So, Dolly Parton, the Kool-Aid man and a giant spider walk into a bar… Implausible? Yes. Impossible? Not with Tig Notaro: Drawn.
The new show marks the world’s first-ever fully animated stand-up comedy special, released on July 24 on HBO and HBO Max. With fresh material taken straight from the legendary comic’s archive, the hour-long production captures the hilarious situations in her observational humour with animation directed by Six Point Harness co-founder Greg Franklin. A crew of over 150 artists, animators and technicians from around the world supported the production.
While Notaro delivered the punchlines perfectly, the animation process itself was no laughing matter. Produced entirely during the pandemic based on 48 hours of audio material, each story in the special had its own unique style envisioned by a different artist – requiring an exceptional level of collaboration, organization and creative flexibility supported by digital animation solutions like Storyboard Pro and Harmony.
We caught up with Franklin to learn more about what it was like working with Tig Notaro, the process of creating an animated comedy special and how his teams brought humanity and humour to life with Harmony.
How did you and the team at Six Point Harness get involved with Tig Notaro: Drawn?
About 10 years ago, I did some animated stand-up shorts for some of my favourite comedians on YouTube like Kyle Kinane, Jackie Kashian and Wyatt Cenac. Not long after that, I did an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld. I thought that was the apex of this.
Little did I know that Tig Notaro would approach us for a full-hour stand-up comedy special. I’m a big fan of hers and she was aware of my work; we were also meant to collaborate a decade ago. She came to our office. At first, she didn’t recognize me, but when I started talking about my thoughts on an animated comedy special, she said: “Hey, wait a minute – what is your name?”
I told her my last name. She turned to the people she was with and said, “This is the guy who I was talking about!” From then on, it was like the rest of the room just shut up and we started getting really nerdy about stand-up comedy and animation. Later, I went back and listened to the material, created the deck of my life, and next thing we knew, we were pitching to HBO. They picked it up within a day or two.
When you say you listened to the material, was that the 48 hours of content she gave you?
No, there was a supercut. Tom Ouellette, one of the producers, had done the unenviable work of compiling all the material and creating a spreadsheet; ranking it in terms of audience reaction, how many times the jokes were done, where they were. That’s what I listened to, and then thought about what style would look best with each story.
Was the spreadsheet a sort of springboard?
It was. There were some subtractions and additions where my editor and I would find jewels of 45-second ad libs that were super visual. To our producers’ chagrin, we kept asking for more and more. We kept it to a reasonable amount. Well, as reasonable as a one-hour comedy special can be. It’s kind of unusual, as it’s never been done before.
Why did Tig want the special to be animated?
She’s a huge fan of animation and has a real curiosity about the way that animators and cartoonists think. While we were pitching, she said she would love to watch any stand-up comedy special that was animated – even if it was a comedian that she didn’t particularly care for. She would be just so curious about what was going to happen and be shown. It was an idea that she actually had a long time ago and was picking away at it until the time was right.
A lot of people assumed that this was brought about by the pandemic, and that it was a practicality thing, but that’s not true. We began working on it in October 2019, when we first met with Tig and got the deal to do the show. We were pitching it in February 2020 and got our green light from HBO the last week of that month – and then in March the world changed.
So if things kicked off in October 2019, how long was production in total?
I think we got started in July 2020 and we turned in the final cut a month ago.
Eddie and Tig character exploration. pic.twitter.com/zNfHKD9mIh— Tig Notaro (@TigNotaro) July 26, 2021
From your perspective, how do you feel animation benefits a comedy special?
It’s very transformative. When you listen to a comedy album, you always visualize what’s going on. By showing people things, it’s a little bit of that old commercial about how you got your peanut butter in my chocolate and vice versa. It’s two great tastes that go together perfectly.
We were taking great material that Tig had been working on for a while but wasn’t going to be used. So, this is stuff that wouldn’t have seen the light of day otherwise. That, in an and of itself, is huge as far as getting this extremely funny material to people in a form that is unique — and that no one’s ever really seen a project of this length.
How involved was Tig in the process? Was she giving you guys feedback on scenes or did she give you carte blanche?
There was a level of trust. She had to trust us to do the best of what we thought was right with the material. Tig was very engaged in the design and animatics aspects, when we had our first pass of animation, but she didn’t micromanage us.
She is really good at looking at the big picture. Sometimes she would give us some notes, but they were more macro and holistic; everything she was telling us was dramatically improving the quality and the hilariousness of what we were doing. She is the funniest person alive in my opinion — so dry, deadpan and methodical, with these really crazy takes on everyday situations.
As an animator, how do you capture that sense of humor and distill it into something visual?
In my experience, the comedians set the tone of the animation. It’s really about being a support system for the delivery of the material. The worst thing we could do is put in wacky visual jokes that get in the way of what Tig is saying. We had to be very careful.
That makes sense. Did you use Storyboard Pro to help plan all this out?
Yes, the vast majority of the storyboards were done in Storyboard Pro.
How much of the animation was done in Harmony?
We did all kinds of styles, from claymation to CG to 2D, so we used a variety of software. I would guess we did roughly 75 percent of the show in Harmony using various techniques – from traditional animation to more heavily rigged. You can do so much in Harmony that it satisfied a lot of our different needs to keep surprising the audience with new things.
Alex Soto, our Harmony expert, came up with ways to keep it looking different and fresh – crazy line and texture boil things and a wisdom teeth segment that was kind of based on MAD Magazine illustrations from the 60s and 70s. That needed to look right, and it was a hybrid technique of traditional and rigged elements. We followed that up with the old bat segment, which was almost totally rigged; and the Philly story, which was completely traditional, with a lot of watercolour textures that were done with the vector brushes.
What would you say was your favourite scene that was animated in Harmony?
I think that my favourite Harmony scene was that Philly story with the traditional animation, designed by the genius Yuki Mori. She provided all of the character designs, storyboards and character layout in her own signature style. Anima Studios in Mexico City did the animation for that completely traditionally from her layouts.
She has a very scratchy watercolour aesthetic and it turned out so beautiful – and funny. It doesn’t look like anything else. There were a lot of times in the show where we’d want to hit a familiar note that the audience might recognize, but it morphed into kind of a modern take on that.
Did you have a specific artist and studio on each scene?
Yes, though we had some overlap. We had 150 different artists contribute to the special, with teams all over. That’s one thing that was facilitated by the pandemic: it really leveled the playing field so far as working with anyone, anywhere. For instance, we had a team in Mexico City, another in Australia and another in Nepal. We had individual animators contributing all over the place, and so when you are interfacing with an animator or a studio in India, it’s really not that different than dealing with somebody that’s local.
Did working with digital tools like Storyboard Pro and Harmony make it any easier to collaborate internationally?
Yeah, definitely. With Harmony, there’s so much control over everything. Alex Soto is a total genius. He would come up with innovative new looks and things for our overseas partners, and they would also have a lot of contributions too.