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April 11
2023

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

MARVEL’S MOON GIRL AND DEVIL DINOSAUR CAPTURES THE LOWER EAST SIDE

By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Marvel Entertainment and Disney+.

Rough drafts of the facial expressions of Lunella Layfayette.

Rough drafts of the facial expressions of Lunella Layfayette.

In the world of animation, Marvel Studios is seems to have had a lot of fun with  experimentation, whether it be the multiverse chaos of the What If…? anthology,  which introduced zombies into the MCU, or Marvel’s Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, based on the comic book by Brandon Montclare, Amy Reeder and Natasha Bustos where a 13-year-old Lunella Layfayette partners with a 10-ton T-Rex from another dimension to battle criminals and supervillains pilfering and threatening her Lower East Side neighborhood in New York City. The Disney+ series, executive produced by Laurence Fishburne, Helen Sugland and Steve Loter,  has a pilot that is a double-sized introduction running 44 minutes while the rest of the 16 episodes last 22 minutes each.

Art direction samples for the various environments with color scripts playing a major role in establishing the mood and tone.

Art direction samples for the various environments with color scripts playing a major role in establishing the mood and tone.

“Our Supervising Director, Ben Juwono, with show designers Sean Jimenez, Chris Whittier and Jose Lopez, all got together and were able to pursue something unique and do things they always wanted to do in the animation industry but never had the opportunity to do,” explains Executive Producer Steve Loter, who is originally from Brooklyn. “I was in New York City during the height of the graffiti art scene, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s street art; those were a huge inspiration for me. Sean is into all types of art: pop, underground and New York-specific street murals. It is a pen-and-ink-style drawing because we wanted to do something as kinetic as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse; however, by going with something more hand-drawn, and pen and ink with spotted blacks, felt like a different direction to go and that was its own identity.”

“One of the biggest challenges with the show was getting this high quality of craftmanship and drawing and still have it move well. We balanced our animation styles to be immediate in places where we wanted to keep energy up, so we can save time and budget for when we want to get flowing and have lots of in-betweens to say either the action is cool here or we need to do moments where the acting is more high level and the characters are feeling grounded and real. It’s a balance of finding the contrast between those two and peppering them throughout an episode.”

—Kat Kosmala, Animation Supervisor

Hand-drawn effects for the villain of the pilot episode who is able to absorb and discharge electricity.

Hand-drawn effects for the villain of the pilot episode who is able to absorb and discharge electricity.

A successful method to speed through exposition and dialogue in a visual way was by using graphic-design icons and symbols.

A successful method to speed through exposition and dialogue in a visual way was by using graphic-design icons and symbols.

Marvel’s Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur is not trying for realism. “One of the things that I love about these designs is that they have a modern blend where you have structure and anatomy so the characters can turn and move dimensionally, but you also have that mixed with flat graphic elements so you can do pushed expressions and things that go far away from structure,” states Animation Supervisor Kat Kosmala. who worked with the team at Flying Bark Productions. “One of the biggest challenges with the show was getting this high quality of craftmanship and drawing and still have it move well. We balanced our animation styles to be immediate in places where we wanted to keep energy up so we can save time and budget for when we want to get flowing and have lots of in-betweens to say either the action is cool here or we need to do moments where the acting is more high level and the characters are feeling grounded and real. It’s a balance of finding the contrast between those two and peppering them throughout an episode.”

An example of the color palette for a mixed-tape sequence, which is treated differently than the rest of the show.

An example of the color palette for a mixed-tape sequence, which is treated differently than the rest of the show.

“[O]ne style is not enough for this show, apparently! We knew that music was going to be an important element to the show early on and that each episode would have a music focus sequence, usually the climax of an episode, an action sequence or something along those lines. It gives animators an opportunity to expand the vocabulary of animation because all of the mixed tapes are so different from each other. Each one is based on the theme and mood of the song it’s trying to display.”

—Steve Loter, Executive Producer

Graphic design icons and symbols like dollar signs or hearts appear in comic book speech bubbles and the goggles of Moon Girl. “The iconography in cartoons has been around since the 1930s when characters would talk and there would be little lines coming out of their mouth to indicate audio. But we’re pulling on a lot of comic book sensibilities bringing those graphics in,” Kosmala notes. “One of the cool things about it is, this show uses the visual medium. It’s not a cartoon where it’s just talking heads and you do all of the story through dialogue. There are so many visual shortcuts. The emojis in the show lets us speed through parts of the story that would take a lot of time with exposition or dialogue to get through and spend more where we want to. It’s a fast-paced show.”

An authentic approach was taken when depicting New York City.

An authentic approach was taken when depicting New York City.

To heighten fights with villains, a different animation style is used to create what is called a “Mixed-Tape Sequence.” “That’s because one style is not enough for this show, apparently!” Loter laughs. “We knew that music was going to be an important element to the show early on and that each episode would have a music focus sequence, usually the climax of an episode, an action sequence or something along those lines. It gives animators an opportunity to expand the vocabulary of animation because all of the mixed tapes are so different from each other. Each one is based on the theme and mood of the song it’s trying to display.” Kosmala loves animating to music. “Music is art and time, and animation is art and time. Neither of these things are static,” Kosmala adds.

Maintaining the desired pacing while keeping Devil Dinosaur feeling heavy and enormous was a tricky balancing act.

Maintaining the desired pacing while keeping Devil Dinosaur feeling heavy and enormous was a tricky balancing act.

As for the visual style, Kosmala observes, “The colors get intense. We drop details so that the characters get more animatable and we can be freer with their movements. The initial challenge was keeping up the energy. At the same time, we have a big dinosaur that has to feel heavy and weighty, so he can’t necessarily pop pose to pose. For a moment that is melodramatic and comedic, we’re going to get simple, superficial and fun with the movements and timing. When characters are dealings with emotions or situations that are heavier, you’re going to have some fallout. We slow the animation down and get more weighted and natural. It’s paralleling what is happening in the story the same way that color palettes signal how you should be feeling.”

“For Devil, we absolutely started with [comic book artist] Jack Kirby and worked to get the design to a place where it was going to be something that was animatable and fit in the whole design aesthetic we wanted to establish. The voice actor for Devil Dinosaur, Fred Tatasciore, wanted lines of dialogue written in the script so his grunts and groans would translate that into something unique and more anchored to the emotion of the scene.”

—Steve Loter, Executive Producer

Emphasis was placed on traditional 2D animation methods, as the goal was to have a visual aesthetic that felt hand-drawn rather than simulated by a computer.

Emphasis was placed on traditional 2D animation methods, as the goal was to have a visual aesthetic that felt hand-drawn rather than simulated by a computer.

Devil Dinosaur speaks through grunts and groans rather than words. “I did some vocalization for Devil for when he first says his name, and that was a fun thing to do and one of the first things that was animated,” Kosmala remarks. “When you have characters that have to communicate through pantomime, it’s interesting because you have to get creative and expressive with the movement.” A legendary comic book artist was responsible for the original design of the red T-Rex. “For Devil, we absolutely started with Jack Kirby and worked to get the design to a place where it was going to be something that was animatable and fit in the whole design aesthetic we wanted to establish,” Loter states. “The voice actor for Devil Dinosaur, Fred Tatasciore, wanted lines of dialogue written in the script so his grunts and groans would translate that into something unique and more anchored to the emotion of the scene.”

Marvel’s Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur does not try for realism with its animation style that makes use of a vibrant color palette.

Marvel’s Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur does not try for realism with its animation style that makes use of a vibrant color palette.

Not every sequence is fast-paced, as the animation slows down for the moments that are supposed to have an emotional weight to them.

Not every sequence is fast-paced, as the animation slows down for the moments that are supposed to have an emotional weight to them.

Harmony was the primary animation software while the minimal 3D work was done in Maya. “3D was used for vehicles and things that need to be perfectly formed when turning,” Kosmala reveals. “With a lot of 3D and even 2D effects that are generated. you get away from this feeling of it being hand-drawn and handmade – that’s not in the spirit of the show. We tried to stick to traditional methods. There are simple tricks like taking different textures and panning them across each other, and that simplicity is part of what makes the visual effects work charming. It’s not overdone or overworked. It retains that hand-drawn quality so it blends in seamlessly with the rest of the show.” Photographic effects were avoided, Loter points out. “Everything is done in color so things that feel like they’re glowing are just the intensity of a color against another color to create a glow effect.” Kosmala adds, “Because we don’t want that evenness when its generated perfectly via a program. You want it to feel a little imperfect in places.”

It was important to depict the diverse cultures and people who inhabit the Lower East Side of New York City.

It was important to depict the diverse cultures and people who inhabit the Lower East Side of New York City.

“With a lot of 3D and even 2D effects that are generated. you get away from this feeling of it being hand-drawn and handmade – that’s not in the spirit of the show. We tried to stick to traditional methods. There are simple tricks like taking different textures and panning them across each other, and that simplicity is part of what makes the visual effects work charming. It’s not overdone or overworked. It retains that hand-drawn quality so it blends in seamlessly with the rest of the show.”

—Kat Kosmala, Animation Supervisor

The show captures that moment in time when New York still felt like a vibrant artistic place before gentrification happened. “My parents are still there, and I have to go back to New York now and then, so I have to do this right or I’m not going to be able to go back!” Loter chuckles. “A lot of buildings, streets and architecture that you would see on Lower East Side is accurate to real New York and also captures the community. New York is diverse. That was another advantage I had growing up, living in a community that had some many different beliefs, people and tastes. It felt like such an amazing place to be as an artist, to be a part of all of these various cultures.”

New York City is treated as a character. “We have a big meeting room that has a lineup of all our incidentals [which numbers around 70],” Kosmala states. “It’s a bunch of people who could be used to populate any scene. It’s so heartening to see all different ages, sizes, colors and body types. Everybody is represented. It’s an emotional thing to look at.”


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