W.C. Fields once said, ‘Never work with animals or Children’
We ruled out a live action approach at the very beginning and decided that an animated feature would best suit the screenplay. Problem is, when you say animation the common perception is high end 3D like the ‘Toy Story’ Franchise, Ice Age or Shrek. To even compete against those behemoths you need studio backing and for studio backing you have to present a product that is family safe so you can’t have a little kid running around saying fuck or shit or anything else like that and let’s face Little Johnny is known for saying that and a hell of a lot more.
For the Jokes to work they had to push the envelope, it had to have the adultness of say a ‘Team America’ or ‘Southpark’ and the thing is all of those adult oriented shows started with smaller budgets in an independent kind of way. You wouldn’t have ‘Team America’ without ‘South Park’. Matt Groenig wouldn’t have the ‘Simpsons’ without first having created those endearing characters as a short film subject on a comedy show. That of course meant that we had to develop a way of telling our story within our means. 3D is the most widely used animation tool today having superseded the 2D animation brought to life by Disney in their beloved classics. I remember when I first saw ‘The Lion King’ and the fabulous sequence of the Wildebeest stampede or the ballroom dance in ‘Beauty and the Beast’. It was obvious through those sequences alone that 3D would soon dominate the silver screen.
But even today the gap between great 3D animation and crap is vast. Bad 3D animation is abundant in cheap TV commercials, music videos, web design and a slew of B-grade movies made down to a price. To pull off great 3D was a risk we felt was not worth taking, instead opting for the 2D approach but that presents its own challenges.
In 2D animation, the difference between limited animation and full animation is the difference between, say an episode of ‘The ‘Flintstones’ and Walt Disney’s, ‘Sleeping Beauty’
In full animation like ‘Sleeping Beauty’ animate every frame of footage, generally 24 frames for 1 second of film is animated. That’s a 129,600 frames for a 90 minute picture and that’s per character so multiply by the number of cast on screen and if they are wielding props add that to it. It’s a staggering amount of work. So studios back in the 60′s began simplifying things a little by introducing ‘Limited Animation’. In Limited Animation movement is only animated when necessary and many tricks are used to round out the animation. It also means that you don’t animate every frame but every second frame thus cutting your workload in half. That’s called ‘animating in two’s ‘. That quaint staggered walk cycle that ‘Yogi bear’ has was in part due to that technique. Other tricks also help to gain screen time and are often employed for comic effect. Have you ever wondered why that animated character pauses with that stupid expression that makes you laugh. Well that’s called a ‘hold’ and it buys time because you’re getting the gag but not paying for it because that held expression can last for 2 maybe 3 second and that’s 72 frames. In fact some of the more unscrupulous animation houses during the 1960′s paid animators by the finished foot so they would have to invent ways of simplifying the animation so they could meet deadlines and earn a living. Through those kinds constraints, some fantastic techniques were developed. Things like’ zip-ins’ and ‘zip-out’s’ where movement is implied through simplified blurring of shapes to suggest speed are now standard animation practice. It was a case of genius born through necessity. The strength of hits like ‘The Flintstones’ is that of ‘South Park’ or even a lot of Japanese Manga style animation such as ‘Marine Boy’ or ‘Astro Boy’ is that they are stylistically charming and make a strength of those limitations, so Clint Eastwood was right when he said, “A man’s got to know his limitations…”
So armed with this philosophy, we began exploring our options and we settled on the software assisted animation workflow using the Adobe Creative Suite, In particular the application known as ‘Flash’ for the animation. We used Photoshop for Background Art and After Effects for the compositing of all those elements.
My hesitation with this style of animation is, that when used incorrectly, it has a very floaty look and the character animation can look too marionette like, unnatural, wacky and ultimately, unlikable. The battle then, was to not let the technology dictate the approach or even the overall look.
It was time to pull out the pencils!
Little Johnny The Movie