Between After Effects, Flash and all of this other stuff, the one thing that I'm noticing is that there are people who are now delving into animation who are very talented conceptually, and maybe talented graphically, but, when it comes to having the experience of working in animation, that hasn't been seasoned yet.
—J.J. Sedelmaier

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Q&A JULY 25 , 2001
The Ambiguously Mac Studio

A conversation with animator J.J. Sedelmaier

by David Nagel
Executive Producer
[email protected]

If there's a consumer out there who doesn't know J.J. Sedelmaier, it's one who doesn't watch a whole lot of television. His animation studio, J.J. Sedelmaier Productions, White Plains, N.Y., is famous for its work on Saturday Night Live's Saturday TV Funhouse, with such animated shorts as "The Ambiguously Gay Duo," "The X Presidents" and "Fun with Real Audio." The company has animated Beavis & Butthead, the pilot of Comedy Central's TV Funhouse, a recent series of interstitials for Cartoon Network called "Captain Linger" and a soon to be released pilot for the same network called Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law. Oh yeah, they've done some commercials too.

Says J.J. Sedelmaier, president of Sedelmaier Productions: "That title card on Saturday Night Live has put us on the map in one sense, but it's put us on the map with a sledge hammer. I've always gone around and shown the studio's reel to advertising agencies and schools and things like that, and it used to be that I hid, as director, behind the spots, when the studio wasn't as visible … as the work that we did. But once that title card on Saturday Night Live came up, forget it. It's laser-etched in people's memories."


From the campaign for Volkswagen, animation
and graphics by J.J. Sedelmaier Productions

Commercials produced by the studio range as widely in animation style as the products being advertised, from the Speed Racer commercial for Volkswagen to an aggro spot for Slim Jim to a more pastel-flavored piece for Quilted Northern bathroom tissue.

Until January of this year, Sedelmaier was still using film in the animation process. The switch to a completely digital system has brought a mixed computing environment to his studio, with Macs making up a good portion of the workforce in preproduction and postproduction, as well as the studio's print work. The studio is using Adobe Photoshop, Premiere and Illustrator on the Macs, as well as a bit of After Effects thrown in for good measure. The central animation suite is Crater Software's PC-based CTP.

So what's it like to animate in a mixed-computing environment and go from film to a totally digital, 2D cel animation process? It can't be easy. I had a chance to talk to J.J. Sedelmaier about his body of work, his studio's vision and how he makes his Macs and PCs behave well enough to crank out the volume of work his studio creates.

Creative Mac: You've been all-digital for a while now, and how has that affected your production?

J.J. Sedelmaier: I've been acquainted with digital ink and paint since 1990, and I've been using it on and off since 1992 when we started doing Beavis & Butthead. We couldn't have done Beavis & Butthead if it wasn't for what was then USAnimation and eventually became Virtual Magic. You can even see in the course of production of Beavis the difference in terms of production values based on what their software was capable of doing at that time.

I've always tried to incorporate whatever is going to give me as much control and freedom as possible. What happened with turning the studio away from film and completely into digital for our testing and everything else was that it just became prohibitive in terms of cost to use film, and in terms of time it wasn't necessary for us to have to endure [the grief]—whether it was Technicolor considering our film of 45 feet a spit in the bucket compared to the type of footage they're used to dealing with or messengers or weather or the cost of having to bring it in and out of the studio to transfer it to tape and then ship it out by Federal Express—it got just plain silly. And now we do it here, and we can e-mail QuickTimes, and it's wonderful.

Of course, if anything crashes here, we're responsible for it. There are certain aspects of someone else taking the responsibility that's nice, but it really does give you much more control, and you can turn the stuff around so much quicker and so forth.

In terms of how it's changed production, it's allowed everyone who works in the studio the chance to become even closer acquainted with the work that they're doing.

CM: How many people do you have in your studio?

Sedelmaier: We fluctuate between 15 and 20. Now we've got about 12. The way it works here is that whoever's animating their stuff or whoever's assisting their scene will usually test their work themselves. It was the same thing [before going digital]. We used to have a … modified security camera system that would record to VHS. It was the same thing then. Now we we're using CTP, a PC-based system for pencil tests. And then anything else we do we do off the Mac.

Everyone is getting acquainted with how the stuff works by doing it, plus we have a couple people in here who came in with basic knowledge of how the system works.

It just gives you more control and freedom. The only drawback is, like I said, when something goes wrong and you can't necessarily figure out what it is, you just have to ride it out.

It's very funny. Back when we were doing film, if I was shooting, say, a pencil test or something and Technicolor messed up or we messed up or the facility or the messenger, I'd call the agency or the client, and I'd say, "Oh, we're going to have to reschedule because of, you know, blah blah blah, whatever happened." And usually they'd freak out. "O, my God, we're going to have to call this person and reschedule this and so on and so forth." Now, all I've got to do is say, "Our system crashed." And it's like, Oh, O.K. Yeah, that happens to us all the time." It's like, where the fuck do they get off not getting pissed or upset? I had to deal with 15 years of this, and, you know, everything's all, "Oh, whatever."

CM: Just blame Microsoft.

Sedelmaier: Exactly. O my God, everyone else does….

So it really does come down to control and freedom. The only thing that comes in tandem with control and freedom is that the same control and freedom that's extended to the person who's using it—in terms of a production company or a director or a filmmaker—that same control and freedom gets handed over to the client and agency.


From Sedelmaier's ABC promo for The Drew Carey Show and Spin City.

So there's a certain level of expectation on their part, and live action has seen this for a long time. I'd go nuts if I were shooting live action and I had people looking at the video and seeing what I'm seeing through the camera. I mean, God, how invasive can you get? But now there are times when I'll send out my pencil test or something, and I'll get back my pencil test, and it's been put through an Avid, and it's been re-timed, re-fielded and re-everything. And the biggest problem with that, separate from creative infringement or whatever, is there's not a real strong, clear understanding of how animation works. So if they've gone in and compressed or expanded my animation and it has nothing to do with the frame rate we animated at, they are going to have to be happy with an approximation of—and an interpretation of—whatever they've sent me back. I'm not going to give them back exactly what they gave me. For the most part, I haven't come up against a situation that I couldn't solve or tap dance around because, ultimately, I have to tell them, "I can't do that," because this isn't live action, and I don't have a lot of extra footage lying around on the floor—at least last time I checked I didn't. You just tell me what you're trying to achieve, and I can work around that.

So it's like more fingers in the pie because everybody's got the equipment or equipment that can do the equivalent.

CM: Now, you're editing your stuff in Premiere, is that right?

Sedelmaier: Because everything's on an exposure sheet, we pretty much keep our pencil tests in the CTP system. We initially had started out using Premiere to try to do pencil tests. And now what we do is we use Premiere to run our pencil tests into a QuickTime mode.


From "Captain Linger," a series of interstitial
shorts for Cartoon Network.

Our Macs are used primarily for graphics and still reproduction elements or things like backgrounds. We did a great majority—I'd say we did 90 percent—of our backgrounds for our pilot that we did for Cartoon Network that we finished in December, Harvey Birdman, which we did in Photoshop.

CM: What was that one?

Sedelmaier: Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law, which will premiere in September.

CM: I haven't seen that one.

Sedelmaier: It hasn't come out yet.

CM: That explains it.

Sedelmaier: When you play the tape back, you'll hear that I'd already said that.

[Editor's note: While Sedelmaier was correct about having already said that, I was not, in fact, using tape to record this interview; it was being recorded straight to my hard drive through the mic port. So I guess this argument is a wash.]

Sedelmaier: And luckily I can't hear what you're really saying.

CM: What other software are you using? Do you use After Effects at all?

Sedelmaier: We have After Effects. We're going to get more and more into After Effects. Actually, I got turned on to the wonder of After Effects from Michael Ouweleen and Erik Richter from Cartoon Network. They use After Effects for like everything, it seems. We're not as well acquainted with After Effects yet. I mean, for the first 10 years that we have been around, we've been primarily a classic animation studio that has not really found a need … to incorporate this into our production processes. Now what's happening is so many people know it, it's almost like we hopped over the learning process because now people are coming in already knowing this stuff, and that's why we're incorporating it in.

CM: And then for your modeling of your characters, you're doing that in Illustrator?

Sedelmaier: Well, it's not so much the modeling and rendering. I'm talking about actually working out all of the stuff that we used to do, whether it was opaque or marker or pencil or whatever it was, we're just doing with Macs.

CM: So you'd just call that conceptualizing or character development?

Sedelmaier: Yeah, preproduction, model sheets and guides.

CM: Photoshop as well?

Sedelmaier: Yeah.

CM: What are you using Photoshop for?

Sedelmaier: We do print stuff as well, so we use Photoshop for that. We seem to shuffle around a lot between Photoshop, Premiere and Illustrator because, see, a lot of the times when we're working in commercials, we're working with cartoonists, illustrators, designers—whatever—[who] have nothing to do with animation, aren't acquainted with animation at all. And a lot of times their work will come to us in a Photoshop file.

It is interesting though, between After Effects, Flash and all of this other stuff, the one thing that I'm noticing is that there are people who are now delving into animation who are very talented conceptually, and maybe talented graphically, but, when it comes to having the experience of working in animation, that hasn't been seasoned yet. And there's a lack of knowledge on the part of advertising agencies and clients who might read an article or two or they might see something they like in Flash, but they think that's the answer to everything.

They'll see that job that was perfectly designed for Flash—it's got that graphic look, and it moves in a way that is good for not only working in Flash, but working in that particular design, which is a very important combination to work with. And suddenly they think, well we can just do anything in Flash. And there are plenty of people out there who won't say, "Well, this isn't really right." They'll just go, "Uh, O.K."

CM: Well is it that Flash is all about tweening, where you have a character in one position at frame one and another at frame 60, and then Flash handles everything in between?

Sedelmaier: Yeah, well it's also good for very clean, simple, graphic imagery. It's not a program or an approach that you can take to something that is more complicated. And it doesn't mean that it doesn't have a place or won't develop into something more. But right now, it's important to keep things in perspective. And that's not just to keep old ways alive.

I'm really protective over animation and the reputation that it receives and the kinds of bruises that it gets too. There's a lot of ignorance associated with it, or people who try to use it, I should say. It's taken its knocks, and it doesn't roll back sometimes as well as you like it to. It's very pigeonholed. It's just now in the past five, six, seven years that it's started to bust out of the kiddy realm. It's a shame when something comes up that doesn't allow animation to go as far as it can go. There's some marvelous stuff being done in Flash, and there's some really … you know, you go, "Ugh, I know what happened here."

CM: Well, do you think with Flash being so accessible to everybody that it will mean a big proliferation in animation and that this has to be good for animation?

Sedelmaier: A lot of people interested in doing animation usually isn't good for animation. What's good for animation is people looking at something that's been done well and getting their wheels to turn, and going, "Wow, I never realized that this aspect of filmmaking could do this, and that maybe I could do this. It's best when it acts as a catalyst to get thought and creativity going in another direction.

CM: Well what do you think about 3D, which is also becoming much more accessible?

Sedelmaier: Oh, again, I think it's terrific. It's interesting. I don't know of any other process other than film itself in the very, very beginning where you could over the course of five years see something go from its infancy to whatever it's going to become now. It's like every CG film is an R&D project. It's like Disney with its Silly Symphonies. It just keeps growing and growing.

And as long as the story's good, the deficiencies that are in the imagery don't matter. Except for some of us, who are, you know, time-to-get-a-life, anal-retentive, digital people. I look at Shrek, and I'm entertained, but I still get "oodgy" when I look at the Cameron Diaz character trying desperately to be a human character. The closer you get to looking like a human character, the [more] it needs to behave like a human character, but it's never going to be that.

CM: You're not using 3D for anything, are you?

Sedelmaier: No. Well, we've used it for effects in a couple of spots. And we've done conventional animation for CG places like Blue Sky in the past who've used our animation to map and render.

CM: But if you look at shows like Futurama and South Park, do you see using it as backgrounds, for example?

Sedelmaier: Oh, well I can see using it wherever it applies. Our reel consists of everything, not only visual styles in terms of drawings, but stop motion as well because I only look at animation as something that's a means of moving imagery around. It doesn't have to be drawn.

CM: For your drawn animations, you're doing everything frame by frame?

Sedelmaier: Yes. You mean as opposed to using some sort of program that does tweening?

CM: Exactly.

Sedelmaier: No. The inconsistencies that are inherent in even the difference between two assistants working together, let alone two animators, is, I think, what lends [to] the type of animation that we're at least known for. It's what makes it what it is.


Sedelmaier's concept of pairing the right animation style with the
script produces a broad variety of styles. This is from a spot
for national retailer Old Navy.

CM: What you're known for, at least from the average TV viewer's perspective, is sort of a look that's reminiscent of early '80s cartoons—Ambiguously Gay Duo and so forth.

Sedelmaier: That title card on Saturday Night Live has … put us on the map, in one sense, but it's put us on the map with a sledge hammer. I've always gone around and shown the studio's reel to advertising agencies and schools and things like that, and it used to be that I hid, as director, behind the spots, when the studio wasn't as visible, let's say, as the work that we did. But once that title card on Saturday Night Live came up, forget it. It's laser-etched in people's memories. So now when I go to agencies, and I show the reel, I'll have somebody sitting down at one of the tables somewhere come up to me and go, "So, dude, so dude, you're like doing the Saturday Night Live stuff, now you're going to start doing commercials, huh?" And it's like, dude, I've been doing the commercial thing for a long time. I'm doing the Saturday Night Live thing because of the commercial stuff that I did. But now it's feeding off the other way.

So there are two facets of the studio because what I was known for before Saturday Night Live was translating a style or pairing a style up with a project. Sometimes it meant a client had a cartoonist that they wanted to have animated, or maybe they had an idea that they had no idea how to approach graphically, and I would come in, and, if I didn't design it within the studio or design it myself, I would pull out tearsheets or examples of people's work that I knew out there who I thought would be interesting to use in animation, sometimes just because they've never been animated before. And a freshness in approach to doing animation is something that I was always trying to keep as the studio's goal.

And then when the Saturday Night Live stuff came up, it was a very convenient method of associating basically shitty design and shitty animation with terrific concepts, terrific scripts, but basically very strong concepts. And Robert Smigel's vision paired up how I translate that into animation, I learned a lot. But It's about one-quarter of the kind of stuff that the studio does. But it is a good use of animation. You know, if the stuff were fully animated and very beautifully designed, the concepts wouldn't come through as loud. The edginess of the drawing and the crudeness of the animation kind of have a visceral quality to it that kind of makes it into this kind of political statement. It's just marvelous. And nothing had been done like that before. So, again, it was nice thing to be associated with and be a part of.

CM: Looking at your reel, some of your work there's just no way I could identify as being you without having known it in advance.

Sedelmaier: Such as? You mean like "Quilters" [for Quilted Northern bathroon tissue]?

CM: "Quilters" would be one. But what's the one where the guy just comes on the screen and says something?

[Editor's note: It is to Sedelmaier's credit that he had even the foggiest idea what I was talking about.]

Sedelmaier: Oh, "George Brown: Buy low or lower" [for Brown & Co.]? Now why do you say that?

CM: Well, just because it's very different from the rest of your stuff that I've seen.

Sedelmaier: Well, that you've seen. That's the whole thing. If you look at the commercials and you see Slim Jim up against George Brown up against Mr. Butts … and so forth. That's kind of the point. It's all animation. And my job is to interpret and translate as best as can be done….

In the case of George Brown, there had been a few pieces done already, and the agency was looking to, I guess, take a fresh approach to the stuff that they had been doing. They had a very well known political cartoonist, David Levine, doing their print ads. David's stuff is very full of cross hatching. It looks exactly like the animation. When they showed me the work that had been done, I heard this guy's voice, and I said, "God, if I could get involved in the spot, I'd love to videotape this guy because it sounds like he's got an eccentric voice. And sure enough, I went to Boston and taped him while we were doing his voice. This guy was just a multitude—a plethora—of facial ticks and twitches. His lip kind of slurred a little bit, and it was just an animator's delight.

So I brought the tape back and worked with the animator on making sure that his mouth action especially matched not only the words but the way he said the words in real life. And it added just such a lovely dimension to the thing because it was definitely a drawing, but it was behaving very naturalistically. I've always loved that style.

And, you know what, I love the "Quilters" spot too because, as cute and soft as a lot of people may feel it looks, it's not pandering; it's not offensively … dripping in saccharin or anything. It's a spot that maybe, sensibility-wise, could have been done 40 years ago, but the visual look of it is at least fresh, and not a normal-looking cartoon. I'm very proud of all the stuff that's on the reel.


From the forthcoming Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law.

CM: Are you doing 100 percent of the animation on TV Funhouse?

Sedelmaier: You mean the Comedy Central show?

CM: Yes.

Sedelmaier: No. All we did on that was … the pilot with Robert [Smigel] initially last year, and then we did the title sequence that opens the show. And then I think he pulls cartoons or vignettes from some of the stuff we did together on Saturday Night Live. But we don't do any of the cartoons on TV Funhouse. When it comes to Saturday TV Funhouse on Saturday Night Live, the only thing that we continue to be doing for the past two seasons is "The Ambiguously Gay Duo." We got very busy, and, at one point, I ran out of people that I could use on Saturday Night Live. And also I had gotten to the point where we were starting to get those phone calls that were saying, "We loved your stuff on Saturday Night Live. Would you ever consider doing commercials?" And I said, you know, between that and the talent pool, I think we should just take a little break. But Robert and I still stay in touch. I just talked to him yesterday, and we're actually doing some print work with The X Presidents. And we've done comics. We did a comic for Playboy with The Ambiguously Gay Duo and so forth. Robert's a great guy to work with, so I jump at the chance of doing it.

[Editor's note: Remind me to fire my research assistant.]

CM: Now, it's pretty impossible to find anything of yours on the Web. But you have built up a pretty decent following at the consumer level with the work you've done on Saturday Night Live. Do you have any plans for doing anything on the Web?

Sedelmaier: We are just now getting to the point where we are pulling together a Web site.

CM: All right. Now, I have to bring this back to the Mac. So what percentage of your work would you say is done on the Mac platform?

Sedelmaier: I'd say maybe 25 [percent].

CM: And that's all pre and post then?

Sedelmaier: At this point.

CM: Why did you choose a mixed environment for your production? Doesn't it cause some hassles?

Sedelmaier: You mean in terms of PC and Mac?

CM: That's right.

Sedelmaier: Because originally thinking that we were a graphically based studio, we thought that we were just going to gravitate toward Mac-based stuff. It seemed to go on forever—researching animation programs—[and] we began to realize that the way we do our animation seemed to be more consistent with a PC-based approach for the pencil testing that we knew, regardless of how we were going to finish—we were going to finish the thing in the studio or finish it in a facility—the pencil test aspect was better handled in a PC realm. It surprised me because I thought, just naturally, Mac always seems just so user-friendly in terms of graphics. I have a PowerBook that I use in my room. That was another thing that Michael Ouweleen kind of turned me on to, how wonderful they are. But when it comes to the types of pencil testers that are out there—now anyway—with all the looking around we did, the CTP system, which happened to be PC-based, was what we found to be best for the studio.

But I would never have a studio that would be just exclusively one thing, unless everything was available [for it]. That would be almost irresponsible.

CM: What's your PowerBook? Is it a Titanium?

Sedelmaier: No. I got it like two-and-a-half minutes before the next one came out.

For more information on J.J. Sedelmaier Productions, please contact the studio's rep firm, Blah Blah Blah. The contact is Andy Arkin ([email protected]). Or visit Blah's Web site at http://www.blahusa.com.

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Dave Nagel is the producer of Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; host of several World Wide User Groups, including Synthetik Studio Artist, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign, Adobe LiveMotion, Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; and executive producer of the Digital Media Net family of publications.

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