From illustration to animation

Inside the collaborative process that turned a set of drawings into three TV commercial spots

Published September 26, 2011 12:01AM (EDT)

This'll be the first of many posts (once a month, hopefully) presenting work I've done and the process used to produce it. When my wife, Patrice, and I originally opened the studio, it was to offer up to advertising clients our specialty of translating the work of illustrators, designers, cartoonists, etc., into animation for TV commercials. My relationship with artists has always been a key part of what I do and how I do it -- I love collaborating with these folks and each artist's way of working is different, so there's a freshness to each instance!

Cover of "Dumb Luck" book about Gary Baseman and his work

I met Gary Baseman when I was working at R.O. Blechman's New York studio, the Ink Tank. Gary had just arrived from California and was showing his work to people like Blechman and Steve Heller at the New York Times. I'd never seen sketchbooks like what Gary had to show! They exploded with unrestrained creativity -- the binders barely held the art! The idea of working with this guy was truly mind-blowing. While at the Ink Tank I'd worked with Gary on a couple of PSAs as well as cartoons for USA Today called "The Buck Family." They were all fun, but I felt they hadn't taken full advantage of what Gary had to offer graphically. It would be several years and I'd have my own studio with Patrice before Gary and I would be able to bust loose...

Click here for "Good News" PSA

These USA Today cartoons used the voice talent of wonderful Second City talents like Paul Dooley, Mike Mearian and Lynne Lipton !

Click here for USA Today, "Salesman"

Then came the Celebrity Cruises campaign.

I got a call that a creative director at Korey Kay & Partners wanted to talk about a series of three commercials they intended to produce in the style of Gary Baseman. I was intrigued but also wary that the CD might not be using the Baseman style for all it's worth. Gary's designs use a lot of familiar imagery, and initially the images even appear "user-friendly," but then the darkness hits you. There's an edge to all his work, and it's often playful -- as long as playing with loaded ammunition is what you consider playful.

To my surprise and awe, Neil Leinwohl the C.D. wanted Gary for all his edge and "loaded ammo"! These spots were going to be a combination of live action and animation but they wouldn't overlap into each other's worlds. They'd start with an animated premise and end with a short vignette of a live action scene. The concept surrounded the idea that "Life's Rough," but Celebrity Cruises provides a break from life's roughness ... Each of the three spots would start with the evolution of a nightmarish circumstance, and then transition into a live action scene of a calm ship-cruising view ...  Neil made it clear that he wanted all the edgy (and even disturbing) graphic bells and whistles of the Baseman style brought to life. I couldn't have been more psyched!

Gary is the designer of the popular board game "Cranium."

As is the case with any artist, the style they work in grows and evolves through the years as they work. Gary was (is!) certainly no exception and the look of his work had changed quite a bit from "the Ink Tank days." What used to be a relatively flat style using black line and pastel marker color had now become robust, painterly images. Very exciting when you think how it'll translate into animation, but at the time we produced these spots digital ink & paint for animation hadn't become proficient enough to handle a task like this. It was going to have to be vinyl paints and acetate celluloid shot on motion picture film -- down and dirty and quite a challenge to say the least, but still fun and exciting!

The Emmy Award winning "Teacher's Pet" created and designed by Gary Baseman.

The traditional technique of painting acetate cels (celluloid) for animated films involved transferring (after having done numerous rough tests to make sure all the action was correct) an original cleaned-up source drawing onto cel using a pen with ink, or a photocopying process like Xerox. The cel was then turned over and an acrylic vinyl paint was applied to the reverse side of the cel. The cels were then registered to the original drawing with a punched peg system and sequentially photographed onto motion picture film. This age-old technique produced a flat, graphic colored image that everyone recognizes from the cartoons they've seen over the years. However, because of the painterly quality of Gary's designs, a lifelessly flat color was not going to do justice to his work. We had to create a technique that would retain the brushstrokes and undulations of an inconsistent color application. We achieved this by painting a separate level of color on top of the cel (thus retaining all the texture of the paint strokes), and stacking the line level over the color level. I worked closely with our nonpareil production coordinator at the time, Irene "The Queen" Cerdas to ultimately figure out and apply this unique approach. It perfectly translated into film the feel of what Gary had provided us in his color model studies! The animators, Tony Eastman, David Wachtenheim and Tom Warburton, did precisely what was necessary to give each spot the distinctive personality and attitude that I felt would take advantage of Gary's designs while helping to plus the message.

The other aspect of the production that helped immeasurably was Gary Baseman's involvement throughout the production. I always offer the designer of any of our productions as much input and involvement as they want to give.  Sometimes the artist never visits the studio. Sometimes they visit on a regular basis. Gary likes to be involved, and as a result he was in the studio working on select pieces of actual production art -- a rare instance indeed, but a welcomed one nonetheless!

Here are some production elements from the three spot campaign -- each followed by the final commercial! The upper left corner is Gary's original design/model done on mini cotton duck canvases and using acrylic paints; these were our aesthetic guides and were approved by both Neil at the ad agency and the Celebrity Cruise client before we started production. The upper right frame is the cleaned-up ink drawing (sometimes consisting of ink and paint notes) done on animation bond paper and punched with registration peg holes. The lower left is the cel painted on top with the textured "painterly" technique that preserves Gary's color style -- also registered with the same punched peg system. I've included the background in some cases. Lower right is the complete frame of background/color cel level/line cel level and ready for 35mm motion picture camera photography. These were all animated at 24 frames per second. As an added touch and to contribute to a subtle environmental shift, we added different color/textured backgrounds and exposed dissolves to blend them together. When you watch the films you'll "feel" a change but not necessarily "see" it taking place. BTW -- each frame of four pics will enlarge if you click on it.

Click here for "Celebrity Cruise, Office" Spot

Click here for "Celebrity Cruise, Bedroom" Spot

Click here for "Celebrity Cruise, Yin-Yang" Spot

A framed set-up of actual production artwork from "Yin Yang," as well as a Japanese soft drink can design based on Gary's art for the spot. "Yin Yang" was also nominated for an Annie ( Award -- a coveted annual animation industry honor.

As an added and current bonus, here's one of the Baseman pieces in the Society of Illustrators "The Art of the Rolling Stone Album Review" show that opened earlier this month!

(As always, thanks go to Corrie Lebens for all her help in preparing these posts!)

Copyright F+W Media Inc. 2011.

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By J.J. Sedelmaier

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