To herald the release of 4th Edition, animator Adam Phillips (of biteycastle.com) generated the "Making of 4th Edition" cartoons, featuring such celebrity spokesmonsters as the beholder, tiefling, troglodyte… and of course, the gnome.
With the release of the latest cartoon: Demogorgon and the Gnome, Adam took the time to answer a few questions regarding his process of animation.
Wizards of the Coast: How did the D&D cartoon project initially come about? Were you already familiar with Dungeons & Dragons, or was there a fair bit of first exploring the world to develop the look and feel of the cartoons?
Adam Phillips: I've been a fan of medieval and fantasy genre stuff since I was a kid, and while I could never be classed as a hard core player, I played some D&D in my late teens. All of my favourite console and PC games have been and still are fantasy RPGs. So when Wizards approached me to work on some shorts, I jumped at the chance.
Wizards: Can you walk us through the process of generating a D&D cartoon? From start to finish, how long does such a cartoon take for you to complete? What materials do you receive from Wizards of the Coast, and how much additional reference materials do you research on your own?
Adam: In addition to my own research (i.e. pages 1-3 of Google images) often Wizards send me a few reference images or web links to study before sending the script and the dialogue recordings. The recordings arrive as one or two straight-through readings, so usually my first job is to prepare and edit the audio for the movie. After that, I put those dialogue tracks into scenes and make rough sketches for each shot which, when pieced together, results in an animatic (a kind of playable storyboard).
From there, I roughly sketch some of the animation poses and do a couple of fully complete frames and backgrounds, sending those over to the art director (Jon Schindehette) for approval. Occasionally they'll call for a few changes which are usually pretty painless.
Once the designs and rough animatic are approved, I disappear into work mode for a few weeks and I don't see family, food or the sky during that time. When I resurface, it's usually with the finished product which, when sent to Wizards for final approval, needs one or two more tweaks before it goes live and I take a shower.
Wizards: The gnome, an arguably marginalized D&D race in the past, has never been more popular thanks to his portrayal in the second cartoon (The Tiefling and the Gnome). What art direction were you given for him, and how did you develop his distinctive look and mannerisms?
Adam: The gnome's design is based loosely on a reference sketch sent to me before I'd started that episode. I stylized him to suit the animation and make him likeable but the excellent voice acting really helped me bring out his personality. He sounds so childlike in his enthusiasm, which was very inspiring when it came time to design and animate his gestures and expressions.
Wizards: Is there ever a mild sense of puzzlement when an art reference comes in, for example of a demon with two monkey heads and tentacles for arms? Has there ever been a stranger art reference you’ve received for a project?
Adam: Not so much a sense of puzzlement as a sense of 'ugh! How do I animate this guy and stay on schedule?', but all the same it's one of the more exciting aspects of the job. At the beginning of each project when I first take a look at the reference images, I mentally dismantle and reassemble the character/creature so he's suitable for animation. More often than not, this will mean simplifying the design by removing excess or intricate details, and simplifying animation by re-using elements and creating cycles. I try hard not to let such shortcuts compromise the quality of the finished product, but invariably I look back and wish there was more time in the schedule.
Wizards: Your website, biteycastle.com, includes the animated adventures of Bitey. Who is this furry little pan, and what is the world of Brackenwood all about? Are these characters influenced by particular myths, legends, or tales (you've mentioned elsewhere your fondness for older, creepier fairy tales)? And what might be in store next for Bitey?
Adam: Bitey is the last of his kind. Everyone in the entire world mysteriously disappeared when he was a toddler, so he has grown up wild and completely alone. As a result of having no role models in his life, he has no sense of right and wrong, and because he's had a hard life surviving on his wits, basically he's turned out to be a selfish little bastard… a clever, wild animal with a mean streak.
Up to now, the Brackenwood episodes featuring Bitey have all been about his day-to-day existence with no real story, just an unspoken moral. However I'm currently teamed up with a writing partner and we've been writing the Brackenwood feature film for just over a year now. It tells the story of who Bitey is, why he's the last of his kind and what his future holds.
I guess Bitey's design was inspired by my love of myth and legend. For some reason I've always found legendary characters like Pan and Puck fascinating so Bitey's design and character must certainly be a reflection of those.
Wizards: Your site hosts selections from your guide to creating Flash animation. Can I ask why you choose to work with Flash as your preferred medium? Is it a program you simply prefer, or does it have specific benefits allowing you to create a more dynamic, cinematic experience?
Adam: Even though I worked for Disney as a special FX and character animator for 12 years, animation had always been a tedious and expensive process, requiring lots of paper and expensive camera equipment. When Flash came along it was the first time I could tell my own stories to a captive global audience from my home computer. As a result, my work's popularity exploded on the Flash animation portal Newgrounds.com, which is why I've stuck with the .swf format.
I've been using Flash for about 10 years now but it has always had its limitations. I guess the stuff I want to do nowadays has outgrown Flash, so I'm using ToonBoom software, which is a serious animation tool. The Demogorgon's interview was done in ToonBoom Animate Pro. The interface is similar to Flash in that it's a vector-based drawing and timeline-based animation program but you can apply bitmap effects, so you're almost unlimited in what you can do in the final render.
Biteycastle.com also features a host of community-related tools: your blog, boards, even live cam and guestbook. What has been the experience so far with maintaining such a strong connection with the community—any lessons learned, or odd or perhaps unexpected experiences?
Adam: While there have been one or two complete weirdos over the years, it's 99% good. It's the community who spreads the word about my work so I like to stay involved, helping people out with their own animation and storytelling efforts. It's also the reason I try to answer every email and do every interview.
Over the years on the Biteycastle forum I've watched a number of 13-14 year olds become incredible artists and animators now 18-19 years old, getting into colleges like CalArts or even teaching classes themselves. Today's teen stars could be our next generation of cashed-up studio execs in a position to throw money at me too. Can't wait for that!
Finally (and probably the root of it all), praise has always been like caffeine to me. Gimme a few lines on how you love my work and I'll be bouncing off the walls getting a flood of new ideas and inspiration. Hmm, looking back at those reasons, there's a quite a selfish undercurrent there, huh?