By Martin Goodman | Animation Scoop September 11, 2013 at 12:45AM
The Disney Channel unveils a new cartoon star when "Wander Over Yonder" premiers on September 13th.
Intergalactic traveler Wander - who journeys with his equine sidekick Sylvia, from one bizarre planet to another - is cheerful, optimistic, and never without a smile (or a banjo). Of course, the universe has its dark side, and no one personifies it more than the tyrannical Lord Hater, who leads an army of chanting Watchdogs on his mission of conquest and subjugation. Not to worry; Wander can outsmart this skeletal would-be dictator at every turn.
"Wander Over Yonder" is the latest effort by Emmy Award-winning animator, series' creator and executive producer Craig McCracken, the mind behind "The Powerpuff Girls" and "Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends". Animation Scoop's Jerry Beck recently had the opportunity to chat with Craig, as well as to drop in and hear Supervising Director Dave Thomas and Art Director Alex Kirwan discuss the show.
Craig McCracken: Wander is a character I started drawing in sketches 6 years ago, an optimistic, wandering do-gooder. I ended up meeting Jack McBrayer, who's a major animation fan, and as soon as I met Jack, all of a sudden this character came to life, and I knew there was a show here, something I could do with this character.
Jerry Beck: Is this Flash animation? Someone said that it's being done on computer, but obviously you’re drawing it.
CM: It’s done in Toon Boom Harmony, a program almost like a mix between Flash and after-effects. With Flash you draw a character, clean it up, illustrate it and put it in the computer where you can slide it around like a toony virtual puppet What they’ve done up at Mercury Filmworks is basically liquefy our toony drawing and sculpt it into any pose. So, if we send a special hand-drawn pose, and tell them this is what we want the character to look like, they will take the virtual 2D puppet and mold it to that drawing, or even redraw parts if they need to . It’s a weird mix between 2D and 3D . All the original pieces are based on drawings. With all these different planets and characters, it’s even more complicated because you’ve got to have new puppets for every single one. I really admire the “ink lines”, even though there’s no ink involved. It’s smooth, really great.
JB: With all the acting and expression, there must be a lot of drawing involved in the show, because even when the characters just talking, there are still a lot of drawings here.
CM: A lot of our board artists want to be animators, so we're finding board artists who wish they could be 2D animators. When you’re boarding digitally, you can start clicking through it and get lost in it, just start watching it move. It’s a very different process than boarding on paper. When you're boarding on paper, you're thinking in terms of a comic strip, but when our guys board digitally, they keep adding more and more poses because they understand that the timing and performance has to be right, since that sells the joke. So, they wind up putting more acting into it. I’d say our our board panel count is around 1500-2000.
JB: Would you say that your show is closer to the way they would have animated it during the Looney Tunes Era?
CM: It's the closest I've ever seen. When we were doing shows at Cartoon Network, we knew we could never get great performance, so the jokes had to come from the composition or the art direction, the writing, or just the funny drawing. Or a special pose. But now, we’re getting comedy out of the way things move, and that's classic Looney Tunes style
JB: I noticed one shot where Wander is kind of crawling out of the scene backwards, and that looked like full animation.
CM: Yeah, and I think that sometimes the animators up at Mercury will use some of the extra finesse we need to get a scene across. They'll animate digitally, using the screen as a piece of paper.
JB: I really dig Lord Hater's ship, it's like something out of the seventies. There is a hippie feel, which I guess is what you were going for. It has the feeling of something out of Allegro non Tropo; that entire era.
CM: There’s some rendering to it. It was based on Terry Gilliam’s animation, the look of Fantastic Planet.
JB: It almost represents to me that period of limited animation, except that it's fully animated.
CM: There is a sort of rigid meticulousness to Lord Hater, but we also thought it looked cool, and it’s a style that hasn’t been tapped into a lot. Another thing we looked to for art direction is that Croatian TV show from studio Zagreb, Professor Balthazar. Alex and I discovered that two years ago; it's like Jay Ward meets Yellow Submarine.
JB: I noticed that the show is taking cartoon graphics to its extreme. There's a lot of quick shots, poses tripped down to their simplest graphic component that tells us what the characters are trying to think or do.
CM: I really subscribe to that Chuck Jones adage of "show it, don't say it". The dialogue just enhances the picture. You could turn it off, and the picture will tell you what’s going on. That way we can have faster cutting, more energetic cartoons, and it helps the show communicate to younger audiences. Adults get the energy and the spirit, and the sophisticated comedy, but the kids just gat it that there’s a good guy and a bad guy, and the shots tell the story.
JB: Tell me a bit about Mercury Filmworks.
CM: They've been doing work for Disney TV for a long time. What's great about them is that they’re an extension of our crew. They'll actually add to things. They're big cartoon fans; if they see something that could be plussed, or an effect that could be animated better, or a performance that could be enhanced, they take that extra step to do that themselves. I’ve never had that from an overseas studio.
JB: What’s the difference between working at Disney and Cartoon Network?
CM: Disney’s got the resources to put more money into a production, or to hire the better people. The other difference is that there’s a lot more check-in points with Disney, we show them more steps along the way. We pitch the boards to them, do more full animatics for them. At Cartoon Network, I could just do the show. I would send stuff and they would approve it, but there wasn't as much hands-on business with the executives. I’ve never had to do as many elaborate animatics, but it’s kind of fun because you get to make the cartoon first in a rudimentary form and you can see what’s working, what jokes are playing, how the pacing is working before you commit to the animation. Some of our animatics are almost the equivalent of final cartoons I delivered at Cartoon Network.
We're doing an insanely silly show, very surreal, very sweet, and shamelessly cartoony. It's like a cross between A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and Bugs Bunny. We're getting April Winchell, who plays Wander's sidekick Sylvia. It's a really fun, super cartoony show for all ages and audiences, and we’re going to celebrate that cartoony-ness.
Dave Thomas and Alex Kirwan added some comments to Craig's interview.
DT: What we do is a combination of finished drawings and computer animation, using computer software that makes the finished work look like drawings.
AK: Mercury Filmworks takes a virtual puppet of the characters, and they can warp and bend into any shape to match our storyboard. It takes the same kind of mental process as drawing, but you're just sculpting these 2D characters in the computer.
DT: Almost all the guys up at Mercury are traditional artists that draw. They still lay out boards and adjust the poses with pencils, but the final product is 100 percent computer- generated. After the animation process, we go into the art direction process we add the other elements like the backgrounds, do the color codes.
Alex and his team, they take all the stuff we've done from the storyboard and design the show: what the colors are, what the characters are going to look like, how the backgrounds are painted. Every aspect of the production is there to enhance and tell the story, so we use the art direction to set the mood of the story.
AK: The tricky thing about this show is, we’re never in the same location twice, so there’s no reuse. We’re on a new planet every single episode, which is exciting for viewers and absolutely insanely daunting for us people who have to make it.
DT: Any other show you watch, the characters are in a mall or their living room, but this on this show, everything is totally new in every episode.
AK: So, my job as art director is to tell the story visually in the best way possible, and I work with all these different artists to make sure that happens. Were meticulous about how we plan each episode to make sure that these stories have a beautiful arc, and that the art does the same thing. We aim for an emotional apex, a high point and a low point, so that everything that happens, you’re going to feel it.
We call our planning process "color scripts": Here’s a new world, so what is that world going to feel like, and how does that world tell the story? It might be an amazing world, but we don’t want it to upstage the characters. So, we try to come up with the character's story first, then come up with a world that is going to exploit that story. Like, what if Wander and Sylvia got separated from each other, how would they function? We have to come up with , "oh, maybe there’s this planet where there’s nothing but mushrooms growing through a dense mist anyone could get lost in".
We start every episode with an image of the planet we're going to be on to give you the feel of what the story’s going to be like. We call the style of the show "lava lamp" style because we take a lot of our influences from sixties and seventies psychedelia. That’s because Wander is kind of a space hippie. He's whimsical and surreal, and the world should reflect those aspects of him.
In our first episode, we introduce Lord Hater, a menacing skeletal kind of villain. To tell the story, what is the most extreme sort of environment a guy like that could invade? Well it would be this happy, preschool Sesame Street town, so we tried to get that feel. We have a different feel for every sort of environment; there’s one future episode set completely in a convenience store, and we can explore some aspect of Wander’s personality that we couldn’t do in, say, a jungle.
DT: That's the fun of this show – we can go anywhere in this series without any limits, and Wander, Sylvia and Hater have such iconic personalities that we can literally drop them into any situation anywhere. We have a great episode coming up called "The Void", because they go to a place where there’s nothing at all. It’s a surreal episode where they’re manifesting objects out of nowhere, and we break all the laws of physics.
AK: Lord Hater, our villain, is trying to inflict his sense of order on the universe planet by planet . His design style is regimented, with a lot of straights and primary colors, so we decided that the inside of his ship should look like this nightmare pinball machine. Lots of neon and inky void for him to walk around in, things you would never see in Wander’s world.
DT: Hater was heavily inspired by the Dino DeLaurentis Flash Gordon movie in the eighties; it’s campy and silly and has fun with bad guys, and we wanted Hater to be an entertaining and fun character on our show as well.
AK: We knew we wanted Hater to be a funny character, almost like an insecure teenager, but there was the question of how soon to "drop his pants" and reveal that part of him. Craig’s done a great job of tipping that character over the course of the series, so he goes from being this imposing force to this really insecure guy. Wander tends to bring that side out in him.