Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 5 (May 2002)

The Devil Made Them Do It

Artists create a unique style for an animated series on ShowTime

By Karen Moltenbrey

One look and it is quite obvious that the folks at Sextant Entertainment and Peafur Production were feeling a bit devilish when they created the new animated comedy series "The Mr. Hell Show." Appearing on the recently launched ShowTime Next channel and on the UK's BBC, the series features 13 24-minute shows made up of eight to nine sketches that star Mr. Hell-a sarcastic anti-hero-and a cast of equally warped recurring characters.

"Mr. Hell, the politically incorrect host, is the cynical glue that binds together the various sketches and bits of weirdness," says Peafur's David Freedman. "The show has a dark, twisted sense of humor that focuses on human cruelty." With plots that take jabs at Switzerland's political neutrality, the British royal family, and even haute couture, "you either get the humor, or you don't," he notes. "It's definitely not for children." Freedman along with Alan Gilbey are the show's executive producers, creators, and writers.

"The Mr. Hell Show" is a fully animated series created using what production company Sexton calls "Hell-mation," a style of 3D computer-animated cutouts assembled and designed to simulate 2D cel animation. "All our characters are like paper dolls, built inside a computer and then manipulated by animators," says Freedman. "We've combined these cutout puppets with cutting-edge computer technology for a new look."
All the background scenes were created in Photoshop, and each contains a unique style and color scheme.

The characters were conceived at Peafur's London studio. Next, the designs were sent to Sextant in Vancouver, Canada, where the characters were constructed and animated. For each character, the artists selected one of several differently sized 3D scalable wireframe armatures, or skeletons, created in Alias| Wavefront's Maya running on NT-based workstations from SGI. Then they attached a flat texture covering, which mimicked "paper" clothes but contained the character's facial structure, hair, clothing, and more, giving it a unique appearance.

Using Maya, the artists animated the characters, which were given a limited range of motion. This was used to the show's advantage in that it resulted in a style that more closely resembled cel animation than 3D animation. Effects were later added during postproduction with Adobe Systems' After Effects.

The backgrounds, which were created in Adobe's Photoshop, were varied to complement each sketch either by changing the color schemes or by incorporating collages made from photographs or engravings. In an episode featuring a bull in a china shop, the group created a translucent backdrop to simulate a feeling of fragility. "We didn't want the audience to feel like it was watching one, long monotonous palette of colors," notes Freedman. "Even with the limitations of our animation technique, we tried to be as [creative] as possible."
Artists at Peafur Production created "The Mr. Hell Show" characters by building 3D skeletons and then attaching a flat texture, similar to a paper doll cutout.

Using their paper cutout technique has enabled Peafur and Sex tant to tread into the area of sketch animation, which was previously off limits because of the time restraints required to create an ensemble of characters and sets that changed constantly. "We were able to create 24 minutes of animation in about six weeks," says Sextant producer J. Falconer. Adds Freedman: "We can easily dress and redress the characters for different sketches. As the series runs, observant viewers will see our repertory company coming back in all kinds of strange costumes and contexts-some changing sex as well."

To create their cast of thousands, the animators used Adobe's Illustrator to segment the body parts from a core cast of 18 bit-part players, so they can mix and match hands, legs, mouths, and so on to create a completely new set of characters, then drop them into a scene. The team at Sextant scripted a plug-in for Maya to help the animators locate certain hand and mouth positions or expressions needed to "act" the characters. According to Falconer, this process was fairly seamless because the characters consist of flat colors rather than textures.

Peafur and Sextant are now working on a second season of shows, playing the "devil's advocate" for this new style of animation.

Key Tool: Maya, Alias|Wavefront (