Elfquesting for Animation – A History

Elfquest was made for animation. This is literally as well as aesthetically true. Two people may be said to be “made for each other” if they discover themselves to be compatible, but that discovery is made long after their birth. Elfquest was born to be animated.

Elfquest was a gleam in its creators’ eyes well before its first appearance as a comic book in early 1978. Wendy Pini, the scripter and artist of the series, had already been a professional fantasy artist for a decade; I was writing professionally for the planetarium field; and we both were avid fans of comics and film. The basic ideas for a tale of elves and wolves had been percolating in Wendy’s mind for several years when we drove from our then-home in southeastern Massachusetts to Boston in April, 1977, to see a newly released animated film by Ralph Bakshi called Wizards.

This film was a revelation, in that it was the first “not necessarily kiddie” fantasy animated feature to come down the pipe. It had grit and darkness, hallmarks of Bakshi productions, and yet unlike his earlier “street” films, Wizards contained all the elements that Wendy had already been drawing since she was two years old: elves, pixies, magical creatures. Seeing Wizards did not give us the idea for Elfquest, but it did say to us, “Look, a big, rollicking fantasy story can be done and make it to the silver screen. Give your own idea a shot.”

Thus, Elfquest, always envisioned as an animated adventure, achieved its first incarnation, took its first karmic steps, as a black-and-white newsprint “independent” comic, hitting the shelves of the (then) few existing comics shops in March 1978. This was a necessary step, for there was no way for two people to produce, from whole cloth, an animated feature-length film out of dreams. Elfquest had to become known, to show itself as something more than just an idea, to attract outside interest. And so, the adventures of Cutter, chief of the Wolfriders, and his tribe of forest-dwelling elves were committed to paper. The characters, drawn deliberately in a rounded, easy-to-animate style evolved, as did the story. Over the next nearly seven years, Elfquest the comic would go on to become the best-selling “indy” title, reaching a per copy sale of nearly one hundred thousand copies, and demonstrating itself something of a cult phenomenon.

Animated films are almost always (these days) done in color, rich, vibrant color, and so the next step in Elfquest’s evolution was to attempt a color version of the black-and-white tale. And while we could manage and afford the publication of a one-color comic book, color was a quantum leap beyond our means. However, early in 1981 the Donning Company, located in Virginia, got wind of Elfquest’s popularity within the comics-buying audience and offered to publish compilations of the saga. Wendy and a small team of assistants painted copies of the original art, and over the next four years, four volumes of full-color Elfquest adventures appeared and sold, not only in the comics shops, but also in mainstream bookstores as well. This was the trigger, the exposure to get Elfquest noticed.

I recall I was at a science fiction convention in November, 1981, when I got a phone call from Nelvana, an animation studio in Toronto, Canada, expressing interest in optioning Elfquest to produce as an animated feature film. Up to this point, Wendy and I had only begun to think about trying to sell Elfquest as a film property and were just starting to do our homework. We’d looked at the work of many studios, large and small, and had, quite by coincidence, discovered that we enjoyed the short films Nelvana had done to that time, seasonal and holiday offerings for television like “The Devil and Daniel Mouse” and “Romie-O and Julie-8.” When Nelvana’s call came in out of the blue, we were excited. We were on our way!

Little did we know.

Artists and creators should never get directly involved with the process of negotiating and producing films. This we now know very well, but at the time we were fill of beans and vinegar, rearing to go. We made several trips to Toronto to sit with the Nelvana people,mostly our conversation was with Michael Hirsch, one of the founders of the company,and batted ideas back and forth. One point that we made abundantly clear to the producers was that we Really Wanted to Be Involved. With everything, from script to character design to storyboarding to… It was pure naive hubris on our part, but we felt certain that a film could only benefit from the input of its creators. Michael and his associates nodded and smiled.

Two years went by in this manner, with little more than conversation between us and them. The initial one-year option was renewed for another year, and we kept the faith.

Little did we know.

Finally, we got word from Nelvana that they were changing course and planning to do Elfquest as a live-action film. We were stunned. Elfquest was made for animation! How could anyone possibly even entertain the idea of live action? Our characters are four feet tall and they ride wolves. No problem, the reply came back, we’ll use children and put them on big dogs. We asked for and received story treatments which struck us at the time as a Frankenstein patchwork of bits and pieces from our story stitched haphazardly together. We said, wait a minute, our agreement with you is for an animated film only. They said no, they could do whatever they wanted. Things went downhill from there, and it took lawyers and time and money to get Elfquest back from them. We learned afterward that for much of the two years that we were cooling our heels, Nelvana had been finishing up their own first animated feature, Rock and Rule. Due to some very botched marketing by the distributor (I believe it was MGM), the film died at the theaters, was yanked out of release, and was shelved until it could be re-released on video. However, the experience had soured Nelvana on animation; thus, their attempt to do Elfquest in live-action.

In retrospect, it was probably a reasonable reaction for them. However, we were not having any of it, and so once again Elfquest was looking for a home. For the next year or so, we dabbled with the dream of opening up our own animation studio. Why not? When we’d begun the comic book, we’d tried to entice Marvel or DC to publish it for us, been turned down, and rediscovered the wisdom of the old saying, “if you want something done well, do it yourself.” But while we could start a publishing company with a couple thousand dollars and two people, an animation studio, we knew, was at least several orders of magnitude more costly and complicated to achieve.

There is a word that, to this day, I can only hear as spoken with a particular accent, and that word is investors. That word was said to me many, many times by an individual who presented herself to us as a financial consultant to help us raise the capital it would take to start up, outfit, and staff an animation studio. This person had many investors, about whom we heard often but from whom we never heard a word. We went round and round on just how a financial deal was to be set up between Wendy and me, and whatever entity would provide the cash to get the studio project going, and what we accomplished was a good deal of frustration. That relationship came to an end when it became clear that the consultant wanted a much bigger piece of Elfquest than we felt was warranted; finder’s fees are one thing, but equity, actual ownership of some aspect of what we’d created, was another. However, it was the start of our education in how money people look at properties and the people who create them. Properties are good things, if they can be milked, but artists and writers are to be avoided at all costs.

Of course, we ignored that.

Somewhere in there, if memory serves, a phone call came in from Rankin-Bass wanting to know if Elfquest was available. By this time we’d moved to Poughkeepsie, New York, and since Rankin-Bass’ office was located in New York City, it was easy to catch the commuter train in for meetings. “Thundercats” had just made a decent-sized splash in the syndicated cartoon market, and R-B was looking for other interesting properties. There was even talk of letting the triumvirate Childrensof Rankin-Bass, Telepictures (the distributor), and LCI (a licensing entity) handle Elfquest from beginning to end, with the prospect that we’d make lots and lots of money. This time, however, it only took a short while to recognize the signs of “We want Elfquest, not you,” and we said thanks but no thanks. Sometimes we still wonder…

We began to perceive a pattern in our own behavior. From the beginning we’d wanted to be closely involved with whoever and whatever was going to transform Elfquest to the large or the small screen. We wanted approvals, we wanted say-so. And absolutely no one on the production side wanted us anywhere near the process. We knew it wasn’t personal, that all creators of licensed properties are very low on the totem pole, but it galled us. Still, we decided to try to swallow the bitter pill.

Our next dance with wolves was with CBS, starting in 1985. We got word through an acquaintance in the animation community in New York City (and a large community it is, with a great deal of commercial work being done there) that CBS was looking to develop shows for the upcoming Saturday morning season, and someone had brought Elfquest to their attention. Well! Network television! If it wasn’t the most artistically respectable avenue in the world, it was certainly one that would get Elfquest seen by lots of people.

We resolved that this time we would do things differently. We knew that CBS would not want to work closely with Wendy and me directly, so we put together a team that would act as a buffer. We made an arrangement with an animation studio in New York to be our representative to the network. Since CBS doesn’t do any of its own animation but farms it out to other studios, we figured this would be the best way to let “the suits” have their way in dealing directly with a production entity and yet be able to sit in on the actual work as it was being done.

Elfquest actually made it into pre-production. CBS ordered up storyboards and pre-production drawings and a bible and some script ideas, which we delivered through our animation connection. We, the two of us and the studio folks, even got to make several trips to California to sit with the heads of ‘ Programming to talk about the proposed show and the directions it might take. Wendy and I shook hands all around, dutifully sat by, and nodded and smiled at all the right places. Things seemed just peachy.

Little did we know.

At the time this was going on, CBS had on the air, at 11:30 on Saturday morning, a decent little show called “Dungeons and Dragons.” It was an adventure show, and it seemed to all concerned that “Elfquest” might make a good back-to-back offering with it. So we began to mold our thinking along those lines — something with adventure, a villain or obstacle to overcome each episode. We knew we’d have to pare down the cast list; Elfquest has dozens of characters and the show and the animators could only deal with a few, but that was all right, we could do it. We’d stick to the core family of Wolfriders and things’d be fine.

Then we began to get the requests for more changes. Example: the main character, Cutter, has a mate, Leetah, who is from a desert tribe of elves. She has dark skin; desert-dwellers do. The dark skin had to go; the network was uncomfortable with the idea of a “mixed marriage.” Example: Cutter and Leetah have twins, a boy and girl. The girl is a real scrapper and will be chief someday; the boy is a gentle mystic. Nope, won’t do. Can’t have a wimpy boy character and a strong girl; change them. Leetah is a healer, she uses magic to knit wounds and heal ills. Nope, can’t have that, it’s laying on of hands and the Fundamentalists will complain.

And we tried to comply! We really did! We found ways to fudge around CBS’s requests and to keep a certain integrity in our story and characters. But then they decided to move “Elfquest” earlier in the morning, to about 9:30 A.M., which meant that we had to retool everything for a younger audience. And we checked our creative egos at the door and managed that as well. Then Pee-Wee Herman came along and bumped us out of that time slot, so CBS said “How about eight in the morning or so?” and we realized that they were asking us for the Elfquest equivalent of “The Muppet Babies.” We finally had to say no, and the project was left to die when the development period was over — April 15, 1986, as I recall. Another reason, in addition to the filing of income taxes, to love that date.

There is a secret to success — however one measures that — in this endeavor. Ernest Hemingway articulated it decades ago when he said that the way to deal with Hollywood is to take your book to the Nevada-California border and toss it over toward the movie studios. They will toss some money back at you. Take the money and forget about your book or anything else. If we can be said to have done one thing wrong in this entire ongoing process of getting Elfquest animated, it is that we have cared too much. We have not let go, the way Eastman and Laird were able to do with their Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Letting go is not in and of itself a bad thing. It gives those to whom you have licensed your work the freedom to do what they think is best, and that is something they need to feel and have. And if the end result is not something you’re in love with, so what? With luck, you’ve made some money from the work you’ve done, and you can always continue to tell your new stories your way.

The (animation) quest goes on.