How We Make a Show

Everything starts with a script. The script tells the story of an episode and includes all the dialogue and descriptions of the action. If there are any new characters in the episode, the script will describe them.

A script page from "Home Alone," written by Deborah Jarvis and Anita Kapila

Copies of the script go to many people. During the period called pre-production, many departments will work from the script at the same time.

At the recording session, the actors stand in a soundproof booth and read their lines into a microphone. Our set-up at Crunch Recording Group allows us to put as many as three actors in the booth at once. This enables them to play off each other when acting a scene. The episode director tells the actors what he's looking for in every scene, and we record at least two takes of each line of dialogue. The episode directors in the first season are Mark Mayerson (the creator of the series), Rob Smith and Harry Rasmussen.

Back at the studio, the director will listen to all the takes of the voices and choose which ones he wants. He'll tell Jay Houpt, our editor, who will pull out the good takes and trim them and tell the director how long each piece of dialogue is.

Andrew Woodhouse, our designer, will be working up sketches on paper for new characters, sets and props. He'll go over the designs with the director to make sure that the designs convey the right mood for the show and that there won't be any technical problems when the designs are made on the computer. Ron Job and Jim Caswell have also contributed designs to the first season.

Andrew Woodhouse designs
Leena from "Monster A-Go-Go" Action Figure from "Entertaining Orville"
1960's record shop from "Back in Time"

The director will mark up the script for the storyboard artist. The director may do thumbnail sized drawings all over the script to show how the story should be told with the camera, or the director may just make notations where he wants a close-up or a long shot. The storyboard artist will take the director's notes and copies of the design sketches and draw the storyboard.

A script page from "Home Alone," with thumbnail drawings by director Mark Mayerson.

A finished storyboard page from "Home Alone" by Dan Nosella.

While the board is being drawn, the modelling department will build the characters, sets and props needed for the episode. They use Houdini software to create the models. Tony Ascroft, the head modeller, will assign jobs to the rest of the modellers and then will do modelling himself. Greg Jowle and Andrew Szerszen built the new characters we used in the first season. Kelly Brennan, Pierre D'Aloisio, Derrik Kostancar, Thomas Sacchi, Ruben Salazar, and Michael Towse built sets and props. Besides modelling the geometry, the modellers will also paint textures in Photoshop to make the models look better. The modelling department supplies all three directors with models.

Once the storyboard is complete, the director will time out every shot in the film on bar sheets. The bar sheets have a box for each frame of a shot. The director will place the dialogue within the shot and describe any important action or camera move that takes place. There are more than 300 shots in a half hour show, so this takes several weeks. The director has to make sure that the show comes out to be the right length, so he often has to cut or add material to the show.

B.J. Marshall is responsible for taking the trimmed dialogue and breaking it down frame by frame on the bar sheets. This is so the animators will know how to position the characters' mouths in each frame so that they will match the dialogue properly.

A barsheet with soundtrack breakdown and director's notes.

Once the show is boarded, timed and the models are built, the show moves into animation. Each director has 7 animators working with him to animate an episode in 9 weeks. Each animator is responsible for creating 21 seconds of animation a week. We have three shows being animated at any given time.

The director assigns an animator a sequence of shots. The animator is responsible for all the characters and camera moves in a shot and also makes sure that the shots cut together properly. The director explains the sequence, going over the storyboard and the bar sheets.

The animators work at 24 frames per second using Houdini software. They pose the character's body and set the facial expression for key frames, and the computer fills in the inbetweens. The animators are constantly rendering sequences of images to play back and check their motion. Every night, they render their work in color. The next morning, they play back the scene with the soundtrack and see if it works. Every morning, the director spends time with each animator, checking the scenes and approving the ones that are finished.

At left, a wireframe picture. At right, a low resolution render. The numbers on the bottom indicate the show-act-scene, the frame number, the date and the animator. This scene from "Monster A-Go-Go" was animated by Ray Cicin.

The animators for season 1 are Vanessa Arsen, Katie Cheang, Ray Cicin, Miguel Cura, Mark Davies, Trevor Davies, James Dykeman, Ian Gregory, Brian Harris, Matt Horner, Adam Hunter, Scott Johnston, Samad Khan, Michael Langford, Steve McCart, Scott McRae, Sara Newman, Matthew Otto, Barry A. Sanders, Dave Simmons and Mike Zingarelli.

We scan the storyboard and the editor cuts the board together with the soundtrack to give us an idea of how the show will play. The director sends the approved animation to the editor, who replaces the storyboard panel with the animation until the show is completely animated.

Once a show is animated, it moves into lighting. Jenny Blacklock is in charge of the lighting department. Each director has 4 lighters working on a show and Jenny assigns scenes and checks them before getting the director's approval.

The lighters are responsible for making the final visuals look as good as possible. They have to determine where to place the lights in a scene, what direction the shadows will fall and whether we need to blur any elements to suggest depth of field. The lighters will call for motion blur where it is needed. Each element is rendered separately and then composited together into a single picture. We do this so that we have maximum control over the color and brightness of everything in the image. Many adjustments can be made when the scene is being composited. The pictures are made using Mantra, the Houdini renderer and are composited in Houdini.

At left, the low rez render. At right, the image after the lighters get through with it. Note the shadows, the glow around Johnny the ghost and the blurred background. The scene from "Back in Time" was animated by Miguel Cura and lit by Emanuel Rego.

The lighters who work on the first season are Belma Abdicevic, Mandy Au, Jim Berberov, Nelson Marques Costa, Angie Fong, Diane Hartmann, Maged K. Henein, Suzanne Jandu, Ron Job, Avi Katz, Ryan Madill, Tom Perry, Emanuel Rego, Suzanne Shortt, James Wang and Farah Yusuf.

Approved scenes are loaded into a software package called Zapit that plays the images at the right speed while we record them onto a digital betacam recorder.

All of the above depends on our computers and network humming along. Derek Marshall, better known as Agent Drek, is the system administrator who's responsible for around 50 SGI computers and more than a dozen Windows NT boxes.

Everybody who works on the visuals uses tools created by our Technical Directors who are headed by Sean Lewkiw. He's written many macros and interfaces in tcl/tk. Besides him, Ramin Kamal has worked hard on our rendering system with Derek Marshall. Rob Smith created an elaborate database system for tracking scenes through the production pipeline and for setting up models and animation. Mark Mayerson wrote tools for creating new characters. All of these people contributed miscellaneous tools as needed.

The finished visuals are taken over to Optix, where the fades, dissolves and titles are added to the show. The finished visuals are also taken over to Bruce Fowler, our musical composer, and to Crunch Recording Group. Bruce will write whatever new music is needed. David Shaw, our music librarian, will assemble existing musical elements and Steve Pecile will take care of our sound effects. Finally, Ric Jurgens will mix all the sound in sync with the pictures and we've got a finished show.

Producer Julie Stall will then create several versions for the different broadcasters that run the show. Each broadcaster has different needs as to video format and other elements used in the show.

And that's how we create just one episode. For the first season, we did it 13 times and for the second season, we'll do it 12 more times. It keeps us plenty busy.

All images © Monster By Mistake Series Inc. 1999

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