Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Behind the Scenes at Calico Monkey

I first “met” Will Reinhardt of Calico Monkey fame two years ago online in an animation forum. I saw his first cartoon adventure featuring Sparky and Josie and immediately wrote him a “fan” letter. Yes, even old cartoonists are fans too. Will has a special gift for being creative and entertaining and he really is a nice guy who is very open and personable. We correspond back and forth and he politely listens to my thoughts and suggestions. Actually, he often sends me scripts or asks me for my opinions on project ideas and I often ask him for his as well, so it is a mutual exchange.

Recently, Will roped me into a quick interview for an article he wrote for his Toon Boom Tutorials web site. I am not big on giving interviews, but I really like Will, so I answered most of his interview questions and just avoided any that I couldn’t address due to confidentiality conflicts. After reading his article, it dawned on me that I really wanted to interview Will, not so much to get even, but because he is a great example of a 21st century cartoon maker on the rise. So here is the resulting conversation.

JK: I think I’ll start off this interview with an obvious “fan” question.
Calico Monkey is such a catchy title for a web site, so I’m sure it would be interesting to hear about the origin of the name. From where did the name Calico Monkey originate?

Will: I knew from the beginning that my goal was to build a brand from the ground up, so the URL had to be easy to spell and easy to remember. I liked the idea of having [something], so I started playing around with modifiers. "Calico" ended up sticking, and I think it has a certain ring to it.

JK: Anyone who follows your cartoon series featuring Sparky and Josie knows that they live in a very unusual world where domestic animals seem to be in charge and humans are pets. What was your creative inspiration for this very original idea?

Will: I wanted to have the ability to comment on anything and everything in our world today. In the context of making the people be the pets I can put any celebrity in the pet store and it won't be out of place. From there it's a relatively short walk to a humorous situation, which in the end is the point.

JK: Can you describe your approach to writing an episode? Do you start with a script? Do you create story boards and animatics? How do you creatively develop your ideas? Do you work independently or do you collaboratively write with other people?

Will: Now that I've gotten past writing episodes that are just meant to introduce characters, I can get further into the story aspect of the series. When I begin a new storyline that will span several episodes I will outline the key plot points that need to happen in each episode. From there I write out a detailed script that includes comments about what's happening visually. I usually have a solid grasp on what I want to happen on camera so the only time I create storyboards or animatics is when the action is going to be fast and frantic, like a fight sequence.

I work hard to develop my creative ideas. I'm not a storyteller by nature so when I discover what I think will be a good storyline I refer to several script writing books to see if the concept can be fleshed out any further. My two favorite books for this are "
Plot and Structure" by James Scott Bell and "Writing a Great Movie" by Jeff Kitchen.

I do work by myself, but I will often bounce ideas off of my wife, Gina Yannitell Reinhardt. I've gotten good at translating her just-humoring-me laughter versus her honest belly-laugh. Most of these ideas involve speculative gags and often start with "Wouldn't it be funny if...". My wife knows I'm weird though, so sometimes I have to disregard her questioning glare and stick to my guns about a joke.

JK: Your episodes always seem to have very strong emphasis on dialog and music, so how do you choose the music? And at what phase of the episode development do you make these choices? Along those same lines you are very creative in your voice casting, what are the things that influence your voice casting choices particularly of the supporting characters?

Will: Recording the music is actually the final step in my process. The animation helps choose the music, not the other way around for me. Fortunately the application I use for music (GarageBand, for the Mac) is very user-friendly and makes the music seem like it belongs.

For the voice actors, I owe another big thank you to my wife. Her range really brings the characters to life and drives me to be more outspoken with my own voice acting. We do most of the characters ourselves, with friends and family adding their voice talents when they visit. We always have a blast when we record, which helps me to realize what does and doesn't work in the context of the comic.

JK: I know that you are an avid fan of web animation as well as animation in general, so who are some of the cartoon makers that you feel are most influential on your own personal approach to making cartoons?

Will: My most influential artists are actually cartoonists instead of animators. Scott Kurtz at, Chris Harding at and James Turner at are the biggest influences. They are truly independent artists who have fought long and hard to forge out a profitable space for themselves, starting online. I've since changed the dimensions of my comic episodes, but initially the widescreen format was chosen specifically because it was the same dimensions as Scott Kurtz's widely popular online comic. I've met Scott a couple of times and I continue to follow his successful career closely. Chris Harding has done some great animation and is currently building an audience for his We the Robots comic. James Turner knows how to bring the funny as well as the absurd, with bright colorful characters. I truly admire that.

JK: I assume that you do your cartoon making in steps, so if possible can you describe those steps and how you go from the idea for an episode to the finished cartoon?

Will: My general process order is:
1. write script
2. record dialog
3. create any new backgrounds or characters needed
4. lip syncing
5. animating/acting
6. add sound effects
7. add music

The script is really where I flesh out all of the real concepts, both story related and any gags I want to make sure come across. The key to this step is to make sure you actually say the lines out loud after writing them. Written text is inherently different than spoken words. Unless you verbally act out a script yourself there's no way to know if it works the way you intended.

JK: Can you give us some insights into your thoughts about future directions for your cartoons? New subjects? Additional characters? Etc?

Will: Once I complete this storyline I expect to take a few characters on a roadtrip for a couple of episodes. I also have an idea about a couple of new nemesis type characters, in an effort to add more conflict to my stories. They're currently nameless doodles at the moment though, so you'll have to stay tuned to see them introduced in future episodes.

JK: You are certainly generous with your time in providing articles and support for others interested in making cartoons, what do you feel are the most important aspects of creating cartoons for the web and is there any specific advice that you have to offer?

Will: I generally feel that my most reliable readership building opportunities lie in being a useful and contributing part of the online animation community, both as a Toon Boom user and as a creative influence in general. As far as advice, I would echo a portion of what you've told me. Find a schedule that works for you and do everything you can to release something -- anything -- on a regular basis. Treat your users professionally and answer their questions. You'll watch your audience slowly grow and soon you'll be competing with the big boys. Realize this though: it's not going to happen in one or two years. I estimate that it takes a new comic (animated or otherwise) a good five years to truly become established. If you can work with the characters you've developed for that long you will have built a great community and a strong audience.

Lastly, if you decide animation is the path for you, please invest in a good condenser microphone. Sound is important, and the microphone that came with your computer is simply not powerful enough.

I thank you for this opportunity to ramble on several topics.
Rock on,

JK: I know that the majority of this blog’s readers have enjoyed the chance to learn more about Calico Monkey and the creator behind the Sparky and Josie adventures and all the rest of the fun happening there. As always my goal is to inspire and motivate as well as to inform my readers and I can’t thank Will Reinhardt enough for his contributions toward that goal in this article.


Blogger Pat the Pirate said...

Very cool, :).

Always a treat to get a peak inside someone's workflow, thanks for sharing, Will. & Thanks for grilling him, JK :) poignant questions + insightful answers = successful interview.

4/15/2008 11:17 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home