Making any film is an arduous process, involving years of dedication and thousands of hours of manpower – making a 2D animated film to premiere in theaters during the COVID-era seemed impossible.
Yet that’s exactly what the team behind The Bob’s Burgers Movie did. Initially premiering in theaters Memorial Day weekend before dropping on Hulu in July, animators from three different companies got together to create a musical masterpiece of a film.
Recently, I was given the opportunity to speak with the supervisory animation team from one of the companies who worked on the film – TONIC DNA.
Head of Production Laura Montero Plata, Cutout/Traditional Animation Supervisor Nick Vallinakis, and Cutout and Comp Supervisor Etienne Dufresne, and I had a wide-ranging conversation, from the future of the medium of animation to what they would put on their burgers of the day, should Bob grant them access to his chalkboard.
AMBER – Can you describe the difference between traditional and cutout animation?
ETIENNE – When we talk about traditional, everything is digital at the moment, but it’s all hand-drawn frame by frame. When we talk about cutout, what we do is we assemble and rig a puppet of a character that has control points, and a variety of expressions, mouths, and assets that we move over time to create the animation. So it’s a different approach, but the end result is the same. We used both techniques for this movie, and it’s really hard to find the difference between both, we made it look really seamless, and everything flows really well.
NICK – You’re going to see it more and more. I mean for years, cutout animation has been becoming the standard, and traditional hand-drawn stuff has been sort of dropping off to the side. But it’s a time-honored way of doing it – that’s how I started in animation years ago, everything was hand-drawn on paper and slowly it moved to the digital world. When you talk about traditional hand drawn animation, you can still do that on a screen as opposed to on paper. It’s the same process, it’s just a different tool. When you hand draw it on the screen, now, it still has to be refined, the drawings have to be finalized, they have to be colored, just like they used to be, except they’re digital. And when you talk about cutout, like Etienne said the character is already built, it’s like having a puppet that’s already colored, the line is already final, and you just have to control and manipulate that puppet instead of making your drawings. The principles of animation are all the same and the goal for us here is to make it seamless, so you don’t see a difference between the final hand-drawn and the digital stuff. When you’re manipulating them, they’re different ways of working, just like 3D animation is different from hand drawn animation. But except there, you really see the difference. The intention is that it’s a different look here, it’s to try to make it all look to 2D flat hand drawn.
AMBER – So then I take it that the big musical number you guys were involved in – the carny sequence – would be cutout versus the more traditional animation style.
LAURA – In fact, it was hybrid, because we have been using a hybrid pipeline for the last three years. Obviously, the big chunk of that sequence was a true challenge four our team, and we are really proud of it, was cutout. But for instance, the children were traditional. So it was a combination of both together.
AMBER – What other scenes did TONIC contribute to this film?
LAURA – We did the first musical number, when they are in the burger shop and then the kids are going to the school. We did all the musical number, we did the carnies, we did the sequence previous to the carnies where they are taking their bikes and going to see the carnies, and the one in the park when they are playing the instruments.
AMBER – Was the carny scene the most detailed animation you did for this film, the most laborious?
ETIENNE – Yeah, I would say it was laborious, considering the number of characters that were in this sequence, and also the complex environment like the backgrounds that were done in-house at Tonic were really detailed. It was a 3D environment as well, the camera turns around, so the continuity of where everything is positioned, making a good perspective, was difficult to create. Having this all locked down and placing all the characters and doing those complex animation with a lot of stuff going on a lot of props and also adding the lighting, the tones, and shadows over it to make it look complete and really beautiful. To bring this to detail, it was a lot of work. Our team did an amazing job.
AMBER – It takes so much time and work to do an animated film correctly and beautifully, making everything look seamless and as real as possible. What would you say to people who call it the kids’ genre or try to separate it from the other categories at the Academy Awards? How would you tell them that this is a worthy medium of storytelling?
NICK – I think cartoons, when I was growing up, we watched them Saturday mornings and it was seen as a kids’ medium. But at the time, what we’d watch where I’d say, you know, there was a lot of new stuff that was coming up, but a lot of it was stuff that was animated for studios like Warner Brothers back in the 40s and 50s for adult audiences at movies. They were made as small add-ons or prequels to the movie. They were not necessarily intended for kids. And a lot of the humor in them sort of went over our heads; you look back on those cartoons, look at all the Warner Brothers stuff, they were sneaking a lot of stuff that was intended for adults, because it was never made for children. And it became a children’s thing. They had children’s commercials for cereal and toys and kids. The parents got a few hours off while the kids watch Saturday morning cartoons. And then in everybody’s mind, cartoons are for kids. But I would say that’s something that is an attitude. Then when you see the content of some of the films, you can have any kind of content and do it with animation. I mean, it’s the same thing. Why separate the medium? Take books, there’s kids books and adult books and books for everybody. And so would you say that the written word is as an adult? It’s an adult medium? No, it depends on who it’s intended for. And you have to take it that way for whatever it is you’re creating.
LAURA – I really love the fact that you used the word medium, because I think the misunderstanding comes from people thinking animation is a genre, and it’s not, it’s a medium. And because it’s a medium, it is limitless in the way that we can depict it. I mean, with the limitations of the paper, the tablet, wherever you want to call it. In live action, if we don’t have effects, you are limited to the elements that are real. In animation, your imagination is the limit. And it could be for kids, it could be for adults. You touch where you like, because is just a medium that has all these possibilities. The fact that for many years, the focus was on children, I think it has deluded this notion of the of the medium, but I think we little by little we are proven that there is room for every possible theme that you can imagine.
AMBER – I agree and you know, Netflix has all these adult animation shows and they’re extremely popular. And now you guys have worked with Warner Brothers and Disney on very big films. Would you say that there’s a shift back to 2D animation versus 3D? Do you think companies are going to start wanting to see that more often now?
LAURA – It’s a tricky one. I think 2D is becoming popular again, for sure. We’ll see how the technology helps to develop something in between maybe. But I hope we are going to stay for a long time because it’s really good to be back in business.
ETIENNE – Yes, let me add to what you said though, I do think like the fact also what you mentioned Amber, like with there’s a lot of more animation series that are available for adults, just the fact that, like people are more exposed to animation now like compared to a couple of years back. Maybe a few that are going to watch this are future directions, future artists, and this is going to influence a lot of people out there. I think this will influence what we will see in the coming years.
NICK – You have to you have to think that film and visual medium like this, in general, is always evolving and changing. You know, I mean, back when films were all practical effects and matte painting. That was a whole other realm for filmmaking; I’m talking about live-action film. And now a lot of that is done using CGI right, a lot of the matte painting, a lot of the effects, anything practical effects, a lot of it has gone that way. Like Laura said, it’s a cost thing too, would you intentionally go back to doing it practical, because, you know, it’s nostalgic, maybe but it’s not really cost-effective. And it evolves. And I think the same way for animation, if you look at like I said original animation all hand-drawn colored by hand on cells. Well, it’s nostalgic at this point. But the technology has evolved to a point where who’s going to go back to that. When I when I was working in animation doing it that way. At some point it actually became more cost-effective to send work out of the country to get it done at a lower rate. A lot of the hands-on practical work was going out of country, and we kept a lot of the sort of the blueprint creative part like the storyboarding, and the layouts. And then eventually the layout started to go. And then what happened was digital came in and made it more practical or more cost-effective, to keep it to keep it domestic. And then you had companies doing animation in house again. So that sort of brought it back. But it didn’t look the same. You know, there was a different style limited by the technology. And now we’re getting to a point where we’re trying to do a hybrid where you’re bridging the two and you’re making them blend. It’s evolved. I think I would expect that you’d see a mix of 2D and 3D being used to make movies as the new standard.
AMBER – Going back to what Laura was saying, having hope for the future, do you guys have any hopes for a Bob’s Burgers sequel? It was really well received by critics and fans. Do you think that Disney and 20th Century Studios are going to want another one?
NICK – I hope so, yeah. It’s done pretty well, critically. And financially. I worked for Disney before, and I know that they very much like that. And so, that’s a good sign. I think so.
AMBER – You mention working with Disney before, is that how TONIC became involved with this the making of this film?
LAURA – We have a working relationship with Bento Box. At the time, we were doing season two for the series Central Park. And in fact, we handle all the songs kind of our specialty. Bento Box was doing the film and they thought of us to handle the musical numbers, and then we got two additional sequences. So, it was because we were working already with them in on Central Park.
AMBER – Lastly, in true Bob fashion, I was wondering what each of you would put on your Burgers of the Day, should Bob let you have a chance to use his chalkboard.
ETIENNE – All the beautiful grease.
NICK – Keep everything on it, give me bacon, cheese, even throw some fish in there for the Wharf. Everything with an extra serving of fries and I’m good.
LAURA – Yeah, fries are essential, and I would add teriyaki sauce, just because.
The Bob’s Burgers Movie is available to watch on Hulu and HBOMax now.