The Magazine of the University of Minnesota Duluth

Volume 15 • Number 1 • Winter 1998


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Of Mice and Men: The Kirk Tingblad Story

Kirk Tingblad and his family visited the campus last summer. Shown are Art Department Head Gloria Bush, Joan Tingblad, Kirk Tingblad, Chancellor Kathryn A. Martin, and the Tingblad children, Derick and Trent

In the spring of 1997, University of Minnesota Duluth alumnus Kirk Tingblad was nominated for the 1997 day-time Emmy as animation director of Warner Brothers' children's program "Pinky and the Brain." Though another program was selected for the award, more people were made aware of the unique and strange characters that Tingblad has helped to bring to life. And what of Kirk Tingblad? How does a person come to be a mouse manipulator?

Tingblad grew up in New Richmond, Wisconsin. As might be anticipated, he was a Saturday morning Warner Brothers cartoon devotee, "until the quality went way down with live-action heroes," Kirk explains. As is still true today, he had a strong interest in both cartoons and comic books as a child.

Kirk was most interested in attending the University of Minnesota Duluth because a commercial arts major was offered through the bachelor's in fine arts program. Kirk received a degree in art, with a commercial art emphasis from UMD in 1984. While a student, he worked as an editorial cartoonist for the Duluth News-Tribune and the student newspaper, The Statesman.

His first experience with animation came when he moved to Edina, Minnesota to work for the Bajus-Jones Animation Studio in 1984. The agency did regional commercials and, as an assistant, Kirk learned how to do animation.

After three years there, he moved on to Trend Enterprises in New Brighton where he was an illustrator for their educational materials. On the side, he was doing free-lance work on commercials as well as directing Mike Peters' editorial cartoon   for the "Today Show."

He decided he needed to break out and pursue his love of animation work and took on free-lance projects for Disney's "Tail Spins" and "Duck Tails." "The work came   in spurts. The assignments would be for several months at a time, but they were hard to get," Kirk said. He also did work on D.C. comics, drawing Bugs Bunny and others.

After two years of free-lance employment he went to work in Chicago for Star Toons where he was the director and animator   for several episodes of Animaniacs. "Animaniacs was an ensemble show with the usual Warner Brothers animated characters. It was in that show that I had my first experience working with 'Pinky and the Brain'," Kirk explained. When the contract ran out so did the work and Tingblad moved to California to work at Disney on "Quack Pack."

Meanwhile, a number of his former     co-workers from Star Toons had also moved   to California where they were working at Warner Brothers on the film "Space Jam" starring Michael Jordan. Kirk eventually joined them and wrote gags and storyboards for the film. The film contains the Loony Toons cast of characters (for example, Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, Porky the Pig).

Animators have an understanding of their work and world that other writers and film people do not entirely grasp, as Kirk explained, "Writers who do not work regularly with animation, don't understand what the characters will react to. They don't have a feel for what makes a good animation gag. The animation writers took months reworking the scripts to bring the Toons gang into their proper comic perspective."

Since 1996, Tingblad has been the animation director for "Pinky and the Brain" at Warner Brothers. Kirk explains that the animation director is the same as a live-action director for a "normal" film. In other words, he sets up the shots, and works with 12 crew members including the layout, design and storyboard people. He works out the pacing of the piece. "The 'Pinky and the Brain' script comes from a writer and then the animation director breaks down the shots and works through how the package will be put together. Once all of the shots and scenes are worked through and set up they are sent to the animation studio where the actual animation takes place."

Currently, he is working on an "Animaniacs" feature which may get a theatrical release, or, more likely, will be a direct video release. "Remember, Pinky and the Brain were part of 'Animaniacs' until they got their own show," he says and laughs. It is clear that these two mice hold a special place in his imagination and he is willing to admit that though Bugs and Donald are pretty special to work with, Pinky and the Brain are his favorite characters. "One of the joys of working on 'Pinky and the Brain' are the great actors - Rob Paulson (Pinky) and Maurice LaMarche (Brain) - who do the parts. There is a lot of interplay between the two, and they are really into their characters." It is interesting to ponder two grown men working together to give voice and energy to two genetically altered lab mice whose dreams are as grandiose as world domination. But to see the cartoon is to observe the wild imaginations, unusual humor and talent of people who love their work.

Looking up "Pinky and the Brain" on the internet is quite an experience. They have a cult following. As Kirk observes,"The show has a real cross-over audience. It is appealing to adults and to children on different levels and is extremely popular with college students. Internet geeks are taking the cartoons apart and analyzing the meaning of each scene. Now that the program is on every day, the audience is increasingly devoted."

Kirk and his wife Joan Balcome, also an '84 UMD graduate, have two sons, Trent (10) and Derick (5). His kids have special standing with their peers because of his work with the show and more so because he worked with Michael Jordan. "One of my sons came home from school and told me that he had figured out that my autograph is worth $30 with his friends, due to having worked on 'Space Jam,'" Kirk said.

Ask him what is next or what he ultimately would like to do and there is a long pause. "I am pretty happy right now. People would kill to do what I am doing."

The family has a home in Palmdale, California and vacations at Lake Vermilion. They have kept close ties with their alma mater and schedule a visit with Chancellor Martin and others at UMD when they are in the area.

Kirk has fond memories of his college days. He met his wife Joan, who also was pursuing a fine arts degree, while attending UMD. They were married after they graduated. She is currently busy raising their two children and works with fiber sculpture and tapestries. One of his favorite memories is of the two of them painting the bulldogs on the ice the night before the championship playoffs.

He believes that his college education prepared him well for life and his profession. "If I were to give advice to students who want to pursue animation, I would tell them   not to go to a great big animation school. Learn filmmaking and spend time perfecting drawing skills. They can learn all the things they needed to do the animation work   in entry-level positions. Come with the music, theater, science, literature background it takes to form a big picture. The University of Minnesota Duluth gives that breadth of knowledge, as well as offering internship opportunities at newspapers, television   stations and other places. Animation takes the same skills that solving a math word problem takes. For example, if two trains are traveling at different speeds from different locations how long will it take them to arrive at the same spot. Animation takes a well-rounded education and sharp analytical skills."

The University of Minnesota Duluth is proud of Kirk Tingblad's wondrous accomplishments and is proud to have played a role in nurturing the talents and ambitions of such a creative man.

-- Wendy Adams

Kirk Tinblad drew this cartoon especially for UMD!

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