Donner: A Total Party for Kevin Munroe; Airs Thursday, Dec. 12 on ABC Family

Admit it. Besides a little time off, some good food and a couple of presents, the only reason you put up with the holidays is for those sentimental television reruns: animated specials like Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer or A Charlie Brown Christmas. Now, thanks to Sunbow Entertainment, Rainbow Studios and one highly prolific creator named Kevin Munroe – there’s a new classic to enjoy.

Sunbow’s first commission since it re-launched under the TV-Loonland banner, Donner opened the holiday season last year for ABC Family. This season’s run will kick off tomorrow, Dec. 12, at 6:00 p.m.

The most remarkable thing about this half-hour show is that it is actually the brainchild of one artist. Against all Hollywood odds, Munroe came up with the idea (the story of a reindeer who has to find himself in order to regain his ability to fly), wrote the script, designed all the characters, backgrounds and props and produced the animation. Despite the number of producing partners involved, Munroe and a hotshot team of 10 animators from Phoenix, Ariz.-based Rainbow Studios, were allowed to maintain creative control.

The result? Some genuinely slapstick 2D-style animation inside the 3D realm. This special has more squash-and-stretch than you’ve seen since vintage Chuck Jones. Add that to a spectacularly kooky design palette and you’ve got a show that kids (and yeah, adults) are gonna watch over and over again.

Busy clearing the decks for his next projects, a new comic for Dark Horse and few TV and film projects, we caught up with a very festive Munroe. Not only is he happy with the results of Donner and his directorial work for an upcoming Midway game called Freaky Flyers, he was virtually busting with good will for the “maniacal’ work completed by the artists at Rainbow. “They’re incredible, definitely one of animation’s best-kept secrets tucked away in the sweltering oasis of Phoenix. Although, I have to say, if they saw another sketch from me they probably would have flipped out.”

As you might have guessed, Munroe’s key to success in CG is consistently sticking to 2D basics…

AMO: You’ve worked as a designer and storyboard artist for shows like Hey Arnold! How did you make the jump from 2D to 3D?

KM: The move was completely out of necessity. I’m Canadian, so I had to find a company willing to sponsor me in order to come down here. I owe a lot to the game company Shiny Entertainment for bringing me onboard. They have a knack for finding talent and had this whole stable of really strong 2D guys that brought 2D sensibility to all their games. While I was there, the company was making the move from 2D to 3D game making. Those artists are the reason why I was able to start making the transition, learning to turn sketches into CG models in 3ds max. But the first few years were hard; trying to think of how to combine the two worlds.

AMO: What 2D elements are most important to remember when working in CG?

KM: For Donner, one thing was definitely depth of field. Think of classic Disney feature animation, the background cards? They don’t all have extreme detail; there’s no reason. So we didn’t model everything in the background just because we were working in CG. In fact, we included 2D handdrawn elements in Donner to sort of give it a 2D feature look.

I also really took time in pre-production to solidify the models. In CG especially, if the models look horrible to start with, then the character is going to look horrible. When we first started modeling Donner himself, he looked funny just standing in the bind pose – with his arms out and legs straight. People at Rainbow would just laugh at him as they walked by the computers. Of course there are a lot of prohibitive factors in television budgets, but everything will sort of fall into place if you can get the script down, the models set and hire the right people to bring it to life. A budget can’t affect basic good aesthetics.

Another part of creating a funny model is the eyes. It’s basic animation psychology. You look at the eyes first. The eyes are really the freeway to a character’s soul. You can’t access a character’s feelings if you have to rely on dialogue alone. So I drew this whole blown-out model sheet just for Donner’s eye expressions. That’s typical for a CG feature, but I don’t think it’s so typical for a CG TV special. I just went over-the-top.

Another 2D thing is that you don’t see characters from every angle. Like when Goofy is in a three-quarter pose, his nose is pointed up. When he’s straight on to the camera, his nose is sideways. 2D can get away with that because the camera is always locked down. That’s a total pet peeve of mine too; in CG, how the camera is always moving. You don’t see Donner from every angle and you don’t see the camera moving all the way around him. We let him perform in front of the camera. And that reminds me of another thing; when CG characters are in constant motion. Why can’t they just be standing still? For some reason if there’s a crowd scene in CG, the background characters always have to be undulating. We really tried to avoid a lot of that stray movement and just be really purposeful with our animation. It really retained a great 2D feel to the show.

AMO: And finally, what was the best thing about working on this project?

KM: Definitely working with the animators. That’s the most fun job in the world. That, and to see some of my 2D theories come to life in CG.