Art of the Scare

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

Another help was that Donna Freedman, the WB's executive vice president for children's programming, had previously worked at Nickelodeon, where Holman and Huang had made a splash on Life With Loopy. "Donna comes from the mindset of putting new networks on the map," Staple says. "There is no doubt this kind of show is a huge risk," one that could go a long way toward making or breaking a career.

Freedman supports Phantom Investigators as stop motion, convinced that its story and characters are strong enough to let its creators use their preferred medium.

"I wouldn't tell an artist they should only work in pastels or watercolors," she says. "Their unique style is an experiment for us, but if you don't take risks you don't find megahits."

Genre Splicing: Phantom Investigators combines stop-motion puppetry on scale-model sets with some live-action performance.
Photos by Wholesome Products
Genre Splicing: Phantom Investigators combines stop-motion puppetry on scale-model sets with some live-action performance.
Ghostbusters: The team takes on the supernatural in the seventh grade.
Photos by Wholesome Products
Ghostbusters: The team takes on the supernatural in the seventh grade.
Bay View: A local creation.
Photos by Wholesome Products
Bay View: A local creation.
Lost in Space: The show must search for an audience in a crowded Saturday morning field.
Photos by Wholesome Products
Lost in Space: The show must search for an audience in a crowded Saturday morning field.
Lost in Space: The show must search for an audience in a crowded Saturday morning field.
Photos by Wholesome Products
Lost in Space: The show must search for an audience in a crowded Saturday morning field.
Lost in Space: The show must search for an audience in a crowded Saturday morning field.
Photos by Wholesome Products
Lost in Space: The show must search for an audience in a crowded Saturday morning field.
Lost in Space: The show must search for an audience in a crowded Saturday morning field.
Photos by Wholesome Products
Lost in Space: The show must search for an audience in a crowded Saturday morning field.
Liftoff: It's weird and cool, but will ratings soar?
Photos by Wholesome Products
Liftoff: It's weird and cool, but will ratings soar?
Liftoff: It's weird and cool, but will ratings soar?
Photos by Wholesome Products
Liftoff: It's weird and cool, but will ratings soar?
Liftoff: It's weird and cool, but will ratings soar?
Photos by Wholesome Products
Liftoff: It's weird and cool, but will ratings soar?

How does she decide which show is worth the gamble? Freedman will only say, "A tremendous amount of scrutiny goes into what to program. I don't sleep at night."

Of course, executives use terms like "risky" and "innovative" only after a show is a proven hit. While it's still in production -- merely costing (rather than making) money -- those executives can be a headache for the directors.

"Anything we do that's crazy, freaky, or weird during the creative process makes them paranoid," Holman says. "But I have to remember they OK'd the show to begin with. They did take that risk, and I respect that."

It's a balancing act, as the directors try to please both the people who pay for the show and the kids who'll ultimately watch it. "Neither one is an easy job," Holman says. "I just know if we make an executive happy, it's a relief, but if we make a kid happy, it's a joy."


There are good reasons to film Phantom Investigators in San Francisco -- beyond the fact that the show's creators prefer living here. In fact, there's a long, rich history of stop-motion animation in the Bay Area. Gumby, that green putty TV icon, was brought to stop-motion life here. The pudgy Pillsbury Dough Boy (now computer-generated) began as a local stop-motion creation, too, as did those rambunctious Hershey's Kisses seen on TV commercials. Stop-motion feature films launched here include the famously spooky The Nightmare Before Christmas and the critically acclaimed children's fantasy James and the Giant Peach.

The talent pool of animators who can do the painstakingly tedious and demanding work of stop motion is small -- especially with so few outlets for this type of art. But with the Bay Area's history in the technique, more animators can be found living here than almost anywhere in the world. (Only England, home of the recent stop-motion hit Chicken Run, rivals San Francisco in its concentration of stop-motion artists.)

That's why it wasn't difficult for Holman and Huang to round up the crew of 85 carpenters, animators, and puppet-makers they needed to build the sets and film the 6,000 intricate shots that just a dozen 22-minute episodes require. In fact, they didn't have to look much farther than Emeryville, where many stop-motion veterans had landed in recent years after their line of work dried up and Pixar sought them out.

Pixar's style of computer-generated animation strives for realness, a humanlike imperfection that audiences can connect with. Stop-motion animators offer that desired sensibility, which is why Pixar wanted to train them on digital technology. Veterans like Tim Hittle, who helped make Gumby and the characters in Nightmare and Peach come alive, went on to master Pixar's computers for Toy Story 2 and A Bug's Life. But while he loved the product, he hated the process.

"Working from the keyboard is a big change when you're used to touching things," he says. "It's like trying to be a poet in a language you don't know."

Hittle and many like him missed their craft, and so they jumped at the chance to work on Phantom Investigators.

"The computer has a way of getting between you and your art," Holman says. "It can remove the soul."

Holman capitalized on that sentiment to secure his crew. "The big, computer-generated companies lay it on thick: better benefits, better pay, Häagen-Dazs bars in the freezer," he says. "But we're about lifestyle and craftsmanship. There is a genuine magic to stop motion. We're dealing with real light and shadows, using tactile materials like wood and paint to make things come alive. Sitting in front of the computer, glinting a million virtual hairs on dinosaur skin, is a grim prospect compared to our Santa's workshop."

Huang doesn't disagree with her husband's notions, but she takes a more pragmatic view. She realizes that the job standards Phantom Investigators' stop-motion animators enjoy could become distant luxuries if the show isn't picked up for another season.

"We've been very happy making our stuff, unto ourselves here in San Francisco," Huang says. "Who knows how long it will last? Next year, we could all be working for Pixar."

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