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A PJs Chat with Mark Gustafson

Amid Amidi spoke with Mark Gustafson of Will Vinton Studiosto glean the behind the scenes production process of The PJs, FOX'snew high quality stop motion television show.

It's easy to count the number of U.S.-produced stop motion series on one hand - Gumby, Davey and Goliath and Bump in the Night. Now, Will Vinton Studios' The PJs proudly takes its place on this elite list. Looking at Will Vinton's track record, it's hard to think of anybody more qualified to undertake such a gargantuan task. Founded in the 1970s, the studio has done everything imaginable: a feature-length clay-animated feature, The Adventures of Mark Twain, numerous holiday specials, animation segments for Home Improvement and Moonlighting, a large format 3D attraction in Las Vegas and ads for the California Raisins and M&Ms to name just a few. Now with the arrival of The PJs, Will Vinton Studios has brought a high-quality and innovative animated series to the usual drudge we call TV animation. I had the opportunity to speak with 17-year Vinton Studio veteran Mark Gustafson who is currently the supervising director of The PJs. Over the years, Gustafson has produced a diverse body of work at Will Vinton Studios including the multiple-award winning shorts Mr. Resistor and Bride of Resistor, as well as directing the famous California Raisins spots and the Van Halen-inspired Nissan "Toys"commercial. Even with his long list of credits and years of experience, he admits the prospect of doing a stop motion series is daunting. "It seems like a bad idea to even attempt doing this much stop motion. My concern was, `How are we going to maintain the quality?' I've done so many commercials and they take forever. There's no way we could have done this if we'd approached it the way we do commercials. We had to invent a way to do the show that would really keep the quality because nobody here is interested in doing shlop. So what we tried to do is streamline every aspect of production so that it was all focused on the animation. What it comes down to is getting the animator on the set and in front of a camera so they don't have to bother with anything else."

(l. to r.) Nelson Lowry, Character Manager, and Dahn Nguyen, Character Wrangler, paint Thurgood. Photo by Jim Lommasson.

Vinton's technique-de-nom has been Claymation for the longest time but PJs switches gears to "foamation." Gustafson explains that "foamation" is "just stop motion animation" using a different technique. "The characters are not clay, they're foam latex but they have hard plastic, hollow heads because we need to keep the characters as light as we can. That way the heads hold up through a lot of use." Using foam instead of clay also has its advantages. "Foamation is a lot more animator-friendly. You're not spending all of your time repairing the characters. The armatures can be more sophisticated so you have better control," explains Gustafson. It's interesting to note that foam latex animation is commonly used in other stop motion works including Loose Moose's Lipton Brisk Iced Tea "Rocky" commercial and Barry Purves' films including Screenplay and Gilbert & Sullivan. Underneath the foam are normal ball-and-socket armatures. Around 135 different armatures, each approximately 10 inches tall, had to be built for the show, along with countless miniature props from bottles and benches to tables and toilets. Gustafson's job as supervising director is to make sure that "there is a continuity between the look and feel of the show" amongst the various directors. Gustafson oversees a crew of nearly one hundred people through the entire process - from communicating frequently with the Los Angeles-based writers to making sure the storyboards, animation and final edits all gel together.

One of the first questions that comes to my mind is how the animation work is divided when doing stop motion on such a large scale. "Everybody does every character," says Gustafson. "Some people have a particular skill at doing one character, so maybe when there's a key shot or an emotion that's very critical, we'll try to cast an animator for a specific scene but generally, the shows are divided up into teams. There's typically five animators per episode and they pretty much just work on their episode. It would probably be more efficient if we had animators staying and shooting on individual sets, but we decided to sacrifice that for the investment people get for working on just a single show. They [the animators] get a feeling that it's theirs and they tend to put more of themselves into it that way." The show currently has 20 different animators working on four episodes which are in production concurrently. Approximately two minutes of footage is shot every week on each episode. Episodes generally take 28 weeks to produce from beginning to end with 12 of those weeks spent in the animation phase.

Katherine Dunn checks Thurgood's various replacement mouths. Photo by Jim Lommasson.

It's interesting to note that as technology moves forward, stop motion animators still face the same problems they've always had. "Mainly that damn gravity," laments Gustafson. "Things always want to topple over. We've done everything we can to make the characters as light as possible. We've given them metal feet and we have metal magnets underneath to adhere their feet down so the characters are nice and light on their feet. They can balance on one foot or a toe." That's not to say that computers haven't made life easier. "They [computers] definitely have their place and we're using computer technology on the show in a lot of different ways." Some of the cityscapes and special effects are done with computers, while modern technology makes removing wires and rigs a breeze in post-production. While the ever useful digital technology increases its presence as an animation tool, Gustafson points out the benefit of working in stop motion, "What we're doing isn't really reality, it's our own form of reality, but we have REAL textures and REAL light falling on REAL objects. To me, it's still pretty satisfying to work that way." Inevitably, I have to find out Mark Gustafson's take on the future of stop motion. "It's hard to say. I don't think stop motion will ever be as big as cel or computers. I'm sure stop motion will always have its niche. However, I have my doubts whether it will grow to be the dominant art form in animation." (laughs) Amid Amidi is the Associate Editor of Animation World Magazine.