Art of the Scare

How two Bay Area animators hope to revolutionize Saturday-morning TV

Mrs. Oglesby is one scary-looking substitute teacher. She's got the requisite mean scowl, gray hair pulled into a tight bun, and horn-rimmed glasses. But that's nothing compared to the giant toilet plunger she carries, which can flush the junior high students she terrorizes into a sewage hell. This monster, a ghoulish creature who taught unruly kids when she was alive, now wants payback for all the malicious graffiti written about her on the school's bathroom stalls.

Fortunately, Mrs. Oglesby isn't real. She's an evil foil for the seventh-grade ghostbusters starring in a new animated children's television show produced and set in San Francisco. But before she can star in Phantom Investigators -- which has its national debut this summer on the WB network -- Mrs. Oglesby needs some repair.

"Can someone get me a glue gun?" series co-creator and director Stephen Holman shouts to a passing assistant as he operates the frightening puppet with one hand and holds a broken piece in place with the other.

Holman's solution is decidedly low-tech at a time when computer-generated animation rules. This is, after all, the land of the pioneer Pixar Animation Studios. In fact, Holman's entire show is old school. With Phantom Investigators, a determined band of purist craftspeople and artisans is attempting to create the next cool thing with nary a pixel or mouse click. Tossing computers aside, they combine labor-intensive (i.e., expensive), hands-on methods like stop-motion animation, puppetry, and scale-model sets with some live-action performances to create a unique product. The end result, they believe, is more rewarding, beautiful, and real for the effort. But will the target audience of 6- to 11-year-olds, weaned on simplistic cell-animated cartoons and computerized blockbusters like Monsters, Inc., really care?

Holman and his co-director, Josephine Huang, think so -- and they've got deep-pocketed backing. This funky husband-and-wife team (she's hip, he's subversive, and they're both obsessed with animation) convinced Hollywood conglomerates to take a risk on the stop-motion style.

"We're an oddball little company that beat the odds," Holman says.

"Yeah, a lot of industry people are surprised and perplexed," Huang agrees. "They don't see what we do as very practical or smart for business."

For the sake of their art (not to mention their continued employment), Phantom Investigators' creators hope it will be a hit. So does Sony Pictures Family Entertainment, which is bankrolling the show. The WB network does, too. With the highest-rated Saturday morning lineup on TV, it can't afford to waste a precious time slot on a dud. Even fast-food chain Carl's Jr. has an interest, hoping its Phantom Investigators toys (released before the show's debut, due to a timing glitch) will sell more kids' combo meals.

To offset the financial risk and keep it in production, the program must succeed after just a few weeks on the air: Companies that bet big money on an experimental show generally move quickly to the next idea until there's a win. This means that with the initial order of 13 episodes nearing completion and the premiere in sight, everyone involved with the show has reason to fear Mrs. Oglesby's toilet plunger.


Unsettling monster sketches cover the walls of the cramped office that Stephen Holman and Josephine Huang share at Custer Avenue Stages. There are dozens of ghosts, sprites, and demons dreamed up by Holman. Among his favorites is Mustapha, the headless janitor who haunts the hallways of the show's fictional San Francisco setting, Lugosi Junior High. The school's name is a nod to Bela Lugosi, the early-20th-century film actor who starred as the original Count Dracula and came to embody the best in horror camp.

"Phantom Investigators is not a super-serious, Buffy-style, superhero fight fest," Holman tells his writers in a memo. "This is a fun show. We should parody horror as well as provide genuine scares and thrills."

The point of the show is to defy the decades-old children's TV formula of corny slapstick and mindless action, as seen in numerous cartoons from Casper the Friendly Ghost to Mighty Mouse to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Holman and Huang hope that the show's visual uniqueness and its unconventional content will grab the attention of ever-more-sophisticated young media consumers. They realize that what worked for them when they were kids would fall flat today.

For starters, they don't promote the idea -- endorsed on children's mystery shows like Scooby-Doo -- that the supernatural can all be explained away. The ghosts in Phantom Investigatorsare real.

"We tell kids there is more to life than meets the eye. There will be no dull, rational explanations that spoil the fun," Holman says. "In our series, adults -- a metaphor for closed-minded mentality -- cannot see the ghosts, but open-minded children can."

The stars of the show who see, investigate, and battle the ghosts are a diverse group of seventh-grade friends: Jericho, Kira, Casey, and Daemona. By day, they're students. But after school, these secret private eyes with special powers help their classmates out of sticky supernatural situations. Jericho, who lives with his parents in a hippie commune by the ocean, is a cool skater kid with telekinetic powers. Kira is a fashionable, sassy girl from the tony Pacific Heights neighborhood whose mom is a lawyer and whose dad is a cop. She's street-smart and wants to be a hip hop DJ -- when she's done reading minds and fighting monsters. Casey is a quiet, nervous kid who's not too sure of himself and lives in a single-parent home in the Mission District. His power allows him to morph into anything. Finally there's Daemona, the leader of the group. She's the only one who doesn't possess a superpower. What she does have is access to the attic in her dot-com parents' Victorian home, a room she discovered is filled with antiquated ghost-detecting machines, crystal balls, and a closet door that's also a portal to another world. In true Silicon Valley fashion, the brainy kids upgrade the old gadgets with high-tech additions.

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