By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It's dark in one of DNA Productions' state-of-the-art workstations, located in a suite of rented offices on Cedar Springs near Love Field. John Davis -- the "D" in DNA -- is cuing up a scene from Olive, the Other Reindeer, the animation production company's first hour-long Christmas special, set to air on the Fox television network on December 17. Shadowy, dark backgrounds bring immediate drama to the assembled characters -- reindeer, elves, and a man wearing lederhosen. "Round John Virgin," Davis says, laughing as he introduces the shorts-sporting character. "And the dog is Olive. Drew Barrymore does her voice."
Indeed, Olive speaks, and out comes Barrymore's trademark lisp: "Ith Chrithmith!" is only a slight exaggeration. Olive, a brown-and-white pooch, pleads her case: She stands in, of all things, a dingy North Pole bar and begs an assortment of peculiar characters to accept her as a reindeer. It sounds like the perfect Christmas tale -- Rudolph recast as a Benji. But something is not quite...right. Some of the elves and reindeer wear black eye patches, and most of the assembled have strangely asymmetrical, Cubist-inspired body parts. One female character has unbalanced breasts; another, out-of-kilter eyeballs; and another, seriously slanted shoulders.
Have yourself a very Dada Christmas.
"It was hard to nail down the style of the characters," says Keith Alcorn, otherwise known as the "A" in DNA. He's talking about DNA's attempts to translate noted children's book illustrator J. Otto Siebold's two-dimensional, still figures into walking, talking, three-dimensional characters on the small screen. Vivian Walsh, Siebold's wife and collaborator on several other children's books, wrote the story. "Some people can be temperamental," Alcorn says. "You have to know what they're thinking, and what the rules of their universe are. It's a lot easier if it's all coming from one source, and the source is here."
You really don't expect this sort of wink-wink-nudge-nudge adult humor from an animated Christmas special, unless you know something about the kind of work that typically comes out of DNA Productions. Trouble is, you probably aren't familiar with their work -- or, at the very least, their names. But John Davis and Keith Alcorn are poised to break out of video-animation obscurity and actually succeed on their own terms -- without moving to Los Angeles and without watering down their down-home, wacky ways or ditching their wicked senses of humor.
Olive represents the first time Davis and Alcorn haven't created their own characters or written their own stories since breaking into the entertainment business in 1995. For roughly 10 years before that, since Davis and Alcorn hooked up, most of DNA's bread-and-butter work came from animating corporate logos. They had an impressive roster of clients -- Hallmark, American Airlines, and Dairy Queen -- but their real dream was to create animated television series and feature-length animated films. "The whole time we were doing corporate commercial work to support ourselves, all the while we wanted to do entertainment work," Davis says. "I think that's what we're best at."
Davis and Alcorn financed their own animated shorts on the side and entered them in various video festivals, including Spike and Mike's Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation; the Too Outrageous Animation Festival featured Alcorn and Davis' Ratman and Frisky series, with a Ratman character unmistakably modeled after Howard Stern. Their Nippoless Nippleby, about a green, forest-strolling creature who has trouble with peer relationships, debuted at the Dallas Video Festival in 1993.
In 1995, DNA got a nibble of interest from Nickelodeon, the cable network best known for Rugrats and Rocko's Modern Life, after comedian and producer Steve Oedekerk saw some of the duo's festival shorts in an industry publication. Oedekerk called Davis and Alcorn -- "out of the blue," they insist -- and offered to help them gain access to Hollywood in exchange for being involved in their animation projects. DNA and Oedekerk took two 40-second teasers introducing their "Johnny Quasar, Boy Genius" character to Nickelodeon; after two years of negotiations, they were given the go-ahead to produce a short pilot. "There's no doubt that Steve has done wonders for us, in terms of getting us in and giving us a level of credibility," Davis says. Oedekerk's O Entertainment is a co-producer of the recently renamed Jimmy Neutron.
"We've taken advantage of his experience out there -- knowing how to deal with studios and networks," Davis explains. "It's been a huge boon for us, but if it wasn't him, I think it would be someone else. We're tenacious. We just keep after it, and I think eventually we would just do it. But he's been a huge help."
Oedekerk got DNA in the door at ABC-TV in the summer of 1997 and successfully pitched the animators for a December 1997 Christmas special, Santa vs. the Snowman. Davis and Alcorn had complete creative control on Santa, writing, directing, and producing the half-hour show. But more to the point, they earned their first "real" money: nearly $400,000.
After slow but steady success, and after nearly five years of back-and-forth on a pet project, the ink is drying on DNA's dream contract, a long-range deal with Nickelodeon and Paramount Pictures that gives DNA $25 million to produce a feature film, a television series, and online franchise built around Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius. Davis and Alcorn signed the deal at the end of November, and they are planning a move to new 19,000-square-foot digs in Las Colinas, quadrupling their space and their full-time staff as they get to work on the multiyear project.
"It feels spooky, like lots of overhead with scary rent," Davis says. "The rent per month we're looking at on the new building is more than we made in a year for the first four years we were in business"
"We'll have to change how we work," Alcorn says, "purely because there is so much more work to do."
Looking at these men -- the 42-year-old Alcorn wears a denim jacket with matching jeans, the only "suit" he owns, and his 38-year-old partner sports a gimme cap over his butt-length ponytail and his perpetual grin -- it's hard to picture them as CEOs of a company doing business with one of the world's largest media conglomerates. (Paramount and Nickleodeon are subsidiaries of Viacom International Inc., which also owns the likes of MTV, Showtime, and Blockbuster Video.) And you can't picture them eating fish tacos with celebrities in Santa Monica.
"Don't ever change," Davis sarcastically whines to Alcorn.
"John is so perfect the way he is," Alcorn responds.
Alcorn and Davis say that the pace of the Nickelodeon deal is typical of the industry, and that they never lost faith along the way. And they found the cable network fairly flexible during the negotiations: Davis says the network is letting them produce the Jimmy Neutron film first, before the series debuts -- which is the antithesis of how this business usually operates.
"They usually build an audience with a TV series first, and then introduce a movie," Davis explains. After all, Nickelodeon and Paramount produced their Rugrats film long after the series had a few successful years on television. "While we're working on the movie, we'll introduce short segments of Jimmy on Nickelodeon to help build the audience before the movie is released," Alcorn says.
The pair, in conjunction with Oedekerk's O Entertainment, will also provide online games for www.nick.com. "It's designed to be this huge franchise, from the ground up now," Davis says. "That's really why it's taken so long. Nickelodeon has never done anything like this before."
And neither have Alcorn and Davis. Not to say theirs has been a story of failure and disappointment to this point; almost to the contrary. They've tasted success, but only as an appetizer: DNA has been featured on MTV (with Nanna and Lil' Puss Puss), CBS (their work was featured on The Weird Al Show), and NBC (as part of Oedekerk's stand-up comedy special, steve.oedekerk.com). They also produce an ongoing, direct-to-video series for Beckett Entertainment called Jingaroo, which features the voices of several local actors.
"We always had to take the side projects," Davis says. "We took on Olive because we needed something to fill the six months before we got started on Jimmy Neutron. It's been a fairly orderly process. Slow, but purposeful, I guess you'd say."
On the video monitor, Olive, the brown-and-white dog who longs to be a reindeer, has finished one of her more plaintive speeches, and the motley crew of offbeat Christmas stereotypes breaks into song. Alcorn and Davis are rapt, even though they've seen every frame of this production hundreds of times. "The thing that drew us to Olive was the unusual style of the book," Davis says. "And the chance to work with Matt Groening."
See -- it is Christmas around the DNA offices. Simpsons creator Groening co-produced Olive, along with Drew Barrymore's own Flower Films and, of course, Fox Television Studios. Groening's involvement could explain the adult orientation of the cartoon Christmas special. That, and the quirky comedy stylings of Alcorn and Davis -- who are, finally, happy someone is letting them join in their reindeer games.