Hapless and self-absorbed, Sam Sweetmilk is a hero for our times (or something like that).
Schlock loves stories of hardship rewarded – or, just about – and of unlikely heroes coming out on top. So it is with great pleasure that we speak to Jason Lee Weight, the driving force behind Sam Sweetmilk, a comedic animated space adventure featuring the vocal talents of Kevin R. McNally (Pirates of the Caribbean) and which is currently gathering funds via Kickstarter to create a follow-up to its 25-minute pilot.
The lead character of your animated series, Sam Sweetmilk, is all about going on adventures for their own sake. What do you think this says about you – both as animators and as people?
I think my lack of industry experience means I’ve gone recklessly into the fore on the studio’s behalf, dragging it with me! Our artists’ risky leap was joining the project at all.
In all seriousness though, any worthwhile creative project is risky, because creativity is invention. It’s not simply the arrangement of component parts. We’re definitely adventuring, in that sense, and we’re doing it for the sake of the work itself. It’s easy to forget that you’re on a journey on a project like this, because your mind is off weeks and months ahead of the present, but when you do remember to sit back and reflect it’s a good feeling. A warm, scary feeling.
Do you think 2D animation is experiencing something of a whole-scale comeback, owing to the success of properties like Adventure Time and various internet ‘venutures’ (ha!) similar to Sweetmilk’s own?
Yes! 2D’s really well-represented right now, and Adventure Time’s doing a great job of ushering another generation into expressing themselves in 2D animation. Plus on television in general there’s Bob’s Burgers, Archer, the Adult Swim roster of shows and so on.
On that note, this being a sci-fi comedy with a British slant, one can obviously point out The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Red Dwarf as influences; but what else can you say inspired Sam Sweetmilk’s stoner comedy chops?
There’s not much in the way of stoner humour that influences me, I just think stoned thinking is funny and it suits Sam, but I have tonnes of other minor influences that have shaped the show. I grew up on Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, The Young Ones (a contrived/unpredictable British show from the late eighties, just bonkers nonsense). The Young Ones was written by Ben Elton, who went on to co-write Blackadder, which any Brit will tell you was the zenith of sarcastic wit in television. I’m an Archer fan and Archer doesn’t come close.
How did you succeed in putting together your team to embark on this potentially perilous (well… time-consuming at least) initiative? What was the process like in getting your team and cast on board?
I put some posts up on animator’s forums, ran some job ads, asked around the artist circles I’d been running in, and when that only found me two of the four rough animators needed I got a little desperate. I started lying my way into animation festival after-parties. At one point I gatecrashed an animation university’s final grad screening, out of my mind and clutching a fistful of business cards. I talked to everybody. That’s how I met Haakon [Ziegler] and Michal [Golec]; lead animator and background artist, respectively. Those men are golden geese.
As for the cast, Kevin McNally’s daughter is a friend of a friend of mine, and I managed to get a script to him. He said he wasn’t sure who the cartoon was for, and I took that to mean ‘I don’t get why you’re making this’, so I wrote out this panicky mission statement, including a long characterisation of the animation industry as this backwards, dogmatic thing that only funded kids TV. He said he was impressed by my passion and my “erudite” email, said he agreed that animation is for all ages, and that it would be wrong of him to do anything but voice Ghostworth. So essentially I got him on board with a whiny letter written in defeat.
Overall getting people on board was a matter of selling the idea to them. Luckily we also had free accommodation in central London thanks to a very generous friend of mine, which was a draw. Whatever drew us all together, it certainly wasn’t money. At one point towards the end I was working 11-hour shifts for minimum wage in the basement of a cocktail bar so one of the artists wouldn’t have to go into his overdraft. It got rough.
Centre: writer/director Jason Lee Weight. Left and right: Michal Golec (background artist) and Haakon Ziegler (lead animator)
What’s the process behind the animation? The combination of hand drawn and CG elements looks to be working quite well, judging from the first clip, by the way!
Thanks! We used TVPaint, because Flash didn’t suit what I had in mind for the look of the show (TVP is more like Photoshop in format). That was used for rough animation, in-betweens, cleanup, colour, so you could say most of the work was done there. Then it was taken into After Effects, where it was combined with the CG work that’d been produced in Lightwave.
It’s funny you should mention that the 2D and CG blend together. I’m totally surprised by it, but I agree. I thought it’d end up being something we’d have to apologise for. I think we separated the 3D and 2D enough that there was no queasy feeling of mismatched imagery, plus Michal’s compositing made them gel well when they did interact. I can take no credit whatsoever for how well that turned out.
How do you think the internet is changing the field of animation? Do you think you’d be able to do something on the scale of what you’ve accomplished so far had it not been for the possibilities that the web provides?
In my opinion the most interesting things in animation are happening online. It’s blowing up, which can be partly attributed to two facts:
• 1. The arts industries are more saturated than ever, and there’s not enough work for every graduate to be employed.
• 2. What used to be standard episode running times – set in stone, unchangeable – can now be sidestepped by distributing content online.
This means there’s tonnes of content appearing. Happy Tree Friends, David Firth, Weebl and Bob etc. have been at it for a while, but now we’re seeing semi-experimental, broadcast-quality work staking out ground online and trying to prove itself worthy of the mainstream. Sun Creature Studio, with The Reward and now with Tales of Alethrion, are a good example (though I think they started with a university project). There’s also Natasha Allegri’s Bee and Puppycat on Frederator’s Cartoon Hangover, and Our New Electrical Morals, Superf*ckers and Ace Discovery on Cartoon Hangover Uncensored, to name some more.
To answer your second question, Sam Sweetmilk would just be a file on a drive without the internet. We wouldn’t even have bothered. I’d be making coffee at Nickelodeon right now, trying to learn how to produce my own show by listening in on meetings about new Asian cartoon markets or something.
That’s me being dramatic, but yeah, internet distribution is the only way we’d ever have reached so many people
How’s teaming up with Channel Frederator (Bravest Warriors, Bee and Puppy Cat) working out?
Good! Everyone’s super friendly and supportive there. Natasha Allegri’s been great, she gave us a quote for the Kickstarter. I mean, I’m still really praying Bee and Puppycat mention us in another Kickstarter update because that’s a mailout to 13,000 people who like cartoons enough to donate money to them online, but they already did it for us once and it’d be greedy to expect it again!
On a scale of 10 to 100, how terrifying is it to manage AMA sessions on Reddit AND 4chan’s /co/?
Reddit was lovely! Some tough questions, but a lot of really pleasant back-and-forth, and the people who like the show got to speak to Toby Clayton (character designer), and the aforementioned Haakon and Micha?. I think that’s a more positive face for the show than all the frantic promotion I’ve been doing across the internet since autumn started.
As for /co/, holy crap. It was divided into thirds between “I love the show, thanks for sharing”, “I hate the show, here’s why”, and “Make Vela sexier, whore her out a little, or your cartoon’s going to fail because that’s what sells”. In the end I left as they were all arguing with each other. Those people really do care about cartoons, and their whole time on there is spent heatedly arguing about them, so I don’t know what I expected.
Please tell us “EXCESSIVE STRENGTH!” remains in the full episode?
If nobody buys our $4000 “Your name becomes a swear word in the Sam Sweetmilk universe” reward tier I think it will!