As the wave of 2d animation continues to push on it is increasingly difficult to come across a piece that takes you by surprise. Allen Laseter’s film for Ted-Ed “Will winning the lottery make you happy?” is such a piece. I was immediately impressed by the decisions Allen made in making this film and how informative it is. Coming in at a whopping four minutes, “Will winning the lottery make you happy?” is a master class in economic animation. Knowing what you can achieve on your own can be a difficult task and this piece is a testament to what an individual can do when good decision making is involved. The following is a Q&A with Allen to find out more about his process behind making this great piece of enjoyable and informative animation.
Q&A with Allen Laseter
Fantastic job on the new film. Can you tell us how it came about?
Thanks! TED-Ed is an arm of TED that focuses on creating educational content for young adults. They put out a ton of videos that explore all kinds of ideas and concepts and they work with a lot of different animators to get this done. Gerta Xhelo, TED-Ed’s content producer, had apparently seen some of my work floating around and just reached out with a cold email. I was interested pretty instantly to take on something educational as opposed to commercial as I haven’t gotten a whole lot of opportunities for that. Over the course of a couple of weeks, they sent a few different scripts on a few different topics until one came up that felt like a good fit and we went from there.
What was the initial brief like?
When I came on board, the script was locked and the VO was already recorded. From there, the brief was wide open. They really seemed to be open to any aesthetic approach as long as it accurately supported the educational content in a way that was appropriate for their audience.
How much time were you working with?
I had somewhere between seven to eight weeks from the day I began roughing out a storyboard to the day I delivered the video. Considering the length, it was a much quicker turnaround than what I was used to, especially with end of the year holiday madness falling right in the middle of the production schedule. On the other hand, you can move a whole lot faster when you’re not getting many client notes, and there aren’t tons of channels to go through to get approval along the way, which was luckily the case for this project.
Taking on 4 minutes of animation by yourself is no easy feat! How did it feel going into this project?
I kind of fell into animation by accident after freelancing for a year or so in the live action world, and prior to that my education and training was for directing. So I was pretty excited to get to own a longer project and be able to fully approach one with a director’s brain for the first time in a while. My only slight reservation was with the limited timeframe. I toyed with the idea of bringing on some help for animation to lighten the load, but ultimately, it ended up making the most sense for me to go at it alone. I did, however, bring on Wes Slover, otherwise known as SonoSanctus, for sound and music which of course is a massive part of what makes the overall piece work.
The other big consideration going into it was that I would have to figure out a way to work both quickly and thoughtfully which can be a challenge for me. I’m not always the best at trusting my instincts and will often agonize over creative decisions and try all kinds of different approaches before landing on one, which can be time consuming. To strike a balance here, I ended up allowing myself to spend a lot of time upfront – close to half of the production schedule – making sure I was super confident in both the storyboard and the overall aesthetic by experimenting with different approaches to design and animation. Going this route was a bit of a gamble as it left me with an even smaller window for execution, but because I’d put in the time up front, I was able to pretty much work in first-thought-best-thought mode the rest of the way with confidence. Ultimately this caused me to have to sacrifice some of the flashier ideas that I had early on for the sake of time, but the tradeoff of being able to spend a significant amount of time developing an overarching vision for the piece was worth it.
Your new piece is a great example of economic decision making. Using the characters as an example, you get the added emotional impact of character performances while keeping them cropped alleviating much of the heavy lifting involved in character animation. Can you tell us a bit more about what informed this piece and how you landed on the animation style?
I’ve always had a special appreciation for the rogue indie filmmakers of the 90’s who figured out how to turn a lack of resources into something more fresh and creative than they would’ve been able to come up with had they had all the money and time they needed. That mindset applies beautifully to animation. In my experience, when you’re forced to come up with creative solutions to compensate for a lack of time, you often end up relying more heavily on abstraction and stylization, which, for me, happen to be the characteristics that make animation such an exciting art form.
Because of the quick turnaround, I knew that I was going to have try and lean into that approach in a way that would make the finished piece hopefully read to the viewer as “bold” rather than “rushed.” One influence that was very specific to this piece was the work Bill Melendez did for “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” which began playing on TV for the holidays around the same time I began thinking about the animation style for this project. I love the way the animation in that special is kind of endearingly crude but simultaneously sophisticated and clever. For example, the way the kids decorate the tree at the end is one of my all time favorite animation moments, and I definitely attempted to take a few pages from that book.
More and more the misconception that good work only comes from the major markets is fading away. I think pieces like this only add momentum to this shift we are witnessing in our industry. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences working in Nashville?
I think maybe part of the reason that misconception still exists at all is that, in a mid-sized city like Nashville, as opposed to a major city with a gigantic creative industry, it’s just more difficult to get higher profile projects with a wide enough reach for a lot of people to see. That shift, which is more specific to where and who projects are being awarded to, is probably happening more slowly. But in terms of pure talent and skill, it seems to me like the playing field is being rapidly leveled as tools, education, trends, etc. become more and more accessible to everyone.
A majority of the work I do is for studios outside of Nashville as a remote freelancer, but my experience as someone who does creative work here has been very positive. The animation community in Nashville is small but it has so much talent and puts out a wide variety of work. There’s also just a lot of excitement among the wider creative community as a whole, and I think a lot of us here take a certain amount of pride in trying to produce top tier work in a flyover state!
Looking at your other work, this seems to be the biggest project you’ve taken on to date. Now that it’s finished, what’s next?
Most of the work I’ve done so far has been as either an animator or a designer for various studios. I really enjoy that, but I’d love to take on more projects that I can approach as a director but still remain hands on in execution. That’s where I think I’m able to do my best work and what I find most satisfying. Ultimately though, I plan to just keep taking work as it comes and to try and focus on getting better on both a conceptual and a technical level.