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Animation Domination

The cartoon kings of Puny Entertainment

Animation Domination
Photo by Todd Buchanan

The fried eggs are crying. So are the strawberries. “Why are you so sad?” asks Muno, the orange Cyclops. The plate of weeping food replies, “We want to go to the party in your tummy!” Indeed, it’s a real rager: gleeful pancakes and bacon swimming in the grinning flood of milk that came pouring down Muno’s gullet. And just wait until Jack Black shows up. ¶ Somewhere undersea, SpongeBob SquarePants is eating his shorts—this is what the next generation of kid’s television looks like. It’s a scene from the strange world of Yo Gabba Gabba!, the Nickelodeon Jr. cartoon hit nominated for a daytime Emmy last year and dubbed one of the best new shows of 2007 by Time. Celebrities such as Black and Elijah Wood eagerly sign on for guest appearances; Jimmy Eat World and other popular bands supply the music. Party in My Tummy has become a hit children’s song, and hip parents are eating up the coolness of it all, buying their kids Yo Gabba Gabba! T-shirts, hoodies, even plastic guitars that play tunes from the show.

Who’s creating this kookiness? Not Disney, not Pixar, but a little animation company in northeast Minneapolis, a shop whose original ambitions were so humble its founders called it Puny Entertainment.

To find Puny HQ, at the intersection of East Hennepin and Central avenues, look for the googly eyed Yo Gabba Gabba! toys crammed in the window of a former bookshop. Inside, rows of laptops light up the faces of youthful animators with the bright colors of cartoons.

Puny Entertainment is helmed by Shad Petosky and Vincent Stall. Stall, 44, is the older of the co-conspirators. A former instructor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where many of the firm’s designers are recruited, he comes across as Puny’s adult supervisor, even if his shock of short, dark hair stands defiantly on end. Petosky, 10 years Stall’s junior, is neatly shorn and—like the kids who love his work—scarcely capable of curbing his enthusiasm.

The pair met 10 years ago in the burgeoning underground-comics world of Minneapolis. Stall, who worked in the art departments of such advertising agencies as Campbell Mithun, maintained an art studio in a downtown building full of freelance cartoonists. Petosky, fresh off the Greyhound from a small town in Montana, settled into a studio next to Stall’s and began doing Web design while self-publishing comics. The two eventually collaborated to design the first Web site for Dunn Bros Coffee.

When Stall signed on with MCAD as a visiting artist, Petosky helped found the illustration studio Big Time Attic, a major player in the alternative comics world that also helped create online games for the Cartoon Network. In 2007, when the two men rejoined to form Puny, they thought they’d focus on crafting animation for tiny devices like cell phones and iPods—thus the name Puny. But they couldn’t resist pitching television work on the side.

Neither man had any business background. Still, they had a compelling idea: To update cartoons, a field dominated by simple, cleanly drawn characters that wouldn’t be out of place in the Hanna-Barbera heyday of Yogi Bear, with the edgy, graffiti feel of the avant-garde art world: “What does today’s contemporary design look like in animation?” Petosky says.

They pitched the California-based writers who came up with the Yo Gabba Gabba! idea—a combination of live acting and cartoons, held together by the show’s hip host, DJ Lance Rock—and won the animation work. But the networks were lukewarm, so the initial episodes were loaded onto the Internet and sold as downloadable clips. The networks, apparently, underestimated the growing sector of hip parents who watch cartoons along with their kids—the kind of parents who would recognize the Yo Gabba Gabba! name as a takeoff on a lyric from the punk band the Ramones. The Internet clips proved so popular with viewers, quickly drawing more than 2 million hits, that a deal with Nickelodeon was eventually struck.

“We’re sort of accidental entrepreneurs,” Stall says. And now, though the Puny team of about 15 employees still butters its bread with Web work for Hormel, Target, and other corporate clients (“Don’t forget about us for banner ads!” Petosky yells across the office), they’re increasingly putting their offbeat stamp on pop culture. They’ve completed the pilot for a Yo Gabba Gabba! spinoff called The Aquabats Super Show and another for a cartoon dubbed Otis and Rae. They’re collaborating on a show called Robert Bobbert and the Bubble Machine, which blends indie music and animation to make science cool for kids. They’re even branching into music videos, working with Britney Spears and the rapper Big Boi from OutKast.

Puny’s playful blend of art and commerce begins in the office, where only the thinnest of corporate veneers is perceptible. There are no executives, no MBAs—no full-time suits, as Petosky puts it, just illustrators, programmers, and other assorted computer geeks. “There’s no real hierarchy here,” Petosky admits. Employees manage their own projects and split the duties of taking meetings, making deals, and communicating with clients. “Everyone’s a suit for a day,” says Petosky.

The freewheeling atmosphere has attracted talented employees who might otherwise pass on such a small shop. Programmer Mitsuru Shiratori, for instance, holds a master’s degree in theoretical physics and, before coming to Puny, designed talking car-navigation systems. Now Mitsuru (nicknamed “The Master” around the office) writes programs that can render thousands of tiny cereal puffs on computer screens without crashing Web browsers. “He’s way overqualified for this place,” Petosky says. “But he likes it because it’s fun. We assume.”

Puny’s Web-design capabilities are helping form the next generation of broadcast entertainment, in which shows take on double lives on the Internet. For instance, the studio not only animates Yo Gabba Gabba! but its Web site, as well, which is full of games and other interactive possibilities, melding the sit-on-your-hands experience of watching television with the clicky exploration of the Internet.

To the Puny crew, the work all aims for the same fun experience with the same contemporary sensibility. Earlier this summer, the shop opened an art gallery in an adjoining space called Pink Hobo (a moniker derived as a partial anagram of Lien’s Bookshop, the building’s former tenant). The office is filled with playful, punky creations—this month’s show, opening August 22, features pinewood derby cars, those staples of Boy Scout competitions, customized by artists (and yes, they will be raced). Recently, Puny has branched even further afield, designing three restaurants across the country, including the popular new Black Sheep pizza joint in the Minneapolis Warehouse District. Puny, in other words, isn’t just a job for its workers, it’s an aesthetic—a lifestyle even.

“It seems like most of the stuff we do is for kids or stoners,” Petosky says. But of course, he’s joking. Theirs may be a hallucinatory aesthetic, but it’s selling e-cards for Target. The Puny founders have simply found a commercial outlet for their comic-book sensibilities. “I’d say we’re more ‘bad machine’ thinking,” Stall says, suggesting that if a machine is a little off—assembled oddly—of course it’s going to crank out screwy work. “We’re just bad machines. We’re not wired correctly.”

Gus Mastrapa has written for Paste and The Onion and writes a media-criticism column for GameDaily.com.


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