From Doodles to the Big Time: One Man’s Animated Career

Peter Browngardt in his office at the Cartoon Network in California. (tom browngardt photo).

By Annette Hinkle

Peter Browngardt has come a long way since his days at Pierson Middle School where he survived the tedium of the classroom by doodling.

“I got in a lot of trouble for drawing in my notebooks,” concedes Browngardt.

Little could he have known at the time, it would be the drawings, not the words, in those notebooks that would eventually pave the way to his future.

Last month, Browngardt was honored for his skills at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France. Browngardt, who lives in Los Angeles these days, brought home the festival’s 2012 Cristal award for best TV production. He won the award for an episode of Secret Mountain Fort Awesome, a series Browngardt created for the Cartoon Network (CN) about a group of monsters who live in an underground mountain.

“They’re kind of a bunch of dudes and sort of oppressed by people,” says Browngardt. “They’re not allowed on the surface but they want to be accepted. They all have different personalities and the comedy comes from them interacting with one another and what happens when they do go to the surface.”

If you haven’t seen the show, you can be forgiven. Despite its recent accolades in Annecy, the series enjoyed a relatively short life on CN — running only from last August to February of this year.

“The network wanted to ‘age up’ and was going after 9 to 14 year olds. They green-lit a bunch of shows they thought would service that group, but didn’t know how far to go,” says Browngardt explaining the impetus behind the show’s creation.

The goal, he notes, was to bridge the age gap between CN’s programming for young children and the series “Adult Swim” for mature audiences.

“Mine was the little more extreme of those shows. I think they realized they didn’t have to go that extreme,” says Browngardt. “This show had a really short life. It’s sort of different than what’s happening in animation. I think it took the company by surprise and they were not behind it and they pulled it.”

“But I’m in development on something new now,” he adds.

When it comes to animation, Browngardt attributes the inspiration during his own formative years in Sag Harbor and his numerous brothers who were anywhere from eight to 12 years older.

“They exposed me to stuff I wouldn’t have discovered if they weren’t around,” he says. “I read a lot of Mad Magazines and also watched a lot of Loony Toons and Tex Avery cartoons. I can’t even remember a time when I wasn’t drawing. My older brothers were super creative and always making movies. It was sort of just the norm in my household to draw, make things and act. I didn’t know any other way.”

“My brother Tom was super supportive of my drawing,” adds Browngardt. “He said, ‘Don’t grow out of it!’”

Browngardt says he was so completely focused he began making 8 mm films while still a little kid, shooting stop motion shorts in the basement or using the homemade animation table which he built himself. When it was time for college, Browngardt’s top choice was Cal Arts, and he got in, he believes, thanks to the opportunities he received while still a student at Pierson.

“I’m lucky … my parents let me go to life drawing at an early age,” says Browngardt. “I was in 8th or 9th grade.”

Those life drawing sessions for artists were offered at Southampton Cultural Center by Peter Solow, an art teacher at Pierson who Browngardt credits with supporting him as he pursued his work throughout his high school career.

“In my junior and senior year at Pierson, a lot of the requirements were out of the way, and they would let me do one day a week working and drawing with him,” recalls Browngardt.

All that effort evidently paid off. Browngardt was hired at the Cartoon Network in 2006 after traveling to L.A. to pitch some ideas (he was done with college by then and living in Brooklyn at the time). A creative director on the series “Chowder” saw his work and offered him a job on that show.

“I knew I wanted to do that and moved back to Los Angeles and started there,” he says.

While working on “Chowder,” Browngardt pitched a short called “Uncle Grandpa” after the network put out a call for ideas that could possibly be developed into series down the road. The short, which was one of the pitches produced by CN, went on to garner an Emmy nomination. Now, with Secret Mountain Fort Awesome behind him, Browngardt is revisiting “Uncle Grandpa” as a possible series (the two shorts Browngardt has made featuring the character can be seen on YouTube).

So with his own career well underway and both an Emmy nomination and a Cristal under his belt, what advice does Browngardt offer today’s Pierson middle school doodlers whose notebooks are filled with drawings?

“Draw a lot. just keep doing it and don’t give up … and don’t listen to critics,” he says. “Draw what you love to draw and always look at life. Cartooning is a caricature of what’s around us.”