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CGEF Interview with
Peter Avanzino on the special episode 'Reincarnation'

On September 8th 2011, Comedy Central aired the season 6b finale of Futurama, a special episode which featured 3 tales reimagined in 3 different animation styles. First was a Max Fleischer B&W story, then one in the form of an 8 bit video game followed, lastly, by an anime adventure. Emmy winning(for 'The Late Phillip J Fry') director of the episode, Peter Avanzino, very kindly took some time to talk through the process of creating these three new visions.

There are some great pictures. Just click on them for larger views!

CGEF: How early did you get involved with this episode and since several elements of the animation influence the story did you get involved in the script at all?

Peter: No, I was basically handed the script and told to animate it. The script laid out the basics- the style of each act, specific gags, dialog of course. Each segment already had the key gag worked out- that the main point of the story that was unable to be communicated through the medium of that act: the new color Fry invents in the Black and White act or the small elemental particle in the Low-Rez act. Those were part of the script.
What was up to me and my crew was how to best animate each act. How to work in the style of each act and add as much detail, gags and flavor as we could. To me there's a smile that comes as soon as you see the 8-bit crew pop on and walk to their seats, or hear the old time music with the black and white color card. I knew that the audience could be grabbed before the dialog even started and I think we did a pretty could job of it.

CGEF: What was it like directing the B&W part? Was it difficult creating an entirely new colour palette for the world, since it was just B&W, as well as mixing in that fantastic CG scene on the comet?

Peter: The black and white was hard because even though the source animation was the oldest of the formats, it's also the best animated. Those old Fleischer and Disney cartoons were beautifully crafted and to even come close to them was going to be a lot of work. I think we did a great job with our designs, they're very reminiscent of the style but still very grounded in our Futurama world. I think we nailed the color too. (kidding.)
The bobbing came out OK, but I'm aware that it is not as fluid and fun as the real stuff. It's a lot stiffer, and coordinating the acting with the bobbing caused a few oddly timed (bad) moments. We were still on a tight TV schedule and we did pretty good I think, but I know to the aficionados it's a pale comparison.
As for the 3D comet scene, Matt and I have wanted to get a turntable shot into the show for a long time. Since The Beast With A Billion Backs, we had talked about how cool it would be and when I read the script I knew that the Fry walking on the Asteroid scene was the place for it. (It actually might have been as I was looking at the 3D models of the Diamond Asteroids in the Mobius Dick episode. When I saw them I knew that that was the look I wanted for the comet, but I forget if I had thought of the turntable before that or not. At any rate, it wasn't in the script, it was my idea. Mine. Mine, I tell you!)
I had some copies of a Popular Mechanics article on the old Fleischer Turntable setups and I gave it to the 3D department. They modeled a 3D version of it. An actual (virtual) tabletop wedge BG that rotates behind Fry. We placed his 2D animation into the scene and it came out great. I love that shot.

CGEF: The first section obviously reminded us of the Steamboat Willie opening sequence to The Beast with a Billion Backs which you directed. Did you go back and reference this at all when creating the look?

Peter: I didn't go back to that except for the designs. I mostly went back to the same source material that I had used the first time.

CGEF: You mentioned that you animated the 8 bit version yourself, how long did that take and was it as challenging as it sounds?!

Peter: I did do all of that myself, and it was a lot of work. I had some help with the backgrounds, but I did all of the character levels.
I knew that to do this act right, we would have to design and draw the characters at the resolution of the screen. Design them at the low pixel count. Usually for video games we have just drawn the characters normally and them pixellated the color footage to give it a low rez look, but I knew that for this to look right, these scenes had to be at such a low resolution that the characters would have to be designed pixel by pixel specifically for each scene. I also knew that I wanted to animate them simply. Walks would be simple cycles that worked while the characters panned. Mouths would be two poses. Any other animation would pop from pose to pose. All of this looked very doable to me, and I felt that sending it to Rough Draft Korea would be a mistake since once the designs were done, we would just be panning them around. My only regret is that I didn't get the designs done in time for them to be used in the storyboard. My Assistant Director, Ira Sherak, storyboarded the whole act, and he did it by hand-drawing everything pixelated. He could have drawn them straight, but went for the pixelated look. It was a lot of extra work, but it came out great.

For the final picture David and decided that the best resolution for the scenes would be a 320 by 190 pixel screen. He did some math to figure this out, and I had done some tests of other resolutions, and this looked the best. I then realized that it would be best to do close-ups and medium shots in an even smaller resolution. The characters looked too "good" at the 320 x 190 so we did them at an even smaller 160 x 90 pixel resolution.



Once we decided on the resolution, I then designed the backgrounds and characters for each scene at that scene's resolution. I drew each scene in Photoshop with a 1 pixel brush on a 320 x 190 pixel canvas. Here's what it looked like at actual size:

I worked on a grid to make it easier to see what's going on and keep things spaced mechanically as I was trying to approximate the BG tiling that they used in the older games. Of course I zoomed in to work and then when I was done I changed the resolution of each scene up to screen size- 1920 x 1080 pixels.
The characters were all done separately. I planned out what each character had to do in each scene and what poses were needed. Here's Bender's poses for this scene. (blown up a little)

(This was before I realized I had his mouth and eyes colored wrong. I fixed it.)

You can see poses for Standing and Walking facing right, and Standing and Walking facing left. Each character in this scene had these basic poses plus their sitting pose. The Professor had a few more since he climbed down the ladder. These were the basic poses for most scenes, plus any talking poses.
The next step was to tell the camera crew how to pan the characters around. For this I did guides that showed exactly where they should walk. Here's the paths for Bender, Fry and Amy for this scene:

You can see these got pretty complex. While doing this I had to time it so that nobody crossed over each other as there was a gag about there not being depth in the scene. Zoidberg and Hermes bumped into each other and then Zoidberg had to jump over Hermes. This scene took a long time to figure out.
Different scenes required different character designs based on how big the characters were in the scene. Normally we'd just draw the characters at whatever size we need, and they appear normal because of the the high-resolution. Here the pixels were set so they had to be designed specifically at that size.
Here's the crew for the intro scene. They are about 45 pixels high. I started with their eyes, a 3x3 box which is the smallest size that allowed me to have a movable pupil, and worked from there. I did them at a normal proportion, but then shortened them a little to proportion them more like video game characters.

In the Dig Dug scene the characters had to be a lot smaller. They are about 30 pixels tall here. Eyes are one pixel-no pupils. No room for mouths. This size was determined by me laying out the Dig Dug tunnels and then sizing the characters to fit into them.

I thought this act would be fairly simple due to the high level of reused elements. Once I did the Conference Room scene, for instance, I would just be able to reuse those elements for all of the other scenes in that room. Also any other scenes where the characters were the same size I would be able to reuse them. This worked out to a certain extent, but there were always new poses that needed to be done for those scenes, sometimes new BGs, and the amount of unique scenes- Beer Tapper, Dig Dug, Mario, etc- really got away from me. I have files for 87 scenes that I did. A lot. But I'm really glad that I got a chance to do it. I don't think I'll get another so I'm glad it happened.
(Somebody's going to now comment that I should have programmed it as an actual game or hired a game programmer to do it, but I didn't do that, and it's too late to do that, so I don't need to hear about doing that, so just shut up, OK?)

CGEF: There are a lot of references to classic games(space invaders, punch out, etc) in that second sequence. Did you make a long list to try and fit in or did they just organically come together while you were making it?

Peter: The script called for some things like the Beer Tapper and Punch Out scenes, but after putting in all of the scripted references, Ira and I went through and added as many more as we could. I also had a lot of input since as a kid I stared at way more video game screens than at cartoons. (Also all through college.)

CGEF: What pieces of work did you look at when doing the anime part?

Peter: I was a little too old to experience the Anime craze that this act referenced. When I was young I watched Speed Racer and Kimba (in the 60s and 70s!), but this referenced more of the 80s Voltron and Battle of the Planets era. Having worked in animation, of course I have a more than passing knowledge of the stuff, but I still watched some Voltron to get a better feel for it. I printed out some shots that I liked- shots that staging examples and explosions and space fights. There was a lot of great stuff in there. I studied the way the mouths work. Everyone thinks they know how bad their mouth-synch is, but until you study it you have no idea. I don't think their mouth animation is synched to anything.
The best thing I did was to hand the whole Anime act over to my storyboard artist David Au. He took the lame designs that I tried to do and redid them to be super-great and he storyboarded the whole act. He came up with a lot of the angles and stuff. I claim credit for the Hermes helicopter scene, though. That was my baby.

CGEF: Was it very freeing to be able to make the rules up for this episode from scratch or did that prove to be extra hard?

Peter: It's freeing when you do a show like this because the rules for each act are already laid out for you. I didn't have to make anything up from scratch- the B&W act was staged as per the rules of those old shorts and the Anime was based TV shows of its era. The 8-bit we had to improvise a little since we decided to do angles that helped the film-making instead on staying in a wide shot the whole time. That stepped out of the source reference, but made for an easier to watch act.
I've always liked getting scenes that reference movies or video games or whatever. On the Simpsons if I got a Mexican Soap Opera scene, or a McBane movie to do, those were always a little easier to storyboard because I had something to base it on. I remember did a show where Bart went to Camp Krusty and Martin went to a Fat Camp and all of the Martin scenes were staged like Full Metal Jacket. Those were fun. The other benefit of scenes like this is that I get to sit and watch movies for "reference."

CGEF: If the show tried this again is there another style you would like to see done?

Peter: Puppet-Toons, early Looney-Tunes, CGI, Flip Book, and Simpsons style?

BIG thanks to Peter for taking the time to take us behind the scenes of this great episode.

This interview was conducted via eMail in September 2011. Questions were posed for CGEF by Reed.

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