For years we have had an urge to create a character-driven animation piece and although we have designed characters and formulated stories around them in treatments both internally and for clients, nothing really stuck or gained much traction. In this industry, with character work in particular, just as with live action direction, just saying you are ready to do something and having exciting ideas and designs is not going to cut it—you need demonstrable, production-proven skills. It's a chicken and egg problem.
For us, the opportunity came knocking in the Fall of 2010 disguised in the form of a pitch for 'Funcheez'. The script called for slapstick comedy played out by aliens on a planet made of cheese. The aliens would narrowly avert being sucked into a blackhole, which by the end of the spot was to be revealed as the imaginings of a kid munching on Funcheez Moons & Planets.
We got excited and pulled out all the stops for the pitch. We designed characters and environments, drew up storyboards, colour boards, and boardomatics. We developed a motion test and even had our characters rapid prototyped for the presentation. At one point early in the process, we even brought in a savvy five-year-old to get perspective on 'kid-appeal'. The pitch was beautiful and fun, but in the end the client decided to go with another studio for the spot. But it was too late—we had somehow fallen completely in-love with our strange little alien creatures and rather than relegating them to our salon des refusés to gather dust, decided to take the plunge and build a story around them. We got even more excited and pulled out stops we didn't even know we had.
A lot of ideas were thrown out on the table and at least as many ended up the recycling bin. After a short, intense period of exploration, we decided on a very simple story framework that would allow us to push the character animation to a high polish that any discerning eye would appreciate. We also wanted it to be funny. At the studio we are always taking the piss out of each other and the level of joking around, laughing, and overall stupidity is how we gauge our level of morale.
On the production end, we implemented a rigorous multi-stage character animation process that has set a standard how we handle all our character work. First there is the Blocking Pass, where key poses, overlaps, anticipations, facial expressions, and lip sync are set as stepped keys. Following a few rounds of blocking, the stepped keys are turned into splines for the Spline Pass and animation curves are tweaked. Eventually overlaps and secondary motion are also added. Once the motion has been refined to everybody's satisfaction, we move to the final stage, the Quality Control Pass where intersections are fixed and minor adjustments are made. As a general rule, we spend 65% of our time on the first pass, 30% on the second and 5% on the final pass.
As usual, we knew that music and sound design would play a super-critical role in the piece and so we turned to our long-time collaborator John Black of Cypheraudio. Whenever we hear those robotic grunts and bleeps we picture John in his studio with a folly mic vocalizing and acting out the emotions of our characters and we laugh ourselves to tears.