When I worked at Colossal Pictures we showed animated series ideas to TV networks every year. One of my pitches was about a marsupial magician called KOALA LUMPUR, who I saw as a tiny, mystical problem solver; a cross between Yoda and Mandrake the magician. His action-hero side kick, named Dr DINGO, was a flea-bitten Indiana Jones in a Goodwill pith helmet.
I felt that a duo comprised of a magic detective koala bear and an adventurer/scientist canine could go anywhere and do anything. Between the two of them there would be so many possibilities for funny episodes. Sluething out whodunnits, exploring watchamacallits and fighting a nutty assortment of baddies with an array of dopey invention-thingamajigs. I drew up some pitch-art and wrote out a list of episode ideas and then took the whole lot down to LA and hopped about the room as I explained it all to some network executives. But, as is the case with many a “good meeting” in LA, it ultimately didn’t go anywhere…
Then, few years later, Stuart Cudlitz and the Colossal Pictures interactive unit found the old pitch materials and thought that this goofy investigative team would be a good basis for a computer game. I knew nothing about computer games back then, or computers either if it comes to that, but I got involved in making a Koala Lumpur game because I thought that it might help get a TV show for the idea (networks are sometimes more interested in ideas that have already been brought to market in some form or other). So we pitched a game called KOALA LUMPUR: MYSTIC MARSUPIAL to a big game publisher called Brøderbund, lo and behold, they actually gave the project a green-light.
After years of working on, and even occasionally directing, all sorts of projects that were dreamed up by other people, it was incredibly exciting to finally be directing an idea of my own. I really threw myself into the project with gusto, and thought of not much else for several years.
I was very pleased that a couple of my best friends were doing the voices for the main characters; Phil Robinson as KOALA and John Stevenson as Dr. DINGO. I had them in mind from the start and their voices were used to pitch the idea in rough assemblies of the game, yet the powers that be intended to replace them with professional actors in the final product… but came around to my way of thinking when they couldn’t find any voices that were better. John and Phil did a fantastic job of bringing each character to life. Koala had a jumbly blendo accent, that was part Hindi and part Australian, and Dingo sounded like a blustery British colonel.
The division of labor between the two companies was that there was a fair bit of collaboration on the concepting, but that art design and art production was handled by Colossal, and programming and game design was handled by Brøderbund. The early phases of production were very fun indeed. Firstly, the design phase, where we worked closely with Brøderbund game designers, and then the art production, which happened both at Colossal and Chicago’s Startoons Studio (producer of many of great Saturday morning cartoons in the 1990s) and I spent quite a bit of time in Chicago, happily working with the Startoons crew there.
Unfortunately, the timing of the Koala Lumpur production was ill-fated for two reasons. Firstly, while our game was being made, the games industry shifted quickly to 3D games, like DOOM and QUAKE, and by the time our 2D game eventually came out, it was already yesterday’s news. The second bit of bad luck was that Colossal Pictures filed for bankruptcy in the midst of production, due to some problems on other productions at the studio. This caused financial and legal rifts between the companies involved and the completion of production was stressful beyond belief.
Brøderbund became severly rattled by Colossal’s financial crisis, and lost faith that Colossal’s art production chores could reliably continue, and thereafter ensured that all game assembly happened 100% at Brøderbund, with the Colossal crew shut out altogether. Without the close collaboration between the two companies that was initially planned, there were some bumps in the final product, and in some cases the art was configured incorrectly. The end-product suffered as a result, and certainly didn’t come out as I had intended. Anyway, despite all the hardship, the game came out on schedule, retitled “KOALA LUMPUR: JOURNEY TO THE EDGE” by some marketing genius, to mixed reviews and moderate sales in the USA. It sold better in Europe, and was very popular Germany, of all places (I am told the German translation was especially funny).
Not long after the KOALA LUMPUR game was released, Colossal Pictures went bust completely. There had been high hopes that the studio could survive the chapter 11 bankruptcy and bounce back but it was not to be, and after 20 years of business, that great studio closed its doors for good. It was a sad and stressful time in more ways than one, for not only did my pet-project get mauled, but the studio too. Colossal Pictures was without a doubt the greatest studio I ever worked at, and I was very sad to see it fail. Interestingly, Brøderbund, which was one of the bigger game companies in the Bay Area when I worked with them in the late 1990s, no longer exists iether, unable to adapt quickly to a rapidly changing market.
After this experience, I came to realise that I just don’t have the stomach (or the brains, balls or spinal chord) for directing big projects, and it just wasn’t as much fun as I thought it was going to be… After this fiasco, I started to focus on on designing, storyboarding and so on; those roles where I could make things, rather than oversee others. This project really taught me the value of collaborative, good-natured crewmembers. I vividly remember those people on the Koala Lumpur crew who were problem-solvers rather than problem-creators, and how grateful I was for their prescence amidst all the other production chaos and politics. I vowed that I myself wanted to be one of those kinds of people henceforth. So as painful as this process was, I learned some very important lessons about professionalism, and creative collaboration that have made me a much better crewmember myself.
Suffice it to say that I look back on the project with a mixture of feelings these days. I learned a lot, but many of the lessons were cautionary rather than inspirational. On the other hand, I still smile when I think about the KOALA LUMPUR SHOW I saw in my mind in the first place, directing THAT could be fun…