Sunday, April 18, 2010

New Season, New Office, New Beginnings

 I'm the Art Director for the animated series, Archer, currently airing Thursdays on FX at 10 PM.  The below is a brief glimpse into our process in making the show.  You can read the earlier posts here.


I've been on break for about a month, thus the no new posts in a while.  Firstly and foremostly, if you've never been to Costa Rica, you should.  Like, right now.  Stop reading this.  Jump on the first plane you can get and go decompress on the beach or in the jungle or by a waterfall or underwater volcano.  It is beyond awesome.

Secondly, we have a brand spankin' new office.  New gorgeous Wacoms.  New Mac Mini's (which if this works like we believe it will, then this office should be a freakin' commercial for them.)  New patio w/walking track to possibly use for 40 yd. dashes, of which I'm sure we will have plenty.   

Thirdly, we have shuffled things around here a little, adding the unbelievably talented Jeff Fastner and Joe Peery to our preproduction team.  New talent, new ideas, new dynamics.  

We have one season's worth of lessons (re: mistakes) to build off of, to stand upon to move this show into a higher level.  Tomorrow, the Illustration and Background departments load in, kicking this season into high gear.  It is, to say the least, exciting, like the first day of school, but I have less hair and no new shoes to wear.  Accidental rhymes aside, I am pumped.

Whereas I walked into the first season with eyes wide, filled with nervous anticipation, unsure of how the season would unfold, this time around, I am more confident in how this production will work, down to the last detail.  It's a big ship, filled with problems and headaches and sleep deprived nights, but it's a ship I've sailed before.  I can't wait.  

Of course you won't see the fruits of our labors until 2011, but I'll try and drop a teaser image here and there when I can.  In the meantime, you can look forward to posts on cinema theory, storyboarding technique and whatever else comes across my brain that I deem worth posting.  


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

More bragging on Chad

 I'm the Art Director for the animated series, Archer, currently airing Thursdays on FX at 10 PM.  The below is a brief glimpse into our process in making the show.  

The Pilot: Part One
The Pilot: Part Two 
The Pilot: Part Three
The Pilot: Part Four

Above: Pencils and Inks by Chad Hurd.  Cover colors by Daniel Cox.  Graytones/letters by  me.  

I met Chad Hurd on the internet.  Specifically, I saw Chad's work on Comic Space  --a site that seems/feels totally weird now-- and contacted him about possibly doing some freelance work for me.  This was way, way back in 2007.  I wanted to do a project that wasn't owned by 70-30 Productions or Cartoon Network, one that was owned solely by me.

Love, Lust and a Giant Killer Turtle was that project.  You get the general idea from the above, as foul-mouthed Lindsey Davenport meets her end at a giant turtle's beak.  It was to be a Shaun of the Dead-esque horror/satire comic, with elements of summer camp movies and those terrible movies on the SyFy Channel. (Mansquito, anyone?)

Ultimately, the project didn't go anywhere (though we did have a brief stint on Zuda.)  In hindsight, it could have been edited down to the above, much as it pains me to say it probably should have been in color and the language, while purposefully ill-fitting for a teenage girl, throws people off more than I expected.  OR it could've been the entire subject/genre/idea.  Regarldess, none of that was Chad's fault.

After doing some freelance work for us on Frisky Dingo, Chad and his wife made the big move from rural Maine all the way down to join us full time in Atlanta.  On The Xtacles, Chad served as a character Illustrator, learning the ropes and adapting to a new style of drawing. 

By the time we began work on Archer, Chad was already one of my go to guys, consistently turning in solid files.  With fellow illustrators Sam Ellis and David Caicedo, the three of them drew every character file in the pilot. 

Between the pilot and the production of the first season, we had around 4 months of waiting to see if FX was going to pick us up.  During this period, Chad and I produced another comic pitch, this time with colorist Jeremy Treece.

We shopped it around, but the economy was in the shitter and once Archer was picked up, none of us really had the time to give it the attention it deserved.  I still love this project.

Below:  Cover by me.  Pencils/Inks by Chad.  Colors by Jeremy. 
©Neal Holman and Chad Hurd.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Walking Dead, animated

I am not a zombie movie guy.  The gore, the overacting... just never has been my thing.  I get it.  I understand it.  If someone else is watching, I'll gladly watch with them.  Shaun of the Dead is easily my favorite of the genre.  It's just not typically my genre.

Zombie comics even less so.  I get the appeal.  Spider-Man as a zombie.  Sure.  Do I want to spend money on it?  No.  But others do and that's fine.  I get it.  Robert Kirkman's series, The Walking Dead, was put in front of me time and time again, and I always moved it to the back burner, a maybe I'll read this if I'm really, really, really bored kind of thing.

Then, one day, I was really, really, really bored.  I read the first volume.  Then, I read the second volume.  Then, I was calling Mack to see if he had the rest of the trades.  Because it is as awesome as everyone says it is.  It's the zombie movie that has no ending, no "fix" or climax, just a slow burn with death being the only exit.  The art is moody and unflinching, Tony Moore handling the initial run with Charlie Adlard carrying the series after issue #7.

Cut to:  Heroes Con 2008.

Sam, Chad and I are all there, hanging out and buying way too much stuff. Sam Ellis knows 95% of the comics community.  It's ridiculous.  And a little impressive.  Sam disappears for a solid hour.  He returns carrying two giant bags of Kirkman loot.  Invincible, The Walking Dead, Brit, etc.   Kirkman it turns out, knew 70-30 Productions previous series Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo.  He mentioned in passing that he might like to work with us on something.

Cut to:  Car ride back to Atlanta.

Ideas, a million a minute fly around the car.  The series we were currently working on, The Xtacles, was in trouble.  This could be a back up plan.  This could work.  I keep going back to The Walking Dead.  Black and white.  Animated.  15 minutes of zombies, every Sunday night on Adult Swim.  Built-in fanbase.  This could totally work.

The plan:  create a presentation for Kirkman, get him on board and then pitch Adult Swim tout suite.

Chad Hurd is an amazingly talented dude.  He is now our Lead Character Designer on Archer.    How amazing?  The below is an Illustrator (i.e. animatable) design of Rick Grimes, the main character of TWD.

There's some tweaks I would do to it, in the eyes, but as a STYLE this is great.  It looks sketchy, hand drawn.  I think had this project come to fruition we would have had to simplify the hair a good bit, but as a first draft, this is a homerun.  

I was working on storyboards and a background style.  Keep in mind, this is all in our spare time, after hours, unpaid work on a hunch that this might fly.  

My boards test is below, and you can see a half-finished background within them.  

The Walking Dead-storyboard pitch from Neal Holman on Vimeo.

While I was in the process of finishing the above, we finally got into contact with Robert Kirkman.  I mentioned our thoughts on pitching his series to Adult Swim and... he told us that a live action deal was in progress and it would probably not be a smart idea to do anything that might damage that.  

Forehead slapped.  Heart slightly sunken.  

We were so blinded by fanboy-ish love that we didn't even bother to check where the rights were before we logged x amount of hours thinking/developing an idea for the series.  Not smart.  

We traded a few more emails with Robert -- who was/is incredibly nice -- about developing another series, but ultimately, 70-30 closed up shop before those talks could really get anywhere off the ground. 

As announced in January, the live action deal for The Walking Dead is finally moving forward, being developed by the stellar folks over at AMC.  I cannot wait to see how they do the series.  It is tailor made for television.  AMC has really come along in the past few years, producing Breaking Bad and Mad Men, two series which are astoundingly well done. 

I still like the idea of doing a gray scale cartoon, heavy blacks and shadows, using white space to manipulate camera moves.  SO much potential.  I just haven't found another project that fits it.  


Sunday, March 07, 2010

The Pilot: Part Four

 I'm the Art Director for the animated series, Archer, currently airing Thursdays on FX at 10 PM.  The below is a brief glimpse into our process in making the show.  

The Pilot: Part One
The Pilot: Part Two 
The Pilot: Part Three


As mentioned in Part Three, our background process consists of five basic stages:

1.)  Research- Hello Google Image. 
2.)  Design-  Sketches, establishing a general direction for the environment.
3.)  Modeling-  Building the 3D model.
4.)  Rendering-  Rendering out the final camera angles needed of the model.
5.)  Painting- Painting over the renders to create the affect needed for the show.


The sketches stage sometimes consists of doing a basic sketch, getting notes from Adam Reed on what needs to be altered and then, either making those changes in the sketch form or going straight into the modeling phase.  As I was the one doing the modeling for the pilot, most times I would skip the revisions in the sketching stage, as seen above.   

The modeling stage is the most time intensive; the more work you put in here, the less the background painters have to fabricate from scratch. You pick your battles.  For example, if I needed one of the frosted glass partitions to be shattered in the above, I wouldn't spend time modeling it, but would ask the painters to add it in Photoshop.  If I needed another chair in a shot, though, I would model it.  It's easier to paint in details (shattered glass, wear and tear on furniture, etc.) than it is to paint entirely new elements (chairs, tables, copy machines, etc.)

The problem with this setup was that I was being stretched too thin, doing storyboard directions, handling character assignments, quality control and background design/modeling.  The search began to find a studio that could carry some of this weight for me, so I could focus my efforts elsewhere and maybe get a nap.  The studios in town that we spoke with either were asking an for an incredible price OR the work they turned in was of such a poor quality, that I ended up redoing their work pretty much from scratch.


Matt Thompson found Jim Lammers and his firm, Trinity Animation on ye old internet, and I am forever grateful.  At the time, however, I was extremely skeptical.  We gave them Jakov's Moscow office as a test, just to see what they could do.  The below was the product of less than a day's work for Trinity Animation's lead artist, Neal Biggs. 

Note the differences between my pretty bare bones render and Trinity's render.  It's the difference between someone who really knows what the hell they're doing and me, a guy just doing what he knows kind of works, but not really that adept at it.  3D is a field that you have to stay on top of; you have to keep up and immerse yourself in it, or it will quickly leave you behind.  What took them less than a day would've had me at my computer for several and still probably not be at their level.

Trinity Animation has now become an integral part of our production, and on top of being really, really ridiculously good at their jobs, they're also super nice people to boot.  You can download a somewhat hilarious news piece about them below, (note: the odd choice of Ask Jeeves and Snarf in the news graphic beside ace reporter, John Peppitone.)  

This week sees the penultimate episode of Archer, Season One, and it's a fantastic episode.  If you're not keeping up, watch us on Hulu!  Please help us spread the word about the show and many, many thanks in advance. 


Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Pilot: Part Three

 I'm the Art Director for the animated series, Archer, currently airing Thursdays on FX at 10 PM.  The below is a brief glimpse into our process in making the show. 
The Pilot Part One
The Pilot Part Two


The backgrounds of our show are something I am immensely proud of.  There is at least one (if not several) every episode that has me do a double take it’s so eye-catchingly good.  Eric Sims and his team (Claire, Rees, Katie and Lamont) crank out homerun after homerun with such consistancy that I rarely  ever give them notes. 

During the pilot, however, things were not going quite so easily for us.  To explain:

At the start of the pilot, these early weeks of January that I’ve been writing about, we  tapped a friend of the company and industry vet to tackle our backgrounds.  Lots of meetings, going over style and furniture and patterns, etc.  Exciting times. 

Weeks go by.  Early February, we get to see what is to be the first of many background paintings… and it’s off.  And it’s not just off by a little, needing a few tweaks; it’s off from the ground up.  From a design standpoint, from a technique standpoint, it is not doable.  Cue giant freak out.

I’m five weeks into production and I don’t have a plan on how we’re going to do these backgrounds.  While I’m silently freaking out in my head, Matt Thompson sets up a meeting with another studio in town, mostly just to get Adam Reed and I out of the house.  The meeting is a blur, so much so that all I remember is that their conference room was pretty kick ass and they all smiled a lot.  They were pitching reference photos from Google Image that I’d found six weeks ago; I was mulling Plan C. 

On Frisky Dingo, backgrounds were done by taking a photo and treating it in Photoshop.  It worked really well for us, but for backgrounds aboard say a floating aircraft carrier, photographs obviously weren’t available.  For those environments, I finally got to use my college degree.  Huzzah!  I have a B.F.A. in computer animation (3D,) and still have some marginal talents in that area.  For Frisky Dingo, I modeled the below environment, kicked out a render and one of the other guys would treat them as we treated the photographs.  Eric Sims had always stood out as being more adept at painting these renders than the other guys, case in point being the below painting, which is considerably better than the render. 

With that in mind, I showed Adam what I could do and more importantly what Eric could do and then, promptly told the girl I was dating I wouldn't be around for the weekend.  My goal was to model Malory’s office as quickly as possible, so that Eric could get painting as quickly as possible, so that maybe somehow, we might just not be utterly screwed.

Through a million cups of coffee and emails with Adam, trading notes and ideas back and forth, I get a decent working model of Malory’s office.  Not final, but close.  By professional 3-D standards, this is pretty mediocre.  Not terrible, but certainly not award winning.  Love that stock photo of the dog though (a placeholder for the final painting.)
 I left the office at 2 AM on a Sunday night.  When I came to work the next day, Eric had taken my subpar render and --within two hours!!!-- painted the below.

High fives all around.  It set the ball rolling in its final trajectory.  No more freakouts, just a fat mountain of work ahead.  

NEXT:  I work until my face falls off building 3-D environments, only to find our answer was in Kansas City (actually Lee’s Summit, Missouri) all along. 

AFTER THAT:  Chad, Sam and David get some love. 

AFTER THAT:  No idea.  Possibly backing up for storyboards. 

Monday, February 22, 2010


Thank you all for all of your support and help spreading the word about Archer.  I and everyone else here could not be more excited to keep working on this show.  Keep watching; it only gets better and better and better.

Thanks again,


Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Pilot Part Two

 I'm the Art Director for the animated series, Archer, currently airing Thursdays on FX at 10 PM.  The below is a brief glimpse into our process. 
The Pilot Part One


Remember when I mentioned I still have a pretty good working knowledge of After Effects, but that it's nothing compared to that of Mack Williams and Eric Sims?  This is where that comes into play. 

Limited Animation is all about cheating, doing a lot with very little.  It is sleight of hand at its best, tricking the eye into thinking it's seeing more animation than what is actually there.  There are two basic techniques that we use over and over and over (with infinite variations):  Layering and for lack of a better term, Sequencing.


Layering is the process of cutting a character up into layers that sit on top of one another in a specific order.  The pupils of a character, for example, each have their own layer.  If we want the character to look to the left, we simply move the pupils to the left in After Effects.  The eye lids sit on top of the pupils on a separate layer, so that when a character looks up or down, the pupils move beneath the lids.  The whites of the eyes (sclera) are also a separate layer, sitting behind the face.

The below is a brief demonstration of how Frisky Dingo heads were cut up into layers (character copryight Cartoon Netowrk):

Untitled from Neal Holman on Vimeo.


Sequencing is more akin to Traditional Animation, as it involves drawing multiple steps of one object.  To get a character to blink, for example, we create a new eyelids layer with the lids slightly closed, and then another layer with the lids completely closed.  Three layers total (open, half-closed, closed.)  In AE, we turn these layers on and off in sequence, and the result is your character blinking.  Mouths are done the exact same way, turning layers on and off in sequence, and it appears like the character is talking.   


As I mentioned in Part One,  our character heads for Archer were separated even more, with the black outlines each on a separate layer, and the low lights on separate layers as well. Though it was originally intended for lighting animation, the extra layers allowed for more movement in the face without having to do a new drawing.  Eric Sims was the first to experiment with this idea, the below being his initial test:

Untitled from Neal Holman on Vimeo.

We were all unanimously in love with this technique.  It allowed for more emotion/expression with zero extra drawing.  That is a homerun in Limited Animation.  Small, yes, but this leads to bigger things.  Mostly because Mack Williams is up at bat.

Mack is our Animation Director, our After Effects guru.  He is my counterpart on the production.  If I'm responsible for how every element looks on camera, Mack is responsible for how those elements move and interact.  While Eric and I were still working out the basics of our character design aesthetic, Mack began exploring Eric's idea, building and improving upon it.

The below is ONE drawing of a head.  One basic drawing, but look at the range Mack creates just by moving and distorting its layers.

Untitled from Neal Holman on Vimeo.

And he didn't stop there.  The below is done using both Layering and Sequencing, again with same basic drawing of a head.
Untitled from Neal Holman on Vimeo.

More impressive is how he organizes this file inside After Effects.  Through a series of expressions/coding that I don't truly understand, Mack has linked the movements of this head, so that each position of the head (up, down, left, right, etc.) corresponds to a numeric value.  If he inputs an "01," the head looks up.  An "02" and it looks down.  That is a grossly oversimplified explanation, but it's the best I can do without your eyes glazing over in boredom and/or confusion. 

I'll leave you to digest that.  By this point in the production, the show is starting to come to life.  Up next, The Backgrounds Dilemma. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Pilot, Part One



January 2009

The pilot is the hardest episode of an animated series to produce.  At this point, nothing is defined; there are no boundaries, no rules to go by.  You are alone, staring at a block of marble and you don’t know if you even want marble, much less do you have an idea of what you're going to sculpt. 

Floyd County at this point consisted of five people: Adam Reed, Matt Thomson, Mack Williams, Eric Sims and myself.  Adam had sold the pilot to FX the month previous, just as our former company, 70-30 Productions, was closing up shop.  We (70-30 sans Adam) had spent 2008 developing The Xtacles, a spin-off of Frisky Dingo, an admittedly frustrating year spent trudging through endless revisions and rewrites only to see the bottom drop out of the economy carrying our show along with it.  This pilot represented a second chance, a welcome reprieve from unemployment and an opportunity to play on a much, much bigger stage.  

Matt and Adam tackled the production aspects, casting, scheduling, hiring, etc., while Mack, Eric and I began ping-ponging any and every idea off each other.  Our goal the first two weeks was to set the show style.  On Frisky Dingo, we drew over top of photos of our friends and family to create the bases for our character files.  This gave us a giant head start in keeping the realism of the look we wanted.  I was hesitant to do this again, as I was afraid it would look too similar to FD.  The schedule on the pilot, however, didn’t allow much time to spend developing an entirely new infrastructure.  With that in mind, the goal became to take what we knew and build on it, to create a design aesthetic that removed what didn’t work on FD and improve what did.


During most of December, before production had officially started, I immersed myself in any animation that I felt had elements we could learn from.  I leaned toward more modern cartoons that had a comic book or realist feel to them, as I knew that was the direction the show was heading.  Of note, the various DC animated series, Justice League Unlimited, Batman: The Animated Series, etc., as well as Samurai Champloo, Full Metal Alchemist, Samurai Jack, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, The Amazing Screw-On Head, Waltz with Bashir, and even some animated series of the 80's, like M.A.S.K. and G.I.Joe.  I was obsessed with lighting, something I felt FD severely lacked.  Over and over and over, I watched the light and shadow (or lack thereof) play in each series, dissecting it in my head into terms of limited animation.  What layers do I need to create that affect?  Where is the point of diminishing returns, where this becomes too much of a time suck to be remotely worth while?  How will this affect our render times?  For my first two years at 70-30, I was an After Effects animator, so while Mack, Eric and the other animators are much more proficient in the program than I am now, my fundamental knowledge of AE is still fairly solid.   That being said, I wasn't about to implement a design system that I wasn't fully confident in.

The below was the first head test that we all liked (and most importantly, Adam liked.)   The design of the head has much thicker outlines than FD, as well as an obvious change in how the character is lit.  The animation is incredibly rough, but the point was to prove that the light could be done.   I was in love with the ideas in this; the possibilities for creating mood with a single shot were incredibly exciting.   

This is one drawing; the outlines of the character are on a separate layer, with the light sandwiched between them and the base/skin color.  The light is made entirely of animated solid in AE.

Lighting test from Neal Holman on Vimeo.


Ultimately, this was scrapped for a number of reasons.  Firstly and foremostly, 90% of Archer takes place under fluorescent lights, purposely mundane office lighting.  Dramatic lighting rigs like the above, while cool, could be more of a distraction and an unnecessary headache.  Secondly, as I feared, it was becoming a huge time suck.  Had we six weeks to develop and test this system or three weeks, it may have worked.  We needed to move.  Three character designers were coming in at the start of week three, and I needed a fully realized system up and running before they walked in the door.  We opted for a compromise, to replace the light with a simple shadow color, rarely if ever animated moving across the face. 

However, all the testing and experimenting was not lost.  Ultimately, the setup led to a technique I lovingly call Floaty Face.  It has vastly improved our facial animation, and I will cover it more next week, in Part Two.   

Until then, please enjoy the show on Hulu, and watch the new episode Skytanic (which is my favorite thus far) this Thursday night on FX, 10 PM EST.


Sunday, February 14, 2010

2010, totally doing it

I posted a grand total of SIX blog updates last year.  That is terrible.  That is bush league.  This year, I will do better.  More updates, more content.  So.  Leroy Jenkins.  Let's do this.

Since January of 2009, I have had the good fortune to be the Art Director of Floyd County Productions, creating the animated series Archer for the FX Network.  It has easily been the best work of my career; it has easily been the hardest work of my career.   There are 40 some odd people working on Archer these days, and the experience of working with so many talented artists from so many different backgrounds is not one I will soon forget.  I am about about 50% done with the last episode and as the season comes to a close, I have begun to look back on the past year and change of my life, working on this series that I unabashedly adore with 40 strangers who are now my friends.

Archer has been a critically acclaimed hit, with 1.8 million people watching the series premiere and rave reviews from major news outlets across the board.  It's been more than a little surreal and at times, Sally Field-esque. Unfortunately, our ratings have dropped in recent weeks.  Season Two is still very much up in the air.  You can help us by watching on Hulu and spreading the word to everyone you've ever met ever.  I am positive and I am hopeful, but nothing in this business is a guarantee. 

In the coming weeks (and possibly months,) I will be posting about my experience on the series, the trials and tribulations of an Art Director trying desperately to keep his head above water.  In doing so, I hope to offer some insight into our production, our process and shine a spotlight on some co-workers who make this show what it is. 

I am going to try and update weekly or at the least biweekly (fortnightly?), but no promises.  Our schedule is still very tight, so some updates may come quicker than others.  I should have the first installment up tonight or tomorrow.

Until then, follow Sterling Archer on Twitter, and Happy Valentine's Day.  

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Lincoln, in progress

For an upcoming pitch idea. Most likely will end up ditching the two-tone bit, but for right now I like it.