Art of the Scare

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

Before a show makes it onto the air, as it moves from concept to broadcast, there's a steady volley of communication between directors and executives. The notes on each episode that come back from the network during post-production editing can sometimes seem asinine, but the directors take it in stride. Some notes are nitpicky: "Old man sounds too gruff." "Need more screams from gang." Others are overly cautious: "Don't mention fireworks." (For a while after the events of Sept. 11, there was a ban on anything that explodes.)

"You won't believe the rules in national TV, especially for kids' shows," Holman says. "It's much harder to do anything today. I think Pee-wee Herman was the last bastion of weirdness. They really clamped down after that."

At times, the notes can make the directors cringe. One executive asked for some "Asian music" to accompany a scene in San Francisco's Chinatown.

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.
Ghostbusters: The team takes on the supernatural in the seventh grade.
Wholesome Products
Ghostbusters: The team takes on the supernatural in the seventh grade.

"When they ask for an "Asian' score, we won't stand for some white man's idea of Asian culture, with violins and gongs. We'll compose a cool version with drum 'n' bass," Holman says. "Part of our job is to please the executives, and with a little ingenuity, we can -- without compromising our own ideas. If they hate our first idea, we don't just go change it to what they want. We come up with an alternative idea, which is really just the original idea in a new package."

Holman's casual attitude aside, it wasn't easy for him and Huang to verbalize the look and feel of this one-of-a-kind show in production conference calls to offices in Los Angeles.

"How do you tell a person what something will be like, when it's still mostly in your head? It's hard to convince people beyond, "No, it'll be really great.' It was frustrating -- especially when so few people have the vision to see potential without actually looking at a tape," Huang says. "I have to stand back all the time and ask myself, "Am I fighting this because they don't understand what I think, or are their objections right?' ... You definitely have to pick your battles."

Holman concurs.

"We can't get into an "us versus them' thing, because if we did, there wouldn't be a show. I know we can't go in with a totally nuts idea, because it'll never get on the air," he says. "We want to be as edgy as we can, but the difficulty in that is we have to play both their game and ours. And they have just one game: the bottom line."

No one will say how much it costs to make an episode of Phantom Investigators -- not its directors, not Sony, and not the WB. But Holman concedes it isn't cheap, considering the amount of time it takes not only to animate and film the puppets, but also to design and build each intricate set -- in addition to standard TV show expenses like story development and writing.

"People ask me, "How did you get Sony?' and I don't have an answer," Holman says with a look of amazement. "I know, it still blows me away. We're certainly not a safe bet."

The best explanation for two eccentric artists landing such a deal is Ilene Staple, the team's business partner. She represents Holman and Huang's interests in Los Angeles and is a hard-charging, savvy creature of the Hollywood machine. She knows exactly what to say, how to say it, and most important, whom to say it to.

"I'm the enabler more than anything else. I raise the money, make the deals, and protect Stephen and Josephine from the producers breathing down their necks. With me, battles are won before they even know about them," Staple says. "I love what I do, which lets them do their thing in a rarefied creative bubble. It's a dream situation."

Impressed with Holman's initial avant-garde work, Staple sought him out in the early 1990s at a Hollywood party. "I wanted to find my own Tim Burton," she recalls, referring to the dark and edgy director of Edward Scissorhands, "and there Stephen was, the quiet guy standing in the corner."

Huang joined the team soon after, and eventually married Holman. Neither liked the L.A. scene and both wanted to live and work in San Francisco. Staple was more than happy to stay behind and manage the business.

"Ilene is definitely a buffer who smoothes life out for us," Holman says. "She does the hard pitch at the meetings, so we can go down and be the kooky artists. The suits like that."

The duo's track record is also something executives like, which makes Staple's job easier.

"They are completely grounded artists. Not only are they creative, but they are very responsible. They're mindful of deadlines and budgets," Staple says. "They'll never make me look bad."

Even so, getting the green light for Phantom Investigators was no cakewalk. The WB had ordered 19 Saturday morning pilots and would pick only one. The show's look made it stand apart, but its cost -- at least 30 percent higher than the average children's TV show, according to Staple -- was hardly a selling point. Yet the price wasn't so outrageous that the show could never recoup its costs, if it was able to win new audiences with its fresh approach.

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