Art of the Scare

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

As a team, they make a good match. He has lots of ideas and she has the technical know-how to make them happen. They're constantly together, yet have thus far spared the crew from any obvious meltdowns. "It's very bizarre -- we seem to be able to exist like that," Holman says. "We have squabbles, but we learn to forgive each other a lot. We really do complement each other's strengths and weaknesses."

For example, Huang adds the hip factor.

"I always worry that what I like won't translate to kids today," Holman says. It's not that he's too old at 40, but that his tastes lean to the weird. "A hit show needs to be cool, not weird. If kids are turned off by your weirdness, you're sunk."

Photos by Wholesome Products
Not Your Father's Scooby-Doo: Phantom Investigators creators Josephine Huang and Stephen Holman.
Paolo Vescia
Not Your Father's Scooby-Doo: Phantom Investigators creators Josephine Huang and Stephen Holman.

He explains, "I come from this highfalutin place, full of theories ..."

"... and I'm more fascinated by pop culture," Huang adds. "I still watch a lot of MTV. Am I just trying to hold on to my childhood because I never had one?"

Work is the clear priority for Huang and Holman. For now, the energy for romance and family life has been poured into creating Phantom Investigators. They spent Valentine's Day in the editing room, though Holman did give his wife flowers. They planned to go out to dinner, but as was true most every day this past year, by the time they got home from the studio all they could think about was sleep.

"We're looking forward to having our own time again, but we're not quite there yet," Huang says. "We barely have enough time to feed fish."

"Yeah," Holman says. "No time for kids. That's why we make kids' shows."

The directors of Phantom Investigators plan to incorporate their own worldview subtly into the show. For example, while the action is fast-paced and the protagonists are able to blast ghosts with a high-powered "Plasmo-Channeller," no one gets killed. The kids merely redirect negative energy with their weapons. Their first lesson: conflict resolution.

Take mean Mrs. Oglesby, the substitute teacher out to flush students down the toilet. As the kids investigate the situation, they find out Mrs. Oglesby really wanted to be a good teacher but never got the chance because her students always teased and tormented her. The team learns that people can become twisted by negative experiences in life, and that there can be reasons for a person's apparent maliciousness. With that understanding, the investigators don't kill her; instead, they apologize for the children who treated her badly. As a result, the ghost of Mrs. Oglesby can put down her plunger and rest in peace.

"If there's any message for kids here, it's to always look beyond what we might first perceive as the "truth' of any given situation," Holman says. "There is always a bigger picture, and that's where we usually find the cause of the anger, aggression, or resentment that is bothering us -- our demons and monsters."

What about something that's truly evil?

"The really bad guys in our show are destroyed by the consequences of their own negative actions; what they do comes back to haunt them, like karma," Holman explains. "To me, that's a more satisfying ending than having the kids just blow them away with a gun."

It's important to note that two separate but very real acts of evil briefly suspended production of Phantom Investigators. On Sept. 10 of last year, 33-year-old animator Billy Greene was shot and killed in front of his Emeryville apartment. There are no suspects and police are still investigating. The next day, of course, was Sept. 11.

"Everything blurred together -- society's violence, arbitrary insanity -- on a personal and global level in a one-two punch," Holman says. "But everyone wanted to keep on working. We could go home and worry, or try to make the world a better place. To keep doing this show, something special for kids, was the best thing we could think of."

Holman stops himself before he gets too existential about what is essentially a commercial TV show destined to help sell fast food. He shrugs those horrible memories off for the moment, then promises that Phantom Investigators will be, above all else, fun.

"I can jabber on about themes and ideas, but you won't get very far in kids' TV unless you make it entertaining," he says. "Hopefully, the ideas are what kids are left with after the adrenaline rush is over."

From his car on a gridlocked Los Angeles freeway, Sony's senior vice president of marketing breathlessly pitches the merits of Phantom Investigators on a crackling cell phone. "It has great story lines, boy/girl appeal, and great characters," David Palmer says, building up to his sure-fire tag line. "It's Scooby-Doomeets Nancy Drew!"

Apparently, the corporate marketer hasn't read the director's memo to the writing staff.

"Although a healthy sense of humor should run throughout this show, we'd prefer it was the ironic, dry, twisted, smart, witty, surrealistic kind," Holman instructed the writers in his note. "Scooby Doo-style obvious wacky hysterics is not the way to go."

So much for corporate/creative synergy. The show's creators don't waste much energy worrying what entertainment giant Sony and the WB network, owned by AOL Time Warner, say about the show. Holman and Huang are used to letting program executives express what they wish -- while quietly making sure that their own version is what's seen in the end.

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