Loony tunes

It's a rainy Thursday afternoon at the headquarters of DNA Animation, Dallas' seven-year-old hub of gleeful bad taste and excess, and the company's core group of artists--Keith Alcorn, Paul Claerhout, John Davis, and Debbie Dunning--are taking a break.

Huddled around a television set in one corner of the cluttered, computer-laden room, which looks like the bridge of a spaceship redecorated by a fraternity pledge on a bender, the DNA folks are grazing on a leisurely lunch of takeout greaseburgers and fries. On the television is a rerun of Comedy Central's postmodern gagfest "Mystery Science Theater 3000." The DNA animators alternate between laughing uproariously at the show and offering jokes of their own.

"This is a typical day here at DNA," deadpans co-founder Keith Alcorn, a muscular, bespectacled man with a sly smirk and forearms the size of car mufflers. "Every now and then, when we feel like it, we get a little work done."

Even if Alcorn's joke were true at one point in the company's history, it isn't anymore. DNA Animation is a hotbed of activity. Like so many artists in Dallas' film and video scene, its animators pay the bills by applying their skills to local and regional commercials, training films, and other contract work.

But the company is best known for its...well, "personal work" probably isn't the right term.

Since its inception, the company has produced such twisted celluloid outings as "The Tale of Nippoless Nippleby," a sick variation on "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" about a tiny woodland creature who's grief-stricken because all his friends have nipples and he doesn't; "Weird Beard the Pirate," a twisted, bloody slapstick buccaneer odyssey that makes Monty Python's Jabberwocky look like a model of decorum; and "Na-Na and Lil' Puss Puss," an ongoing series of shorts about a deranged, horny grandmother and her bug-eyed cat. The works have been included in touring theatrical festivals, including two Outrageous Animation anthologies as well as Spike and Mike's Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation, and have been one of the most popular elements of the last few Dallas Video Festivals.

Last year, Video Festival artistic director Barton Weiss granted the DNA crew a show of their own, dedicated to nothing but their most gleefully repulsive cartoons. It ended with Alcorn, Claerhout, and Davis onstage leading the packed crowd in a sing-along, chanting the "Na-Na and Li'l Puss-Puss Theme" at top volume:

Na-Na and Li'l Puss Puss,
What good times they had!
Na-Na and Li'l Puss Puss,
The good times made them glad!
Other times were not so good
All those times were bad!

"When I thought up 'Na-Na and Li'l Puss-Puss,'" Alcorn says, "I thought of all the kind of stuff that made me laugh really hard, and it just so happened that most of the stuff that made me laugh tended to revolve around turds. When I was right out college, I was like a lot of young artists, doing really deep, serious-type independent shorts, and pretty soon I decided I couldn't stand to watch them. Animation is a very diverse field, but what I like best about it is the same thing that most people like: to laugh. There's a place for serious work in animation, but it's not coming out of my pencil."

In 1987, Alcorn worked as an animator at a Dallas production house that would soon close its doors. Into his orbit drifted an intern and aspiring animator named John Davis, a lanky, long-haired, mustachioed SMU student brimming with energy and twisted ideas.

"John brought me some of the films he'd been working on in college," Alcorn says. "They were really impressive." When their employer closed shop, Davis went back to school and Alcorn free-lanced, and the two became friends. Alcorn and Davis eventually decided to go it alone. Lacking the money for a proper office, they operated out of Davis' small duplex in East Dallas.

They were joined by Paul Claerhout, another local animator who Davis had met through a "Bolex for sale"classified ad in the Dallas Morning News.

"Originally, the three of us did anything to make a buck," says Davis. "Every now and then we'd pool our money and do something just for our own amusement. We've narrowed things down over the years, and although we do a lot of 3-D and graphics-type work now, what we mostly specialize in is still old-fashioned character animation."

The DNA method mixes old-style cartoon craftsmanship and high technology. The animators draw rough pencil sketches by hand to determine the look, posture, and body language of their creations. Then the characters are scanned into computers with the help of MacIntosh software, frame by meticulous frame, and then matched up with dialogue and sound effects tracks. "The process replaces the old animation stand and the need to have a roomful of painters," says Davis. The finished work is transferred directly to videotape, bypassing film entirely.

The use of computers doesn't prevent DNA's work from having a charming hand-made feel. The drawing style, particularly on "Na-Na and Li'l Puss-Puss," is rough-edged and free-flowing, like the scribbles in the margins of a flip book. And the animators do many of the voices and disgusting sound effects (sneezing, wheezing, a thousand different kinds of farts) themselves. "We're the cheapest voice talent we can find." Music, too: Claerhout plays fiddle, Davis guitar and synthesizer, and Alcorn drums.

Last year, the company added a fourth member and "den mother"--Debbie Dunning, who, as a college student, saw John Davis speak on the use of computers in animation at a convention. When Dunning--who was studying character animation at Sheridan College near Toronto and calls legendary cartoon wiseasses Tex Avery and Bob Clampett primary influences--spoke to Davis afterward, she instantly sensed a kindred spirit. "It was destiny that I was going to end up there," she says.

Lately the company has begun forging a national profile. It has contributed a Howard Stern parody, "Ratman and Frisky," about a king of all media who's a bipedal rat in sunglasses, to a Showtime cable special--"Basic Values: Sex, Shock, and Censorship." They've also designed the opening, closing, and intermission sequences for "Attack of the 5' 2" Women," a two-part comedy special that starred Julie Brown as, respectively, Lorena Bobbitt and Tonya Harding; the DNA sequences portrayed the two women racing madly around a cityscape wreaking havoc like Thelma and Louise. "Na-Na and Lil' Puss Puss" airs regularly on Comedy Central's "Small Doses," a comedy anthology program. And the company recently contracted to animate a new Saturday morning children's series, "AJ's Time Travelers," that will air on Fox beginning December 3.

DNA is also, for reasons only they could possibly understand, developing "Weird Beard the Pirate" as an interactive CD-ROM game. "It'll have some of the violence and blood toned down, but it'll still be pretty wacky," says Davis.

Surrounded by his fellow mischief-makers, Davis makes a halfhearted stab at explaining their style of humor and concedes that sometimes it goes over the top.

"Something like 'Weird Beard' works best in small doses," he says. "It's so gory and strange that if you watched all the parts sequentially, uninterrupted, you'd just feel terrible. But I guess it does have a certain kind of sick integrity. I mean, at the end, after all the horrible stuff the stupid young hero has gone through at the hands of these pirates, they just beat the shit out of him and then he's dead."

There's an uncharacteristically reflective pause in the office as everyone considers this.

Then the DNA crew laughs long and hard and loud, like bad-taste buccaneers after a pirate's toast.

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