Bent Image Labs Animates ‘Portlandia’
Press release from Bent Image Labs:
Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s fantastical train ride through the bowels of the small town/big city of Portland, Oregon has spiraled into the dark crevices of a rat hole. Produced by Portland animation house Bent Image Lab, “Zero Rats” features Fred and Carrie as animated rodents attempting to break into a zero packaging grocery store. The nearly three minute segment directed by Rob Shaw, captures the essence of the improvisation show while not getting lost in animated translation.
The skit opens with a live action shot of Fred and Carrie discussing a new zero packaging grocery store. Fred’s comment about the rat threat prompts a cut to an attic set populated by stop motion rats. Fred Rat, Carrie Rat and a third rat friend, John, plot their pillaging strategy while assessing their strengths (not afraid of mice), weaknesses (freak out, jump all over each other, eat), opportunities (no rat poison and a well placed heating vent) and threats (raccoons, possums) to getting their food. With help from an unsuspecting grocery clerk, the rats’ dreams of a world with zero packaging foods rival that of Charlotte’s Templeton at the county fair, but their exuberance overrules their good sense and their adventure ends with comical results.
“Jonathan, Fred and Carrie came to Bent to take a tour and talk about some visual effects we were doing for other episodes of the show,” remembers Shaw. During the visit the Portlandians brought up an idea they had for a funny animated segment based off of a real zero packaging grocery store. “As soon as they started talking about the ‘Zero Rats’ concept I was completely on board.”
But creating an animated Portlandia segment was going to be tricky. Both live action and animation production require planning and precision, but live action production can thrive off of spontaneity and improvisation while animation requires commitment to its original vision. Capturing Portlandia’s improv style in an animated world while still remaining true to its live action roots required trust, creativity and commitment.
Building a live action show in animation
For the animation process to begin on “Zero Rats” the crew needed the final dialogue nailed down at the beginning so they could develop the storyboards for the animatic (a mock up of storyboards cut to dialogue). The Portlandia cast quickly recorded lines from a script and then jumped into an improv session for just under two hours, giving them plenty of material for the segment.
“Stop motion is rarely unscripted. The voice over is usually set in stone,” says Bent Senior Producer Kara Place. “You don’t get to do improv in stop motion very often. So to have the dialogue driven by an improv voice over session that hasn't been cleaned up, perfected and smoothed out, where the characters are talking over each other and winging it, is really nice.”