I'll see it done though.

That was heavily influenced by Czech-born artist Miroslav Sasek, is that correct?

Well, more the look I would be going for than the idea itself. I think it wasn't until after I graduated that I figured out who Sasek was and really go into his artwork. His This Is.. series of books are filled with super appealing and graphic character designs, but his main strength I learned is in his use of pattern. The buildings, the way the characters are laid out, the cars, the details; everything's a pattern in his illustrations.

Who else has influenced you artistically?

Too many to name but here are some: Ronald Searle, The Provensons, Mary Blair, Harvey Kurtzman, Milt Gross, Ed Benedict, Mel Crawford, Edward Gorey, Kiraz, Divito, Earl Oliver Hurst, Virgil Partch, Hank Ketcham, Jim Flora, Tom Oreb, Jim Tyer, Ernesto Cabral, Aurelius Battaglia, Eyvind Earle, Bill Peet, and so on.

For comedy I turn to Monty Python, Bob Odenkirk, The Kids in the Hall, David Sedaris, Jon Swartzwelder, Louis CK, Scott Aukerman, Paul F. Tompkins, The Mighty Boosh, Tim & Eric and Stella.

For filmmakers I like Stanley Kubrick, Sergio Leone, Wes Anderson, The Coen Brothers, Jim Henson, John Hughes and Mel Brooks.

And, of course everyone, I've ever worked with!

What's the strangest thing you can remember doing as a kid?

Being at a school field trip at a roller rink and sitting off to the corner acting sad so girls would come talk to me. I don't think it worked very well and was pretty weird now that I think about it. I wish I would tell my younger self, "Get out there and skate man! Have some fun!"


  1. Anonymous said...:

    Dang, I loves me some "Regular Show". And I CAN kind of see an influence of "The Mighty Boosh" in it...

  1. Strange Kid said...:

    @LaDracul: I've yet to see The Mighty Boosh, but I hear an awful lot about it so it must be pretty funny.

  1. D.M.Cunningham said...:

    I LOVED El Tigre, still have many episodes on my iPod to watch over and over. I was so bummed when that show went away. I guess they just don't know an amazing show when they see it!! Great interview guys.

  1. Such an amazing interview, I feel Sean has greatly improved the quality of every show he has worked on and when he is ready to create his own show it will be incredible to say the least. I always wondered if he is or was ever in a band, sucks they neglected to ask him because his music is pretty awesome....oh well, still a great interview!

  1. Strange Kid said...:

    I'm still waiting on a DVD collection of El Tigre, what's up Nickelodeon?

    @DM and @Charles Thanks for the kind words, Sean is such a cool guy and mega-talented. I just can't get enough of his art style- it's like a miasma of awesomeness!

  1. Anonymous said...:

    Dude, you should get your hands on the DVDs, pronto...AS cut out a lot because of time constraints. I still have yet to see the entire third season, but they're plotting a fourth season and a movie...although Noel's going to appear in a movie based on the "Horrid Henry" books.

    But the show is KINDA the same as "Regular Show" friends who work at a zoo (Even though that's only in the first season) and the crazy characters and situations they encounter.

  1. Strange Kid said...:

    @LaDracul: Will do! I'm definitely in a buddy-comedy "mood" at the moment.

  1. Unknown said...:

    "If anything I think more than trying to be surreal, we're actually trying to bring more realism into cartoons. I realize that may sound weird, but it's like we're trying to get away from cliche cartoon characters and acting and going more for how real people act and react to weird situations."
    This is EXACTLY what I love about cartoons in general - the realism, no matter how weird it sounds. I didn't thnik that anyone could see it like me.
    Also if the content is not "dumbed-down" and it doesn't talk down to anyone, it is an ideal cartoon for me.
    Sean is like successful, lucky and happy version of me or something.

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