Cool Zone: Submitted for your approval: Justin T. Nick of Time

With all the talk of box office performance, law suits and corporate politics surrounding the world of animation these days, its easy to overlook the little guys who are out there creating cool cartoons for the sheer love of it. Take for example Mike Reeping, a waiter by day and a toon toiler by night. His animated series, Justin T. Nick of Time, might not be as polished as a network primetime series with millions of dollars behind it, but it shows what one talented person can do with a personal computer and some common software. It’s funny, smart, fast-paced and just plain fun to watch.

Justin T. Nick of Time follows the adventures of Justin Thomas Nicholas, a third grade substitute history teacher whose life is changed when a rift opens up in the space-time continuum or something like that. Our slacker hero teams up with a gun-toting mirror (not a typo, he’s a mirror) named Murphy, a fish named Barry and a butt-kicking ninja babe named Sydney. Together, the motley crew must defend the earth against squeaky-voiced conqueror Modeth and other dark forces.

Particularly funny is an episode titled "Spooky, Spooky," in which the gang decides to take in a haunted house for Halloween but mistakenly ends up at a residence teeming with real ghosts, vampires and werewolves. Then there’s the installment where they lock horns with some nasty Vikings in a vicious game of bowling.

Reeping works afternoons and does most of his animating during the morning or late at night. "I’m always, always doodling though, whether it be very rough storyboards or just developing new characters," he says. "Sometimes I’ll have this shot in my head (while I’m supposed to be working) and then rush home and stay up until three or four in the morning working on it."

While Reeping storyboards all the action for Justin, he chooses to work without scripts. Instead, he and his fellow voice actors (friends and family paid with grape soda and Coco Puffs) improvise the lines, lending a more spontaneous and less jokey feel to the dialogue. He even animates the outtakes from time to time so that the characters randomly flub lines, check their scripts and start over.

It is often assumed that Justin is animated using Flash but Reeping has his own system for creating moving images. Using Adobe PhotoShop, he draws all of his backgrounds and then creates the foreground action against a blue background that allows him to do blue-screen compositing. He then imports the drawings into his editing program, Stoik Software’s VideoMan 2.03, to first work out timing.

"Say, I’m having a car chase," Reeping explains, "Car one comes flying toward the camera then violently veers right while being chased closely by a cop car. I’ll animate car one alone, getting the timing down and adding smoke from the exhaust and impact effects as it flies off camera, all that cool stuff. Then I’ll layer in the cop car, timing it to zoom past the camera. If I like it, then I add more elements. Why not have the cop car nail a trash can and have it fly toward the camera? Then I’ll add some garbage flying out as well. Sure, it may be a three-second shot but those tend to be the most fun for me."

After the animation is done, Reeping adds the sound effects using the same editing board for frame-by-frame sync. The editing software accommodates many sound tracks, so each episode usually ends up with around 18 layers of sound going at once. When everything is assembled, Reeping sends the project to his DVD authorizing software and burns it to disc. "This whole process initially took me about two years to figure out," he notes, "I have this down pretty good now so I can complete a 20-minute episode in about two months from start to finish."

Justin started as a series of comic books that Reeping tried to self-publish and sell as a weekly newspaper strip. The transition to animation has been a constant learning experience for the self-taught toon maker. "I don’t even know if I have the right to call myself an animator. I’m just a guy who likes to make cartoons. With each episode, I try to push the envelope on what I can do with what I have," Reepin states.

Right now it’s a lot of work for very little glory. There’s no money in web toons and Justin isn’t being seen by millions of people. But the fan base is expanding beyond the college crowd, according to Reeping. "For some reason (I have no idea why) my website is really big in Belgium."

Reeping hits the nail on the head when he says that part of Justin’s charm is its multigenerational appeal. Kids will like it, but it also has an adult edge without having to be mean-spirited, ultraviolent or vulgar.

Of course, Reeping would like to see Justin T. Nick of Time land on a network or cable TV schedule. Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim or Spike TV’s The Strip seem like good matches. And while he also has dreams of seeing a video game and action figures based on the property, he says he’s happy to just have people come back to his site for more wacky adventures. He remarks, "As long as the fans still like the series, I’ll keep producing it whether it ever hits it big or not."

Justin T. Nick of Time is produced by Reeping’s Squirrels Ink Prods. To order the DVDs or to download the latest episodes, visit www.jtnickoftime.com.