Art of the Scare

How two Bay Area animators hope to revolutionize Saturday-morning TV

Phantom Investigators uses San Francisco's storied history as a backdrop. The show's plots conjure up all kinds of ghosts from bygone eras: Gold Rush 49ers, 1906 earthquake victims, Alcatraz prisoners, Haight Street hippies, even Internet and venture capitalist demons.

"San Francisco is a funky town. It's a great Gothic City with so many fun little places -- the Sutro Baths, Coit Tower, Twin Peaks -- that can provide graphically and aesthetically pleasing scenes," Huang says. "Our stories will be a little bit of fantasy and a little bit of history. As long as there is some reality to the show's spine, we can get as wacky as we want."

At the peak of production in January, Custer Avenue Stages was a veritable stop-motion beehive. Heavy black drapes divided the giant sound stage into 30 mini staging areas where animators simultaneously filmed as many different scenes. Cameras rolled as employees maneuvered puppets across fantastical model sets, such as Mrs. Oglesby's creepy nether-realm home. In other areas, carpenters feverishly sawed, hammered, and glued sets to keep up with the shooting schedule, while puppet-makers sewed and stitched.

Stop motion's limited technology is what makes the results so interesting to look at -- and so difficult to achieve. Wood, metal, or clay puppets are moved by hand in what can be clumsy ways, giving the medium its delightful three-dimensional appearance. And while cell animation is also time-consuming, its method of drawing each frame is quicker and more fluid than the intricacies of stop motion.

To bring it all to life, Huang hired local stop-motion veterans like Tim Hittle, whose film Canhead received an Academy Award nomination for best animated short in 1996.

Hittle must continually position and reposition his puppets for every fraction of a second filmed. The children's facial expressions alone are daunting: He has to rearrange hundreds of little eyes, mouths, and eyebrows -- signifying every possible emotion from joy to despair -- on the puppets' faces for every shot. Because everything must be filmed in sequential order, one mistake can jeopardize an entire day's work, causing a noticeable hiccup in continuity. In stop motion, there's

no possibility for the endless fixing and tweaking that a computer allows.

"Stop motion is a lot like live theater, or a tightrope," Hittle says. "It's easy to get safe and bored on a computer if you're not careful. Stop motion is definitely riskier. It's intuitive. You have to

make choices all the time and live with your mistakes -- just like real life. It's more nerve-wracking, but you kind of rise to it."

Holman and Huang are surprisingly calm for a married couple who also work together, enduring the long hours and intense pressure of producing a television show -- in the same tiny office. But they make up for their lack of yelling with the loudness of their clothes. Holman is never without a pair of bright red vintage-store plaid pants (his closet is full of them). On his birthday last July, the entire staff wore plaid as a practical joke.

"Everybody's blue jeans are his plaid pants," Huang says. Meanwhile, her costume consists of 4-inch-long dangling silver earrings, shirts graced with Lichtenstein pop art prints, glittery jeans, and no less than half a dozen mini butterfly clips on her head to create an explosion of hair.

The two come from very different places, and almost a decade separates them in age. Holman was raised in England's quiet countryside and listened to the Sex Pistols as a teenager, eagerly joining the English-led punk rock rebellion. "There were skinhead punks and art-school punks," he says. "I was of the art-school variety." He'll be 40 this year. Huang, 30, was born in Taiwan, but spent her childhood attending an art school in Toronto that was Canada's real-life version of the movie Fame.

Despite their differences, they share a passion for stop-motion animation, which brought them together both professionally and personally. Holman spent his 20s doing experimental theater in New York -- "Surreal, messy, cabaret-like theater complete with giant rabbit suits," he says. He ended up working for the infamous kids' TV show Pee-wee's Playhouse, where he used a combination of cell animation and stop motion to bring Pee-wee's black velvet paintings to life. That job led to work on MTV's edgy animated shorts, Liquid TV, in the early 1990s.

Huang took a more direct route, interning on the 1993 stop-motion film The Nightmare Before Christmas before becoming one of the main animators for James and the Giant Peach two years later.

The animation world was small when they met and fell in love almost 10 years ago. They married and formed their own animation company, Wholesome Products.

""Wholesome Products' is a running joke," Holman says. "It's our way to sound more squeaky-clean now that we're in kids' TV, after having done so much underground work."

Their first endeavor together was Life With Loopy, a series that aired on the children's network Nickelodeon for four years in the late 1990s. Its quirky mix of stop-motion animation, live-action hand puppets, and marionettes -- not to mention its popularity -- made the industry take notice. The result was that Holman and Huang found it increasingly easier to get meetings and pitch their ideas.

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