A Tasty Slice of Terror: Lucas Ansel’s Secret Ingredients for ‘99¢ Pizza’

***This article originally appeared in the Sept./Oct. ’22 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 323)***

Rhode Island School of Design graduate Lucas Ansel’s clever and disturbing stop-motion short 99¢ Pizza manages to achieve a lot in less than three minutes. The short, which is screening in competition at the Ottawa International Animation Festival this month, was inspired by Ansel’s own late-night pizza joint adventures in the Big Apple.

“Due to either language barriers or inebriation, there was always some sort of miscommunication and I always found them really entertaining,” says the talented animator and TikTok star, who divides his time between L.A. and N.Y.C.

Ansel began working on the short last October and finished it in about three months.

Lucas Ansel
Lucas Ansel

“After creating a simple animatic with doodles and a rough audio using Photoshop and Premiere, I created the entire city block and interior of the pizzeria in Blender,” he recalls. “Then, once I had figured out the lighting of the digital space, I tried my best to recreate it and shoot the stop-motion puppets against a green screen. I also added all of their mouth replacements in post using After Effects.”

Among the project’s challenges was dealing with so many unknown variables early on. Ansel had never used Blender or done a lot of greenscreen work, and he hadn’t tried digital mouth replacements before. “I think just trusting myself and my eye was the biggest hurdle I had to overcome,” he says. “I’ve been stop-motion animating for close to 15 years now, so I’m super comfortable with that, and I really wanted to branch out and learn 3D programs. There is something super eerie about the combination of the two.”

Solving the Puzzle

The director says he really enjoys the problem-solving aspects of animation. “Everything from the writing, to the production, to the post-production was riddled with difficult puzzles,” he says. “It’s hard to make something ‘simple’. I really wanted the final piece to feel complete and air-tight. My friend Aidan Burke and I jotted down a few lines of dialog together and my friend Amalia Attias helped create the characters’ little costumes. But beyond that, everything else I did by myself.  Then, right before submitting to Ottawa, I asked that same friend Aidan if he’d help me rework the sound effects and bring the audio of the piece to the next level.”

Ansel is also very modest about his TikTok fame. “I think a lot of it was being at the right place at the right time,” he says. “I got into it right as lockdown started and just tried to make fun edited videos that would fool audiences or spark discussions in the comments. The interactions the videos brought to them, with people debating legitimacy and editing techniques in the comments, definitely attracted the algorithm to push them further.”

99 Cent Pizza
99¢ Pizza

The talented artist says he fell in love with animation at a young age when he watched Rankin/Bass’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. “I would watch that special year-round growing up,” he says. “I also seriously love Brad Bird, Genndy Tartakovsky and Tim Burton. My dad and grandfather both worked in the film world and I always loved movies. Sucking an audience into a story using all of these little visual tricks is nothing short of magic. I think I gravitated towards animation over live action because even more goes on behind the curtain, and I love how few people really know how much work it takes.”

He’s also having fun learning about people’s different reactions to his haunting ode to late-night pizza. “A friend of mine who goes to another college sent me their classmate’s homework that coincidentally compared 99¢ Pizza specifically to Gregory La Cava’s animation,” Ansel notes. “I just thought it was insane that my work could be the centerpiece of a random kid’s essay. I was super flattered.”

We also have to thank Ansel’s mom for being an early champion of his talents. “The best advice I ever got about animation came from my mother,” he points out. “Growing up I’d lock myself in my room making LEGO animations and literally never remember to save my files. So every other day, my computer would die after hours of animating and I would completely break down. After wiping away my tears for me, my mom would convince me to get back on the horse and start the scene over. She always told me the second time around, the animation would come out better than the first, and she was always right. She taught me to never be too precious about my work and to be willing to redo it for a better result!”

You can watch 99¢ Pizza below and learn more about Ansel’s other projects at lucasansel.com.

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