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Yvette Kaplan On the Beavis and Butt-head Watch

Janet Benn provides a case study of the role played by Animation Director Yvette Kaplan on Beavis and Butt-head Do America, while saying more than a little about who Yvette is.

Yvette Kaplan, with son Randall and husband Mark at New York premiere of Beavis and Butt-head Do America. Photo by Janet Benn.

Mike Judge is Beavis and Butt-head Do America's director, while Yvette Kaplan is the animation director. Since the film is completely animated, one may ask "What's the difference?" In this case, the answer goes beyond the difference in size and placement of the credits to an instance of real collaboration and shared responsibility for the successful completion of this film.

Directing animation is a story of numbers and counting, but also of passion and energy. The numbers are everywhere: frames, scenes, sequences and clock timings for every tiny hand flick or eye blink for every character in every shot. From the film as a whole down to its separate scenes, each part of the film has to be crafted in time as well as in line. Added to the complexity in this case was the seemingly impossible schedule of less than 12 months from the start of storyboarding to its Christmas 1996 release decided upon by Paramount Pictures. Mike Judge first created Beavis and Butt-head in his own, independently-made films. Later, he had to convey his vision to a crew of animators through more than 100 five-minute episodes on MTV, and this year, throughout the 75 minutes of the feature film Beavis and Butt-head Do America. In this effort, Yvette Kaplan has been his chief collaborator.

Combining intense listening with respect for his vision, Kaplan has internalized Mike Judge's "boys" so well as to be able to make their every move and gesture express their personalities perfectly. Since the middle of the production of the first season of the series in 1992, she has learned all about the characters directly from Mike as he acts out every new situation or difficult line reading for her. It's almost as if she has become a continuation of the animation lobe in his brain, so that she can almost always decide questions of direction or situation as he would when he's not there.

Since his deal with Fox to create a new series called King of the Hill, he has been splitting his time between his home in Austin, Texas (where he has a sound studio for recording voices) and Los Angeles (where the series is being made), while the movie was being made in New York. Although he was present in the early stages and at key points throughout production, having an alter ego in the form of Yvette Kaplan made possible the film's on-time completion.

A Frustrated Actor

Yvette started as an animator nearly 20 years ago at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where she met her artist husband Mark. They have one son, Randall, who is proving to be a formidable creator in his own right, acting both on stage (at school) and on screen (doing voice work on several animated productions including the B&B series) all by the age of 12.

"What I loved about being an animator," she recalls, "was not the actual act of drawing, but the thinking [that went into it]. I had an unusual career as an animator, because I wasn't often directed. People handed me sheets and a track, and I did it. I never knew this was unusual.

"I guess, I'm a frustrated actor. I have good instincts about who a character is. I can shift gears. I can become different characters."

Mike Judge. © 1996 MTV Networks.

Kaplan worked as an animator on the pilot for Doug for Jumbo Pictures. When the company saw her work, they promoted her to director. Her career has been remarkable in that she has been present at the start of this and two other important television shows: Beavis and Butt-head and the PBS series, The Magic School Bus (where she acted as a creative consultant).

Visualizing

Yvette began visualizing Beavis and Butt-head Do America in November 1995, when the first version of the script was delivered by Mike Judge and Joe Stillman. Going through the script line by line with Mike, she made extensive notes and at times drew little pictures, to better describe their ideas to the storyboard artists. For production management purposes, she broke the film down into 32 sequences, defined mainly by the many locations necessitated by this "road" picture. So began her year of 14-hour days and 7-day work weeks.

Mike Judge began to record the voices of Beavis and Butt-head and many of the other characters he portrays: Tom Anderson, Van Driessen and McVickar, to name a few. Yvette was present at many of these sessions, observing his approach and paying close attention to his comments. Many times, she would have a specific idea in mind for a passage where the action was not really obvious. They would go over it together, and as Yvette says, "I'd have to get into his head, get a picture of how he's picturing it." Often his reaction would spark new ideas in Kaplan's mind, as she states, guiding her "through his intentions in the script."

This creative collaboration was applied to the initial storyboarding of each sequence. These were sent to Mike after Yvette's approval, and usually, he had changes. This back-and-forth went on for many weeks, and the customary pressure was beginning to be applied by the Storyboard Supervisor as well as the Producer to try to stay on schedule.

The storyboards were then scanned into an AVID editing system. This was the first raw visual material used for timing the action: the dialogue track had previously been put together ("slugged") to Mike's satisfaction. As each panel came up on the screen and the matching sound track was played, Yvette would likely be the first to act out the scenes again, timing them with a stopwatch. The scenes would then be cut according to her timing and the track changed if necessary. The AVID reel and slugged track were then given to the sequence directors for sheet timing. (Some sequences were done first by the sequence directors, with Yvette's input, and some by Mike himself.)

Sequence Directors

Sequence directors were chosen by Yvette according to their demonstrated strengths in working inside the Beavis and Butt-head universe.. Kaplan was responsible for the daily supervision of their work.

Geoffrey Johnson, for example, was largely responsible for the character of Muddy (who tries to get our heroes to "do" his wife, Dallas), his portrayal as directed on the exposure sheets was guided by Yvette's understanding of what Mike wanted. The voice carried much information through the performance Mike had drawn from the actor: intonation and emphasis, even his coughing was important. Given Johnson's proven ability at mastering the details which fill out Muddy's on-screen personality, and tempered by Kaplan's overall grasp of the largely understated B&B acting style, we get a satisfying incorporation of the character into the film.

Yvette Kaplan (left) with Cartoon Network's Linda Simensky. Photo by Janet Benn.

In addition to Johnson, the special talents of eight other sequence directors were brought together on the film. Chief among these were the three veteran animators, Tony Kluck, Carol Millican and Ilya Skorupsky. As well as directing whole sequences, Tony and Ilya were also storyboard artists and Carol lent her expertise to the Character Layout Department, checking each scene in an effort to achieve the best, most expressive poses. Brian Mulroney, who had achieved other adroit female performances in the past, specialized in the sequences featuring Dallas. Mike deSeve was our "fight expert," choreographing all of the many squabbles the boys started, as well as some sequences of natural catastrophes. Miguel Martinez introduced the Feds to Highland, and Ray Kosarin and Paul Sparangano completed the team.

Somewhat separate was the "Hallucination" sequence, directed by Chris Prynoski under Mike Judge's direct supervision, animated at MTV with input from Rob Zombie, on whose artwork and music the sequence was based. This part of the film was always seen as totally different in style and coloration from the rest of the movie and was, in a sense, "experimental."

And so the collaborations continued: Kaplan with the nine sequence directors and with Mike Judge. Often he depended on her sense of timing, especially in the "Wake Up" sequence, where the biggest laughs come from the point-of-view camera shots, where there is virtually no action except for the camera's roving eye, simulating Butt-head's puzzlement as to where their TV has gone.

It was Kaplan's job to visualize the film once again, this time by reading the exposure sheets done by the sequence directors while listening to the track. "I would see if I was amused, or interested by the way they paced their acting, and if I was satisfied with it. Of course, the same way I couldn't visualize something exactly like Mike, the sequence directors couldn't visualize something exactly like me, unless I had acted it out for them ahead of time, unless they really internalized it the way I try to internalize what Mike acts out. But then, there were many other times where sequence directors might have done something totally different that what I imagined; but I would give them the respect they deserve by putting aside any of my preconceived notions aside and looking to see `Does it work?' and `Is this good? Does it get the point across?' When it did, I was thrilled and approved it wholeheartedly."

Layout To The Finish

In preparation for the layout phase, scene planners analyzed the exposure sheets and storyboards together with the designs worked out by Design Director Sharon Fitzgerald's staff, and the background keys researched and painted under the supervision of Art Director Jeff Buckland. Background layout, headed by Maurice Joyce, came before character posing, which was co-helmed by Paul Sparagano and Bryon Moore, with oversight from Carol Millican, who had been co-supervising director of the B&B series with Yvette for two years.

Once these Layouts were completed, checked, revised and checked again, they were filmed as a "Leica" reel. "It was like, the next level. 'Okay, now let's see how this times out with movement!' All right, not full movement because it was just pose-to-pose, based on the layout, but you could see a lot more." This was the first opportunity Kaplan had to see actual artwork, to make revisions to correct bad poses or expressions, and to work further on animation timing.

The pencil tests were not all in before color workprint footage also started to come in. By this time, very few creative animation changes were possible, but there were still animation glitches, color pops, exposure mistakes, and many other technical problems to be noted, analyzed and described in order to be fixed. "That, for me," Yvette said, "is the least creative and least satisfying part of my job. It's hard to watch a scene and still not want to perfect the timing and the acting."

All the post-production was done in Los Angeles, where Yvette was to spend several weeks helping to select the right takes and locking the reels. Mike Judge directed the final edit and the many sound mixes needed to satisfy the Ratings Board as well as himself. Mike had worked with the composer, John Frizzell, on the score, and flew to London to record it with the London Philharmonic. Everything came together in the week before Thanksgiving, exactly one year since the first version of the script had been delivered to MTV in New York. .

Yvette Kaplan at work on Beavis and Butt-head Do America. Photo by Janet Benn.

A Storyteller

Now that it's all over but the applause (and the inevitable controversy), I asked Yvette about her preparation for this job as Animation Director on Beavis and Butt-head Do America: "I learned a lot from Mike and the writers, but I always told stories. I used to write myself, I used to make up my own characters. As a kid, I would orchestrate the "pretend play," now `You're gonna be this, and I'm gonna say this' and I'd write lines for everybody!"

For the first season of Beavis and Butt-head, Yvette was called in to give some continuity to the direction across several episodes. Up to that point, the animators were responsible for their own direction, ironically, working much as she had when animating on other projects. Mike Judge was there from the start, but he felt very frustrated at the limitations of the initial low budget, which allowed for only a limited style of animation not to his liking, and not much time to complete even that. Veteran animator Tony Eastman did the storyboards, which set the pace for the show's visual style based on Mike's original films, and Yvette followed that lead: "My job was to keep it flowing, and alive, without many drawings." Later, when she had begun to collaborate more with Mike, the style would change a bit; but many dedicated B&B fans still point to this first season as their favorite.

Beavis and Butt-head do America © MTV Network.

Their collaboration began during a storyboard meeting. She had an idea for some comic business which she muttered aloud, mostly to herself. Mike heard it: "The respect that I wouldn't give my own thought," she recalls, "he gave it. And that was when it all clicked for us.

"I knew from our first meeting that he was very clear on who these characters were and that there were things about them that would take me time to learn." It must have been difficult, at first, being new on the scene, and having to deal with all these artists who were interpreting his creation. Then, as Yvette put it "I was one of the lucky ones that he came to trust."

Janet Benn was Scene Planner, Layout Checker and Retake Supervisor on Beavis and Butt-head Do America. She has worked in animation production for 20 years and served on the Steering Committee of the Society for Animation Studies and has been involved in the formation of the New York Chapter of Women in Animation. She has also officiated at ASIFA-East and Women Make Movies, Inc.

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