When Tim Luecke first created Cartoon Trump for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’s election coverage in 2016, he assumed it would be temporary. Today, he’s using the experience gained producing short Late Show segments to drive the quick turn production of a full animated series using Adobe Character Animator and Adobe After Effects CC.
Our Cartoon President is a 10-episode, satirical series that parodies what’s going on behind-the-scenes with the current administration in Washington, DC. The show, which premiered on Showtime on February 11, 2018, relies on Adobe Character Animator to achieve its tight production deadlines.
Tim initially used the Cartoon Trump character—along with one of opponent Hillary Clinton—to learn his way around the newly released software. “Cartoon Trump was a practice project to play around with Character Animator,” says Tim, the lead animator on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and co-executive producer of Our Cartoon President. “The live interactions between Stephen and the Trump and Clinton cartoon characters were well received, so we continued to feature them leading up to the election.”
Just before the election, the Late Show team partnered with Showtime to do live election-night special. From script to air, two people wrote and animated a three-and-a-half minute segment on candidate Trump in just 18 days. “The segment aired 20 minutes before the results became clear, and immediately took on a more prescient tone than what we intended,” says Tim.
As a result, Tim and his team ended up doing a lot more Cartoon Trump than they originally expected. Within the first few days of the new administration taking office, The Late Show addressed early news coming out of the White House in short cartoon segments created primarily using Character Animator, along with some Adobe After Effects compositing.
From there, the concept of a full-length animated narrative—Our Cartoon President—was born. The new series required a significant shift. Instead of producing one- or two-minute segments, they faced producing 250 minutes over the course of 10 episodes. But that challenge was offset by the fact that they were no longer confined by the daily deadlines of The Late Show, and had five months to get the work done.
“Character Animator is a key component for driving quick animation,” says Brian Maffitt, technical director of Our Cartoon President. “You can achieve a look that is borderline cinematic, without cinema budgets and turnaround times.”
Using a hybrid approach, the team looked at each shot individually and assessed which tool, including hand-drawn animation, would be best suited to get the job done. For example, Character Animator lends itself well to conversational scenes, while Photoshop and After Effects are used for frame-by-frame animation and full-body shots. Use of the face tracking and automatic lip sync tools in Character Animator let the team animate characters quickly, and meet their aggressive production deadlines.
“We combine a lot more traditional, drawn animation than we originally thought we would,” explains Tim. “But we’ve found that Character Animator allows us to trigger drawn animation in a way that creates a real hybrid between motion capture body-movement animation and traditional, cel-by-cel hand-drawn animation.”
The team is counting on both the style and substance of the series to draw viewers. “Our goal is to create a world that is beautiful and rich,” says Brian. “We’ve created characters that people will want to spend time with. It really is very compelling to watch.”
You can learn more about Character Animator here.