Behind the Animation

June 11, 2010

In the world of animation, Seth MacFarlane has become well known as the person behind such successful shows as Family Guy and The Cleveland Show. Less publicly known but equally successful is MacFarlane’s longtime producing partner, SVA alumnus Kara Vallow (BFA 1985 Advertising), who has spent more than a decade making sure that all of the machinery necessary to generate hundreds of hours of animated comedy is working smoothly. Vallow answered some questions via e-mail about her work in the world of animation and how her time at SVA helped her get into the business.

What does a producer do in the creation of an animated series?
It’s been completely different on every show. Every series I’ve produced I have had to approach from a different angle. It’s part of having a deep respect for the medium that I try to identify what makes each show special. Since I have been working exclusively with Seth MacFarlane, my role is much more defined as we have known each other for 12 years; I know exactly what he wants in terms of the look and feel of the show when we are developing a series, and that translates into how I build the pipeline and structure the production. Family Guy had limped through three seasons and a three-year cancellation before we got the word that Fox was resurrecting it on their network. The show was already conceived and developed, but had been down for so long that we had to build it back from scratch. The actual technical process of animation, the steps, is a pipeline. The theory that only out of chaos comes great creative genius is barbaric to me.

How did you get started in the production side of the business?
I was always in love with cartoons. I cut my teeth on television animation, particularly Hanna Barbera, The Flintstones, Scooby-Doo, Top Cat and Wacky Races. I was also obsessed with the illustrations in books and wanted to be able to draw; I would copy the illustrations by Garth Williams, Kate Greenaway, Gene Zion, Edmund Dulac and NC Wyeth. When I showed up at SVA as a serious art student, it took me about three days to realize I was deeply untalented. I did, however, develop a deep respect for other talented artists, and love and respect for the genre of animation. I never lost that love for the medium or my respect for it—an asset for an animation producer that I could leverage elsewhere in the making of cartoons. I understood the medium and the process. Fortunately, that was a rare enough asset at the time that I got into the work force that I was able to commodify it.

What did you learn at SVA that still informs the work you do today?
The History of Animation class I took with Howard Beckerman resonated with me; it is probably the single most important class I took. He was really passionate about the medium. I learned it is possible to appreciate varying types of animation, from The Flintstones to Ralph Bakshi to Bambi. It made me not just enjoy but also respect cartoons, and that absolutely informs everything I do today and hope to continue to do. Because the actual construct of animation has not changed in any grand way since the 1930s. We are still humans drawing pictures.

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