Research Meets Reality
I have a presence in the amateur/semipro art community, DeviantArt. It's my "rest of me" site, where I post art, photos, and ramblings just because I feel like it, not because of their thematic significance. If you're so inclined you can visit it at ronharris.deviantart.com.
Recently I unearthed and posted some old background drawings from my TV animation days. I have always liked this one, depicting a Parisian cafe:
In my notes I identified this as a BG from the old Dinosaucers series. However subsequent conversation with a rabid Dinosaucers fan (they really exist!) suggests it came from another show. Maybe Karate Kid. I didn't label the photocopy and I simply don't remember.
Anyway, those of you who've been to Paris were no doubt struck by the vintage American-style telephone booth in the left foreground. What is a vintage American-style telephone booth doing in Paris? It's there because the script said so. And because the art director said the script said so, and we aren't changing the script just because Paris doesn't have vintage American-style telephone booths.
This was one of the countless times that my artist's desire to get things right has collided with the practical aspects of TV production. Schedules are short (especially on Dinosaucers!), a hundred different tasks are being performed simultaneously, and cartloads of money are being spent. You can't halt the process just to correct a factual detail.
I don't pretend to any sort of moral high ground about research. Personally I love research. But I lack the obsessive drive necessary to be a research expert. I also have limited patience; eventually I want just to get on with it. I regret it deeply when I learn after the fact that I made some huge factual blunder. But I feel worse when a truly major error is detected in advance but circumstances dictate it must go through anyway. In the case of the phone booth, I could imagine every kid in Paris yelling at the screen, "What is that stupid thing? We don't have those here!"
On one show my art director was a young
Frenchman. He was fabulously talented and knew his craft to the nth degree. He was also a hothead equipped with an endless supply of contempt which he was quick to unload upon those whom he considered morons. We were designing another show set in Paris. Paris is a favorite destination for cartoon characters. The a.d. was already pissed because the writers had got the elevator system in the Eiffel Tower all wrong.
Then came the Parisian pet shop. "Pet shop!" he roared. "Ignorant assholes! We don't even have American style pet shops in France!" [I have never been there, so I don't know, but I wonder if anyone can confirm or deny that there are no pet shops in France.] It wasn't the existence of the pet shop that sent the a.d. over the edge, though. It was the sign the writers wanted on the storefront: Maison du Pet. Now they obviously wanted to say "House of Pets" and couldn't (or chose not to) find a translation for "pet." In those pre-Internet days finding translations could involve a bit of legwork. The unfortunate thing is that in French pet means "fart."
The art director's eyes burned and his lip curled in a truly magnificent sneer as he fulminated. "Maison du pet!! Do you know what zat means?!!" (He had an almost stereotypical French accent which really took over when he was angry.) "'Ouse of Farteeng! It means 'Ouse of Farteeng! Muzzerfuckairs! Oh, zey're so smart! Zey know so much about Paris! I should let it go through. Oh, I should let it go through! On televisions all over the world: Maison du Pet!" But while the man was a hothead, he was also a dedicated professional. Maison du Pet did not go through. Instead the sign was written in English: "Pet Shop."
My one brush with "big time" television was producing bogus newspaper strip art for an episode of the lighthearted mystery-adventure Remington Steele. The story concerned a young artist working as a ghost for a rich, famous, domineering cartoonist. When the big man is murdered, our heroes deduce that the assistant killed him. They stage an elaborate hoax to trap the killer into incriminating himself.
I never met the episode's writers, but the producer was impressed by their thorough research. They wrote lots of little-known factoids into the script to lend it authenticity. For example an important clue hinged on discovering that one artist pencilled with a regular black pencil while the other drew in non-photo blue. Clever--maybe the only time non-photo blue pencils found their way onto prime time television. Unfortunately a 500-pound gorilla was sitting in the corner: the oldest, "wrongest" misconception about newspaper comics, something anyone who'd researched the field shouldn't have missed.
As part of the setup Remington Steele creates several new episodes of the dead man's strip. The trouble is, Steele draws the strip today, and it appears in the newspaper...tomorrow! Having just finished two years of struggling to maintain six-week leads on two daily strips at once, I couldn't believe my nearsighted eyes. As diplomatically as possible I mentioned the error to the producer. "No kidding?" he said. "They draw 'em months ahead?" Yes, I said. "Well," the producer replied, "we sure as hell can't do anything about it now!"
Of course he was right. The episode was in its final weeks of production. Fixing the mistake would mean throwing everything out and starting over at the script stage. No one in his right mind would suggest that. The episode aired with blunder intact. That's just how it goes...facts are nice, but only if you fit them in early enough.