since this is a show about Hot Wheels cars, we needed cars. we got… lots.
the sets where all built on top of “animation” tables like these. each one was modular and could be moved around as needed.
there’s few things as iconic as the “Hot Wheels Orange Track”. the track we used in the show was painted metal that could be bent and reshaped as needed for each shot. often there would be multiple pieces in the background giving the impression of a larger city.
and here’s a set with track on animation tables!
since we were shooting with real Hot Wheels cars, the scale of everything was 1/64… so our characters were very, very small. each pose was sculpted digitally, 3D printed, then hand-painted. here’s some unpainted characters.
here’s a collection of painted poses for the character “Draven.” when you watch the show and a character moves their arms, or legs, or whatever—those are all DIFFERENT pieces that the animator changed out. stop-motion is very labor intensive.
here’s Matt animating Draven and the Giant Shark (which I voiced).
all the shots for the project where kept track of on the “Big Board”. each of those pieces of paper represents a different shot.
speaking of shooting, almost the entire project was shot on iPhones! the low profile of the camera allowed our cinematographer, Eric, to get the camera right on the “pavement”. this, combined with nice lenses that allowed for a shallow depth-of-field helped give the project a “full size” look.
here’s a couple of examples of the setup with camera, then what the lens was seeing.
and here’s a fun picture of my friend Misha animating.
let me know if you have any questions on how we made “Hot Wheels City”… I’m not an expert in stop-motion by any means, but I know a few people who are =)
there’s a bunch more pictures from the production on my Flickr page. check out the album here.
hope you are having a great fall so far. the last month I’ve been pretty busy traveling around, Northern California, Washington, Burbank… okay the last one wasn’t so far, but still—being out of one’s home can interfere with your routine. what I’m getting at, is that even though HOT WHEELS CITY has been wrapped for a bit, I haven’t had the extra time to work on the behind-the-scenes blog until now.
so what is HOT WHEELS CITY? well, it’s the gig that has kept me busy for most of 2018. it’s a stop-motion animated series that I like to describe as “Fast & Furious” meets a 1950s Monster movie. it’s full of fast cars, giant monsters, and cheesy one-liners. so pretty much the best thing ever. haha. I’m only joking a little bit, this things is right up my alley.
this was my first time working on a stop-motion project and I really learned a lot. it was awesome working with a team like Ross (director), Eric (cinematographer), Kyle (production designer), Andrew (vfx), Misha (animator), and all the other talented folks on the crew. pretty much everyone had worked together before, some of them for decades, so I was the “new guy”. that being said, I integrated in pretty quickly. many of them were ex-pats from San Francisco and all of them enjoyed joking around, drinking whisky, and really cared about the work they were doing. okay, enough buttering their bread. let’s get down to brass tacks.
the first thing that struck me about working in stop-motion, was that it was like a perfect combination of live action and animation. that seems a bit obvious in retrospect, but going into the job I hadn’t really thought about it.
let me break down the general order of how a stop motion project gets made:
3) temp voice records
6) editing begins
7) VFX and cleanup
8) final voice records
9) finishing (sound, color, delivery)
back in January on season 1, Ross and I did punch-ups and fixes to the scripts. in season 2, we wrote the entire thing (with some great jokes from Andrew). Ross would do the first pass on the script, then I’d handle the studio notes and occasionally add in new scenes and subplots to fill out the episodes. it was a really great experience and I feel it pushed my creative abilities and practice. there were times I had to switch off my “editor” brain and go full-on screenwriter in the middle of the day. deadlines! here are a couple sample pages from a script.
the storyboarding process for this show was like the storyboarding for any other animated project I’ve worked on. we had several board artists who’d take the scripts, then working with Ross (and later myself), come up with the different shots to tell the story. the only big difference between this and say, THE LAND BEFORE TIME, was that since our models didn’t have “faces”, there wasn’t a need to spend a lot of time on the expressions of the characters. I was able to help out in a larger roll on episodes 207 and 208, and supervised the boarding process while Ross was at a family reunion. click here to see a sample of the boards.
3) temp voice records
this is one of my favorite parts of the process. not only is it fun to perform the dialogue, but many of our funniest lines were discovered during the records. Ross and I would go into the sound booth to record the dialogue “as written” but also to to riff off each other. we’d try to crack each other up by saying more and more ridiculous things. this is needed because, honestly, sometimes the lines we wrote didn’t work… the most common problem was that there were too many words. it’s important to remember that its a kid’s show… this isn’t “Aaron Sorkin presents”. the lines in HOT WHEELS CITY needed to be shorty, pithy, and sound funny. there’s a particular cadence that works for this, and often we’d have to hear them read aloud to figure this out.
most of my temp-records were for the character Elliot, so were replaced by the actor, but I did get a variety of minor characters in… plus I did the Scorpion, the Shark, the Gator, the Gorilla, and the little Cobras. I think my favorite creature performance was the Scorpion in Episode 201.
4) animatic editing
now’s the part where the editing begins (actually, steps 1-4 are all happening at the same time). I would take the storyboards (think comic book panels) then combine them with the voice records. after timing them out appropriately, I’d add sound effects and music to make it a full viewing experience. this becomes like a “flip book with sound”. generally we go through 3 or 4 versions of an animatic, with the studio giving notes at each stage. sometimes the episodes would change dramatically in this process, while at other times they would stay nearly the same.
the animatic is the time to try things out, see what jokes land, and see what plot elements are needed to make a complete story. sometimes you find that you can tell the story without something, and sometimes you realize you need additional clarification. here’s a clips of a really funny bit for episode 204 that Ross and I did… it ended up only being like 8 seconds in the final piece.
once the animatic is locked, each shot is labeled and numbered with a frame count, then it’s turned over to production and the fun of actually making it begins! sometimes what we wrote and boarded wasn’t quite achievable, so Ross and the animators needed to figure out new ways of communicating the story and they’d make adjustments on the fly. occasionally they needed to delete or combine shots, so would brainstorm with me about how to simplify production, but still have the edit work. stop motion production is a fluid and fast thing and while the animatic is the guide… it is just that, a guide that will often be changed.
here are a couple shots from the set. I think I’ll do an appendix blog where I post more shots and talk a bit more about this… because it is pretty darn cool how we did it.
6) color editing begins
as the shots from production are completed, they are delivered to editorial. I start to cut them in, replacing the animatic and adjusting the timing as necessary. during this process I’ll often be working on multiple episodes at the same time. some of the episodes will be in “color” and others still in “animatic”. check out this photo of my to-do’s on this day I was working on EVERY EPISODE except for 210… now, a few episodes only had a shot or two, but others I was doing serious work. luckily on Season 2 I had an assistant editor—first Regan, then Noel… and they really saved my bacon.
7) VFX and cleanup
while I’m cutting the shots, Andrew and his VFX team are busy doing their thing. this includes rig removal, flicker removal, glue removal, and general clean-up. for example, anytime you see a car in the air it first looked like this.
then in the final version it looked like this.
they also added a bunch of dust, clouds, debris hits, steam, bubbles, waves in the water and more. additionally many of the shots are combined with multiple “plates”. that is, the foreground elements, and background elements are shot separately—then combined in post-production. they really did some amazing work. I was constantly amazed by how much better they could make a shot.
8) final voice records
in addition to Ross and I, there were three other actors featured in Season 2. as we’d record them, I’d cut their lines over the temps that we’d recorded back in step 3. occasionally the lines and timing would change, and I’d make adjustments to the animatic (or color footage) as necessary. since HOT WHEELS CITY doesn’t have any lip sync, i.e. no moving mouths to match, it make replacing lines MUCH easier. it was really, really nice to have a recording booth on location (thanks Kyle!). and especially handy that Ross did a ton of the voices… if the studio asked for an additional line to clarify some plot point… it was easy to write it, then get him to record.
9) finishing (sound, color, delivery)
with final voices recorded, and vfx done, it was time to “lock” an episode. “picture lock” means that you are no longer going to change the timing of a project… you can REPLACE a shot, but it has to be the exact same length, and the key action has to take place at the same time. so, you could say, paint out a logo on a car, but you couldn’t have the car crash 12 frames earlier.
once we’d finished our work, and the studio had signed off on the episode, I’d deliver it to sound and color. the guys over at Pendulum did an amazing job on this. they did all the sound design, mixing, and score for each episode. it was really awesome to hear the episodes come back all full of engine roars and tire squeals and footsteps and all the little things that make a film a full and immersive experience. in Season 2 we really hit our stride too, I was able to use their cues from Season 1 as a temp—and it really helped.
at the same time, the video was sent to Eric who did his color correction thing. he’d do this after working a full day on set! pretty impressive.
finally, all the elements were delivered back to me. Ross and I would give any notes necessary, then after revisions, I’d export the version that you see on Youtube.
so there you have it, the story of HOT WHEELS CITY. hope you enjoyed hearing about it as much as I enjoyed working on it!
p.s. for your clicking ease, here are links to all the episodes, each is between 3 and 4 minutes long.