All this month we are going behind the scenes of Improtoons – an improvised comedy cartoon sketch show. we talk to the Director Jonah Fazel and the cast Monica Gaga, John Oakes, Lucy Trodd and Amy Cooke-Hodgson to find out what really goes into making animated improv. We discuss everything from the production side to how the team got into improv in the first place! Today we talk about the actual animation itself, a lot of work goes into creating these sorts of shows so I wanted to know more. Also Season 2 has just started so it is the perfect time to find out all about the production process.
How did you get the idea for Improtoons?
Jonah: I’d been variously experimenting with the live and the digitised within improv for a few years, and kept stumbling when the technology either didn’t exist or was unaffordable. I’d been working on a live-action stage show using motion capture and projector screens to create 3d animated worlds for a while, but then I stumbled across Adobe Character Animator and Reallusion character Animator software and it occurred to me that highly rendered and slick 3D scenes didn’t really match the rest of the improv aesthetic and seeing as I had some GCSE level drawing skills myself, I set about making what is essentially a micro length podcast with badly drawn moving artwork over the top. Full disclosure, I was also massively inspired by Dan Harmon’s Harmontown and Ricky Gervais’ (yes, I know he’s a bigot) Podcast turned cartoon featuring a more lifelike version of Karl Pilkington and of course the eternal classic, Creature Comforts.
Tell us all about Improtoons?
It’s an improvised comedy cartoon sketch show. A bunch of friends who are improvisers sit around their microphones and try to make each other laugh, then Jonah draws the characters and animates the show over a course of many days and lots of coffee.
Why did you choose that name?
Jonah: We thought long and hard about a name that would convey something that was both a cartoon AND improvised, initially we paid a brand consultancy agency five grand to come up with the name Cartooniprov, but we went with their second best idea in the end…
I love the bendy, relaxed characterisation of Elliot that matches John’s slightly awkward performance.Amy
How did you get into animation?
Jonah: Although it’s hard to believe, I am actually an award-winning animator… Perhaps you will believe me more if I tell you that this was when I was 11 years old. I won the Young animator of the year award in my age category for a stop motion plasticine cartoon of my Grandad moonwalking to Michael Jackson’s BAD and then sitting on a cat. Nick Park (of Aardman) was hugely supportive and would send me letters every now and then to encourage me, and when I was 15 I had my work experience in Bristol with Aardman where I painted a bunch of tiny props and learned how to make Morph, something I can still do with my eyes closed. My current favorite animation shows are the rebooted Mickey Mouse shorts on Disney+ I challenge you to watch them and think that an improviser isn’t in charge over there!
How long does it take to animate an episode?
Jonah: An evening to draw the characters, about 6 hours to rig, animate and set up camera angles plus a few hours of work on Final Cut to package them into episodes plus the prerequisite of 38 years of self-doubt.
Who does the voices?
Amy Cooke-Hodgson + John Oakes + Monica Gaga + Lucy Trodd, and in the future we’ll be looking for special guests to come into recording sessions.
Where do the ideas come from each episode?
Each recording session the team comes in with a few loose and silly ideas for a scene premise, they are at most one line long. E.G ‘what if Foxes were pacifists’ or ‘Avoiding childhood friends’ And then we just run with it. Those above led to a scene with some foxes discussing whether or not to raid a chicken coop and the other was ET crashing Elliots wedding uninvited.
Are they scripted or improvised?
100% improvised, The only things that get added are background music, and SFX. Sometimes we might record a scene once, and then after discussion feel that we could maybe add something more on a second attempt- so re-do the scene from scratch not worrying about what was said the first time.
How hard is it to animate some of the ideas that come from the scripts?
Jonah: Hah! Good question- REALLY HARD, to be honest, I am an enthusiastic amateur. Who hopes the comedy comes through in the scenes. Though I challenge myself each time to push my meagre skills. There are times where I listen back to a scene and it’s really obvious what is needed. I.E pirates talking about pirate based things is a fairly linear choice- but if the improvisers have left the “who what where” quite loose then the scene might work better as two dogs in a park, or a Microbe talking to an Atom in a petri dish.
I am actually an award-winning animator… Perhaps you will believe me more if I tell you that this was when I was 11 years old.Jonah
What has been your favourite episode so far?
John: I really enjoyed the goats cartoon which I think was from one of the first episodes. It was when Zoom was still new to everyone and we had fun discovering it together.
Lucy: I really like the time Jonah animated us as ourselves. So the sketch was us talking about doing a sketch. I like the messy nature of that and how it’s a bit meta!
Amy: I love seeing the sketch once Jonah’s animated it cos so often he adds additional jokes in the rendering of the characters or things hidden in the setting that you had no inkling of at the time of recording. I think one of my favourite clips is called ‘Coming Home’ in which ET unexpectedly turns up at Elliot’s wedding. I love the bendy, relaxed characterisation of Elliot that matches John’s slightly awkward performance. I also love our Christmas special which is titled ‘Never an Oeuf’. Lucy and I play french foxes outside a hen coop. I love that Jonah has dressed the hens in stripey ‘French’ tshirts and that they keep popping up at different windows to listen in on our conversation.
What has the feedback been like for the show?
Jonah: My Nan liked it.
Amy: Oh you’re doing another improv project? Right…
Lucy: “Whhheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeshhhhhhdddjjjjjjjj”- mostly from John’s mic (feedback joke!)
John: LucyTrodd – savage burn. *hangs head in shame* It’s been great, pretty good actually. Jonah has done incredible things with the animation, which means at least when we are blabbering on like idiots, it is nice to look at!
What are your plans for the show in 2021?
Jonah: Mainly to get to a point where we wear the format rather than it wearing us and for recording to feel just as breezy as our usual improv so that we can invite guests in and they have an easy and fun time playing. Also up until right now, we’ve only really shared the show with our friends and other improvisers we know- obviously we’d love for more people to enjoy it.