Illustrator Robert Hunter on the “Spielberg 80s family sci-fi” worlds of Cartoon Network’s Elliott from Earth
The illustrator takes us behind the scenes of the new series, sharing its artistic vision and his learnings as a rookie art director on the production.
- Jenny Brewer
- 7 May 2021
- Reading Time
- 5 minute read
Robert Hunter is a firmly established staple and star of the UK illustration world, but his latest gig saw him thrown in the deep end on a project completely, well, alien to him. Over the past year he’s been working as art director on a new Cartoon Network animated series called Elliott from Earth, a sci-fi comedy for 11-year-olds (roughly the age of its protagonist) about a boy called Elliot and his mum Frankie, who are transported across the universe by means of a mysterious rock. They find themselves on an enormous city-like spaceship inhabited by various alien species… and hilarity and high jinx ensue. Sitting somewhere in the realms between Adventure Time, Rick & Morty and Futurama, the series has a central narrative running through it “with a few mysteries, which I think sets it apart from most serialised animation in that age bracket,” Rob says.
Stylistically, while the 2D character style echoes The Amazing World Of Gumball, which was produced by the same studio in London, the backgrounds are very different. Where Gumball used photographic backdrops, Elliott from Earth uses beautiful, vibrant, hand-drawn and digitally painted backgrounds. Fans of Rob’s work will spot his distinctive flair for colour, texture, gradient and natural environments come through in many of the scenes. “I’d like to think that the overall look and feel we achieved, especially on the more story-led episodes, has a Spielberg 80s family sci-fi feel to it,” he describes to It’s Nice That. “A kind of E.T. / Close Encounters atmosphere, where the night sky is full of stars fading to a rich blue horizon and every light source has a hazy glow around it.”
Rob got involved in the project through his friend and old studio mate Mikey Please, who’d been brought on board to be episode director and asked Rob to take up the mantle of art director, picking up where the previous art director had left off. “I had never worked on a TV show before, so the whole endeavour was pretty daunting to me. When I decided to say yes, it was more for the experience than anything else. My mindset was, even if I completely screw up on this, I will learn a lot.”
He says the role was “a complete mystery to me” when he started. “I couldn’t fathom having to hold every visual element in every shot, for each eleven minute episode, in a sixteen episode series, all in my head at one time!” Quickly, he says he learned to tackle one section at a time, one day at a time, and that the most important tools were a pen, notepad, and lots of large post-its to sketch on. “The job is an interesting mix of thinking both artistically and technically.”
Despite thinking he’d have to stick to the artistic vision already planned out, Rob says he was given a lot of freedom, and encouraged to bring his ideas to the table. As such, you can clearly see aspects of his approach to colour and texture in some shots – “I think purely because I’m drawn to certain palettes and moods, which naturally come through when I’m making concept art,” he adds. “To achieve a more cinematic feel,” he continues, “we used camera focus to create more depth, added glows to the lights, and made use of haze and mist to create atmosphere.” The “guiding star” for all decisions, though, was always the story.
With the characters mostly designed already when Rob arrived, the illustrator leant his vision to the environments and compositing (the process of combining the animation and backgrounds together). Each episode was treated as its own project, Rob reading the script and figuring out the locations needed for that episode, then researching and doing loose concept designs before presenting to the wider team. They would then discuss the intention for each shot, and work out a plan for each scene, so each environment could be planned. Then, together with background supervisor Domareen Fox and key background artist Adrian Cathey, Rob would develop the concepts in more detail. Simultaneously, head of layout Ilaria Ponticelli would be breaking down the shots in the animatic with an eye on perspective and composition. “The four of us sat as a little group in the studio constantly checking in helping each other out. A major part of these productions is collaboration. It’s a brilliant experience to work with talented people that share a common goal and who you can learn new skills from.”
Once layouts were complete, they were handed over to a team of background artists in Paris, who would draw clean line-work and add colour based on Rob and his team’s key background artworks and colour scripts. Meanwhile, the team in London would start on the next episode “and we do the whole thing again!” laughs Rob. Though, he adds, the process wasn’t always smooth nor linear, with some tweaks and back-and-forth to ensure the overall aesthetic was on point.
One of Rob’s favourite episodes is Wednesday, Part 2, where the characters travel across the universe and land in a strange alien landscape. Therefore, it had more shots and locations than any other episode. “We needed to create a psychedelic space tunnel, a number of nebulas, a swirling vortex and an alien forest,” Rob describes. In the forest, there was also a transition from day to night, where phosphorescent fungi grow from trees, and a chase ensues across giant mushrooms.
Rob worked on the project for over a year, feeling as if he’d “taken a year off to do a masters in TV art direction – except all my decisions had very real consequences!” The experience has opened my eyes to how fulfilling a big collaborative project like a TV series can be. I normally lean towards long-form projects in my illustration work or if I’m directing an advert, so I guess this is a natural next step.” The big difference, he adds, and the main draw for him, was working on a story, particularly as he was able to be involved in shaping that storyline when he joined. Looking ahead, he says he’d happily sign up to art direct another series, and if Elliott gets the green light for series two it’ll be “interesting to start that series from scratch instead of inheriting a portion of the visuals. That would be another experience that I could learn a great deal from.”
Elliott From Earth is available to watch in the UK on Cartoon Network, NOW TV Kids and Sky. In the US it’s also available on Apple TV, Amazon Prime and VUDU.
GalleryElliott from Earth stills (Copyright © Cartoon Network, 2021)
Elliott from Earth still (Copyright © Cartoon Network, 2021)