An Interview with Jason DeMarco
I’ve been watching Toonami since 1998, and to this day, I marvel at what it’s accomplished. The Cartoon Network, now Adult Swim, animation programming block played a large part in bringing anime to the United States, was the Western progenitor of microseries with programming like The Intruder, IGPX, and Star Wars Clone Wars, and was responsible for airing some of the finest programming of its time.
Toonami’s reputation as an outstanding cartoon block has as much to do with the packaging surrounding it as it does the programming itself. No other block would take commercial time to speak to the viewers like an individual about topics like anger, experience, courage, or discuss the fear that comes with following your dreams.
A great deal of the tone, style, and quality of Toonami’s programming and packaging can be traced back to Toonami co-creator Jason DeMarco, who currently holds the position of Vice President, Creative Director, Adult Swim On-Air.
When you first think of marketing, certain stereotypes can easily come to mind – the used car salesman trying to pass off junk as gold, or someone who treats their audience like sheep. It might surprise you to know, then, that Jason DeMarco is one of the most sincere people I’ve ever met. I personally believe his work on the Adult Swim Singles Program, an annual release of free music singles from various acts, is as much a matter of promotion as it is a chance for him to share the music he’s passionate about.
Toonami, I think, is no different: each week is an opportunity to help bring what he loves to millions of people. There is no irony to his love of animation, television, and the work he does each week: the six hour weekly block remains an unpaid side project in addition to his day job.
I was fortunate enough to conduct an email interview with Mr. DeMarco, where we discussed the return of Toonami after its cancellation in 2008, his role at Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, and the future of the better cartoon show.
(Note: I’ve inserted relevant video links after the answers. All parentheticals after Mr. DeMarco’s answers were added after the fact)
For those of us who might only know you as the co-creator of Toonami and head of its current run, I’d like to give you the chance to talk about your background outside of that. What’s your story?
Whoa, this could be a long one. Let’s see. I was born and raised in upstate New York and Massachusetts, and moved down south to Knoxville, TN in the middle of high school. I went to college at the Savannah College of Art and Design in GA. I started as an illustration major, but switched to film and video after my first year. I have a minor in art history. Once out of college, I moved to Atlanta and Sean Akins (co-creator of Toonami) got me a job at TNT, where he worked before moving over to CN. I spent two and a half years at TNT making promos for stuff like Witchblade, and awesome movies like The Beastmaster. I had a blast. At the same time I was working on Toonami with Sean in my spare time. Finally, around 1998, Sean hired me full time. Been at CN/AS ever since. It’s a pretty boring story! Turner was my first real job out of high school (besides, like, bar tending) and I’ve been there for 17 years. I have two dogs, two cats, one daughter, one fiancee, and two brothers!
What is your current role on Toonami and Cartoon Network, and is it different from the role you held during the old incarnation of the block?
It’s somewhat different. Though I co-created Toonami, in the early days Sean was definitely the boss of our group, and his decisions guided us. Getting DBZ was Sean. Wanting to move away from Moltar and create our own universe was Sean. Etc etc. Now, Gill Austin and I would usually be the ones who had to carry out or come up with those things, but we were workers. Eventually I became the creative director of Toonami, and as Sean got busy with other things, Gill and I ran the block. The current iteration of Toonami operates much the same way. Aside from larger network decisions we might be given, Gill and I make every decision related to Toonami.
Congratulations are in order, because your responsibilities related to Adult Swim have changed recently: You were given a promotion from “Vice President of Marketing and Promotions” to “Vice President, Creative Director, Adult Swim On-Air!” What kind of changes to on-air promotion might we see under your reign?
Hm, you’ll definitely see an uptick in the quality of the design/graphics used in promos. You’ll also see more of a correlation between what AS does in the real world (billboards, ads etc) and what you see On-Air. We’ll also be making more experimental stuff for the late night block, and working with creators more directly on their On-Air campaigns.
When did you first start working for Cartoon Network and Adult Swim respectively?
Ha! See above. CN in 1996, Adult Swim from the very day it was created.
The April Fools broadcast, the one that started all of this… I know that you had a major role in what it became, but what’s the full story behind it?
Well, Lazzo and Kim Manning called Gill and I in to Lazzo’s office one March afternoon. They tell us they’re thinking of bringing Toonami back for April Fools, and ask if we can dig up any old packaging to run. Gill and I immediately started scheming, seeing our shot to bring Toonami back, and pitched Lazzo on the idea that if he might give us a little money, we could make NEW stuff/customize it and really do it right. We figured, even if it didn’t make a splash, at least we’d have done it right, the TOONAMI WAY. We did it, and after that night, we came into the office Monday am and everyone was talking about the fan reaction. We also all talked about how good it felt to see Toonami on the air again. Lazzo pretty much immediately asked if we could investigate doing Toonami weekly. He told us he’d give us a very little bit of money, but if we could pull it off, he’d be willing to do it.
And here we are!
(The surprise introduction to the April Fools broadcast of Toonami)
That broadcast led to the #BringBackToonami twitter movement, and people got behind it pretty quickly. They organized, and Steve Blum in particular was such a huge advocate for it. What was the reaction within the Adult Swim offices when the fan demand for its return became clear, and what was your personal reaction?
The reaction was huge. Anyone who was involved was blown away by the level of excitement we saw. For myself, I had had an amazing time watching the reaction spread like wildfire throughout the internet. I stayed up all night! On the following Monday I was cautiously optimistic, but I didn’t want to pin my hopes on a Toonami return, my heart had been broken once!
What was it like for you when you got the news that Toonami was officially back in action?
Busy/scary. We had to figure out how to build a weekly 6 hour block with very little money and a bunch of old assets. So the mission was two-fold: how do we keep Toonami fresh every week, and furthermore, how do we make it better long term? Two parallel paths.
IGPX, a series you co-created, is back on the air (after what must be some truly complicated legal maneuvering, as it had originally been reported as being written off). How does it feel to be able to share this series again with viewers?
It feels great. IGPX didn’t do that badly when it first aired, but at the time, the network didn’t want to risk losing viewers at what they considered an important hour, so it was moved to midnight in the second season. I worked very hard on the show, and while it’s FAR from perfect, I’m proud of it. It’s been a total joy to see people engaging with it 6 years later.
(The promo for the 2013 broadcast of IGPX)
The music for Toonami has been an inimitable and integral part of the block from day one, from the masterful tracks of Joe Boyd Vigil and myriad artists of Ninja Tune during the original run, to the eclectic mix that’s present in the revived block. What goes in to the creation of the unique sound of Toonami each week?
Hm, good question. I’ve always secured/guided the music of the block, and for me, it’s a GUT thing. Does a track FEEL like Toonami or not? Our criteria is loose, but it’s usually got to have beats. Sean and I wanted the block to reflect the music we listened to in the early days- hip hop, drum and bass- and move away from what we saw in Japanese and US action cartoons, which was guys yelling and screaming guitars. Not much has changed! Nowadays, we can be a little more broad with our musical choices, but its rare to hear metal or rock on Toonami. I love that music too, but it doesn’t feel like the future.
There have been rumors of an upcoming IGPX mixtape, similar to the Black Hole Megamix and Supernova Megamix you’ve put online. Care to comment?
You’ve definitely become the public face of the revived Toonami, but I know more than you and Steve Blum work behind the scenes. If it’s information you can share, I’d love to let the fans out there give thanks to the talented people who help make the magic happen every week.
Well, a lot of people who work on Toonami don’t want their name out there, so I can’t. But they DO follow along with my internet shenanigans and they do know what ya’ll love/hate, so keep giving me feedback and I’ll keep passing it on!
(The Choice is Yours, produced in its entirety by Toonami and IGPX editor Sara)
Originally there were six Adult Swim employees, veterans of the original block, who worked on the revived Toonami in addition to their ‘real’ jobs. After more than a year back on the air, has that number grown?
Nope! No need, right now anyway. We’d love the help, but we get by.
Many of the components for Toonami’s format have remained largely constant since the beginning: Custom intros, music videos, game reviews, speeches, a host, the best edited promos on TV by a mile – all the things that really make Toonami something more than its programming. What was the impetus for this format?
Much of that stuff was born out of the necessity to create easily renewable pieces of content that could be made cheaply. We want to keep the block fresh by updating as often as possible, and things like promos, game reviews etc are a low cost way to keep new things popping up regularly. As opposed to, say, a new full TOM animation, which would take months.
(When Toonami first came back in May of 2012, they could only afford to render ten seconds of chair-centric animation. New promos, music videos and game reviews were still released weekly)
Fan fondness for the promos of Toonami is enormous, with the re-airing of Broken Promise [Dreams] serving as one of the highlights of the April Fools broadcast. The Gundam Wing promo was of such quality that it was actually used by Bandai to advertise the series. The speeches of Moltar and TOM-1′s era were so well remembered that Kami-Con actually had Steve Blum record a speech in that style for a convention event, despite never having done so during his original tenure as TOM.
(A fan produced speech with TOM’s voice actor, Steve Blum, created during Toonami’s cancellation)
This sounds like I’m lavishing nostalgic praise rather than actually asking a question, so I’ll get to the point: The fans look at these promos as memories associated with Toonami as much as the programming itself, but what kind of attachment do the staff members who created these promos have to their work?
Not as much, honestly. We’re happy we made them and honored they have a life of their own, but I think when you make something, you’re not attached to it in the same way as a consumer, because you didn’t experience it the way they did, you know? We like looking back at old work on occasion, but it’s important to just keep pushing forward when creating.
If you were forced to pick a promo apiece from Toonami’s first run and the revival, what would you pick as the ones you’re the most proud of?
1st run: Gundam Wing trailer. That was Jonny and my finest hour.
2nd run: either the Evangelion promo(s), or TO HELL WITH FEAR. Sara really got to the heart of that track.
(Evangelion 1.11: You Are (Not) Alone)
(Evangelion 2.22: You Can (Not) Advance)
(To Hell With Fear)
I know you can’t answer questions about potential future acquisitions, so I’m going to ask a question about anime I hope you can answer. What are some of your favorite anime that will, for whatever reason, almost certainly never air on Toonami?
Well, Ranma 1/2 is a classic. Fist of the North Star as well. Star Blazers. Future Boy Conan is little seen, but has everything that makes Miyazaki great. I tried to get Nadia: Secret of Blue Water on Toonami, but couldn’t make it happen- I love that show. I also love, love Lain.
Can you tell us one of your favorite, non-legally actionable stories about working on Toonami?
Ha! There are so, so many. One of my favorites is around the big theatrical Toonami trailer we made back in the day. We worked really hard for weeks to get it done in a limited window of time, and once it was ready, we were called to a local screening room to see the trailer projected and make sure it was right. We’re in a room with Sean, myself, Gill, and a bunch of execs watching it. It’s glorious, looked and sounded amazing. It was supposed to go out the next day to be distributed to theaters, right? As the projector winds down, Sean and I are about to stand up and congratulate one another, when we hear one very dry exec just say in the silence: “AOL KEYORD?” We had misspelled the “AOL Keyword: Toonami” lower third on the spot! We had to re-render the whole thing and get a new trailer cut within 24 hours. To this day, we still say that whenever a graphic is misspelled.
(Toonami’s theatrical trailer: With the corrected graphic)
This has happened to me dozens of times over the years: if I talk with someone about a show that aired on the block, the first part of the conversation tends to go something like this.
Me: “Hey, did you ever see Megas XLR/DBZ/Samurai Jack/The Big O?”
Them: “Oh yeah, I used to watch that on Toonami all the time!”
Even as we continue talking about the show, it’s tinged with discussions of Toonami itself. Other shows, the music videos, or just memories of when we used to watch the block. This was true before the cancellation, and remains just as true now – though I’ve been hearing a lot more of the jubilant, “Toonami’s back on the air!?” in the middle of those conversations.
It’s more than a collection of shows; to the fans, Toonami has meaning as an entity unto itself. What do you believe makes Toonami so impactful?
Well, first of all, thanks very much for the kind words. As far as why Toonami has stuck around for so long and seemingly had an impact on a lot of people, I think it’s a couple of things. We’ve aired almost every major anime (in terms of popularity) at some point or another on the block, that’s a part of it. The second part is our unusual framework of a “story” of our host, his ship, his AI partner, and the idea that they are having adventures (even if you don’t see them most of the time). The third thing is the overall aesthetic of the block, which is very clearly defined and always has been. We want viewers to KNOW they are seeing a Toonami promo or review, etc. The final thing is that I like to believe you can tell from the work we do that we care about our shows, we care about making good work, and most importantly that we care about our audience and take their concerns seriously. That’s my theory anyway, but who knows! I’m just glad we’re still here.
(The Intruder, Toonami’s first on-air story, was originally aired as a microseries from 9/18/00-9/27/00. Its cost was roughly that of a half-hour episode of television)
And of course, we’re all dying to know… what can you tell us about the future of the better cartoon show?
All I can say is we just finished our Toonami planning meeting for 2013/2014, and the future is looking VERY bright. I’m excited about all the stuff we have coming, you will be too I think!
You can find Jason DeMarco on his twitter account, @Clarknova1, learn more about Toonami at www.toonami.com, and catch Toonami every Saturday at 12:00 AM Eastern.