Sam Koji Hale, Ara Santos, and Ben Giroux dig deep into the production of a special episode from the new season involving more than 20 different animation techniques including stop-motion, pixelation, Claymation, cut-outs and digital puppetry - a veritable ‘dream style’ amalgam that provides an incredible visual feast for the eyes; Season 2 premieres today on Paramount+.
At Nickelodeon Animation Studios in Burbank, there’s a small triangle-shaped room with a greenscreen stage backdrop and a camera to take pictures of a stop-motion character for a kids cartoon show. And there are three large lights mounted on stands, taped chords, a computer, and a pair of keyboards. And a little toy model dressed in flannel, with felt eyes, eyebrows, and bunched up pipe cleaners for hair. And a tired stop-motion artist whispering, “don’t touch.”
This tiny stop-motion studio, referred to as “Tri Room” for its specific shape, was once an unofficial storage room and press room. Nickelodeon gave Big Nate art director and lead digital animator Sam Koji Hale permission to make the room his own when he expressed the desire to incorporate stop-motion into the show.
“It’s a small space, but we’re making the most of it,” says Hale, standing between the computer and the greenscreen stage with only about a foot or two of space to pivot from one to the other. “We’re all just glad to be on-site together. We made the whole first season from home and now we’re back in the studio, bumping into each other in the hallway and having a quick conversation that then becomes an episode pitch. That doesn't happen when you're on Zoom.”
Though the series, now streaming the first 10 episodes of its second season on Paramount+, has previously been 90% 3DCG and 10% 2D animated, the new season’s 10th episode, “Ballad of Big Nate” is 50% 3DCG, with the other half made up of over 20 different animation styles, including cut-out animation, Claymation, pixilation, digital puppetry, paper animation, 2D, wool animation, and, of course, stop-motion. It’s a compilation the creative team calls “dream style,” or “Sukiyaki Style,” referencing Hale’s Japanese American heritage and sukiyaki, a mix of numerous ingredients in one delicious hot pot meal.
“We've been doing little bits of 2D throughout the episodes from the very beginning with Nate’s drawings but, with this episode, we wanted to go into Nate's head and there was no limit for what we could include,” notes Hale, who also received a co-director and “story by” credit for the episode. “At the time we were coming up with ideas, it was also when we thought it might have been the last episode of the show, because we didn't know if we were getting picked up for more Big Nate. So, we treated Episode 210 like a big finale. And then we got picked up again, which is awesome, but now we have to figure out how to top what we just made.”
Check out the exclusive clip, which goes behind the scenes of the episode’s animation, here:
Produced by John Cohen Productions and Nickelodeon Animation Studios, Big Nate, which debuted in 2022, follows the adventures and misadventures of titular protagonist Nate Wright, a semi-incompetent, spirited, and rebellious sixth grader and his friends Francis, Teddy, Chad, and Dee Dee, as they face off against authority figures, like hated social studies teacher Mrs. Godfrey (“the school's Godzilla”) along with the firm Principal Nichols.
This season, Nate is up against a new nemesis from out of state, his art teacher’s twin brother Ka’Brett who, after visiting Nate’s class, belittles Nate’s artwork. In the special episode, the production team dives into Nate’s wild, multi-media imagination that envisions a part-art-critic-part-evil-crustacean, stop-motion Ka’Brett monster – modeled out of paper clay, sporting pipe cleaner hair, cardstock glasses, a foam tongue dipped in latex, with a sharp wire mustache nod to Salvador Dali – devouring all of Nate’s characters. In his imagination, Nate and his character wage war on the Ka’Brett monster, which culminates in a monster mash of animation styles.
As a Claymation Nate, animated with 2D facial expressions and dressed in cut-out photos from Hale’s own sweater, addresses his audience of 2D characters – many of whom are call-backs to the first season, from dog Spitzy and legendary prankster Brad Gunter to Nate’s great-great-grandpa being eaten by a bear – viewers looking closely can also pick out members of the production, like series showrunner Mitch Watson.
Nate cheers on his characters in a cut-out coliseum to fight back against the “Ka’Brett Beast,” vows to “get my awesomeness back,” and then descends onto the battlefield in a cardboard ice cream truck, wielding a sharpened pencil.
“We use photogrammetry and take hundreds of photos of different angles of the ice cream truck, then run it through software that builds the same truck in 3D,” Hale reveals. “Then we can animate the truck and move it around the digital set as we like. It looks like a cardboard truck, but we move it like a digital object.”
He continues, “We also use pixilation in the show, where you take photos of people and then put them together to look like stop-motion animation. We have a wonderful cameo sequence at the end of the episode where our cast and crew appear dancing together at a concert. We shot each person individually on greenscreen in two or three poses, then animated them in repeating cycles.”
The episode really is a feast for the eyes, one you could rewatch dozens of times and still not catch every detail put into the sequences.
“I've never seen anything like it before, certainly not on television,” notes Ben Giroux, who voices for character Nate in the series. “We're doing some really groundbreaking stuff visually. At the same time, I think the Nickelodeon ethos has, in many ways, not changed in 40 years. It's always equal parts hearts, farts, and smarts. And we've got it all in our show.”
“Farts” seems a particularly appropriate term, not only because of scenes where characters are literally farted out of other characters, but also because one of the new characters introduced via Nate’s imagination is the “Butt Guru” who oversees Nate’s imaginary Butt Forest. Sheep’s wool was used to make up a large portion of the body and arms for the Butt Guru, in addition to serving as smoke effects during the Ka’Brett face-off battle explosions.
It was also one of the hardest materials the team had to work with.
“We also used it for the hairy mole that jumps off Ka’Brett’s chin and joins the fight,” explains Ara Santos, who was hired for production as a freelance stop-motion animator after previously working as an intern at neighboring stop-motion studio Stoopid Buddy. “It’s a tough material to work with because you can’t mold it like clay or cut it like paper. And it’s so light. It gets everywhere.”
Santos worked on the mole sequences in Nickelodeon’s down-shooter stage, where a camera is hung lens-down over a tabletop with black paper to contrast the wool. The sequences are then translated to the greenscreen stop-motion stage in the Tri Room and added to the animation, all recorded in Dragonframe on a computer next to the down-shooter stage. In total, it typically takes roughly 100 shots to create something like a mushroom cloud of smoke. And if that seems like a lot, Santos also spent hours “needle felting” to create the fingers of the Butt Guru’s hands.
“The material is half wool and half felt, so when you poke it with a needle over and over again, the fibers concentrate and come together,” she shares, holding up one of the Butt Guru’s many hand models, only a few inches tall. “It takes a few hours just to make one of these hands.”
But, in Hale’s opinion, the biggest hurdle on the episode was the sequence where the Ka’Brett Beast’s face melts to oblivion. To pull it off, Hale says the team had to channel their inner ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) and eventually refer back to methods used in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
“We tried a few different things first, where I took this head and made a mold and cast it out on Latex,” Hale explains. “But that wasn’t quite working, so we considered pixilation, where we slowly chip away at his head, but that would have been really time-consuming. And then Shawn Adeli, another animator on our team, had a candle kit he was using to make candles at home. So, we cast Ka’Brett’s head in wax, hit it with a hairdryer or heat gun, melted it down, and shot it in slow motion.”
One of the charms of “Ballad of Big Nate” is not just the variety of animation styles and creative materials used so innovatively, but also the fact that the team never intended to use materials that a child couldn’t obtain themselves.
“Nate, in his imagination, built this world out of materials he knows,” Hale continues. “So, it’s all kid-friendly craft material. Nothing is modern or slick. We’re trying to keep it feeling handmade. All the smoke is sheep’s wool and the paint is inexpensive tempera paint that any kid could get at a craft store.”
And though Big Nate has always paid homage to 90s Nick animation, it also pays tribute to the craft shown in Dada’s and Monty Python’s cut-out animation worlds, as well as Rankin/Bass’ fabric-centered stop-motion entertainment.
“And our show is based on a long-running comic book, comic strip, and series of books by Lincoln Peirce,” adds Giroux, who also grew up doodling like Nate and watching 90s Nick shows like Rugrats and Doug. “So, there was a lot of pressure tackling this series that is already part of the cultural lexicon. Now, we've kind of made it our own. It’s new, it’s fresh, but there is that wonderful, nostalgic quality to our show, even in the music that’s very rooted in 80s and 90s.”
Hale notes, “It’s funny because the early Nick show, You Can’t Do That On Television, from the 80s, was inspired by Monty Python. So we’re really channeling the spirit of youthful rebellion through the ages, which is a great fit for Big Nate.”
The additional episodes of Big Nate’s Season 2 have yet to receive an air date. But fans can follow Nickelodeon and Paramount+ social channels for updates.