When Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo met, it was a fluke. It was 1979, and Klasky, a graphic designer from California, was vacationing in Sweden. Csupo, a Hungarian-born animator, had made Stockholm his home after fleeing communism in 1975 by walking for two and a half hours though a tunnel from Yugoslavia to Austria. The pair soon married, settled in Los Angeles, and in 1982 started an animation and graphic design company, Klasky Csupo Inc., in a spare room of their home.
Although they're now ending their marriage, having filed for divorce in January, the pair's professional collaboration is stronger than ever. Their Hollywood studio today employs more than 200, is animating three TV shows, working on a movie deal, and pumping out animated ads. Another Klasky Csupo creation, Rugrats, is the No.1 cable kids' show. Credit in part an unprecedented wave of growth in demand. "The amount of animation done in the golden age of animation was insignificant compared to what's being done now," says Harvey Deneroff, editor of The Animation Report, an industry newsletter. Says Klasky: "Were we ever in the right place at the right time."
Credit also goes to the duo's distinctive look--loose, hip, high-quality animation. Their break came in 1988, when the studio was hired to animate one-minute shorts of The Simpsons. While Simpsons creator Matt Groening controlled tone and style, it was Klasky Csupo that made Bart Simpson's skin yellow and Marge's coif blue.
"HOUSE STYLE." After The Simpsons became a series, Klasky Csupo animated it for three seasons. About the same time, the couple, who by then had two sons, submitted an idea to Viacom Inc.'s Nickelodeon, which was on a $40 million campaign to create original animation. The idea--for a show depicting the world as experienced by babies--became Rugrats, a three-time Emmy winner. A second Nickelodeon show, AAAHH!! Real Monsters, now in its second season, further established the studio's offbeat, irreverent approach. "They have a house style," says Linda Simensky, an animation executive. "Whatever they do, you can tell it's them."
That style, Csupo boasts, has "conquered television." Now 43, he looks thoroughly Californian: His standard officewear is shorts, open shirt, and one glittering earring. But his eye remains international. The studio's staff ranges from recent U.S. art-school grads to animators who worked a near-lifetime in Russia. "Gabor just has very good taste," says Joe Ansolabehere, a writer on Rugrats and other Klasky Csupo projects. "He has the ability to find talented people and use them better than anyone I know."
Klasky, for her part, concentrates on story lines. And despite Rugrats' slightly subversive tone--the overbearing character Charlotte, cell phone glued to her ear, is enough to put any working mom's teeth on edge--she is firm about her desire to "do something ever so slightly educational" for kids. Indeed, last year's Passover episode--in which diapered protagonist Tommy intoned "Let my babies go!"--garnered a review in The New York Times. While much of Santo Bugito, the studio's new CBS Saturday morning show, is given over to bug-centered humor, Klasky is proud of periodic intrusions by the Professor, a clipboard-toting purveyor of the odd educational fact.
QUIRKY TASTE. As a working mom herself, Klasky describes her typical day as: "exercise, kids, work, pick the kids up from school, homework, fax machine, phone calls, reading all the scripts, and talking to our CEO and executives at night after the kids are in bed." Brandon, 7, and Jarrett, 10, have inspired much of their parents' work. During a vacation at a Mexican Club Med, Klasky says, Brandon became mad about mariachi music. One result is the Latin sound of Santo Bugito. Inspiration also comes from collaborators' kids: Rugrats' Tommy is named after the son of producer Paul Germain, who oversaw that show's first three seasons.
Csupo's quirky taste has at times been a tough sell. He shopped around an idea based on the underground comic Duckman for a year before financing the $400,000 pilot himself. After the pilot was enthusiastically received at European animation festivals, Viacom's Paramount Domestic Television decided to finance the show. One of the few animated series for adults, Duckman is a spoof of the likes of Daffy and Donald Duck--a cursing, cigar-smoking private eye. Rod Perth, president of USA Networks Entertainment, which has made Duckman the cornerstone of its upcoming Saturday night comedy lineup, calls the series "critical" to the channel's search for a look that stands out in the cable crowd.
While Klasky Csupo is privately held and does not disclose revenues or profits, this year's slate of animation production--26 episodes of AAAHH!! Real Monsters, 22 of Duckman, and 13 of Santo Bugito--alone should generate more than $21 million in revenue for the studio. Profitable since it won The Simpsons in 1988, the company gets more than 10% of its revenues from products other than animated series, such as commercials and rock videos.
Santo Bugito could mark a breakthrough for the studio. Earlier series were owned outright by Nickelodeon and Paramount. But Santo Bugito, financed half by CBS Inc. and half by European investors, is the first property Klasky Csupo owns. That gives the pair entry into the potentially lucrative world of merchandising. Soon to hit stores are Santo Bugito ant farms, T-shirts, and stickers--all paying an average royalty of 10% to the studio, which will turn over half to a licensing firm.
Now under discussion is the studio's first full-length feature film; the front-runner seems to be a Rugrats movie produced by Paramount. It is ironic that even as Klasky and Csupo stand on the brink of their biggest successes, they are ending their 16-year marriage. While neither would discuss their breakup, present and former colleagues say it hasn't affected their work and that the two generally handle different parts of the business.
What may affect their work, say some former employees, is an increasing emphasis on business issues as the studio has grown. Klasky and Csupo say they're as focused as ever on creativity. That's an important image to maintain, given the exploding demand for talented animators. Theatrical successes such as The Lion King, which earned Disney an estimated $600 million, have every major motion picture studio ramping up a slate of animated features. Fox Broadcasting Co., WB Network, and cable groups are featuring animation six or seven days a week, and CD-ROM manufacturers are adding to demand.
Others in the industry agree that success hasn't spoiled Klasky and Csupo. "It's nice to see artists running a studio," says John Kricfalusi, creator of Nickelodeon's first animated smash, The Ren & Stimpy Show. Howard Baker, a Rugrats director, also likes seeing artists in charge. Csupo, he says, "would rather close his doors than create dreck." So far, that policy seems to be paying off beautifully.
FROM THE FOLKS WHO MADE BART SIMPSON YELLOW
Since animating the first three seasons of The Simpsons, Arlene Klasky and Gabor Csupo have launched a string of animated creations:
RUGRATS Now in its fifth year on Nickelodeon, this baby's-eye view of the world has won three Emmys.
AAAHH!! REAL MONSTERS Starting its second season on Nickelodeon.
DUCKMAN Strictly for grownups, the adventures of this foul-mouthed private duck are the cornerstone of USA Network's image-building Saturday night comedy lineup.
SANTO BUGITO The duo's Saturday morning network breakthrough premiered Sept. 16 on CBS. For the first time, they own licensing rights.