America: The Motion Picture is an anachronistic fever dream animated by Floyd County Productions, the Emmy Award-winning studio behind Archer. As you might expect from their the studio’s history, the film is an action-comedy, loosely inspired by the American Revolution and other revered figures. This includes a chainsaw-wielding George Washington (Channing Tatum) and a beer-obsessed Sam Adams (Jason Mantzoukas).
The film also features technically-advanced Master Controller rigs, which took the crew three years to perfect using Toon Boom Harmony. In addition to subtle movements and facial expressions, these detailed character rigs also had to be flexible enough to be useful in cinematic action scenes and setpieces.
When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to animate a clash between two armies in 2D animation, we invited Jason Walling and Brandon Berger to discuss their roles on the production. Read on to learn how America: The Motion Picture’s character rigs were developed, how they approached animating massive crowd scenes, and what it takes to work at Floyd County Productions.
What did a typical day in production look like for you while working on America: The Motion Picture?
Brandon Berger: As the technical director, for the most part, a lot that I do is troubleshooting technical problems. I try to make sure that all the wheels keep rolling, if there is any hang up with any of our [software] scripts or any of the mechanics in the scene. Or that we could build everything up in a way that works for the animators, and get scenes out to composite as cleanly as possible.
There was a lot of back and forth with Jason, and the animation department in general, to see what they needed. Somebody always had something that they wanted to push further, whether it was fixing something or adding to a rig.
Jason Walling: I was the animation director on America: The Motion Picture. My typical day was usually talking to my lead animators, and also my technical directors, especially when it came to trying to figure out the minutiae of how to make our rigs that much more accessible and not break as much. They were always on the ball there; We were always breaking things.
Most of the stuff that I focused on was enhancing performance: Trying to get characteristics or mannerisms out of our characters. Pushing our rigs as much as possible to achieve that goal was important to me.
How were the character rigs developed, and was that process on America: The Motion Picture similar to or different from previous productions you worked on?
Jason: Our previous projects basically used drawing swaps for most of our heads, mouths, and blinks. It was definitely something that worked for television productions and it was manageable and useful. One thing that I had wanted to do was make it so that our characters’ heads could have as much articulation and movement as the animator wanted to set; we could get a certain amount of performance just through that.
It’s just a small thing, which turns out is not a small thing.
Brandon: From the beginning, Jason had an idea of how he wanted the characters to move and the fluidity that he wanted. He would come up with ideas: “Is it possible to make this happen in the program?” We would take those ideas and push Harmony as far as it was capable in that direction.
I think there was a good year to a year-and-a-half of going back and forth like this until we settled on stuff that worked. It kind of evolved throughout the process. But it took a while to get that initial build done, with a lot of trial and error. Because of the bells and whistles that we put into it, you have to work to design the rig so the team can understand and use it. You can’t just make it so I can do all this fancy stuff… if nobody else can use it.
Jason: It’s got to be user-proof and error-proof. It needs to be as easy to use as possible.
Brandon: There was a lot of duct tape and bubble gum behind-the-scenes to keep the wheels on. With this movie, it pushed us to the 10th degree. A lot of those lessons have helped us develop processes. We can turn characters around much faster now.
Cutout rigs face three big challenges: They need to fit the poses in your storyboards, be easy for your animation animation department to use and also work with your compositing pipeline.
Brandon: The trick that we’ve always been developing, and that I’m leaning towards, is knowing when to let the rig do the heavy lifting versus when a pose needs to be redrawn. It’s a fine balance that the animators and directors have to find — where you know how far you can push something to cheat it. Once it gets to a certain point, you have to do redraws, whether that’s a few or a lot, to help the motion. You never want it to come across as looking too puppeted or cutout.
Jason: It was not the aesthetic that we’re looking for in the movie. If we could push our rigs to the point of getting the design or the character appeal that we’re looking for — especially based off of our designs, layouts, and character models sheets — if we could push the rig that far and get it to where we wanted it, and let the computer do the heavy lifting, and not have to do redraws as much as reasonably possible, then that would be a huge win. It’d be helpful with the budget if we didn’t have to spend as much time, and let Harmony do the heavy lifting.
Brandon: We never wanted any of the animators to be held back by the rig, and we never wanted the animators to have to hand draw every single frame. We were trying to find a healthy mix.
I think the step that helped with that is we still did all of our roughs very traditionally. We got the performance and the proportions of the character all out ahead of time. It helps know when the rig is working and when it’s not. When it’s not, you just have to either redraw it or break it to make it work.
What are the biggest misconceptions that you have heard about cutout automation?
Brandon: People think it’s easier or that it doesn’t require as much work. They think that since the computer is doing some of the tweening for you, that you basically just draw a couple poses, hit a button, and then go grab a coffee while the computer does all the hard stuff.
I think it takes just as much work. You have to have an eye for knowing when the anatomy, the proportions or the arcs are all working. Or when the rig is starting to become detrimental to the performance and you need to add to it so that it doesn’t look flat.
Jason: We don’t really use the term cutout that much. It connotes, in my head, South Park — or the actual cutout animation from their original pilot. Which I love! I used to do paper cutout animation when I was in middle school.
To try to break it away from a puppeted look requires a lot of concentration and focus. You need to put in that work and effort. Especially when it comes to spacing and timing, that’s something that the computer’s not going to give you at all. You have to figure that out. In Harmony, cutout animation is a tool, and it doesn’t do the work for you.
The character designs are elaborate, especially with clothing from that time period. Which elements of these rigs were you and your team most proud of?
Brandon: Rig-wise, I would say the head but that kind of goes without saying. The way that the rest of the body rigs are done are similar to how we’ve always built rigs: It’s just layers upon layers upon layers. With their clothes themselves, you’ve got vests under jackets under or over shirts… So it was just whatever was needed for the design.
What was it in animation that was the most complicated to deal with?
Jason: When it came to the body, and when it came to the clothing, it’s very elaborate. We wanted to make a simplified version for wider shots, a simplified version of the rigs themselves, so that animators could take it and add deformers in and or add drawing swaps, and make it as clean as possible and not nearly as complicated. So at face value, you can definitely tell what was going on, without having to dive too deeply into it.
Then I wanted to have a more complicated version of the rig that had nothing but deformers and a master controller, for the shoulders and torso and stuff like that. That rig, we would drop in for our close-ups and talking head scenes. So the same articulation that we get from our heads, we could have that articulation in our torso: tilting it forward or tilting it back or shifting the shoulders around, not so much having to worry about a whole silhouette of a body performance. When it’s that close, you can kind of tell when there’s a very static part of the image. If the cutout animation is pretty static, because it’s stuck in one pose, that is definitely noticeable. So we made sure that we could move that around.
We also have our super-complicated people, when it came to clothing. With King James and Benedict Arnold, we just winged it with them. We couldn’t really figure out a system to make them simplified or more complicated. So we were like: “This is the style we’re going for. This is a complicated rig. This is gonna suck, but let’s see what we can do.” Luckily, those two characters are not in the film as much as our main characters.
Brandon: With Benedict Arnold, there were a couple times when we just went straight to traditional hand drawing him.
Many animated productions avoid showing crowd scenes. Did your team and Floyd County Productions take that as a challenge?
Jason: Our writers and directors gave the challenge to us. Their edict was to make this as epic as possible! And we were like deer in the headlights. After we gathered our wits, we had to ask ourselves how we’re going to figure this out. We tested out and brainstormed a lot of different ways.
Brandon: I think for the shot, to make sure that everything looks as grand and at the scale as was needed, it was kind of necessary. We found little cheats, whether they were palette swaps, or like layering animation, or using other little tricks. Like atmospheric perspective or elements in the way. Or having all the Redcoats be the same guy. A lot of little tricks here and there make it look like it’s as full as possible without killing our team.
We did have people that were dedicated to animating different cycles that could be used, whether it be just running or riding on horses, or shooting guns or fighting in the background. There are a handful of people who specifically focused on just filling in those holes. Then we would get those elements to composite, and they would pepper them around. We would look at it and see where it left holes: Can we fix this with background? Can we fix this with lighting? Do we need more people?
Jason: We have these Redcoats, which are all the same Redcoats, they’re all the same character. What we needed to do is animate cycles or certain actions for them. Then couple that with our Americans, which unfortunately for us, they’re all not the same person. So you’d have like a vignette of action that you mix and match throughout the shot. We had a handful of those vignettes that, if you watch them, are like a story in themselves.
Brandon: Switching palettes helped it where we could. We could take about seven or eight of those vignettes and turn them into 30, without it being too noticeable because you changed the palette or flipped it the other way. There was a lot of back and forth with composite though to make sure the shots looked right. Especially whenever you get some of those really far off shots where everything was moving in z-space.
Jason: Our composite team did a lot of the heavy lifting when it came to realizing the crowd stuff, taking our elements and applying them.
What did you enjoy most from your time working on America: The Motion Picture?
Brandon: The energy that everybody had. Everybody was very dedicated towards it. Seeing people that were fresh out of school rising up to a level where they were working at feature film quality, grabbing a hold of these really complicated rigs and hitting the ground running with them. Just the camaraderie of how everybody kind of came together. It was a very sociable kind of experience itself.
Plus developing a lot of the things that went into it. It was nice to kind of stretch that muscle, learn and develop with the team, and see what worked or what didn’t work.
Jason: You said exactly what I would say. The people and the team that we had. I think we never had a dark period among our whole production, even when we went into quarantine. We still kept up the high spirits. That’s an amazing thing, especially when it comes to such long productions, where there’ll be times where everybody’s starting to get burnt out, but I don’t think that really took place.
I would also say that it was nice to watch people taking on leadership roles. Excelling and really developing, not only their own personal skills, but also seeing them grow in a way that they’re able to uplift and to support their fellow animators. It was an atmosphere and an environment that I was really hoping we’d culture. And I think that we pulled it off well enough that all of our animators were happy with their experience.
Do you have any advice for animation students who are interested in working at Floyd County Productions?
Brandon: My biggest advice would just kind of be diversified. You kind of have to be a jack-of-all-trades in some aspect. Even coming in as a Harmony animator or 2D animator, you have to be able to understand rigging, you have to be able to understand character animation, but also maybe some FX animation. You have to be able to wear multiple hats. I know in a lot of the industry, there are places where you can specialize.
We usually start people off by rigging more than anything. Just so they could understand our system and why we rig things the way they do. It’s pretty similar across all of our shows. So taking that foundation and then moving into animation and with it, whenever you do run into a problem, if you have that experience, you know how to fix it yourself. It doesn’t have to go back through a whole cycle of going to the rigging department to fix a problem. I think it makes everybody more well-rounded, but it also helps the production stay smooth.
Jason: If you are going to apply to Floyd County, keep applying! Sometimes people will be waiting around to hear back. I don’t think that’s a knock against the individual animator. It’s more about when job openings are available. I think that’s also true across the board at any animation studio, when they have new shows or new productions.
Want to see more from Floyd County Productions? Be sure to visit the studio’s website where you can also apply to join their team on upcoming projects.