In this second installment, Greg Singer speaks with animation directors of the Green Screen Show to learn how they are integrating animation with the show's live-action improv.
It is another day in the beating heart of Hollywood. At one of the daily creative meetings in Acme Filmworks conference room, Drew Carey is playing with a new digital camera, taking a point-blank self-portrait of his eye. Outside the window, a man balances on a ladder, painting the side of the building.
Janet Perlman, an animation director for one of the games in Drew Careys Green Screen Show, is on the speaker phone.
Is Ron there? she asks, referring to exec producer Ron Diamond.
Yeah, he answers, as he fingers through his laptop files.
You always sound so happy, she says.
Yes, dear, Ron answers, with the hint of a smile.
The Green Screen Show, premiering on The WB network (8:30pm, October 7), has a star roster of animation talent working on its games. Its not likely that the average viewing audience will appreciate the unsung artists toiling behind the scenes, frame by frame. The live actors are always center stage, as far as publicity goes.
Still, its fun to realize that animators like Benoit Feroumont, Marv Newland, John Dilworth, Bill Kroyer and Cordell Barker are working on some of the improv skits, and that names like Frédéric Back and Raoul Servais have floated through the air. Studios such as Tippett and Aardman have also expressed interest, but their schedules havent allowed them time to play. This was the case with Eric Goldberg during the making of the pilot episode, but he has since been able to contribute some beautiful ink-on-paper animation. The directors bring a range of techniques to the show, everything from hand-drawn, CGI and Flash animation to stop-motion, cut-out and puppet animation.
Among its other attributes, the Green Screen Show demonstrates clearly how quality TV animation can be done, in a variety of styles, on a TV budget. Moreover, while animation directors from around the world are participating, in some cases much of the actual animation is done at Acme. For example, one of the games, titled How to Clean a Fish, is being storyboarded by Daniel Guyonnet, an independent director in France. Yet the animation is being done in-house at Acme with former Disney and Warner Bros. animators. Its the antithesis of the current American model for producing animation whereby production is usually shipped overseas.
Earlier in the week, in an editing session with Diamond and senior editor Jeff Malmberg, the two were deciding how to stitch together coverage of the taped live-action performances. While retaining its humor and pacing, each game has to be whittled down into a manageable, appropriate timeframe for the animation directors to use. For one particular game, there was some hesitant discussion among The WB executives whether it was going to work. Diamond and Malmberg kept editing the improv for the game in question, feeling confident that once the animation is in place, it would be seen as one of the stronger segments.
Because there is no real model for how to produce a series such as the Green Screen Show, there has been a huge learning curve for Acme during the first half of the season. As Malmberg assembles the live-action footage, expertly juggling frames, checking for continuity, entire gags may be sacrificed out of editorial necessity. The resulting skits are continually refined, even after the rough animation begins to come back from the directors. The process is subtle, because so much of the source material is worth keeping. As Malmberg excises one funny gag, Diamond assures him, I promise well put it back in. Well find a way.
Time constraints have been the biggest challenge for production, on all sides. There has been a quick turnaround between the network greenlighting the show and getting it on air. As it is, there is a very narrow window for studios and independent animators to propose visual treatments, be awarded work on a game, and deliver the final animation.
Making the Time
Chris Hinton, nominated for an Academy Award during 2003 for his short film Nibbles, has been working as an independent animator for the last 25 years. For the Green Screen Show, he is working on two games, Veterinarian and Dentist. Accustomed to animating for 24 fps (film) as opposed to 30 fps (television), Hinton has put in 16-hour days to get the games done. Everyone at Acme has been extremely professional and taken care of tech support beautifully, Hinton says.
During a phone meeting, Diamond commented how he liked Hintons initial tests for Veterinarian. Drawn directly in the computer using Toon Boom, an animated dog flails with sketchy, slobbering energy. Hinton is debating with himself how much background and props he wants to include, for it may distract from the character animation of the dog. He wants the animation to inhabit the scene in a believable way, for the audience to focus on the interaction of the dog with the actors. As he mulls over his own vision, he wonders out loud if he will have time to do the animation, given his other obligations to festival workshops and teaching at university.
Given his available time, Hinton has had to rethink his traditional use of software to achieve the quality and efficiency he wants. For the game Dentist, he used Crater Softwares CTP because it is useful for manipulating imported, bitmap-based images. He took digital photos of his friends dentist office and then exaggerated the scale of the dental tools to become an axe, blowtorch and the like.
The trickery of integrating animation into the scene, of making it convincing, is what appeals to Hinton. When animating, the usual concerns are with volume, perspective and so on, he says. With actors, though, one has to twist and rework things to suit the live-action. The actors are performing in space with no guidelines, only their feelings. As they mime, an imaginary table may shift in relation to their improv. Its a challenge to stick things into the hands and mouths of the actors, to augment the piece without detracting from the humor that is already there. We laugh because its funny, and theres really no time to question its validity.
Janet Perlman is animating for a skit titled Shakespeare. Perlman submitted a few ideas for the game, all quite different, before hitting on one that Acme approved. Having produced independent films for television and the National Film Board over the years, Perlman is used to spending longer on her animation, but a fast schedule (six weeks) was required to meet the production deadline. Using After Effects to work with cut-outs, Perlman echoes the challenge of enhancing the games improvisational humor without upstaging the actors. As an animator, ones work is used to being center stage, she says. Its hard to think what to add to the comedy, because just illustrating what is being said by the actors is not interesting, it doesnt really make the piece any funnier. So as not to diminish the improv, there is a general reluctance to introduce new characters through the animation.
Arthur de Pins, Daniel Klein and Jeremy Rochigneux of the innovative French studio Metronomic met Diamond at the Annecy festival some months ago, and they are now working on a six-minute game called (perhaps appropriately) Welcome to Hell. Rochigneux says, Usually, the director is telling the actors what they must do. What we like about the show is that the actors are deciding what the director must do. Given the nature of the improv skit they are working on (a game of freeze tag), there are 37 different artistic directions and layouts to correspond with the live-action. As Rochigneux explains, Its hard to find each time a smart, elegant and creative way to make the transitions. Its a big amount of work. With mostly 2D computer generated imagery, de Pins is spending roughly four weeks on the main animation using Illustrator, Flash and CTP.
As is the case for the other directors, Paul Vester is having a good time with theshow. Originally based out of London with his own company, Speedy Films, Vester now divides his time working on animated documentaries and teaching experimental animation at CalArts. Working with some of his former and current students, using Flash and After Effects, Vesters rough animation looks somewhat painterly for a game titled Good and Evil. Its a balancing act to deliver what he feels is hilarious animation in relation to the improv, which he feels is great. Its a tightrope to not outdo the live-action with the animation, Vester says. If the animation is too bland, it doesnt add to the story or the comedy, it just kind of sits there. And if its too strong, you lose the feeling of improv.
The Crying Game
A few years ago, Diamond met Cathal Gaffney at the Oscars ceremony as Brown Bag Films was nominated for the short film Give Up Yer Aul Sins. Gaffneys studio got into the business of making cartoons 10 years ago because no one else was doing the work in local Dublin, so they figured they better do it themselves. Now Brown Bag even has an office in Beirut to support their client base.
For the Green Screen Show, Brown Bag is animating two of the games. They chose their first skit, Tiniest Saloon, for its strong visual potential, and because they liked its Old West humor. With much of the character work done in 2D and the environments in 3D (to save on time), director Darragh OConnell says they have learned a great deal in completing the first game. Though its a bit scary having to do the work in such a compressed timeframe, we are confident we can do it, he says. Their second game, Wildebeest and Mermaid, is twice as long, but its the funniest and quirkiest skit they have seen so far. (It happens to be the very same improv that Diamond and editor Malmberg were advocating earlier.)
Working on the show is so cool, the imagination of the performers is so inspiring, enthuses OConnell. He also appreciates the production Websites virtual screening room, wherein the eclectic work of other studios can be perused. Seeing others work is fantastic, he says, it pushes us to uphold that standard - to reach the right level and keep our work unique.
Brown Bag delivered their first animation to Acme with a sticker label on the read-only side of its DVD. However, with some surgical care, the sticker was removed and their work successfully retrieved. OConnell says, Yeah, we were a bit red-faced about that one.
Of course, not all of the animation is flung to the corners of the globe. Twelve of the 50 games (count em) are being done at Acme, largely with the directorial oversight of Scott Ingalls. As assistant directors, Laura Kraning shepherds projects from out of studio, and Carrie Kost manages the games being produced in-house.
One of the latter games, Onion Sam, is the basis for a three-and-a-half-minute traditionally animated short film; with the audiences suggestion, the improv actors have narrated a story, piecemeal, off the top of their heads. Creative director Bob Spang worked at Character Builders for three years and Disney for eight, before coming to Acme. Taking inspiration from Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill, Spang has done the designs, storyboards, layouts, color concepts and supervised the animation and cleanup for Onion Sam. He spent two-plus weeks animating 24 of its 29 scenes, and Wendy Perdue (supervising animator of Annie Hughes in The Iron Giant) animated three of the remaining scenes. Once Onion Sam is completed, Spang will be working on How to Clean a Fish (directed by Daniel Guyonnet) and In a Hotel with Santa (directed by Cordell Barker).
Scott Ingalls has been with Acme since 1992. He is designing and directing several of the in-house segments for the Green Screen Show. In transitioning from commercials to longer formats, Ingalls says, Its not inherently easier or harder to do 1,000 frames versus 7,000 frames. Its all about the pipeline. Most of the work is upfront, in pinning down the concept designs and style sheets. There are more shots, but once the pipeline is in place, its just a matter of pushing the footage through.
In overseeing so many games at once, Ingalls explains that he is constantly reviewing a truckload of pictures. Its easy to get lost in the minutiae and to forget theyre working on a funny show. He says, Even though were working with great material, theres a cost, too, a downside. Were taxed for time. Ive been working 80 hours per week, and the CG crew has had only two days off since they started.
Still, Ingalls adds, We cant help but have a good time. Our crew is great. Really, were lucky to work with such awesome people.
Creatively, one of the biggest challenges is incorporating so many styles even within a single game, and making sure the shots all have a proper context. Of his favorite games so far that he has worked on, Ingalls says, I like `Surfing for its simplicity, and `Yoga for its content. But mostly, I like the weirdest concept that pays off. The `Zeppelin is my current baby. Im getting yelled at for it so much, I sometimes forget the love. Its beautiful, but its consuming tremendous resources and time. Then again, Im fortunate, because Im not the one who has to watch the budget and schedule.
Towards the Finish Line
Eric Goldberg of Los Angeles, the animation director on Looney Tunes: Back in Action, recognizes what a massive undertaking it is to combine animation with live-action on such a tight budget and schedule. However, he is enthusiastic about the Green Screen Show: Whats really nice is that Ron [Diamond] is a fan of animation. The idea has been to get as many directors as possible, using as many techniques and designs as possible, much of which we wouldnt often see on television or even in features. In not settling on one style, the show remains fresh. Its kept as varied and surprising as the improv itself.
Goldberg chose to work on Racetrack, because the skit seemed to have the most potential interaction between its live-action and animation. Without pre-sketching or testing, Goldberg animated with ink directly on paper, working in a style he was comfortable with, allowing for a certain amount of boil and spontaneity. He wanted the games horse character to have the same scratchy, rubber-hose freedom of the Fleischer and Krazy Kat cartoons.
His wife, Susan, assisted as art director, and his two daughters helped with mattes. Using Shake for compositing and Mirage for ink-and-paint, Scott Johnston helped achieve the animations watercolor look.
Unlike his work in features, Goldberg did not have the luxury of time to finesse the final piece, though he is pleased with the results of what he describes as four weeks of grueling, guerrilla animation. There are no short cuts, he says. We took great care in having the animation interact with the actors. When they are galloping, we have to go through the stats to match the horses animation with the actors movements, to figure out whats going to work. When the animation is on, you dont even notice it, the audience takes it for granted.
As Goldberg progressed from storyboards to rough animation, and as the first scenes came up for approval, it became apparent that the horse had as much personality as the actors on set. Acme suggested to tone the animation down a bit and, alternately, to push it a little more, as they navigated the fine line between broadening and obfuscating the original improv. The horse has a tongue-in-cheek self-awareness of its participation in the game, communicating its sly sense of humor in reacting to the actors.
Goldberg was committed to putting in as much technical detail as possible, such as the secondary action of the horses reigns (animated by Todd Jacobson), because it makes the piece more convincing and compelling to watch. Goldberg feels this added effort adds a quality and touch that really sells the whole illusion.
Back in the editing room, Diamond comments how he wishes there was time for the animation directors to be more creative than they already are, given the short production schedule. Malmberg says, One of the exciting things about the show is that no one has done this before. By the same token, he wryly adds, no one has done this before. There is no model for how to work this way. There are no rules or guidelines to fall back on. Its a process of fine-tuning each episode to get the right rhythm. If The WB continues the Green Screen Show for the second half of the season, Acme will be well experienced with the subtleties of the production, and its crew will be able to move forward with even greater precision. Malmberg says, I know that, if the show gets picked up for another 12 episodes, we can really make it sing.
Janet Perlman says, Ive enjoyed working on the project - its invigorating - because I get to do things that I dont normally do, or that I havent done before. She has been amazed with the sheer enormousness of the Green Screen Show, and she says that she cant imagine its logistical requirements. There is very little time to work on a game, and Acme has dozens of animators to deal with besides me, Perlman says. Still, they always had quick feedback... Im impressed!
Producer Prudence Fenton has been busy meeting delivery dates and coordinating notes among the directors at Acme and around the world. With his eyelids growing heavy, Diamond asks Malmberg and Fenton if they would like to order some iced coffee. Fenton abstains, saying, Everyones gaining weight on this show. We cant have that.
For disclosure: Green Screen Show exec producer Ron Diamond is also the founder and co-publisher of Animation World Network.
Greg Singer is an animation welfare advocate, eating in Los Angeles.