To encourage animators to try out new tools and techniques following the release of Harmony 21, Toon Boom Animation assembled a demo pack titled The Ingredients of Animation, which features work from six artists participating in our Ambassador Program. Each artist hired for the project contributed scenes, made using a variety of cutout and paperless techniques — and were inspired by recipes they have a personal connection to.
Today’s special is this delicious spaghetti dish from California-based animator Greg McMahon. Presenting a well-loved favorite and taking his own artistic liberties with it, Greg reimagines his mother’s tomato sauce recipe into a surrealist experience that truly comes to life. Indulging his love for creatures and monsters, Greg uses the medium of animation to transform the scene. Good food can be theatre!
Read our interview below, where Greg runs us through the key ingredients of the dish and shares secrets from the family cook-book. In Harmony, he’ll run us through the Peg, Cutter and Node tools that helped bring this visual feast to the table. He also explains his stylistic choices, and how they function together in the finished scene.
What is the inspiration behind the dish?
That’s just my mom’s classic tomato sauce for spaghetti. Nothing too eccentric or anything. Just a very solid, very good recipe, with Italian spices. The kind that makes me not want to ever order tomato sauce at a restaurant. It’s just our staple family meal.
You have to use hot Italian sausage, that’s a big thing, so it’s got a bit of spice to it. Then you’ve got crushed tomatoes, some water, garlic, oregano, basil, parsley, some sugar, baking soda, Romano cheese, and then Italian meatballs. Once you put the meatballs in the sauce, the sauce cooks for three hours. You want to stir it pretty consistently, at least every now and then. You want to check to make sure it doesn’t boil, because that’ll make the meatballs fall apart. So as long as you keep an eye on it and cook it right, that’ll keep them nice and firm. I’m not much of a cook myself, but I’m always happy to eat!
I’ve always thought that cooking is a little bit like chemistry. In that when you add elements, you get different reactions and interactions between elements. How do you reflect that when animating?
It’s sort of like when you have a bunch of ingredients on their own: They don’t really mean anything until you bring them together. It’s kind of just chemistry, in the sense that once you put all these disparate elements together, then it magically becomes something awesome.
Animation, and art in general, is kind of similar. A lot of times it doesn’t really make sense — or look acceptable at all — until it’s finished. But once it’s finished, then you have something. In a sense, the process is similar to cooking.
Often the person can know the food they’ve just consumed is very pleasing, but they might not necessarily know the secrets that go into the process. You know?
Yeah! To an onlooker they might see one ingredient, and they won’t think that it’s important at all.
Focusing in on the components of your recipe: The spaghetti is a very unruly and random sort of creature. How did you achieve the texture that we see?
That took a lot of playing around in the rough animation stage. I felt like one way to make it a little more manageable was to treat it more like a surreal vision of an ocean, which I could make into like chunks and waves. It starts out where you have one noodle, then it comes into a few stray noodles wiggling around. If the whole animation was like that, it would have taken forever because individual noodles being animated take a very long time.
There’s a few frames in there where you see the splash, where there’s a lot of individual noodles. I wanted to keep that at the beginning so you see that it is spaghetti. Once they conglomerated into a whole, then it becomes more of an ocean wave-looking thing. That way, I could just draw big curvy shapes, and then add lines later to make it look more like noodles. Once I had the beginning set up as stray noodles, then I think it reads okay as spaghetti. That’s at least what I was hoping to achieve.
If I can establish that the spaghetti is coming and it looks like spaghetti, then the audience can hopefully accept it once it becomes an ocean of spaghetti. Which, as far as I know, doesn’t exist in real life.
How did you come up with the visual where a tomato comes in like a comet, and then from the explosion, a bird rises out like a phoenix?
Basically as soon as we got the prompt for the food-related theme, I asked right away, “so can we take it in a surreal direction?” I can do pretty much any kind of animation and I’ll try and find some way to work some kind of creature into it, because I like animals and I like monsters. Monsters are like my favorite thing.
So if I can find an excuse to put some kind of living creature into a theme, no matter what it is, I’ll do it. I experimented in my mind with a fish swimming around, or a whale bursting out of it, which would fit the water theme. But then I got the image of a bird bursting out of the waves that would soar into the sky, and then dive back in, which would be more dynamic. I’d be able to make a cool, sweeping motion and then make a big splash!
The splash was a lot of fun to animate. It’s a little bit different than water, when you have the tomato sauce looking a little thicker. I thought just having a bird, with the sharp beak shape, swirl and dive into the noodles and the bowl. I thought that would make for a good, really sharp motion that adds dynamism.
What techniques did you use in the software to creating the bird and bring that surrealism to life?
For the most part, it was just about getting it right in the rough animation stage. For rough animation — it varies from project to project — but I really like using Toon Boom Harmony’s bitmap brushes for roughing things out, because I love the sketchy feel of it. That’s one thing I love about Harmony compared to a lot of other software, is that the sketchy brushes and bitmap brushes that I’ve customized to my liking are really nice to play around with in the rough stage.
You can see it’s very scribbly. I work very, very rough with my roughs. If I’m working with another client who has to clean up my work, then I’ll try and make my roughs cleaner. But if it’s just for me, I will make them very messy. I want the world to know that that is okay!
How do you set up your brushes in Toon Boom Harmony?
For a lot of these, I just took some textures that I’d had for other brushes in other software that I’ve imported here or tried to replicate. In one of the previous Harmony editions, they added the dual tip brushes and pencils. Just experimenting with the dual tip alone can make a pencil feel a lot more natural, because you get a little bit more texture in it.
I have made a few pencils. Some are more solid, some are a little bit more fluffy and sketchy, which I try and use for when I don’t want to be too precise yet. Then I have some more vector-looking ones. This one, I didn’t experiment with too much. A long time ago, I made a brush just to see if I can make something painterly in Toon Boom, and it turns out that can be done pretty well.
How did you go about the shading on this project?
I would color it with the purple blocking brush, then I would have the cutter node to make sure the shadows stay inside all the elements of the first shot. This is so it doesn’t just go into the background: It’s only on the noodles. Then I would have most elements of the shot one on their own cutter, so that the shading can stay inside of that, and then I’ll use a shadow node.
The color palette doesn’t actually matter, because I just used the shadow node’s window to pick a color. I didn’t use any blurring. Then I experimented — I was going to put a blending node into it to try to multiply or add or something like that for the different effects. But I thought the shadow node worked okay.
I also had a similar process for the the highlights. Except for those I did have some blurring on, which is one of the only real differences. So that’s basically the end of the shading process. I have hard shadows, and then softer highlights. There’s no real logical reason for the softer highlights, other than I was experimenting with a bunch of different settings. I thought that ended up looking best.
There’s an interesting parallax effect between the foreground and the background. How do you go about achieving that in Toon Boom Harmony?
That was not too complicated. I thought, at the very end, I could add something that just makes the background pop a little bit more, and give it more depth. So the cloves of garlic, and the little parsley flakes there, they’re mainly just drawn on their own layers. A lot of it is letting the camera do the work.
I’d have the camera set up, with lots of different pegs layers going on here. You can actually use the apply peg transformation node to clone a lot of these, but for most of these, I drew by hand and copy-pasted them by hand. Each garlic clove has its own layer, and then each section of the flakes have their own layers. I would use the maintain size tool on their pegs, so they’re all tweaked a little bit to move to the left and rotate just a little bit.
But for the most part, it’s just the camera movement that makes them look farther away than the foreground elements. It’s very convenient. I love doing that in Toon Boom Harmony and just pushing things back and adding a little bit of depth to any scene.
I thought having the background elements made the quick camera movement read a little bit better. Once it zooms across, it’s pretty fast. But the tweened elements in the background move a little bit slower than the foreground. You can kind of see: ‘alright, it’s moving this far and then it stops.’
That part actually was one of the hardest parts; just getting this to not look like complete nonsense, because you’ve got the camera moving to the right pretty fast. And then the waves are also moving to the left, which are pretty fast. They’re these two opposing forces that I had to make sure didn’t just look like flashing nonsense.
Any other projects you worked on recently which you would like to mention?
I have been working on Helluva Boss, VivziePop‘s cartoon on YouTube. That project is a lot of fun to work on, and I’ve been doing that for the past year. Just a quick warning to everyone: It’s very, very, very adult. Don’t show your kids that one.
In my spare time, I am working on some of my own projects that I hope get off the ground, which will hopefully see the light of day. I’m working on throwing character designs and storyboards together for some stories I want to tell. So be on the lookout for that, hopefully!
Want a taste of the newest features in Harmony 21? Be sure to discover the new features here and download a 21-day trial. Curious about the other Ingredients of Animation? You can find more articles about the participating artists here.