hardest things

The Hardest Thing I Ever Animated

Artists from Toy Story, The Secret of NIMH, BoJack Horseman, Rick and Morty, and more recall their toughest gigs.

A difficult dragon, horse, and fox. Photo-Illustration: Vulture, Universal Pictures, Netflix and Twentieth Century Fox
A difficult dragon, horse, and fox. Photo-Illustration: Vulture, Universal Pictures, Netflix and Twentieth Century Fox
A difficult dragon, horse, and fox. Photo-Illustration: Vulture, Universal Pictures, Netflix and Twentieth Century Fox

This story originally ran on November 13, 2019. It has been expanded and republished for our “The 100 Sequences That Shaped Animation” package.

Animation has always been more effective than most art forms at convincing viewers of its own magic. Early experimental works passed off thousands of hand-drawn stills as party tricks. Fleishman Studios’ Out of the Inkwell cartoons in the 1910s and ’20s solidified the image of the cartoon miraculously coming to life on the drawing board. Disney’s identity for nearly a century was predicated on the magic of moving pictures onscreen. The enchantment both obscures and emphasizes a truth about the filmmaking technique: Animation, at every stage, is incredibly difficult.

“Animation is very hard to do,” says Cat Solen, the director behind Shivering Truths on Adult Swim. “But you can do things with animation that you couldn’t do with any other media. It’s impossible in a way that feels like you’re working within another dimension. Not 2-D, not 3-D, not CG, not anything. You’re combining things that you’d never think could be combined … we physically have to break down our preconceived notions of how stuff actually works in the world.”

Solen is one of the many animators, directors, producers, production designers, storyboard artists, lighting artists, and supervisors who spoke with Vulture over the last several months about the difficulties of animation — imagining it, writing it, making it move. The main takeaway: The work might be boundary-breaking, but it’s definitely not magic. Here are those creators on their hardest gigs in animation yet.

Have an animation story to share? Let us know at stories@vulture.com.

The Secret of NIMH (1982), Jenner vs. Justin fight

Don Bluth, writer-director: In The Secret of NIMH, I animated the fight between Jenner and Justin. That was hard for me, because I know nothing about combat, with swords and sticks and all that kind of thing. So I had to work hard and get up off the chair for someone to show me how to do it — how to establish the fight. And I went to films where people were in combat. Now, it’s easy to watch it, but to analyze it and be able to say what’s going on? That’s something else. And even while they’re fighting, what are they fighting about? Both sides of the equation were there in that moment. Jenner was saying, “Let’s go on stealing electricity from the farmer. Let’s go on doing what we’re doing. We’re thieves anyway. Take everything you can as soon as you can.” And then you have Justin saying “With knowledge comes responsibility.” So the two were battling it out — over a philosophy.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), the Ben-Day dots

Justin K. Thompson, production designer at Sony Pictures Animation: I’ve always been drawn towards projects with the highest number of creative challenges that anyone can offer me, and Spider-Verse had far more any other project I’ve ever done. So, it was actually the most fun I’ve ever had making a film. The greatest challenge on the film was simply creating the look of Miles’s world.

My process for Spider-Verse began with first imagining what the world would look like from the point of view of a character that lived inside of a comic book. I imagined that when Miles Morales looked around, he would see all the details of comic-book illustration — things like screen tones, hatching, flat color, linework, printing offsets, graphic shadows, and Ben-Day dots everywhere in the space that surrounds him. As I worked through it, I began to realize that as far as Miles can see, the world he lives in looks like a dimensional illustration.

To make such an abstract idea work, I embraced the idea completely, deciding that there would have to be a radically different approach to the way I had been making 3-D animated films. Until then, I had generally approached 3-D films as an interpretation of two-dimensional artwork that my team and I had created by hand. In practical terms, that means two-dimensional artwork is driving the look of a 3-dimensional film (almost like a blueprint) and it was inevitable that some things I drew by hand wouldn’t translate into the three-dimensional space.

To bring Miles’s world to the screen, I needed to do the opposite: Philosophically, I imagined the 2-D illustrations in the comics as the artist’s interpretation of a 3-dimensional world that they had visited. To accomplish that, I determined that since the computer basically creates a simulation of reality, all we needed to do was change the rules of the simulation. We needed to simulate a new reality. It sounded so simple, in my head, but the tools didn’t exist to do it and I realized Imageworks would have to invent them.

So, I shifted most of my creative energy into working closely with our VFX supervisor, Danny Dimian, to develop the look in 3-D and to develop the new tools we would need to create the world as a I saw it. Almost every day, I would pitch him ideas on how we could replace traditional filmmaking techniques with comic-book-inspired ones. For example, I wanted the Ben-Day dots you see throughout the film to be generated by a light source and fill a volume so that our characters could interact with them dynamically. I wanted to find a way to use the printing offsets to replace camera lens focus, motion blur, and depth of field. I wanted to be able to assign different types of comic book cross-hatching to the highlights, halftones, bounced light, reflected light, and cast shadows. I wanted the characters to have linework defining their expressions.

I told Danny I needed all the tools and visual effects we developed to work within a three-dimensional volume, so that the audience could experience them in stereo. I needed the audience to see that it wasn’t just a trick. I wanted them to know that all these cool, comic-book-inspired, stylistic techniques were really there in space, just the way Miles would see them. (Side note: If you’ve never seen the film in 3-D, you have only experienced it halfway.)

Working with Danny and his team, we discovered so many techniques while experimenting on other things. By letting myself be open to developing the look of the film in the computer, the entire process of making the film was incredibly rewarding and fun for me. I was given permission by the filmmakers to try new things and experiment daily in ways none of us had done before. Our shared excitement for what we were making together pushed us all to invent something no one had ever seen before and I’m extremely proud of what we accomplished.

Toy Story 4 (2019), the story of Woody

Photo: Disney/Pixar

Valerie LaPoint, story supervisor: The hardest thing on Toy Story 4 was overall just figuring out what the story was going to be — and that is Woody’s arc.

What made finding this story so difficult is the fact that it’s the fourth film. People think the sequel is easier because you have the world and the rules, but from the story side of it, it becomes more complicated. You have a character who has had a life-changing experience three times. Then there is the pressure we put on ourselves to the make sure what we do is worth putting out there.

We were also working with a set of characters and a world that is across generations. We worked with some people who have worked on all the movies and they know the world and the rules and personalities of these characters. Combine that with a new generation of the artists at the studio, who were small children when the first movie came out. So our perception of this world is different and there’s a push and pull of those different sets of people. Can we break some rules that we established in previous films?

Bo Peep evolved from being a porcelain figurine who was attached to a baby lamp, who had no role in the first movie. [Her] combined footage from the first three movies was about six minutes. But you could tell she was a pivotal character to Woody. We found embracing that, we needed to change her and make her the driving force of changing him. Woody’s decision to go help lots of kids, when he was always in the service of one kid in the past, was a huge battle and there was healthy debate happening back and forth for years. At the end of the day, these big story decisions and character arcs we feel the most strongly about — it’s about making them feel authentic. The films we make are for everyone and that is an immense challenge. If you’re making a film for a specific audience of adults or children, you can work in those parameters, but we’re trying to do it all.

I thought it was interesting in this too, you can reach a point where it’s like, what are we even making? Sometimes the nature of that circles around and you’re having your own life experiences over the course of this and the studio is evolving and you can see how that circles around and you have unexpected changes. Being a woman and having a voice in that room more and more, I felt strongly about keeping [Bo] on a certain track and having her as a rounded character.

The evolution of the technology has evolved so much since Toy Story 3, and we embraced that and the level of detail with the thick layer of dust in the antique store. I think it’s just that you keep toeing the line — feeling familiar [to] the world we know from the previous films, but with the classic characters it’s a cleaning up and the new things come with new characters.

BoJack Horseman (2014–present), Beatrice’s dressage routine

Photo: Netflix

Aaron Long, creator of Sublo and Tangy Mustard and the main title animator for Tuca & Bertie: There have been a few tough bits of animation on BoJack Horseman. In the third episode I directed (season four, episode 11, “Time’s Arrow”) I had a scene where the script called for Beatrice, BoJack’s mother, to perform an elaborate dressage routine at her debutante ball in a flashback. Of course, all the animal characters have human bodies so it took a lot of planning to figure out a routine that made sense for a human, but also felt like real horse dressage, which I still know nothing about. It’s the kind of idea that’s easy to write, but hard to visualize. I kept putting it off until we were done with the surrounding scenes, then I finally had to face it. It ended up sort of being a combination of dressage and ballet movements, including hurdle jumps. The final animation wasn’t that hard to actually animate, but it was definitely a tough nut to crack conceptually.

In general, realistic dancing is always a challenge for me. A lot of people might look at the wacky dances I animated throughout the Tuca & Bertie series, such as the opening credits, and assume I love animating dances — but while goofy abstract cartoon movement comes pretty easily to me, I actually find it really difficult to animate more realistic dances based on how bodies actually move. I always need to look at reference. A big help is that on YouTube you can go through videos frame-by-frame by pressing the “” keys. In episode nine of my indie cartoon series Sublo and Tangy Mustard, I boarded a shot where a character was break-dancing and I wanted it to feel relatively realistic. I didn’t anticipate how hard it would be until I actually started animating and realized I knew nothing about break-dancing! I referenced some YouTube videos and broke down the key poses, and it started to make sense. Here’s the final episode:

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), the Whack Bat sequence

Brad Schiff, stop-motion animation supervisor at Laika: All right, so the hardest thing that I ever had to animate was on Fantastic Mr. Fox. I did the entire Whack Bat sequence. So the actual shot of the game, there were these little two-inch-tall copies of the characters that needed to be animated on the set. And they were beautiful-looking, but they were like one strand of wire, and they were so fiddly, and such a pain in the ass. And you just had to poke the wire into the set to get them to stand up. And there were 13 of them all running around for one shot. I lost my mind for about a month straight every day trying to animate that thing … It took me six months to shoot the entire Whack Bat sequence.

Archer (2009–present), lapping waves

Megan Johnson, animation director: Our hardest scene we had to do — and it’s deceptive, it doesn’t seem that difficult — it was the second episode of season nine, called “Disheartening Situation.”

It was a shot where it was scripted as an establishing shot — a beautiful beach scene. That whole season was set on an island. It was supposed to be a reveal and the camera goes down the only road in town that shows at the end that everything is destroyed. Archer had just crashed a plane into the island. The shot was a camera move to reveal all the destruction and end on the wreckage of the plane, and Archer and Pam are talking and looking at the plane. That was from the script. We had no idea how we were going to do it. It was just such a huge ask. How to do it in the time that we have? We try to do a first pass of animation in three weeks, but about six weeks an episode.

The first thing we did was actually we went directly to the director and said, can we simplify it somehow? We realized that the shot is asking for three things. The beautiful island, the reveal of the plane, and Archer and Pam looking at it. We were able to simplify it a little bit, instead of pulling it through the street backwards, we can start on the sun and the ocean, and in the middle you see the street that’s all torn up. It’s a camera-tracking shot rather than a dolly zoom and pan all at the same time. Archer is kind of all 2-D, so it’s not like we have a 3-D environment built so we can throw a camera in. We had to build out an entire coastline and ocean in 3-D but in After Effects which is a 2-D program.

The beginning of the shot is on the sun and the ocean, and the ocean is its own challenge. It was the beginning of season nine and we were learning how to animate water looking right and moving properly. We knew how to do far-off ocean, you just need to see the smaller ripples. The hard part is you see it lapping on the coast. We didn’t know any way to do it. We didn’t know any way to get the depth we needed to have it look like the water was above the sand. We ended up using a lot of effects in After Effect to make it look right. It still seems kind of flat, so we were figuring out the effect to give it height to make waves. The things we never figured out was where to get the waves to crest and fold over themselves and get that white bubbly niceness on the top. I would have loved to get that if we had the time.

The next part of the shot, the camera comes over the city part and the road and there is a little retaining wall made out of stone. The stuff in the far background is in 2-D layers. Here’s a tree, here’s a rock, here’s the things. We just put them back in space. That worked with the camera move we put in. But we had to go over the retaining wall, and if that was just a flat piece of artwork, if you go over the top of it, you wouldn’t see the top. It would look fake and wrong. In After Effects, we were taking planes and building out a box that looked like a stone wall so the camera could travel over it and it would have depth. Then all of the buildings in the town were built out individually so they properly parallax and have the proper depth.

In Archer, we used a lot of 3-D assets, but they’re for things like vehicle animation. The way we do it is start with 3-D animation and we build our scene around it to make the 3-D work in 2-D. This was the first and only shot where we built the scene out first and then went back to 3-D and had them put the airplane in space. They had to match our camera move in 3-D. It turned out to be kind of easy once we learned how to do it, but we had never done it before. The whole sequence works in the final program, but it was a lot of work for what turns out to be a very brief shot.

Kid Notorious (2003), more waves

Mike Hollingsworth, supervising director for BoJack Horseman: The most difficult and most overwhelmed I’ve ever felt as an animator specifically — I wear many different hats, and do many different things — but I remember one of my first jobs was as an animator on this ill-conceived show for Comedy Central called Kid Notorious. It was a show all about a cartoon version of the life of Robert Evans, the famed, debaucherous producer of The Godfather and other very famous movies. And they made a cartoon about him for some reason. It was the first time they tried to create a little animation block on Comedy Central to support South Park, and this was the show they picked.

It was one of my first animation jobs, and I remember — when you take little animation classes, they mostly teach you about character animation. You know, squash and stretch, and lip sync, and stuff. But I was assigned a speedboat racing through a harbor. And I remember, I saw that scene assignment come in, and I opened up to the scene and I saw the assets, and I was like, in no book or in no class, they never taught anything about how to animate a speedboat speeding through a harbor. And I remember I felt such a sense of doom, like, oh, I’m going to get fired, because I had no idea what to do here. An animators best friend is YouTube, really. So I went down such a deep dive of Fantasia clips and clips from all these different features and shorts that I could remember where there were water effects, and just studied them. I remember at some jobs that we’ve had, they actually limit the internet to, in their minds, aid with our productivity. Meanwhile, they had no idea that YouTube is our number-one source for animation inspiration, in many ways.

So basically, I took like an hour and I animated this water. And then I watched it back and I was like, This is garbage, but that little aspect of it looks good. And I did it again, and I was like, All right, this is getting better but it’s still not there. It certainly doesn’t look like Fantasia. And I animated the exact same shot about 12 times, and I was there till like 3 a.m. that night. I was the last one in the building before I was satisfied and turned it in. And then it was approved and I just had more shots.

On BoJack and Tuca & Bertie, we just have a guy who’s our go-to effects guy. Karl Pajak. He just hits our effects, basically. For the Tuca & Bertie episode where they go to the Jelly Lakes, he was the jelly guy. And he pretty much animated all the jelly cycles, pretty much all episode. But on [Kid Notorious], it was just kind of like whatever scenes came down. Usually, senior animators can pick their scenes, but the junior animators just kind of get whatever’s assigned to them. And so I was getting what everybody else didn’t want to do.

Rick and Morty (2013–present), Rick’s depression

Caroline Foley, animator: One of the most difficult shots I had to animate for Rick and Morty was the final shot for season two, episode three, “Auto Erotic Assimilation.” It was actually a revision, which means I was animating over someone else’s work, but the shot didn’t have the emotional impact that it needed, so most of the original acting and timing was scrapped. This shot was not only a technical challenge but it was also very emotional … and over a minute long (that’s insane for animation).

When I animate a character having a strong emotion I tend to get into that character’s mind-set. Rick was severely depressed in the shot, and so in turn, for the three weeks I worked on the shot I was also severely depressed. Trying to get through acting like that in a shot, that is that long with that many elements, was a trial on my soul. But it was worth it knowing that in the end the shot had the emotional impact we were looking for (one notch on the belt for making an entire fan base cry, even if it was a single tear).

The most technically challenging part of the shot was keeping track of the timing and all of the elements Rick interacted with. I would have to isolate small sections of the shot and lock elements down to be sure I didn’t accidentally move something (which happened a lot anyway). Quality control took forever, too. I had to watch the shot over and over to make sure elements didn’t pop in front or behind each other when they shouldn’t and with a one-minute-long shot, that sort of thing gets intense. I gotta hand it to Rick and Morty for challenging me in every aspect of animation. All of my best shots are from this show.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019), Light Fury

Paolo de Guzman, surfacing supervisor at DreamWorks Animation Studio: One of the biggest challenges is one of the most recent ones. I started working on Light Fury for How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. She’s the female counterpart of Toothless. She is so seemingly simple but she is so challenging. You would think we could take Toothless and make him a white dragon. But the director wanted more feminine qualities. Her scales are even more curvaceous and not linear and no hard edges.

She also has an iridescent pattern to her. If you look at Toothless you’ll see almost a leopard pattern if the light is hitting his scales. She has the same thing but it was iridescent. How much do we reveal that and how much do we hide that? I went on it for months just trying to get the balance right. She also has a light-blue belly on her underside so we’d have to balance that color and make it not look too dirty or gray. She also has a little bit of a Cleopatra eye shadow, but we didn’t want it to look like Bugs Bunny where he just throws on some fake lashes and eye shadow and thinks he’s a woman. So we did imply some eyelashes and eyeliner to accentuate some femininity.

Then she has a glittery sheen to her too, so at certain angles it looked like some sort of glitter. It seemed simple, but it is a balance of not too much and not too little. That was one of the hardest things.

I worked just on that for two months. Because my supervisory tasks started to dominate my schedule, I eventually handed it off to another artist, and he took it home to the finish line. It takes months, but that is one of the challenges. When you draw a 2-D version in Photoshop, it looks great as a still. But defining the look of all of the nuances and the flash to it, you don’t know until you put it in 3-D and put it on turntable and see how it reacts to light. It’s not the most efficient thing, but because of how dependent she is on how she reacts to light, it’s required.

The Meaning of Life (2005), all of it

Don Hertzfeldt, animator and director of World of Tomorrow and It’s Such a Beautiful Day: On a purely technical level, The Meaning of Life, which came out in 2005. It was almost four years of just punishing, punishing animation. I still can’t believe it took that long. The camera work was a nightmare too. And then so many things went wrong in postproduction. At the end of that movie, everything just hurt, and then it came out and everyone seemed really disappointed. Some people now tell me that it’s their favorite. But I made a ton of mistakes making that one, and for whatever it’s worth, it’s probably the movie that I learned the most from. Once all of it was out of my system, I went straight to work on the first part of It’s Such a Beautiful Day (“everything will be okay”), which I now realize was produced in the exact opposite way of Meaning of Life. Rather than put everything on display, that whole movie went internal, like the whole thing was hiding under a blanket. Above is a short time-lapse video from animating The Meaning of Life, which was shot between 2001 and 2004.

Dogstar (2006–2011), the “Wilhelm Steam”

Adam Parton, animation director on Tuca & Bertie: I remember a few key things throughout my career that seemed really difficult at the time. The first one of those was when I first started in animation. At that point, everything was the most difficult thing. I was working as an in-betweener in the in-house training program at the Disney TV studios in Sydney, Australia. I guess I was working on the Aladdin TV series. They had a six-month training program, and at the end of that six months you had to be making your quota of in-betweens fairly consistently or you didn’t get the job. And I was kind of pretty slow, but I really wanted the job, so I just started working superlong hours to make my quota. Sometimes I would work until 11, 12 at night to get those drawings done.

As a side note, once when leaving the studio in downtown Sydney, I got mugged by three men. Disney in the ’90s in Australia felt a lot more like the Wild West. I really liked Disney … so yeah, I got mugged, but I really wanted the job, so I kept working late. When the end of the six months came around, I had made quota, I got the job. But then, I guess at the time I must have just got faster or better at it, because eventually I wasn’t working late anymore.

So that was the hardest thing at that time. And then, the next thing that sort of appeared was, I was working at a smaller animation studio in Melbourne. I was mostly doing character animation, and then I got this assignment to do some effects animation, a blast of steam coming out of a pipe and dissipating onscreen. I had never done that before. So I was looking at reference and I was trying to figure it out, and it was just super time-consuming. Eventually, I got something I wasn’t really happy with. But it was on a production so I had a certain amount of time to do it. But I was never super happy with it, and every time I saw that scene, it really bugged me.

But later on, on the same show [Dogstar], I got another scene with some steam. So I got another shot at it. And I went and got the original scene and used it for reference, but worked on it again and got it a bit better. This was a sci-fi show, so there was lots of steam coming out of pipes, apparently. And I got a lot of opportunities to get it better. So eventually I got it to a point where I was really happy with it. But at that point, a bunch of other people had realized we kept reusing this steam, which is kind of funny. They ended up calling it the “Wilhelm Steam,” in reference to that scream audio effect that has been used everywhere in cinema from, like, the ’50s. From then on, that studio always tried to work the steam animation that I did into every project.

Our Cartoon President (2018–present), the Democratic Debate

Tim Luecke, co-creator and co-executive producer: The goal of Our Cartoon President is to be as topical as possible because of the administration we’re satirizing. We’ve made leaps and strides over the seasons about getting faster. Each week in the cold open we try to address as up-to-the-minute news as possible, like an SNL cold open. The first couple of seasons we did Trump delivering a speech at CPAC as he was giving his actual speech. As things started gearing up for the [first 2020 Democratic debate] and the race got very crowded, we realized we’d have to up our game to deal with the 20 candidates. We thought it would be a leaner race, and each time a candidate threw their name into the ring we shared a collective wince knowing that every person that would join the ego trip on the debate stage would cause a headache for our animation crew.

We operate out of the same building as The Late Show, and they announced they were going to do two nights in row of live shows for the debates. We didn’t want to be outdone so we were going to do two nights of overnight animation addressing the debates to share in the fun. Once we knew that would be our goal, that we would do this double cold open, we started planning as much as we could to set ourselves up to be in the best spot possible to turn over our two to three minutes of animation between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., which is quicker than is normally done. We were crunching it down to double the speed of what we normally do and what we normally do is double the time of what a sane production would do. It was four times the speed of normal animation.

One of the unique aspects of the show is that every character we have is based on a real person. The character design process is very specific. We pride ourselves on [the fact] that you can look at one of our characters and you can look at Marianne Williamson, and then you can immediately recognize her from the cartoon. They did a great job of research on the 20 candidates. We had people studying Marianne Williamson’s mouth movements to make sure they were accurate as possible.

That was all the prep work we could do before the debates. Then we were ready to react to what happened the night of. We had artists checking Twitter before the debate for the released pictures. MSNBC released where they would stand the day before so we could lay things out. The thing we had to react to was what they were wearing. At 9 p.m. we see what they’re wearing and some of the people we have to change their outfits, but that also means we had to redo some of the animation we had already done. A lot of the guys were wearing suits but didn’t show up with a tie, so that threw us. That was such a speed rush to get that done. We accidentally kept Andrew Yang with a tie on. That is the one thing we kick ourselves about.

One of the other things we pride ourselves on is to be smart about how we prepare for topicality. We had enough evergreen material that we could get a head start. But there was always so much of a chance that there would be topical stuff that we would have to lose what we pre-animated.

Steve Conner, animation director: The first night we knew we were delivering after the second night. We wrote that night, booked voice talent in the morning, and animated that night Thursday. Thursday’s debate, we had to write while watching the debate, we had people lined up until 2 a.m. to do voice recordings here [in New York] and in California. It had to be a fast turnaround — we had a 6 a.m. hard deadline to deliver the show. That was the peak of all of it. That is when it seemed like everything was going. That was probably the most fun.

Luecke: Our entire process for the show was meant to be nimble, a lot of our characters are voiced by in-house talent. That allows us, depending on the character, to contribute lines way up until the last minute. Our Trump and Biden, they are out in L.A., and we only have a specific window to record with them.

Conner: Our animation is drawn on a computer. But one of our biggest fears was that there would be a physical thing — like if anyone fell down or did a cartwheel, we’d be in trouble, because that would be challenging to animate at a moments notice. Any big action is still done by hand, traditionally, more or less, which is time-consuming. Our dialogue-based stuff, we can crank that out at a rapid clip. Thankfully no one started throwing punches.

Luecke: We have a unique process where it’s traditional hand-drawn and cutting-edge digital animation. All of the gestures that the characters do while talking, those are all animated frame by frame, by hand, on a computer. Every lip shape is drawn for that character, every eyebrow shape is specific. There is a ton of hand-drawn animation that goes into the characters, which are essentially puppets and they get marionetted down the line by a separate group of animators that animate the eyebrows and when the gestures will happen. They supply the acting that does all of these hand-drawn features.

This show all started because the people at Adobe created a new program called Character Animator, which is a spinoff of After Effects. It is made for actual live animation, which we picked up and started doing at The Late Show about six months in. Those were successful enough and we wanted to expand that, and that is how the program came together. By the time we got to this debate cold open, the machine was so efficient that we got through it without any major disasters.

We’ll absolutely do it again. Unfortunately we’re crazy and it was exciting enough and the reaction was great. It looks like it’s going to be an uninteresting election year coming up, but hopefully we’ll find something interesting to write about.

Puss in Boots (2011), the canyon chase scene

Eric Roth, lighting artist-compositor at DreamWorks Animation Studio: One of my favorite projects was working on Puss in Boots. It was the most challenging but the most fun I’ve had on a project. One of the challenging sequences was a canyon chase sequence. At that time, I was a lead lighter. What that means is you work with the production designers and they show you the vision of the sequence and what is the emotion and the story they want to tell. They have color cues and rough painting that show the pallet of what you are going to do. I had to set it up for a team of lighters.

Because you’re running so fast through this canyon, if you just left the light as is, there is no way it will be pleasant from shot to shot. How do you move the lights around but make it look like there’s continuity? You always have to make sure that if the characters are moving from left to right, the sun has to be on the same side, but it has to look good and shape the characters like you want. Part of it was analyzing the geometry of the canyon itself and how do we break it up. You have all kinds of settings and you make sacrifices to say, if I adjust the level of detail will it still tell the story?

It ended up being successful. The biggest thing for everything in terms of rendering on a film — the moment things are moving fast, we also have motion blur, so you get blurry images from frame to frame. We want to mimic live-action film. If a character is whipping by, they spread throughout the image, so it’s more pixels to render. In a chase sequence, we had a ton of motion blur. And we do all of our films in stereo, 3-D, so you’re essentially rendering everything twice.

Literally getting the thing to render — you have so many people working on the show, we need the entire “render farm.” But there are also other people trying to finish, so you can’t be a “render hog.” You have to figure out, how can I make this so it renders in an efficient time? That’s when it hurts. That’s the part we have to think about when setting up the shot.

Bonus: More BoJack Horseman Stories

Adam Parton: The last time I recognized any animation as being particularly difficult was on season two of BoJack Horseman. Raphael, the show creator, called me in to speak to me about this particular scene. It was BoJack having a panic attack. He wanted to show, physically, the sort of nuanced acting that he was looking for, for this panic attack to build up. But the thing was, I had never spoken to Raphael before. And getting called into his office, I don’t know why, but it kind of rattled me. It made me kind of anxious and nervous. Raphael’s such a nice, generous guy, so I think it was just — I felt like this was me on a sort of bigger, higher-space production than I was used to, coming from Australia. So I got super nervous about it. And when I did the scene I got all up in my head and I was having a lot of trouble with it. I kept doing it and going, No, I haven’t done it right. Anyway, I did it, and submitted it. And he seemed happy with it. But yeah … I was going a little “method” animating, because I was having a panic attack about it as well.

Now I’ve spoken to him plenty of times, I’ve been directing for the last three seasons, and he called me in because he wanted to talk about this other bit of nuance, some acting that he wanted from one of the characters. He told me what he wanted, and I went and did it, not stressed at all. I remember reading the script; it said, “So-and-so character has this look on his face,” and it was 17 different words describing a look on that person’s face. How do you even do that sort of thing? But to Raphael’s credit, he just sort of acted it out. And I could say, “Cool, I can see what you want from me.” It was nice to know that a few seasons on, I can do the same thing but without all the stress. It’s just generally nice to notice that the things that seem superhard at the time end up not being that hard.

Mike Hollingsworth: One of the most difficult storyboarding things I ever had to do, there was this great BoJack episode called “Time’s Arrow,” where for the whole episode, you’re inside BoJack’s mother’s failing mind. That one was directed by my good friend Aaron Long. We were making season four, episode 11. It was towards the end of the season. We were running out of money. It was just an expensive season. And I remember Aaron and I had all sorts of very big-picture ideas to show how her mind is failing. And the line producer was like, “We are not creating any 3-D assets.” We wanted to make a whole 3-D bedroom for Bea as a child, that kept spinning, and every time it’d spin it would spin through a different era. And he was like, “No, we’re not making any 3-D bedrooms. We’re not making any 3-D anything.” And so it was really difficult, Because Aaron and I were like, “We want this episode to be special, to be eerie, creepy.” But we didn’t have the money. And it was like one of those wonderful moments where compromise meets idea. Brilliance. The way that we decided to make it creepy was to take people’s faces away, like she doesn’t remember their faces. So not only is that an unsettling thing, but it actually cost less money to not make faces.

And then there were the people who were too painful for her to think about. Those people have scribbles on their faces. And that scribble came right out of the storyboard. But, yeah, that was kind of a moment where the budget and art locked horns and actually came out with something amazing. But me and Aaron really had to kind of wrap our heads around that and go, What do we do here? What can we do that’s cheap but very unsettling? 

In regards to that 4x11, “Time’s Arrow,” we saw some young lady got a tattoo of Hollyhocks’s mom with that scribble face on her leg. And it’s like, Whoa! That lady got a tattoo of our note from our line producer that we can’t spend a lot of money!

Crystal Stormer, animator (currently working on Unikitty for Cartoon Network): One of the hardest projects I worked on was a silent episode of BoJack Horseman, where no one speaks. It was such a particular challenge. It was so great for the animators to be featured in that way.

How do you make a character emote and show how that they’re thinking without saying a word? Will Arnett is such a great voice actor, and now you have this character where you don’t have that anymore. It takes a long time to think about that and craft a character so that the audience will think it’s a real character onscreen and not just a bunch of drawings.

We’re like actors in that sense. You have to get into that character’s headspace. You can act out a lot of stuff while we’re sitting there. You can record yourself and your facial features, and how do you communicate facially. That is a lot of it, just getting in that headspace and taking reference videos and thinking about it. When you talk to people most of the time you’re looking at their eyes. You can tell so much by keeping a character’s eyes alive. Just the timing of a blink or the eyebrows. You can say so much with so little.

Bonus: More Rick and Morty stories

Jason Boesch, background painter and color design lead: On a show like Rick and Morty, every crazy character, prop, and insane alien world poses a challenge. Not just because they are things that are completely original, but because they have to make some small amount of sense to the viewer. I always use this analogy: You can’t have an abstract sci-fi painting. Sci-fi tends to be inherently strange, pushed to an extreme at some point. An abstract painting is the visual extreme of someone’s belief or emotion that they are trying to convey. So while someone might say this is an abstract sci-fi painting, the audience has no reference point to their world because everything is on the extreme. There needs to be some ounce of reality or else all a person will see is just an abstract painting.

So with this definition of difficulty, there are two backgrounds that stand out to me as being the most difficult. The first is from the pilot and now has become one of the most recognized representations of the show: the “other dimension” background showing giant veins on the ground, meat hammers with eyes, and huge blue crystals with a multicolored sky. I remember when I got the linework, I was excited and scared at the same time. The linework was so insane and crazy and had almost no reference points to our world, and existed entirely in the abstract. So I needed to make this abstract world feel distant, but still weirdly understandable to ours. So the first thing I did was to find some sort of literal reference (in this case, Moebius artwork and old sci-fi book covers with really pushed colors and strong eye-grabbing shapes) that I could use as a starting point. This is something we do for almost every background or character we create on the show, including the second-most-difficult background and episode in general, which was “Morty Night Run.”

That episode was a lot of firsts for us; we were combining different elements from already-established worlds into completely new ones. (Gromflomites and Gear World). We had a main character that was made of gas and thoughts, an alien arcade with mind-twisting games in it (Roy), and an entire musical sequence. It was a lot. But by pulling together a bunch of reference images and ideas, we were able to pick and choose what we liked, or what would work well to combine these points together. With Gear World specifically, this method was most helpful. Often times with designs that have to fill multiple roles, it’s easy to have a result that’s a mishmash of ideas and feels disconnected. So to avoid this we always would go back to our main reference point: Tinkertoys.

Tinkertoys are crazy and colorful but somehow they still read as very clear shapes and color systems that work to serve each part of their structure. Each shape has a specific color. Using this idea, the world started to feel like it was something that was a built system and not just complete color insanity. We did the same thing with the vehicles and characters: Each one of them had their own color themes, just like you see in kids’ toys and real life, to a degree. This gave us visual familiarity and the connection we needed to the audience. This made an extremely complex and crazy world feel cohesive and understandable. That way, when the Gromflamites appear with their own color themes, they feel like something truly alien has invaded this happy kid world, and [because this is] Rick and Morty, it gets inevitably completely destroyed from something as simple as a “fart.”

Honestly, I feel like this method of working through creative problems on the show is actually one of the biggest reasons the show works as well as it does. While each show is completely unique and there are tons of things that an audience has never seen before, there is a core to it that feels strangely familiar. Like something you remember from your childhood or something you’ve seen or watched. It’s a show built around nostalgia that’s slightly twisted and pushed. When you combine those pieces together you get the beautiful and psychedelic mosaic that is Rick and Morty.

For more on the hardest jobs in Hollywood, read our collection of stories from below the line, in which animal trainers, prop masters, stuntmen, food stylists, and more recount their most difficult gigs.

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