Rita Street’s guide to developing animated comedy for kids

Rita Street is a successful producer of television animation.  She is currently executive producer on the Cartoon Network show Hero: 108.  Now, she has used her substantial experience in pitching and selling TV animation to create a free e-book:

A Cartoon Girl’s Secret Guide to Developing Kids’ Comedy Series that Sell!


If you are seriously interested in creating an animated comedy series for kids, and pitching it to a network, you should spend a little time to read this very informative book.  It contains excellent, practical advice on developing ideas, and preparing log lines and sales bibles to show to executives.  I like to emphasize that comedy is a business.   You NEED to go after an audience.  To create a television series, that means going through the networks.  It is a very challenging industry, and Rita’s book offers sound advice.

More importantly, Rita clearly loves animation. She appreciates comedy and has some good suggestions on the topic.  It’s totally worth the time it takes to read.

Animated film trailers graded

I went to see Monsters University yesterday. Whenever a big name animated film is shown, they load it up with previews for other animated films.

TURBO “A-” I think this looks like a lot of fun. High Dreamworks quality. The supporting cast looks entertaining.

PLANES “C-” If Cars 2 was milking the franchise, then this one is genetically re-engineering it. Too many characters and locations. I think this should have been left in direct to video land.

FREE BIRDS “C+” Slightly confusing, first a turkey goes to the white house, then breaks into a time machine. I kept waiting to laugh. Seems rather formulaic. Having a comic brigade of characters in hazmat suits has now jumped the shark.

FROZEN (teaser) “A” This short film featuring a snowman and a caribou was great. All animated film trailers should be short films.

CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS 2. “B+” lots of visual puns with food characters had me laughing.

LEGO MOVIE “B” Is it stop motion or CG? Interesting look, DC comic characters a driving techno beat and some funny jokes caught my attention.

The broad appeal of Wreck-it-Ralph

The trailers for Wreck-it-Ralph were strong enough to make me want to see the movie the first weekend out. I was not disappointed. Wreck it Ralph was a fantastic from beginning to end. It was a parade of appealing characters that I couldn’t get enough of. The story, the sets, the camera work and animation were all top notch.

Beyond all the individual elements that go into producing an animated film, there is always the basic question. Who is this film’s audience? The broader you can make the audience, the more potential you have for happy, and paying, customers. Wreck-it-Ralphs appears to have pulled in around 50 million dollars in it’s opening weekend, which is very good. Wreck-it-Ralph has the broad appeal of the best Pixar movies.

This is probably the most gender balanced animated film ever. There were two strong female characters, the sassy little girl Vanellope Von Schweet, voiced by Sarah Silverlman, and Calhoun, the combat hardened woman played by Jane Lynch. I looked down the row, and noticed a mom who seemed to be as engrossed in the movie as her kid was. I think she liked Calhoun. I imagine quite a few moms went with kids, and spread the word to their friends. Also, the two females never had to compete or conflict with each other. When romance blossomed for one of them, it didn’t diminish her power.

Like a politician courting voters, you need to appeal to women, and the older folk, like me. I don’t play video games much anymore, but I did back in the age of Atari. I very much enjoyed playing Qbert. Seeing old video game characters was fun for me. It’s like in Toy Story when they threw in classic toys that adults remember from their own childhood. Now that kids are turning more and more to electronics, this is how it evolves.

It’s high energy entertainment, but not without heart. Ralph is a character struggling to redefine himself. His quest is to get a hero’s medal. I recall being a child, and desperately wanting a medal or a trophy. During one of the dramatic moments, when Ralph has to wreck something important to Vanellope, the audience went silent. We really felt bad for her. This is a film that is in touch with what being a child is like.

Hotel Transylvania

As usual I go see a movie the second weekend it’s out. Hotel Transylvania was still very well attended at the matinee.

I’m not a fan of Genndy Tartakovksi’s TV work, so I went in with low expectations. The trailer didn’t help when I saw Dracula’s head held perfectly still while his mouth moved, making it look like limited animation. But that was just his character, and the animation overall was great fun. It was quick and loose, without being too rubbery, like Ice Age 4.

What the story did well was put Dracula square in the middle of multiple relationships that he had to juggle. There was his daughter, then there were his many monster friends who trusted him to keep the hotel free of humans, and finally he had to deal with Jonathan, the human packpacker who stumbles into the place and threatens everything. When his daughter meets Jonathan the reaction causes the real dilemma for Dracula. Most animated films don’t have such complicated situations. But the many elements allowed for a really fast moving story with many sudden challenges.

While I think Adam Sandler brought nothing special to the part, Dracula and Jonathan did actually have a chemistry that is rarely found in animation. The dialog had a classic snappiness, while being modern and relavant. I could feel the tension between them. A father meeting a boy who might be interested in his daughter is always a delicate situation. Top it all off with the boy being somewhat clownish, the dad being Dracula, and hilarity ensues.

The Mavis character was very appealing and sympathetic, but she didn’t add much to the story. That tends to be the way with the female romantic lead, doesn’t it?

All of Dracula’s challenges were excellent reasons for plenty of visual humor and exciting action. I was never bored in the movie. The myriad monsters allowed for all kinds of physical gags. It’s great to see a feature film go cartoony like this. I mentioned how it didn’t get too rubbery. In my Ice Age 4 post, I pointed out how rubbery is funny and rigidity is scary. Dracula stood very rigid (the straight man?) , and this was the perfect contrast, to Jonathan being limber and expressive.

It was totally worth going to. I rate it “Pay full price at the theater”, and I am looking forward to the DVD to rewatch some of the animation. I met Genndy back when he was going to direct animated features with The Orphanage. Now I’m even more sorry that didn’t work out.

Behind the scenes of “Ted.”

Today is the release of “Ted” from director Seth MacFarlane. Starring Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis, “Ted” is the story of a boy and his teddy bear brought magically to life. Similar to Jay Ward’s “Fractured Fairy Tales” this story takes the idea of a magical event and applies some real life considerations to how the story might actually turn out. The boy and the bear grow up together, but never actually grow up. They are like college room mates who never graduated.

The Ted character is a CG animated bear, with production shared between Tippett Studios in Berkeley, and Iloura in Sydney Melbourne. I was employed at Tippett, as part of the Ted animation crew.

First, this is a very mature comedy, so mature, that the studio Human Resources department held a special meeting with anyone on the show to remind us not to get too caught up in the subject matter, and to maintain our professional dignity.

I have to admit, I am not much of a “Family Guy” fan. It just isn’t my thing. But Ted is absolutely hilarious. I have never had so much fun in dailies. Watching the same scenes over and over again for weeks usually gets a little old, but during Ted I would find myself still laughing at a scene the 20th time I saw it. Most of the humor in this movie is verbal. There is plenty of action too.

There was motion capture used on the film. Macfarlane would put on a Moven suit, on set and act out the parts for the Ted scenes they were shooting that day. It was mostly used for scenes of Ted sitting and talking. So it was a lot of arm gestures and head and shoulder motion. That’s about it. For the larger action, it was all keyframe animation.

I have worked on many films with live actors interacting with CG characters, and I have to say Mark Wahlberg is by far the best at relating to something that isn’t there. All he had to look at was a stand in of Ted’s eye position. MacFarlane would stand off screen and speak his lines. I totally believe they are in the scene together.

SPOILERS AHEAD: Tippett Studios did two scenes that involved “humping” One is seen in the trailer, with Ted humping the card swipe station at the supermarket, (animated by Jimmy Almeida), and the other was Ted having sex with a woman. All we see is the woman’s legs and Ted’s butt (animated by James Brown) . The animators first had the real sex very fast and comical, like a rabbit, and the pretend humping slow and sensual. Each was a parody of the real thing. (And yes, they did shoot reference video when starting to animate the scene at the cash register). After going back and forth, Seth’s direction ended up being counter to what the animators first ideas were. The real sex was made to look natural, and the fake was more overacted and comical. Honestly, either way was funny, but for different reasons. The animators approach was intended to provoke laughter, from the audience. The directors approach was to do what was true to the situation. I think the comical humping at the cash register was done that way because Ted was really trying to make the female cashier laugh, not turn her on. And the actual sex, between a teddy bear and a woman, was funny just for shock value, so it didn’t need any extra clowning on top. You can see the register scene, with the mocap in this promo video:

There were also a few instances of scenes being re-animated because they had re-written the jokes for the scene. At one point, a joke involving presidential candidates seemed in danger as the polls indicated a change in front runners. I don’t even know what they finally chose for that scene. The effort to keep the comedy topical isn’t easy with a several month lag time from production to release.

The concept for Ted is not unlike the movie “Paul” Paul was the name of the flip flop wearing stoner alien who goes on a road trip with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Ted’s lines are much funnier than Paul’s, and Seth Rogan’s voice for the alien was just plain dull. Also, I didn’t understand how Paul got to be the way he was, but with Ted, his reason for being that way is built into the story. This is a movie you will definitely want to get on DVD for the extras. I’m sure there are tons of funny on-set stuff involving the crew, the bear stand-in, and outtakes.

The reviews are looking good. Scott Mendelson at The Huffington Post writes:

At the very least, it is the year’s funniest comedy and one of the best pictures of 2012. It is more than a funny movie, it is a great film. Call it the year’s happiest surprise, but Seth MacFarlane’s Ted is a genuine work of art.

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