Friday, October 26, 2012

ELMO THE MUSICAL _ Magnetic Dreams Studio

Magnetic Dreams 2012 Demo Reel from Magnetic Dreams on Vimeo.

Since moving to Nashville, I've been working with the local animation studio Magnetic Dreams as Art Director on a number of Sesame Street-related projects, specifically the new Sesame Street segment Elmo the Musical. Shot entirely on green screen, Magnetic is responsible for creating and compositing the fully computer-generated environment, effects, and any additional characters, like Velvet, Elmo's theater curtain companion. 

If you check out the reel above, you can see that Magnetic, co-owned by Mike Halsey and Don Culwell, brings the highest level of skill to a diverse array of projects and animation techniques. They've turned Marvel's Iron Man and Thor "motion comics" into mini blockbusters, designed motion graphics for videos for musicians like Taylor Swift and Shakira, and conjured creature and special effects for the feature film AFTER. Magnetic Dreams’ working relationship with Sesame goes back a few years now, on CG-animated projects like Twiddlebugs and Super Grover 2.0, and Elmo the Musical is the next great step forward.

I've said before that my favorite part of working in a studio is how everyone's contributions go into making the whole greater than the sum of the parts. As I showed in previous posts, the look of a given episode often begins with Photoshop style frames by myself and freelance artist Astrid Riemer and storyboards by Rick Ritter. But, the team at Magnetic goes way beyond those initial designs to make them a reality for Elmo to play in. Since movie or TV credits rarely give you any real insight into the work people do, I thought I'd use this post to shout out some of my favorite contributions from the crew here on the first few episodes of Elmo the Musical so far.You can find pictures and bios for the following artists on the Magnetic website, here.

(Barnacles from SEA CAPTAIN: THE MUSICAL, CG models by Tim Crowson)

The creative director, Rickey Boyd, is also a Muppeteer who basically brought Nashville animation to Sesame Street and vice versa. He’s part of the Sesame family and he couldn’t be more attuned to the needs of a shot at both ends of the camera and production pipeline. But, I'm mostly in awe of how he can channel the spirit of the Muppets, with on-model Muppet anatomy, into his hand-drawn character designs.

(Barnacles from SEA CAPTAIN: THE MUSICAL, design by Rickey Boyd)

(Unused Asteroid character from PIZZA: THE MUSICAL, design by Rickey Boyd)

Producer, John Hamm, steadies the ship with brightly colored schedules. On the creative/technical end, John works with Layout Artist Craig Simpson and Visual Effects Supervisor Julian Herrera to integrate the footage and camera movements of the live action shoot with that of our CG environments. Julian is initially on-set at Sesame in Queens to problem solve on the front end and record set data with the placement of tracking markers. All of this was best realized in a shot from CIRCUS: THE MUSICAL in which Elmo walks a plank, bounces from a trampoline, and leaps through the air as the camera whips around to capture his crotch-first landing on the head of a cactus. It's a living...


Our CG department is responsible for modeling, texturing, lighting, and rendering all assets for the show. My first literal "Wow" moment was when I saw my style frame for the "Temple of Spoons" come to life in the model by CG Lead Tim Crowson.

("The Temple of Spoons" from GUACAMOLE: THE MUSICAL, Concept Art by Michael Lapinski)

("The Temple of Spoons" from GUACAMOLE: THE MUSICAL, CG by Tim Crowson)

Tim alternates leading episodes with CG Artist Brad Applebaum. Brad modeled most of Pizza the Musical, especially the rad spaceships but I think it's cool to note that he's responsible for problem-solving the iconic opening to the show along with Motion Graphic Director, Rhea Borzak. I cannot wait to share more work from future episodes by Tim, Brad, and the rest of the CG Team, including Yannick Amegan and Lyn Lopez.
(Opening number from ELMO THE MUSICAL, CG by Brad Applebaum)

Our Compositing department is responsible for bringing everything together, from the unsung art of keying out the green screen footage and rotoscoping (particularly Melissa Cowart) to color correction to the final lighting changes and visual effects.

Rhea Borzak leads the team and is an accomplished artist in her own right, designing the backgrounds for the infamous Katy Perry/ Elmo video and short Sesame films like this magical firefly spot for the letter "N." On ETM, Rhea created and animated the playful squiggles, bursts, and pops that illustrate Elmo's thought process.

(ELMO THE MUSICAL, motion graphics by Rhea Borzak)

The next few images should give you an idea of the extra artistry that the Comp team brings to each episode. In order to emulate the aesthetic and devices of a Broadway musical, I'll often design special lighting for the musical numbers. Compositor Joel Robertson was the first to master this challenge head on for GUACAMOLE: THE MUSICAL.
(Special Lighting from GUACAMOLE: THE MUSICAL, Visual Effects by Joel Robertson)

PIZZA: THE MUSICAL was our space epic. Judd Eschliman, Justin Burks, Josh Stafford, and Joel Robertson were responsible for animating the deep space effects below:

Abdel Pizarro had already shown his goods as a CG character animator on our direct-to-DVD video game parody movie Elmo's Alphabet Challenge but I didn't know he was also a natural Compositor and effects guy. He cooked up the lasers and force fields for PIZZA and composited Elmo's "Golden Shoes" dream world for ATHLETE.

(PIZZA: THE MUSICAL, Special Effects by Abdel Pizarro)
 (Dream Sequence from ATHLETE: THE MUSICAL, Visual Effects by Abdel Pizarro)

Remember what I said way back at the top about the "whole being greater than the sum of the parts?" Well, this shot below is a little bit of gravy that added subtle character to the entire meal. As scripted, Elmo's flying up and down in his AIRPLANE:THE MUSICAL plane. But Josh Stafford decided to play with my chubby marshmallowy clouds by having the wing nick one with a rubbery recoil and a strafing trail of mist. It's the sort of whimsy that Kevin Clash brings to his performance of Elmo and I love it when our artists infuse moments with as much charm.
 (AIRPLANE: THE MUSICAL, Visual Effects by Josh Stafford)

Perhaps the greatest challenge we face on Elmo the Musical is to model, texture, light, and animate completely computer-generated characters so that they believably interact with and live in the same space as Elmo and the other Muppets. Velvet the Curtain appears in every episode but there are guest stars that present their own challenges. Designed and Animation Directed by Rickey Boyd, the goal is to create characters that look Muppet-crafted and convey some of what makes puppeteering so endearing and yet employs the dynamism the script calls for with CG Animation, and rigged to do so by Technical Directors Harry Han and Jeremy Estrada.

Sometimes, an Animator has to bring a slab of rock to life, as Jamie Coakley had to do with the singing and dancing Rhombus of Recipes...
 (The Rhombus of Recipes from GUACAMOLE: THE MUSICAL, Animated by Jamie Coakley)

... and sometimes, an Animator has to perform an elegant dance number with the stumpy flippers and trunk body of a whale, as Andrew Lee Atteberry had to do with Moby Pink.

 (Moby Pink from SEA CAPTAIN: THE MUSICAL, Animated by Andrew Lee Atteberry)

If you've made it this far, I think you can appreciate how much work, talent, and thought go into each moment of a deceptively simple looking show. And, that's not to mention the even more invisible contributions like that of Human Resources and Accounting Guru Lisa Halsey, Editor Victor Albright, and our IT team of George Friend and James Ramsden.

Lastly, the entire crew at Sesame has taken 40+ years of experience writing, scoring, singing, designing, educating, and performing for children (and adults) and created a perfection distillation of all those skills and poured them into vibrant mini-musicals of Elmo's imagining. 

It's all a part of Elmo's imagination, we just work for him.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

FEEDING GROUND _ NYCC 2012 Effective Pitches Panel

New York Comic Con is here again but this will be the first time in a few years that I won't be attending. I'm already missing old friends, the meeting of new people, and the little tingle you get from all of that paper drying out your lungs.

FEEDING GROUND co-creator and co-hort, writer Swifty Lang will be representing us signing at the Archaia booth from 3-4PM on Friday, October 11th.

He will also be included as a presenter and the following panel:

How to Prepare an Effective Submission
Friday, 10/12 5:15-6:15pm, Room 1A06
Want to pitch your idea as a graphic novel? Archaia editors and a pair of Archaia creators—Feeding Ground’s Swifty Lang and Pantalones, TX’s Yehudi Mercado—show what should go into an effective submission.
Our publisher Archaia, and in particular our Editor-in-Chief Stephen Christy, have pointed to our NYCC 2009 Pitch Book (cover above) as a great format, both in style and content, for other aspiring creators to follow when pitching their ideas. We were one of very few books that they signed right on the Con floor.
Now, you can NOW download the whole Pitch Book PDF HERE

There's video of me talking through the process at the NYCC 2011 Panel on my YouTube page HERE

And, I went into some discussion of the particulars of the pitch book in a previous blog post HERE

Good luck, all - have a great Con and score some free posters for me.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

SESAME STREET _ Concept Art 02

Pop culture parodies are a staple of SESAME STREET. I art directed two recent bird-centric additions to the genre that appeared in the premiere week for Season 43: BIRDWALK EMPIRE and the PIZZA episode of ELMO THE MUSICAL (that stars a chicken in the guise of Darth Vader).


A send-up of the HBO Prohibition-Era crime drama set on the boardwalk of Atlantic City, NJ. Except this version is populated with gangs of chickens and ducks and adorned with birdhouses instead of the beachfront palaces. Although it was fun in itself to create designs to closely match the period-specific art direction, the real treat was designing for one of the few episodes that Muppet godfather Frank Oz performed in this season (he's Clucky Luciano).

Here it is:

(and in case you've never seen the opening to BOARDWALK EMPIRE)

The spot was produced for Magnetic Dreams by Julian Herrera and our editor Victor Albright shot the footage of saltine packs in the surf while on a trip. I'm especially proud of the opening and we heard through the grapevine that show's cinematographer dug our take on his work. You can get a closer look at my style frames that influenced the final CG models, below:


In this episode of Elmo the Musical, Elmo imagines he is a "Pizza Delivery Astronaut" who must face a chicken dressed as Darth Vader in order to deliver a pepperoni pie to the classic Muppet "Yip Yip" Martians.

Here's a clip, you can find the whole thing HERE:

The challenge for this one was creating an outer space that felt both iconic and new and retained our theatrical touches while exploiting special effects and 3D camera moves. Plus, with a script calling for Star Wars references, I wanted the designs to contain some pretty specific Easter Eggs.

Here's a look at some of my Photoshop style frame backgrounds, including the one featured in the clip above. The visual effects were achieved by the J-Team (Judd, Josh, and Joel) of our compositing department.

The script called for this specific Star Wars reference (modeled and lit by Brad Applebaum) but I also threw in some additional SW design shout-outs. The special effects for the ship were designed and animated by Abdel Pizarro. Notice too that the same chicken played "Clucky Luciano" and the villain here. On the Sesame set, they refer to him as "Stunt Chicken."

And here's a close-up of Elmo's dashboard, just because we barely see it in the episode.