Pee-Wee’s Brain

The other day was the 33 anniversary of the premiere of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. Most people who know me know that I worked on the first season of the show building animation models and people who know that also know I was the head model-maker for the Penny cartoons.

I was hired at Broadcast Arts in the late spring of 1986. It was my second job out college (I worked a few months doing paste-up in New Line Cinema’s art department). I had worked on the show about a month or so before the Penny episodes began production. My first assignment was building some of the food models for Life In The Fridge. Whenever Pee-Wee opens his refrigerator the food characters are doing all kinds of wacky stuff. There was a lot of other stuff going on in the workshop. They were still building the live action set further down Broadway so I watched Greg Harrison build Conky, Tim Hawkins make the fish puppets and Joe Laudati fabricating the Pterri puppets. The Playhouse model for the opening was being built. In a small corner of one of the animation studios Peter Lord, Dave Sproxton, Nick Park, and Richard Starzak were working on a clay animated short called Pee-Wee In Space. They were all from Aardman Animations and had all come over from England after working on Peter Gabriels’ Sledgehammer video with Stephen Johnson, who was now directing Pee-Wee. I popped in once or twice to peek at what they were doing, it looked really cool.

I don’t remember exactly how but I was asked to build clay models for their next short. It involved a clay Pee-Wee in front of a painting of the sea that turned into the ocean. A boat appears whither turns into a fish and then an airplane which disappears into a cloud. The storyboard was very surreal. My job was to make all of the models including all of the transitions from boat to fish to plane. I was told there would be a whole series of these clay Pee-Wee animations so I was looking forward to working on those. For some reason it was decided that only this one and the space one were made.

The first 2 pages of the original storyboard I was given for the Pee-Wee claymation

I was then asked to head up a team of model makers to work on the Penny cartoons with Peter Lord doing the storyboards and Nick and Richard animating. I spent most of the rest of the summer sculpting Pennys and the set and prop pieces for the Penny cartoons along with Susan Singer, Tamara Sandy and a few others.

Pictures I took of the animation models. I wish I had taken more. If only we had iPhones back then.

There was a Penny cartoon in every episode so production on those went into August. Once we finished I stayed on working on odds and ends. One of the last things I was asked to make was a brain with Pee-Wee’s legs and a cavernous space for him to live in. I found a model chair, table and lamp from a previous Broadcast Arts project and built the cave out of foam and clay. It wasn’t until the fifth episode aired that I found out that the first clay film I had worked on would be edited together with the brain to make one of the strangest parts of any episode of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and that’s saying a lot.

Here is a lo-res video someone posted on YouTube. A better place to watch is on Netflix or buy the BluRay discs.

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