I first saw Happy Tree Friends when they put it out on DVD, which in my memory was in the early 2000′s. I tend to gravitate towards any animation that isn’t necessarily for kids and I thought it fit that category pretty well. Ken Pontac and I had worked together before, and he emailed me to see if I would be interested in doing a stop motion thing for them. I said, “yah of course, I love the show!” I sent my website over so they could take a look at some of my past work. We needed something that would be cool and doable in a short time frame and budget, because stop motion tends to be labor intensive and slow. Ken Pontac, Kenn Navarro and Warren Graff liked a music video where I had utilized paper craft. They then asked me to come up with some ideas to pitch to them.
So I pitched the writing team story ideas, one featured Pop and Cub. I love the story behind Astro Boy which is about this brilliant scientist whose son dies in a car accident, so he rebuilds him as a robot. It’s like a version of a Frankenstein story except in Astro Boy, the father is terrible and psychotic and the robot is innocent and heroic. In this, I thought it would be funny if Pop rebuilds Cub as this giant robot.
I liked trying this reversal because most of the time its Pop just being a super shitty Dad and Cub gets hurt. In this, it’s actually Cub hurting others because Pop is such a terrible Dad. Part of this was worked out with the writing team. They were trying to find different jokes about Cub just being a baby, but because he’s a giant robot he becomes extremely violent and destructive.
One of the best parts about the studio I work at, Bent Image Lab, is that in addition to doing all of the commercial work that pays the bills, they are always interested in doing work like Cubtron Z. They took on the job and set me up with a support team so that it’s not just me working at home all night, every night. Plus, doing it at the studio, there was no shortage of animation peeps super excited to work on an HTF episode.
Once our story and animatic were in place we started working on fabrication of Pop and Cub into stop mo, paper puppets. Part of what made the translation from 2D animation to 3D animation work so well, was the fact that they are paper craft characters. Even though they are becoming three dimensional, their mouths and eyes are completely identical to how they are in the show.
Also the color palette of the characters is exactly the same, which is super important to the show.
One of the main things I try to do when making paper craft puppets, is to keep things as simple and geometric as possible. I essentially built a paper model in 3D Studio Max. I created rough shapes and then unfolded the textures, so they were not stretched. That way I know that the shape will be the exact right size to meet up with this shape here or there. Trying to get as few sides to any shape as possible worked really well with these guys.
One challenge was that all the characters are round which is the hardest shape for me to work with in paper, because I’m trying to fold things. I made a circle in the computer and just did less and less polygons until it looked more like a Dungeons and Dragons die then a circle, but you got the idea. All of the imperfections are a big part of it. I could have made 3D hands that were jointed and would have taken a long time and a lot of work but there is something kind of fun about the hands being a flat piece of paper that bends with a wire inside.
I used Photoshop to find the colors and the textures of the characters. I wanted to unify everything with a pencil line, because when you have different elements coming together and if everything has the same type of line and line weight it feels more intentional. I made the model and it looked like vector art, then I printed it out and traced all of the line work with color pencil, then scanned it and put it back over the top. If you look really close, all of the details have a little bit of a crumbly, almost crayon edge to them.
Another challenge with our paper puppets was we needed to be able to animate it, not just look at it. We put the paper overlays on top of foam skeletons with metal armatures. This allowed us to grab the puppets without the paper folding in on itself and also the foam structure provided a place for the armature to go.
The puppets also had several little rig points so we could attach them to a rig and make them jump up in the air and stuff.
Their head, legs and arms could all be pulled off the puppet and repaired or recreated if need be, and we didn’t have to create an entirely new puppet. Cub and Pop’s faces were composed of mouths, eyes and pupils that were held in place by sticky wax.
The animation was up to myself and Tommy Thompson. Tommy actually put together the puppets and came up with the method for their blue foam understructures. Whenever he didn’t have a shot that was ready to go he was back in the art department putting stuff together.
Once we were done shooting I composited it together with the backgrounds.
Orland Nutt did an overall color correct in post. I loved the color correct job because it took it back to this vintage anime look, which I think is really cool. It’s grainier and a little darker then the Happy Tree Friends look.
I based the backgrounds on early anime designs, like 50′s and 60′s space age designs. I tried to do a really limited color pallet so it would feel like all one thing. I tried to keep the city buildings in a blue and gray area and then turned the sky orange.
A childhood friend of mine, Ralph Darden (he goes by DJ Major Taylor) is a musician and DJ in Chicago. He did all the music for this episode. I wanted something that emulated an anime soundtrack, but that would require a full orchestra crossed with a weird Japanese funk band. He didn’t have that to work with, but he did find some really funny synth sounds that are very vintage-y to match the anime-style I was after. It’s kind of like old-school in an old Filmation cartoon kind of a way. I feel like the music is a big part of it and I loved that funky 70′s-ish soundtrack.
I loved the opportunity to work on this show. I like the idea of trying to take a show that already exists and re-interpret it and do things with it that I really like. This feels authentically Happy Tree Friends to me. I think beyond it being stop motion and having a giant robot in it, the color palette and the soundtrack really put it into a weird, different place. I am hoping that the fans of the show will be as in to this weirdness as I was into making this weirdness. Mainly, I just hope that the die hard fans are into it. I hope they feel it’s true enough to Happy Tree Friends that they like it!