|Home Interviews William duBay (conducted by David Thornton in November 2001)
Before Sunbow could produce an animated series, someone with a talent for recognizing creativity and skill would assemble the team responsible for bringing a series to life, and that job fell upon William duBay, one of the many unsung heroes at Sunbow.
As noted on his web site, he was the studio's Art Director and was responsible for the design, creation and artistic supervision of over 20 series, including G.I.Joe, The Transformers, Inhumanoids and many more.
David Thornton: Could you tell me a little bit about yourself?
William duBay: I was born in San Francisco in 1948. I had a lot of freedom as a child and pretty much spent my youth exploring that beautiful city.
DT: You mentioned on your résumé that you were a storyboard artist for a number of animated TV series. Did you ever want to be a comic book artist or a writer when you were younger? If so, what were some of your favorite comic book titles and why did they appeal to you?
WD: My grandmother was head nurse in the pediatric ward at the county hospital and used to bring me piles of comic books, left behind by her patients. I imagined that those sick and/or dying kids were comforted by the same stories that I later enjoyed.
I began to write and draw and found comic stories enjoyable to read and create. It also seemed like a way to contribute to help alleviate either physical pain or the pain of everyday life.
||WD: Some of the most memorable stories I remember reading were from the Mickey Mouse Disney comics. But, I also enjoyed the Batman comics and the character's adventures with Superman in the World's Finest title.|
DT: Since someone simply doesn't start off working as the senior editor, vice-president or head writer at Warren Publishing, what were some of your jobs prior to Warren and which ones were the most educational?
WD: I discovered comics fandom at around 14 or 15 years of age and immediately began producing my own amateur fan publications, Fantasy Hero and, later, Voice of Comicdom. While still in high school, I began drawing a short recurring strip in Charlton Comics' Go-Go title, a little-known comic from the mid-sixties. The Army summoned in '66 and I soon found myself helming the world's largest military newspaper, The Ft. Bragg Paraglide. I spend more than two years as the news and feature editor which gave me some early managerial and editorial experience.
While in the Army, I also did some freelance assignments for both Marvel (Brand Ecch) and Warren Publishing (Creepy and Eerie). I also started a professional relationship with Robert Sproul (Web of Horror, Cracked magazines) and continued writing and drawing professionally while majoring in journalism while in college.
Eventually, after burning my way through every journalism course offered, I took on a special studies program that allowed me to create a weekly intercollegiate entertainment newspaper in the Northern California area. We were circulated to USF, UC Berkeley, SF State and some 22 area colleges. This, while contributing fairly regularly to (mostly) the Warren magazines.
When Warren found himself in need of an art director in Jan, '72, he made an offer I couldn't refuse. I abandoned the newspaper and my life in California and ventured to New York. Within two months, I was asked to take the editorial reigns of all of his magazines (save Famous Monsters) and enthusiastically did so.
In the ten year period (from '72 to '82) I was with Warren, I wrote several hundred stories and rewrote even more than that.
DT: I've read that Marvel bought DePatie-Freleng Studios in 1980 and renamed it Sunbow. Since you stated on your résumé that you helped build Sunbow from a fledgling animation studio into a successful animation house, was this around the time you joined the Sunbow? And do you know why Marvel bought an animation studio?
I joined Marvel in 1984 after returning to California. Two network and two syndicated series were in production at the time, Muppet Babies, Dungeons and Dragons, Transformers and G.I. Joe. Stan Lee asked me to take on the task of recruiting and supervising the artistic staff and boasted that the company, Cadence, was building to sell the company in two years for ten million.
In the next two years a whole slew of new series were added (Jem, Bigfoot, Potato Head Kids, My Little Pony, Robotics, Young Astronauts, Fraggle Rock, Defenders of the Earth, etc., etc.), production on two feature films was commenced and three additional buildings had to be opened for an influx of more than 200 new artists and writers. (I was busy!) The company was sold almost two years to the day of Stan's original prediction...for considerably more than his estimated ten million. I believe this is the real reason why Marvel opened an animation studio.
DT: What were your reasons for jumping from the print industry to animation? And how did you land such an amazing job?
I left publishing, simply, because I was burned out. The incessant toil of working twelve to sixteen hour days, facing an endless stream of unyielding deadlines and being suffocated by New York's long winters and terminally gray skies finally got to the California boy. I had to come home.
Stan Lee I was a partner in another publishing firm at the time, Ion International. We were publishing Videogaming Illustrated and Choclatier. I sold my interest in the company to my partners and headed west in happy retirement, stopping along the way to visit with friends and relatives. One of my stops was in Los Angeles (last stop before my home in San Francisco) to see Stan. He asked me to join this dynamic new company that was about to take the animation world be storm. Ever try to refuse a Stan Lee request?
Needless to say, I never made it home.
DT: What was your first project at Sunbow? And how difficult was the transition from an editor at Warren Publishing to studio art director/story editor/staff writer at Sunbow during your first project?
WD: My first projects at Marvel were all in development. The company wanted new animated series on the air and there was a constant push to create viable projects. Amidst the stream of hero-oriented Marvel projects (Spiderman, Daredevil, Hulk, Fantastic Four, Planet Terry, etc.) were the Hasbro (Sunbow) owned properties.
Cover for video of
Spider-Man & His
Every Hasbro project eventually made it to syndication. Can't remember even one super-hero show going all the way at the time.
DT: What were the first few months like at the studio? Lots of tension? Excitement? Panic attacks?
WD: My first months at the studio were mixed. I found myself doing virtually everything I thought I'd retired from when leaving New York. The deadlines were more relaxed because every project was in development. I've always enjoyed the creation process, but it's often an exceptionally lonely experience. Being a people person, I enjoyed the recruitment process a lot more. Venturing to the other studios to find the best talent for any new production team was always a lot of fun, as was bringing New York's best comic artists and writers to California.
DT: You mentioned that you recruited some of the most renown names in television while at Sunbow. Who were some of the people you pursued and what were their strengths? Did you work with any of them prior to your days at Sunbow?
WD: The animation world was a whole new experience for me at the time.
While I knew virtually everyone in the comics industry, I knew almost no one in animation. There were a few "crossover" names. I'd worked with Russ Heath at Warren and he was already attached to G.I.Joe as a character designer when I arrived at Marvel. Floro Dery was a designer on The Transformers who later made a brief transition into comics by illustrating the syndicated Spider-man series. For the most part, however, I was very lucky to recruit artists and writers like Carmine Infantino, Nestor Redondo, Rudy Nebres, Bill Draut, Alex Nino, Adrian Gonzales, Jim Janes, Nick Cuti, Abel Laxamana and dozens of others. None of them had worked in animation prior to their work for Marvel, and most have continued successfully within the medium since.
DT: G.I.Joe was introduced to the public thanks to a superbly animated Sunbow commercial for the first issue of the comic book series. However, two miniseries were produced before the daily series was created. Did Hasbro elect to create a second miniseries because they were not only nervous about committing the money for a daily series but they also wanted to make certain the first one wasn't a fluke?
WD: I think Hasbro simply and realistically took a hard look at the economics of committing to an ongoing series as opposed to an endless stream of television commercials. Due to its production values, a thirty second commercial can cost up to a fourth of a twenty-two minute animated show. Add to that the cost of airing the commercial either over a network or through individual stations, and you're pretty close to the cost of a single animated episode. And, once it's run through its air dates, the commercial is over and done. End of story. An animated series, however, can live forever.
More, it generates income every time its aired. A library of series based upon continually produced toy products (Jem, Pony, Potato Heads, Joe, etc.) generates income while promoting a product virtually for free, forever. How hard a decision is this for management?
DT: Since credits are often left off of episodes on commercial video tapes and are sometimes inaccurate (such as in the case of Ron Friedman as the writer of G.I.Joe: The Movie), did you write or co-write any episodes of G.I.Joe, The Transformers or any other shows and did not receive credit?
Cover for Rhino's
G.I.Joe: The Movie DVD
WD: As a staff writer for Marvel, there were a number of shows I was asked to write and or rewrite. I think every effort was made to credit individual writers with their stories. I continued the tradition I'd begun at Warren, years before, however, of never taking any form of credit for the stories that I was assigned to rewrite. For three reasons actually.
1. The original writer usually doesn't like any form of revisions introduced into his story. He'll almost always resent the intrusions of an editor or another writer.
2. Stories are rewritten because of some problem, real or imagined on the part of the story editor, and are, therefore, almost never as good as a story/script produced by the creating individual.
And, reason 3. "Creation by committee," as I've dubbed it, isn't creation at all, but compromise. I prefer to stay away from working on or viewing anything that's "created by a committee."
DT: What were the ratings like for the G.I.Joe daily series during the miniseries and the first and second season?
WD: I'm sorry, I don't have the exact rating figures handy for either the mini-series or the first season of G.I.Joe. Because the series was syndicated (aired in different markets at different times) ratings numbers would obviously be different for individual cities in any event. What I can say is that the syndicators found the series to be profitable and continued to commission new episodes until they believe it would generate no new profits for them. This allowed Hasbro (and Marvel/Sunbow) to continue in production and build a profitable library that's used to this day.
DT: Do you recall why wasn't there a third season of G.I.Joe or a fifth season of The Transformers?
WD: Sorry, I don't know why the series was canceled. As I recall, the project ended up at DIC for a season and, I seem to remember a friend or acquaintance working on another round of the series recently, again at DIC.
I can only speculate that the distributor couldn't found a sufficient number of outlets to justify Hasbro/Sunbow's production expenses.
DT: Why did Hasbro balk at the idea of including a curse word in G.I.Joe: The Movie when the Transformers film contained two?
WD: Hasbro has always been a very conservatively run company. If a word or two slipped into The Transformers, I can't imagine that management would have been pleased. Not privy to the particulars, I do know the principles involved and think that producer Nelson Shin convinced the company that the words used were entirely appropriate for the emotions conveyed in the storyline.
DT: Do you know why the USA Network cable channel was allowed to cut one minute from each episode of G.I.Joe?
WD: Again, not being privy to the exact details, I can only speculate.
The USA channel is a pretty big client and that means pretty big bucks. I don't believe Hasbro/Sunbow would object too much to slicing sixty seconds from any given product to allow their customer the opportunity to recoup with advertising...especially when it meant nice profits to their own (Hasbro's) bottom line. "It is a cartoon, after all!" was probably the end reasoning.
DT: In terms of dollars, what was the budget for the two miniseries, the first and second season and G.I.Joe: The Movie?
WD: Again, it's been quite a few years since I was involved with Joe, Marvel, Hasbro and Sunbow. I don't have exact figures anymore, but I can tell you what I remember. The earliest episodes cost in the neighborhood of $200,000. I saw that figure escalate with each season.
The movie, I seem to remember, has a three million dollar budget. Don't hold me to any of this. I only had to account for the creative costs for my teams in LA. And, as I said, this is all from my recollection.
DT: Were there any other toy-based TV series that Sunbow unsuccessfully tried to develop?
WD: Toy based series that were unsuccessfully developed? Not to my recollection. Everything Hasbro told Marvel and/or Sunbow to develop was developed, produced and eventually aired, with some degree of success. Jem and My Little Pony culled pretty large followings. Robotics to a lesser degree. I think Bigfoot, Inhumanoids, Potato Head Kids and Glo-friends were at the bottom of the rung. I still get people asking me when someone's going to bring back Jem or My Little Pony. I always just tell them to call Hasbro. I really believe that the market's bigger for those two series than Hasbro knows. A lot of kids who grew up watching those shows have kids of their own now and would like to offer their warm experiences with these characters to their children. I think it would be fun to run a new series of shows, as well.
DT: How often did you accept stories from writers without an established reputation?
WD: Personally? I was always on the hunt for great new talent. The Warren magazines were a wonderful proving ground for both writers and artists. I can't say that Marvel/Sunbow offered that same opportunity to just anyone. To me, it looked as though you had to know someone who knew your work. Margaret Loesch, company president and overseer of all the scripters, offered writing positions to a number of people she knew from Hanna-Barbera: voice directors, accountants, storyboard artists. If I hadn't refused Stan Lee's offers to leave Warren for years, I don't know that I would have been offered the opportunity to join Marvel when I was finally ready. That old adage, "It's who you know," seemed very true to me back then.
DT: Did you ever help cast voices for a TV series at Sunbow or help in the sound effects department? If not, did you ever want to help?
WD: Nope. Never did any casting for the Marvel's Sunbow shows. Spent way more time in recording than I wanted to. It was fun, at first. But, unless you're voice directing or one of the principle talents, it's tedious work. There's no reason for anyone else to be in the studio but the actors, engineer and director. Found out then that another old Hollywood adage is also true: "The most exciting day you'll ever spend is your first day in the studio. The most boringly mundane time you'll experience after that is every other day in the studio."
DT: When you left Sunbow to work for Fox, you mentioned that you helped create 22 series. Could you recall the names of the series and the level of enjoyment you experienced for each one?
WD: One of my primary jobs at Marvel (in addition to recruiting and supervising the talent) was in creative development. Lee Gunther, studio production chief would call me into his office and say, "We're going to do a new series." He'd show me the existing toys or the prototype and ask me to create preliminary character sketches and a story direction. Those would usually be ready by the time contracts were signed, and we were ready to take the initial meetings with Hasbro's creative execs.
Each series was different. For Jem, I remember taking the prototypes home, doing some initial sketches then calling in two very different artists to ink up the finals: Carol Police and Rudy Nebres. Carol was a wonderful character designer who, I knew would give me a cleanly simplistic traditional television animation approach. Rudy's background was as a fine art comics illustrator. From the start, it was obvious in which direction we'd eventually go. But, I wanted to give Hasbro a choice--to at least see other possible ways in which the series could be developed. After some fine-tuning, Jem eventually went into production with designs by Carol, myself and Paula LaFond. I still have those initial concepts laying around my studio somewhere.
Other series were handled in a similar manner. Designs, directions, meetings, then recruiting and hiring the appropriate staff: artists, writers, producer, director. After the crew was in place, my job was strictly supervisory--and I'd move on to the next series or series of developments.
This was pretty much the same with My Little Pony, Bigfoot, Glo-Friends, Inhumanoids, Robotics, Super-Sunday, etc., etc. My enjoyment level? Always pretty high. I love the creative process! And the challenge of finding the right person for any given job, has always been my main forte. (Though he never worked on the final series, Rudy eventually became one of Marvel's absolute best promotion and print artists.)
DT: I've heard that all of Sunbow's animation cels and related production materials (save what was taken by the staff members) were thrown away. Is this story true? If so, why weren't they placed in storage or sold?
WD: I can't say for sure what happened to the production cels. First and foremost, since most of the shows were animated in Korea at the most cut-rate prices Marvel/Sunbow/Hasbro could negotiate, very thin and fragile mylar was used. The process used to transfer the hand-drawn art onto the cels was also rather archaic (sort of a pre-Xerox Xeroxing). The black lines began chipping away and falling off the mylar almost the instant they were photographed. They weren't the type of cels that would age with grace, and certainly wouldn't be of much interest to collectors. Those cels that do remain are probably the cel set-ups we created for publicity purposes. Those were always very durable, very high quality work produced on .005 mylar or better, matted and covered with protective plastic. A lot of those were handed out to Hasbro/Sunbow and Marvel employees -- but there were probably less than 25 to 50 of them created for every show.
DT: Any amusing anecdotes while working at Sunbow?
WD: There are stories for every series. Far too many to get into here. It was an intense, very busy time, with every day offering one sort of deadline or another.
DT: Do you keep in touch with any of the former Sunbow staff members?
WD: Sure. Animation is a pretty small, incestuous industry. If we're not locked down to feature film production, we're gypsies who trek from one series to another. Everyone is always in touch with old friends from bygone shows. And if you've missed seeing anyone for a year or so, there are always the union Christmas/holiday parties.
DT: When did you leave Sunbow? Did you go directly to Fox?
WD: When Marvel was sold in 1986, the new owners made the rounds explaining to everyone in the executive offices that they had other plans for the company and would no longer require our services. I didn't understand at the time, thinking that an animation production company would always need a president, production head and/or creative director. What they did instead was wind down the operation and eventually cease production altogether.
Margaret Loesch landed at the new Fox Television Network as head of children's programming. She began building her staff with people from Marvel.
WD: I ended up at DIC, art directing series and specials like Barbie and Ghost Busters until Margaret called with an offer to head up a new creative department in Fox's feature film division.
DT: What are your current projects? Anything that will interest G.I.Joe or Transformers fans?
WD: I'm always involved with one project or another. And, thank God, it's almost always creative. Don't know if any of my current projects would interest G.I.Joe or Transformer fans, though. Last couple of projects might have had some interest, though. One was Voltron, the all computer-animated version of the old '70's sci-fi show for UPN. Another was Xyber 9, sort of a prequel to the prequel of George Lucas' Star Wars double trilogy for Fox. Fun shows.
DT: Given the large number of comic-related properties you were involved with, were you a fan of the characters before working on the TV series? And do you still follow their comic book series?
WD: I've been a comics fan since those earliest hospital-hand-me-downs. I love the wide variety in the art and the direction a lot of the storylines have been moving in over the past few years.
Cover for Vertigo's
WD: Karen Berger's Vertigo line is always interesting. And I even loved DC's 2000 reprinting of their old comic classics. If the price and project were right, I'd jump at the chance of doing comics again; writing, drawing or editing.
DT: Any words of wisdom you would like to pass on?
WD: Words of wisdom? The only advice I've ever given anyone is..."follow your passion." I've been passionate about creative projects all of my life (even in those days when I felt I'd been completely wrung dry by a medium) and it's allowed me to earn a comfortable living doing what I do best. Remain passionate about whatever your course in life and it will lead you to places you've never dreamed you'd go.
My sincerest thanks to the very friendly William duBay for providing some very enlightening answers about the inner workings of Sunbow and so much more.