By John Earle, Partner
Producer, Director, Animator of Nick Jr. Stop-Motion + Graphics Branding Package
Last fall our friends at Nick Jr. reached out to us at Houses in Motion seeking a production partner for the network’s winter and holiday broadcast packaging. They needed a studio that could oversee and produce a large stop-motion shoot and integrated graphics package and bring all these things together in a relatively short timeline.
I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Nickelodeon (or Big Nick, as the Nick Jr. people call it), having worked there for a bit over a year in the early 2000s. Plus, anytime Houses is given the chance to develop stop-motion for a client, we jump at the opportunity. And who doesn’t love the holidays?! The combination of dozens of 2D motion graphic elements and over 20 different stop-motion vignettes made this a challenging project, and I knew we were the right ones to take it on.
The stop-motion vignettes are set in three unique locations: a town square, forest, and ice-skating pond. Nick Jr.’s established characters, like Dora, Blaze and Marshall, were slated to inhabit the world, along with an ensemble of new woodland critters unique to the package.
The characters and set design were already underway when we were brought on, which was great given the short preproduction timeline. However, a bit of a curveball was thrown at us when the client revealed they had already brought on a fabricator for the puppets and sets. Typically we will oversee fabrication with our experienced team of designers and builders.
Houses is a creative production studio based in Brooklyn, NY, and the fabricator Nick Jr. brought on, Artville Studio, is in LA. Working with a studio on the opposite coast was one of the most challenging aspects of preproduction. However, Julia Rosner, Lead Production Designer, was fantastic to work with. We stayed in contact constantly throughout the fabrication process. I think we set a new record for the longest conference call, with one clocking in over 4-hours!
This level of communication allowed Julia and her team to create the puppets and sets to our specs and give us exactly what we needed in production. For those familiar with the stop-motion world, a lot of this came down to discussions on types of internal armatures, fly-rig anchor positions, and the variety of props and set pieces needed.
With fabrication moving along smoothly, we were able to focus on preparing for the week-long shoot quickly approaching. Nick Jr. provided a series of humorous scripts tailored to its young audience, which we quickly turned into story/shooting boards. With those in hand, we were able to dive into developing the shooting schedule. This may sound like a mundane task, but the planning that goes into creating a tight, seamless workflow is key to pulling off a project of this scale.
We had five days to shoot 24 different setups featuring over a dozen characters, three unique sets and a chroma stage. We had two sets running hot all week, so we had to take into account the fact that we only had one of each character and limited resources to share between the two setups. Houses’ production team was able to bring this puzzle together, allowing both sets to run with no downtime throughout the entire shoot. This aggressive schedule enabled us to shoot four to six vignettes a day, and kept us on schedule.
It was an ambitious schedule, but the fantastic team we assembled pulled it off without a hitch. Our longtime collaborator, Chris Webb was our first choice for DP. Chris’ studio is specially designed to accommodate a stop motion production of this scale. We can always rely on him to elevate a project with technical dexterity and creative problem solving
Taking my cues from the child-like feel of these characters, I wanted to treat the world as a diorama come to life – always filming from a consistent perspective, emulating the way a little one might play with their own toys. To add to that effect, we focused on the tactile qualities of the handcrafted, felted characters and sets, shooting with a wide depth of field. Keeping the diorama idea in mind, we framed shots up fairly low so that the puppet’s eye line would be a bit below the viewer. This established the tiny scale to our world and draws the viewer into that child’s POV. We shot everything on two Canon 5D Mark III with Nikon primes. DragonFrame was used to capture sequences and provide animation playback with remote monitors for easy viewing on set.
One of the biggest timesavers was Chris’ proposal to use magnetic tie-down rigs for the puppets. Typically, we would either use an overhead fly-rig, or screw-in tie downs requiring drill holes to anchor feet, which is a lot more work for the animators and the post team needing to clean up that mess! The high-powered magnets allowed us to reuse the same sets without having to change out damaged surfaces after every scene. It also enabled quick reconfiguration of the environment for the next setup, keeping the production running at a good pace.
I have always viewed stop-motion animation as more of a performance by the animator than a craft. That’s why we brought on two of NYC’s best animators onto this project. Pete List and Maxwell Sorensen were my top choices to bring these 4” characters to life.
Young viewers were already familiar with Nick Jr.’s established characters, like Dora, Blaze, and Marshall, so we referenced selected moments of those shows to stay consistent with their personalities. However, we were able to craft unique personas for each member of the new woodland animal characters, developing traits with nuances that played into the storyline of the vignettes.
The penguin became a confident diva; the polar bear emerged as a bit of a bumbling, lovable oaf; the best buddies, fox and rabbit, are carefree and always find something to chuckle about. After discussing the personalities and history of each character with our animators, they quickly got inside their world and were able to find the essence within each puppet.
From there we blocked out each shot together, referencing the shooting boards, and allowed the action to set its own pace. Then the animators began the exacting process of bringing these characters to life, manipulating their movements, one frame at a time.
During the shoot, our Art Department was at the ready, prepping characters and set pieces. In addition, we crafted elements that the LA team didn’t have time for, such as the skating pond, ski jump, and last moment additions that every production requires.
Occasionally, while dressing a new scene, we’d discover that a special element was needed. I’d bang out a quick sketch, and a few moments later, Art would have it built and ready on set. It was amazing what Dalane Mason, our props master, and Junko Shimizu, fabricator, could do when we were under the gun.
As soon as the first day of shooting wrapped, the raw frames were brought back to Houses’ studio and the postproduction process began. We’d run the raw files through Adobe Lightroom, allowing for initial color correction and conforming the images into high res sequences that we could work with a bit easier in composite. We use Adobe After Effects for all of our compositing, animation, and visual effects. My team shot and composited with 6k resolution files, so we would have the versatility to reframe shots for a variety of uses. Filming everything from the widest standpoint saved production time on set, while the high resolution allowed us to push in to get a dramatic reaction from the characters or shift the focus of the action.
With the first scenes prepped, our veteran compositor/animators, Brad Walter & Yussef Cole, jumped right into rig removal and cleanup, keeping pace with the shoot days. Once the cleanup was completed we focused on adding additional elements and animation, like falling snow, lighting effects, and snowballs for one of the characters to juggle.
The visual effects were kept subtle to ensure that they wouldn’t overpower the handmade feel of the stop motion, so there was a lot of dialing back to maintain that understated look. A little twinkle emanating from the tree lights went a long way, and just a touch of falling snow was all it took to keep most of the scenes playful and alive.
While VFX and editorial on the stop motion animation continued, the team also began gearing up to work on the comprehensive graphics package. Nick Jr.’s designers provided us with a variety of 2D elements, which we had a lot of fun bringing to life. The motion design was kept gentle but lively to create a subtle playfulness tailored to Nick Jr.’s preschool demographic. Dozens of setups were created and versioned out to deliver over 70 unique elements for the graphics package with that same feeling.
Everything came together quickly during the last few days of postproduction. Provided with scratch audio, and guided by Nick Jr.’s feedback, we did a final round of finessing on each element of the package before it was sent off for sound design and mixing.
Working with Nick Jr. on this package was a truly great experience. They brought us a perfect project for our studio. The solid creative and fun mix of animation techniques utilized the full scope of our talent and production capabilities. The Houses team really came together like a well-oiled machine to deliver a final product that we’re all proud of. We couldn’t have achieved this without the talent and collaborative spirit of everyone involved.
About John Earle
John Earle is an accomplished executive creative director/producer and co-founder of Houses in Motion, the Brooklyn-based animation and production creative studio. Launched in 2012 by Earle and partner Dan DeGloria, the boutique-style company is dedicated to providing networks, agencies, and brands with a seamless creative and production resource for a mix of projects – from broadcast packages and commercials to large scale LED billboards, multi-screen and in-store installations.
John has been a leader in NYC’s design and animation scene for well over a decade. Before opening Houses in Motion, the multi-disciplined talent was a sought-after freelancer for many of NYC’s most respected production companies, including Digital Kitchen, LoyalKaspar, and Nickelodeon, where he worked as Lead Animator + Visual FX Supervisor.
His fascination with animation began early. As a young boy growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, John would while away the hours making flip books from his drawings. His interest led him to study 3D animation, computer science, and graphic design at the University of Missouri – Columbia. After earning a B.A., he was hired by the University’s Emerging Technology Group and joined a team that created pioneering interactive installations for museums and educational institutions.
In 2002, John made the move to Brooklyn to pursue a Master’s of Science in Digital Imaging and Design at NYU’s Center for Advanced Digital Applications. Earle completed the two-year program in a year and a half, achieving a level of skill that immediately established him as a sought-after talent in New York’s commercial, broadcast, and emerging media industry.
Since Houses in Motion’s inception, John Earle has created content for numerous high-profile brands, including Nick Jr., Food Network, NBC, American Eagle, Sephora, and Mac Cosmetics. Animation and visual effects remain the core of his process as a creative thinker and his company’s approach to creating fresh, innovative visual stories.