on Earth right now, there's an email containing the latest sketches for
the Cartoon Network's Mike, Lu & Og.
While most American TV cartoons are created in Los Angeles, Mike (Fridays, 8 p.m. ET/PT) is the first produced primarily in Moscow for the USA. At the end of each workday, Russian animators e-mail their work to Los Angeles, where writing, voicing, and editing is done. Says Cartoon Network vice president Linda Simensky: "There's someone working on this show at every minute of the day, in some part of the world." Long-running cartoon series for Russian TV are usually imported: local studios have never tackled the costly production process of year-round shows. It wasn't until Mike, which doesn't air in Russia that "we proved we could do it," says Mikhail Aldashin, 41, who created the shows characters and oversees the art process here. "There was always talk of doing a cartoon serial here, and a few times they would get started but never finished."
Aldashin, an acclaimed animator in his mother country, chose not to live in Los Angeles and instead works in Moscow with his colleagues on the show.
Mike, Lu & Og is about a young New Yorker (Mike) who becomes an exchange student on a remote island inhabited by wacky natives Lu and Og, is a commentary on contemporary civilized life. Mike comes to the island looking for paradise but immediately wants to change things. The show made its debut Nov. 12 and has already been picked up for a second cycle of 13 episodes. In its first week, Mike improved 33% on Cartoon's ratings in the time slot a year earlier.
Books like Robinson Crusoe were inspirations. Island life is "romantic and mysterious," Aldashin says, "with treasures, pirates, coconuts and hot weather-especially for someone growing up in Russia, where it is cold and dark in the winter."
His Pilot Studio looks much like its U.S. counterparts-just smaller, with fewer decorative enhancements that come with corporate riches. Artists work in rooms that overlook snowy streets and babushka-wearing shoppers, unlike California, where windows peek out at sunshine and cars.
Aldashin studied art at the VGIK University in Moscow and was instructed by the then communist government to work as a movie set decorator. He hated the job and wound up on touristy Arbat Street, offering to draw passers-by. His hook: a portrait in record time. "10 minutes for 10 rubles," he says, about $5 in 1989. "If I was under 10 minutes, I would get an extra ruble for every minute. And if I went over 10 minutes, I would subtract a ruble. That was my guarantee that it would be quick." He got so good and fast that he was invited to join Pilot, where he worked on his shorts (The Hunter and Poumse) and commercials for clients such as Channel Four in England.
Russian émigré Mikhail Shindel, owner of the L.A. animation company Kinofilm, saw Aldashin's shorts at an animation festival and suggested adapting them for a TV series. Former Rugrats producer Charles Swenson created stories and pitched Aldashin's show to Simensky. "Most Russian shorts I had seen were beautiful, but they were also slow-moving and dark," she says. "Misha's were really funny and had a different feel."
How the process works: Scripts are e-mailed to Moscow and translated into Russian. Artists do preliminary sketches and e-mail them back to Los Angeles. Once approved, the sketches are turned into storyboards (comic strip-like panels of six drawings) for Swenson's OK and mailed to Korea, where the work is filmed, as virtually all U.S. cartoons are. "Amazingly, there's been little language-barrier problems," Swenson says. "The world really isn't that big when you get down to it." You won't hear mentions of bears, piroshki or other Russian fixtures in Mike, but with Cartoon Networks in Asia, Japan, Simensky is keen on working with international creators. "It's one of the easiest ways to get different perspectives on the world," she says. A show from Japan is her next goal.
KINOFILM continues to produce finely-crafted animation for commercials. promos, and music videos.