For 20 years, Adult Swim’s Saturday night Toonami block has been a pioneer in action animation, its intrepid, steadily evolving robo-host T.O.M. guiding viewers through a cosmic arena of cutting-edge international fare – particularly of the Japanese variety. Its willingness to consistently bring something new and different to its American audience has seen it win the hearts of not only many ardent viewers, but of a certain subsection of viewership that tends to be harder to please than the rest: animators themselves.
“Toonami is the entity that started bringing Japanese anime to the US with love and respect,” said Simon Wilches-Castro, an animation director for the Los Angeles studio Titmouse. “Adult Swim is a very risky channel. [SVP and creative director for Adult Swim on-air] Jason DeMarco is a big appreciator of animation. They know what animation can be; they know the potential of many different techniques of animation.”
So it makes perfect sense that DeMarco, who also co-created Toonami with Sean Akins, would celebrate its 20th anniversary with an epic Exquisite Corpse ID that both honors the venerable brand’s rich animation legacy and gives those most affected by it a chance to shine.
“I came up with the idea of doing an animated exquisite corpse for Toonami’s 20th anniversary because of all the great partners we work with doing animated shorts for Adult Swim,” DeMarco told Brief. “Titmouse, being one of our regular partners, seemed like the perfect place to handle this sort of creative freedom.”
Directed by Wilches-Castro, with bookend segments featuring the “real” version of T.O.M. by Portland’s Hinge studio, what ensued plays like a rapid-fire on-air film festival, pulling together wild, five-second bursts of creativity by 27 animators from around the globe, each of whom was tasked with interpreting the following statement: What if T.O.M. fell down a rabbit hole Alice in Wonderland-style, only instead of a rabbit hole, it was a black hole from 2001: A Space Odyssey?
The Exquisite Corpse format was invented by the surrealists of the previous century as a kind of creative parlor game wherein one person starts writing or drawing something then covers it and passes to the next person, leaving only the last words of the paragraph or the last lines of the illustration for reference. The next person continues the work-in-progress based on the scant prompt in front of them then covers and passes to the next person, and so on and so forth, until the work is complete.
Naturally, animation is much more complicated and time-consuming than drawing or scribbling, so Wilches-Castro was unable to utilize the cover-and-pass approach. Instead, he requested that his contributors submit their ideas for T.O.M.’s descent in paragraph form, which he then arranged into the sequence that they would appear in the final spot. With that pre-planning in place, he could then show each animator what the previous image leading into their part would look like while also letting all the participants animate simultaneously, so as not to slow things down. It also helped the folks at Hinge, who were working to animate T.O.M.’s trip in and out of the madness, replete with trippy transitions from 3D to 2D.
“The awesome thing was, [Titmouse] had already pre-visualized this as an animatic, so we had an idea of how the transitions would happen,” said Roland Gauthier, executive producer for Hinge. “We could really see spatially how it would work, which department of [T.O.M.’s] ship we would see, how we would get from the moments when it starts taking him over into the full 2D experience. It was pretty seamless because [Titmouse] knew what they were doing, we know what we’re doing, and we were speaking the same language from the beginning.”
The final product clocks in at nearly three minutes in length, but feels much shorter. Compulsively watchable, it sails along, thanks to the driving beat of a furious guitar track by Two Fingers and to seamless transitions that pull the viewer through the different animation styles. Wilches-Castro designed the transitions himself, or, as he put it, “painted over the stitches,” animating frames that mimicked each contributor’s respective technique to help connect one segment to the next. His work there adds cohesion to not only the wildly different images themselves, but to the medium they were created in – shifting on a dime from digital methods to painting, drawing and other analogue techniques and back again without missing a beat.
“That was a really interesting time in my life, [those] months of observing all those people’s drawings and then trying to copy them myself,” Wilches-Castro said. “I got to animate 27 different personalities, which was a little schizophrenic, but I loved it. It gave me a lot of respect for their craft.”
But for all Wilches-Castro’s stunning talent for transitions, his secret weapon behind the Exquisite Corpse’s success may have been his gifts as an arranger. Serving as director on the project was like being a conductor, he said, “but instead of being a conductor of an opera it was like being the conductor of a jazz band where everybody is improvising.” As the bandleader to his assembled artists’ visual cacophony, Wilches-Castro was able to take their disparate notes and phrases and order them into a sequence with a visual progression that is almost melodic in its structure and rhythm. Each of the 27 pieces is deliriously unique, but arrayed as such, Tom’s fall down the wormhole has an almost narrative momentum to it, as the forces at play transmogrify the spaceman’s body and mind into increasingly more abstract and minimal states until his existence becomes the literal manifestation of a two-dimensional geometric plane.
As goofy and manic as the adventure is en route, there’s even some pathos when Tom is finally, mercifully able to pull himself out of his nightmarish descent and back into to his own version of reality. The process of creating that emotional richness involved putting “the most traditional takes [up front],” Wilches-Castro said, then unfurling the more outlandish interpretations from there. “You want to surprise people, to construct an arc, so you lead them in by having something normal and then it starts to ramp up… it starts to become funny-strange, but not scary, then it starts to deconstruct.”
It was also a “crazy coincidence,” he added, “that the people that I chose for the end all chose to do geometric figures.” But then, crazy coincidences seem to go hand in hand with the Exquisite Corpse format, which seems to generate its own connective energy against all odds.
“There was a moment where I was trying to micromanage a lot of people and [one participating animator], Alex Grigg, wrote me saying, ‘hey, whenever I’ve done this sort of project, there’s usually a magic that happens and makes everything work out,’” Wilches-Castro said. “That felt a bit idealistic, but when stuff started coming back and I started putting it together, it [really was] magic. Like, how is this working? One guy’s in Argentina, one guy’s in Brazil. They don’t know each other and this is all working as if they are in the same building.”
Executive Producer: Roland Gauthier
VFX Supervisor: Michael Kuehn
Animation Director: Alex Tysowsky
Production Manager: Tiffany Navarro Purkeypile
Animation: Keith Sizemore
Look Development and Lighting: Eric Gordon
Comp: Terell Seitz
Executive Producer: Chris Prynoski
Executive Producer: Shannon Prynoski
Supervising Producer: Ben Kalina
Producer: Jennifer Ray
Director: Simón Wilches-Castro
Digital Compositing: Colin Fleming
CG: Hinge Digital
2D EFX: Edward Artinian
2D EFX: Simón Wilches-Castro
Jesse James Dean
Grace Nayoon Rhee