Talking pizza slices, farting dinosaurs …
What, is someone “high” on drugs? No, it’s merely a glimpse inside the mind of Kendall Smith, animator
A slice of pizza wearing black shades and white gloves on oversized hands is giving you his best Joe Pesci imitation as he extols the virtues of The Pizza Guys, a Sacramento-based chain of pizzerias. Soon he’s joined by two other sauce-covered wiseguys with Disney-like features; they push, shove and poke at each other like the Three Stooges.
The 30-second spot is definitely a slice above your average locally produced commercial. While the best of the local bunch don’t even attempt to achieve production values, opting instead for sentimentality—think patriotic car dealerships, or remember your grinning, mustachioed, lip-synching friend “Paul” down at the Diamond Center—this animated pitch actually looks pretty uptown. It’s cleverly written, well acted and the animation is downright charming.
Look behind the scenes and you’ll find Kendall Smith, Sacramento’s one-man animation studio.
Smith has been toying with animation in Sacramento for about 12 years. In 1996, he got serious when his then-fiancée Barbara gave him a gross idea for an animated short. The end result, Jurassic Fart, was picked up by Spike & Mike’s adults-only Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation. This gave Smith national exposure as the film traveled throughout the United States and Canada.
Sacramento audiences went ballistic upon spotting the name of their beloved town in the credits. The film stood out among the motley collection of animated shorts that populate the Sick & Twisted Festival. The flatulent dinosaurs that star in this Jurassic Park parody were all hand-drawn and—most unusually—were hand painted and animated. Countless hours of work went into painting each individual cell, 1,300 of them total. The cells were then shot, one at a time, onto 16-millimeter film stock. The computer was of little use to Smith in this, his first animated film.
You might suspect this stop-animation approach would give the film an amateur appearance, but the effect was quite to the contrary. The audience was transported back to the days before computers put animation at the fingertips of sexually frustrated techies. These dinosaurs moved like the animals of the early Disney films, with all the species’ accurate nuances somehow conveying human personalities. Disney animated characters generally don’t pass gas, but Smith’s dinosaurs give us a good idea of what that might have looked like.
Despite the exposure and favorable audience response, Jurassic Fart neglected to turn a profit for Smith; between the lab costs and the extensive labor, he finished in the red. On fire to keep creating short animated films, Smith succeeded in budgeting his next short, The Lost Hurl, by selling the thousands of production cells to enthusiastic fans anxious to support local animation.
The Lost Hurl featured more characters and more opportunity for Smith to showcase his amazing ability to present personality and hilarious physical comedy in the movements of his characters. Unfortunately, the innocent, sophomoric humor of this film was no longer in line with the Sick & Twisted Festival, which featured increasingly darker, more hard-core films filled with sex and violence. Though some of the Sick & Twisted films feature slick production values, it became clear that this was not their main selling point, and although Jurassic Fart eventually would appear on the Festival’s best-of videos and DVDs, its sequel was not picked up by Spike & Mike. You can watch it on the small screen at Ifilm.com.
Smith, by this point, was solidly addicted to animation as an art form and was desperate to find a way to continue to produce his films. Longtime friend and fellow animator Kip Hall also was anxious to see Smith’s talents get recognized, and the two began to talk about making animated commercials for local businesses.
“We wanted to bring animation to a small market like Sacramento in a way that was fiscally responsible,” Hall recalls. Hall shared, with Smith, a love for old-fashioned two-dimensional animation, but his own forays into three-dimensional computer animation led the pair to the conclusion that the almighty computer did have a place, even in 2-D—especially when running an operation on a budget. “The computer bypassed a lot of the ink and paint.” Hall says. “[It] really streamlined [the steps in animation] to get the cost down, to make this something small businesses can afford.”
Hall and Smith’s efforts at simplifying the production process succeeded, and they soon were in a good position to make low-cost spots without sacrificing quality. Hall was working on a 3-D animation for The Pizza Guys that was being produced by Spencer Williams of the Advertising Department, a local advertising agency. Hall originally brought Smith in to help calculate the character movements, what he refers to as “the squish and squash of it.” After seeing Smith’s ideas represented in a two-dimensional pencil test, Hall was convinced that this was the way to go. Williams agreed, and the pencil test was screened for the brass at The Pizza Guys.
They liked what they saw. But, surprisingly, what sold them on Smith’s 2-D animation was when they watched his two earlier films. Whatever helped more—the fart or the hurl—these executives became convinced that Smith was the man to sell their pizza.
Smith worked around the clock: drawing storyboards, refining, drawing more storyboards, making more tests and finally illustrating the individual frames. Unlike his past projects, he was now able to scan the images into the computer to clean them up and color them. A team was assembled to do voices, shoot backgrounds and help with additional computer enhancement. Although not a single human being is seen in the spot, Williams had to put together the largest crew his agency has ever assembled for a single commercial. Was it worth it? “It’s the best commercial I’ve ever produced,” the adman says happily.
But was the animator happy? Smith had to adapt to being part of a crew and having to please a client, and then to keeping that client pleased throughout the production process. It was quite different from producing two films in the Lone Ranger tradition, recording his own Foley effects using kitchen appliances and malfunctioning plumbing to achieve those perfect gurgles and splashes needed to make an audience’s collective stomach turn. In those days, the only crew he had to deal with were the friends and neighbors he and his wife Barbara might lure over with home-cooked meals—and then to convince to sit and paint a few hundred cells before dessert.
Smith is happy, he admits. He’s adapted fine, and he’s looking forward to doing more work for advertisers. “I enjoy the character and the personality, and ads provide plenty of challenge in conveying personality,” he says. Smith also has plenty to say about why advertisers would want the old-fashioned 2D animation skills he has to offer to a high-tech world.
“I think you get more ‘character’ out of 2-D on a low budget,” Smith says. “With a cartoon character that’s hand-drawn, you forget that it’s hand-drawn. It takes on a character, like Bugs Bunny. He’s as convincing a character as anything Pixar’s doing, and he’s 2-D.”
In a highly competitive field, Smith is more than happy to have carved a niche for himself in advertising. Of course he has some ideas for his own shorts he’d like to see realized, including a dream piece storyboarded to classical music in the Fantasia tradition, titled “The Magpie,” so it should come as no surprise to see his name continue to pop-up in the credits at animation festivals.
In the meantime, perhaps we can skip going for a snack when the commercials interrupt those Married With Children reruns, and instead we can see what Kendall Smith and his cartoon creations would like to sell us next.