What if Richard Linklater's Waking Life was an absurdist, Adult Swim produced sketch comedy series? This is a question I never knew I wanted to ask, but am now lucky enough to know the answer to thanks to comedy filmmakers Jono Hunter and Alex Stypula's eloquently bizarre sketch series Night Drives.
Although not (yet) associated with Adult Swim (or, somehow, with Richard Linklater), Night Drives has all the elements that makes the absurdist late-night programming so endearing and funny. Not to be derivative—Jono and Alex are original and uniquely talented as ever in their comedy stylings—but it's hard not to imagine a 15 minute episode of Night Drives sandwiched between two black screens accented with goofy, ironic white text.
And, for the record dear readers, this is of the highest complement from this guy. And it's not just this guy that's a fan—Night Drives Season 2 also won the Inaugural Summer Chastant Episodic Award, as well as the Episodic Jury Award at Slamdance.
Below, Jono and Alex dish their beans on their process, finding your comedy buddies, and the brute force attrition of showcasing your voice in animation.
The following quotes from Jono Hunter and Alex Stypula are edited for clarity.
From Zoom and Roto to Shooting More Intricate Scenes
Courtesy of Slamdance
"Yeah, so everything was shot, live action. The whole first season was done over Zoom and then this stuff for season two, we shot in person. Alex and I met in LA. We were both living there before the pandemic, and then we were like, let's write a bunch of sketches to shoot live action. And then the pandemic happened and I went back to Toronto, he went back to Pittsburgh, and then I was like, oh shit, we could shoot simpler stuff over Zoom, and then roto it and make it look cool.
So we did 10 episodes like that, and then when we were able to be in person again, we're like, let's do a new season. Let's flesh everything out. We know how to do it. Let's make it longer, let's make it weirder. So now we shoot it in 4K because fucking Roto-ing Vi or Zoom pixels, man, it was such, you could just see the messy edges and stuff in the first season.
But now it's nice and clean and we just upped the whole resolution quite a bit, which is nice. And the in-person added a lot to it. Yeah, actually having actors and wanted to do the whole understated thing. We want it to be weird, obviously, but we're both really quiet in our humor. So just the little shoulder movements and stuff that are hard to do with actual traditional animation. We just got that so easily, which is great."
Developing the Workflow
"We found workflow shortcuts, but I don't know if you know this guy, Joel Haver, he does a lot of YouTube videos and uses the same program we use. There's a bit of a shortcut. You run it through this program called EbSynth, but depending on how much motion's in a shot, if I'm moving around a bunch, I have to draw. It's anywhere between one and 30 key frames per shot. Then you run that through a program, it blends 'em together.
But if my arm does this or my mouth or eyes are flapping too much, I have to go into After Effects and hand paint all that shit out. So it's somewhere between, it's between cheating a bit, but then also hand painting frame by frame because the teeth and the eyeballs are so important for that uncanny feel to everything. Didn't want to get them all mucky.
So yeah, it was a lot, lot of work, but it paid off. Everything is shot live action, but we have lights in the shots. We just tape the microphones to our shirts. It can just be janky, so we can do a lot in a day. And having the actors in the room, and you spend time on nuance, edit that together, kind of get a good cut, we agree on that, and then each shot gets broken down into a PNG sequence.
And then depending on how much movement, like I said, it's like one, two—I think the most I've ever done is 50 key frames per a shot. If there's too much, if there's walking or something going on, there's a lot to paint out. And then I basically just, I do that on an alpha layer, do the character on an alpha layer, and do just a really neon green background that I can key out.
And then when all the gook is in, if an arm moves and there's just tearing, I just paint all that out, the same color green, and then when it's all combined, I key out the green and then we put it into a background, get all that fancy, and then I just do a little wiggle four, two or something like that after effects, just to give it the handheld camera vibe. And then that's pretty much it.
Give it to my friend Mark to do post audio. And then, yeah, we're off to the races. So I think in terms of traditional animation, this is a faster process, but there's just one of me doing all the posts, so it ends up being quite long, but if there was four people on the team, it would be really quick."
Growing as a Comedian and Applying It To Animation
"That's how we met, was doing improv at UCB, out in LA. So yeah, comedy always been the main thing for me. Definitely.
I've been directing TV commercials for 10 years and it's all comedy oriented, and I've been doing acting and improv classes and shows and stuff forever. So yeah, it's kind of baked in, and, I dunno, I can't speak to your youthful experience, but when I was young, I grew up in a rough town, and not a tough kid. So being funny was the way to not get the shit kicked out of me, if people laugh, then they're not going to hurt me. So it was always just sort of baked into my existence.
The comedic process is long, but it's like, because it's long, you get more time to think of add-ons and tags and stuff, and it's like, oh, if we just have this one more line, and then we just go shoot it and then pop it in. It's really nice to have that gestation period where you can really blow out the whole scene.
it's exciting to see when actors do something different than you had imagined, but multiple times funnier than you had imagined, but they bring something extra to it. Whereas, I mean, I still love standup. And it is conversely to what Jono was saying about improv, when you fail together. With standup, you fail on your own, but then also when you succeed, it's definitely an ego boost. But yeah, it's nice to see the collaborative elements of sketch and film stuff that you hadn't thought of that other people are bringing to it."
How About Some Helpful Advice To Aspiring Filmmakers?
"As for advice, if we can do this, anyone can do this.
It's just brute force and perseverance, the whole thing's a war of attrition. So when you give up, the person behind you is going to move further, and you just got to fucking do it. That's it. If you can find the person or people you click with, comedically, it's important to hang on that.
Because at the beginning of this too, no one would look at Night Drives. And we still have trouble getting people to respond. There's a lot of ghosting. We've got a decent amount of press around the festival, but getting that call from Slamdance was so affirming. We're just like, okay, we are on track to doing something that people will in a broader sense. So it's just about, yeah, don't get lost in how much you think you suck."
You can watch all of Night Drives: Season 2 as well as the rest of Slamdance here through January 28th.
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