Behind the Wheels

Behind the Wheels

hello friends!
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:

1) script
2) storyboards
3) temp voice records
4) animatic
5) production
6) editing begins
7) VFX and cleanup
8) final voice records
9) finishing (sound, color, delivery)
1) script
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.

2) storyboards
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.

5) production
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.
S1 E1: Cobra Chaos
S1 E2: Spider Showdown
S1 E3: Cobra Comeback
S1 E4: Giant Gorilla Rampage
S2 E1: Scorpion Strike
S2 E2: Seismic Shark Attack
S2 E3: Later Giant Gator!
S2 E4: The Shark Strikes Back!
S2 E5: New Heroes, New Challenges!
S2 E6: Chaos at the Car Washes!
S2 E7: Crazy Camaro Competition!
S2 E8: Hallo-Wheels Horror!
S2 E9: Clash of the Creatures!
S2 E10: Draven’s Massive Mayhem!
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