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A Wonderfully Grim Storyteller: JJ Villard's Fairy Tales on Adult Swim

By Adam Korenman

Overcoming failure and bringing a new voice to some very familiar stories: "JJ Villard's Fairy Tales," a new animated series on Adult Swim

Once upon a time, there was a young animator who set out into the enchanted forest of Holly Wood seeking his fortune. The path was fraught with peril and setbacks, and the auteur wasn't sure if he was cut out for this kind of adventure. Suddenly he caught an amazing break, joining the Dream Workshop to tell tall tales for a famous ogre. Yet the animator wasn't happy.
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What would you do if you found yourself at your dream job in motion design, but you ended up HATING it? Is the security worth the grind, or are you willing to risk it all to forge a career that YOU control?
JJ Villard did just that, trading his job at Dreamworks Animation to pursue a career creating worlds of his own design. Buckle up Motioneers, this one is a DOOZY. JJ spills about his journey from animation school through the bumps and bruises of a career on the rise, all the way to his brand new—and AMAZING—Adult Swim show, JJ Villard’s Fairy Tales.

EXPLICIT CONTENT AHEAD

Content Warning: These are CLEARLY not your grandpa's fairy tales.
Just a word of warning, JJ brings an honest and intense energy, as well as a love of a particular four-letter word. We didn't cut or censor anything to preserve his authenticity. So cram in those headphones, mix yourself a spicy margarita, and buckle up: It's time to talk shop with JJ Villard.

A Wonderfully Grim Storyteller: JJ Villard's Fairy Tales on Adult Swim

Show Notes

Artists

Studios

Pieces

Resources

Transcript

Explicit Content Ahead
Ryan Summers:
The first thing I want to say, before I even get totally going, man, the voice cast for your show, the 10-year-old version of me that was 10 years old in 1987 trying to sneak into horror movies... I would love to hear how in the world you put together this cast, because if I went to Monsterpalooza and wanted the all-star crew of Monsterpalooza, it feels like you've held them hostage and said, "You got to do a voice for my show and then you can leave."
JJ Villard:
I know.
Ryan Summers:
It's crazy, man. Just for our listeners, just so they know, we're talking Freddy Krueger, Robocop, Pinhead, Sheryl Lee from Twin Peaks, Heather Langenkamp. The list is crazy. Elvira!
JJ Villard:
And Linda Blair.
Ryan Summers:
Linda Blair, Jennifer Tilly. I did a movie with Maika Monroe where I did effects for her. It follows. She's right in that lineage.
JJ Villard:
Yeah, it's insane, man.
Ryan Summers:
The one for me that hits my '80s' kid heart, Alan Oppenheimer, Skeletor. It's crazy.
JJ Villard:
Yeah. Yeah. It's fucking crazy. Yeah. Honestly, Ryan, it was always a dream of mine as a child to work with all these people and it was just something I had to do, but it's not that at all. It actually falls back to show business. I did a pilot called Trapped Universe in 2017 and it did not get picked up as a TV show. So I went to bed crying, I woke up in my shower crying and I was just like, "What did I do wrong?"
I was like, "Okay, that's it. My beliefs in animation on having a voice cast that is true to cartoon voice actors is over. They won. The system one. I'm going to use celebrities now." It's just like, "Fuck, what celebrity should I use?" I was just thinking, "Tom Hanks again? What the fuck do I care about working with him?"
The true passion was this horror genre. It's so funny you brought up Monsterpalooza because, dude, I've waited in those lines around the block for an autograph, paying $60, to meet Linda Blair for 10 seconds and go, "Your movie changed my life." I was like, "Okay, let's connect those together. I want to use the horror genre. I'm only going to use horror people. I'm going to be like Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi. Fuck it. Let's go." The very first one was Linda Blair.
Ryan Summers:
Wow.
JJ Villard:
Dude, it was insane because, a diva and a legend like that, she flipped the casting couch. She interviewed me for my cartoon where I wanted to hire her. I was like [crosstalk 00:02:35].
Ryan Summers:
[crosstalk 00:02:34], "Tell me why I should do this?" That kind of stuff? "Tell me why?"
JJ Villard:
Yeah. Yeah. "Convince me. Look, I'm the man here."
Ryan Summers:
"I got the heat."
JJ Villard:
Yeah. "I got the heat. I'm the person that's known around the world. Why do you want to use me?" I was like, "All right, Linda, this might sound trite, lame and superficial, but I believe you are the greatest actor of all time. Your film is my favorite film. It's moved me in every which way. Sad, happy, scared. Whatever you want to call it. I think you would just be an amazing part of this cartoon." She said, "You just made me cry. I will see you next week." I was like, "Yes, Linda Blair. Here we go."
Ryan Summers:
Did that unlock more voices once you nailed someone like Linda Blair? Did it just open up a bunch of other doors?
JJ Villard:
It really did. It opened up Pandora's box of like, "Wow. Oh my God. I got my number one actor that I wanted to work with first." I was like, "Let's go." If you want to get down to the business side of it-
Ryan Summers:
Yeah, totally.
JJ Villard:
... having Cartoon Network on your letterhead from an agent at Cartoon Network, because it's not me that calls up any of these people, it's Cartoon Network, it really helps because when Freddy Krueger or Pinhead gets a letterhead from Cartoon Network saying, "Hi, we have interest of you being in this cartoon. You do not have to audition." That's another thing with me. I don't audition nobody. What happens in the voice-record room is what you get. It's raw power, I guess, but that's it. I don't audition.
We got a lot of noes, by the way. A lot of noes. Hence, the protagonist of [Evil Dead 00:04:22], I will not say his or her name... Speaking of which that might have fucker said no the morning he was supposed to record. These actors, they all respect Cartoon Network, I understand, so they'll save reading the script, some of them, till that morning or that day. Then when they read the script there'll be like, "I don't want to be a part of this thing. Fuck that. Tell them no." That's what happened.
Ryan Summers:
Just wait till Season 2. Season 2, you can't say no.
JJ Villard:
I know. No kidding. I hope. Jeez.
Ryan Summers:
Well, maybe when he sees that whole cast assembled, just the log line, just the list of all those people.
JJ Villard:
Yeah.
Ryan Summers:
I have two questions about the voice acting then. Did you get anything out of someone that you didn't expect? Because those horror roles, they're so defined in your head, but those people, those actors have so much skill that maybe they've never really had the chance or the opportunity to show. Were you surprised from anybody what they're able to give you?
JJ Villard:
Dude, Ashley Lawrence, the girl in Hellraiser-
Ryan Summers:
Yeah.
JJ Villard:
... she came in with all her lines memorized. Do you know how respectful that is. To me, it's like, "You're Ashley Lawrence, you didn't have to memorize my lines." I feel like a lot of actors did not and I sure as hell know some had never even read the script till they walked in, which is fine. Look, it's all about let's just get it done. Raw power again. She memorized it and she had to sing a song bad, which is weird. She had to purposely sing a song bad and it was just fucking insane.
Kevin Van Hentenryck from Basketcase, he's the Big Bad Wolf, which is not at all like a character you would think he could pull off because he is a nerdy guy next door type of personality or character or even face, but he did it, man. Peter Weller... Again, I fucked up with Peter Weller bad. He was about the sixth actor that came in.
I was reading lines for the actors sometimes. I did that for a couple of lines for Peter Weller and he finally looked at me and he said, "Don't you ever read my lines for me again. What kind of novice director are you?" I was like, "I am sorry." But, thankfully, halfway through the script, he said, "Who wrote this shit?" I was like, "Me and my buddies." Then he's like, "This is really good stuff." I was like, "Yeah! Robocop! Fuck yeah!"
Ryan Summers:
That's amazing. That's very cool. I'm sure this doesn't happen, because it's almost impossible to do, but maybe Season 2. Were you ever able to get two actors together actually running lines against each other? Because it would be amazing to get Freddy and Heather back in the room together. You had some [crosstalk 00:07:23] opportunities.
JJ Villard:
Yeah. That is so funny. There were moments where it could have happened, but an actor left Cartoon Network seriously 60 seconds before [inaudible 00:07:34] walked in. It happened with Catherine Hicks who plays the mom in Chucky and Jennifer Tilly who's the bride of Chucky. Wholly shit, I didn't even realize that until right now, I just said it. I was more interested in them bumping ways, but I just realized they both are in Chucky movies.
Ryan Summers:
Right.
JJ Villard:
Yeah. It happened. It was very close, but it didn't. So they never did cross paths. I was hoping for the fucking most dopest premiere party ever. But, fuck you, corona. Fuck you. It never happened.
Ryan Summers:
Oh, [crosstalk 00:08:07].
JJ Villard:
[inaudible 00:08:05] which probably won't happen.
Ryan Summers:
It's not the same. It's not the same.
JJ Villard:
Yeah. Yeah. Seriously. They were asking me what did I want to do with my premiere party and everybody's like, "Oh, we can host it in Chateau Marmont or we can go to NOBU. I was like, "No. Chuck E. Cheese." They serve beer at Chuck E. Cheese-
Ryan Summers:
That's amazing [crosstalk 00:08:28].
JJ Villard:
We were going to get drunk and we were going to fucking play games. That was the dream. That's what I really wanted to do, but fucking quarantine.
Ryan Summers:
Well, while we're getting serious now, just for the listeners, I want to run down, and fill in the blanks for me, if I miss something, just the top-line career arc for you. So you go to Cal Arts' character animation program. You make Son of Satan in I don't know what year it was. But you make Son of Satan and it goes to Cannes-
JJ Villard:
2004.
Ryan Summers:
... which is amazing. Dude, amazing move. Amazing move and, again, why I keep on saying I hate this word. There needs to be a cooler word for it. But such a hustler, entrepreneur move, because I've never heard of anybody from Cal Arts ever submitting their student film. Not their senior student, but just a student film to Cannes. Amazing.
From there you transition that into getting a gig at Dreamworks. You work on Shrek 3. At some point, you leave Dreamworks, you go to Cartoon Network. We're talking King Star King, Trapped Universe and, now, JJ Villard's Fairy Tales. The serious question, out of all of that, and I'm sure there's even more in there, do you sleep? Do you sleep at all?
JJ Villard:
Well, dude, believe it or not, I am very disciplined when it comes to my vitality level when it crashes. Honestly, I am not a night owl. I'm a morning person and my wife is a night owl, so we do have that little correlation. Dude, honestly, it might sound lame, but I'm usually in bed at 10 o'clock.
Ryan Summers:
Oh, that's great. I love hearing that. I love hearing that because I think so many people in the animation industry who think, maybe they're in second year of school, and they're like, "One day I want to do X. I want to do a show. I want to have my own stuff. I want to have my own [inaudible 00:10:08], whatever it might be. They assume it has to be the hustle-grind-until-you-die mentality.
Hearing that you actually... I would assume the version of you that if you weren't pulling 16, 18, 20 hours a day, wouldn't be able to get done or come up with the ideas or be able to direct an entire show. That's a great lesson for so many people that are listening to this. That there is a myth in terms of how you have to be versus your example. It's amazing. I want to just talk about the show, if that's okay?
JJ Villard:
Sure.
Ryan Summers:
The show's insane. Completely insane. There's a couple different things. I'd love to just talk about the animation at least a little bit before we talk into how you got the show on the air. I love the walk cycles in your characters for the show. The weeble wobble. There's no hand movement. There's no arm movement. There's no leg movement. The thing that's crazy about your show is, I don't know if it is, but it feels like so much of the shows on ones and the acting in the show is top notch.
I'm amazed by the number of acting poses and how slick... I've watched Episode 1 with Boypunzel. The hair throws, that's not stuff that you normally see in a show like this. I was really surprised to see it. Could you talk a little bit about those choices for those walks? Did you do that as a creative decision or was that more of like, "Let's save the money on that and put it into the acting?" It's such a unique look for the show.
JJ Villard:
That's crazy, Ryan, that you even fucking notice that. Dude, everything is a balance with the budget. Where the walk cycles came into play it was just two things. First of all, when I play with G.I. Joe's, when I was a kid, it's that. It's... It stemmed off of that.
Second, it was, I'm a terrible animator. I'm a good board artist, great character designer, but I am horrible at animation. In my class at Cal Arts, there's those dudes that were flexing their animation [inaudible 00:12:04]. It was like, "Way to go, dudes. I cannot do what you do."
Everything is yin and yang. Everything is sort and scout. It's like, "Where can I flex where these guys are obviously kicking my ass in?" So you got to go with, "I think I'm kind of funny. So let's put more into that. I'm not good at animation, so that's taken away." It's all yin and yang.
Budget with a cartoon, it's something you don't think about. It's what I learned in King Star King. With Adult Swim, you have a very limited budget. We're getting, and I'll give you numbers here, a couple of $100,000 less an episode than a Cartoon Network or Disney cartoon TV show.
It's just because with Adult Swim, you get the cool factor and they're saying, "Hey, we're cool." There comes sacrifices with being cool stuff. You get less of a budget. So you're wearing a lot of hats. I'm the director, I'm the character designer, I'm the storyboard artist, I'm pretty much the animation director and I'm pretty much the music director. There's collaborations with all these things, but that's what happens.
Ryan Summers:
Dude, just as an animator, standing ovation for coming up with, it doesn't feel like a compromise, but a style that feels so unique that you obviously we're working around for a budget consideration. You mentioned that you're a board artist. Are your boards super dense in terms of posing? Are you almost slugging stuff out?
Instead of just being like, "Scene. Line. Scene." Are you saying, "No, I want this pose to be here and then I want to come up," because in my head, I don't know how you get the animation style you're getting out to the studios and coming back to be this specific for a show that's got a lot of comedy timing. It's got to be a lot of work for you or whoever's doing the boards.
JJ Villard:
Yeah, it's true. That was another thing that happened. Trapped Universe, my pilot in 2017, got the no. I'm like, "Jesus Christ." So we're working on our fairy tales and I'm like, "If you animate a storyboard in the US, it honestly takes six to nine weeks, right?
Ryan Summers:
Right.
JJ Villard:
When you do it overseas, it takes three to six months. So I'm like, "Okay, if the show gets picked up, I want it to be animated overseas." I like it. Some people, like my friend, Christy Karacas, who does Ballmastrz and Superjail!, he prefers animation in America. It's whatever you like or you prefer. I said, "What can I do to move Fairy Tales faster so we don't have to animate? I'm going to overboard this," right?
Ryan Summers:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).
JJ Villard:
Traditionally, with a 11-minute episode, you have about 900 storyboards. I handed in almost 1600, just because I was like, "Look, you guys... It was all a gimmick. It was all part of it. Just like, "Hey, this thing is practically animated." Me doing a few extra storyboards, which really isn't that many more, 500 more storyboards, is not that much in the grand scheme of six months of time, you know?
Ryan Summers:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).
JJ Villard:
It's just a few more hours of work and it's not that hard. It's fun, in fact, where you're just gesturing out a pose. When I handed it in, they looked at it, they said, "These boards are great. Where do you want to animate this?" I said, "How about we skip animation and go straight to series, because you can see how hardcore these boards are."
Ryan Summers:
Right. They're already there.
JJ Villard:
And they said yes. Yeah.
Ryan Summers:
Dude, that's awesome. That's so genius. To be able to have the ability to come with a concept, design the characters, be heavy in the writing, but then board it, I hate to say it, but it gives you a superpower that a lot of people don't have in terms of being like, "This is a crazy, weird show. You're not going to believe it till you can see it, so I'm going to show it to you." That is awesome, dude. It's very, very cool.
JJ Villard:
Yeah. I'm a producer's nightmare, by the way, because producers hate it when the fucking creators are wearing so many hats. I'm just like, "I'm sorry, guys. You can go fuck yourself. I need this to look exactly how I want," you know?
Ryan Summers:
Exactly. Yeah. Does that end up helping you too, in terms of, if you're going to out-of-house animation, out of the States, do your retakes and redo's, are they a lot lower than a show that's a little looser with the boards? Do you have that many revisions going out?
JJ Villard:
Yeah. Yeah. That was another thing producers were really scared about when we got our first retakes back. They're like, "Oh shit, what kind of creator is this? Is this going to be a guy that's fucking over analytical?" But, dude, no. I fully am aware the South Korean people are people and not machines. We don't have to fucking overboard a bunch of shit. Genuinely, when we get stuff back, I'm very liberal.
If something is so far off base from what I want, then, yes, I will retake it. But I did not retake a lot of stuff. They were confused because they had never animated anything like this where those walk cycles didn't move. So they were really just like, "What the fuck is going on here?" But once they got it with the first episode... With the first episode, two walks cycles worked. We're just like, "Look, base it off of that. Those two right there. You got 2 out of 20. Those ones worked. Just remember to do that every time."
Ryan Summers:
Yeah [crosstalk 00:17:43]-
JJ Villard:
But, it's funny, because you can definitely tell when there is a new animator on the team [inaudible 00:17:49] walk cycle. If I only showed you some of those walk cycles that did not work, they were sincerely like... Oh, it was terrible some of them.
Ryan Summers:
Yeah, because they're not bad walk cycles, right? They're just different.
JJ Villard:
Right.
Ryan Summers:
It's not like they're poorly [inaudible 00:00:18:03], but you almost have to rewire an animator's brain to be like, "That's that's okay. It's okay to have it move like that," right?
JJ Villard:
Yeah.
Ryan Summers:
It's cool. It's really-
JJ Villard:
Yeah. The first clip that Adult Swim released two weeks ago was the back-pimple scene in Boypunzel. It's a gnarly scene. It's crazy and shit. But right now they're releasing a couple of other clips where it shows the sentimentality of this show. Now, people are like, "Wait a minute. This is kind of nice and cute."
It's just like, "You fucks. I know you wish I was like..." Some of the comments, man. I know people that you always hear, "Don't read the comments." I can't help it. I got to read the comments because some of them are real.
People were just like, "Being disgusting is so overrated for cartoons. Why do people have to be disgusting just to think that their cartoon is funny." It's like, "Dude, there's a lot more to this than just being disgusting."
Ryan Summers:
I feel like you can somehow see my notes I'm about to pull up, because I was going to pull up two questions. I'll give you a question and a comment, which you're never supposed to do. The comment is, I literally was going to drop that moment, "I haven't seen something, probably since Ren n Stimpy, that I had to sit down, hit pause and rewind because of a line and then the reaction."
It was literally that come-over-here-and-pop-my-blackheads scene. I literally thought that you were going to cut to that Bob Camp, super gross, super highly detailed, super close up of the blackheads, because I'm like, "This is ridiculous." It made me want to ask you was that... That had to be a decision in terms of tone there.
I feel like every generation has their gross-out humor moment. Then it goes away and it comes back. When I was a kid Garbage Pail Kids was that. Then when I was in high school Ren n Stimpy came out. It's gross, but still being sweet at the same time. It's not the vile, it's not mean spirited and it's not even overly sexualized. Were you inspired by those shows at all? Because it feels like it has the tone at least of some of that stuff from back in the day.
JJ Villard:
There's two [inaudible 00:20:15]. Standards and practices gave us three rules. No sex jokes, no fart and puke jokes and no religious jokes.
Ryan Summers:
Wow.
JJ Villard:
Those were the three things we had to listen to in the writer's room. If you heard about it before, there's been, in the last decade or so, true crimes where people are locked in dungeons. I don't know if you've heard about them. There's been some things. They're really scary stories know.
So we were just thinking, "If this kid was really stuck in a dungeon and this lady was the witch she is, what is something that might happen? This kid doesn't know right from wrong or what's going on." The truth is she might've had him pop his blackheads. It was just coming from a sincere place.
Ryan Summers:
Place.
JJ Villard:
Yeah.
Ryan Summers:
It times out so well. When she turns around and then looks back, you have no idea which way the show is going to go. There's a beat, there's a hold and I'm like, "I don't know if I'm ready for this." Then it was just a perfect crystallization. "Okay, I'm on board for the show. Let's see where we go." It's great. It was very cool.
I went to your Instagram, man, and a lot of people talk about meditation for trying to get through this time period. No joke, a week ago when I started looking at your Instagram, that feels like therapy to me. Just looking at your art. The [inaudible 00:21:45]. It's got this heightened emotion, but it's so smart. The names of your pieces are hilarious.
Because you have an audience of artists that are going to be listening to this, can you talk a little bit about... is sketchbooking important to you even when you're so busy running a show? I'm sure you're pitching more all the time. You're probably crazy busy. It feels like keeping your practice, drawing, sketching, seems to be really, really relevant and important to you. Can you just talk a little bit about that?
JJ Villard:
Dude, I say this to a lot of students in school, you cannot make your life a bubble of animation. You've got to spread out because, if you do you're lying to yourself about what the world is. I know exactly when I'm talking to a person whose only based their career and life in cartoons.
It's just like, "Dude, there's fine artists out there. There's movies out there. There's so much more than just this capsule of cartoons. Don't limit yourself to this. There's a lot out of it."
Mike Tyson had this quote where he said, "If you look at Evander Holyfield's career, he had a very hard time from walking away from boxing." Mike Tyson said, "My life wasn't wrapped in boxing. It did a lot of other things besides boxing. I was able to walk away from boxing very easily."
Same as Kobe Bryant. He left it on the court. Everything he had, he had no problem walking away from it. That's how I feel. When King Star King was canceled, it's like, "Look, I left it all on the court." I put everything I could into King Star King and I walked away.
Thankfully, a few months later, it won the Emmy, which was the first Emmy Adult Swim ever won. But it was just like, "Fuck [inaudible 00:23:31]. I left it on the court and I got recognized for that." Thank God it won the Emmy, you know?
Ryan Summers:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).
JJ Villard:
It's the same with this. Look, with Fairy Tales, I hope it gets a Season 2. I really want it to. If it doesn't, I left it all on the court. Fuck it. Thankfully, other studios and networks are interested in me at the moment. Right now, again, for all your students out there and listeners, just know that it's a gold rush right now.
There's so many new streaming services, networks and studios that you can pitch to. Dude, and know this right now, listeners, we are the cockroaches of the atom bomb. We are the only survivors of quarantine right now. There's no live-action moving. Show business is running with animation right now in a huge way. So just strike while the iron's hot.
Warren Buffett also says know when lightning strikes. Just be aware of it." Lightning's striking right now for us animators. It's not going to happen again for a very long time. Just attack right now. I know you're all in quarantine and scared and all that shit. Fuck that. Right now's the time to strike.