January 19, 2015


The Proud Chicken

The Proud Chicken holding a mirror

The Tale of the Proud Chicken is the most humorous of Theo’s Tales of Little Overhill, so far. I really had a fun time writing it. Although each of the tales contain elements of humor, the Proud Chicken is funny from cover to cover, beginning with its name. To me, just the sound of the word chicken is funny. I know, I’m weird.

I love to make people laugh; it’s what drew me into the cartoon industry back in the 1970s. Laughter helps let down barriers, it puts us more at ease. Laughter is also a good medicine (Proverbs 17:22). Not only is this biblically true, but scientifically as well. Medical institutions and universities have shown that laughter is, indeed, good for us; it lowers stress, prevents heart disease, and aids in a higher quality of life.

So practice laughing! Be fluent in it!  

In many ways The Proud Chicken is like a cartoon. It is both fast-paced and visually funny. From the opening illustration to the closing one, I trust that children (and their parents) will be smiling or laughing, all the while learning an important biblical truth. You see, humor is also a great vehicle for communicating truth.    

The Proud Chicken is a retelling of Jesus‘ parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). The prodigal son is the third in a trilogy of parables found in Luke 15 that deal with a lost sinner being found––the lost sheep, the lost coin, and then, of course, the lost son.  

The first two parables illustrate God seeking the lost, as illustrated by a shepherd leaving the ninety-nine sheep to hunt for the one, and a woman scouring her house until she finds a valuable coin. The point of these parables is that the sheep would remain lost, the coin would be unfound, except for the tenacious pursuit of our Lord and Savior.  God is the initiator, the First Cause of our salvation.

He is the pursuer of our souls, the “Hound of heaven,” as it were. 

What is unique about the prodigal son tale is the fact that we don’t see the Father pursuing the lost son at all. Instead we see the son coming to his senses after a season of debauchery. That is, he changes his mind about the road he has taken and returns to the Father. In this we view salvation from man’s perspective, the result of the Father’s initial pursuit and wooing (John 6:44).    

We are all prodigals in one way or another, past or present, so we will identify with Chadwick the rooster. We may not look like him but, there is a little bit of Chadwick in each of us. Each of us has gone his own way, none of us have pursued God, all of us have raised the fist of rebellion at God. We are sinners everyone.  Were it not for God’s great love for us, were it not for His dogged pursuit of our souls, each of us would remain spiritually dead and lost in our transgressions and sins.

Jesus said that if anyone comes to the Father he will in no way cast him out (John:6:37). What we see in the parable of the prodigal son is the great love of our heavenly Father. We see how warmly He receives the repentant sinner. With the Father clothing the prodigal with a royal robe, placing a signet ring on his finger, and sandals for his feet, we see a picture of the new birth, our adoption as sons and daughters into the royal family of our heavenly Father, as well as the authority that goes with it.  

Underlying the parable is the concept of grace. It is a sonship undeserved. The pharisees of Jesus’ day had no understanding of grace; theirs was a religion of outward appearance, of works.       

The prodigal son does not deserve the reception he is given; he deserves to be treated as a slave. He deserves to remain an outcast. But Jesus makes it clear that it’s not by our own works of righteousness that we are saved, it is by grace through faith (Ep:2:8-10).  

In the Tale of the Proud Chicken, Theo says this very thing in response to Chadwick’s humble contrition. Grace. We are saved by God’s unmerited favor. Our Father receives the believing sinner with open arms, clothes him or her in the righteousness of His dear Son. He sets before each child of God a path of righteousness.  

It is a finished work!

I hope you will enjoy this new book––smile as you read it with your children.  Most of all, I encourage you to ponder the parable of the prodigal son, put yourself in his position, and marvel at the great love and grace that our heavenly Father bestows upon us.

December 22, 2014


The Gift

A Pile of Gift Boxes

As a child, Christmas was my favorite holiday––it still is. I loved Christmas not just because of all the presents, but for the season itself. I loved that time of year because of crisp, wintry days with Jack Frost nipping at my nose, when the Fall foliage sent up its glorious last hurrah, and sweaters and gloves came out of the closets. It was a time for football, and for those of us living in England it was the season for rugby: my favorite sport.

I loved the school parties that launched the seasonal school break. I loved the Christmas and holiday songs playing on the radio and piping through department store speakers. I loved singing Christmas hymns in church and, of course, I loved the general spirit of Christmas in the air.

Back in the Stone Age, when I was a kid, the Christmas season usually kicked off on the day following Thanksgiving. The season was usually inaugurated with stores decorating their storefronts with trees and wreaths and toys and other goodies, shoppers greeting one another with Merry Christmas, garlands of holly and mistletoe crisscrossing main street, and families stringing lights around their homes.

Television even got into the seasonal spirit with perennial favorites, such as A Charlie Brown Christmas, and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, A Miracle on 34th Street, and, of course, the all time Frank Capra favorite, It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s no wonder that I loved Christmas as a kid.

What’s not to love?

Then there were our family traditions that I grew up with and looked forward to enjoying every year. I’m sure that your family had special traditions as well.

One of our traditions was trimming the tree on Christmas Eve. That’s kind of late in the season, I know, but this particular tradition arose mainly because my dad got great, closeout deals at the tree lots. Once he even bought two trees, neither of which amounted to much more than firewood. Dad drilled holes in the bare spots in the better of the two trees, then cut branches off the second one and inserted them into the holes. The tree literally went from looking like the scrawny Charlie Brown tree at the beginning of the show, to the fuller one at the end.

Way to go, Dad!

One of the best family traditions was my dad reading the Nativity story from Luke 2, after which we’d all sing Silent Night by the lit tree. Singing next to my brothers was always a little awkward, but it was a tradition that we wouldn’t do without. And then we’d cap off the evening with a glass of eggnog and sugar cookies while we set out more cookies and milk for Santa before heading off to the midnight service or bed.

I’m sure everyone reading this blog has a unique family tradition that is treasured, perhaps even continued today in their families.

I would love to hear some of them.

But the Christmas season is not always so wonderful to some. It can be a time of sorrow and sadness, too. Statistically, it’s the time of year when many people get melancholy or depressed. There are many reasons for this: unfulfilled expectations, the stress of shopping, of beating the crowds, of traffic jams on the highways, and the loss and memory of a loved one, to name a few. However, the biggest reasons for depression during the Christmas season are loneliness and the lack of being with family.

And I can attest to that.

While serving in the Marine Corps in Naples, Italy, I well remember standing guard duty on Christmas Eve in 1971. It was the loneliest Christmas I’d ever spent. I was thousands of miles away from family and friends. There were no Nat King Cole classics playing on the radio (they weren’t allowed on post). I actually looked forward to the Sergeant of the Guard inspecting my post, so that I would have someone to talk to, even briefly. Boy, was I depressed.

On a happier note, that Christmas of 1971 was the last Christmas before I became a Christ follower and truly came to understand and appreciate the meaning and purpose of the babe in the manger. You see, Christmas is not about tinsel and holly boughs, or Currier and Ives greeting cards. It’s not about parties or presents. It’s not about Christmas carols sung by a choir, or even Christmas cheer.

It’s about the Gift!

I tried to capture the emotional ebb and flow of the Christmas season in Belfry’s Christmas Gift. The following is a brief synopsis:

In this heartwarming Christmas story from Theo's Tales of Little Overhill, Belfry must think of something to give Theo at the Christmas party. He soon discovers that the best gifts are not those wrapped in ribbons and bows. Belfry's gift is one that changes the life of a gruff and lonely clockmaker, someone shunned by all of the village animals. It is the gift of love!

I think that you will enjoy reading the book with your children and families this Christmas Season. Perhaps it will even become a tradition that your children, and your grandchildren, will carry on.

Another worthy tradition that we could all do together as the family of God would be to visit the lonely or send gifts to a worthy organization. I think about the loneliness of our men and women in uniform, miles from home today. I think about those heroes in our police and fire departments who must serve on Christmas. I think about those in hospital beds, or in prisons, in rest homes or orphanages. A card or gift or visit would certainly brighten someone’s Christmas season and manifest the love of Christ, don’t you think?

Onward and upward!

Now, to one and all, have a blessed Christmas season, and always remember that because of God’s great love for every one of us He sent His only Son, wrapped not in ribbons and bows, but in the tender flesh of a little baby. Let’s celebrate Him well!

Merry Christmas!

September 30, 2014


Belfry's Christmas Gift Out Today!

Belfry's Christmas Gift Book Product Image

We are excited to announce that our new book is out today!

In this heartwarming Christmas story from Theo's Tales of Little Overhill, Belfry must think of something to give Theo at the Christmas party. He soon discovers that the best gifts are not those wrapped in ribbons and bows. Belfry's gift is one that changes the life of a gruff and lonely clockmaker, someone shunned by all of the village animals. It is the gift of love!

Belfry’s Christmas Gift is a beautiful hardcover board book. The story is written by Theo creator Mike Joens and beautifully illustrated by Len Simon.

You can find out more about the book on our website.

Belfry’s Christmas Gift is available today at your local Christian Bookstore and online.

Merry (early) Christmas!

February 21, 2014


Fishers of Men

One of Theo’s favorite pastimes is fly-fishing.  The River Coln flows gently past his cottage on its way through the Cotswold Hills of southern England, and is filled with lovely brown trout.  Such a pastime allows one to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life and spend time in a quiet stream or lake, relaxing in the beauty of God’s creation.  Great for us humans, not so great if you’re a fish.

Fishers of Men

Fly-fishing is the art of catching fish with artificial lures that resemble real bugs, or “flies” as in mayflies or stoneflies.  Like most sports or activities there’s an art to fly-fishing, a skill which is learned.  Some people are better at it than others, of course; some are naturals, some never develop a love for it and prefer other types of fishing.  People like me have to work very, very hard at it, and only catch fish with dogged determination and much prayer.  Not a joke.  

Also, the fly-fisherman must think like a fish.  If you were a fish where would you hang out?  Rivers have personalities; some are easy-going and gentle, some are treacherous, some meander with endless loops of cut banks and eddies.  The fly-fisherman must learn to read the river. A fly-fisherman must have a fair knowledge of the stream he or she wishes to fish, as well as a fair knowledge of the fish itself.  Not all rivers are alike, and neither are fish.  For example, barracudas don’t have the same diet as rainbow trout.  You won’t find a marlin in a trout stream.    

Finally, there are different seasons, as well.  Trout are bug eaters, but like all creatures great and small, bugs have life-cycles (egg, nymph, emerging adult, dun, spinner, etc.), so it’s best to know what’s hatching bug-wise.  The knowledgable fly-fisherman will “match the hatch,” by selecting an artificial fly from his fly box that best resembles the bug of choice.

What’s my point to all of this?  Temptation, of course.  Did you know that the devil is a professional with centuries of experience when it comes to fly-fishing?  He’s been around a long time, and knows what artificial flies will tempt us.  He’s basically got three types: lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, the pride of life.  He bagged our great ancestors Adam and Eve with these three, and hasn’t added any new flies to his flybox.

He knows what artificial lure to use to entice the believer into sin.  James 1:14 reads, “But each person is tempted when they are dragged away and enticed by their own evil desire” (NIV).  The word for “enticed” is deleazo in the original language.  It’s a fishing term that means to lure.  

A wary trout may “sniff” at a lure, but then pass on it.  He knows it’s a fake.  I’ve had this happen many times in my own experience.  What do I do?  I’ll try a different fly.  Maybe he’ll go for this one.  If he does, I’ve caught him.  I’m a catch-and-release guy; that is, after I catch a fish I let him go.  The devil releases no one.  There are no “limits” he must abide by.  The devil knows his fish.  he knows what lure to use for every kind of human fish, for every kind of water condition––stream, lake, ocean––and in every season of the year.

November 05, 2013


Behind the Scenes of the Theo Series - Post Production


The term post-production refers to the final leg of production, where everything comes together in a kind of grand finale. Although post-production implies something that happens after production, “Post,” as it is simply called, is very much a part of the actual production process. Many elements that contribute to the finished picture occur in Post: ink and paint, compositing, music score, sound effects, and final mix.

As I mentioned in my last blog on Production, elements of Post will overlap the production phase. For example, once an animated scene has been cleaned up and scanned into the computer it moves, technically, into post-production. To wait until all scenes in an episode were finalized before beginning Post would cripple a production flow and extend the schedule needlessly.

The Post phase is the most technical production-wise. As I mentioned in my first blog Whitestone Media is a “tradigital” studio; both traditional and digital. Post is where we mostly handle the digital in tradigital.

Let’s begin our discussion with Ink and Paint. Inking, first.


Back in the Old School days (1920s - 60s), once a scene was completed by the animator and cleanup artist it was hand-inked onto clear celluloid sheets (cels) with brush and pen, usually by someone with a keen eye and very steady hands. What I mean by this is that a blank cel was placed over an animation drawing and traced by the inker, using a black ink line for the entire character. This inking might also been done in what was called a “self-color” line. The self-color lines were chosen to match, accent or compliment, the various colors of a character––skin and hair tones, clothing, etc. Very time consuming, very expensive.

Very beautiful!

All of Disney’s early feature films (until 1961) were done this way, as were many of the Warner Brothers, MGM and Walter Lantz shorts (Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam, Road Runner, Tom & Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, etc.); however, the less expensive shorts were mostly hand-inked with a black line.

Still very expensive, still a classy look.

When Xerox arrived on the scene in 1960 with the Disney theatrical short Goliath II, and then in 1961 with the theatrical film 101 Dalmatians, most hand inking went out the door. Using Xerox, the drawings were copied onto a cel with a fraction of the time and cost. The animators liked this approach, because their actual pencil line work––the life of the line––was preserved on the cel; whereas the hand-inked line approach was, of course, second generation and very clean. 

Today, for our Theo production, we actually have the best of both worlds available to us. Not only can we maintain the life of the animator’s actual pencil line, but we can do so using the self-color approach, without losing a generation. I love the look and feel––the richness––of the old self-line approach and insisted that Theo be treated this way. Next time you watch a Theo episode study the lines of the different characters, and you will see what I mean. You will get a glimpse of this in the Theo character shown here.

Belfry with Self Color and Black lines

We can achieve this self-line look because of available computer programs like Toon Boom, and the computer wizardry of my Technical Director (Brandon Joens) and his crew. It still costs more than if we went with a solid black computer-generated line, but the more natural self-line look was worth it. Don’t ask me how these guys do what they do––probably because whenever Brandon wants to give me a tutorial I’m usually hiding under my desk.

So much for line work, now onto cel painting. 


Again, back in the Old Days, once a drawing was inked or Xeroxed onto a cel, it went to a cel painter. As a point of interest (to me anyway), my very first job in the industry, while taking an animation night class, was that of a cel painter at the Hanna Barbera studio. The job is usually handled by women (I hope this doesn’t sound sexist). They’re just better at it than men! When I worked as a cel painter there were 3 of us guys and 150 women. It’s a tedious job. Women have the patience and dexterity to do it well, and my hat’s off to them.

Ink and Painter

Once a cel painter received a scene full of celluloid drawings, she (or he) turned each one over and, using a cel-vinyl paint, painted (or floated) the colors into place––kind of upside down painting-by-the-numbers––then placed them on a shelf to dry. This process is now completely handled in the computer.

Nowadays a pencil-on-paper drawing is scanned into the computer. It is then cleaned up in Photoshop; that is, any lead smudges, or imperfections on the paper itself are digitally washed away. Once a scene is cleaned up it is dropped into the Toon Boom program and “vectorized” (don’t ask me what this means). Once all of the drawings in a scene are vectorized, the scene is ready for the digital painter. Zip, bam, boom. Done! Techie talk for it takes about 1/10th the amount of time as it did in the Fred and Barney era.

Very sad for the loss of jobs, but in this case the computer does it faster, less expensively, and without loss to quality. Hard to compete with that. 

The next phase in Post is Compositing. 


I never cease to be amazed at what the compositor can do today. Once a scene has been digitally “inked and painted” it is composited (or married) to the appropriate BG, which has been digitally “painted” in After Effects. At this point the compositor adds shadows and highlights onto the animated character, as well as what are called “drop shadows” beneath the character’s feet, planting it to the BG. This gives the character a real 3D look and feel, adding verisimilitude (techno term for “Man, that looks cool!) to the scene.

The compositor can also give a scene a real depth of field. If a character is walking in the scene with the BG panning (moving) behind him, the compositor can create a simulated parallax effect. What do I mean by this?


Imagine you are looking out the window of a car as you are zipping along the highway. Objects in the foreground––telephone poles, cows, trees, hitchhikers, appear to be moving faster than objects in the distance, don’t they? In reality they are moving past your eyes at the same speed. This is called the parallax effect. Today we can create this in After Effects. In 1937 Walt Disney’s William Garity and Ub Iwerks developed what was called a multi-plane camera, with several levels on which drawings, overlay paintings were placed, to help create a sense of depth and parallax. It took several technicians to operate it, but it created a cool verisimilitude. Check out the opening scene in Pinocchio to see what I mean.

For Theo we have used this parallax effect in several scenes throughout the series. The one shown here (photo A) shows the scene from the viewer’s point of view. This is a still photo, of course, so you don’t actually see the parallax effect in motion. However, we have provided a behind-the-scene look (or “behind the curtain,” as Brandon likes to say) at the many levels that are composited together, each moving at a different speed, to make this effect happen (photo B).

Parallax Flat Parallax Behind

Finally, the compositor will color balance the scene/scenes, so that the picture, color-wise, all works together smoothly. Also, he can make scenes darker, lighter, moodier––whatever––and really “plus” the episode.

Now for the icing on the cake––Music and Effects


At the point when every scene in the episode has been composited and given a final edit by the director, the film is “locked down;” that is, it is finished/completed to the frame and won’t be added to or subtracted from. At this point the picture will be uploaded to our music composer.

In the case of a television series, a music composer will write several music cues––dramatic music, spooky music, happy music, traveling music, etc––and build a music library. A music editor will then select a particular cue to fit a scene or sequence, drawing from the library. This helps control cost, and is time efficient. But it is not action or scene specific. Next time you watch a modern cartoon (or live-action TV sitcom or dramatic series for that matter), you will hear music cues being used and reused. The process works, of course, much as a mass-produced piece of furniture works, but there is nothing like the quality of a handmade piece of furniture.

A musical score is the handmade approach. More expensive, but what a difference! Feature films are usually scored; that is, a composer will write music specific to the picture. No libraries.

The old Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons were scored back in the golden age of cartoons. One of the great composers was a man by the name of Carl Stalling, who worked for several of the big studios. Carl would score to picture, sometimes using musical instruments to accent a comedic moment, or to give a particular character a “signature” music theme. If you ever watch Disney’s Peter and the Wolf, you will see––rather hear––what I mean. This is the kind of approach I wanted with Theo. Each episode of Theo is individually scored to picture. There are no Theo music libraries. 

We are blessed to have John Sponsler work with us.

John Sponsler

John is a brilliant film composer who has worked with Hans Zimmer on the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and many other television series and films. He is also very Kingdom-minded, and has made himself available to write the score for every Theo episode. Next time you watch an episode turn up the volume and look away from the picture. There are several episodes, particularly in the Shoebox Bible Theatre sections, that are so moving that they bring tears to my eyes.


Once the score is completed we send the episode to our sound man who adds sound effects (SFX) to the picture. We wait until our music is completed, because John Sponsler might have treated a moment on the screen with a musical effect, made by an instrument––woodwind, percussion, horn, etc––as Carl Stalling often did.

SFX come in two categories––effects and foley.


Foley (named after Jack Foley, who worked back in the silent film era) covers sounds like footfalls or doors opening, usually taped in a foley studio by a guy actually opening doors or making footfalls. Foley effects give necessary weight and sound to a scene. The old piano falling ten stories ending with a horrendous crash? You guessed it, foley! The helmet scooting over the floor in Theo’s “Armor of God” episode (God’s Grace)? Foley! The effect was created by our sound man, Brad Brock, in his foley studio, by sliding a pale over the floor. Not funny, per se, but without it the scene would be dead, sound wise.


The other category of SFX is simply called effects. Effects accent the cartoon scene with sounds that are funny to listen to. They give a cartoon comedic punch. It’s the effects that make us laugh.

For example, an animated scene––say, the bulldog biting the bad guy on the fanny in our episode on “Salvation” (God’s Heart)––is funny to watch by itself. But when a wacky effects editor like Brad enters the scene, and adds the old “Bone-bite” effect to the precise moment, I guarantee it will evoke a belly laugh.

There are other scenes, like the swarm of bees attacking Luther at the end of the episode in “What is the Church” (God’s Truth), that utilize several layers of effects piled (layered) onto each other to create a specific sound. The sound I wanted was something like that of a WW2 fighter plane strafing a target (I know, I’m weird). Rising to the occasion, Brad combined the effects of various machine guns, jack hammers, buzz saws and who-knows-what-else, to create a very funny sound. Throughout the sequence the bees, shaped like an huge arrow, give Luther his just dues on his fanny as he runs away from the camera. (see photo) I can’t watch that sequence without laughing out loud (LOL to you social media users).

Luther and Bees


Finally, the last element of Post takes place in the Mix. Brad also does our mixing for us. He has worked as a professional mixer and sound guy in the cartoon industry for years (go to the IMDB site and check out his nearly interminable list of credits).

The job of the mixer is to “mix” or balance the various sound track levels––dialogue, music and SFX––so that everything sounds good and proper. For example, if the music is played too loud over a dialogue scene, then we won’t hear what the character is saying. Not good. Similarly, if a dramatic music score is played too low, we could lose the emotional underpinnings of the scene. Bummer. If a sound effect is played too high or low, then we may lose the scene’s comedic intent.

This brings me to tears.

And there you have it––the broad strokes, at least, of what goes into the making of a Theo episode. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I will address the making of our Shoebox Bible Theatre (the Bible story sequence) in a future blog. For now, this should suffice to either whet your appetite for a more detailed look into animation production, or cause you to run out of the room with your hair on fire!

God’s best,


October 29, 2013


Behind the Scenes of the Theo Series - Production

The Pre-production phase (see last blog) is now complete and Production is ready to begin. This phase––consisting mainly of layouts, animation, cleanup, background painting (BG) and color modeling––is the busiest, most time-consuming phase of making an animated film. It’s where the rubber meets the road or, more accurately, where the pencil meets the paper. Lots and lots of paper and pencils and erasures.

It’s a very involved process, and I can only give the broad strokes in one blog. So let’s begin with layouts.

Just as a live-action production needs locations and sets in which actors will play their scenes, so also an animation production must have locations and sets in which the animated “actors” must act. However, instead of scouting locations and building sets, in animation a layout artist must draw them.


A layout artist is simply one who lays out––or plans––a scene. What does that mean? First of all, layouts include both background (BG) layouts and character layouts. Let’s talk about BG layouts first.

If the script calls for a BG––say Theo’s cottage, mouse hole, Theo’s library or whatever––then it’s the job of the layout artist to design what that environment looks like. Exactly what it looks like. If it is Theo’s cottage, for example, the layout will show windows, and thatched roofing, and bushes and trees––everything the scene should look like before it is actually painted.

The layout artist usually begins with a storyboard scene, for, as I stated in my last blog, the storyboard is the blueprint for the film. It sets the stage (pun intended) for everything that follows. Because storyboard panels are typically smaller than full size animation paper, the layout artist will draw the scene to scale; that is, to the actual size the animator will animate to.

At this point I could write scads on the technical use of field guides and aspect ratios, field cuts, truck-ins and truck-outs, vertical and diagonal pans, which might cause the reader’s eyes to glaze over (I’m getting sleepy just writing this). So, for the sake of humanity, suffice it to say that most animation is drawn within a 12 field setup, with a 16:9 aspect ratio (widescreen), which fits most modern television and computer screens. (see photo of a typical 12 field field guide).

Field Guide

As I said earlier, layouts contain two components. Apart from the BG layout, a layout artist must also include rough drawings of the characters that will animate in that particular scene. Say for example that the scene requires Theo talking with the mice. If so, then the character layout will show “pose drawings” of what Theo will do in the beginning, middle, and end of the scene. He will be drawn “on model”; that is, according to the model sheet described in the last blog. This way we get a consistent look for Theo and the mice, as well as their relative sizes; and, more importantly, the animator will know his start and stop marks. Indispensable in producing quality 2D animation.

Theo Model

Finally, a layout artist will indicate various movements of the camera to the animator. For example, we might start the scene at the little Norman church overlooking the river, then PAN over to Theo’s cottage where we see Theo talking with the mice. A PAN is when the camera appears to move from one part of a background to another, horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. Somebody’s got to indicate this stuff. It probably was written in the script, indicated in the storyboard, but now visualized in the layout.

At this point production approaches a fork in the road with three tines (technical jargon for heading this-away and that-away at the same time). In reality they are three separate roads that diverge after the layouts. One road leads to background (BG) production, the other to traditional 2D animation. A third road leads to our Shoebox Bible Theatre production (the part of the show where Theo tells a Bible story through stylized computer-generated animation), which I will discuss in a future blog. 

Let’s talk about BGs.

Since that opening scene every Theo BG has been painted digitally in the computer by very talented digital painters. Being a Neanderthal when it comes to embracing New School technologies, I was resistant to this at first. And then I saw what the new stuff looked like, how BGs could be modified, and given multi-plane effects (next blog). It’s truly amazing!

Digital Background

Digital Background

In the old days BGs used to be painted by artists using paintbrush and actual paint (gouache, watercolor, cel vinyl, etc.), depending on the production design of the picture. As a point of interest, the opening pastoral scene in Theo’s The Good News was painted this way, by Annie Guenther. This dear lady started at Disney studios as an inker (more on this next blog) on Sleeping Beauty (1953), and was a BG painter on Robin Hood (1970). I have left that opening BG intact in her honor, and as an homage to the Old School BG painters.

Painted Background

Painted Background

Colors for the characters are usually chosen at this point, so that they will work well with the BGs. Theo’s fishing togs must show well against the BG. Likewise, the mice or Scratch or Bumper or Bailey must appear natural against their BGs. If not, they won’t read or feel right. They’ll seem unnatural. Further, there are daytime colors and nighttime colors. In our episode on “What is the Church” (God’s Heart) the opening sequence is outdoors and at night and needed a spooky look. So the colors needed to be chosen to work with the BGs. If we don’t choose colors with the BGs the illusion of simulated life will not work.

Now for the second tine in the fork.

We now take the road that leads to traditional (2D) or traditional animation. I love classical animation, the kind Walt Disney was famous for. I also love the 1950s graphic cartoony look that dominated the late-1940s and 50s television and print ad work. So I have included both of these approaches in our Theo episodes to provide variety, visual interest, and hopefully humor.

The stage is now set (drawn), the characters are in costume and at their marks, the director calls, “Action!” to the animator, and off we go.

An animator is an actor with a pencil.

The primary job of an animator is, like a live-action actor, to make a character believable. His challenge is to make a character so appealing or menacing or funny––whatever––that viewers will actually believe that the character is real. That the character actually thinks, that he feels. Remember, an animator must do this with a pencil. If the animator has caused me to suspend belief––that is, to not think that I’m really watching a series of drawings flying by a 24 frames per second; if he causes me to laugh or cry or bite my nails, then he has done his job.

Two of my favorite A-list animators of the modern era are John Pomeroy and Len Simon. Both of these versatile animators are seasoned pros who have worked in top studios like Disney, DreamWorks and Sullivan Bluth Productions, but now work on Theo. I am both blessed and honored to have men of such talent on the production team. I love getting scenes from these guys, because I know that the vision I have for a character or scene will always be surpassed by these super talents.

John Pomeroy Len Simon

John started animating at Disney, and along with Gary Goldman and Don Bluth, founded Don Bluth Productions (An American Tail, Land Before Time, The Secret of NIMH). John was thrilled to be a part of an animated series that glorified the Lord. Len Simon cut his teeth at Sullivan Bluth Studios (Thumbelina, Anastasia, Titan AE) and soon became their youngest animation director. Truly a wizard with a pencil.

Neither of these guys live in Southern California where Whitestone Media is located, so how do I see their work?

Pause for a Time Capsule moment.

Back in the Stone Age animators used to work in a brick-and-mortar studio alongside other animators and artists. This promoted studio camaraderie. It also promoted a healthy competition between artists. Animators could see what the animator in the next room or animation desk was doing and be inspired by his work. You could also go to some veteran animator who had been with Walt Disney or Friz Freleng or Chuck Jones in the early days and ask for advice on a scene. When I first got into the animation business in the 1970s this is how it was. I miss those days, and I miss the studio system (I sound like an old geezer, don’t I), but time marches on.

Nowadays, the animator can live just about anywhere in the world he or she wants to live, as long as they have Internet access. Here’s how we do it now. After the animator has finished the first draft (or rough) of his scene, he scans it onto his computer and sends it to me via email or through some other Internet program. I can look at his scene on my laptop immediately, call him up and discuss it with him. There may be a change or two, but mostly, working with pros like John and Len, there are few. These guys have made my job as the director a joy. 

Cleanup is the next step in the production process. Like the title implies, a cleanup artist is one who takes the relatively rough animation drawings of the animator and cleans them up; that is, he or she draws a clean line, making sure that every part of the character is drawn on model. The cleanup artist is a bit of an unsung hero. Most likely, unless the animator draws very very clean––or “tight”––the actual line drawing that you will see on the screen is the work of the cleanup artist. These are men and women with very steady hands, and with keen eyes for detail.


In a production with a limited budget the cleanup artist will usually draw all of the inbetweens (inbees) that the animator has left for him or her. In large productions with big budgets there is usually a separate department where Inbees are handled by inbetweeners. Clever name, huh?

People often ask me how many drawings go into a minute of film. My answer always produces an open-mouth, eye-popping response. To give you an idea of the enormity of the animation task, there are 24 frames of film (35mm) for every second. Everyone of those frames must have a drawing in it. Sometimes, two. Sometimes more, depending on the complexity of the scene. Let’s do a little math. Twenty-four frames times sixty seconds is 1,440. 1,440 drawings of ONE character for every minute of film! Two characters, double it. Three characters, triple it, and so on, times the number of minutes in an episode.

Holy carpal tunnel syndrome, Batman!

Thankfully, the human eye is very forgiving. Animators, in order to save their wrists and fingers, discovered that if they film a drawing two camera clicks, rather than every one click, we will still see a fluid movement in the drawings. This not only cuts down the number of drawings per second, it helps with cost as well.

Finally, once an animated scene is completed and has been signed off, it is scanned into the computer and then dropped into the animatic––the “timeline,” as we call it at Whitestone Media (see last blog). In this way we build the episode one scene at a time, until all of the animation for the episode is completed.

Once the last scene has been animated, cleaned up and put onto the timeline, the production phase for that particular episode is officially over and Post-production begins. Technically, in order to maintain a good flow of production, post-production will overlap the animation process, as we shall see in the next blog.

And there you have it.

Next blog: Post-production

October 23, 2013

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Behind the Scenes of the Theo Series - Pre Production

One vision. Six months. Fourteen thousand, four hundred frames of film. A gaggle of artists and technical nerds. One thousand, eight hundred cups of coffee. Four gobs of money (a gob is 16 crate loads). Those numbers represent a part of what it takes to make a ten-minute episode of Theo.

Piece of cake!

We all love the behind-the-scenes look at our favorite movies, don’t we? Bonus features that give us a peek into the lives of actors and directors, as well as into the production itself; its highs and lows, perhaps some technical insights as to how they got full-size humans to look like hobbits, or how they got Superman to look like he’s really flying. Over the next several blogs I am going to write about the three production phases that go into the making of Theo––Pre-Production, Production and Post Production.

I hope I can do it in three blogs.

Animation, for those who are not aware of it, is a very labor intensive, highly collaborative filmmaking process. It involves writers, animators, background painters, voice-over actors, mixers, dubbers, compositors, producer, director, production manager, and the list goes on. No one person can do it all.

I’ve been asked many times, “Don’t you just do it with computers nowadays?” I frown. My upper lip curls. “No!”

People have funny ideas of what a computer can do. It can do many things which help the animation process, but it cannot yet replace good old fashioned pencil-to-paper technology. They’re getting close though. Very close.

In the meantime, Whitestone Media is what we call a “tradigital” studio; that is, we animate traditionally, with pencils and paper, the way it’s been done since the beginning of the modern art form with Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur (1914). This is the traditional side of tradigital. The digital side of it kicks in generally with the ink-and-paint phase, as well as each of the phases in post-production (more about this later).

There are highs and lows in every production, traditional or digital; times when everything is hitting on all eight cylinders, and times when––dare I say it––the wheels come off. Technical glitches, artist meltdowns, life crises, whatever. Such is the creative process involving many talented artists and technicians. Toss in some spiritual opposition (in the case of Theo cartoons), buffeting and human frailty, and it’s a wonder that anything gets done. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes we cry, sometimes we wonder if this is what God really wants us to do. And always, as we “wrap” an episode, as we sit down together as a studio and watch what God has allowed us to do, we resoundingly say, “Yes, Lord! Thank you! Use this for your glory!”

Pre-Production--Script through recording

Mike Joens at the computer Every episode of Theo begins in prayer. As the writer I always begin a script by asking God what He wants me to write about, what He wants me to teach through Theo. As we Christians know, prayer is a mystical experience, and difficult to articulate. But we know that when we pray God always answers. Sometimes He answers through my daily devotional time. A scripture may come to mind, and then a theme––like justification, or the new birth. At other times one of the artists might call and say, “What about this idea, Mike? I was just praying about it. I think it would be a good topic for Theo.”

“Yes, but can I condense it into a 10 minute episode?” That’s often the most challenging part. Weaving a biblical theme with Scripture and humor can be challenging as well. It’s a balancing act.

Once the script is written, I will give it to Lisa Joens, my associate producer and daughter-in-law, and she, or her production assistant, will go through and mark it for new characters, backgrounds and props.

For example, in our episode on Adoption (God’s Truth) we needed a new character, a dog, whom Theo adopts into his family. New character, new model. Someone needs to design it.

I did a rough sketch of what I had in mind for Bumper’s look and gave it to John Pomeroy, one of our lead animators. He gave it the “Pomeroy touch,” making it “animatable”; that is, a character whose basic forms––body, head and muzzle masses––would be easy for animators to animate, and yet retain a fun and engaging personality. This drawing then got tweaked by Len Simon, another lead animator, and the character of “Bumper” was born. Truly a character created by collaboration.

Early sketches of Bumper the dog Once the director approves the character model, turnarounds must be drawn. A turnaround is just that, a turnaround of the character. It’s a series of drawings of what the character looks like from every angle––top, bottom, side, front, 3/4 front and rear views. Attitude poses are also very helpful, so that an animator will know what the character should look like in this or that pose or his range of expressions.

John Pomeroy and Mike Joens discussing the storyboard John Pomeroy also does most of our storyboards. A storyboard is a scene-by-scene depiction of the script. He will interpret a written scene, talk it over with the director, and then, in the solitude of his studio, breathe visual life into it, acting with his pencil. Every scene, every camera angle, every bit of character acting, every nuance of expression is drawn into the storyboard. In reality the storyboard is the “blueprint” for the picture. Or, as the old animation saying goes, “If it ain’t in the storyboard, then it ain’t gonna be in the picture.”

Props are inanimate objects, such as rakes or hoes, or hammers, or dog bowls that will animate in a given scene. Like character models, each prop needs designing, so that animators will have a consistent model to work with. That way one animator’s dog bowl will look like another’s. Props are either designed from the storyboard, or from the script, depending on the flow of production and artist availability. Sometimes we are able to reuse a prop from an earlier episode, such as Theo’s fishing rod, or wheelbarrow. This of course saves time and money, two commodities in cartoon production that always seem in short supply.

Next comes recording. We bring in the voice actors and record the dialogue. It’s fun to listen to the actor’s take on a line of dialogue. And it’s especially fun when an actor adds (or ad libs) something not in the script that actually plusses the scene. Personally, I like to direct the actor from the storyboard, whereas there are those who like to direct from the script, and then give the actor’s readings to the storyboard artist to help him or her visualize the scene. Each approach has merit.

Voice actor in sound booth One of the major differences between live-action and animation filmmaking is how we edit. In live-action the editing process usually occurs in the post-production phase. In animation in occurs in pre-production. Why the difference?

A live-action director will usually call for several “takes” of the same scene, until he gets it the way he wants. Afterward a film editor will go through reams of raw footage and pull it all together. We simply can’t afford to do that in animation. Because animation is so expensive we have to get it right up front, on the first take; we must “pre-edit” the film. Before an animator ever touches pencil to paper we must know what the film looks like, how long each scene will take, what camera angles best fit the scene, and so on. To do this we create what’s called an “animatic.”

Animatic of Theo An animatic is a filmed storyboard. Once the storyboard is completed and the voice-overs have been recorded, we then scan the storyboard into the computer and “time” it out in a computer program; that is, how long should this scene or action take? I still favor an old fashioned stopwatch when I time out scenes, but there are digital stopwatches available for non dinosaurs. In the animatic we arrange everything in proper sequence, sometimes adding storyboard inserts if needed, sometimes even adding sound effects or stock music to give us a feel for the storytelling. With the animatic we “lock down the picture” to the frame.

Track reading and X-sheets come next (sounds like a Sci-fi movie, doesn’t it?). This is the point where it gets a little technical. People have often asked me how we get the voices of the actors to match up, or lip-sync, with the animation. It’s very simple. But first a note about exposure sheets, or X-sheets as we call them in Cartoon Land. An X-sheet (see photo) is a long sheet of paper with bunches of horizontal and vertical lines on it (I told you this was going to be technical).

X-sheet Each one of the horizontal lines represents 1/24th of a second of film. Put another way, there are 24 frames of film in every second (based on the old 35mm standard). It takes so many seconds for an actor to read a line of dialogue. The same line could be read fast or slow, depending on what the director wants.

A track reader receives the finished recording on tape, or WAV file, and “reads” it; that is, he listens to each word and writes it down phonetically, and notes its duration, on the X-sheet in the vertical column going down the middle of the page. For instance, if Theo says, “God loves you,” it might be written, “ga-awd lu-uvs yooo,” in the vertical column, taking up several of the horizontal lines; again, depending on how long it took the actor to voice it.

By following the X-sheet, the animator knows that at line 20, for instance, Theo’s mouth must make a “Guh” expression for two or three horizontal lines, followed by an “aaah” or open mouth expression, for several more lines, followed by a D, and so on. As long as the animator follows the track reader’s notations, his animation will sync with the actor’s words. Of course he will have a copy of the actor’s actual voice, in order to get his/her tone, vocal expression, etc, the way it was recorded.

There are a lot of other steps involved in the pre-production phase, but this gives a general idea of the process. Hang on, though, we’re just getting started! Next blog we’ll talk about the Production phase, which involves animation and clean up, and BGs, and layouts, and all the rest of the fun stuff that goes into the making of a Theo episode.

April 03, 2012


How to Make an Eternal Impact for Every Christian Parent

 Click here to read the featured article in the April 2012 issue of Parent Life magazine from Lifeway.