Animating Earl

It’s always a joy when your favorite things in the live-action realm bleed over into the world of animation. This week we had a chance to visit Jargon Ent. in Burbank, Calif., where a small team of talented animators were finishing work on a two-minute stop-motion segment for NBC’s hit primetime comedy series My Name Is Earl. Featuring a guest appearance by Christian Slater, the episode will be two minutes longer than the average half-hour Earl installment and will air on Nov. 16 as the series’ big sweeps week show.

In the episode, one of the characters has an accident and starts to see everything in stop-mo vision. This meant that all the main characters’Earl, Randy, Joy, Darnell and Catalina, had to be created as 12-inch puppets by master puppet fabricator Rob Ronning and his team. Ronning, whose credits include Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and the TV series The PJs, Robot Chicken and Moral Oral, had the task of taking characters that are already cartoonish and further exaggerating their features and eccentricities.

A lot of people will mistakenly refer to it as clay animation, but the Earl puppets are actually constructed of 1085 silicone cast over wire armatures. The replacement lips were cast in pliable wax to allow the animators a little more play with the dialogue, and only the eyelids are made of clay. The exquisitly detailed sets were constructed by Roy Wood, who directed Dream Ent.’s hilarious stop-motion disaster flick spoof, Disaster!. That film is slated to arrive on home video in soon.

The lion’s share of the Earl animation was handled by Joe Mello and Screen Novelties’ Chris Finnegan, who have worked together on Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken. Tennessee Reid Norton, another L.A. stop-mo fixture, was brought in later to help them meet their deadline. Mello says the only problem with the silicone, coincidentally, was animating the giggle in the Joy puppet’s breasts. ‘I couldn’t get them to move very well because they were covered in hard silicone,’ he recalls. ‘I had to slice all around them and dig some out.’

Emergency breast enhancements notwithstanding, Mello says it’s been a real joy to work on a show he loves, rather than just doing a parody of it for some other series like Robot Chicken. The scenes that he, Finnegan and Norton are animating were first shot live action with the actual actors to give the animators some reference to work off of. Norton tells us their job is to push the already cartoonish performances even further. ‘Look at Jason Lee’s moustache,’ he says. ‘You wouldn’t think a moustache could be so expressive but it’s all over the place.’ Mello adds, ‘At first, the Earl people didn’t want anything too cartoony, but once they saw it, they said, ‘On second thought, lets make it cartoony.”

The folks at Jargon have had just four weeks to get an animation studio up and running and get the segment in the can. Norton mentions that there was no time for R&D on the shoot, so everyone had had to come up with clever solutions on the spot and most of the shots had to be done in one take, a concept that was foreign to Earl‘s live-action production team. Also, there were no back-up puppets, so the animators had be very careful not to damage any of the characters.

Another major concern is keeping the puppets clean since any dirt will show up in high-definition. The animation is being shot in 6K resolution on Cannon digital still cameras by director of photography Jim Matlosz, who says he learned everything he knows about shooting animation while working as an assistant to Pete Kozachik on The Nightmare Before Christmas. Ironically, Matlosz makes his bread and butter shooting high-speed photography for commercials, but says he’s equally comfortable shooting hundreds of frames per second and one frame at a time, though he admits it usually takes about a week to fully acclimate to the measured pace of stop-motion after coming off a high-speed shoot.

Sean Buck of Jargon Ent. says he’s had a good time overseeing the Earl shoot and tells us the company will welcome more stop-motion work should it come along. ‘There’s such a great talent base to draw from,’ he notes. ‘I’d like to do an animated kid’s show, maybe something blending robots and dinosaurs, stuff kids are into.’

Buck adds that Jargon’s philosophy is very anti-Hollywood. The company pays the rent by offering 3D animation, web design, interactive video and 24-frame playback services, but also helps independent filmmakers get their projects finished by offering access to its Avid and Final Cut Pro editing suites. Jargon also helps out with sound and has a sizeable screening room where they host Monday Night Football every week as a way of getting people together for informal networking. More information on the company can be found at www.jargonent.com.