Boxfort Design Group on pitching Sky-Law


Boxfort Design Group on pitching Sky-Law

Promising high-altitude action adventure and stylish animated sequences, Sky-Law is an action-comedy series pitch inspired by adventure serials, rendered in a stylized, early-1970s aesthetic. Driven by an ensemble cast of flawed characters, with striking designs and complex backstories, the proposed series has instant appeal, as seen in concept illustrations and action-packed animatics.

Sky-Law is the shared vision of Boxfort Design Group, consisting of Amy Patnovic and Andy Weishaar (directors and co-creators), George Sellas (concept and visual development artist) and Davide Abbina (storyboard artist & illustrator). Their team stopped over at Toon Boom Animation to talk to us about the project. From the highly-considered inspirations behind Sky-Law’s visual inspiration, to a run-down of the tools they used in Storyboard Pro to bring the animatics to life. 

Much like their high-flying cast, the talented crew behind Sky-Law hope to reach great heights with the project — which they are currently pitching to studios. We will also hear a little about their pitching process, with plenty of insights for anyone developing an adult animated series. Explore the work that has gone into Sky-Law and read our full interview below…

Please open with a short synopsis of Sky-Law…

Andy: Sky-Law is an animated adventure-comedy set in the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s. Inspired by the era’s best cartoons; think Jonny Quest and Space Ghost, but for an adult audience. Once the most prestigious airline in the world, Javelin Air has fallen on hard times, enlisting misfits, screw-ups and failures to ferry passengers around the globe — enter the flight crew of the Hermes-848. 

This disparate set of personalities can barely coexist, let alone file a successful flight plan. But as the crew encounters an increasing amount of reality-bending in-flight incidents and the spectre of encroaching rival airlines they find themselves setting differences aside and banding together to become the law these skies so desperately need.

Rick, Coop, Beverly and Wilcox enjoying a standoff with a squid at the Noodle Wagon. The decor blending samurai and cowboy imagery is surprisingly not anachronistic, as samurai and cowboys briefly coexisted in the late 1800s.
Concept art provided by Boxfort Design Group.

Who are the main characters in Sky-Law?

Amy: Sky-Law is very much an ensemble character-driven experience, and features four main leads. 

  • At the helm is Captain Rick Gamble, a reluctant and self-destructive leader who was once considered one of America’s greatest military pilots. He hides decades of regret and self-loathing behind his trademark aviators and ample beard. 
  • He shares the cockpit with his first officer, Robert ‘Coop’ Cooper, resident smart-ass and classic example of nepotism’s extraordinary power of failing upwards and whose greatest talent is for getting the crew into sticky situations. 
  • Beverly Nakamura is the no-nonsense Head Stewardess known for her ‘direct’ approach and often tasked with the role of unwilling babysitter, holding the flight crew together and ensuring the safety of the passengers despite the ridiculous impulses of some of her fellow colleagues. Beverly dreams of becoming the first Japanese-American commercial aviator to land in the captain’s seat. 
  • And the newest member of the crew is Wilcox, the brilliant-but-socially-awkward Chief Navigator who safely guides the Hermes and its passengers from departure to arrival. But his most important job — and one he takes very seriously — is acting as the moral and emotional compass of the crew guiding them through the turbulence of their professional and personal lives.

Can you tell us about their visual style and design process?

Amy: After yet another rejection, and notes that the original style of the show looked too similar to an existing animated series, Andy and I were on a flight back from LA and we came up with a new direction on the spot. We agreed the show’s animation style should match the style of the times and were inspired by illustrator Alex Toth. I threw together some model sheets using actual ink on Bristol. Once we brought George onto the project, he was able to take this idea and completely transform and create the amazing visual style of Sky-Law.

George: When I joined the project, Andy and Amy already had the world of Sky-Law fleshed out with their earlier designs, and they asked me to reimagine this world in a cartoon-ier style, along the lines of Jonny Quest or The Venture Bros.

With any project I work on, I like to ask a lot of questions to really understand what my client is going for and who these characters are. I spent a lot of time looking at Alex Toth’s character design work from the 60s and 70s, looking at references for 60s era style and technology. 

From there it was the typical flow – rough sketches, discussion with Andy and Amy, revise until approved, and then do the final clean art, while trying to keep that Toth line quality and 60s inspiration in mind.

Rick holds a donut while Coop follows behind with a coffee. A squid's arm emerges from a crate to squeeze a Javelin employee.
Concept art provided by Boxfort Design Group.

What are some of the show’s inspirations?

Andy: Visually, the series is inspired heavily by the vibrancy of the time period, leveraging the styles, colors and fashion of the late ‘60s and 1970s. We’re hoping to marry the power and grit of Steve McQueen’s classic, Bullitt, with the visual language and attention to detail of Saul Bass-inspired title sequences and overall aesthetic. 

Sky-Law leans into the classic styles of animation like Jonny Quest and Space Ghost and tries to blend it with that spirit and call to adventure of the original series Star Trek. We want the audience to forget they’re watching a cartoon and just be invested in the characters and the story. To that point, we want the series to feel as cinematic as possible, giving special attention to camera position, lighting and depth of field for character-driven moments. It will also take advantage of the animated medium to create wide, sweeping shots of the locations and environments, occasionally integrating split-screens, triptychs, and geometric color blocks to elevate key moments.

How would you describe the colour palette we see in the character and environment concept illustrations?

George: For characters and environments, I wanted to pick up on colors or the general tone of late 60s movies, which were colorful but slightly muted. They’d frequently have this warmth and softness and unity to the colors and values.

So I tried to keep the colors a bit subdued and on the warmer side. Of course, this is a cartoon, so sometimes we throw all of that out the window and just go crazy with color for a particular effect or mood. For characters specifically, many of the characters are wearing uniforms of the same colors that would have been typical of the era, such as all the stewardesses wearing teal, or the pilots wearing navy blue and white. So since there are a lot of shared colors, I made their personal details, colors, and silhouettes unique to distinguish them.

How did you approach the aerial combat scenes we can see in the animatics?

Davide: Let’s start by describing how the scene was set script-wise. As usual, I had all the references collected for the mood board of this scene. But unlike a normal script, what I had was a map of the island around which the scene took place, the number of aircraft that were participating in the dogfight and their routes around the island, with their approximate entry spots and death spots. The rest was entirely up to me!

So, like any other scene, I started by thumbnailing the key moments that I absolutely wanted to put into this scene, including a Maverick-like maneuver that you may have spotted! And the gags and the micro-situations that are recurring in the cockpits. I tried to maintain a crescendo of tension and danger throughout the dogfight, raising the challenge for the crew at every turn of the chase. This also helped me to show how terrific Rick is as a pilot, as he makes that huge plane fly in an unrealistic way. During the briefing Andy told me: “Don’t worry about making the planes fly realistically, if something works, break the laws of physics”.

And then I asked the team for 3D models of the aircraft that might be useful to better render the dynamics of the scene. At that point I started assembling the scene shot by shot as they were in the thumbnails.

The flight path from the animatic, detailing where planes enter the scene and where they crash.

What tools within Storyboard Pro proved useful when creating these animatics?

Davide: All of the 3D tools are at the top of the list! They turned out to be very useful while demanding proper planning before getting to work. Like everything in animation, after all.

The camera tool also proved to be an excellent tool, especially when used to serve the scene. To accompany a character’s movement or to simulate the shaky-cam to give realistic weight to something moving through the frame. For example, I used the shaky-cam in the chase scene not only in its obvious way, to simulate the turbulence in the cockpits when the planes are suddenly turning their directions, but more importantly to make feel their passage very close to our point of view in the external shots.

Also, the camera tool, combined with the 3D tool, proved to be crucial in the reef sequence of the chase scene. The camera tool helped a lot in going deep into the shot and in giving depth to the shot itself, giving the perception of the rocks passing by while the fighter dodges them.

Generally speaking, as this is true for everything I did with it, I really like the vectorial approach to drawing that this software has. It takes no time getting used to it. And once done, it becomes very intuitive and speeds up the process, which is crucial when boarding requires fast sketching.

What has the process been like of finding a studio and pitching Sky-Law for production?

Amy: We’re actively pitching right now! We’ve spent a lot of time developing our concept, refining the storylines/characters, and calibrating a pitch that would showcase its uniqueness. We’re dedicated to telling a compelling story, making sure that our concept stands out from the rest. And is something that people would be excited to watch. Part of that process includes a willingness to value feedback and evolve ideas in order to make them viable for the broadest audience. 

Thumbnails from the island chase scene in the Sky-Law pitch animatic.

What advice can you offer other teams intending to pitch their own animated feature?

Andy: Get used to hearing the word ‘No’. Rejection is a big part of the process. Success doesn’t need to be linear and it only takes one Yes among all the No’s to make your idea a reality. You can’t take it personally, but you can certainly learn from it. Take the feedback, retool your pitch and get back out there.  You and your team need to be receptive to critique and weigh what’s most precious and untouchable vs what you’re willing to recalibrate in order for decision-makers to become receptive to your vision.

What is the Boxfort Design Group and what is your mission as a team?

Andy: BoxFort is an award-winning digital studio collective of in-house designers, animators and directors with a shared love of integrated storytelling and a flair for classic design. We formed BFD Group with a simple mission: To create high-quality work that moves the needle emotionally and connects with a target audience. Our projects are incredibly diverse and can span from information design and data visualization to video production, interactive experiences and, of course, creating this animated series. 

Concept art provided by Boxfort Design Group.

What is the grand vision for Sky-Law, should your plans come to fruition?

Andy: First and foremost, we want to tell a story worthy enough that it connects with an audience who falls in love and cares about these characters as much as we do. Beyond that, we want to position this series to take advantage of its new and untapped IP. 

Amy: We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how this series can differentiate itself from others in the same space and one of the ways is leveraging the deep world building we’ve done. There are a lot of quality stories in various mediums that have yet to be told in the Sky-Law universe.

Any final words or acknowledgements?

George: Huge thanks to Andy and Amy for bringing me onto this project and entrusting me with the visual identity of the world of Sky-Law. Thanks to the other talented artists and animators who have contributed to creating this world and these characters. Special shout-out to Davide for absolutely blowing me away with his storyboards, particularly the aerial combat scene he talked about. And thanks to Toon Boom for asking us to participate in this interview!

Davide: Like George, a huge thanks to Andy and Amy for giving me this opportunity which has given me not only the chance to work on a funny and rewarding project, but has been the opportunity to break into the industry!

Thanks to George for his beautiful and clever concept design work which made my work easier and funnier, and to the rest of the artists in the team that are bringing this project to life! And lastly thanks to Toon Boom for this unexpected and very rewarding opportunity!

Andy: Just a thank you to George Sellas and Davide Abbina. A project of this scale is very much an exercise in collaboration and trust and we’ve been very fortunate to surround ourselves with incredibly creative artists like David and George who’s ideas and talent raises the bar exponentially. Also, thank you to Toon Boom for the opportunity to talk about the series, our process and of course for the tools to help make it a reality!

  • To see more concept imagery from Sky-Law, follow the project on Instagram. Passengers can also keep up with Boxfort Design Group on the studio’s website.
  • Interested in accompanying your next pitch with an animatic? Artists can download a 21-day trial for Storyboard Pro.

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