Meet the woman behind Adventure Time's first stop motion episode
An exclusive still from “Bad Jubies,” airing tonight at 7:30/6:30pm CT on Cartoon Network.
Adventure Time is probably the most popular children’s show in the world right now. Heading into its sixth year and seventh season on Cartoon Network, the adventures of Finn the Human, Jake the Dog, Princess Bubblegum, Marceline the Vampire Queen, the Ice King, Lumpy Space Princess, BMO, and many, many other colorful weirdos in the show’s coterie have enchanted, surprised, scared, and moved audiences of all ages.
Tonight, Adventure Time marks another milestone: Its first ever stop motion animation episode, “Bad Jubies,” directed and written by stop motion animator Kirsten Lepore. A CalArts graduate whose commercial clients include MTV, Nestle, and Google Doodles, Lepore’s films are chock full of whimsy and wonder, which makes it a no-brainer that Cartoon Network tapped her for the guest-directing and writing role.
HelloGiggles spoke with Lepore to talk about stop motion hijinks, collaborating in the creative world, and how to find and build community in an often isolating but exhilarating field. Mild (not “so spice“) spoilers ahead:
HelloGiggles: I did some stop motion animation projects when I was in school, and it is SO HARD and takes so much time. How long did the actual production, not even the pre-planning, of the episode take?
Kirsten Lepore: It actually, surprisingly, only took about ten or eleven weeks for all the building and the animating. If I were doing it on my own, I would take two years, but I was working with this company Bix Pix, that are up in Sun Valley, California. They put together an amazing team — we had about thirty or forty people working on it, and with all those people, it definitely got done in a much shorter time frame.
HG: What was the most time-consuming project on your own that you’ve done?
KL: Probably my thesis film for CalArts; I finished in 2013, and that was an eleven-minute film that took two years! Those years included learning how to make molds and do casting and that whole process, which is technical and really complex. There was a solid year-and-a-half that was just production and building, which was pretty intense. When you work on anything that long, you can’t help but sort of go insane and feel like your project is terrible and second-guess everything.
So, it was refreshing to work in a tighter timeline, with all these professional people around me who are specialists at what they do, so they do things quickly and well. It was a super-fun experience, opening up to collaborating with all these other people for this episode.
HG: Adventure Time does a lot of musical episodes, and “Bad Jubies” somewhat falls in that tradition. Did you write that music yourself?
KL: All the music in the episode that was just background, that was all done by this guy Rich Vreeland, who goes by Disasterpeace. He’s done tons of music for all these really amazing video games and a couple features. I’m a big fan of his, and reached out to him to do the music for this episode.
For Jake’s song at the end, I actually put that together: I compiled all the sounds I liked and then cut together this funny, beat-boxing thing. To enhance it, he added a little bit of a track underneath, but that was the one musical thing that I put my stamp on, which felt really good.
HG: So many Adventure Time songs have this improvisational feel to them, but of course even that has to be carefully done for animation.
KL: That was another reason that I did that song specifically, because it really dictated how the animation needed look. I had to do it before I even found my composer at all. That way, once we animated, we knew what we were animating to.
HG: Do you have a name for the song?
KL: I don’t! I’d probably call it “Jake’s Bird Song”? I’m terrible at naming things; I never give characters [in my films] names if I [don’t] have to.
HG: Did you name the episode, or was that something that came up in the script and then you were like, “That’s the name”?
KL: There were a couple different versions — there was one called “Jimmy”-something, because we named one of the characters Jimmy at a certain point. The actual name was inspired by a friend of mine who was talking about people giving him “bad juju,” but then the network poo-pooed “juju” so I changed it to “jubies.”
HG: Ah, I chalked up “jubies” as just “one of those Adventure Time things.”
When it came to animating the characters for the episode, which character was the most difficult to translate into the stop-animation style?
KL: Each one had its own set of challenges. LSP (Lumpy Space Princess) probably was the outright most challenging in building and animating her, because she’s always floating. Any character that’s suspended off of the ground needs to be attached to a rig, which then has to be edited out in post-production. Every shot with LSP in it turns into a heavy effects shot because someone needed to remove the post that was holding her up and making her hover up and down.
BMO was easier to animate, but the entire episode, he has a green screen on his face. In post, we added all the facial expressions and the glow of the screen afterward. We tried a lot of different things with BMO initially. I love to do things practically, in-camera, especially with stop motion. So we did a bunch of prototypes with BMO, where we had lots of face replacements that we’d pop in, and then we tried thinking about trying to put an actual light inside of him. But when we did a test, we decided digital was better.
HG: One of my most formative stop motion memories was — I saw a behind-the-scenes thing on Wallace & Gromit, and they showed all of Wallace’s faces. It terrified me.
KL: It was like that for Finn actually! I have a whole set of Finn faces right now; there are like, 20 of them, and you just pop them in and out as he’s talking. Each piece is a different mouth shape, and Finn’s design is perfect for that because of his block-like head.
HG: Now you can make some sort of demented art piece with just his faces.
Why did you decide to include characters like LSP and BMO in this episode? A lot of the other episodes this season have featured BMO; was that something that came from the network top down, or did you just want to work with these characters?
KL: There really wasn’t much that was coming from the top down when it came to what I could do with the characters. They really just came to me like, “We want to do a stop motion episode, and we want you to do your thing! Write whatever you want!” It was almost too much freedom — I didn’t know where to start.
I chose everything: I chose the characters, I wrote the whole thing. I mainly chose those characters because everyone wanted to see Finn and Jake in stop motion, including myself, and then I just love BMO and LSP. As you can tell from watching it, I especially love LSP because I put her in there so much.
HG: When it came to writing the episode, did you seek out advice from anyone on staff beforehand?
KL: So the way we did development and pre-production on this episode: First, I got the email that was like, “We want you to do this! Yay!” Then, I holed up and came up with concepts, a lot of logline-type ideas that could be the basis for an episode. I had ten or fifteen ideas, and then I went into a story meeting with all the writers: Pen [Pendleton Ward, Adventure Time’s creator], the showrunner, Adam [Muto], and then Jack [Pendarvis, a storyline artist]. The four of us were in a room, and I basically pitched my concepts and we all brainstormed which direction I should go in, what idea I should choose. I was still presenting what I wanted to make, and they were okaying it or not.
I went off and, this is how it kind of goes for all Cartoon Network shows, then you write a three-page outline after you have a simple premise. From there on, it became just me: I sent my outline in; the head of story was like, “That sounds great! Maybe you could change this part, or maybe you could think about this part more.” I revised it, and then I boarded it — five weeks of storyboarding, which is essentially the same thing as writing the script for a show like Adventure Time.
It was a little scary, because I felt like no one else except the head of story had even seen the outline, so the next time anyone at the studio saw anything was when I came in to pitch my boards. It felt very high-stakes; I came in and there were thirty people in the room, because the producer kept inviting people. It was like, “Can people watch you pitch?” I was sweating bullets!
Then I did my pitch; they were like, “This was the fastest pitch we’ve ever heard!”, because I talk really fast. It ended up being a great experience, because I got to see if the jokes I wrote actually worked. There were really not many notes on the episode, and then we went into production after that.
HG: That sounds like a total whirlwind! I have friends who went to school for animation, and so much of their school experience was like, being hunched over camera stands. How do you clear your headspace between your commercial work, your personal work, and then kind of in-between projects like Adventure Time?
KL: It’s funny because, with the exception of Adventure Time, all the freelance projects I’ve done for brands have pretty much been all me, anyway. I’m full-service, a one-woman show. But now that I’ve done a collaborative project, I prefer that; it’s just a much more pleasant experience. Because it’s usually just me doing freelance or my own film, it becomes something that you can only do one at a time, both the mental capacity and the time. I end up working on my personal projects whenever I have a break in my freelance schedule, which is sometimes a couple of months, and sometimes I have projects that are back-to-back and I have no break.
It can be a little bit of a bummer when you have an independent project that you want to work on, but there’s just literally no time because you’re booked up with freelance. Hopefully that might change in the future; it mainly depends on budgets and stuff too. If I get bigger-budget projects, then I can work with a crew and take a little bit of the pressure off myself, and free up some time to work on personal projects.
I mean, stop motion is just hard! Whether it’s for me, or for my client. It’s a lot of struggle, but it’s pretty rewarding when you get to do something that has your personal stamp on it.
HG: I follow a lot of illustrators and people who work in or tangentially with the animation industry. Something I noticed is that there’s a really strong social community between people who work in those kinds of creative fields. That must make it a little easier, when you’re doing so much work on your own; to have an online network of people who are doing the same or similar things as you are.
KL: I was never sure if that was just the animation or the illustration industry, or if that was generational, but the film industry, more specifically animators and illustrators and artists… That community has been super, super helpful for me.
There was a time not too many years ago, before I moved to California, where I was just doing freelance animation work in my parents’ basement in New Jersey. I didn’t know a single other person doing animation anywhere near me. No colleagues, no community. It was a lonely time for work, and there were a lot of things I had to figure out on my own because I didn’t have anyone else at my disposal.
I’m always a cheerleader for Vimeo, but Vimeo came on the scene, and they were really huge for connecting like-minded people who were doing filmmaking, who were doing animation. I remember getting really connected to all these people on Vimeo, and we were all really supportive of each others’ work. I’ve since had actual, physical friendships in real life with some Vimeo staff members as well, and they feel like celebrities to me! Like, “I watched you from my bedroom in New Jersey, you guys were having so much fun at Vimeo!”
I’ve also met a lot of my closest friends in LA all through those online communities. I have a lot of animation friends that, I totally was just fans of their work and sent them messages. We had real-life meet-ups, and now we’re actual real-life friends.
That community, that Internet social community, has been huge. I don’t know if I’d have half of the friends that I have now if it weren’t for that.
HG: It’s something that I think is interesting when set against the traditional studio model. Gender representation in film and TV production tend to be pretty abysmal; in general, if you think about working in a studio, even in a field like animation, you might not have the freedom or diversity of expression that you see in these digital communities.
KL: It’s also interesting because a lot of my close friends in LA, they’re doing the same thing as me: This indie animation, “auteur” thing. That’s really rare, to even find out another person like that. One of my good friends, Julia Pott, she came from the illustration world but she also does incredible animation. As soon as I met her, we totally connected and became friends so quickly; we’re like sisters, mirroring each other from different places, both making really crazy indie animation. It’s such a niche within a niche, the indie director/animation world; one of the only places you can connect with those similar people is through the Internet.
These online spaces are definitely empowering and awesome, because you can become aware of a lot more people, role models, doing things similar to what you wanna do, and you can work to that place. In the studio system, that gender model might not be the most balanced, but because of the Internet, it’s probably getting better. I just got brought in on a job at a studio; the only reason I got brought in to direct… I also had zero studio work experience, with the exception of doing the Adventure Time job at Bix Pix, I’ve never been at an animation studio to do whatever job. For them to hire me on point blank as a director, when I’m coming from me directing myself, it’s all because I’ve proved myself in that sphere, on the Internet. They wouldn’t have heard about me from some other studio, because I’ve never worked there.
The democracy that the Internet can sometimes be, turns out to be a really good thing. Sometimes, if you make cool work, regardless of who you are, people will take notice. You get work that way.
HG: Especially for a show like Adventure Time… Sometimes I watch episodes of the show and am simply amazed that they exist. It tackles astral projection, really intense death and rebirth narratives. Even a “lighter” episode like “Bad Jubies” tackles this beautiful idea of transcendence and positivity in practice. How much of that was developed early on, and how much of that came as you storyboarded?
KL: I think most of the message of the episode definitely came from the fact that I was going to therapy for the year before I wrote it! Therapy is amazing; I can’t say enough good things about it now that I’ve done it. It got me interested in taking up mindfulness practice and meditation and that kind of thing, which has been hugely helpful for me. I feel like everyone has anxiety, so little things like that can make a huge dent in us neurotic artist types!
Me, being fresh off the mindfulness, meditation boat, that played a huge part in what I wrote for this episode, because that was the message that I wanted to communicate at the time. But it’s also, Jake’s trajectory throughout the episode is based off of me at some point in my childhood, things I read. There are little pieces of me throughout the whole thing: Me on my journey as a human, and what I would want to share about that journey to the world.
HG: When it comes to folding in your own style with the show, did you run into any really big obstacles along the way?
KL: There were things that I wanted that were gonna be really difficult, but for the most part, Bix Pix was really accommodating. Another cool thing about stop motion is also a tricky thing: Every single film you make, every single project you take on, there’s no rule book for anything. If you’re like, “I wanna have a crazy storm with tornado arms!” No one’s done that before. Every time you do something, you have to experiment and do research and development, and figure out what’s the best way to approach this, to make it look good and look convincing, and won’t drive the animators crazy!
At the end of the day, we came up with solutions that worked. In terms of things not happening… I’ve forgotten about little details and blocked them out of my memory. We achieved what we set out to achieve.
HG: If you had a chance to direct and write another episode, do you have any idea what it’d be, or is that question too much to even think about right now?
KL: I have no idea what it would be, to be honest. I don’t know if they would even let me do another stop motion episode, but if they did, I would definitely do it! It’d probably be something totally different, because I love to shake it up and do something new each time.
HG: If you had to give advice to someone who’s grinding away in animation right now, what advice would you have for them?
KL: In terms of getting bigger projects than they’re already getting… I don’t know how I got here! I’ve always worked really hard, and then it’d be like, “Oh weird, someone emailed me and wants to hire me for something else!” So I guess the main thing I can say is, as long as people are working hard and finishing their films, because I know a lot of people who start something and then give up on something halfway through and are, like, over it… Animation takes a long time! You’re always kind of gonna be over some parts of it, but the best thing you can do is persevere and push through and finish it. There was something about it in the first place that got you really excited about it. When people watch it, it’ll be exciting to them.
Making work, finishing your work, putting yourself out there, self-distributing on the Internet. And, staying true to your unique vision — I’ve tried not to compromise too much in terms of making something that feels like me. That’s what gets me hired.
Watch “Bad Jubies” on Cartoon Network tonight at 7:30pm/6:30pm CT.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
(Images courtesy of Steve Gunther and Adventure Time/Cartoon Network.)