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Off Hollywood - Prudence Fenton

An interview with the lady who brought experimental animation to Hollywood, with Liquid Television and Pee-Wee's Playhouse.

Animator, Producer, Imagineer
Animation Director, Pee-wee’s Playhouse (1986-1991); Executive Producer, Liquid Television (1991-1994)

Not long after the debut of MTV, my grandfather called the cable company and asked if he could have the channel scrambled. In the early days MTV was a showcase of bizarre animation, giving airtime to experimental work. At the time Prudence Fenton was a young animator just out of art school, hired by MTV to make station IDs. She continued throughout her career to push ideas and technologies as far as she could. By 1986 it worked! Far-out creativity made its way into network television with the legendary Saturday morning children's program, Pee-wee's Playhouse, where Prudence Fenton worked as the animation director. She brought the Penny Cartoon and other stop-motion wonders to the show.


Then in 1991, along with Japhet Asher, she worked to make Liquid Television a reality, which further embraced the experimental by commissioning independent animators to make short segments and creating a venue in which to show them. With Weird Vibes, the resurgence of Liquid Television, and new episodes of Beavis and Butt-Head, maybe television is ready to get back into that territory again. When I called her up asking for an interview, she was surprised I knew who she was. I thought, "Shouldn’t everyone?" She is a pioneer.

VICE: How did you start working for MTV?
Prudence Fenton: In art school I started doing my own animations by doing things with flip cards and shooting on Super 8. From there, I was hired by a company called Broadcast Arts that was about to do station IDs for MTV.

They were always so innovative. In 1982, what were the parameters of an MTV station ID?
It didn’t matter what happened for the first ten seconds as long as the end said MTV. We did all kinds of things like the M who fell to Earth, bubblegum that turned into M, the pink elephant who snorted a bunch of flowers, the MTV sandwich. We did so many.

How did you get a strange show like Liquid Television on the air?
It was done out of MTV’s promo department as opposed to their television department. Everyone had done their share of MTV IDs and the animation companies who had been doing them wanted to do something more. We presented the idea of a show of animated shorts, with the hopes that some of them would launch into their own shows, which Beavis and Butt-Head wound up doing. MTV gave us no money but that’s mostly because they were used to paying for ten-second shorts. If anything good surfaced out of that situation, it came from the passion in each segment’s creator.


Why do you think Aeon Flux was so successful?
It was character-driven and bizarre. It had amazing design and was so well “shot.” Peter Chung's camera angles for telling her story were unusual and compelling, and the right sound effect left the viewer with chills. Try not watching it when it's on.

I loved Winter Steele.
Winter Steele also had a very strong storyline. Winter and Crow could never unite. The universe prevents them from being apart. The viewer had a strong through line to hang on to, not to mention a weird setting and the work of the team of puppeteers.

You continued to push ideas as the animation director on Pee-wee’s Playhouse.
That was like getting paid to eat ice cream. The animation team did the dinosaurs, the animation in the fridge, and in the first season there were mutant toys.

The Pee-wee’s Playhouse opening title sequence is masterfully animated. I was happy to read that it won an Emmy. How was it created?
We set it up on this huge stage and shot it with a motion control camera. The animation was not motorized so it was click move, click move. Paul gave us some great notes on what he thought should be in the fly around up to the playhouse. He was a bit of a genius.

What about the Penny Cartoon?
[Animation house] Aardman Studios had just worked with the show’s director on Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.” Since they liked to animate to recorded voices, that’s how we did Penny. I interviewed a bunch of girls between the ages of 7 and 9. The perfect age for Penny was seven. It’s just before the veil lifts and they can talk freely with their imaginations.


What made you take the leap from claymation to CGI?
We experimented with it when making The Blockheads on Liquid Television in addition to incorporating bits of it in other places. It was all so new.

What computer system were you using when you made the music video for Peter Gabriel’s “Steam”?
We did some motion-capture but most of it was done using the Harry Computer made by Quantel. It would output to digital tape, which made it easier to do mattes and creative composites. Peter wanted the whole video to be CGI, but you think CGI is expensive now, imagine back then.

At the time did you feel like you were pioneering in Hollywood’s first flirtations with CGI?
You don't think about pioneering at the time. I was frustrated that the systems didn't work better.

What does Hollywood mean to you?
Hollywood to the outside world is the glamour of the actors and producers of mainstream films with a few independents thrown in. Historically, Hollywood meant motion pictures, and that lasted from the 1930s to the 80s. Now with everyone making films in their pajamas, the filmmaking part of Hollywood is global. Hollywood redefined itself as a gestalt and something to export.

Do you feel like you are a part of Hollywood?
It’s an industry, but Hollywood is also a place where many of the “below the line” team live—the people who work on films. From that standpoint, then yes, I'm part of Hollywood.

Previously - Off Hollywood - Mark Goldblatt