How I won a contest: Part 1

Part 1 : Exploratory Committee.

Greetings! It’s been a while, has it not? I started writing the blog post almost 2 years ago exactly to the day and, well, I think it should be posted because I think it can put a little bit of language to a process that often feels a bit magical. It also shows the amount of work that goes into a project and details the process of how I went from an idea to a winning design. A lot of what I’m writing describes the process as it happened, before I won the contest so the language speaks in the tense of those moments and I tried to point out things that have changed since then. So…here goes:

I’m going to go with something a little different today. Less homey & antiquey and I’m just going to go into art mode here.  I’m a huge fan of the band Foxy Shazam and was completely excited to hear that they were hosting a contest through Creative Allies to design their next shirt promoting their new single “Holy Touch“. I got right on it.  Typically I don’t enter these contests…but…being a huge fan and being a designer, I had to win this.

(update: I won this).

I entered it more as a fan than a designer. I really put everything I had into coming up with a design that would win or at the very least, get some attention. And, interestingly enough, as I write this, I was just informed that I was a finalist winner so that’s a good step in the right direction

(update: it was a step in the right direction)

On Your Mark

One of the luxuries of taking public transportation to work everyday is I could make it a productive. As busy as things are, it really is a genuine privilege to just literally have to sit down and be still for an hour a day. I used this time for my pre-production which is one of my favorite parts of the design process. To me, I’ve found this to be THE most important step for me in creating. To me, good ideas aren’t just low hanging fruit. If I went with one of the first things I thought of, that’s likely the  I really want to work and wrestle with as many different ideas in as many different directions as I can and then narrow it down. I’ll go through dozens and dozens if not hundreds of very rough scribbles & sketches to get passed all of the cliche’ ideas and get to the ideas that are underneath those.

doodling my way through to the winning design…

It also helped that I was already acquainted with the band’s catalog beforehand so I could draw on looks & themes that they’ve already approved. Every album, photo & video that the band puts out is a little visual clue as to what they like and the music, of course, is a HUGE indicator of any look or feel.


Honing in on the design. The iconic broken window makes an appearance early on in the sketches. Eric looks heavenward with rock’n’rosary in hand.

I went through a long process of working things out on pen and paper before I even started on a computer. I had to get through “easy” ideas that I figured a lot of people would think of in order to get to more meaty ideas that were behind them. The shirt’s purpose is to promote Foxy Shazam’s newest single/video called “Holy Touch”. Mind you the video didn’t come out until a week before the contest ended so none of the designers had a clue where the band was intending take the “Holy Touch” concept themselves.

Without any direction, I had to consider how I would represent Foxy Shazam representing “Holy Touch”.  Because they were the first things I thought of I figured crosses, rosaries, &  Michelangelo’s ‘The Creation of Adam” would show up often in people’s designs. It’s not that these elements are no good – I did several designs using these very elements in fact – but I had to thoroughly explore the idea before I could entertain the thought of returning to those first ideas. My experience has also taught me that more often than not my strongest ideas come at the end when I’ve already felt I’ve long exhausted  all my options. I make it a practice to keep pushing myself to explore & create even after I literally hit a wall and can’t come up with any new directions to take it.  I was planning on going with one solid design that I’d hang my hat on but if I had any other ideas along the way I’d throw them into the pool as well.

At some point I thought of the iconic broken circular stained glass that appears in the background of Foxy Shazam’s “I Like It” music video which you can see here:

Foxy Shazam's music video

An iconic broken window.

The whole motif of the album as a whole was this idea that there’s a “Church of Rock’n’Roll” and this building in the video is said to be it. Having seen the band live several times I also noticed that the drummer Aaron McVeigh has a graphic of this very window on his bass drum head.

Aaron McVeigh's Drumset Foxy Shazam

That’s the biggest bass drum I’ve ever seen…and I like it.

Taking this project seriously and truly treating Foxy Shazam as a client, and not having the luxury of talking with them, I of course should make careful note of what they like & how they’ve represented themselves in the past and the fact that they’ve used this image several times tells me that something about it speaks to them and has resonated with them and if I do something using this window, it will hopefully resonate with them as well.  So it was settled. I would go about recreating this window. How I would use it, I didn’t know – but I knew that I wanted it to be featured in the design somehow. In addition to seeing Foxy Shazam as a client, I also realized that it was a competition and taking the time to recreate this exact window wouldn’t be a simple task and other designers might not take on so I went ahead with it.

A few minutes of internet sleuthing and I figured out that the church in the music video was 150+ year old First German Reformed Church in the band’s hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio.  I also learned that the band’s keyboard player Sky White also is a co-owner of the church as well so I definitely knew that this place was near and dear to some hearts in the band so I was very confident that I was going the right direction by using it. In researching the church I also recreated some of the less iconic side windows in the church that don’t really appear in the video. I didn’t end up using those in the final design but my intent was to, if I used them, let the ‘client’ know that I did my homework and came into this project more than prepared.

One of dozens of sketches: The stained-glass window gets prime real-estate here  but the idea ( Nuns with guns behind Rev. Eric Nally) is too much of a derivative of their 'I Like It" video. Keep on keepin' on.

One of dozens of sketches: The stained-glass window gets prime real-estate here but the idea ( Nuns with guns behind Rev. Eric Nally) is too much of a derivative of their ‘I Like It” video. Keep on keepin’ on.

Though Foxy Shazam’s music is hard to pigeonhole, there’s definitely something nostalgic about it. The glamour, the excess, & the tongue-in-cheek rock spectacle is fresh but familiar . When singer Eric Nally describes his musical influences he usually doesn’t list musicians but rather thoughts, feelings, smells or experiences, oftentimes associated with childhood. So that got me thinking of what I personally find nostalgic and familiar. Comic books.

Early Foxy Shazam comic idea

One of the first rough thumbnail sketches for the comic book concept shirt

I started out with a more the idea to do 1950’s pulp horror comic meets Rocky Horror Picture show (an idea I would’ve come nowhere near had I stopped at my first few ideas for sure). Singer Eric Nally with a bloody rubber glove & doctor’s scrubs falling revealing a priest’s collar underneath & people/the band running in terror? Drippy, spooky lettering? I liked the idea but I felt it didn’t really have it’s finger on the band’s pulse. It was almost there but not quite. As I mentioned I really wanted to take my cues from what I knew of the band at that point but also, in the spirit of the music itself, take some chances. So there’s a line that I had to walk without the benefit of being able to ‘check in’ with the band to make sure I was on point with them. I felt the horror pulp comic was the smallest bit off target but I loved where it was going. I decided to bring it around towards the highly entertaining, oftentimes goofy comics of the 1970’s & 80’s because I think that really ‘landed’ with what the band is like…vintage flavored, dramatic, and a whole ….lot…. of…. fun.

While I was playing around with this idea, thinking of music and comics, what came to mind was a very convincing comic spoof I’d seen of Rick James being drawn into an old Incredible Hulk cover. It was perfect ‘vibe’ and I felt like it hit the nail on the head and was exactly the tone I wanted for my design. They hadn’t represented themselves with comic books before or even mentioned them but putting them together, I felt like the guy who first put peanut butter & chocolate together must’ve felt. That was the ‘taking a chance’ part of the exploration. This was the direction that I was going to head. I could’ve done the shotgun approach and just made as many designs as I could, submit them all, and pray that one hit the target. I did entertain this thought briefly but I felt that was not the wisest way to go about things. Since I had the time to think about this I was going to approach it as thoughtfully as possible. In the end, I think the shotgun approach wouldn’t have really sharpened my craft or enhanced my tools in any way. It might’ve shown that I was fast and able to think of many good ideas, I find more value in not only going the distance and investing developing a great idea and but also committing to that idea.

It's hard to mess up  anything when combining 80's icons & comic books.

It’s hard to mess up
anything when combining 80’s icons & comic books.

That being said, I did have a few of what I considered good ideas and, along the way I would do a quick design of them and submit them. I treated them as an exercise and if they involved more than a few minutes to design or if they detracted any time my main design. Here’s one of them:

It was an idea but I never claimed it was a good.

It was an idea but I never claimed it was a good.

As you can tell it was a simple design that didn’t take more than a few minutes to create but it wasn’t the least bit smart or clever and though it might stand out a little amongst the plethora of riffs on Michelangelo’sThe Creation of Adam“, it was by no means on the cusp of ‘why-didn’t-I-think-of-that” territory, which is where I think great ideas should reside. Simple & smart takes the cake in my book. This was simple but not necessarily smart.

Part 2 : The Execution
coming soon. 


Theology from a shoebox.

The who, what, why…

I thought I’d share just a bit about what I’m working on at the moment. Not personally but professionally. I work at an animation studio in Southern California ~ and to make a very long story short we’re working on a soon-to-be released Christian cartoon series for kids called Theo.

I do a very small amount of this-and-that type of work on the series and on the website but my main contribution is a segment (typically one half of the entire show length!) called ‘Shoebox Bible Theatre’. In the Theo cartoon series the main character, Theo, puts around his enviable English cottage with two mice in tow and discourses about theological concepts for little ones (not mice but children rather) . It’s actually quite handsome quality-wise ~~ we’ve had a lot of top shelf animators and other artists working on this project. To further illustrate his point in each episode (except the bonus episode ‘Good News’) Theo pulls out a ‘magical’ type shoebox and within said box a little Bible story plays out via a combination of ‘rod puppets‘ and ‘shadow puppets‘. We talk about obedience thru the story or Jonah, faith thru the story of Abraham, forgiveness thru the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, and so on.

Here’s the trailer for the first one I did:

Theo – Loving Obedience Trailer from Theo Presents on Vimeo.

If you’ll notice, the Shoebox Bible Theater section was the bit in the middle. It’s very rudimentary, mechanical, and nuanced but by design. I wanted it to feel very… possible. I didn’t want to suspend reality I wanted to recreate reality ~~ as if there really were mechanical devices and that made things move like a cuckoo-clock and that there were really people underneath the stage manipulating the characters with push rods. And actually, what I thought was most novel about my creation didn’t make it to the final cut unfortunately enough. Originally I had it take place all in one ‘scene’ so to speak. I didn’t do traditional film cuts to different shots or locations but rather the whole ‘stage’ would quickly ‘collapse’ and ‘pop-up’ to change scenes, angles, or what have you in order to ‘cut’ to a different scene or ‘shot’. I nicked that idea from this wonderful video by the Super Furry Animals. Watching it might help explain what I mean.

I had tinkered with digital characters/figures on push-rods on a few school projects as well as experimenting with old-fashioned styles in the digital realm so in a lull at work I made a little boat on waves animation with seagulls on strings, a bouncing buoy and dolphins on a pin wheel. The director liked it and suggested that perhaps I continue with what I was and tell the story of Jonah in that same manner ~ with strings and rods and flat scenery and so on. So I did. For the next 5 months I continued to work on telling this interesting story in this interesting little shoebox ~ no script, no storyboard ~ just me spending time with the story and trying to tell it in my stylized little way. Along the way it was said that my style had a very Mary Blair-esque feel to it. If it did, it was by accident as I’d never heard of Ms. Blair up to that point. Yet after I became acquainted with her work, along with the fantastic work of Eyvind Earle, I’d wondered where on earth they’d been all my life and I would refer to their works often for inspiration. I still do.

By the time I’d nearly finished it, the director enjoyed it enough and visitors who came in and out of the studio really enjoyed its novelty so then it was decided then that we give this Shoebox a little more attention. Mind you, this was in 2007, before the cartoon series Theo’ was put in production so there was no grander context to put it in. So at first Shoebox Bible Theatre was envisioned to be a stand-alone product. The director, also a writer, wrote a narrative script after the finished product ~ almost like a composer would compose a score to a finished film. Do not take note a this is a most backward way to do things but the as whole genesis of the project was so impromptu, outside of redoing the entire animation again to fit a script, it simply just had to be done that way. But come to think of it, it’s in line with how silent films were made~~or at least how Buster Keaton’s silent films were made; on the fly, off the cuff; a loose idea rather than a tight script and they figured out what the title cards would say after the fact. Taking it one step further in this direction, I originally tried to tell the story in such a completely visual way ~ out of necessity ~ as there was no script, no dialogue to speak of (no pun intended).

Long story short, ‘Theo’ as a series gets greenlit and Shoebox Bible Theatre found it’s home as Theo’s exposition or narrative within each episode.  Here’s the trailer for the second Shoebox Bible Theatre I did:

Theo – Saving Faith Trailer from Theo Presents on Vimeo.

(The Shoebox portion is from 00:22 – 00:36)

Now having to produce a dozen episodes in a short amount of time, my department of one doubled in size and now there’s two of us working on, and almost finished with, the Shoebox Bible Theatre portion. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to design each episode. Every character, background, every prop, every everything. I’ve also been fortunate to work with the venerable animation veteran John Pomeroy on storyboards and layouts (since our 5th episode, “The Armor of God”).  I no longer animate each episode as I’d never be able to keep up with the production schedule so while I’m designing all episodes, I’m now animating about every other one and my associate in the department is animating the alternate episodes.

and the how:

I’ve been able to shave the process down from 5 to 6 months per episode to 2½ to 3½ months per episode, form start to finish.

To demonstrate how it’s done, I’ll take you through the creation of just one character. I’ll use the main character from the upcoming episode on redemption.

The first step is of course the designing stage.  For main characters I’ll usually sketch them out on paper first and work out them out outside of the computer. Once they’re approved by the director I move to the next step.

Next I’ll design the character that you’ll actually see on screen. I design it in Adobe Illustrator. As I’ve become more proficient in Illustrator I’ll often times design ideas right in Adobe Illustrator rather than on pencil and paper. It’s not that I skip a step but rather I just do digitally what I used to do on a piece of paper.

Once the design is complete in Illustrator I will break it apart into as many moving pieces as I’ll need to animate the character. If I need to animate eyebrows then each eyebrow will be on its own layer. If I need to animate an arm or a neck then each of those will go on its own layer as well. So in the picture above I’ve broken up all the elements I want to animate. This particular character in this pose has over 20 layers (some not shown here). That’s 20 different animateable elements for just this one character in just this one angle!

Next I take in all of those layers into Adobe Photoshop. There I organize the layers and piece the character back together, yet the layers are still retained. The eyebrows, the neck, the legs, the feet, the torso, etc… ~ all the elements are still on their own layers. In Photoshop I rasterize the image and every single piece gets a unique, very subtle texture as seen in the detail to the left of the character. I try to keep the textures barely perceptible  ~ to be “felt” rather than “seen” my director will often say. At this point I’ll also paint on shadows to make the character look ‘deep’ ~~ as if it’s made of many more layers than it actually is. For instance, if you look at the torso of that character above it looks as if it’s made from at least three different layers: a cyan outer garment, a pinkish under garment and a raspberry color sash when in fact it is just made of one layer with different textures assigned to each article of cloth I wanted to suggest.

All that is just prep and setup. Now the fun part comes ~ I bring it into Adobe After Effects and it’s ready to animate. I join or ‘parent’ all the different layers together like a puppet. For instance the hands are connected to the forearms. The forearms are connected to the biceps. The biceps are connected to the torso. Each item is joined to the appropriate piece and from there I can set up keyframes and then animate the character. I also set up lights and different cameras in each scene.  Tho I can move a camera in 3D space within After Effects, it’s not true 3D animation like Toy Story or Shrek. It’s what you’d is called 2.5-D. The characters do not become rounded. If I were to move the camera to the profile of this character I would not see the side of the character’s face but rather a paper-thin, one pixel wide layer…just as if it were a real shadow puppet. Here’s a small diagram I made to help explain the difference between 2.5D and 3D.

Here’s a screenshot of our little character in context of the short film. In this scene she’s walking across a crowded marketplace with people buying and selling all around her and a slave market in the background. Every prop, every background character, every piece of scenery went through the same process as described above. When it’s all added up  scenes typically consist of sever hundred layers and each episode contains several thousand to tens-of-thousands of keyframes.  Once animation starts and you start building up keyframes is where it can get overwhelming.  Below is a screenshot taken from another episode. It is 28 seconds worth of animation of a 31 layer character. Each yellow mark represents a keyframe ~ that is ~ a point in time where I’ve designated a certain object to be.

Again, each character, be it a background or main character goes through this entire process.
Now, having written down how it gets done it’s become amazing to me that it even gets done.

So~ if you are interested, thank you for being interested in I’m doing and just exactly how I’m doing it. Feel free to leave a comment if you’ve enjoyed the blog thus far.