Making an Animated Short: The Space Base 8 Story

I’m proud to present my animated short, Space Base 8.

This post gives a bit of background on it and how it came to be.

The Comic

Space Base 8 originated as a web comic by David Scott Smith, a very talented and funny artist who lives out in California. Set on, in, and around the deep space station known as Space Base 8, the comic follows the protagonist Cargo the Monkey as he goes about, or rather tries to go about, his daily life amongst a very diverse and wacky crew. Joining Cargo on his adventures is Lighthouse the robot, while breathing his neck is his boss, Boz. Other characters include admin assistant Meela, lab attendant Vesto, and alien, Oril.

I instantly fell in love with the comic and decided that it would make for a really good animated short. Not only was the style exceptional, the characters were diverse, and David’s writing was a perfect mix of slapstick, office, and nerdy humour. Putting on my brave face, I asked if he’d be interested in letting me make a cartoon of his beloved comic. Thankfully, he said yes and so a very long, twisting, roller-coaster of a journey began.

Joining us in the initial stages was another very talented artist called Ross Bollinger who creates the hilarious series of Pencilmation shorts. He was a real catalyst who was able to bridge the gap between the guy who knew a lot about making comics and they guy who hadn’t a clue what he was doing (i.e. me.)

Developing the Idea

Together, the three of us hammered out various scenarios for David’s characters. We could have made a feature film with all the material that spewed forth from our minds. Alas, we eventually had to call time on spitballing funny stories and gags and get down to brass tacks. Time, energy, and budget proved to be key determining factors on how long the short would be and how many characters would appear on-screen. Meela’s appearance became pared down, then reduced to a non-speaking role, and finally eliminated entirely. The refining process killed more than characters as it slowly mothballed a lot of the depth of the short, such as the fact that Cargo and Lighthouse are roommates.

What we ended up with is the core of the original idea; the part that retained the most essential identifying aspects of the comic while providing some stimulating, funny entertainment.

It was around this time that Ross had to drop out of the project due to a lack of free time. He was instrumental in getting the short off the ground and gave me the confidence to carry on what we started.

Starting the Production Engine

I was flying blind again. Fortunately my years of intense curiousity and writing about animation paid off. I reached out to friends in the industry asking for not only advice, but for recommendations. Jerry Beck helped, as did MICA professors Max & Ru Porter, through who I was introduced to Jessica Whang. Despite still being a student, Jessica was more than willing to have a go at creating the storyboard for the short, and did so while being abroad in France. I certainly appreciated her burning the midnight oil as her work below so aptly demonstrates her talent:

Space Base 8 storyboard

When something is personal project, like an animated short film, your personal life has the ability to get in the way. Right after Jessica finished the storyboard, my wife and I decided to buy a house. If you aren’t familiar with the process, just know that it’s not a simple undertaking. In the case of Space Base 8, it meant that every aspect of production was on hold for about three months.

Would it have been nice not to have to take such a break? Sure it would, but when you’re working on something passionate that isn’t your day job, it must jostle with other aspects of your life. Shutting myself up in a room every day to get it done earlier would have meant neglecting my spouse. Using the evenings for relaxation would mean nothing would ever get done. Sacrifices have to be made; an important lesson gleaned from my graduate school days. At the same time, you have to soldier on with the work. You can’t abandon it, you can’t give up on it, and you can’t perfect it. During this period, reading the book Daily Rituals by Mason Currey was an eye-opener, and enlightened me to the idea that as long as you chip away at something on a regular basis, eventually it will get done.

Giving the Characters a Voice

Around November, the time came to move forward again and the next step were the voice actors. Now I will freely admit that I went into this step incredibly naively. After all, there were only four voices total on a script that ran all of two pages. To cut a long story short, I was wrong. For starters, I had to figure out how to get talent. This isn’t entirely easy unless you know people. I opted for a shortcut and used Voices.com. The posting went up, and I waited for what I thought would be a handful of responses.

That was another patently incorrect assumption. Thirty auditions were waiting for me the following morning, and within a week there were 80! Grueling is the best way to describe this task. Every audition was listened to, multiple times. Actors were listed, categorised, and ranked. Notes and comparisons were made. I sent a shortlist to David to get his thoughts and he gave some good opinions that I took on board.

For the characters, I selected Eric Dieter for the voice of Boz, John Malone for the voice of Cargo, Russell Johnson for the security door, and last but certainly not least, Spike Spencer for the voice of Lighthouse.

When envisioning the end animated short film, there’s always a few ‘lofty’ ideals for what you’d do in a perfect world. We don’t live in one of those but from time to time, we get nice little surprises to remind us that it all isn’t so bad. In this case, it was that Spike Spencer submitted an audition. Now Spike may not be the most widely known voice actor out there, but for a very particular subset of the population he is most known as the guy who provides the English dub of Shinji Ikari. As a devoted Neon Genesis Evangelion fan, I’m quite familar with Spencer’s work, and I based my ideal Lighthouse voice on his. The fact that he auditioned for the role and nailed it right out of the gate was immensely pleasing and one of the personal highlights of the entire process.

We hear about production ‘hiccups’ all the time, but they always happen to other people, right? So you’d think, but never say never. One actor’s audition was also perfect but a technical glitch meant he disappeared from the Voices.com website before I could award him the job! Aaaaahhhh! Could another actor have been chosen? Probably since there were a few actors who thought high enough (or low enough, depending on your point of view) to give the security door a snooty English accent. Russ Johnson had a very special way of delivering a very crucial line though.

I was adamant; it’s his gig come hell or high water. Fixing it took more than a week, and more than a few phone calls. As with many other quirks of the production, it underlines the need to have a public-facing profile of some kind. So many artists whose work I uncovered during the exploration phase didn’t have a way to get in touch with them! More than a few times I resorted to submitting a Tumblr question just to get their attention! Artists: if you’re reading this, have at least an email I can find with a google search. There’s a good half-dozen creators out there who’s work could be the subject of this post but there was no way I could get in touch with them. The opportunity was theirs to lose, and they did.

With the voices complete, a very crude animatic appeared whose job was to help get the timing right. We will defer from presenting this animatic in order to preserve the public reputation of its creator.

Making It All Move With Animation

Jessica had initially expressed an interest in animating the short, but being in the final year of her degree at MICA meant more important priorities. David Howard got in touch to offer his services and despite a little bit of trepidation regarding his usual style, he came on board at the start of March.

From here, things progressed rapidly. Howard cranked out the pencil tests and did an excellent job of interpreting the storyboard. Staying true to the original comic was a top priority, and a deathly fear of mine was that once everything started to move, the short would veer away from David Scott Smith’s lovely designs. That proved not to be however, and with my blessing, Howard moved straight to final renders for the remaining shots.

Pulling Everything Together

Now the real fun began: somehow putting it all together into a coherent film. The progression of technology means that you can do it all yourself from your own PC. Being the stubborn type, I use Linux and all you need to know about that is that Adobe Premiere, Final Cut, etc. etc. don’t play nice with that operating system. Yet again, there was a hurdle to get across somehow. Free and open source software often lags behind commercial programs, but the gap is closing. Kdenlive ended up being exactly what I needed and it turned out to be easy to use too:

That didn’t mean there wasn’t a learning curve though. I struggle with lots of details; failed more than once and had to start over from scratch many times. Yet this was one of the most exciting times because I got to see again and again, the short coming together before my eyes. The more I watched it, the more I liked it. Did I see a few flaws? Absolutely, but nothing fatal that I couldn’t live with.

Everything that is, except for the sound. For all my ability to have a go at and learn new things, there’s a blessing to knowing what you don’t know and for, sound editing and mixing is it. So you’ll probably notice that levels are uneven, the sounds themselves are all stock from Freesound.org, and there’s a distinct lack of stereo surround tracks. To fix all this would mean hiring another person; something I simply couldn’t afford at this stage of production.

This stage also meant adding lots of little flourishes, like the title sequence, the bug, and silly sound effects. I also got to make an end credit card. It’s simple, but there’s something…special about seeing your name on something you made. You do it not because you have a big ego (or maybe you do, I dunno), you do it because you’re proud of something and you’re willing to stake your good name on it. There’s also the realisation that by doing so you’re following in Walt Disney’s footsteps, but I digress.

With everything in perfect shape, I sent it out to a few trusted friends and professional acquaintances for their opinions. They had some really good ones too. No man is an island, and what others told me led me to recut the short into something much better. This is the version in the video above.

What I learned from Making an Animated Short

The entire animated short production process took about a year and a half. Umpteen hours and dollars of cold hard cash made it happen. It was exciting, discouraging, exhilarating, depressing, funny, and above all, educational. Many factors constrict art and media in general. Creating for fun, creating for profit, even creating for fun and profit are the main models in the animation business. This short was originally created for fun and profit, but the tides turned so it became a project for fun instead. What’ll come next I’m not sure, but another cartoon of some kind is definitely on the cards.

If you’ve read this post I hope you’ve realised that for all the effort I put into the animated short, there were many others who did as well. I was very grateful to work with all of them and simply could not have made this film without any of them. Together we made something that I hope you liked.

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