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Todd Jacobsen Family Guy Fox TV Animation

  • Client: Fox TV Animation (Director: Pete Michels

  • Work Performed: Animation

  • Project Date: 2011

In the beginning stages of designing and producing the animation for another project, I got the opportunity to crank out a bunch of rough inbetweens for the “German Guy” episode of “Family Guy.” (This was one of those rare occasions when the demands of a “FG” episode calls for animation their Korean studio isn’t able to complete, so they cast a net to see if any Los Angeles artists are available.) The show certainly has its merits — and I needed a paying gig — so I said yes. About a month after I’d finished that gig, I took a meeting at the Fox Television animation studio where production on “FG” takes place. When I got there, they asked me:

“Would you be interested in doing some freelance animation of a tap dancing football player for our Thanksgiving episode?”


(Then I remembered: this was “Family Guy.”)

“Um…sure! Absolutely!” This would be a really long cutaway gag—almost 25 seconds—based on the “Kansas City” sequence from the film version of "Oklahoma!” The pitch was that these football players were on a “Not Gay Revue” float in a Macy’s-style Thanksgiving Day parade. (Again, remember: this was “Family Guy.”)

Fox already had the scene storyboarded and roughly timed out, and they gave me three time-stamped clips: one was the original “Oklahoma!” film scene with their new soundtrack added, the second was their timed storyboard scene, and the third was an onion-skinned video with their storyboard version opaqued over the original film footage. I would be animating only one dancer in mannequin form and without dialogue; at the point where all the football players joined in, the show’s Los Angeles-based timing crew would take over and “rubber stamp” that one dancer’s animation throughout the scene, as well as add the mouth assignments before shipping the scene to Korea for finishing.

Then I realized that by saying yes, I might have bitten off a little more than I could chew.

I was already hot and heavy into the previous project, but knew I couldn’t pass up the “Family Guy” opportunity. Fortunately, the two sets of producers were kind enough to let me do both at the same time.

I wish I had the time and the setup necessary to just rotoscope the original film sequence. This would have involved blowing up each frame of the film footage to its necessary size, transferring that image to animation pegs for registration and semi-tracing the action on a clean sheet of paper, taking care to make sure the animated character looked the same as its final design.

No such luck this time.

So all of my animation was the result of lots and lots of very careful, frame-by-infinitesimal-frame study of each of Gene Nelson’s steps from the original film.

To go into some of the more difficult aspects of pulling this scene off might end up putting some people to sleep…but since you’re still reading this, I’ll go into one of them anyway. (For this next part, it might be helpful to reference the “Original Reference Elements” clip posted above.)

Perhaps the biggest dilemma in animating this scene was a difference in soundtracks — and not just in one, but in two particular spots. For the first one, I was killing myself trying to match the first seven seconds of tap animation to the “FG” soundtrack, and I couldn’t figure out how Gene Nelson was getting his feet to move like they did as he entered the scene. The way I was seeing it, the movement of his feet and the sound being created by them was physically impossible. It wasn’t until I was closely studying a DVD copy of “Oklahoma!” (in a higher resolution with its original soundtrack) that I noticed a slightly different sound in the film’s tapping, audible to me only through a set of headphones.

As it turned out, this different, higher pitched sound was Gene Nelson slapping his thighs while he was tapping around to his center position. The new “FG” soundtrack’s tapping sounds were all of one similar pitch, and I wouldn’t have caught the difference between the new audio and the original had I not been studying the original footage and soundtrack with a pair of over-the-ear headphones. (I’m pretty sure the sound editors at “FG” weren’t initially aware of this either; it’s an incredibly subtle difference in the original soundtrack that I’m sure would fool anyone.)

Unfortunately, this meant having to re-do about four feet (or two seconds plus) of preliminary animation so I could emphasize the arm/hand thigh-slapping movements, but I’m glad I caught it when I did.

The other difference in the soundtracks came after the delivery of the line, “I seen a couple of them actors do it.” The “FG” soundtrack added a little extra “Boodelee-diddeley doop” sound sequence before the main tap show that wasn’t in “Oklahoma’s!” original soundtrack, and this meant having to come up with some steps to match the new sound. (Full disclosure: I am not a tap dancer.) I saw this as a challenge I might enjoy, so I did about a day’s worth of intense research and study and felt I came up with something that could actually pass as tap dancing.

(There was also a bit of a “tag” at the end of the scene, storyboarded with poses that were almost impossible to animate with the tapping sounds on the new track. Again…more research, and a result that hopefully would pass muster with anyone but a professional tap dancer.)

Because this scene was mostly animated straight ahead*, there were a number of shifting volumes and perspective issues in my work. And since neither I nor the director wanted these nasty problems to occur in the final animation, I created one detailed key drawing on-model, in costume and in proper perspective of the dancer for every two feet of film. I had hoped the Korean studio might use them as guides (though I’m not entirely convinced they did), and I submitted these fifteen drawings when I turned in an almost five-inch stack of paper, filled with my rough drawings, acting notes, charts and a six-page 11″ X 17″ exposure sheet. Because I was also working on the other project, this scene took about five weeks to complete.

In the end, everyone at “FG” involved with this scene seemed really happy with the rough animation. I finished the scene in April for 2011’s Thanksgiving episode, so I had to wait a while to see how it would all turn out.

The week before Thanksgiving, I got a call from the show’s production manager.

The first take of this scene had returned from Korea, fully animated and in color, when the show’s producers and writers decided to…


It wasn’t the first time. And I’m sure it won’t be the last.

In cases like this: if the check clears, I’m good. *”Straight Ahead” animation indicates a process of execution where the animator starts the action on the first frame of the scene, and plows through all the way to the end with little to no planning. This usually results in some very lively and spontaneous action.


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