Director Matt Youngberg chats about giving the film’s beloved characters the star treatment in the hilarious new short from Apple Original Films and Skydance Animation, now streaming on Apple TV+.
St. Patrick’s Day has come and gone, but the concept of luck is an evergreen subject for storytelling – especially when the narrative channels the best practices of old-school animated physical comedy and the protagonists are ultra-cute bunnies in hazmat suits.
Sure, you’ve got your cutting-edge, transgressive hypersexual and vividly violent animated shorts, and your European auteurist existential thought experiments regarding the ramifications of string theory, but sometimes you can’t beat the pleasure provided by a really funny slapstick cartoon (which, in its own way, may be exploring philosophical ideas regarding fate and the ineluctable constraints of the laws of thermodynamics, but is making you laugh while it does it).
Produced by Skydance Animation (Luck) and directed by multiple Annie and Daytime Emmy Award nominee Matt Youngberg (DuckTales, Ben 10: Omniverse), Bad Luck Spot, which debuted on St. Patrick’s Day, is an imaginative extrapolation from the studio’s 2022 animated feature that follows the bunnies after they have successfully removed a bad luck speck from the shoe of protagonist Sam. ("The tiniest amount of bad luck can shut down our entire operation!" moans Jane Fonda’s Babe the Dragon as the operation is concluded.) However, once the bunnies exit the building and proceed to the disposal part of the process, things take, to put it simply, a rather unlucky turn, one which is followed by a prodigious number of escalating complications.
We spoke with director Youngberg about all things leporine, and specifically the process whereby the feature film’s incidental characters took on a spectacular and hair-raising life of their own in this hilarious mini-spinoff.
AWN: This is Skydance Animation’s second short, after Joe Mateo's 2021 Blush. How did the idea of producing another short come about and how did you come onto the project?
Matt Youngberg: I think there was just a desire to see what happened to those Hazmat Bunnies from Luck, something starring them, because they were a crew favorite, and we hope a fan favorite as well. There's just something about these cute little bunnies in these little hazmat suits. And John [Skydance Head of Animation John Lasseter] thought it would be really fun to follow them to see what happens after they get this speck of bad luck. And that was the kernel of the idea.
Then he pulled me onto it. I was in development at Skydance, and this was a real opportunity for me to get my feet wet in their pipeline and really integrate myself into the team. John saw this as an opportunity for me, and I saw it as an opportunity to show him what I could do. And so, we brought in a few storyboard artists and started brainstorming ideas, and it just kind of snowballed from there.
AWN: You have a ton of TV experience. How did that prepare you for directing a short?
MY: For this kind of short, it prepared me very well. Extending a property and characters, iterating from something that exists, is a lot of what I had done in my television career. I worked on a lot of major IPs throughout my time, and so I'm able to jump into a world, and find stories within that world. And that was one of the real goals, that's what John wanted to do with the short.
In a short film, the story structure is different than a feature film, where you have a character arc. Adapting it to this format, where we're focusing much more on these non-speaking characters, was also part of the job. It's one idea, and you set a bunch of gags around it, and you escalate the problem, until you have the payoff at the end.
AWN: So, you have these Hazmat Bunnies, and obviously there's so much funny stuff you could do with them. How did you arrive at a particular style and tone?
MY: Our jumping-off point was twofold. One was the feature, and the second was hearkening back to old-school-style shorts. We had to find how cartoony we could make this short, while keeping within the rules of the land of Luck that we had established in the feature. And so, there was this balancing act of finding how far is too far. How much can we do, and where do we restrain ourselves a little bit? Luckily, we were given these characters that have these inflatable suits, which, to us, meant they can withstand more damage. There's much more squash and stretch we can do because of these suits. It gave us this freedom to push the cartooniness of it, because the suits themselves can act as the cartoony bodies that you would see in a more traditional short.
AWN: How much would you say was carried over from the feature?
MY: Everything from the style of filmmaking to the lighting, everything that had been established. In fact, the story itself weaves in and out of the feature. The kickoff is a scene from the feature film, and then instead of following the main character from the feature, Sam, we follow these three little bunnies. They're these little special forces, highly trained operatives within this world. They just happen to be super-cute. We follow them, and their adventure, from that moment of the film. And then it weaves itself back into the film.
AWN: There’s a great scene with a giant mallet, in which there's a cadence – smash, pause, smash-smash-smash – in the number of times it hits. How many different versions of that sequence did you come up with before you found one you liked?
MY: That's a good question. I know that we boarded it in. We thought it'd be funny to have a hit, and then rapid hits, so we did that at the boards. And then we gave it to the editorial team, and they found that cadence, like, boom. Boom. Boom, boom, boom.
We went through a couple different iterations of it. If you watch it really closely, there's one that's a little bit slower, and there's one a little bit faster, just to hit the right rhythms of the whole scene.
AWN: Were you able to use any of the assets from the feature film, or was it done long enough ago that you had to update them? Did you have to re-rig anything?
MY: Quite a bit of it is just what was made for the feature. The goal was to reuse as many assets as we could and see what we could do with them. Just as we were pushing and pulling the characters, we were also pushing and pulling the assets that we had, to see how far they could go before they broke. We had an amazing team, some of whom had worked on the feature, and some who hadn't. But we relied a lot on the pipeline that the feature had set, so that we didn't have to reinvent the wheel. So that was super helpful.
AWN: When you’re working with slapstick and physical comedy, it's hard to know, at the point where you're looking at boards or maybe an animatic, what's really going to be funny down the road. How much did you know early on that something was going to be funny, versus, "I'm pretty sure we're going to be able to make it funny when we really get down to the animation"?
MY: One of the really great things about working in animation is the process of iteration. You put it up in storyboard form first, and, if that gets the right kind of laughs, and it feels the right kind of way, then you move to the next part. But, if it doesn't, you fix it in the board, you iterate in the board. Or you get into layout. Layout is another key part of it. You're laying it out, and if the camera isn't selling the joke the right way, if the placement of the characters isn't quite right, that can affect it, so you have to change those things.
Then you get into animation, where you do a rough pass. You talk about it, and you find places where you can push and pull to get it funnier. Sometimes there are even happy accidents. This is really getting into the weeds, but there was a shot where all three of the bunnies get hit by the hammer and, after one of the hits, one of them has this almost yellowish, bloodshot eye that makes it look like he's extra hurt. And it makes it funnier. And that was kind of a happy accident, where the lighting team was doing something, and something broke in the eye, and it created this different color. And I was like, "We’ve got to keep it. It's so good. It totally sells what's happening."
And so, every step of the way is part of this process of trying to find the best version of something. I always liken the animation process to the creation of a fine painting, or a sculpture, where every step that it goes through is getting it to this final finished product, but every step is essential. It's like sketching something first, then doing a color study, then blowing it up bigger, and then doing the actual painting. Every part of a painting, or every part of a sculpture, has a process to it, and it's same with animation.
AWN: Last question. What would you say were the biggest challenges in putting this short together?
MY: I think the biggest challenges were just the constraint of time, and the constraint of assets. Making sure that we were reusing things, and making sure that we were able to finish it in time to get it out for St. Patrick's Day. We really pushed ourselves to complete it. We had an amazing team, who really dedicated themselves to putting this thing together, and to getting it across the finish line. It was really an amazing, fun process. So, having that crew, having people who had experience with the Skydance pipeline to help me through it, and having been a part of that team was a great start to my Skydance career.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.