For executive producers Sunil Hall and Lynne Naylor, laying face-down in the grass brings the artistic perspective needed to create the adventures of a rock, strawberry, twig, and leaf in the new DreamWorks Animation comedy series.
Every animated series has its own production process, but not many involve artists sticking their noses into dirt and shrubbery.
“Getting hands-on in production for us included our art director Jenny Gase-Baker and her art team literally laying face-down in the grass at the DreamWorks campus and then sketching what they saw down there,” says Sunil Hall, executive producer, along with Lynne Naylor, on DreamWorks Animation’s newest animated comedy, The Mighty Ones, now streaming on Hulu and Peacock. The series stars an enthusiastic rock, a wild strawberry, a wisdom-filled twig, and a laid-back leaf. Regarding the show’s main characters, Hall notes, “My backyard is pretty messy and my kids do a lot of imaginative play out there, so I'm often looking at our yard for story inspiration.”
Known for her character design work on Samurai Jack and animation on Ren & Stimpy ‘Adult Party Cartoon,’ Naylor started developing The Mighty Ones eight years ago, bringing Gravity Falls’ Hall on board for his gifts in storyboarding.
“I had just seen The Gods Must Be Crazy and was thinking in a very different way about what it would be like to be these small things, like a stick or a leaf, in a yard, and these large things are just being dropped into your world and how we could relate to that fragile survival,” explains Naylor. “I was noticing in our industry that there was kind of a void with shows that were really character-driven, and really having that raw humor. I felt like it was getting dry out there. The way that Sunil would speak and tell stories, I knew we could build a strong foundation for the show and help pull it together in a big way.”
“I saw Lynne’s sketches of a raspberry and a twig and fell in love with these little characters,” adds Hall. “At the time, there wasn’t a lot of storyboard-driven stuff out there. We wanted to create a show that had a relatively simple foundation where we could bring in other board artists and give them the sandbox to do their own thing.”
The Mighty Ones follows the characters of Rocksy, Very Berry, Twig, and Leaf as they explore their world of an unkempt backyard, owned by three equally unkempt humans. From launching themselves into puddles, riding lady bugs, worshiping broken toilets or discovering the world of boardgames and dice rolls, these four friends, as Hall says, “always live in the moment,” braving whatever the big, mysterious outside world throws at them. While DreamWorks Animation is most popularly associated with its CG productions, such as Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia, Dragons: Race to the Edge and All Hail King Julien, Hall says the studio was the perfect fit for their 2D comedy.
“I didn’t know much about DreamWorks Animation’s television work at the time,” Hall says. “I figured they did a lot of CG shows based on their movies and I didn’t know if that would be the right avenue for a board-driven comedy. But it ended up being the perfect place for us. Initially, we were involved with Nickelodeon for many years but the show kind of stalled out there and eventually they cut it loose. So we pitched around town to a bunch of different studios, and I don’t think anyone quite got it completely except DreamWorks, who immediately got what the show was and respected what we wanted to do with it. It enabled us to make the show our way, which is not always the case.”
Not only did Hall and Naylor want The Mighty Ones’ episode plots to be character-focused and storyboard-driven, with a strong sense of the friend dynamics, but they were also adamant from the start about the authentic, vibrant, textured, hand-drawn look of the backyard world they were creating.
“The characters are very bright and colorful, and we wanted a fantastical world for them to live in, where the story felt like it was taking place on another planet,” says Lynne. “We created a painterly look with actual paint splatters and raw inky line work, and kept the color range more retro muted. But we also wanted to create an inspiring environment for Jenny and her crew of artists working with us. Even though it is a suburban backyard, once you see it from the human's point of view and move down to a birds-eye view of our characters, the world is endless.”
This is why some of the first steps in the animation construction of The Mighty Ones’ fantasy-forest-like world were to get down low in the DreamWorks’ lawn, with Gase-Bake and her team observing, as best they could, the view of the story’s protagonists. Naylor and Hall also brought in books - the plant photography of Karl Blossfeldt and the scientific microscopic organism illustrations of German biologist Ernst Haeckel – that served as important inspiration for the show’s animation and detailed design. In addition, the team screened the documentary MicroCosmos for their visual development crew to get a sense of the scale differences for the main characters.
“There is an episode where we had a board game drop into the Yard,” Naylor recalls. “Our characters had never seen a city before or lived inside a house. That was a new environment that had to have the look and feel of a cityscape but still feel like plastic game pieces and paper money.”
Rocksy, Very Berry, Twig, and Leaf, while brightly colored, are flatter 2D characters; the water-colored world around them is incredibly detailed and texturized, and the art style creates a unique sense of dimension in the show. Filipino studio Snipple Animation’s work is, as Hall describes, “loose and rough,” keeping the rawness of the original storyboards alive but with more harmony.
“Our boards are pretty rough at the start and we have lots of really wild, loose drawings and sketches,” Hall reveals. “Snipple was able to take that and maintain the cartoony, snappy feeling that we wanted. They’ve done a killer job with that. As we've worked with them over the course of the season, the animation has gotten stronger and stronger.”
“I've always really loved when you can see the artists’ hands and their voice in the final animation,” he continues. “That was the best part of this whole development process... it takes on this whole new life and energy.”
The creative freedom Hall and Naylor gave the animation department for the gag-oriented series enabled innovative techniques to bloom as well, including the creation of their own library of brush strokes and textures.
“Jenny and her artists created splats of ink on paper, and they scanned those and used them as Photoshop brushes to create patterns in the show,” says Hall. “So, we were able to get this hand-crafted look, but also speed up the process digitally.”
While comedy drives the show, The Mighty Ones also speaks to a timely theme of tiny but mighty creatures making the most of their everyday lives over which they have no control. Hall and Naylor hope the show serves as an aesthetically engaging escape from viewers’ own life stresses and travails.
“I love how these characters deal with whatever comes into their world,” Hall concludes. “I hope those who watch the show can get a break, laugh and never let go of their imagination, where anything is possible.”
Naylor adds, “And maybe go outside and stick their face in the grass.”
The Mighty Ones Season 1 is now streaming on Hulu and Peacock.