Cool Zone: Kid Notorious

Welcome to the Cool Zone. This is where we’ll highlight animation-related projects that we think are really ‘ you know, cool. In choosing our first inductee, we thought, “Who’s cooler than the animated Robert Evans?” So we paid a visit to the animation team at Comedy Central in Burbank, Calif. to see how they manage to produce Kid Notorious with such a small crew and an almost impossible production schedule and still manage to keep their cool.

Blow hard, self-aggrandizing Hollywood hustler, a legend in his own mind … say what you want about the real Robert Evans, if indeed anyone actually knows the real Robert Evens. His animated counterpart in Comedy Central’s Kid Notorious is the kind of cartoon hero we haven’t seen is a while. He’s a far cry from the well-meaning but bumbling lugs we’ve come to expect after the likes of Homer Simpson, Hank Hill and The Family Guy’s Peter Griffin. Kid Notorious is more akin to Bugs Bunny, the type of cat who finds himself stewing in a pot and nonchalantly reaches for a carrot (or in Evan’s case, a cosmo.) The Kid may miss a few turns at Albuquerque, but by hook or by crook he’s going to find a way to stay in the picture. And that’s part of what makes the show so much fun.

What makes the animated series so cost-effective is Macromedia’s Flash animation software. But forget what you think you know about Flash from what you’ve seen on the web. The Notorious kids refer to their pipeline as a "hybrid system" because they combine the speed and ease of Flash with traditional animation principles.

Lead animator Dave Markowitz explains, "Everybody thought that because of bandwidth and how much your computer could take, you were pretty limited with what you could do [with Flash]. So everybody was thinking that Flash wasn’t a good tool for animation. Now that we’re doing Flash for broadcast, we don’t have to worry about low bandwidth and we can do whatever we want as long as we can render it. So now what’s happening is we’re starting to get people who can take those traditional skills with heavy posing, timing and animation, and use Flash as a tool." He adds, "During the interviews, we were bringing in guys and saying if you’re a traditional animator, great. If you know Flash, better. All the same things apply."

Fellow lead animator Alx S. Meza adds, "It’s almost like grabbing Flash and molding to our traditional skills to the point where even Macromedia can’t even answer our questions."

One of the most impressive but overlooked aspects of Kid Notorious is the use of gorgeous backgrounds, mostly depicting Evans’ sprawling, opulent Hollywood estate with acute accuracy. Background artist Jerry Richards remarks, "Bob wanted the house to be portrayed as a fifth character." Richards also notes that every background element was drawn by hand, as opposed to scanning in photos and tracing over them. This allowed the team to faithfully recreate the actual interiors and exteriors while maintaining a cartoon sensibility. "If the layout and perspective are off, it’s really noticable," he says.

It takes a crew of 16 animators only two weeks to produce two full acts of Kid Notorious, a feat that would be impossible with a traditional 2D pipeline.

"We found ourselves drawing a lot more in the beginning–and we still do–but with Flash, you build your assets and build a staple library you can always go back to," says Meza. "I’ve always thought of this as the old Hanna-Barbera way where you say, ‘Ah, Scooby-Doo’s running through the doors again’ and it’s the same recycled animation." Flash works in a similar way. The difference is, you can work with the animation that exists and touch it up key-wise or spacing-wise."

In addition to the ability to re-use animation, Meza says Flash also allows them to significantly streamline their pipeline. He notes, "In traditional animation, you have your animator block out everything. Then you have your clean-up artists, timers and everyone else. What Flash allows us to do is combine a lot of these key roles under one individual. I can easily block it in, clean it up, check my timing and everything, then immediately show the director."

For supervising director Pete Michels, who previously worked on The Simpsons and The Family Guy, the digital pipeline took some getting used to. He comments, "In one episode, I wanted to use a dramatic upshot but everyone said ‘we don’t have time to build assets in that angle.’ It would have required different mouth angles and everything." He also notes that the tight schedule keeps him on his toes and the streamlined pipeline allows him to do more. "On The Simpsons, I had about three shows to direct in a season. Here I am doing all of them," he says.

Michels says the biggest draw for him was the concept of having the animators, writers, directors, producers, character designers and background artists all located on the same floor of the same building. The set-up is indeed a rarity at a time when most TV animation is out-sourced to overseas studios.

"We were really pushing toward developing something new because our main goal was keeping it in the states," says Meza. "In the beginning, they were thinking about sending it overseas. It was important for us to prove that we could do it here."

They’ve certainly proved that they can make Flash look good on TV and that they can do it quicker and cheaper than most productions. But will other producers see Kid Notorious as a model for keeping animation stateside? "We hope so," says Markowitz. "Best-case scenario is everybody says, ‘Hey, that’s a great system, lets go ahead and do it.’ But realistically we’re hoping that some of the people who make those decisions are going to say ‘Why don’t we try it this way? This seems to be a workable model, the pipeline is good.’ For instance, when we do a retake, we can do it instantaneously, whereas on something like The Simpsons they have to send it off and that’ll take a month or two."

Kid Notorious animators previously worked for such companies as Hyperion, Romp and Cornerstone Animation, and have lent their talents to projects as varied as the Flash series ¡Mucha Lucha! and the infamous, adult-aimed feature Lil’ Pimp. The team is currently laid off as they wait to hear whether or not Comedy Central will order a second season. That decision is expected to come down some time in January.

The Kid Notorious season finale, "White Christmas," airs tonight at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central and promises to be one of the most controversial episodes yet as Evans gets caught up in a drug-trafficking fiasco and ends up bringing a special kind of snow to Los Angeles.