Animation is perfect for comedy. Think about it: Peter Griffin’s absurdly violent, sprawling brawls with a giant chicken, Rick contemplating mortality with Morty while shooting through alternate reality versions of himself, the Roadrunner dropping an anvil on Coyote’s head. None of that could get the same look or LOLs in live action.
Cartoons are an ideal balance of storytelling and surrealism, able to bend situations to keep pace with a director’s imagination and wit. Liam Vickers is barely out of University of Southern California’s (USC) animation and digital arts program and he already understands this better than most.
Vickers is a triple threat, able to write, direct and animate his own creations. For his graduation thesis, he produced a Western-style fantasy pilot called Cliffside. A mixture of giant monsters, gunslinging and guy humour, it is downright hilarious — and created in Toon Boom Storyboard Pro and Harmony.
Toon Boom caught up with Liam Vickers to find out the story behind Cliffside, how he brought the laughs to life with Harmony and what’s next for this top talent of tomorrow.
Hi Liam! Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into animation.
LV: Hey! I’m from a little town in Colorado, but after getting into USC, I quickly moved to LA to focus more on storyboarding and writing in its animation and digital arts program. Animation always spoke to me because… well, I get more than enough reality just living my daily life, thank you very much! I’m at Nickelodeon now as a PA on a new show called Glitch Techs. It’s an awesome opportunity with a bunch of extremely talented people. I’m learning new stuff every day.
Did you learn to use Toon Boom software at USC?
LV: USC in my mind has a great program because it focuses less on software and more on making things any way possible. You get an assignment, are given the resources and figure out how to complete it with whatever software you think will produce the best product. That said, there are certainly some programs worth learning over others
I knew my focus was on storytelling, so I really gravitated towards Toon Boom as something that would allow me to produce fast, quality animation. I would say a lot of my Toon Boom knowledge came from a combination of YouTube tutorials, the Toon Boom help page and a panicked superhuman fear of looming assignments.
Sounds like a winning combination. Why did you decide to pursue 2D animation over 3D?
LV: 2D has always had a more expressive and fun quality to me, especially when the project budget isn’t enormous. I also idolize much of current animated TV –anyone who doesn’t get stupid amounts of Gravity Falls vibes from Cliffside is kidding themselves– which is of course mostly 2D and done in Harmony.
Source: Liam Vickers
Speaking of Cliffside, it’s hilarious. How did you come up with the storyline?
LV: Thanks, that’s so great to hear! Cutting the darn thing down was the hard part. With a premise as basic as “an overconfident cowboy does a thing and also monsters happen”, I had too much fun writing to make something I could fit into an 11-minute time slot!
I always loved monsters and a trip to Yosemite convinced me there was some fun to be had with an isolated western town. The only consistent through line between several wildly different versions was our main gunslinger, Waylon, and his spider pal, Cordie. I wanted to follow these two characters who were so over the top it would hopefully make their silly human flaws that much more fun.
And how long did it take you to animate Cliffside?
LV: CliffSide was in pre-production for about a year and a half, but animated in around four months. I had a fantastic crew of musicians, voice actors and an awesome artist to take some backgrounds off my hands and keep me sane. But yes, the writing, boards, design and animation were all done by me. Not because it made a better product, but because I wanted to see if I could pull it off! Let’s just say it quickly reminded me why animation is a collaborative industry.
Did you use Storyboard Pro for storyboarding and pre-production?
LV: I sure did. With the amount of revisions I did, I can’t imagine any other program keeping up — let alone keeping things organized! I knew Storyboard Pro from several studios I had interned at and wanted to emulate the amazing artists I had met. Consolidating panels into scenes was a blessing and the tools were so similar to Harmony that it made boards-to-animation a breeze! Realizing I could handily edit animatics in the program itself was another neat revelation I had about two weeks after completion. Next time!
Source: Liam Vickers.
What specific features of Harmony made production easier?
LV: Coming up with ideas and boarding is always the fun part, but eventually someone has to animate the darn thing! Harmony let me focus on the story until the last possible second because I knew the puppet features would let me produce animation at wicked-fast speeds. Pegs to smooth out rigged and hand-drawn animation, libraries to house lip sync, hierarchies to parent elements naturally — not only did Harmony make production easier, but I’m not sure it would have been possible otherwise.
The program itself really got out of the way and just allowed me to try things out! Not once did I have to say to myself when writing, “well . . . I’m not sure I can animate that, so better take it out”. I’m not a great animator by any means so the fact I was able to think like that is a dream come true!
Since you were learning along the way, did you use the Toon Boom Learn Portal?
LV: Definitely hit up the Learn Portal when I had a specific question I needed answering! Thankfully, it was almost always a question of “how do I do this?” rather than “can I do this?” I mostly focused on rigging-related tutorials at the beginning of pre-production in order to save on animation down the line.
Sounds great! So, what’s next for Liam Vickers?
LV: The goal is to one day be a showrunner, so this is just me faking it until I make it! I’m always developing more goofy “pilots” and show bibles, so let’s just see how long I can keep deluding myself until my brain snaps.
Do you have Toon Boom-produced student work you want to share? Let us know in the comments below!
Banner image source: Liam Vickers.