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Monday, April 5, 2010

“Late Night With Conan O’Brien” Original Opening

This is the first in a series of pieces that will demonstrate what goes into producing some of the animated projects I’ve done in the past. J.J. Sedelmaier Productions, Inc. celebrates its 20 year anniversary this year ! One of the most gratifying aspects of doing what we do is the collaborative relationships we’ve had the pleasure of experiencing. Some of the most talented artists/cartoonists/designers have contributed their talents to animated projects that I’ve produced and directed ! Don Martin, Gary Baseman, Garry Trudeau, David Levine, Barry Blitt, and scads of others (including the illustrious Craig Yoe !) have made my journey through animation-land as exciting and pleasurable as I could’ve only hoped for as a kid !

Let’s start with the opening of the original “Late Night with Conan O’Brien”. . .

conan

In 1993 I received a call from Jeff Ross at NBC. He was the producer of the new upcoming 12:30am EST “Late Night” show that was planned as a replacement for the slot left open by David Letterman’s exodus to CBS. A then unknown Conan O’Brien, who’s previous stints as writer for The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live had brought him to the attention of Lorne Michaels. My only other contact with NBC was doing the animation for an SNL parody commercial called “Cluckin Chicken” starring Chris Farley (later replaced by Phil Hartman) and the voice of Adam Sandler. Although produced for Jim Signorelli’s Film Unit at SNL, the piece was created, written and ultimately produced by staff writer Robert Smigel. The production experience on this short had been less than ideal. To be fair, Robert had never done an animated piece like this before, but the production schedule made the revisions he asked for  very difficult to do. Getting a call from NBC convinced me that maybe the rocky process of producing Clucky hadn’t made it entirely through the 30 Rock grapevine and our reputation was intact.

Saturday Night Live's "Cluckin' Chicken".
Saturday Night Live’s “Cluckin’ Chicken”.

(to view Clucky, click here: http://www.jjsedelmaier.com/animation/movs/Cluckin.html )

I met with Jeff and Conan and discussed what this animated opening would be like when in walked the Head Writer/Executive Producer – Robert Smigel. Needless to say, my hopes were instantly dashed when he appeared. We all continued to talk about the specs until I couldn’t take it anymore and asked Robert whether this was really going to be a good idea. After all, I had said some really awful things to him during the production of our previous project together. He reacted with a somewhat puzzled look and said, “. . . everyone says that to me.” – but he’d obviously been the one who’d recommended us. From that point on and to the present day, Robert and I have collaborated on some of JJSP’s best work ! Anyhoo, during the discussion it came up that Conan liked to doodle cartoons. I asked them if they’d be up for taking his sketches and using THEM as the graphic look of the piece. Here’s what he sent:

Cover letter from Conan attached to his doodles.
Cover letter from Conan attached to his doodles.
Page 1 of drawings.
Page 1 of drawings.
Page 2 of Conan's drawings.
Page 2 of Conan’s drawings.

It was Conan’s caricature of himself that got everyone juiced for using this as the graphic style of the opening. I called Doug Compton, a terrific animator would could also get into this style and help design the rest of the piece in the same technique. Doug could (and still can) also do just the sort of cartoony animation that would be consistent with the feel of the design. We worked up a rough storyboard and got it approved by the Late Night crew. Our next phase was doing a pencil/line test – animation drawings shot in sequence to act as a blueprint for action and timing. There was no soundtrack to animate to, just screentime that we needed to fit the action within. Here are a couple of the penciled animation drawings – we’ve scanned the art over brown paper to show everything from registration peg holes to tape and leveling cutouts, etc.:

Doug Compton pencil animation drawing.
Doug Compton pencil animation drawing.
Pencil animation drawing.
Pencil animation drawing.

After getting an approval from them on the pencil test we went into production on the final artwork. Since we were under the impression that this was basically going to be a black and white cartoon, the only color was going to be a blue night sky that we’d initially see outside the bedroom window. (In the animation, we zoom through the window into the starry evening outside which would provide a background for the show’s guests.) We finished the final footage and transferred the film to videotape (are there people out there who remember film/tape ?) and sent it over to get the final signoff. The first show was to premiere very soon and they needed the finished piece ASAP. Jeff Ross called back and said, “It needs some hint of color in the body of the cartoon.” Yikes ! I called Masako Kanayama to help us with diving in on this surprise development. Since we had photocopied all the pencil drawings and re-registered them onto paper anyway, the best solution/technique to use to add the color would be alcohol-based Pantone markers. It wouldn’t warp/pucker the paper and was much faster and cleaner than watercolor. It also was going to give it the “hint” of color they wanted as opposed to a full and saturated color.

One of the last minute down and dirty Pantone color models.
One of the last minute down and dirty Pantone color models.

Masako did most of the background artwork for the first season of Beavis & Butthead we’d recently finished and I knew she could animate the color as she applied it to the drawings. To be able to do these two things similtaneously is very important in a technique like this ! Here are the same drawings as above, but with Masako’s Pantone coloring. The brown paper is showing through the holes cut to reveal additional animation drawings/levels underneath:

Xeroxed animation drawing with marker color.
Xeroxed animation drawing with marker color.
Final animation drawing with color marker added.
Final animation drawing with color marker added.
TV level art used underneath Cat/Bed level.
TV level art used underneath Cat/Bed level.
Conan animation level for inside TV screen level.
Conan animation level for inside TV screen level.

And now, click here: http://www.jjsedelmaier.com/animation/movs/Conan.html to see the final piece as it aired on the inaugural broadcast of “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” !

The other people who deserve credit on this piece are Prod Mngr Dean Kalman Lennert, Irene Cerdas, David Wachtenheim, Tom Warburton, and everyone else working at the studio at the time. Daniel Esterman/Animus Films was cameraman and final film/tape work was done at The Tapehouse/NY.

Finally, we had a couple visitors during the production of the Conan piece. A lot of the people at JJSP have been fans of The Howard Stern Show. We had extended an open invitation to cartoon fan Gary “Baba-Booey” Dell’abate to swing by if he wanted to. He and “Stuttering John” Melendez called towards the end of the work on the final Conan animation to schedule a visit. I hadn’t told anyone when they were coming and the look on the crew’s face – especially Tom Warburton – was classic !


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One Response to ““Late Night With Conan O’Brien” Original Opening”

  1. Steven Thompson Says:

    That link only nets the audio, sir. I think it should be this one: http://www.jjsedelmaier.com/animation/movs/Conan.mov

I.T.C.H is looking forward to your thoughts. Please, no flame. Thanks!

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