We Bare Bears is showrunner Daniel Chong’s hyper-enthusiastic, utterly pleasant and wonderfully sweet cartoon series, currently in its third season on Cartoon Network. It’s one of the very nicest, exciting, entertaining and joyful programmes on the air, based on the web comic that Chong, a former Pixar artist who worked on Toy Story shorts and the exceptional Inside Out, drew and published himself.
In London to attend a BAFTA Kids We Bare Bears event (the show won a BAFTA in 2016), Chong sat by while your Den of Geek representative and an audience made up of families and animation enthusiasts watched three as-yet unaired episodes of the show. Afterwards he took questions from the audience, and it was here that we realised how much of the show comes from Chong himself. Less from his answers – as you’ll see below, Chong sees Bears as a collaborative process – but rather from the man himself. Whether offering guidance to students looking to break into the animation industry or explaining suburbanised bear logistics to curious seven year olds, Chong is open, upbeat and excitable.
In fact, the post screening signing overruns as Chong takes time to speak to everyone and even draws bears for autograph hunters.
Den of Geek wandered out through the back of the screening room accompanied by Cartoon Network and Chong so we could sit down and chat to him about one of our very favourite cartoons. Resisting the urge to just spam him with “What is it about Ice Bear that makes me fill with emotion?” for the full interview slot (a valid question, of course, but perhaps one for another time), here’s what we came up with.
Is it common for you to watch the show with an audience reacting?
No, never. You know, I’d say the internet is probably the closest I get to really hearing reaction, and when I do travel around like today, and I was in Mexico about a month before, I was in China a couple of months before that, those are the times I really get to hear from actual people. But yeah, getting to hear in a theatre, that rarely ever happens. So it’s good to see that, to see the reaction.
And the thing that I’m always worried about too, there have been a couple of different screenings throughout the course of it airing, but what it would look like on the big screen is a different context from how it was imagined; usually we’re just watching it on TVs. So the fact that it can hold up on a big screen, at least I think it’s holding up, is a great thing.
How long does it take to produce an episode?
I think a year is probably safe to say. Obviously there are a lot of variables, like some stories just take longer to gestate or to produce, some crack really quickly and sometimes we put away then come back on it. But I would say that once it goes through storyboard and art and gets shipped overseas and then it going through all the post production stuff, I think a year safely to say it’ll be ready.
So you have stuff in progress that we won’t see for ages, and I guess the stuff we saw today you started work on a year, year and a half ago.
Yeah. It’s funny too, because what the audience sees, we’re so far ahead thinking about where the characters are and where the stories will be. So sometimes it’s a little strange for us to see the episodes at this point because we’ve moved so far past that.
And how does a year break down, roughly?
It starts with writing. So the writing process, there’s a lot of aspects to it. Sometimes a story can come from me, sometimes the writers obviously, the story artists are very involved too in pitching ideas, and sometimes we even hire freelance cartoonists that we really like and tell them to just throw up ideas and give us comics that we think could be potential episodes. Then we’ll basically beat out the story and it’ll have to go through, I have like a brain trust of people that I work with, we basically have to all agree in the room if we like the story and where it’s going.
Once it goes through that it goes into storyboards. And storyboard artists take a beat outline, almost, or it’s a couple of paragraphs of outline and they write the dialogue, they restructure it if they have to, they might cut stuff out if it doesn’t work in the flow. So storyboard artists have about five weeks to work on one board. After they finish it goes into animatic.
So we record dialogue and then we put it together in animatic, edit it together, sometimes it doesn’t work so we’ll have to re-board some stuff, record some new dialogue, stuff like that. And then after that art department has to look at it and basically decide what they need to draw and paint and colour and what characters are in there.
I’m giving you a very succinct version but there’s a lot of different steps involved.
Once all of those aspects are put together it gets shipped overseas to Korea. They animate almost every show in America right now. That takes maybe five months to fully animate. Then obviously when we get the workprint back, which is like the rough animation that they’ve done, we’ll have notes so we’ll have to send certain shots back, ‘that shot’s not right, I want to fix that…’ Some stuff we fix in America, some we send back to Korea. Then from there we do the post production, the music and the sound effects and stuff like that.
I might be missing some stuff, but in a nutshell that’s kind of the production pipeline.
You’ve never had one five months in where you’re like ‘It doesn’t work!’?
We had one big blow up. It was the biggest one we had and we just scrapped the whole episode. We went all the way into animatic with it, and that’s pretty far into the process and that’s a lot of money burned at that point, and we just decided the story was not working. I think we just wrote it wrong. It was a Panda and Chloe episode and I think we didn’t do a good job of justifying why Panda was in that episode. It was really about Chloe.
I remember when we were working with the story artists we kept giving note after note after note and didn’t know why it wasn’t working. The poor story artists were just redrawing it, redrawing it, redrawing it. Finally when we got to editorial, we even recorded the whole episode with the actors, once we put it together we were like ‘Oh, this story makes no sense. You don’t care about what’s going on because there’s no reason for Panda to be there.’ The story might not have been written very well.
But we’ve never gotten as far as animating it and bailing out. That would be a disaster, I would think, because in TV the budgets are so tight and you only have so much time to finish something. So for something to get that far in and then bail out would be catastrophic, I think.
Do you guys have a formal season model or are you just working and they get grouped?
Yeah, the studio picks up in usually about 13 episode increments. A 13 episode increment is like 26 stories because one episode is like two stories, two 11s. So we usually do 26 11s per order, I guess is what they call it. The writers are always the first ones to finish that process so when the writers finish that pass of the first 26 and they all get approved, a little bit before that they have to decide if they want to pick up the show. The show is in danger every time of not getting picked up, we’ll never know, so we’re on edge. (laughs)
But that’s kind of how it works. That’s TV.
Do you have a lifespan in mind for We Bare Bears?
Umm, I know that I probably can’t do this for much longer. I don’t have the energy, or the interest probably, I don’t know how long, another five years might be time to call it. If we make it that long. Like I said, we could get cancelled any time and then I won’t have a choice to stop.
But I think the idea as a showrunner is to eventually find people that you can promote and eventually take over the show for you so you can go to make something else and the show hopefully can continue with the spirit intact. But right now I’m not thinking that far ahead. I am building up my leadership and my crew as best as I can and hopefully some day when I feel the time is right I’ll be able to hand it over to somebody to do.
That’s interesting, because it started as comic strip, which is very singular, one person and one voice, and you’ve said the characters are quite personal to you as well. Is it not difficult to make this as a collaborative process, particularly to the point of one day potentially stepping away? It would make me uncomfortable.
Absolutely. I mean, it’s scary. Obviously I don’t want to hand it over and then suddenly it goes downhill and then everyone resents the show. I would hate for that to happen. I don’t think I would hand it over if I didn’t feel strongly about the person taking it over.
But essentially once you start working with a crew, especially the story artists that we have that work so intimately with the story, they take ownership of the show as well. And even though it’s personal to me, it’s a collective kind of ownership suddenly, and we all have stake in the story and what the characters are doing. So, it is personal but I think it’s just as personal for my story team and my writers and my directors. So I do think it’s possible to hand it off and feel comfortable with it at some point, I just need to make sure I feel right about the person taking over.
So what’s an average day for you on We Bare Bears?
It’s a bit crazy. The way I describe it to people is, every hour is a different emotion because you’re dealing with something new. So you go through highs and lows; this is on fire, this is doing great, this is exciting, this is going to destroy us.
Every day is a little different, but I definitely spend a lot of time with the story artists and the writers, as much as I can, because to me that’s the crux of the show. If that’s not working I don’t think the show is going to succeed. So I put most of my attention of those departments. Art, I have a great art director and he handles a lot of the stuff for me and I only have to check in with them every once in a while, so it doesn’t take too much of my time. And I spend a lot of time in edit too.
So I would say story, editing, writing will probably dictate a lot of my schedule, I dedicate a lot of my time to that, and somewhere in between is some of the smaller things I need to attend to.
How long was your development period from signing on with Cartoon Network to having a broadcast episode?
Maybe a year and a half? But there’s a lot of dead time in the development process. For example, you pitch an idea to the network and then it takes a couple of weeks before they make a decision or they want to see more. And then once they decide they want to greenlight it, it takes time again because you’ve got to deal with contracts and things like that and that kills all this time, too. I don’t think anyone does that full time in animation, most people who have pilots work other jobs. But I would say it was about a year and a half for making the pilot and pitching to the show to it getting the greenlight and then making it.
One of the things that really drew me in to We Bare Bears was the tone, I think you have a really good tone. How intuitively did that come about and how easy was it to communicate the tone you were going for to people?
I think that’s one of the hardest things to manage. To me that’s everything, that’s what makes the show unique, that’s what makes it me; communicating what that tone needs to be. I would say what helps a lot is I storyboarded the first couple of episodes, or was involved with the storyboarding/writing of the episodes, really early on. I basically could show them what it should be. So for the pilot I did that all myself, storyboarding wise. That helps set the tone of what I want it to be and then the next two episodes I freelanced somebody to do a board and then I did another board and again, that’s me giving a lot of notes, I will draw over stuff or say ‘no, do the joke this way, it works better’ or ‘that joke isn’t really our world’.
And it’s a lot of trial and error. Sometimes I have to learn it too, what feels right. A lot of it’s just intuitive, like you said, I just have to see it and then I’ll know.
Now I’m gonna ask you about baby bears. Were they always part of the plan?
Yeah. It was in my original pitch when selling the show, it was in the web comic. I had done two baby bear comics early on. I guess to me it felt like a selling point early on in giving the show a different dimension, so it wasn’t always about one thing. I knew that having baby bears would be an intriguing side thing to show so it didn’t always feel like every episode was the same idea. It gives us some moves, I guess. But it’s definitely taken on a bigger role on the show than I ever imagined it would. Now with the mystery of this back story and developing where the bears came from and possibly showing at some point how they met. That kind of came as the show was being made and from working with the writers. But it’s definitely been a really enjoyable aspect of the show and working with the kids has been really fun too.
It also gives you, you have returning characters but it’s not serialised, but the baby bears episodes kind of are. Does that scratch that itch, and are you confident that you could control the broadcast order to the extent that they’re going to play right?
I absolutely can’t control any of that. Even though the baby bears does have some chronology, we do have to make it so there’s still no barrier for entry, so if a person watches them in a different order it still needs to function and work. I absolutely can’t control programming. In America in particular they’ll mix up the episodes. They might put an episode that we finished very recently next to one that we finished a year or a longer. So we have to be very careful about that. That’s kind of what I had originally wanted anyway, I didn’t want something that was completely serialised.
I wanted to ask you about potential format expansion, and in the Q & A you mentioned that you’ve done a 22 minute episode and your hope for a movie. So that’s something that’s appealing to you?
It is, especially coming from feature, I feel like I kind of have the background to pull one off. It’s still gonna be really hard to do, but I would love to do it. I think scale is something that we’re always pushing in Bears and ambition is a big thing that we try to do with every episode, so being able to do a movie will really feed into a lot of the itches, like you said, that we really want for the show. And there’s a lot of big mysteries I think that a movie could justify, it’d be the right time to solve those. I’d really love to. We have another 22 minute episode that we’re working on right now, but it won’t come out for a while. But I think we do want to play around with the format more and have that versatility to tell different types of stories.
Do you have an idea of a path that might lead you to a feature?
Probably the best way to get one is we have to be more popular (laughter).
I think the only thing that will allow it is an audience that will want it. I don’t know if we’re there yet. We probably have to justify a little bit more that people would want it but we’d love to do one. Obviously right now, volume is the most important thing, creating as many episodes as we can so they can keep airing them and build awareness of the show and build popularity and then someday hopefully we can do a movie.
So with the Bears, they have a few traits of bears but then most of the traits are human. How formal is the balance? Like, do you have a list of things they will or won’t do or do you just have the ideas and press them against the characters?
We treat them like they’re humans, you know? We think of them as real people. We just try to make them as relatable as possible.
Like in the episode where they revert to wild bears, or where they try the traditional diets of their species. I know they are mostly ‘human’, but I wondered if you had a process of deciding what they do or don’t do in that respect.
Nowadays we just see them as pretty much human but early on that was a big question that came out. Even figuring out when do they walk on fours, when do they walk on twos. I would say we lean more towards the human aspect, the anthropomorphic aspect, and when the story calls for it we’ll play into, like in Primal, that was an early episode, they revert back into bears because they haven’t eaten enough, and then in Bear Cleanse the story called for them to go on a diet that was more bear centric. I really think the whole point of the show is really them trying to fit in with humans, so I think they’re just gonna try their best to keep being as human as possible.
I don’t usually do ‘in-universe’ questions like this because I figure you put what you want us to know in the show, but during the Q & A a kid asked how old they were, and you mentioned that they were older than school age and now I can’t shake it – did they go to school?
No, they didn’t. I guess that’s the bear aspect of them. When they were kids they were probably more bearish, in terms of they’re bear cubs just out on their own, like animals. But then even as humans, they don’t have jobs or anything. But we actually just wrote an episode where, for just one episode, they go to school and then they decide they don’t like it.
None of us liked it!
Yeah, that’s true.
One of the things I really love about the show is that it’s quite emotionally hitting sometimes, either through being sad or sweet. But it’s a kids show, so how conscious are you of hitting a balance?
I would say that, more than anything it needs to be a comedy. I don’t think we could do multiple episodes that had a certain emotional weight to them, just because what it really needs to be is just a light hearted fun adventure for kids to watch. But I would say that every once in a while we will write an episode and we will want to push it a little bit more on the emotional side. And to me that just comes as we write and I think we just take it as it comes. To me it’s important that each episode has a heart to it. So even if an episode falls into something that doesn’t make you cry, or we’re not trying to make the audience cry, I think there should still be an emotional element of understanding, why the characters are passionate about something or why they care about an idea.
My favourite episode is Chloe & Ice Bear.
Oh yeah. I love that episode too.
It’s not a combination of characters I would have thought of. How much fun is it, because you have an interesting cast of supporting characters, to mash them together?
It kind of happened naturally. I think with Chloe and Ice Bear the thing that attracted us to that is that the two voice actors are actually friends in real life, Demetri Martin and Charlyne Li, they actually are friends. Charlyne came and co-wrote that with us because she would tell us what she was like when she first hung out with Demetri. Like there’s a scene in Chloe & Ice Bear where they’re stacking milk cartons, that was a real thing that happened with them. I think she told me she was in a diner once with Demetri and they didn’t know what to say to each other for some reason, and I think they just started stacking little milk cartons with each other. So that came from real life. I think that just naturally happened because we knew the two of them were friends.
But I think each bear has kind of attached to a certain secondary character, like we saw a Charlie and Panda episode (at the BAFTA screening). The two of them somehow became an interesting pair that we’ve exploited a lot. And then Grizz and NomNom became an interesting pairing too. Somehow they all naturally gravitated towards a different secondary character and that just naturally happened in the writing, but we’ve just gone with it and it’s worked out well for us, I think.
Picking up on the people you’ve mentioned there, your voice cast is crazy. What’s your process for bringing these people in?
We’re just lucky. We gave them the offer and they said yes. I think a lot of them have children too, so I think there’s an interest in them making something for their children, so that’s great. We love stand-up comedians and we’ve hired a lot of comedians for our show. We’re just looking for the right voice for the character. We just reach out to them; some reject, we get rejected a lot too. But we’re very lucky that we’ve got the cast we have. And they all are awesome.
I couldn’t watch your show for a week after I saw Green Room, once I twigged that it was Grizz!
Oh, I know! That was harsh. Eric (Edelstein) said that when his mom saw that it was devastating. The great thing about Eric is that when we met him he explained that he is Grizz, he is like that in real life, but he always gets cast as villains, these tough guys, people that get killed because they’re bad. And that’s just that Hollywood thing, that’s just the visual because he’s a big guy, but on Bears he gets to be himself for the first time. I love that we can do that for Eric, because he is Grizz in so many ways, but in Hollywood he would never be cast that way in live action.
I really like your Twitter account (@threebarebears) because you post up all this insane merchandise. Do you have a favourite We Bare Bears thing?
The woman’s make-up was pretty crazy, I got to see that first hand when I went to China. I don’t think I ever expected that to happen. Obviously the plush has been amazing, but the amount of times that different plush versions have been made has been pretty crazy. The most recent one that blew my mind was the baseball team in Korea. So there’s a team that’s pretty popular in Korea called the Doosan Bears, and recently they licensed the Bears to be mascots for them, with their other mascot, and so they have the three bears in costume at all the games, and they high five the players as they come in and they pep up the crowd and stuff. We’ve been lucky, especially how it’s been embraced internationally. We get a lot of nutty stuff.
On the subject of international fans, where are you most popular?
I have a feeling in Asia we’re doing pretty well. Honestly, I don’t know a whole lot internationally, but it seems that Asia has embraced it the strongest, or at least the fan reaction in Asia has been the strongest. Japan, Korea definitely has embraced it in a big way, and I think it shows in the merchandise that comes out there.
And China, even. The funny thing about China is, it got big because of pirating. Because it’s so hard to get something into China, any property, because of how the government controls that stuff. We were rated really well on their torrent sites and through that a legitimate company picked it up to air it and all the merch just followed.
Yeah yeah, it’s legit! (laughter)
But it’s been amazing. Definitely Asia has embraced it a lot. I think Europe, also, it’s doing quite well.
So, we ask everyone we interview their favourite Jason Statham film. But I figure of the Bears, Grizz would probably be a Jason Statham fan too. So I’m gonna ask you yours but I also wondered what Grizz’s favourite Jason Statham film might be too?
I mean, Snatch is an amazing film. I love that film. I know that’s not modern day Statham.
It’s a popular answer.
Should I have said Crank 2 or something? Snatch came out when I was in college and that early Guy Richie stuff was really great. And maybe it’s a boring answer but Snatch is probably the best Statham film.
For Grizz… he definitely would love a modern day Statham film.
I wonder, because he’s a franchise guy, if he’d be a Transporter guy.
Yeah, Transporter‘s pretty good.
(Cartoon Network help us out by suggesting The Expendables)
Yeah, he would like Expendables because we actually have a fictitious Expendables in our show, it’s called Action Buddies. I think in the first episode we did our stuff, we have an action buddies DVD and that’s based on Expendables. So that’s a good answer.
Daniel Chong, thank you very much!
Brand new We Bare Bears episodes start on Cartoon Network at 4.30pm from 1st November.