Friday, August 30, 2013

Gary Conrad, Debi Derryberry, and a Talking Banana

Gary Conrad is a 30-year industry veteran and the Emmy and Annie Award nominated director of  The Fairly Odd Parents.  He recently completed his side project - a documentary called Debi Derryberry: Cheery and Fun and talked to FLIP about his film.

FLIP: What drove you to make Cheery and Fun

Gary: Growing up in Kentucky, I made one Super 8 movie after another and loved it.  Since graduating CalArts in 1984, I've been lucky to make my living in the animation business, but I've continued to make short films on the side, purely for the fun of it.  A few years back, a short documentary I made about a toy collector in Torrance, California was selected to screen in a couple of film festivals, which was a kick.

For my next project I decided I would write a narrative film.  I was trying to come up with an interesting character and unusual story.  I was feeling stuck.  Then I saw a Baby Banana singing with his Mama Duck and Daddy Gorilla accompanied on a pink guitar by a four foot ten cartoon star named Debi Derryberry in pursuit of fame and fortune.  Uh, I no longer felt I needed to make anything up.

FLIP: What is your documentary about?

Gary: The documentary follows cartoon voiceover actress Debi Derryberry as she pursues her lifelong passion to be a singer, and the ups and downs of trying to make it in the entertainment business.

I've known Debi for more than twenty years. In 2008, after her starring role in The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius wrapped, Debi decided to focus on her love of music and pursue a career as a childrens' singer-songwriter.  Almost immediately, a song from her first CD Baby Banana became a number one hit on XM-Sirius Kids Radio.  Encouraged by that success, Debi created more CDs, a storybook, live concerts and music videos all around the character of Baby Banana.  But then the road got bumpy.  Turns out even a singing banana doesn't guarantee success in the world of show biz.

FLIP: How does directing a documentary compare to directing animated shows?

Gary: It's pretty different.  I suppose the one similarity is that they're both storytelling on film which is the thing I love about each.  The big difference is that animated films, as you know, are essentially "pre-edited"…you only "shoot" about as much as you need.  For this documentary, I shot more than a hundred hours of footage then edited it down to 85 minutes…so, unlike animation, the film is pretty much created at the editing stage.  Plus, of course, animation is scripted and a documentary is unscripted. And that presents a whole other set of challenges.  It was fun, and also a definite learning experience.

FLIP: Did you have an idea of what the story would be, or was it completely a case of shooting stuff and figuring it out in editing?  

When I started following the story in 2008, I didn't know where it would wind up. It was definitely a case of shooting stuff as the story unfolded. The good part for me was that, going into it, I was willing to let the ending be whatever it turned out to be, even though personally I was rooting for Debi to get what she wanted. One thing I know about the entertainment business (and we all know!) is that having a talent and getting paid for that talent don't automatically go together. So for me it was always about showing the process, documenting a performer's spirit and the sheer nuts and bolts of what it takes. Whatever the outcome, I had a feeling Debi's journey would have twists and turns along the way. And it did.

FLIP: How did you cover it financially?

Gary: Since it was my own personal project I paid for it out of my own pocket.  The biggest expenses were travel and music.  Because I was basically a crew of one, it wasn't an especially expensive project.  I worked on it in my spare time over the past several years, Debi and the interview subjects generously contributed their time gratis.  And thankfully Baby Banana's people were pretty reasonable.

FLIP: What are your plans for the film? How can we see it?

Gary: I'm currently submitting it to film festivals.  It was just selected by the Cincinnati Film Festival to make its world premiere there on September 13 and 14.  I'm especially pleased by that because I'm from the Cincinnati area (Northern Kentucky) and have many friends and family in the area.  Plus, my first professional job in animation was at a small commercial house in Cincinnati, so it feels like a real homecoming.  I'm waiting to hear from various other festivals...check my blog at or the film's Facebook page at for further updates on screenings.

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