One of this year’s best comedies, NBC’s Community, is no stranger to theme episodes. Like their sworn enemy, Glee, Community has its own form of tribute episodes. But rather than paying homage to pop stars, Community has episodes dedicated to mafia movies or action flicks. In their second season alone, the show has riffed on Apollo 13 and the zombie genre.
So it makes sense that the show is doing a stop-motion animated Christmas episode, in the spirit of the old Rankin/Bass specials of yore. James Fino, executive producer at 23D Films, talked with me earlier today on the joys and challenges of bringing Greendale Community College to life via stop-motion animation.
How did you get the gig of doing the animation for this episode?
Joe Russo, my fellow executive producer and partner at 23D Films, worked with Dino Stamatopoulos on episodes of Mr. Show with Bob and David. Dino, in addition to playing Star-Burns on Community , currently works on the show with series creator Dan Harmon. They had talked about joining forces and doing an animated project, and Dan presented the idea from the executives about doing an animated Christmas special. Dino mentioned his work on Adult Swim’s Moral Orel and suggested we do the episode in stop-motion. So we got started and, before you know it, the episode was written and we were doing a table read.
What was the process for this episode like?
Thanks to shows like Moral Orel and movies like Coraline and Fantastic Mr. Fox, there’s been a new appreciation for stop motion. So we had to race to find animators before they were snapped up by other projects. Some of our animators actually worked on Coraline.
When you think of stop-motion holiday specials, you think of Rankin/Bass, but that look is a set look that’s been parodied and we wanted Community to be its own thing. We were inspired by the rich worlds of Coraline and Fantastic Mr. Fox, so there was a strong emphasis on getting puppets to look like the live action characters from Community that everyone knows and loves. We immediately started designing those — we wanted resin heads with sculpted hairdos, so their hair wouldn’t shift from frame to frame.
We also had to figure out how to build the sets in a small amount of time. We had a team devoted to making the sets look just like they do in real life on the show. Duncan’s study was perfectly recreated with actual miniature replicas of the prints and books in his office. And the library is recreated with miniature versions of the couches and everything. We were grinning from ear to ear when we saw the sets.
Is your stop-motion process more traditional, stopping every frame to move the characters, or do you use a lot of software and technology to make it work?
I’m so glad you asked that. A lot of this is all done by hand and animated by hand. There are wires and rigging that support the puppets when they’re hopping and jumping in mid-air, so we use computers to get rid of those wires and rigging. Dragon Software allows every animator at their computer station to see each shot in an instant and we can calibrate what the next moves are, so that helps us capture the images and manipulate them. It’s a great leap forward and we were really happy to work with the folks at Dragon.
Which character was the most difficult to create and animate?
At one point in the episode, the characters are all turned into Christmas icons. And Jeff turns into a jack-in-the-box, so that took a lot of rigging to get that character to move and hop along. Chevy Chase turns into a bear and Shirley turns into a baby, so their proportions changed from the standard 8 inches we were using on most of the characters and that was somewhat of a challenge.
Were you a fan of Community before working on it — and if not, are you a fan now?
I had seen a couple of episodes and loved them. When this opportunity came up, I knew what a great set of characters we had to work with. And the world that Dan created, I immediately plugged into that. So the opportunity to do this was a dream come true.
I know that you’re a University of Texas grad. Did you also grow up in Texas?
I was born and raised in El Paso. I knew early on that I was a fan of special effects in movies, like Ray Harryhausen’s work and disaster movies of the 1970s. So I knew I wanted to go into the fields of film and television for special effects. USC and New York were too far away for my parents, so UT was the natural choice. And I loved my classes and everything came really easily to me because I loved it so much.
I see on your bio with 23D Films that you also worked on King of the Hill. Obviously, the show has Texas ties, too. What was your involvement with that show?
I got called in to work as a writer’s assistant, which is an awesome job to have but a hard job to get. If you’re good, you get to contribute and it’s a good path towards becoming a writer. The opportunity to work with Greg Daniels and Mike Judge was too good to be true. The first thing I did was help organize a trip for the writers to Texas because they’d never been and they needed to get past their stereotypical ideas of Texas. They had a great time and got a better sense of the people, which was key for the writing staff. So I constantly answered questions about Texas and people from Texas. That job was awesome. And I transitioned to being the production manager and I worked directly with Greg and Mike and I learned how an animated show was launched.
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