October 23, 2013

Through fun and engaging storytelling, Theo teaches children God’s word and how they ought to live in light of it.

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.

Michael Joens