Art director Paula Spence and supervising director Jeanette Moreno-King discuss how they re-designed the show’s characters, while moving to a new production studio, to bring more realism and texture to the FXX and Hulu show’s backgrounds, characters, and performances.
It might be surprising to learn that for all its sorcery, demonic practices, and larger-than-life supernatural events, much of Little Demon’s design was put together by an atheist.
“I hate religion,” says Paula Spence, art director for FXX’s newest adult animation, Little Demon. “I’m a total atheist and this show’s basis is in religious ideas, and it’s got all these supernatural things, which I completely don’t believe in. But I like doing things that are different, and I have been working in kids’ animation most of my career. I have a dark sense of humor, and dark sensibilities, which I don't often get to express at work. So, the horror aspect was really fun for me.”
Little Demon, which debuted August 25 on FXX (the next day on Hulu), is written and produced by creators Darcy Fowler, Seth Kirschner, and Kieran Valla. The series follows 13-year-old Chrissy (Lucy DeVito) who, soon after exploding two bullies in the middle school bathroom, learns that she is the antichrist and her mom Laura (Aubrey Plaza) has been on the run since giving birth in an attempt to hide her child from Satan (Danny DeVito), Chrissy’s biological father.
There’s certainly a lot of blood, guts, and comedy in the 2D-animated show, produced by FX Productions and 20th Television Animation, but Spence says the real draw for herself, as well as supervising director Jeanette Moreno-King, was the focus on family and female empowerment.
“Not only is Chrissy the main character, and she's going to find her power and learn to use it, but her mom is a freakin’ badass and is going to fight Satan to protect her daughter,” says Spence, known for her work on Regular Show and Close Enough. “I love that.”
Moreno-King, known for her directorial work on Q-Force, adds, “The nugget of this show is that it’s a broken family that is trying to figure out how to work and communicate together. A lot of family sitcom shows that are out there are about everybody being a family where everybody's supposed to love each other. You don't really see real arguments and I enjoy that it's a comedy and it has some real drama moments.”
A mother herself, Moreno-King admits that while she doesn’t have the same fiery fights with her own teenage daughter as Chrissy has with Laura – where Chrissy is literally setting family pictures on fire while being dragged up to her room – the relationship between Moreno-King and her daughter did inform the character design and the type of acting and emotions needed for the show’s characters.
“The crux of what they're arguing over is who gets to control their life and their decisions,” says Moreno-King. “That’s what happens with any parent and teenager. It's completely part of my reality right now and really informed the way that we treated the characters and the acting that we tried to pull out of them.”
Spence adds, “I happen to think that Jeanette is just about the best mom because I love the way she relates to her kids. She's so supportive and, of course, there are going to be times when they're driving her nuts, but I love how she helps her kids to be independent. And what’s really interesting is that’s the way Chrissy and Laura are at the beginning and how they are at the end and how they are in every episode.”
Spence was actually part of Little Demon’s production long before Moreno-King joined the team, getting to work on the pilot and build the look of the world from the ground up.
“The main characters were designed in the pilot stage and that was really fun working with Seth, Darcy, Kieran, but also with Aubrey in the room, saying she wanted Laura to look like Jamie Lee Curtis in Blue Steel,” remembers Spence. “Aubrey was actually a big influence on the design of the characters, like how Chrissy has this uneven haircut. Aubrey was thinking Laura might have cut it or Chrissy cut it herself.”
And as much fun as Spence and the team had building this relatable but still very wild menagerie of characters, one of the biggest challenges was having to redesign them all before the season launched.
“Jeanette has this big portfolio in the business and, when she joined, she told us a lot had to change,” says Spence, who recommended Moreno-King for the supervising director role. “We had characters that look vastly different in the pilot than they do in the series’ Season 1.”
Moreno-King continues, “I started my career as an animator and my favorite thing to do on any show that I'm on is subtle acting animation. A good voice actor puts so much into it and if we can hit those little inhales and those gasps, that’s what makes a character feel real. A good actor leaves space for facial acting and small movements. For me, personally, it's important to hit that stuff. And one reason that I wanted to do a redesign on the characters was to make them feel more real so that we could push it in that direction.”
Though sometimes this amount of design backtracking can be a death-sentence for a show, Little Demon had the advantage of being animated in Harmony.
“Most of the primetime shows I've worked on are hand-drawn, where designs are sent overseas, and a team overseas would finish the drawings,” explains Moreno-King. “And you can't just say, we need to send 70 percent of the show back to be re-drawn. But, in Harmony, we can do it here.”
She adds, “And we also switched studios. The studio that helped us with the series is not the studio that worked on the pilot. So being able to open up those rigs again and figure out how those characters were put together and manipulate the rig in the most efficient way, instead of redoing everything, was extremely helpful. For a while, I wasn't sure we were going to be able to do all of it, but the retake team did an amazing job and we got way more done than I thought possible.”
It also gave Fowler, Valla and Kirschner the chance to do some rewriting and retooling of the pilot.
“As you’re making more episodes, a pilot is always slightly different from a series because you're introducing new characters and you have your original idea and then all the characters and the stories evolve as you're working in a writers’ room,” says Moreno-King. “So going back into the pilot let them make some adjustments that tied the first episode together with the rest of the series a little bit closer.”
But, while Harmony was the show’s saving grace, one of the production’s goals was making sure Little Demon didn’t look like a Harmony-animated show.
“I want to push the medium,” says Moreno King. “There are advantages to Harmony. But if you let the software in between things, it smooths it out too much. It doesn't feel natural. And then there are shortcuts that Harmony animators are used to make it look clunky and I have to push them to do more. Paula’s backgrounds have a lot of texture, and we were trying to do that on the characters as much as we could so that they feel like they can inhabit these highly textured, detailed worlds that Paula’s team made.”
Both Moreno-King and Spence hope that Little Demon helps make the case that animation can “do more and be more” than what people think of when watching an animated TV series about family.
“This is great for all the people who have a dark sense of humor, love horror, and love animation,” says Spence. “There have been some instances where people have tried to put these things together, but I think we did a fun and interesting job. We created a world that we can imagine ourselves living in. I think a lot of people are going to feel like it's a familiar face, and then be gratified because they get to see some of the darkness that they enjoy mixed in.”
Moreno-King adds, “We need to push the medium. We need to change the animation industry. I want animation to be treated more seriously. We can handle these topics. And I like taking that chance. I’ve said it multiple times, that I'll never jump out of an airplane, but I throw me onto a first season show. It's a thrill ride. And if we're not going to take the risks, then why are we doing this?”