BTTF: the animated series

I was working at Disney France when John Hays contacted me, looking for an overseas supervisor for a Saturday Morning cartoon that he’d be directing for Colossal Pictures. I’d done such things before. What interested me about this particular gig was that John wanted the supervisor to firstly work as part of the pre-production team at Colossal. I absolutely loved that idea. So headed to San Francisco to work on the BACK TO THE FUTURE cartoon.

BTTF Cast

I’d been introduced to John by mutual pal Tony Stacchi while backpacking in the USA a few years earlier. When Colossal diversified from special effects & TV commercials into longer form animation, John remembered me. Thinking my experience in Saturday Morning animation would fit with this new project, that both he & Phil Robinson would direct.. 

BTTF Ep2 Medieval

The crew had not fully assembled when I arrived in San Francisco. In fact, it was so early in production that even the look of the show had not yet been locked down. Many freelance artists, including Steve Purcell & Dave Fiess, plus Colossal staffers had a crack at design proposals, and I had a go too. 

BTTF Models1

Colossal had acquired a new building for long form production, but it was still being refit. So, a few of us worked in a cold drafty room at Colossal’s 3rd street building. As the crew expanded, we were housed in a cramped annex in their Custer Street sound stage. Until we finally moved into the facility on 15th street. (That building would eventually host the entire Colossal animation department).

BTTF Ep4 Puritans

When some designs of mine were selected for the main characters, the plan for me to supervise production in Taiwan was modified. Instead, I became one of two art director/character designers on the series. The mighty John Stevenson being the other. 

BTTF Models2

There was such a back & forth between Colossal & Universal over the main characters (even the actors got involved) that it was hard to do anything truly unique (although I was happy with how Doc Brown turned out). But we definitely had fun on the secondary character designs. 

BTTF Ep1 Soldiers
Private Stevenson & Private Baker..

John & I both worked on designs for the first episode together, then took it in turns thereafter. I designed characters on even-numbered episodes, and John designed for odd-numbered episodes. We both sat side by side, cracking each other up with sillier & sillier designs. Joyfully competing as the series progressed. (In my opinion, John utterly killed it with his designs for his ROMAN episode..)

BTTF Ep6 Philly

Directors John Hays & Phil Robinson really assembled a mighty crew for this series. Dave Gordon & Richard Moore did the BG styling, with Dave doing a lot of great VisDev too. Robin Steele, and future Pixar heavyweights Bud Luckey, & Joe Ranft did the storyboards. Two more future Pixar legends, Bob Pauley & Bill Cone, led much of the layout & location design. Future LucasFilm directors Bosco Ng, & Steward Lee were stalwarts of the art department. Colour styling was by future CNN design director Dewey Reid, and John Pomeroy animated the title sequence! 

BTTF Models3

After years of living & working in countries where I struggled to learn the language, it was great to finally be in a city where I could actually socialise. I was very lucky to be working with utterly inspiring artists. We often worked late, as we were all excited to be working together.

BTTF Ep8 Baseball

The pre-pro team was enthusiastic and worked hard, with high hopes for the show. However, by this point in my career I had a pretty good idea of how the Saturday Morning sausage was made. Having worked in the bowels of the sausage factory myself for 10 years by that point. I was hopeful, but also knew that it was anybody’s guess if the show would get the same care at the other end..

BTTF Models4

A show about a kooky scientist, his young buddy and a time machine had the potential to be absolutely great. The best of Doctor Who and a (family friendly) Rick & Morty. But stories that went to a new time zone each week needed a lot of design. I kept hoping that the scripts would contain less characters & locations. So that we could really refine the model packets. But every script contained tons of NEW characters & locations. Plus new outfits/gear for the main characters too. SIGH..

BTTF Ep10 Dickens

We’d been promised the ‘top floor’ animators at Taiwan’s Cuckoo’s Nest studio, but “Uh oh..” early footage made it clear that we’d gotten the basement crew instead.. “DOH!” Back when I’d supervised outsourcing myself, I learned that if the good artists are already assigned to another project there wasn’t much you could do. So, despite an absolutely stellar design & storyboard team, and early optimism, the show itself came out merely ‘OK‘. It ran for two seasons on CBS.

BTTF Band

It has been one of the counter intuitive aspects of my career that sometimes the fave projects are NOT the best projects.. Despite being merely a footnote in animation history, this was absolutely a linchpin project in my own career, and I have fond memories of it to this day. Many great opportunities that came later were thanks to this show. I met many wonderful artists, who became lifelong friends, who I still work with and/or socialise with, decades later. On this project, I fell in love with San Francisco. And, after living out of a backpack for years, made this kooky town my home. I’d later go on staff at Colossal Pictures, which became my favourite studio I ever worked at. Where I finally escaped from Saturday Morning cartoons, into TV commercials and other more challenging projects.

28 thoughts on “BTTF: the animated series”

  1. James! I remember how everyone else at Colossal’s 15th Street studio (those of us animating cereal commercials etc) loved seeing the piles of fabulous BTTF character and prop designs that you guys cranked out like a cartoon MACHINE! I’m in awe to this very day. (GE)

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  2. Damn excellent chronicle of events, Jamie! Thank you for documenting the project and especially the amazing crew we put together. Good times!

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  3. Jamie!
    I still have some collected stuff from those Colossal days. Lovely memories of so many stellar friends and times.
    Thanks for your always spectacular coverage!

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  4. Every time I see one of your posts pop up on LinkedIn, I think, “Finally! Something I actually WANT to read.” I’m sure it’s been said before, but your stories would make an amazing book.

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    • Thank you very much for your kind words. I do have a vague plan to collect my childhood stories into an illustrated book someday. Possibly I’ll do something similar with my stories from the wandering years of my career too. Thanks for commenting!

    • Agree! Thanks for filling us in. I came to Cp after this project, but recall PR and others reminiscing fondly about that time.

  5. You brought me back to some of my fave days of my career, Jamie, with this piece! This was the project that gave me the opportunity to come back to the Bay Area from SoCal! And you, my long time friend, was a key mentor to help guide me to the career I now have! ‘Love you, brother!

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  6. I love how people I meet think the big projects are always the best. I know you’ve worked on big things, and I’m sure they were great in many ways, too, but it’s nice seeing someone praising those things some have forgotten.

    I remember this existing. It came out when I was in my crash-on-friends’-floors-and-couches slacker phase, but I’m sure, were I younger, I would have been an avid watcher. I’m happy it was a “big” show for you in other ways.

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    • Doing what I do professionally, most of my work never sees the light of day. I provide the ‘grist for the mill’. The countless iterations, that are tried and then tossed away, on the path to the final thing.. So I have a soft spot for ANYTHING that actually gets made. Especially if it was in the company of fine & inspiring folks, as was the case here. Thanks for reading & commenting Chris!

  7. I’m still available to get sandwiches for everyone up at Klein’s Deli or make that Fed Ex run to get the layouts out before 6pm.

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  8. Ah, that post brings back the memories. I remember you and John Stevenson just cranking out really funny character designs week after week… meeting Bob Pauley and Dave Gordon for the first time… and realizing just how much fun all these artists were collectively having. It made it clear to me that film was a far more art friendly place than a newspaper…

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    • Bill! For our part, all of us working daily in the studio used to look forward to those days when you’d come in and DAZZLE us with all that you could do! Thanks so much for commenting!

  9. Loved reading this, Jamie. I still shiver over Bob Gale’s reaction to a blue baseball… but have rarely been prouder of a team than when all that stunning concept art was laid out on the Amblin board room table for Steven Spielberg. You guys aced it.

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