Here’s a MADD Canada public service announcement (PSA) that I worked on in collaboration with MJM Media in Hamilton, Ontario. My roles & responsibilities on this project included: cartoon character designs, storyboards & animatics, and 2D animations. This PSA has been broadcasted on public television, as well as on MADD Canada’s YouTube channel.
Designing the Characters
This PSA was the second live-action / animation hybrid video production that MJM Media and I created together. We previously combined a 2D animated cartoon character with a live actor in MADD Canada’s elementary school program, Brain Power; however, for that project, the cartoon brain didn’t speak, nor leave the stool it was standing on (except when it fell off at one point!). This time, two cartoon characters were required to not only talk and respond to a human actor, but also move about the 3D space surrounding him.
And so, one of the first things we needed to do was figure out what these characters looked like. The initial script described them simply as “Beer” and “Joint”—names that stuck throughout the entire production.
Video productions such as this are very much a team effort. In this case, I was working with the talented people at MJM Media, as well as their hired director, Carl Elster. As the cartoon character designer, I approached this portion of the project sort of like a casting call. I rough sketched a series of character concepts that became our pool of potential Beer and Joint “actors”—yes, even cartoon characters need to audition for their roles!
My goal was not only to provide design options for my client’s consideration, but also highlight some of the animation possibilities (and sometimes disadvantages) for each different body type. For example, should Beer be a bottle? a stein or glass? a party cup? …or a can? How does Beer’s design look when paired with Joint’s? Will the body type and night lighting affect how well either character is seen? Everyone on the production, as well as our end client (MADD Canada), was invited to comment and make suggestions.
During our production meetings, Beer evolved into a tallboy can, as the PSA was being targeted at a younger demographic. The beer can was also ideal because its metallic surface could reflect light, making it easier to see in the night lighting…
It was also decided that Joint should have a slim body, but with a tint of green so that he wasn’t mistaken for a cigarette butt…
Once the character designs were approved, the next step was to draw and build Beer & Joint as 2D puppets that could be animated (more on that in a bit). Almost simultaneously to the character designing process, the PSA’s script was being edited, and I was helping to plan the camera shots and timing for each scene…
Storyboards & Animatics
Storyboarding is a great way to visually plan any video production, but especially for animation. Because our 2D animated characters were going to interact with a live actor, both the camera shot types and the timing of each were extremely important. The PSA needed to fit a 30-second television commercial length, so we had to make sure all of the acting and dialogue worked together.
Here are two storyboard animatics that I prepared as part of the production process using ToonBoom’s Storyboard Pro and Adobe Premiere CC. The first uses a very rough dialogue track that I recorded myself (I’m clearly NOT a voice actor!). The second animatic uses an audio track provided by MJM Media, who was responsible for hiring and recording the professional talent. By this point, it had been decided that the human star would be leaving a house party, so the second animatic has an updated establishing shot, among a few other tweaks.
After the live action scenes had been shot and edited, the production baton was passed back to me for the 2D character animations, as well as some effects animations (ex. Joint’s smoke trails and Beer’s bubbles). My software of choice for this part of the project was Adobe Animate CC—I’ve been animating with it since it was called Macromedia Flash, so it’s what I feel most comfortable/competent with. That said, I drew all of the cartoon elements using a combination of Photoshop, Illustrator and Animate’s drawing tools.
In computer-assisted 2D animation, lip syncing is traditionally achieved by listening to the dialogue/audio track and swapping static mouth shapes to match the major vowel and consonant sounds. This replacement technique can be quite effective for animated productions, but since Beer & Joint were going to interact with a live actor, I wanted to give their faces a smoother range of emotion. To achieve this, I drew the different parts of each character’s mouth and eyes as vector graphics, which could be manipulated in-between each key position.
The following two videos are previews that I sent for approvals during the animation process. The first only has the cartoon characters, while the second has smoke and bubble effects added, as well as a few other tweaks.
The final stage in the animation process involved adding faux 3D lighting effects to the cartoon characters. This was handled by MJM Media’s talented Senior Editor, Bill Crocker. Because we didn’t want each character’s facial features to have the same reflective qualities as their bodies, I exported the finished character animations as separate layers. Thanks to Bill’s wizardry in Adobe After Effects, Beer & Joint look like they exist in the same world as the live actor, rather than the flat cartoons they really are!