Animation studio Encyclopedia Pictura is renowned for its work with the likes of Kanye West, Björk and Grizzly Bear, but its latest work diverges down a very different path, with a series of shorts for Cartoon Network. It comes off the back of the success of DIY.org, an online community started by one of the studio’s founders Isaiah Saxon together with Vimeo co-founder Zach Klein, where kids can learn new making skills and share their creations. Started in 2016, it now has over a million members.
Looking to expand their DIY world, Isaiah and fellow Encyclopedia Pictura director Sean Hellfritsch began to develop ideas – first planning a live-action feature film, then a feature-length animated film, before they landed on the idea for an animated series. “It felt like the best format to explore all the story ideas we had,” Sean tells It’s Nice That. They reached out to Cartoon Network with a pitch and it was accepted into the broadcaster’s shorts programme, which funds development and production for the films. If they’re a hit, it’ll be extended to a series.
In tune with the foundations of DIY.org, Isaiah and Sean looked to create an animation aesthetic that felt hand-made, yet used the potential of CGI. “Some executive guy at Cartoon Network, when he saw the first little clips of animation, called it ‘liquid stop-motion’ which I think was getting at something,” describes Isaiah of the animation style. “We set a lot of rules that were similar to how we would have made it in stop-motion, like using all fill colours and no texture maps, everything being hand-modelled, using painted 2D backdrops, and just building out a small diorama of foreground scenery. But we chose CG in the first place because we could go beyond what we could do in stop motion with the dynamic effects, like flowing grass and foliage and thousands of worms.”
“We started our careers working with live action special effects, prosthetics, puppets & stop-motion,” Sean continues, “but at the point when our projects could afford it, we got into computer animation. It’s such a young medium with so much potential, and we’re really excited to see where we can take it. With DIY we pulled inspiration from the tactile quality of stop-motion, the cartoony, exaggerated expressions of 2D animation and the cinematic camera work of our heroes Kubrick and Spielberg. The character facial animation process was inspired by model replacement work done in stop-motion. So every mouth position and wild expression is sculpted as a unique model, then we can blend or snap between all of those poses to create performances that feel more like classic animation.
“The outcome feels like a wonderful distillation of all our aesthetics and ideals into a unique new style. I like that it’s not trying to fake stop-motion, but it doesn’t look like the other computer animation out there.”
The films are set in “vaguely the near future, in vaguely the rust belt of America,” and follow a group of geeky kids who have taken over an abandoned mine to start a club all about “honour, friendship and doing stuff”. “Their HQ is outside a town that is full of out-of-touch adults so it’s up to these kids to keep things together,” Isaiah explains. The first episode is about harnessing the tunnel-digging power of a group of earthworms; another, called Bee Friends, is about a character with a depressed pet bee. Surreal in subject matter and joyous in its execution, that series looks like it’s on the cards.