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Kirsten Lepore brings a real third dimension to 'Adventure Time'

Kirsten Lepore brings a real third dimension to 'Adventure Time'
Finn, BMO and Lumpy Space Princess make a shelter from a coming storm in "Bad Jubies," a special stop-motion episode of "Adventure Time" guest-directed by animator Kirsten Lepore ("Move Mountain"). (Cartoon Network)

With Kirsten Lepore's "Bad Jubies," Thursday night's "Adventure Time" (Cartoon Network, 7:30 p.m.) continues an intermittent tradition of giving a guest animator an episode to write and direct and mold to their own vision; like the guest-animated couch gags "The Simpsons" runs from time to time, or when any big pop creation celebrates its own, less known influences or passions, it's a reminder to look beyond the things we love to the things the things we love love.

"Adventure Time" has flirted with three-dimensional imagery before, by way of computer graphics, but it's done so perversely, as with the 2013 April Fool's episode "A Glitch is a Glitch," the noise-filled work of another guest writer-director, Irish artist and filmmaker David OReilly. It has avoided the more usual type of dimensional translation that merely plays to the tastes of generations raised on CGI, with its inflated figures, fluid spaces and carefully modeled texture and lighting effects. But in stop-motion, the space is real; the materials are real; their texture is not modeled texture but just, you know, texture. The light is light.

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As she relates in the e-mail interview below, Lepore — who has animated for "Yo Gabba Gabba!," Whole Foods and Google — was not previously acquainted with the series. But she proves a great fit. Like "Adventure Time," her own films, including "Move Mountain," "Sweet Dreams" and "Bottle," mix melancholy with delight, the familiar with the epic, and employ humble materials to huge ends. "Bad Jubies" — in which Finn, BMO and Lumpy Space Princess prepare to weather an impending "mega-deadly thunderquake disasterstorm" with "stormnado winds" and "flurricanes possible," while Jake goes off, strangely, to communes with the ether — catches the show's combination of cosmic consciousness and domestic farce and takes it some places you never knew you wanted it to go. It's everything a special should be.

(Watch too for her sculptural transformation of the opening credits.)

What first attracted you to stop-motion animation?

Kirsten Lepore: I think I first became interested in stop-motion when I was around 5 and would watch those Jim Henson behind-the-scenes specials where you'd get a sneak peek into a creature fx shop. Everyone working there seemed like they had the coolest job on the planet, so that was always in the back of my head as an artsy kid who was constantly drawing and sculpting little creatures. It wasn't until I got to college that I actually began experimenting with stop-motion, but I was pretty hooked after my first film. It seemed like the best way to combine all of my passions — sculpture, sound, storytelling — into one medium.

You and "Adventure Time" creator Pendleton Ward were both profiled in a 2009 "Rising Stars" piece in Animation magazine. Were you aware of one another before then? (Or, for that matter, then?)

That's so funny! I totally forgot that Pen was in there too! I think that was right around when "Adventure Time" first got picked up and I actually visited Cartoon Network and got to meet him. He told me he was a fan of a film I did in undergrad with my friend Garrett Davis called "Story from North America" and my head nearly exploded when he told me that.

How did the project come about?

About a week after I released my grad thesis, "Move Mountain," I got an email out of the blue from Adam Muto, the executive producer on "Adventure Time," saying that they'd always wanted to do a stop-motion episode and after seeing my film (which was coincidentally also an 11-minute stop-motion short) they thought I would be a perfect fit to write and direct an episode of the show. I was bouncing off the walls with excitement, said yes of course, and started developing concepts right away.

Do you see any aesthetic, creative or philosophical similarities between your work and Pen's? (By which I mean, Pen and all the people responsible for executing the particular vision that is "Adventure Time.") The creatures in "Move Mountain" could certainly be drawn as "Adventure Time" characters; "Sweet Dreams," with its animated doughnuts and cupcakes is not far removed from "Adventure Time's" Candy Kingdom.

It's interesting — in that initial email from Adam, he thought that "Move Mountain" could have been an episode of "Adventure Time," not only for the story and the length, but also because my sensibility about character design fit the show's aesthetic really well. I do feel like there are unintentional similarities between "Adventure Time" and my work, but mainly because I love minimalist designs and stories that aren't conventionally told in animation. And to be honest, I didn't even watch "Adventure Time" before I got the directing gig. I did start watching right away for research purposes; however, research quickly turned into a total obsession with the show (because it's an incredible show), and I think I watched every single episode. It's now one of my all-time favorite shows.

Jake, Finn and BMO prepare to weather a storm in "Bad Jubies," a special stop-motion episode of Cartoon Network's "Adventure Time."
Jake, Finn and BMO prepare to weather a storm in "Bad Jubies," a special stop-motion episode of Cartoon Network's "Adventure Time." (Cartoon Network)

Anything you would like to say about "Adventure Time," why you like it, what it does that other cartoons don't? (Or does that other cartoons do.)

"Adventure Time" transcends being a cartoon. I think people have a tendency to write off a lot of cartoons as "cute" and fairly one-dimensional in their stories and complexity. "Adventure Time" is so ahead of its time, though — it's like the "Star Trek" of our time or something. It's super cerebral, and I constantly forget that it's supposed to be a kid's show, because the concepts are so interesting and out there. I like to think it's helping breed a generation of kids that will really think outside the box. It's also just beautifully designed and colored, so it's super visually appealing to boot.

What was it like working with fabricators instead of making everything by your own hand? Who were they and how did you guide the process?

It was amazing!!! We had an incredible fabrication team at Bix Pix where we did all the production. Our head of puppets was Barney Marquez, who totally hit it out of the park in terms of translating the characters into three dimensions and our production designer was Jason Kolowski, who is also a master of his craft. I couldn't have been more pleased with the way the puppets, sets, and props turned out — the teams truly went above and beyond. Jason was already a big fan of the show, so there were even times when he would bring something up about a puppet or set that I hadn't even thought of since he knew the show so well. And although there were a couple revisions on the initial clay models of the characters, it felt like a really smooth process of creating them overall.

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Did you have a bigger team of animators than usual?

Yes, because usually it's only me, ha ha. We had four main animators on the episode, so that way we could have multiple stages running simultaneously and got so much more footage per day that way.

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How did the fact that you were working in stop-motion affect the choice of characters, of scene, of staging? Of story?

When writing for stop-motion you have to approach it in a similar way to writing live action with a budget in mind, because everything is physical and anything you write in needs to be built. This is one of the main reasons we limited ourselves to four main characters, since each one needs four duplicates — all cast in silicone with complex internal armatures. I also tried to limit the amount of rigging by minimizing the amount of running/jumping/anything that would require a puppet to be suspended in the air — although I think I'm used to writing this way for my own films as well. I prefer subtlety in action as opposed to big cartoonish overacting. One thing I didn't anticipate as being costly while writing was the number of shots I included. I feel like the piece is cut together with a quick, almost live-action pace, and with every new cut, the lighting for the stage has to be reset, which is time-consuming and labor-intensive. But at the end of the day, everything in stop-motion is hard, so it's expected that some things will take longer than planned.

Any thoughts on the dimensionality of stop-motion versus the more common "dimensionality" of CGI?

The biggest difference really is that in stop-motion everything you're building in 3D is a real, physical object that exists somewhere in the world. There are also natural flaws, imperfections and idiosyncrasies that I personally like to embrace and find charming. Sometimes you literally see the fingerprints of the artist. Also there's something about building a world in miniature that really captivates an audience. Being able to see a detailed physical object that reflects hours of work is gratifying and sometimes even magical.

What was it like interpreting an already established world as opposed to creating your own?

It actually took some of the guesswork out, which was nice. Usually you'd have to make a million decisions down to "How should we design the trees?" But we had pre-existing 2D model sheets from the show which made it so much easier. All of our designs were already there and established. For me it was really fun to work within someone else's world, but still get to put my own spin on it. I also feel like "Adventure Time's" world is one that's probably easier for me to work within, since we share similar aesthetics and a conceptual freedom.

How long did it take?

The whole process took a little over a year from concept development and preproduction through the final post and sound. Actual production time was only around three months though!

Were there any things involved in the process — both of the production and the translation — you found especially delightful? For example, the opportunities that Jake offers as a subject for sculptural animation? Giving life to a storm cloud? BMO's screen?

Yes! There were so many things that were really fun to translate into three dimensions. I wish we could have done even more Jake stretching, but those couple shots in there were sort of nightmarish for the animators (dealing with all the clay involved in the morphs). However they really paid off in the cut — as we would always get an audible gasp of excitement from the audience during the Jake stretches. The storm cloud was also super fun because we tried to do as many practical effects as possible. Our DP on the project, Helder Sun (who's amazing), helped us rig little LED lights on dimmers into the storm puppet so all of those lightning flash effects are real!

Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd

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