Robot Family Guy, Part 1
The Nicktoons Film Festival recently concluded, and amongst the finalists for the Grand Prize was a quirky, dialogue-driven short titled, ‘Robot Family.’ The two-minute short was directed by Kansas’ very own Chris Harding, a Flash animation maestro who’s no stranger to the festival circuit. Chris and his two college buddies, Chad Strawderman and Jeff Barfoot, hatched and developed the idea – get this – while working in three different cities. If that’s not a testament to the collaborative benefits of the internet, I don’t know what is. That’s not to say there hasn’t been a price for their success. Mr. Harding is a Flash man by day, a Flash man by night, and, as you can see in the adjacent photo, a Flash man at 4 in the morning. Read on to find out what he and his computer are brewing up after the clock strikes midnight.
AARON SIMPSON: Where did you study, or first learn, animation?
CHRIS HARDING: I studied illustration at the University of Arizona. Starting in college, I did a daily comic strip (‘Feet of Clay’) for about 5 years. This is where I learned what little I know about writing, which I think is important. Later, I started trying to teach myself animation. I think it’s the most beautiful art form ever devised. But I haven’t had any formal classes or anything.
AS: How did you discover Macromedia’s Flash software?
CH: Through a gig making e-cards. I picked up Flash maybe 5 years ago, when it became ubiquitous on the Web.
AS: Have you ever animated using other software?
CH: Before Flash, I was using Director. I came at this from a Web animation background. But Flash isn’t limited to that anymore. It can be great for TV, film, anything…
AS: Who typically animates the bulk of the scenes in your projects?
CH: Everything on my site was pretty much made by me. ‘Robot Family’ is a collaboration with Chad Strawderman and Jeff Barfoot – very much a shared effort at the big picture level. But when it comes to sitting down and making each piece, so far it’s just one guy in a basement. I made the ‘Slick Salesman’ short. Chad is working on the next piece in his basement right now.
AS: ‘Robot Family’ is marked by some excellent timing and dialogue editing – what’s your process during the animatic stage?
CH: Thank you for saying so. Actually, this short in its finished form is not much more than an animatic. Very unsophisticated animation. It was done to test how the characters interact. The timing was a matter of editing and slicing up Chad’s perfect performance as the salesman, and juggling it around in the timeline until it sounded right. Timing is really, really important. Animation has more in common with music than drawing. A nice thing about Flash is how easily you can make adjustments to time.
AS: ‘Robot Family’ has that ‘TV series’ flavor we all enjoy so much. In light of your success in the recent Nicktoons Film Festival, is this your goal with the project?
CH: I think so. ‘Robot Family’ is our first attempt at trying to build a series, which is a whole different thing than telling a self-contained story. You try to set up a world, and then hope you can squeeze whatever is on your mind that week into a show idea. So I want it to be a broad, deep, versatile reflection of reality. I don’t think I could work, for example, with a wacky idea like “Zombie Dentist,” or something. It’s funny on the surface, but I couldn’t write through the point of view of that character for very long.
The rule for Robot Family is that it’s about people — unthinking people. Robots are a great device, but we try to avoid robot-related jokes unless they pertain to something a human would go through. Like we might have a robot rusting, but through their eyes it would be cancer.
Another nice thing about robots is that they like to maintain a status-quo. Their fragile society depends on it. So it’s very natural for each episode to end where it began, as is customary on TV. Also, we tried very hard to design the look so that it could be drawn by anyone. It’s almost absent of style.
AS: Are there any more ‘Robot Family’ episodes in the pipeline?
CH: Chad is working on one right now. I hope I’m not spoiling it to talk about it. The mom, Debbie, accidentally replaces her sex-drive with a heavy-duty washing machine part. That sounds like a robot gag, but it’s really about a cruel joke on humanity — the huge gap in sexual desire between men and women. Robots are very traditional, so when Mom’s drive becomes powerful, the entire robot universe is thrown out of whack.
AS: The backgrounds in your short ‘Learn Self Defense’ are amazing. Did you paint them traditionally, and import them into the software?
CH: Thank you. I actually did all of those in Photoshop. You can download or make all kinds of crazy brushes out of almost anything now. You can tear a wrinkly piece of paper, scan it in, and paint with it. So I got all these distressed textures that way. It’s 100% digital, but done in lots of layers the way a painting would be.
AS: You’ve explained that your next personal project, ‘The Days of Miracle and Wonder,’ is a modern retelling of the John Henry folktale. Do you see yourself harnessing technology or dying trying to beat it?
CH: I see myself dying trying to harness technology. Dying in a basement late at night, half blind from staring at a monitor. ‘Miracle & Wonder’ is something I’ve been working on for a while. It probably won’t be the next thing I finish, but I’ll get it done one day.
‘The Ballad of John Henry’ is a great story. There are all these subtle social issues. My particular version is told from the point of view of the man who built the machine, with the best intentions of freeing people from crappy, laborious work. He finds out that the short-term consequences are people losing their jobs.
END OF PART 1
Check back soon to read the second half of my interview with ‘Robot Family’s Chris Harding.