FC: Your name is actually part of the Teacher's Pet title. Not since Walt Disney himself has an artist had his name in the title of a Disney movie. Did you have to fight for that?
Baseman: Oh, yeah. Nobody gives you anything. They respected my work, but no company is going to give you anything without you fighting for it.
FC: Is it having a good agent?
Baseman: No; you know better than that. It's the individual pushing. Hopefully you can have somebody helping you get into the right door, but generally it has to be you saying, "This is what I want to do. This is where I want to go." Even coming to Disney was just because of a former coworker who introduced me in LA. No one's going to say, "Here, I'll make you a star," and then you're a star.
FC: How much of Teacher's Pet is yours?
Baseman: I came up with the concept of the little dog, and the artwork is mine. And then you work together — the writers, the animators, the director — on how you want to tell the story. When I do my own paintings, I'm trying to keep myself inspired. With this, I'm trying to keep all my artists inspired. Instead of just copying what I do, I'm inspiring them to do better than I ever could.
FC: That sounds like Irvine Welsh: "Good art affirms and reassures. Great art inspires and leads."
Baseman: That's where I'm going from. In projects, too. From concentrating more on the gallery work to now creating these figures and toys.
FC: Yeah, are these toys or art? They seem a little bit of both.
Baseman: Both. Depending on which ones. Some of them are much more limited edition collectibles, and others are more for the everyday audience. It's a balance between art and commerce. I know that when I create something, it's going to take a little bit of time to digest what I do. But the satisfaction in succeeding in that is greater than just giving people what they already expect.
Fast Company: Let's talk about the gore. How did you get away with squishing entire choruses of cockroaches in a Disney film?
Gary Baseman: We had to be very playful. And we had a certain sensibility. Like with Day of the Dead, it isn't about death, as in morbid, but celebrating life. We're telling people not to be afraid to take chances, to open up and take risks.
FC: Because you've come through that?
Baseman: I'm still going through it. Over and over again. I always see this as the beginning. People are going, "Wow. Is this the highlight?" And I'm like, "No. This is the beginning." To me, this is the introduction. Any success, any award is incentive to do better work, not to sit there in the glow.
FC: It seems like Disney gave you more freedom than you were expecting.
Baseman: Our media executives really respected what we did best. I wasn't just the hired gun art director who came on to this thing. I created the project, so I could argue — and sometimes win and sometimes lose — why something should be a certain way. Disney has certain really big strengths. Voice talent, access to these wonderful actors like Nathan Lane and Kelsey Grammar and Jerry Stiller — something we're so grateful for. They're so gifted — they add so much to the script and to the acting. And also with music. Disney has a strong professional approach to the songs. Sometimes it was the Disney executives who played up the creative additions.
FC: So what are your influences? What are the roots of pervasive art?
Baseman: Hieronymous Bosch, mixed with Day of the Dead, mixed with my Eastern European roots, mixed with a certain sensibility of cute Japanese pop art, mixed with my love of Americana?
FC: Hieronymus Bosch?
Baseman: I always try to take little chances. When I was doing the cover for the New York Times Book Review, I had a character running through different panels that represented different sections of the book. Gardening, fiction, sports, arts. I was using little details from paintings that inspired me; one of them was from Hieronymus Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights." I drew this little detail on my hand and [my coworker] said, "What's that?" I said, "It's a detail from a Bosch painting." He said, "What's that in particular?" And I said, "Oh, that's a flower sticking out of a man's ass. But it's in the Bosch painting — it's fine art." He looked at me and he goes, "When Bosch does it, it's fine art. When you do it, it's a flower sticking out of a man's ass."
FC: You got your first big break with the cover of the New York Times Book Review. How'd you land a job like that?
Baseman: I came to New York and I took my portfolio and went door to door to every magazine. And if I got a spot illustration, it helped pay for the plane flight. Eventually, I moved to New York, and started becoming this kind of expert in visual message making. I started learning how to take a thesis, or how to take a unique selling point, or any kind of message you want - and come up with an intriguing visual that's gonna grab the viewer into your work.
FC: That was 20 years ago. Any major setbacks?
Baseman: One of them was when Nickelodeon didn't pick up my first or the second pilot. That was pretty difficult to take. Because you put so much of yourself into it. Then, when you don't see it happening you have to start having to look at "plans." "This is plan A; this is what I plan to do. And if that doesn't come through, this is what I'll have to do to rework what my goals are going to be." You have to spend a certain time mourning, hunkering down, figuring out where your strengths are, then you go after your goal again. I was determined to get a series on the air, and I moved back home to Los Angeles.
Baseman: Well, first off, I was very inspired by old animated cartoons from the '30s and '40s as a child. I wanted to touch people in the same way. Though, when you work with TV, then you're definitely going to have to collaborate with the studio, with your writers, with your director. There's a real nurturing and a lot involved. I call it dumb luck, where you have control over some things, but you don't have control over everything.
FC: You never went to art school. Why not? Was it the people, or the idea?
Baseman: The whole notion that you signed your work, that you had your own style, that you had your own particular look. I didn't think school could have taught me that. I wish I could say after college I decided I'm just going to be an artist and I went after it. The reality is, I tried to do everything but to try to make a living because I was scared.
FC: What kinds of things were you doing?
Baseman: That's when I interned at the FCC. I was going to go to law school — I was preparing for my LSATs, and I was a legal intern. And there I decided I could be a good attorney, but I'd rather be a great artist.
FC: Is there a commercial direction that you wouldn't go? Handbags? Fashion?
Baseman: Not at all. I like the idea of commerce. As long as you keep the quality high. Like with Martha Stewart — regardless of her unfortunate situation now — her products at Kmart were very good, quality products, for the mass audience. And Ralph Lauren — people laugh, but he's somebody who creates high-quality merchandise that works on a very high end, but at the same time has enough product for the everyday person.
FC: Do you have people warning you that you're going to overexpose yourself, that you'll hit too many mediums and you'll be burned?
Baseman: (Laughs) No, nobody's mentioned that. I don't think I'm overexposed yet!
FC: Who are your contemporaries?
Baseman: There aren't too many people who do what I do, which is why I came up with the term "pervasive art." Most people are comfortable in their niche, but some are expanding: Mark Ryden, J. Otto Siebold, William Joyce, Yoshitomo Nara, Benedict Taschen, Haruki Murakami, Ian Faulkner. Paul Frank actually told me I was part of the inspiration for the Julius Monkey icon. And I like what Jim Henson did: good entertainment that followed through.
FC: Does it surprise you what people like and don't like of your work?
Baseman: Always. I never know. That's why I try to concentrate on what I enjoy.
FC: Advice to someone in your position 20 years ago?
Baseman: That's the one thing I wish I'd had. Perspective. When you look at every little hill, it looks a mile high. Then you look 20 years back and you're like, "That's not a giant mountain." Everything smooths out.
FC: What's more important to you: massive audience or critical acclaim?
Baseman: Both. Not a lot of people can do it, but I believe I can make both work. Walk that razor's edge.
FC: 30 years from now, what do you want to be doing?
Baseman: Everything. A nice-sized basement organization creating really intriguing films, TV, books, toys, and apparel. That's where I'd like to go next. You never want to expand too big, so you don't have any control left.
FC: The Simpsons?
Baseman: The best written TV show ever. (pauses) We're not the Simpsons yet.
A version of this article appeared in the Table of Contents - April 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.