Hangin’ in the Neverhood – A Pencil Test Studios Interview, Pt. 1
This is a story I’ll tell anyone who cares to listen. It’s brief, so just shut up and deal with it.
E3 is a magical place. I had the pleasure of experiencing my very first go ’round this year, in fact. I expected to be floored with sights, sounds, and indecision (which happened); as well as loaded down with tons of cool swag, neat knick-knacks, and functionless tchochkes (which kind of happened… kind of). I expected the entire show would get better and better with each passing day. I expected to lament the doors closing once it was all over. What I didn’t expect was to have my “Moment of Show” take place about two hours after my arrival on day one. Neal and I were searching for the Into the Pixel exhibit, a room dedicated to the art of video games, showcasing the artistic stylings of many of our glorious hobby’s professionals. We were scheduled to have a meeting in or around the exhibit space, and while walking through, something had caught my eye. It was Tommynaut, in the flesh, just hanging out on a table in front of two dudes, and a lady.
I excused myself as I broke into the conversation (which I later discovered was an interview… sorry, Laura Romero!), and asked if I could get a picture of our hero. The taller of the two gentlemen asked if I wanted to be in the picture, and I looked at him, stood dumbfounded for a second too long, and realized who I was speaking with. My glance shot to the other gentleman, and suddenly I was overtaken by a feeling of awe and wonder, for it was Ed Schofield and Mike Dietz who stood before me. After a long conversation which was primarily me gushing like a fanboy over all of the Neverhood properties (
even ESPECIALLY Boombots), we exchanged contact information, and I received an invite to Pencil Test Studios to conduct an in-person interview. What follows is an account of my visit.
I pulled up at around noonish, and stood in front of the nondescript office building, fumbling with my phone to get a picture. Gumby stared back at me from the window, and just as I was snapping a photo, Mike arrived at the door to invite me inside. After showing me where to put the doughnuts I’d brought for he and Ed (DK’s on Santa Monica… best in LA, try the maple bacon), I got a tour of the small studio space. I saw everything. The set pieces from the short used in the Kickstarter video, the greenroom, the “Puppet Vault,” and even the kitchen! The entire time I was waving my Sony digital audio recorder in their faces. Upon entering the actual studio and seeing the crater Tommynaut and Beak-Beak carved into the rocky landscape with their “altered flight path (read: crash landing),” I was struck by how not clay the materials were.
James Bacon: Now, are the sets mostly clay? I recall reading in one of your recent interviews that there is some branching out you’re doing regarding materials and technique?
Mike Dietz: In terms of materials on Armikrog, we have branched out a lot in terms of what things are made of. The art direction rule on The Neverhood was, just because the mythology of The Neverhood calls it out and says that Neverhood is a world made of clay, so everything in Neverhood is made out of clay. Even if it’s… when he pulls the pin out of the chain, it’s supposed to be metal, or if someone has a sword, it’s a clay metal, or a clay sword; or Big Robot Bil is made of clay. The metal is made of clay. So, everything in the Neverhood is made of clay. But we’re actually branching out from that, on [Armikrog] and it’s nice because it lets us do different things. Like, Ed came up with this paper technique…
Mike then reached over to the edge of the set dressing, and tore off a small piece to show me that it’s just brown paper sculpted and painted to give the desired effect.
Mike Dietz: …and what he does is, he mixes up water and wood glue and something else in a spray bottle, and he puts this stuff down, and sprays it, and crinkles it, and sprays it, and it dries, and he sprays it again, and he dry-brushes it… it looks better on camera than it does up close, but I just like the idea that it feels like a high school art project. It’s not super, super slick, which is kind of our art direction mode. I always like projects where you can see thumb prints; you can see the artist behind the art. So you see stuff like this and you go ‘not only is that cool, but I kinda know what that is, and I kinda feel like I could do that,’ so it feels more accessible.
It was at this point that Mike began turning on the lights to show me how he was able to create the lighting for the cockpit scene. One key, one fill, and a bunch of little tricks to get it just right. There’s a hole cut out of the back of the ship to allow for some blue under-lighting, which contrasts the heavy red “emergency” lighting of the crash, achieved by a red gel, and a C-stand. As he was explaining all of this, I asked another question.
JB: I’ve read you project history in brief, and I know your more recent projects include the television show Community, and Star War Episode 3 the video game. I also know that as a spiritual successor to Neverhood, the expectation is for stop-motion animation, but are there personal reasons for you to return to stop-motion? Was it simply to facilitate the feel of the world?
MD: Oh, no, I love stop-motion. It’s magic. It’s more magic than any other form of animation, in my opinion. Because you can tell they’re real objects. There’s a magic to going ‘I know that’s something real. I know that’s something I could hold in my hand, and it’s coming to life, and it’s moving around, and it’s acting, and it’s a being.’ There’s something really magical about that. When I was a kid, they used to have all of the Muppets specials that would be on CBS, and there was something really cool about that, because they were hand puppets, and I knew there was Jim Henson’s hand, or Frank Oz’s hand inside that puppet for the first ten minutes of the show, but half way through the show you’d realize you forgot that! And you’d catch yourself thinking ‘well, that’s a frog, that’s Kermit.’ Every now and then I’d catch myself and say well that’s just a puppet, but it’s real, and it’s alive, and there’s just something magical about that. So, I’ve always, ALWAYS loved that, and I love stop-motion.
JB: You can actually ‘meet’ the characters. Like when I met you and Ed the first time at E3, I was just walking by, but then I saw Tommynaut, and instantly connected with it; that’s the sort of thing you can’t get out of traditional animation or computer animation, because those characters don’t really exist in a real space.
MD: Yeah, I mean you can to an extent, but like I said, there’s something magic about the stop-motion that just doesn’t happen otherwise. I think a lot of it has to do with the idea that it is a real object, but I also think there’s analogue imperfections that happen in stop-motion that don’t naturally happen in CG or other types of animation where you see a thumb print, or arc of how a character’s moving. Just because a human is touching it every frame, it’s a little less perfect. And a lot of CG, I know, you actually animate the character, and if it’s supposed to be an organic, human character, you actually go back to put those imperfections in. As soon as the imperfections become deliberate, there’s something less real about them. It just doesn’t connect with your brain.
JB: You’re going back and trying to fool people, instead of allowing them to see the imperfections as a result of the process.
MD: Yeah, yeah! Here at Pencil Test, we’ve done a ton of CG and hand drawn animation. Ed and I have done all sorts of animation throughout our careers. We’re not just stop-motion guys. But I feel like we try to come back to it every chance we can, because there’s just something so fun about it.
At this point we continued the tour. I asked him about his most recent stop-motion project, and he informed me that this past Christmas, some of his friends at Screen Novelties were contracted to produce the Sponge-Bob stop-motion Christmas special. A chance, when invited, Mike jumped at. We further discussed Doug TenNaple‘s graphic novels and other projects, and when the tour concluded, we found ourselves in the office, seated, and discussing a wide variety of items.
For instance, Ed revealed that Tommynaut is, quite literally, Klaymen. He’s also Boomer, and a Skull Monkey. While the game itself is considered a spiritual successor to the original Neverhood, the characters are made from cannibalized bits of armatures from their other creations, tying Armikrog back to their previous projects in a wonderfully tactile way. Mike and Ed showed me a box of bits from previous games, all having been de-skinned in order to provide pieces for the new endeavor.
Ed walked me through the projected time-table for the Kickstarter short, and then the actual schedule of when things got done. What we’ve seen in the video took them around two months to complete, while the content they had originally planned for would have taken an additional two months to shoot. “Over aggressive” was the term Ed had used with regard to their ambitious shooting schedule. He and Mike then laughed.
JB: I’m going to ask what I can only imagine will be an unpopular question. Because my heart is in The Neverhood, and Skull Monkeys; Boombots and now Armikrog: in the event that… and I don’t even really want to say it, but in the event that the Kickstarter does not get funded, is there going to be a way to contribute via direct donations, or maybe an Indiegogo attempt?
MD: We get asked this question a lot. We’re not complete idiots; we know it’s not necessarily a slam dunk. In fact, if we make it, it’s gonna be awesome because it’s gonna be the the Heat winning that game last night. You don’t look like you’re gonna do it, but then you come back and do it. And I really, in my heart, I think we can do it. If it doesn’t happen, then we’ll have to look into other ways of seeing if it’s feasible. The only way we’re gonna make this game is if we can deliver the game that people are expecting. So, there’s no way we’re gonna relaunch on Kickstarter and go for a smaller, say a $500,000 dollar goal, and a smaller game, because I don’t think people would be happy with that. So, we’ll have to figure it out. There are things that we’ve talked about, and there’s other ways to raise money. I think if it makes sense, we’ll do it. But our goal isn’t to raise money, it’s to make a game. So if we can find a way to fund the game that we know should be made, then we’ll do that. If we can’t raise the money to make the game we want to make, then it’s a disservice to everyone. But even though we know this is the reality, we’re still spending 24 hours a day trying to get this thing funded, with the idea that if it doesn’t, then we’ll take a deep breath and talk about some of the other ideas about what we can do.
Ed Schofield: The campaign is so consuming, that to start to split our time between achieving the goal we’re trying to achieve here, in terms of meeting our funding goal, that if we start to split that with ‘what’s our Plan B,’ it’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy at that point, because we start to pull resources away from our primary goal. Even with seven days left, and as crazy as it sounds, we’re really confident that it’s gonna happen. We really feel like we’ve got the support of the backers, and maybe it’s just us being naive, which is possible, this being our first Kickstarter campaign, but it really feels like it’ll probably happen in the eleventh hour, in the final moment.
At this point in the conversation, both Ed and Mike pointed out the satisfaction they get out of interacting with us, the backers. They give daily updates on the project, and more than just information you can read on the cover page (this the the threshold we’ve just crossed type info that can, at times, seem forced), they particularly enjoy providing actual content. Q&A sessions, or video interviews with the other talented individuals involved in the Armikrog project; set construction videos, and the “Chumpy Cam.” They express gratitude at all of the ground work being done by the backers to spread the word and help ensure the project gets funded, and they express, first and foremost, loyalty to those same backers, making sure we know that they’re in it until the end. Ed and Mike are fighting, daily, for their fans, and I got to see their tenacity, first hand. I was inspired. This is a pair of people who have been building a community around their games for decades. They aren’t just selling us products, they’re creating worlds to share with us. Truly share, involving themselves in the experience. They’re telling us jokes, and watching, eyebrows cocked, waiting for our reaction. They pour their hearts into their work, and it shows on their faces. Of all of the people in this industry I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, these two have made me feel welcome the most.
Once the conversation turned light again, I moved forward with the fact-finding.
JB: The Mongrel seems a little familiar to me… have you ever read Bone, the comic (MD: Big fan!)? Are these things [comic books, etc.] that you’re pulling from as influences, or are you coming up with original character designs that just happen to have these similarities?
MD: A little bit of both. Any artist who says they’re not influenced by something around them aren’t being honest with themselves. As a group, we’re hugely influenced by guys like George Herriman, [who created] Krazy Kat…
Ed Schofield: …an old time comic strip from the 20′s…
MD: …Yeah. Very Dr. Seuss-y before Dr. Seuss. Dr. Seuss is a huge influence. Guys like Jeff Smith and Bone. A lot of comic artists. Personally, I was really influenced by Chuck Jones and his drawing style, and Maurice Noble. So, you pull from a lot of stuff – Muppets, too. Doug has an influence and a reaction to Tim Burton. I’ve seen Doug pull things from Burton into his work, but a lot of Doug’s work tends to be a reaction. If Burton does one thing, Doug’ll tend to do the opposite. Burton goes very dark and spooky. His stuff is great, don’t get me wrong, I love his stuff, but I think throughout the history of stop-motion, going dark and spooky is the easy thing to do. Tim Burton does it really well and still keeps it appealing. He’s kind of made that little space his own. And I don’t think it does us much good to tread on his space, because no matter what we do, Burton’s going to do it better. SO, we’ve kind of found our own space which is a little bit more high key, a little bit more fun. A little leaning more towards what Aardman does. A little comedic, but I think we put our own spin on it, but our spin is definitely influenced by guys like Doctor Seuss and George Herriman.
ES: There’s also one thing that’s really different about the way we work here. If you look at a lot of, especially stop motion productions, they will do concept art, and then drawings that really define the character closely, then in the instance of a puppet it would go to fabrication with drawings that are very specific on how that character will look; I think we get it about 80% there on paper, sometimes less, and during the process of creating a puppet or background, or whatever, there’s a certain amout of gut level reaction that’s happening as you’re creating it. Which is fun for us. So, in the instance of the Mongrel, Doug had done quite a few different drawings, and they were all really different, and when it came time to make the puppet…
MD: …Doug actually built the Mongrel.
Ed Hed: Yeah! So we took an old puppet we had from Kog-Head and Meatus, a short film we did years ago, that we took as our starting point, and Doug and I went to the crafts store with this idea of what Mongrel would be and we just kinda walked around and went, ‘What about fur? What about this, and what about that?’ So, as a creator, it seems like it’s a lot more fun to just, sort of, react as you’re creating! You might find that, oh, this puppet isn’t working exactly the way it was designed on paper, so you have to make some changes on the fly, and even the backgrounds, like the ship. I built the ship and it started off as one thing, and sort of changed along the way, but we give ourselves the freedom to sort of evolve with whatever it is we’re creating.
At this point, Ed had to excuse himself to take a phone call. I took the opportunity to grab a lot of pictures with my phone, in order to make this piece something special… well, MORE special. I got all of the images here, for your perusal, as well as several personal pictures. Me with Pitsburgh and Boomer from Boombots, a group shot of EWJ, Tommy, Klaymen, Boomer, and Mandu. Mike then shares a concern of his with me.
MD: I feel like every time a project like this fails, that there’s going to be less and less of an opportunity for us independant guys to do something outside of the box.
JB: I would share that concern; however, there’s so much support out there, and for the longest time I’ve been saying that video games as an artistic medium live in the indie scene on PC, no contest. You can’t argue that it lives with triple A titles, you can’t argue that it lives anywhere but on PC. And I think that there’s a large awakening that’s been ongoing, due to things like Armikrog and Double Fine Adventure on Kickstarter that have really allowed people to realize ‘You know what? Not only can I get the game I want made by backing projects, but I can interact with the creators, themselves.’ Kickstarter is an odd beast…
MD: …an evolving beast!
JB: Yeah! And it completely removes everything except for the creator, and the audience. And that’s it! Those are the only two interacting parties. And people have been taking to it at an increased pace.
MD: The whole irony, though – you were saying video games as an artistic medium now lives with the indie PC games and no longer the triple A stables, and I agree with you , I think that’s true – the irony of that statement is that the fact that this is the case announces video games have finally arrived as a legitimate entertainment entity. It used to be that video games were kind of the bastard little brother to the rest of the entertainment industry. There were movies, and television, and other sorts of entertainment, while video games were this small subset – just about anyone in the video games industry would have left their job in two seconds if they could get a job on a movie somewhere – and because it was small, and it was this little offshoot of other portions of this industry, there was a lot more risk taking, because there was less money involved, and people were willing to finance stuff outside the box, so we were able to get games like the Neverhood or Earth Worm Jim financed through a traditional developer/publisher model. People would never go for that today. I mean, Earth Worm Jim was basically developed, under that model, as a triple A game. The budget it had was a top end budget, for that time. But now that video game budgets are on par with television and film budgets, and the stakes are so much higher, publishers and people that are financing games are green-lighting stuff that are sequels, or stuff that looks like other stuff that they know are successful. As an artist, it makes me sad, but as a business man I certainly see why they’re doing it.
This, good friends, ends part one of the interview. I took a lot of audio, and this is already a large wall of text, so I’m going to put the rest of the interview in a second entry. I’ll resume exactly where I left off, and it will be up within the next 24 hours. In the meantime, hop on over to the ARMIKROG KICKSTARTER page, and pitch a few dollars their way, yeah?