You may not know the name Patrick McHale, but that will change after November 3. The former Adventure Time creative director is the man behind the curtain of the forthcoming Cartoon Network mini-series, Over the Garden Wall. Based on McHale’s short film, Tome of the Unknown, which won best animation short film at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival earlier this year, Over the Garden Wall follows two brothers, Wirt (Elijah Wood) and Greg (Collin Dean) who find themselves lost in a mysterious place called the Unknown, a forest unmoored from time. Aided by an elderly woodsman (Christopher Llyod) and a talking bluebird named Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey), the brothers must try and find their way home.
The ten-episode mini-series blends fantasy, comedy, and the sensibilities of a Victorian fable into one seriously dreamy package. Judging by what I’ve seen in the trailer, Over the Garden Wall is absolutely beautiful with an aesthetic that recalls everything from Miyazaki to Adventure Time, but manages to still have a style all its own. With an all-star voice cast and a proud animation pedigree, Over the Garden Wall feels like a bold experiment into self-contained narrative programming for Cartoon Network, which will air the series over the course of five nights beginning on November 3 at 7 PM.
In addition to the Cartoon Network series, Patrick McHale is teaming up with artist Jim Campbell to bring Over the Garden Wall to BOOM! Studios in oversized comic book form. The one-shot issue, which drops November 5, takes place between some of the early episodes of the story, and expands upon the wild world that Wirt and Greg find themselves in. Recently, I had the chance to catch up with Patrick McHale over e-mail for the first official interview he has done regarding the series. One thing’s for certain: our wide-ranging conversation has made me extremely impatient that I have to wait three more weeks before I can finally watch and read about the world of Over the Garden Wall
Nerdist: How did this project come to pass? Tell me about the journey from Tome of the Unknown to rolling out an animated mini-series and a comic book. How has it evolved?
Patrick McHale: Well… I pitched Tome of the Unknown as a series to Cartoon Network right when I got out of college in 2006. I was asked to develop it for Cartoon Network’s feature film department at the time, but I couldn’t figure out how to adapt the series into a one-off story at the time. So when a different pilot idea of mine actually got greenlit to be made into a short, Tome of the Unknown went on the back-burner.
And then… when Adventure Time got picked up, Pen [Ward] asked me to be creative director on that… so I basically put EVERYTHING on the back-burner to help with that.
A bunch of years later (was it 2011? I forget.), Cartoon Network asked me to pitch something again. I dusted off the old Tome of the Unknown pitch bible, did a bit of reworking, and pitched it again. And we made a pilot!
Once we started developing the mini-series, the project changed even further from the original concept. We even lost the mysterious book (the “Tome”). So we changed the name to Over the Garden Wall.
N: What is the experience like of adapting Over the Garden Wall both for a 10-episode mini-series and a comic book one-shot at the same time? Is one more challenging than the other?
PM: Overall, making a 10 part mini-series is way harder than a one-shot comic book.
But… I had never written a comic book before this one, so it was hard! It was a lot harder than I expected. I’ve only really worked in TV, so I had a lot of growing pains adjusting to the comic book writing format. The whole writing process just didn’t make sense to me. I had to somehow construct each panel just by describing it? But how many panels to a page? How much dialogue should be in each panel? How much time should pass between each panel? All these sorts of things were mind-boggling to me. By the end of writing the script, I sort of figured out some of my mistakes. If I were to do another one, it might be easier next time.
N: How will the one-shot fit into the context of the show?
PM: It goes right between episodes two and three. It’s an episode that was cut. Originally, I had planned to do 18 episodes for the mini-series, but… who makes 18 episodes of something? So we cut it down to 10. And used one of the leftover scraps for this comic. There are ghosts of stories between most of the episodes.
N: Coming from an animation background, did that inform how you approach comics?
PM: As I said, I was pretty much completely baffled. I looked at some old “Where Monsters Dwell” comics to try and copy them. I figured I could copy how they paced their stories—but ultimately, that didn’t help much.
Honestly I don’t have much of an approach to writing comics yet. I just took a stab in the dark and stumbled my way through. I think it was Jim Campbell who really pulled it all together. He did the artwork and it’s gorgeous. He made it work.
N: What was it like working with Jim Campbell on bringing the comic to life? Do you find it hard to relinquish illustrative control at all or do you prefer collaborating with multiple people to realize a creative vision?
PM: Working with Jim was the easiest thing in the world. After I finally banged out the script, Jim just took over and made the comic into something worth reading. It was so easy to relinquish control, I’ll tell ya. Hah. I mean, I still gave some notes, because that’s what I do. But unlike the series, which is torture for me to watch at this point, I can actually sit and enjoy reading the comic! So that’s nice. Jim is incredible.
N: I must admit, I was rather surprised that Cartoon Network ordered a narrative mini-series. Its other shows have a loose continuity, but this is a complete story. What can we expect from the series?
PM: I was surprised they picked it up too! I think even Cartoon Network was surprised they picked it up.
What can you expect? Well, there are some twists and turns. There’s a lot of nice music, and nice backgrounds. Nice voices. Some JOKES. It also gets pretty dark and emotional at times. It’s a good show, I think.
Each episode contains a new location and set of characters, so there’s a lot of stuff packed into the series. If you don’t like one episode, you may like the next one. You can definitely watch the series multiple times and find new things. It’s sort of built for that. It’s a collector’s edition set to put in your locked bookcase.
N: Talk about your stylistic and aesthetic influences. It definitely seems like some of your work on Adventure Time has informed your approach to creating animated and illustrated worlds.
PM: Over the Garden Wall has very specific and closed sensibilities. That means we sometimes had to sacrifice cool ideas, or funny jokes, in order to keep the mood/tone of the series intact. This show is all about conveying a certain mood, so I had to be a lot more nit-picky and obsessive than I would have liked to be. Or maybe it’s just first season blues.
In terms of the overall look of the show, Nick Cross, the art director on the series, did most of the heavy lifting. He’s probably the most talented person I’ve ever met, and I could barely believe it when he agreed to work on the show as art director. I gave him a bunch of reference, and he just ran with it.
The other major players in the mood department were the composers (The Blasting Company). I gave them all sorts of obtuse direction and obscure music to listen to and somehow they knew just what do with all that. There are tons of different styles of music throughout the series, and it all sounds legitimate and honest.
Adventure Time was a very different approach to storytelling, but my job on that show in the early days was mostly to keep a seemingly wild and open world grounded in some sense of logic. It was really important to Pen that we keep the show grounded so that no matter how crazy we got, we could always come back and be real with the characters again. Pen is brilliant and I’m influenced by him in a million different ways. He actually did some boards for Over the Garden Wall, too!
N: If all goes well, could we see more Over the Garden Wall down the line or will it be a self-contained story?
PM: It’s a self-contained story, with a definite end. I don’t think there’ll be any more, but who knows. As I said before, there are plenty of scraps. But most scraps stay in the heap.
And before we let you go, here’s the exclusive variant cover by Patrick McHale:
Over the Garden Wall airs on Cartoon Network on November 3, and the comic releases on November 5, so mark your calendars.
Are you excited for Over the Garden Wall? Let us know in the comments below or tell me on Twitter (@osteoferocious).