Friday, October 26, 2012

ELMO THE MUSICAL _ Magnetic Dreams Studio

Magnetic Dreams 2012 Demo Reel from Magnetic Dreams on Vimeo.

Since moving to Nashville, I've been working with the local animation studio Magnetic Dreams as Art Director on a number of Sesame Street-related projects, specifically the new Sesame Street segment Elmo the Musical. Shot entirely on green screen, Magnetic is responsible for creating and compositing the fully computer-generated environment, effects, and any additional characters, like Velvet, Elmo's theater curtain companion. 

If you check out the reel above, you can see that Magnetic, co-owned by Mike Halsey and Don Culwell, brings the highest level of skill to a diverse array of projects and animation techniques. They've turned Marvel's Iron Man and Thor "motion comics" into mini blockbusters, designed motion graphics for videos for musicians like Taylor Swift and Shakira, and conjured creature and special effects for the feature film AFTER. Magnetic Dreams’ working relationship with Sesame goes back a few years now, on CG-animated projects like Twiddlebugs and Super Grover 2.0, and Elmo the Musical is the next great step forward.

I've said before that my favorite part of working in a studio is how everyone's contributions go into making the whole greater than the sum of the parts. As I showed in previous posts, the look of a given episode often begins with Photoshop style frames by myself and freelance artist Astrid Riemer and storyboards by Rick Ritter. But, the team at Magnetic goes way beyond those initial designs to make them a reality for Elmo to play in. Since movie or TV credits rarely give you any real insight into the work people do, I thought I'd use this post to shout out some of my favorite contributions from the crew here on the first few episodes of Elmo the Musical so far.You can find pictures and bios for the following artists on the Magnetic website, here.

(Barnacles from SEA CAPTAIN: THE MUSICAL, CG models by Tim Crowson)

The creative director, Rickey Boyd, is also a Muppeteer who basically brought Nashville animation to Sesame Street and vice versa. He’s part of the Sesame family and he couldn’t be more attuned to the needs of a shot at both ends of the camera and production pipeline. But, I'm mostly in awe of how he can channel the spirit of the Muppets, with on-model Muppet anatomy, into his hand-drawn character designs.

(Barnacles from SEA CAPTAIN: THE MUSICAL, design by Rickey Boyd)

(Unused Asteroid character from PIZZA: THE MUSICAL, design by Rickey Boyd)

Producer, John Hamm, steadies the ship with brightly colored schedules. On the creative/technical end, John works with Layout Artist Craig Simpson and Visual Effects Supervisor Julian Herrera to integrate the footage and camera movements of the live action shoot with that of our CG environments. Julian is initially on-set at Sesame in Queens to problem solve on the front end and record set data with the placement of tracking markers. All of this was best realized in a shot from CIRCUS: THE MUSICAL in which Elmo walks a plank, bounces from a trampoline, and leaps through the air as the camera whips around to capture his crotch-first landing on the head of a cactus. It's a living...


Our CG department is responsible for modeling, texturing, lighting, and rendering all assets for the show. My first literal "Wow" moment was when I saw my style frame for the "Temple of Spoons" come to life in the model by CG Lead Tim Crowson.

("The Temple of Spoons" from GUACAMOLE: THE MUSICAL, Concept Art by Michael Lapinski)

("The Temple of Spoons" from GUACAMOLE: THE MUSICAL, CG by Tim Crowson)

Tim alternates leading episodes with CG Artist Brad Applebaum. Brad modeled most of Pizza the Musical, especially the rad spaceships but I think it's cool to note that he's responsible for problem-solving the iconic opening to the show along with Motion Graphic Director, Rhea Borzak. I cannot wait to share more work from future episodes by Tim, Brad, and the rest of the CG Team, including Yannick Amegan and Lyn Lopez.
(Opening number from ELMO THE MUSICAL, CG by Brad Applebaum)

Our Compositing department is responsible for bringing everything together, from the unsung art of keying out the green screen footage and rotoscoping (particularly Melissa Cowart) to color correction to the final lighting changes and visual effects.

Rhea Borzak leads the team and is an accomplished artist in her own right, designing the backgrounds for the infamous Katy Perry/ Elmo video and short Sesame films like this magical firefly spot for the letter "N." On ETM, Rhea created and animated the playful squiggles, bursts, and pops that illustrate Elmo's thought process.

(ELMO THE MUSICAL, motion graphics by Rhea Borzak)

The next few images should give you an idea of the extra artistry that the Comp team brings to each episode. In order to emulate the aesthetic and devices of a Broadway musical, I'll often design special lighting for the musical numbers. Compositor Joel Robertson was the first to master this challenge head on for GUACAMOLE: THE MUSICAL.
(Special Lighting from GUACAMOLE: THE MUSICAL, Visual Effects by Joel Robertson)

PIZZA: THE MUSICAL was our space epic. Judd Eschliman, Justin Burks, Josh Stafford, and Joel Robertson were responsible for animating the deep space effects below:

Abdel Pizarro had already shown his goods as a CG character animator on our direct-to-DVD video game parody movie Elmo's Alphabet Challenge but I didn't know he was also a natural Compositor and effects guy. He cooked up the lasers and force fields for PIZZA and composited Elmo's "Golden Shoes" dream world for ATHLETE.

(PIZZA: THE MUSICAL, Special Effects by Abdel Pizarro)
 (Dream Sequence from ATHLETE: THE MUSICAL, Visual Effects by Abdel Pizarro)

Remember what I said way back at the top about the "whole being greater than the sum of the parts?" Well, this shot below is a little bit of gravy that added subtle character to the entire meal. As scripted, Elmo's flying up and down in his AIRPLANE:THE MUSICAL plane. But Josh Stafford decided to play with my chubby marshmallowy clouds by having the wing nick one with a rubbery recoil and a strafing trail of mist. It's the sort of whimsy that Kevin Clash brings to his performance of Elmo and I love it when our artists infuse moments with as much charm.
 (AIRPLANE: THE MUSICAL, Visual Effects by Josh Stafford)

Perhaps the greatest challenge we face on Elmo the Musical is to model, texture, light, and animate completely computer-generated characters so that they believably interact with and live in the same space as Elmo and the other Muppets. Velvet the Curtain appears in every episode but there are guest stars that present their own challenges. Designed and Animation Directed by Rickey Boyd, the goal is to create characters that look Muppet-crafted and convey some of what makes puppeteering so endearing and yet employs the dynamism the script calls for with CG Animation, and rigged to do so by Technical Directors Harry Han and Jeremy Estrada.

Sometimes, an Animator has to bring a slab of rock to life, as Jamie Coakley had to do with the singing and dancing Rhombus of Recipes...
 (The Rhombus of Recipes from GUACAMOLE: THE MUSICAL, Animated by Jamie Coakley)

... and sometimes, an Animator has to perform an elegant dance number with the stumpy flippers and trunk body of a whale, as Andrew Lee Atteberry had to do with Moby Pink.

 (Moby Pink from SEA CAPTAIN: THE MUSICAL, Animated by Andrew Lee Atteberry)

If you've made it this far, I think you can appreciate how much work, talent, and thought go into each moment of a deceptively simple looking show. And, that's not to mention the even more invisible contributions like that of Human Resources and Accounting Guru Lisa Halsey, Editor Victor Albright, and our IT team of George Friend and James Ramsden.

Lastly, the entire crew at Sesame has taken 40+ years of experience writing, scoring, singing, designing, educating, and performing for children (and adults) and created a perfection distillation of all those skills and poured them into vibrant mini-musicals of Elmo's imagining. 

It's all a part of Elmo's imagination, we just work for him.


  1. Hey Michael! Doing concept art for something like this must be a truly amazing experience. I wouldn't even know where to begin. Must have been quite a challenge but also very rewarding, like you say, to see the CG applied and the final result.

    By the way, although I'm months late I finally reviewed Mind thw Gap # 2.


  2. Thanks for checking in and saying so! Hope all's cool with you.