Little Go Beep

In 2006 on his blog, Earl wrote about Little Go Beep, a theatrical cartoon he wrote for Warner Brothers Animation…

Kathleen Helppie, who was the head of the Warner Bros. Classic Animation division had wanted to do a Baby Looney Tunes project for some time. She had put together a pitch for a series of educational videos, but they never got off the ground. Finally, Warner Bros. Consumer Products, who was eager to promote the Baby Looney licensees, agreed to do a project. What we decided on was very different than the educational videos Kathleen had originally wanted to do. This was going to be a single feature-length direct-to-video, made up of classically styled brand-new Baby Looney shorts, with the adult characters, also in new animation, providing the wraparounds. These were to be Baby Looney Tunes done with slapstick and humor in the Looney Tunes tradition.

I began writing. Three directors, Spike Brandt, Gary Hartle and Kirk Tingblad, were lined up, to each takes sections of the videos. Since they were shorts, each director would be able to do complete shorts on their own. I had finished writing the Baby Road Runner and Coyote, and a Baby Bugs with Yosemite Sam and was halfway through a Baby Tweety and Sylvester (we were going to have Granny as a younger girl), when the plug got pulled. Consumer Products didn’t want to foot the cost of the project and Kathleen couldn’t raise the money anywhere else. It seemed like that was the end.

Spike Brandt, who was to direct the Baby Road Runner and Coyote segment, loved the material so much, that in his own time, at his own expense, he had a scratch voice track recorded (a scratch track is a temporary track that will be replaced later) and he made an animatic (an animatic is basically a storyboard shot on film, timed to the soundtrack, or visual gags). But this was no ordinary animatic. Spike had posed out the entire film so it practically looked like it was animated and he came up with the title Little Go Beep, which I think is very clever. He called a meeting with myself, Kathleen Helppie and Jean MacCurdy, who was then President of Warner Bros. Animation and showed it to us. I was blown away. He even had sound effects added. Jean and Kathy were also duly impressed and decided to take it to the next level.

Spike worked out a budget and we met with none other than Bob Daley, who along with Terry Semel, were the co-CEO’s of Warner Bros. We ran the tape for him. He laughed. He asked how much it would cost. Spike told him. He asked if there was any way to lower that figure, which, I assume, is something you have to say if you’re a big executive. Kind of like not buying a car at the first price they offer you. Spike also pitched the idea of doing this as a 50th anniversary of the Road Runner and Coyote. After some wrangling back and forth, the project was eventually green-lit. I won’t tell you what the final budget was, but I will say that for this eight minute short, it was more than what we usually spent on a half-hour of Pinky and the Brain.

Next up was casting the voice of Cage E. Coyote, Wile E. Coyote’s dad. Incidentally, his name in the script was originally Craft E. Coyote, but, believe it or not, that name didn’t clear legal. Someone else was actually using that. I came up with a whole list of “E” names, like Shift E. Coyote, Trick E. Coyote and Can E. Coyote. The one they liked that also cleared legal was Cage E. Coyote. When I told my friend Rick Greene what we were doing, he immediately said a name that I thought was perfect for the role – Stan Freberg. Not only was he a vintage Warner Bros. voice actor (he was sometimes Junior Bear, Hubie and/or Bertie, one of the Goofy Gophers and everybody’s favorite, although he only appeared in one cartoon, Pete Puma), but he played “pompous” and “self-righteous” better than anyone. Spike liked the idea and Stan became our Cage E. Coyote.

The recording session was very difficult for Stan because the person that recorded the scratch track had talked very fast and Spike already had the cartoon timed out to the second, so Stan had very little room to act and put his personal touch on it. Still, he was a trouper and we got a fine performance out of him. The animation, as well as all other aspects of the production, were all done in this country, the U.S. of A., with most of it being handled in house at Warner Bros. Classics and the rest being handed out free-lance.

The musical score was composed and conducted by the brilliant Richard Stone, who sadly left us way too soon. This was one of the last projects Richard worked on, and coincidentally, his first animation score was for a Tiny Toon Adventures half-hour that included a cartoon I wrote, Turtle Hurdle. I knew there was something special about that first score. For my money, Richard came closer to the Carl Stalling sound than anyone, even Milt Franklyn. The music was recorded on the main lot on the Warner Bros. scoring stage, the same stage used to record the original cartoons, although it has been completely refurbished on the inside for modern technologies. I was told the piano on that stage is the same one that Carl Stalling used. Normally, for Animaniacs or Pinky and the Brain they would have 25 – 27 players, because this was intended as a theatrical, we had a 42 piece orchestra! I sat in the studio during the session so I could hear them play live and not through the monitors. It was glorious! What a thrilling day that was. When they struck up the theme song, “Merrily We Roll Along,” starting with the famous Warner Bros. guitar slide, it was magical. I know I’m gushing here, but I have so much admiration for what the musicians do and how much they add to the final product. To me, a great music score is what makes the cartoons watchable over and over again, while a bad score can make a cartoon almost unwatchable.

After the musicians were dismissed, they did a pre-mix on the music, so when a final mix was done, no one could fiddle around with the way Richard wanted it to sound. As they were playing Cue 1, the theme song, a thought suddenly struck me and I asked, “Does it matter that this is a Looney Tune and they’re playing Merrily We Roll Along, the Merrie Melodies theme?” Kathleen said it didn’t make any difference. I know why they did it. Richard had told me a long time ago that Warners only owns three songs outright that they can use without paying royalties. One is “Merrily We Roll Along,” the second is “We’re In the Money” and I forget the third, but it definitely isn’t “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down,” which is the Looney Tunes theme. Being a purist, I would have just called this a Merrie Melody, but in the end, I guess it doesn’t really make any difference.

The other odd thing in that cue was a wood block, which I never remembered hearing on the cartoons. I actually had the audacity to ask Richard if that wood block was supposed to be in there. He just kind of glared at me and said, “Yes.” It wouldn’t be until much later that I’d find out that was a late 50’s arrangement used on cartoons that I had only seen on the Bugs Bunny Show with their credit sequences chopped off.

All was fine in cartoonland until one day, a big, bad executive decided that they didn’t like Stan Freberg’s voice for the Papa Coyote. Now, let me start by saying that I wouldn’t tell this story if I thought it put Stan in a bad light. In fact, I’m going to prove just the opposite. And second, I don’t remember who it was that wanted the voice changed and even if I did, I wouldn’t say. This late into the production they actually held auditions and cast Dee Bradley Baker as the new voice. Dee is a fine actor and works all the time, but here’s what happened. There are two actors that would always give you a funny line-reading that you weren’t expecting. One of them was Daws Butler and the other was his sometimes partner, Stan Freberg.

This was one of the things that Daws taught in his acting workshop. He would say, “Don’t be cosmetic.” What he meant by a cosmetic reading was the way 98% of the people who would go in to read for something would read it. Daws would suggest a different reading, like emphasizing the pronoun rather than the verb. Since Stan and Daws worked together so closely in those early days of television, their acting styles grew out of each other. And I think Stan would even say that he learned to act by watching Daws.

So, they brought Dee Baker in to record a new track. By this time, the animation was finished and in color, so the lip-synch couldn’t be changed. What this meant was that in order to stay in synch, Dee had to copy Stan’s quirky and funny line-readings. They ended up with a track that was identical to Stan’s, just with a different voice. We convinced the powers that be that the original was far superior and it stayed in the picture.

Once again, this is not a slam at Dee Baker. He was put in a very awkward position. But I don’t need to stand up for him. He’s one of a handful of really successful voice people in this town. I want to explain why I feel that Stan comes out looking good in this. I think it wasn’t Stan’s voice that the executive objected to, but the quirky readings. The executive was looking for the “cosmetic” reading. Except, the non-cosmetic reading is what makes the performance stand out. I’ve seen producers argue with Daws over line readings, when clearly what Daws did was much funnier. When you had a creative director like Joe Barbera, he would let Daws go wild. That’s why those early H-B cartoons are so funny. And that’s why Stan and Daws still rank as two of the best voice people to ever grace a Hollywood cartoon.

Mix day was a very long day, surprising since it was just one short we were doing. But cartoons have a lot of elements, and this being intended as a theatrical, people were being pickier than they might have been on a TV episode. The first thing I learned is that sound effects are sometimes layered to create just the right sound. In other words, several effects are played at the same time. For instance, in one scene, we had a boxing glove punch. In order to give the sound some “punch”, three effects were played together. Spike thought this actually sounded too painful and they wound up dialing one of the effects out to soften it a bit.

In another section, the music track had tremolo strings playing ominously. Spike felt, and I agreed on this one, that it was telegraphing the gag to come. Unfortunately, because of the music pre-mix, we could no longer dial out specific instruments. We wound up bringing the music track way down at that point, so it’s just barely audible and doesn’t give quite the foreboding sense it did originally.

Another fun thing was watching them pan stereo effects. There’s a scene where the Coyote and Road Runner are zipping all over the screen and the audio mixers had the sound effects follow them. When you hear it properly, it makes it seem like they’re zooming all around you. And then the film was done.

It was run at the AMC in Century City for a week to qualify for Academy consideration. Even that short run foreshadowed what was to become of the film. The first time I went to see it there, the film didn’t arrive in time. I went back a second time and saw it, running before Best In Show. I went back a third time with a friend and the show went right from trailers into the movie. I had to call Warner Bros. to call the theater and get them to put the short back in. It’s supposed to run for a full week to qualify for the Oscars, which, by the way, we got into the top ten shorts that year, but didn’t make it into the top five to get nominated.

I want to take this opportunity to publically thank Spike for all his hard work on this short and especially for keeping me included in the various steps. The writer is often overlooked after he turns in his script, even in live-action. Some writers not only don’t get invited to the set, they don’t get invited to the cast party. The Writers Guild has had to include some of these points in their negotiations. So, thanks Spike for the opportunity. I wouldn’t have missed a minute of it for the world.

And now, for the question of why it’s never been released. You’ve all heard and read for years how the theater owners don’t want longer shows so they can have more screenings of the feature. So, the only way a short can make it on the bill is if it’s tied to the front of the movie, like Pixar has done on several of their films. This was one problem. But the simplest answer is that during the length of the production, Bob Daley and Terry Semel, the CEO’s that were behind the project, left Warner Bros. It’s well known in this town that the new guys want to come in with their own slate of projects and not pick up the pieces of the dearly departed. I think it just got lost in the executive shuffle. It’s unfortunate that it never got released because they spent the extra money to finish it on film and it looked gorgeous in 35mm on the big screen. There are two versions, a widescreen and a full screen, but the widescreen literally just has the top and the bottom masked because modern theaters can’t, or won’t, show films in the 1:33 aspect ratio.

Before the short went to color, the cels were offered to the Warner Bros. Stores art galleries (remember them?) to help offset the cost of the production. They refused them. They didn’t want them. Apparently, like comic books before them, the collector cel speculation market had dried up. There was a time when people would buy any old cel hoping that it would miraculously skyrocket in value. Of course, a few of them did, but if you didn’t know which ones they were, you might just wind up hanging that Keebler Elf on your wall and be forced to enjoy him. And thus, the short was colored on the computer and there are no cels from it. So, if you should happen upon a cel from Little Go Beep, it’s either a phony, or that’s the one that’s going to be worth a lot of money someday.