Adventure Time’s Kirsten Lepore on the joys and pains of stop motion animation

Adventure Time’s Kirsten Lepore on the joys and pains of stop motion animation

The process is grueling, but the rewards are great

Photo by Steve Gunther
Photo by Steve Gunther

In entertainment, an awful lot of stuff happens behind closed doors, from canceling TV shows to organizing music festival lineups. While the public sees the end product on TVs, movie screens, paper, or radio dials, they don’t see what it took to get there. In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to industry insiders about the actual business of entertainment in hopes of shedding some light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.

Adventure Time debuts its first stop motion-animated episode, “Bad Jubies,” this week, and Cartoon Network has brought on filmmaker Kirsten Lepore to take the show into three dimensions. An award-winning animator known for her gorgeous, whimsical independent short films about community and nature, Lepore has established herself as a major talent in the field of stop motion animation, and she does remarkable things with the support of a network behind her. She recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the rewards and challenges of stop motion, translating a 2-D cartoon for a new medium, and why stop motion animation has endured when computer technology has presented less labor-intensive alternatives for creating a similar look.

The A.V. Club: What was your first exposure to stop-motion animation?

Kirsten Lepore: I was always really fascinated with animation, but just in a way all kids are with watching Disney movies and all that, but I had no idea how animation was done. I was also really obsessed with all of those behind-the-scenes Jim Henson specials that were airing in the ’80s about how all these things are made. That was always exciting to me, seeing the creature shops and all those kinds of things. So I always had a fascination with that growing up. I was one of those kids that always drew all the time.

Fast forward to college, and I ended up studying animation at a school called MICA in Baltimore: Maryland Institute College Of Art. I studied experimental animation there. It was a really new program, but it was probably a good thing because they gave you free rein to do whatever you wanted. I made my first stop motion as my thesis there, and that one is called “Sweet Dreams. That was on my website as my first stop motion film ever, really.

After I graduated, I started working professionally. I just moved back to my parent’s house, but I was making stop motion films and doing little ads and stuff in my parent’s basement, just making do. There was two years of that, and then I decided to go back to school because there was a lot I felt that was missing in my technical knowledge. Also, I had no animation friends or peers around me, basically, so I decided to move out to California, go to CalArts, and I graduated in 2012 from that grad program.

That was also animation that I was studying. I feel like my fascination in stop motion started slowly from me just experimenting with it. It felt like it was a good way for me to combine all of my loves and all of my passions I had. I played a lot of music all throughout my life, actually, but in high school I was in marching band and all the bands. So, I was big into music, I was big into drawing and sculpture, and all these different things. Having animation as this time-based medium made a lot of sense for me, and then stop motion was even more fun because it was so hands-on and physical in a way that I really liked.

AVC: What was the most challenging thing for you when you first started creating your own stop motion projects?

KL: I feel like the technical challenges were probably the worst. When I first started doing stop motion for that thesis project at MICA, since the program was so new, there wasn’t really a designated stop motion teacher, so I was making it up as I went. There’s a really specific system when you do it professionally, like a system of tying puppets down, even. For example, any stop motion set, for the most part, has a space underneath it where you drill holes, and then you’re physically tying the puppets in with nuts and bolts into the feet of the puppet so it stays locked down. So every step that a puppet takes, that’s another hole that is drilled in the set where the puppet is physically tied down. They’re really in there so they don’t move.

Even things like that, I didn’t understand it at all when I first started out. I didn’t know anything about the professional way to do that. When I did “Sweet Dreams, since I was just kind of making it up and trying to make it work, I was putting push-pins in the feet of my character with the little spikes coming up, which is barely enough to hold the thing up, so every couple frames, it would end up tipping over. Then, any time your puppet moves, you have to reset it and get it in the position that it was by looking at your last picture that you took. It just turns into this really, really painful process, even just trying to get my puppet upright. That was a huge challenge when I first started, just not knowing how to do it properly.

Once you get over that and you learn how to do it properly, you’re still fighting with all of the elements. With upright puppet-style stop motion, you’re really fighting gravity, you’re fighting lighting conditions, everything needs to be super locked down and controlled, and not just the puppet. Your lighting situation, everything you use. You can’t bump a light, you know? God forbid your lightbulb blows out, because when you replace it, even if you haven’t moved the light, the brightness of the light will have changed with a new lightbulb. So, little things like that will always create a pop in your shot as you watch it.

I think that’s what you see in a lot of amateur stop motion. There’s a lot of flickering, and lighting changes, and focus changes, and the camera is moving. Just having everything super locked down the whole time is one of the biggest challenges, honestly, about stop motion. Another funny thing is at studios they have these things called kick plates for the tripod because, inevitably, we’re humans. We like to bump into things, so you learn as a stop motion animator to really tread lightly around your stage and be very, very careful, and to try not to be clumsy. So, these kick plates are there at studios where they’ll actually hot glue them down to the tripod and to the floor, so you’ll kick this big piece of wood before you actually kick into your tripod and knock it to mess up your shot. There are so many things like that in stop motion that just make it so difficult.

AVC: Now I’m thinking about your short movie “Bottle” and how you’re actually out in nature for it. How was that as a challenge?

KL: It was one of those things where I feel like I hadn’t seen it done before, doing stop motion on-location outdoors, and the reason was because it was insane. It’s a really crazy idea, but I was a naïve student and I was like, “I’m going to just try this. I’m going to see if I can make it work.” That film had its own crazy set of challenges beyond the normal ones. For that, I also just shot it completely by myself. One of the biggest things for me was driving two hours to the location everyday, and then having to lug out two carts of equipment alone, and I always had to consider—I was shooting on a beach—I’m like, “Okay, bring out the props first that no one will steal,” because I have to leave it unattended for a couple minutes while I grab my second cart of things.

I’d always strategically bring things out, and I couldn’t even take a bathroom break because I couldn’t leave my stuff unattended. Things even to that extreme got really insane with shooting, but in terms of shooting outdoors, the lighting changes were definitely the biggest thing and the biggest reason that people don’t shoot stop motion outdoors. I liked having the natural light fluctuations in the film, but they were, in the raw footage, really, really distracting, and I didn’t want it to get to a point where they were distracting, so I actually color corrected that film frame by frame. I went through and had to adjust every frame to the last frame to make any light change as subtle as possible. It’s still there, but it’s just not distracting. There were things like that which made it nuts.

AVC: I was wondering about that because the movies take such a long time. You’re not filming it all in one day. You’re going to get crazy light changes. That sounds like so much work.

KL: Yeah, I’m getting about 15 seconds of footage a day on a really good day. But, you know, on a bad day, you’re getting like seven seconds of footage. It’s a five and a half minute film, so as many days as that takes to compile all that footage.

AVC: Nature plays a really big part of your work, and it plays a big part in your Adventure Time episode as well. What is it that attracts you to exploring nature in your work and replicating nature through stop motion?

KL: [Laughs.] It’s something I’ve noticed that I want to keep in my work. Sometimes I’m just like, “Oh, am I repeating myself? Is this a bad thing that I keep doing?” But I don’t know. I really like incorporating elements, and it’s also difficult to do in stop motion, which means sometimes I run into problems. Any kind of rain has to be composited in because it’s particles. You can’t put all these different particles on little threads and hang them and, you know, suspend them in the air. That all does present challenges once you get into weather stuff. I’ve always had a love of nature growing up, and the elements. I grew up in New Jersey, so there were seasons there, unlike here in L.A. I grew up camping with my family. We took so many trips. We had an RV, actually, when we were growing up. We did a ton of camping trips and went across the country. I was so fortunate to see so many different parts of the country that, now that I think about it, that must have informed my work in some way. I feel like there’s a lot of drama, too, in weather. It’s something that’s done really often in live action, so I figure, why not translate that to animation?

AVC: How did you get involved with Adventure Time?

KL: I had released Move Mountain, my thesis at CalArts, online I think March of 2014? [It was released in late February—ed.] It was an 11-minute stop motion film. A week later, Adam [Muto], the showrunner from Adventure Time, emailed me. He said, “We’ve been wanting to do a stop motion episode for a very long time, and we were waiting for the right time and the right fit,” and he had seen Move Mountain. He was like, “It was an 11-minute, just like Adventure Time. I could have seen this being kind of like an episode of the show. We’d like you to do an episode.” I totally freaked out and was jumping up and down and running around the room because the show is so awesome. I knew this was a huge opportunity and such a huge honor. I think I’m only the third guest director spot, and definitely the first stop motion one. It was really, really exciting for me to be able to get the project. I’m really happy with the final result and how everything turned out and getting to work with all the people that I got to work with.

AVC: The guest director episodes are always so cool. How is it different creating a short film with a studio like Cartoon Network versus when you’re doing it at home in your parent’s basement? There’s a pretty obvious big difference there.

KL: [Laughs.] Yeah. It’s definitely a much different process. Outside of this and a couple of other projects I’ve done since, I didn’t have a ton of experience working with a crew. Usually it is just me. We actually did all the production at Bix Pix studios, which is up in Sun Valley. They also do that show Tumble Leaf on Amazon. They did an amazing job. The production value they’re able to pull off is incredible. I did it up there, and it was actually a super rewarding experience, maybe even way more rewarding than when I do it alone. It is a little scarier, and it feels more high stakes, I think, when you have a crew of 30 invested in this weird thing that you wrote. But when other people get excited about it and when other people put their own touches on it and their own spin on it, it brings it to a totally other place that’s really magical. It just felt great to have power in numbers there, and have all these people excited about this thing that we all made together. It felt really special.

AVC: You went back to school because you wanted a bigger animation community around you and now you’re working with Cartoon Network.

KL: Yeah, it felt good having that support because I usually do everything in a vacuum, so you never really know until you show people whether it’s good or not, because it’s all happening within your head in your own space. Even just from the standpoint of getting validation, it felt really good having a crew of people and Cartoon Network pushing me along, and being like, “Yeah, this is good! We’re excited about this.” It’s good for morale.

AVC: How long did it take to make “Bad Jubies”?

KL: It took about a year from start to finish, and that includes all the writing and preproduction development stuff. That was most of the time. It took a good five or six months or so to come up with the idea, and then do the outline, and then do the [story] boards, and pitch the boards, and get all the notes back and get everything approved before we could actually go into production. But that’s usually the case, even with my personal films. It’s always half of the time spent in the conceptual side of things, and then half of the time actually making it.

AVC: When you’re writing the script and boarding the action, how much are you thinking about the logistics of animating it?

KL: Quite a bit. You sort of have to write it in the way that you would write something for live-action, with a budget in mind. I definitely had a budget in mind when I wrote it. We had to limit the number of characters we had, so there’s four main characters—there’s actually five, but four of the main Adventure Time characters. I really tried to limit the number of settings, but still keep it exciting. I even considered action when I wrote it. For example, running and a lot of big actions can be really difficult in stop motion—not difficult, but it can just be more complicated and require more rigging. Any time a character is airborne or jumping around, you need a rig in there holding them up, and then that rig later needs to be removed in post. Those are all budgetary concerns. I feel like it fits into the way I naturally write. For my other films, I don’t do a lot of big, cartoonish, extravagant-type movement, usually. I usually try to keep it a little more about subtlety and acting and things. So, it’s better for budget anyway. [Laughs.] I definitely didn’t feel constrained, I think, when writing it, but you know, there’s always a budget in mind.

AVC: Were there any big challenges in reinterpreting a traditionally animated cartoon for stop motion, or did that make it easier for you?

KL: There were pros and cons there for sure. Where it was really helpful was the fact that the show already had a whole set of model sheets for everything, for sets and props and characters and things that already exist in the show. We didn’t have to waste a lot of time designing extra things. The treehouse for example. It was very easy to just look at an existing picture of the treehouse and all the surrounding trees in the forest, and be like, “Oh, we’ll use these as our sketches to build these 3-D models.” But then there were certain things that became challenging, mainly LSP [Lumpy Space Prince], translating her into 3-D.

I never really realized this, but found it out as we were working on it, and as I was relaying our problems to Adam, I was like, “Wait a minute. So LSP looks flat from the front, but when she goes to the side…” I was trying to reference other episodes, and sometimes from the side, she’s round in the front. Sometimes from the side, she’s flat in the front. She always changes because with 2-D, you can draw it however you want. You can sort of make an impossible shape, but it works because it’s a cartoon. Once things get translated into 3-D for stop motion, you really need to nail that shape down. We had four or five prototypes of the sculpture of LSP before that got approved and went to the mold to make the puppet. It was a challenge getting her geometry right without her looking really disgusting, and also working from all angles and fitting the model sheets. I was actually pretty proud at what we pulled off in terms of LSP’s shape.

AVC: My favorite moment of the episode is when LSP is hammering a board, and she’s not hitting the nail at all, just staring blankly ahead. I laughed so hard.

KL: Thank you, I love that moment. LSP is obviously my favorite character in this, so I wrote her into this so much. She’s just so ridiculous.

AVC: I expected to see some candy people because “Sweet Dreams” has all those baked goods as characters. Why didn’t you choose to have any in there?

KL: [Laughs.] I actually did have to make all of the candy people for the intro.

AVC: Oh yeah!

KL: But I was able to make them quick and dirty, just out of clay, because I knew they were only going to be seen for a couple frames, you know, when they were dancing. That was actually kind of painful. The whole intro, I actually fabricated most of that. That was in the initial contract where it was like, “Okay, Bix Pix is going to fabricate everything for the episode, and they’re sort of in charge of animating that,” and then I was going to take the intro. There are still many things in the intro that the production designer had fixed and did so much stuff for. He’s incredible.

We left it for last, too. I was in a time crunch, and I was like, “Oh, crap! I’ve got to make all these candy people and all these sets!” They did get made, but in hindsight, I think it’s a good thing we limited the characters to four. It just would have been insane. It gets really expensive, too, every puppet you have to build. We have multiples as well of the puppets. We had to have four of each puppet. Each one is full silicone, beautifully crafted. They all have really complex armatures inside and everything, so we can only do that so many times.

AVC: Most of your work doesn’t have any dialogue. Was that a new experience for you, working with actors and writing dialogue for characters?

KL: Definitely, yeah. That was also one of the things I was most nervous about when I first started writing it and doing the boards. I remember talking to so many people, just being like, “I’m so stressed out about writing jokes,” because I usually do no dialogue. I basically had to hole up in my bedroom for five weeks and board the whole thing out. I tried my best to put all those jokes in there, and so anytime I watch it, anytime anyone laughs, I’m just like, “Oh thank God. It worked.” It’s probably been confidence-boosting for me to have actually written something with dialogue and had it kind of work. Hopefully work? Maybe I’ll put some more dialogue in some things in the future. I definitely do on the whole enjoy writing comedic dialogue more than just normal dramatic dialogue. A lot of my personal films are maybe a little more dramatic, so that’s probably why I leave the dialogue out of it. For comedy, the dialogue is so great in there.

AVC: Why do you think stop motion has stuck around when computer technology has made it possible to replicate a 3-D look with a lot less labor?

KL: It feels like a boring answer that I hear a lot from other people, but I think it’s really true: I think it’s just that people, even if only subconsciously, can tell that there’s something tangible and real there. It’s pretty exciting with a stop motion film that everything exists. It really is a real physical object that exists somewhere. It’s basically moving in slow-motion. It’s just moving at a way slower time base than we’re living in, you know? If you ever see those time-lapses of animators animating stop motion puppets and they’re moving super fast, and then the puppet is moving real time, I feel like it’s that kind of concept, which is fun.

Just the fact that it’s a physical thing an artist made somewhere, and that there are fingerprints in it is exciting and I think resonates with some people. I also think that there’s a lot of really awesome CG work as well, and a lot of things that people can do in CG you just straight up can’t do in stop motion, and they’re both really exciting. It’s nice to see that they can come together in a lot of films really nicely. For me, one of my favorite parts of stop motion is not even the animating or the writing, but actually building. I always say that my favorite stage is just fabrication. It’s just sitting on a workbench, making a little thing out of clay or whatever. That just totally excites me. I just love building stuff. So, that’s the part I think I’m most excited about. Hopefully that translates through and resonates with other people.