Monday, August 26, 2013

Jean Chalopin Talks Gadget - Old and New

Old news by now, but: A July 1 article from The Globe and Mail reveals some more info on Gadget's upcoming TV series. Among other things, it talks about Teletoon Canada's hopes for reviving the inspector on their channel:

When the bumbling detective last graced the screen, cartoons were exclusively aired on Saturday mornings and remote controls were still considered optional components for most televisions. Now he’ll compete against on-demand services that serve up thousands of cartoons at any time, as well as dozens of other distractions that have viewers turning away from traditional television in favour of online alternatives. 
It’s hoped that by tapping an existing franchise that has endured decades of syndication, the show will win viewers quickly and encourage them to put down their devices and sit down in front of the television. 
“In 1981, the pace of television was very slow,” says Jean Chalopin, the show’s co-creator and a consultant on the new series. “If you did the same thing exactly now, it would be very difficult to get an audience. Kids today are used to seeing different forms of animation and moods.”
Gadget’s return, scheduled for some time within the next year, is being orchestrated by Teletoon Canada, which needs to draw more adult viewers to its subscription-based channel to attract the kind of advertiser it needs to drive profits higher. The media world is so crowded –YouTube alone has more than a billion users a month looking for fresh content – that it’s almost impossible for a conventional television station to create a new cartoon series that will deliver the ratings needed to drive up advertising revenue. 
“The challenge is drawing adults to their television in the hours before 9 p.m.,” says Alan Gregg, the director of original content at Teletoon Canada. “One idea we had was to bring back franchises that already have an adult appeal.”

I like the fact that Teletoon wants the new series to attract adults as well as kids. But in my eyes, the most interesting piece of information appears right in the middle of the above quote: Jean Chalopin, DiC's founder and Gadget's co-creator, is a consultant on the new series! The Globe and Mail piece features only snippets from the interview with Chalopin, but article writer Steve Ladurantaye has posted the complete interview transcript on his personal site! This is pretty much the only interview I've ever seen with Jean Chalopin talking at length about Gadget:

How did the original series start?
We started in Paris and ended up in Toronto. We started in Paris looking for a character to finance an animation series, we wanted it to be a toy so we could get a toy company to finance the show. But we never produced anything more than a plush toy with Gadget, it was never a success as a toy. But the idea we liked, so we took it to others. He became a mixture of other characters, the Six Million Dollar Man and Insp. Clouseau. We felt a toy was no longer essential and we found a way to finance with French television, Canadian television and some financing from the U.S. We produced 65 episodes up front, all in Canada. 
How is this different than failed reboots such as Gadget and the Gadgetinis?
We are keeping the same structure. There were a number of other things produced that more or less tried to do the same thing with additional characters. They didn’t address the continuity in a way that I would have liked to have seen. Nothing really tried to capitalize on the franchise of the character. Now we’ve taken something that is very much the same visually, but with a team of people that have the love of the original character who was born in 1981. 
How was it different to write a show back then? Do kids expect something different now?
In 1981, the pace was very slow. If you did the same thing exactly now, it would be very difficult to get an audience. Kids today are used to seeing different forms of animation and moods. So it’s the same story, with a new pace. Kids are now exposed to more things – in the 1980s you had the Flintstones and maybe some classic Tom and Jerry. Now we need to write gags for adults too – kids and adults work at different levels. If you’re 37, you’ll know the show but you also want the nine-year-old to like, so you need different jokes. We won’t be King of the Hill or Family Guy, it’s not under the belt like that, but there needs to be more gags. 
How involved will you be with the new show?
Michael Hirsh (CEO of DHX Media) is a long-time friend. He showed me some visuals he was doing in Halifax and I reacted so well. One of the greatest days of my year was flying to Halifax, everyone there is funny and really understands what they are doing. They understand what this is – at the end of the day I laughed so much that my stomach was hurting. 
Was it like that with the original series?
It was like that we when created Gadget, we were having fun. Because we were having fun it became what it is, but little by little it became like a job. 
What do you think it retained some of its popularity? It wasn’t on TV for all that long.
We were getting very good ratings. But Gadget has been a very good No. 2, it was never No. 1. For eight years, it was on Nickelodeon every day. But still, it has never achieved top ratings – always the second best. But Gadget has been on air for so long everywhere around the world because it gets decent ratings. It’s very simple because you have a character that is completely predictable. He is always nice. He’s completely idiotic, but he’s a good human being and his niece loves him. He may mistake his dog for a bad guy, but his niece loves him. The mission was always given by Chief Quimby, Gadget would take the mission and the note would explode in the face of Quimby and then Gadget would go on an adventure and in the wrong way. The mystery of whatever crime had to be resolved was solved by Penny with the assistance of Brain. He will resolve, but he’ll have no clue how he did it. 
Penny is a strong female character – that’s not all that common.
There’s a family relationship that works, he’s likeable character and behind him you have the real hero who is the young girl. In every family kids feel they know they answer but they are not listened to so perhaps there is something to that. When we created we liked the triangle. We may change that a little today, but we have not changed the relationships in this triangle. We need more gags, yes, much more gags because the pace before was very slow and we didn’t have much money when we first produced the show. It was the 1980s, kids of today and adults have a very high demand for fun and pace.

The interview is a bit short, but still very interesting. I love the part about how DiC originally wanted Gadget to be a toy franchise, but then went in the opposite direction and produced the series because they liked the idea and wanted to have fun with it. Of course toys were produced when the show first came out, but the toys were never the driving force (which I'm glad for), and never caught on the way the TV series did.
   To that end, Chalopin's comment abot Gadget being "a very good No. 2" on Nickelodeon serves as a sober reminder of the kind of popularity the show has enjoyed over the years. Inspector Gadget was a hit when it first came out, and continues to get good ratings in reruns, but it never reached the commercial heights of, say, the Scooby-Doo franchise.

I was a bit surpriced by Chalopin's descriptions of earlier (relatively unsuccessful) reboots, where the one example mentioned by the interviewer is Gadget and the Gadgetinis. As Jean says, "There were a number of other things produced that more or less tried to do the same thing with additional characters. They didn’t address the continuity in a way that I would have liked to have seen. Nothing really tried to capitalize on the franchise of the character."
   Personally, I very much agree with this. Later reboots and spinoffs like Gadget Boy and Gadget and the Gadgetinis never lived up to the original series, and many of them were impressively bad. But the strange thing here is that Chalopin himself was very much involved with Gadgetinis. He wrote or co-wrote every episode, and is even credited on-screen as having created the Gadgetinis series. So, is he a) talking about every reboot attempt besides Gadgetinis, or is he b) unhappy with the Gadgetinis series in retrospect? Was he perhaps not allowed to do some of the things he wanted on that project? I believe the Gadgetinis series was in development for some time before Chalopin got into it (it was called G.I. Gadget at one point), so maybe Chalopin's wishes for the series had to be compromised to fit with concepts already created.

In a few cases, it feels like Chalopin isn't really answering the interviewer's questions, but he still gives us interesting information. For instance, we only get vague details about exactly how involved he is with the new show (he apparently visits the crew in Halifax from time to time), but at the same time we learn that Michael Hirsh is one of the people in charge, and that Chalopin has great confidence in the crew. Later on, the interviewer points out that Penny is a "strong female character". I suspect that he was looking for a comment about female heroes in cartoons, and about how this was somewhat unique at the time. Instead, Chalopin talks about Penny's role in the family triangle, and likens the appeal of her character to how " every family kids feel they know the answer but they are not listened to". There is definitely something there. Personally, though, I think Penny being a young girl - rather than a young boy - made a big difference to the show. To me, it makes both her battle with M.A.D and her relationship with Gadget more interesting and endearing. Penny gives the show more heart, more charm. Plus, portraying a little girl as a brilliant computer whiz is refreshing in itself, and makes the contrast between her and Gadget even stronger. (And who cares how unlikely it is? It's cool!)

At any rate, I'm glad to hear Chalopin say that they "...have not changed the relationships in this triangle [between Gadget, Penny and Brain]" in the new series - and I'm curious how Penny's new role as an inspector-in-training will be integrated into that structure. It sounds more and more like this new show will indeed try to work in the same continuity as the 1983 series.

P.S.: Admittedly, the fact that Chalopin is involved with the reboot was known before this article. I have been following the developments of the new season of Chalopin's famous series "The Mysterious Cities of Gold" for a long time now... and back in November of last year, a new biography appeared on where it was mentioned that Chalopin "...still devotes time and a large part of his life to series such as The Mysterious Cities of Gold, Inspector Gadget and other new creative projects." (Via Google Translate from the French sentence, "Malgré tout il garde toujours du temps et une large place dans sa vie pour des séries telles que les Mystérieuses Cités d'Or, Inspecteur Gadget et autres nouveaux projets créatifs.")
   While the biography didn't specify exactly which Inspector Gadget project Jean was devoting time to, I felt pretty certain even back in November that it had to be the new TV series. Also, a French TV interview with Jean, which originally appeared on Youtube back in December of 2012, suggested the same thing. I don't understand French, but I noticed that, at about 5:25 in the video, the narrator actually mentions "Reboot du Gadget". So Chalopin has been involved with the reboot for some time now. Makes sense, of course, considering that the series has been in pre-production at least since the start of 2012.

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