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Trying to Take Over the World: R.I.P. Liz Holzman, Animaniacs and Pinky & The Brain Producer

The late 1980s into the early 1990s was an insanely good time to be a kid who loves cartoons.  You had a front row seat to the Disney reinaissance kicked off in 1988 with The Little Mermaid and extending into the next decade with instant classics like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King.  You saw some movies bravely experimenting with what could be accomplished in animation, some successfully (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Nightmare Before Christmas), some not so much (Cool World).  And Disney’s big push into TV animation produced DuckTales (1987-90), Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers (1989-91), TaleSpin (1990-91), Darkwing Duck (1991-93), Goof Troop (1992-94), and the cult classic Gargoyles (1994-96).  In fact, if you’re anything like me the mere mention of shows like DuckTales, TaleSpin and Darkwing Duck instantly causes their freakishly catchy theme songs to pop into your head (“Darkwing Duck, Let’s get dangerous!”).

Of course, in that same vein to some people you need only hum, “They’re Pinky and the Brain, Yes, Pinky and the Brain” to get an instant response of “One is a genius, the other’s insane,” thus completing the opening line of the theme song for Pinky & The Brain.  

That show about lab mice plotting to take over the world (because why not) was part of Steven Spielberg’s partnership with Warner Bros.  Spielberg had grown up loving Looney Tunes, and he wanted to pay that forward by helping revitalize WB’s mostly dormant animation department.  He definitely succeeded, giving us Tiny Toon Adventures (1990-95), Animaniacs (1993-98), and Pinky & The Brain (1995-98), the three shows combining to produce 264 episodes.

Someone who ended up on both the Disney and WB side of the renaissance was Liz Holzman, who sadly died at the age of 61 earlier this month after a long battle with cancer.  As is often the case with people who work in animation, Holzman was a definite multi-hyphenate, described as an animator, character designer, storyboard artist, writer, director and producer, and later in life she also became a teacher and professional painter.  She graduated from Mills College in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in art, and took a night class in animation at Rice University in 1976 and won the Regional Student Academy Award that year, earning her masters in film graphics from Cal Arts three years later.

Of course, she’d always been interested in animation, as she told AnimationInsider early last year:

If I look back far enough there were signs. Like the Math book with the drawings in it that I got in trouble for. Or when I drew naked ladies for the boys in fifth grade. Or when I did a cartoon of The Red Pony whistling Yankee Doodle out of his tracheotomy hole. Got in trouble for all those things. In fact, I like to think I get highly paid for what I used to get in trouble for in school.

Along the way to actually getting to do animation for a living she worked odd jobs such as projectionist for an art film series and darkening contour lines and drilling wells on geological maps with a 6B pencil so they would show up well in microfilm so the oil company could shred the original maps.

Those odd jobs were mostly behind her once she broke into TV animation with Alvin & The Chipmunks in 1984, beginning a steady run as a storyboard artist for SmurfsDuckTales, Muppet Babies, Darkwing Duck, and Goof Troop.  By 1993, she was one of the many credited producers of Animaniacs (Spielberg ran the show from afar, Tom Ruegger was the senior producer, Jean MacCurdy the executive in charge of production, and several others received producing credits though they also worked as writers and animators).  Holzman filled a similar position on Animaniacs‘ spin-off Pinky & The Brain, and ended up directing a total of 17 episodes across both shows.  Her efforts resulted in 9 Emmy nominations and 3 wins (Outstanding Children’s Animated Program for Animaniacs-1996-97, Outstanding Special Class Animated Program for Pinky and the Brain-1999).  However, this success was punctured by her on-going battle with cancer, as she told AnimationInsider:

Had breast cancer twice. Had a bone marrow transplant the first time in 1995. Many people I worked with at Warner Bros. and Disney drove the 30 or so miles out to City of Hope to see me in the hospital, to give blood or platelets. Animation people are in general wonderful… I think of it as a large dysfunctional family.   I gave my first Emmy to my doctor at the City of Hope, in memory of my dad who had just died, and in honor of the doctors there, who for some reason don’t receive statues for saving peoples’ lives.

Personally, as a kid I was always more of a DuckTales/Darkwing Duck fan, although I watched the heck out of pretty much any cartoon show I’ve mentioned in this article.  It wasn’t until a couple of years ago in a nostalgia-tinged binge-watching session enabled by my local library having the TV box sets that I came to truly realize the brilliance of Pinky & The Brain, which both looks and sounds like a classic WB cartoon but has scenes like this:

That’s the Brain debating physics with Christopher Walken, and ends on the line, “Quantum statistics!” which is not something you hear very often in a kids cartoon show.  The point being that Pinky & The Brain was a show popular at the time with both kids and adults, and now that I’m on the other side of the equation I see why the college students of the 90s fancied themselves Pinky & The Brain fans.  As a kid, I didn’t pick up on certain episodes being homages to The Third Man or quick little pop culture references, like one to Bridges of Madison County.  Now, I love the heck out of it while my nephew can watch along and laugh every time the Brain hits Pinky on the head.

Liz Holzman had a lot to do with bringing us such joy, and now she’s gone.  That’s a tall glass of suck.  I’ll close with the advice she had for any aspiring art student:

  • Keep a sketchbook.
  • Don’t be intimidated by talent.. but respect it.
  • Don’t be precious about your work, it most likely isn’t as good as you think.
  • Try to learn from the greats.
  • Keep a list of goals in a box and forget it’s there. Look at it after a year and see if you’ve gotten any closer.
  • Read real books. Educate yourself… schools ain’t gonna do it for you.
  • Look up words you don’t know in the dictionary.
  • Don’t use text writing when you write (“u” for “you”, etc.) I don’t care how many people do it, it still makes you look like a moron.
  • Be informed about the world. Remember that being an artist doesn’t mean you escape from the world but that you have a responsibility to help the world realize itself.
  • Care about something enough to die for it.
  • Never give up your ideals.
  • Oh. And be frugal and save.

Sources: AnimationInsider, THR

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