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Fable Siegel on adapting Lackadaisy for animation

Tags: Animation Harmony Customer Story

Lackadaisy is a long-running webcomic written and drawn by Tracy Butler. This Eisner-nominated series follows the rise and fall of the Lackadaisy speakeasy, as Mitzi May seeks help from unconventional places to keep the dying speakeasy open. Also, the plot takes place in an alternate version of Prohibition-era St. Louis inhabited entirely by cats!

After fourteen years of publishing her comic online, Tracy Butler teamed up with Fable Siegel to develop an animated adaptation of Lackadaisy. Fable’s industry credits include work with the likes of Titmouse, Starburns and Hazbin Hotel. The project is currently crowdfunding an animated short on Kickstarter, with over $250,000 raised at the time of writing. Backer rewards include the first two volumes of the comic as well as Lackadaisy Essentials published by Iron Circus Comics, which contains never-before-published mini-comics, one-offs and sketches. (The campaign is running until this Friday, April 17.)

Fable shared early test footage for the upcoming short, which was made using Toon Boom Harmony. We thought this preview animation was the cat’s meow, and invited Fable to an interview, which you can read below.

 

What drew you to co-direct and animate on Lackadaisy and how long have you been on this project?


About a whole year by now! Tracy contacted me in spring of 2019, curious about whether I’d be willing to develop a pitch for Lackadaisy as a television series. We’d followed each other’s work for years, so Tracy trusted me to bring Lackadaisy into the animated medium. I love the unique aesthetic and the dry humor of the original comic. Each character’s personality stands out on its own, but how these mad cats bounce off one another is where most the drama and comedy can be found. I’m also a bit of a sucker for criminal mystery stories. The 1920s historical backdrop is also pretty dear to the history nerd nestled in my heart.

The pitch received some great feedback, but there was a lot of reluctance to invest in an animated series that didn’t fit the usual sitcom mold and was adult in nature — owing to the violence, alcohol, and depictions of smoking. By fall, we were already exploring proving the project’s worth via a short film funded via Kickstarter.

Tracy Butler recently shared some of your rough test animation for the short film. Can you walk us through your process and how you approached animating Rocky?


Despite Rocky’s wacky feline appearance, the story is extremely grounded. It’s a character study which looks down the dark path of nostalgic fixation and questions where it may lead us. So while the character could go very toony — and indeed Rocky is very dramatic in that test shot — overall his wackier actions go over better the more constrained the rest of his performance is.

He may be feline, but he’s really quite human, so he moves very human, with his tail usually confined to enforcing the line of action or adding a little weight to a gesture or emotion. Moving like an actual cat wouldn’t suit Rocky. He’s very loud, very boisterous, and kind of clumsy. His acting pulls more heavily from the likes of The Tramp than any house cat.

That said, it’s so easy to slip into overacting with a character as broad as Rocky and vocal performance as wild as Michael Kovach’s. I had to step back several times while developing that shot and remove poses, remove frames, fuss with how little or much his head bobbed or body squashed and stretched. I even reached out to my friend Ole Løken (who worked on Klaus) to find out what the general rule of thumb was during their production and see what could be applied to Rocky’s performance.

 

As a director with experience using Toon Boom Harmony, are there any features in the software that more animation artists should be aware of?


It’s a lot easier to learn than it first looks. If you have experience in other animation software, the Toon Boom learning curve isn’t too steep. It’s mostly a matter of figuring out how to do your usual shortcuts. I customize the heck out of my keybindings to match my work style.

It’s also designed with traditional animation in mind more closely than other animation software. You can draw with raster-based tools and it has a fairly deep brush engine that allows for greater customization. It’s great to have that alternative since raster brushes usually afford a little more flexibility and softness than vector brushes do.

My favorite feature is the mesh tool. If I want a subtle bit of easing, I can split the frame and lasso the section I want to move. I activate the mesh and can pull the linework around without having to redraw anything. And that’s without having to learn any of the special puppet rigging functions. You can focus solely on working like a traditional animator and do just fine inside Toon Boom Harmony.

Also, learn the node system. It looks really scary at first, but it’s way easier than you think. It’s basically a visual roadmap to compositing. Way easier than having to learn raw code.

What are some of the challenges behind adapting a long-running serial webcomic like Lackadaisy for animation?


Expectations are high. This comic has been going on for about a decade and has a very dedicated and knowledgeable fanbase. I thought I knew the series inside and out, but then it turns out there’s some detail I hadn’t noticed that the fan community brings up. So it’s really important that I’m just as much an encyclopedia of everything Lackadaisy as the most fervent fan. I really don’t want to disappoint them!

That and you cannot believe how much research you gotta do to immerse yourself in that 1920s atmosphere. Tracy’s been living in that space for a while now, so I can sometimes ask her directly whether or not a flashlight existed in 1927, and what did they look like, and were gravestones a particular shape or what sort of equipment would exist at a gravel pit. But I can’t pick Tracy’s brain all the time, I have to know this stuff myself. So I’m off to the library to get a stack of books and find everything art deco, fashion, furniture, and more to get me enough education to keep up.

When you think of adult animation, how has the category changed in the past decade? How do you hope to see this category develop in the coming years?


Back when I was a kid, adult animation was The Simpsons and little else. Adult animated sitcoms besides that were usually fleeting, lasting only a season or two, or it was something made for kids but had enough appeal to draw in adults. MTV experimented a bit with stuff like Liquid Television, and eventually the Adult Swim block introduced the world to more adult anime and original specials — Harvey Birdman, Attorney At Law was one of my favorites from that earlier period. But the mainstream space was still pretty much The Simpsons and anything that followed The Simpsons formula. And whatever was aimed at adults was rarely aesthetic.

Kids like me, who grew up with early adult animation and adult-adjacent material, are now rising in the industry. You’re starting to see signs of growing pains here and there. More children’s entertainment is exploring mature storytelling. Occasionally adult animation breaks into sincere character study. Something is definitely starting, and I think it’s really only a matter of time before we see Western animation diversify into new genres and subjects and visual styles akin to the breadth of work Japan is known for. It’ll look like an explosion to the people looking back, but it’s been building this entire time. Us on the inside have just been waiting for the opportunity to make it happen. Pencils cocked. We are ready.

Storyboards Lackadaisy
Storyboard art provided by Fable Siegel / Tracy Butler / Lackadaisy.

What do you enjoy most about hand drawn 2D animation?


Subtle imperfection, unplanned model breaks. With puppeted animation, you’re confined to whatever was originally planned for the puppet. It takes time to break the model apart and insert new faces and mouths and rotations spontaneously. When the character is drawn, there’s no need for that. Once you have the idea, you draw it, and it either works or it’s scrapped and you move on from there. There’s less stuff in the way of the thought. Technology can be so helpful in making production more efficient, but I hate having to dig through menus and tools and layers and code to make spontaneity happen. It kills my interest in the acting and pressures me to keep the character confined to whatever is available to them already.

So the less software gets in my way, the less it distracts me, the better I can perform. And I perform best as a hand-drawn animator.

Do you have advice for animation students who would like to work on projects like Lackadaisy?


Just do it. Go for it. Get some friends together and patch together a short 1-to-5 minute project and see what everyone can bring to the table. Animation is a collaborative medium. While you can do it all on your own, it’s slower and more painful that way. It’s a much easier and more fun process if you coordinate with other people to make that short happen. Not everyone is equally skilled, but everyone brings different talents to the table. Collaborative projects are also a great way to make contacts that could serve you well in the future.

It might not be perfect, but nobody’s first or second or third film is. No film is. What’s important is that you personally got something out of it and are prepared to take on the next challenge. Because the only way to learn how to be a filmmaker is to make films. Study alone can only take you so far.

Is there anything we did not ask you about in this interview that you would like to cover?


You don’t need the fanciest studio tools to get started. Studio tools are more for taking your work to another level, improving efficiency, and also so you’re on the same page as the rest of your team on a massive project.

If you want to start animating, you can begin with something as humble as flipbooks or posing dolls in front of a camera. The tech matters less than your creativity. The skills you build are what you take into the software, not the other way around. So don’t ever feel so limited that you can’t even start. Animation is — after all — done frame by frame.


Do you feel that Fable’s animation is the bee’s knees? You can find them on Twitter, YouTube, DeviantArt and Twitch, and follow Umbagog, Fable's zombie webcomic set in New Hampshire. If you need more Lackadaisy in your life, you can follow the project on Kickstarter, Twitter, and YouTube as well as the Lackadaisy Website.

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