“3-2-1 Penguins!” Effects and Color Keys

Most of my work on the 3-2-1 Penguins! TV series was character designs and a few props here and there. However, for one episode I was asked to help out on some last-minute effects work. That episode aired this past weekend on NBC so I am finally able to show the art publicly.

In this episode the penguins and Michelle answer a distress call from a planet inhabited by sock monkeys. Their world has been flooded with grape soda (or grape juice, I can’t remember) and they’ve been living in a city protected by a giant glass dome, sort of like Atlantis. Now the glass is cracking, and like the hole in the proverbial dike it gradually gets bigger and bigger.

Various characters take turns promising to keep their finger in the hole, then abandon their posts. Each Penguins episode has a biblical moral attached (taken from the book of Proverbs), and this week’s lesson was about keeping your word.

Liquids can be extremely difficult to draw, paint, or animate. Unlike most elements of nature, water is constantly moving and changing shape. Also, it doesn’t absorb light and cast shadows the way most things do. Most objects bounce light back into our eyes (causing us to see color), but light passes through water. If the liquid has color (like grape soda) then some of the light passes through and some of the light bounces back. There was a lot of grape soda flowing and spraying in this episode, so a lot of drawings were needed to show the animators just how the liquid should look in each shot.

When you work on a weekly TV series deadlines are extremely tight. It’s like trying to lay down railroad tracks in front of a moving train. On this episode I had even less time than usual so I just drew right over the storyboards, only re-drawing an occasional arm, face, or pose if needed. A couple of color keys were requested to show the overall color scheme of the set, and once those were established no other color was needed except for the grape soda. I did a total of eighteen drawings. Here’s a few of them:

At one point in the story someone attempts to plug the hole with a wadded-up Sunday funnies from the newspaper (illustrated by the prop artist, I just added the bricks and soda). It holds for a while…

…then explodes!

It was really fun to stretch myself and try something different with this assignment. Looking back my only regret is that I didn’t add enough contrast to the soda. I should have added some darker values here and there to give it a little more solidity and depth.

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“Stay Tooned!” Issue #2

A few short weeks ago issue #2 of Stay Tooned! magazine was released. It’s a terrific magazine chock full of articles and interviews by cartoonists for cartoonists. It covers all sorts of cartooning from comics to animation to panel cartoons to character design to editorial cartoons to….well, you name it. Each issue weighs it at a hefty 88 pages, is printed on sturdy paper, and features interviews with some of the heavy hitters in the industry.

Issue #2 features interviews with:

(cover artist) Joe “Scooby Doo” Staton
Mike “Mother Goose and Grimm” Peters
Bill “Commercial Appeal” Day
Tom “Creating Characters” Bancroft
Mason “B.C.” Mastroianni
Ben “Midnight Sun” Towle
Jules “The Village Voice” Feiffer
Berke “Opus” Breathed

plus articles/columns by R.C. Harvey, Tom Richmond, Norm Feuti, Corey Pandolph and Jack Cassady.

(EDIT: For those of you interested in character design, my buddy Tom Bancroft has an article about that very topic in this issue. Since Tom literally wrote the book on the subject, it should be a good read.)

You can order issue #2 or subscribe to the magazine at the Stay Tooned! website.

Tod Carter Interview

Tod Carter is an uber-talented artist. He’s worn a lot of hats over the years from animator to story artist to director to illustrator. He’s worked on projects for companies such as Disney, DreamWorks, and Big Idea (VeggieTales) as well as several TV commercials. I had the privilege of working under him on 3-2-1 Penguins! (he directed several of the episodes I worked on) and he was always a terrific boss. I’ve also had fun inking Tod’s pencils for a couple of VeggieTales children’s books through Scholastic, such as the one pictured above.

Recently the website Animated Views posted a lengthy interview with Tod. Among other things he talks about what it’s like to work on a Disney “cheapquel”. Fascinating stuff.

While you’re at it, check out Tod’s blog (which I’ve added to my blogroll at left) and the website of his new company, Brain Freeze Entertainment. You’ll be glad you did.

DVD Pick: Ben Stein’s “Expelled”

My wife and I just watched Ben Stein’s movie “Expelled” on DVD. I had seen it in theaters but forgot how good it was. It’s a funny and very thought-provoking look at the debate between intelligent design and evolution.

There’s even a couple of animated sequences in the film. A 2D cartoon clip and an impressive 3D segment with the camera flying through he interior of a cell.

Highly recommend. Here’s the trailer:

More “3-2-1 Penguins!” Character Designs

Last Saturday NBC aired another new episode of 3-2-1 Penguins! Here’s some of the character design work I did for that episode.

In this episode the Penguins and the kids land on a planet inhabited by alligator-like characters. This guy was the Emporer. The script described him as an Elvis fan and director requested that he wear an Elvis-like jumpsuit with a soul patch. This is what I came up with. Probably one of the most fun jobs I had during my work on the series.

Here’s two of the palace guards. Because television production is so fast-paced there isn’t a lot of time or budget to build extra background characters in CG. The entire palace was populated by one of these two characters.

At one point various characters get splatted with a marshmallow gun. My job was do develop concept art to show what that might look like.

I also got the chance to do a little prop work. Here’s my sketches for a pair of blue suede shoes (worn by the emporer) and some suction cup devices that allowed characters to scale a wall. Both props figured into the story.

3-2-1 Penguins! Can be seen Saturday mornings on NBC. Check your local listings.

Designing Ethnic Characters

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently attended the Motion 08 animation conference in New Mexico. One of my favorite seminars was “Character Design: Capturing Ethnicity”  given by Dan Haskett.  Haskett is a Disney veteran who has spent the last twenty years working all over Hollywood as a character designer. He contributed design ideas to such Disney films as The Little Mermaid and Mulan, DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt, and many other projects. He was even called in to help translate Matt Groening’s original designs for The Simpsons into a form more suitable for animation. The man knows character design inside and out.

I was interested in this particular presentation because more and more I am being called on by clients to design or illustrate people of specific ethnicities. If a client needs, say, an illustration of five accountants in a life boat, they’ll almost certainly request that one be black, one be asian, and one be hispanic or middle-eastern (oh, and make sure two are women).

As “white boys” go I’m as white as they come so I struggle a bit with drawing people of other ethnicities, especially children. For years my sketchbooks have been chock full of caucasians with only a smattering of people from other races. I guess because that’s been my world. I grew up in an all-white small town and I don’t run into very many ethnic people now in my cozy Midwestern suburb. Studying other ethnicities is something I definitely need to work on.

To complicate matters, in our hyper-PC culture clients are often terrified of offending minorities. Although I draw in a very cartoony style I don’t feel like I have the same freedom to exaggerate and caricature characters of other races as I do white characters. More than once I’ve had a client request that, when I draw an african-american, to make sure he doesn’t have large lips and a wide nose. I once had a client ask me to draw an asian character but to make sure that they eyes weren’t slanted! To a degree I can understand this. Obviously I don’t want insult anyone with a negative stereotype. But there’s a point where it gets a little silly. To some clients only white cartoon characters are allowed to have big noses, goofy smiles, crazy hair, or other “negative” features. As a result, I’ve often felt like my non-caucasian drawings are stiff and stilted.

Dan Haskett’s presentation was enlightening and extremely helpful. As a black artist he is in a unique position to comment on ethnic stereotypes in cartooning. He talked about the history of stereotypes in animation from pre-WWII “black face” cartoons to more modern examples of apathetic approaches to non-white characters. Haskett then showed us samples of african-american character sketches he had developed for a Hollywood project. I was amazed at his marvelous ability to capture a variety of personalities and designs within that one given ethnicity. He must have showed us thirty different male black characters, all rich with personality and expression and all very black yet none looking a bit alike.

He challenged us as artists to steer away from “formulaic” interpretations of ethnic characters and instead to study the wide variety of facial types that appear in all races. While specific ethnic groups tend to have similar characteristics, as artists we must be careful not to oversimplify by relying on any one “formula” for creating an ethnic character (something I’ve been guilty of). Haskett rightly pointed out that not all black people have big lips or wide noses or almond eyes. Not all asians have high cheekbones and flat features. The best way to create truly appealing ethnic characters is to study the rich variety of facial features that appear within a given race, and use that variety to inform your designs. I believe his exact words were, “Figure out a way to put together an appealing set of features that *suggest* a race without relying on stereotypes”.

His words were elusive and yet they makes sense. Take a good look at these black celebrities. Each face is completely different, yet each one is clearly african-american. If I could somehow remove the dark skin tones and reduce them to line drawings you would still be able to detect the ethnicity. Still, there are huge differences. Compare Colin Powell’s bulbous, upturned nose with Morgan Freeman’s wider, flatter nose. Cuba Gooding’s eyebrows are thick and straight while Eddie Griffin’s are thin and curved. Compare Griffin’s almond-eyes to Chapelle’s bug-eyes to Morgan Freeman’s heavy, authoritative eyes. Chapelle’s skull is long and pointy. Ray Charles and Cosby have huge chins. James Earl Jones has thin lips. Yet all are somehow distinctly African-American.

Finally, Haskett reminded us that no matter the race, in any character design personality is king. Haskett challenged us to look beyond the surface features and focus on capturing the personality and of each character you create. Who he/she is as a person should be the drive your designs, with racial considerations being a secondary issue. Is the character bold or shy? Serious or silly? Wise or foolish? What are his/her habits, fears, opinions? Focus on creating a unique, appealing ethnic character and then look for ways to reveal those traits through your design.

I’m not proud to say it, but for me that’s a challenge. One I welcome.

In my sketchbooks I’ve spent hudreds of hours studying and drawing various white people, yet I’ve drawn almost no people from other races. Haskett’s presentation really challenged me to start studying the unique personalities and humanity that appear in every race and not just rely on cliches to fill a racial quota in my illustrations. I’m planning to start a sketchbook that is filled only with people from other races, and when I get a variety of sketches that I like I’ll post them here on the blog.

Motion 08 Recap

Last week I attended the Motion 08 conference in New Mexico. The 4-day event was geared towards two industries: animation (2D and 3D), and motion graphics/editing. It was one of the best conferences I’ve attended in a while. The seminars were loaded with helpful and inspiring information, and I met a ton of great people.

As an animation character designer, I figured this would be a good opportunity to do some networking with lots of potential clients. My goal was to meet as many people as possible and flex my networking muscles. It was a real treat to get out of my isolated studio and hang out with other creatives in the industry. All in all I think I gave out over 100 business cards.

The first day featured several seminars open to the general public and finished off with a screening of animator Phil Nibbelink’s self-produced feature film “Romeo and Juliet: Sealed With A Kiss”, followed by a Q&A session with Nibbelink. I missed the seminars but flew in just in time for the movie. The film is a loose retelling of Romeo and Juliet, with cartoon seals playing all the major parts. Nibbelink is an experienced Disney animator who wrote, animated, and produced the entire 80-minute film in his basement. Quite an impressive feat!

The next three days were packed with seminars on animation, editing, and motion graphics. At any given time three seminars were going at once. I focused on seminars about animation, so I can only tell you about those sessions. I can only assume the other sessions were just as terrific.

Monday I attended an all-day seminar on the modern television animation pipeline using Flash. The seminar was presented by animator Stanton Cruse from Film Roman. Afterwards I went out for dinner with four guys who design fake computer display graphics for TV and movies. When an actor uses a computer in a movie or TV show, these guys design what shows up on the actor’s computer screen. Most of the time the computer isn’t really doing anything, the actor is just miming to a mini-movie playing on his computer designed to look like real software is running.

Tuesday I attended seminars on animation principles, using Flash, and surviving Hollywood. Fascinating stuff presented by first-class speakers.

Wednesday’s seminar topics included animating to music, designing character packs for Flash, acting in animation, and designing ethnic characters. The last two seminars were both led by Dan Haskett, a veteran Disney animator and character designer. His work was incredible and his wisened, soft-spoken manner had me hanging on every word. More about his presentation in my next post.

If you are serious about animation, be sure to attend Motion 09 next year in Alburquerque, NM. Sign up for future updates.