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Chomping through Later Alligator with Lindsay Small-Butera
Life can be challenging when you’re an accident-prone reptile who is convinced that your own family is conspiring against you. Later Alligator (available on itch.io and Steam) is an ambitious adventure game, featuring densely animated areas populated by more than 100 on-screen alligator residents, 30 minigames, multiple endings and a fully-animated finale.
We spoke with Lindsay Small-Butera, Emmy award winning co-creator of the hit animated web series Baman Piderman and fifty percent of the two-person animation collective known as SmallBu Animation Studio. Scroll down to watch the trailer for Later Alligator and find our full conversation about Lindsay's collaboration with Pillow Fight Games and the challenges associated with animating for interactive media.
What led to you collaborating with Pillow Fight on Later Alligator, and how did the project start?
Pillow Fight is composed of Jo Fu and Conrad Kreyling, another married couple who — serendipitously — we’d already been friends with for about eight years before we made a game together. They’re located in the DC area, so in 2018 when we lived in Virginia, we’d drive up to hang out with them and eat food.
In the past, Jo and Conrad floated the idea of making a game with us, and at that time had been focused mainly on visual novels and unique, deep story dating sims. I did have an idea, but it wasn’t exactly one of those.
I sent them an early movie file of a crudely animated Pat sitting at a restaurant table with talking options, and a rambling audio file of me explaining the game. Somehow they agreed to do this with us, despite what I just explained.
I'm so elated that people are enjoying #LaterAlligator!! I thought I'd share the very first thing we made for it, which was to accompany my pitch of the idea to @pillowfightio— Smallbu Animation (@SmallBuStudio) September 22, 2019
Yes, Pat used to wear a cowboy hat in his early days. pic.twitter.com/oikusumo0d
Was this the first game you both worked on? How was animating for Later Alligator different from your experience working on TV productions?
Technically no, in that we’ve done a few things here and there asset-wise for places like Wayforward, but that was basically just regular animation or design work. Later Alligator is the first game I’ve ever conceptualized, and the first that Alex and I have made together as SmallBu.
In terms of difference, I’d say the game and animation for TV or film are about the same amount of workload, but somehow in all different areas. It surprised me how the frustrations were so different, despite the project asset requirements being largely similar.
In film you’re directing the viewer entirely, whether subtly or not. They’re participating in the art, but they’re on a set path with you leading them by the hand. In games, you’re letting the viewer take the wheel, and how you manage that battle for control between you, the artist and the viewer is what makes working on a game appealing.
How I wrote the game versus how I would write a film was usually influenced around: “How can I get the human at home playing this to do something funny?” While in film it’s: “How can I get the human at home watching this to think something funny?” It’s more directly participatory, which changes everything writing-wise.
Clip from the Memorial Park location in Later Alligator / SmallBu Animation and Pillow Fight Games
We really enjoy the contrast between the detailed, monochrome backgrounds and looser, more colourful alligators. What was the visual development process like when you were assembling Alligator New York City?
Because Alex and I are such a small team, in that we are a literal team of two, a lot of what we do has to be born with efficiency in mind. Or spring from it. I knew I wanted to do a kind of — The Godfather (without ever having seen The Godfather) spoof with alligators.
We would love to hire a background artist for our projects, because neither of us are particularly good at it. Layout, absolutely, but when it comes to sitting and drawing a stylish full-color background, we both kind of groan in pain.
Because this project was a labor of love between us and Pillowfight, we did all the art ourselves, so the conclusion I came to early on was monochrome BGs to avoid giving either of us an animation-shaped ulcer.
That decision influences a lot of the rest of the game, which was wonderful. We like surprising ourselves with what fun stuff can be dispensed out of limitations.
The location was highly influenced by trips we’ve taken to Long Island to visit Alex’s extended family. The game in general may be?
Which scene (or mini-game) in Later Alligator was the most challenging to animate or create assets for? How did you approach it?
Some of the games that I concepted in-perspective were a headache. Like Three Finger Fillet and Sole Searching, which is a memory game in an antique armoire animated looking down from above. Since the environments are static, I wanted them to feel really detailed, like you were viewing it from the point of view of yourself as the player character.
Alex is an absolute master of keying action in perspective as well, so it’s a worthwhile extra time sink. The feeling of all the mini-games being inside the environment you’re already in felt essential to keeping the game feeling like you were playing a cartoon.
Alex has actually mentioned he wished we’d pushed it even further, but we’ll save that sauce for next time.
Having to figure out how stuff like the maze in the dark would go is really thinky work, so that part of game design was a lot harder for me personally, but luckily I had Jo and Conrad holding my hand through the technical stuff with all the games. They did really great work.
Which resident of Alligator New York City was your favourite to draw?
Bobby Blue Eyes, by FAR. He has such a weird set of shapes to work with, and giving him some volume is an interesting puzzle. He's covered in pinstripes too, which are tricky to cram into his more squashed poses sitting at the booth, but they really add a lot when it's all finished. He has that weird lower lip thing too, and the wrinkles on his neck.
We have no idea how he'd look in 3D, and cheat it severely when drawing him, but that's the fun part.
Follow up question: Which mini-game title pun are you most proud of?
The Bargain of Earthly DeFrights is pretty good, if only for the detailed redraws of the famous Bosch triptych that are also present in that scene.
Clip from mini-games in Later Alligator, including The Bargain of Earthly DeFrights / SmallBu Animation and Pillow Fight Games
Were there any features in Toon Boom Harmony that you wish you knew about when you started working on Later Alligator?
There were so many amazing features we learned about just by doing a huge project solely in Harmony that it's hard to pick. We had been using Photoshop and After Effects like usual along with Harmony, when we suddenly realized we didn't need them much, or at all.
The biggest boon was probably learning about the Crop Node a ways into the project, which saved us hours and hours of time. We had been running PNG sequences — the entire game is PNG sequences — through Photoshop to crop, export, and rename everything. We switched from Advanced to Premium during Later Alligator.
Learning about the Node View was also super crucial. It looks intimidating, but proves way superior to vertical stacks of layers.
Also Grouping Layers With Composite: It took a while to understand that everything functions better when you use groups liberally, especially putting layers in a group right from the start.
We could gush about Harmony all day. We just can't believe how efficient it makes something as laborious as animation.
What advice would you have for animators in non-interactive media who want to make games?
Play some games you like and ask yourself why you liked them. Like, the molecules of it. Secret to no one is Later Alligator’s absolute influence by my favorite game series, Professor Layton. I loved the story unfolding through unique character chat and great animated cutscenes. Playing those games and, for example, WarioWare, helped me understand how to construct something like Later Alligator.
Another thing you can do is fall into it by being friends with two game devs who want to make a game. This might not happen to you also, but what you could do instead is talk to game devs about their work, and learn from them. There was a lot I didn’t know about making a game, and working with Jo and Conrad just on the process taught me how to take what I had and work with the player. Look for interviews online with devs about their process; follow them on the hell site of twitter.
Having at least a working technical understanding about how game making works is essential. I’m not talking about learning Unity or anything, but basically the skills to even sit down and map out a simple and effective board game. It’s got a lot to it I would have never thought about if not for having been thrown right into it with help.
What’s next for you at Smallbu?
We’ve currently been in production on a feature-length animated film in Harmony for nearly two years. If you want to know more about it — you can’t! But it’s really, really cool. Look for it in two or so more years.