Zi Chen on making a Ramshackle Pilot


Zi Chen on making a Ramshackle Pilot

Ramshackle is a series which follows the misadventures of three street rats — Skipp, Stone, and Vinnie — as they try to survive on the streets of their crime-ridden town. The series is not tied to a specific era or genre, and was best described as “a chaotic mashup of vintage aesthetics” from creator Zi Chen’s imagination. Ramshackle started off as Zi’s thesis film at Sheridan in July of 2020, and later continued as a serialised comic published on Webtoon.

Zi is an animator and storyboard artist by trade, who has since animated on the Hazbin Hotel pilot, Helluva Boss, Lackadaisy and Arlo the Alligator Boy. Ramshackle’s next chapter is a Kickstarter campaign for an animated pilot episode. We invited Zi onto our livestream to discuss her pilot for Ramshackle, currently in production, and all of the work that goes into an independent crowdfunded production.

This article is an excerpt adapted from our livestream interview with Zi Chen, discussing the work that went into developing Ramshackle‘s pilot.

What is Ramshackle? How long have you been working on it? And what was the process of developing the characters like?

Zi: Ramshackle is a project I’ve been developing since I was around 11 or 12-years-old. It follows the misadventures of three street rats — Skip, Stone, and Vinny — as they try to survive in their crime-ridden town. They embark on various goofy adventures, including pickpocketing and scamming people, making them lovable anti-heroes.

How have your doodles, drawings and characters developed over time?

Zi: I don’t know if anyone knows this, but the characters used to be animals during my Neopets and Pokémon phase. I started by tracing Neopets and Pokémon, then decided to make my own, creating Skip, Stone, and Vinny as Neopets rip-offs. Eventually, I gave them personalities, and, tired of drawing animals, I wanted them to have cool hairstyles and human clothes. So eventually they turned human, but their personalities are still the same, but they evolved.

The basis of their personalities are all still the same. But since I made them when I was so young, they kind of grew up with me. So I just added stuff, experiences from my life, into their lives, and just made them more rounded and like what the characters are today.

Zi Chen’s Ramshackle thesis film at Sheridan.

We last interviewed you about your Thesis Film from 2020. How have you grown as an artist and animator since that project?

Zi: There’s so much that’s changed. I’ve become more appreciative of minimalist animation, where the focus isn’t necessarily on smooth or fluid movement but on effectively telling the story through well-thought-out expressions or poses with fewer frames, yet it’s punchy and powerful.

Shows like Panty & Stocking influenced me. After my thesis, I wondered why I didn’t adopt that style for my film. Initially, my thesis film was like a business card, to get a job post-graduation, so I aimed for beautiful, smooth animation. But now, I appreciate minimalist animation too. My style has evolved, and I’ve learned a lot about being a leader, directing a film, developing people skills to have people work in harmony. I’ve grown a lot since then.

My character designs have also changed; initially, they appeared much younger due to the eyes and head being really round and big. They got a facelift so they appear a little older. That’s what’s changed about Ramshackle since the thesis film.

How old are the characters supposed to be in the current iteration of Ramshackle?

Zi: There’s no set age, but they’re meant to be older than children, likely in their late teens. I haven’t specified their ages because, as a kid, I thought I’d keep the characters my age. Every single year, they’d be my age. But as I outgrew them, I decided to give a general age range, like the late teens.

Do you feel your focus on minimalism in animation comes from you having more confidence in your shot composition and visual storytelling?

Zi: Yeah, I’ve always liked shows like Wander Over Yonder, where they hold poses for several seconds with only minimal movements. The choice of what and how to move is so entertaining and appealing that I wanted to try that style. I believe one of my strengths is posing and expressions, which aids in exploring that style of animation. When people compliment animation, they often mention its smoothness, and I worried mine would be seen as bad if it’s not smooth. But now, seeing how shows like Panty & Stocking and Wander Over Yonder are gorgeous – I feel like doing what I want.

It doesn’t detract from the story; it’s just a different style. Especially with anime, the drawings are so gorgeous and detailed that you want to hold on those frames because they’re like moving illustrations. It’s all about intent. If you know what you’re doing and it aids the storytelling, it’ll work, and the audience won’t mind.

Official trailer for Ramshackle‘s animated pilot.

Let’s talk about the animated pilot. What is the size and scope of the project that you’re currently working on?

Zi: Originally, it was meant to be a typical eleven-minute pilot, like those on Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon, but we went slightly over, so it’s about 13 to 14 minutes. It won’t be a long, 30-minute pilot but quite short. I think Ramshackle suits that shorter, more concise, punchy episode format better anyway.

Our audience has some questions about the character designs: Stone appears to have a necklace on every iteration of his design. What is the necklace?

Zi: That’s a good question. Honestly, I don’t really know. Back when they were still animals, I didn’t want them to be just plain, so I gave each one an accessory. Stone was a completely blue griffin without color contrast, so I added a shiny necklace to him. Now, everyone asks about the necklace’s significance, but initially, it was just for decoration. Stone had the necklace Vinnie had a bandana, and Skip had a scarf. Each character had their little accessory without a specific reason behind it.

How did you come up with the name for the baby?

Zi: Oh my god, yes. Finding a name for the baby was challenging because it needed to be chaotic enough to suit what the trio would choose but also cute in a baby-like way. Then, one of my friends suggested calling them Maggie, but as a short form for Maggot. I thought Maggot was perfect, especially since the baby looks like a maggot. 

Ramshacke’s pilot introduces Maggot, a baby found by Skipp, Stone, and Vinnie.

What was your approach to the amount of detail that you put into different character design elements?

Zi: I’ve been drawing these characters for so long that it’s become muscle memory. However, when creating your own animations, it’s important to understand your limits and the level of detail you’re willing to handle. I’m comfortable with my characters because I’ve been drawing them most of my life

But if you’re starting out, you should experiment to see what works and what doesn’t with your style. I had a hard time with my characters because they didn’t rotate properly, and didn’t work in a 3D space. So I learned to cheat the details in certain views to make it work, as rotating them was too difficult. I’m not sure if this completely answers your question, but I hope it provides some insight.

Can you walk our audience through the production process on a sequence from the upcoming Ramshackle pilot?

Zi: Starting from the beginning, the process begins with writing, which I do at the same time as storyboarding due to me being a visual storyteller. It’s challenging to write slapstick humor without visuals, so I tackle jokes and storyboards at the same time. I also do the scratch voices to ensure the delivery aligns with my vision and that the voice actors mimic that. After pre-production, I have voice actors record their parts, then break down the storyboard by scene, providing a detailed guide for animators to follow to a tee, to ensure correct amount of frames and shot length.

I then oversee the rough animation, followed by clean-up, providing extensive notes and draw-overs for both stages. Once clean-up is completed, the animation moves to compositing. Currently, we’re reviewing every shot in the animatic, integrating finished shots into the final Premiere file to check for consistency and correct any issues, or color issues. The process is we go through with a fine-tooth comb, tweaking everything.

What was your vision for the pilot episode that motivated you to launch Ramshackle on Kickstarter and Patreon, and what is the purpose of the pilot?

Zi: I’ve been developing these characters for so long, and my projects with them have grown increasingly larger. I started with a webcomic, then created a thesis film, and wondered what could top that, leading to the idea of a pilot. Ramshackle has always felt more suited to audio-visual media. While I could have continued the webcomic, I realise that I enjoy animation, especially because it allows me to integrate music, which is important to me as many characters are inspired by songs. 

I wanted to do a fully fledged pilot, partially because of the music.I think people enjoy watching pilots more than reading comics. A fully animated episode engages audiences more than webcomics. Wanting to try something different, I decided to go ahead with the pilot.

How would you describe the response to your Ramshackle project on Kickstarter and Patreon?

Zi: The response has been pretty good. It hasn’t gone viral, but I’ve been posting these characters online since I was 12, and the fanbase has grown healthily and gradually. People seem genuinely excited, evidenced by the trailer getting around 400k views, far more than I expected. I owe a lot to my fans, friends, and family who have supported me since my Neopets and Pokemon days. The response has been very nice, and some cool industry people have started to notice as well, which is surprising and exciting for me.

In an ideal world, how long would you want Ramshackle to run for?

Zi: I’ve envisioned it as an episodic show similar to SpongeBob, but with more nuanced, grounded characters like in Gravity Falls, undergoing arcs and changes. At its root, it’s a fun comedy so I don’t see any huge overarching plots. It will focus more on misadventures where characters learn and explore the world of Ramshackle – I see that being ongoing forever

How would you describe the process of assembling and organizing a production crew?

Zi: For my thesis film at Sheridan, we had a meet and greet for lower-year students to volunteer as colorists for our projects, which is how I found mine. However, for the composer and the entire cast and crew for the pilot, I recruited them through Twitter by simply making a post asking for collaborators.

After posting, I received numerous demo reels and sifted through them, noting the standout ones. It’s different being on the hiring side; I now understand the advice to showcase your best work first. Now I’m recruiting, I understand this because of the need to quickly assess hundreds of submissions. If a reel doesn’t grab my attention in the first five seconds, I move on. Finding animators whose style aligns with the show is hard; good animation isn’t enough if it doesn’t fit the style of your show, so you have to pass. 

I also like giving people who haven’t yet worked in the industry a chance, remembering how I started on another’s project. I’m keen to pay it forward, and invite them to join our crew.

Do you feel that your experience on working on shows like Hazbin Hotel and Lackadaisy was helpful to gain the experience to direct and run a production?

Zi: I definitely wouldn’t have had the confidence to start my own pilot if I hadn’t already worked on another indie pilot. They’re not structured much differently than a studio setting, but working on someone else’s pilot shows that it’s achievable, even without a huge budget. It’s inspiring to see how different people manage their projects, helping you decide what you’d like to incorporate into your own production. If you’re interested in making an indie animated pilot, I highly recommend working on one first to understand the process and meet cool people who might end up working on your show too, given the tight-knit nature of the community.

In your estimation, what has been the most interesting or challenging part of producing the pilot so far?

Zi: Actually, the most challenging aspect was the business. I didn’t expect it, but running an indie pilot is like running a business, involving tasks like managing taxes. You have to be very professional, with timely payments and proper contracts. We had a business class in school, but it didn’t really apply until starting this “business”.

Another challenge was learning to be a leader, balancing firmness with being nice and mastering communication. If you have a shot that you’re getting frustrated with, you need to solve that problem with your artist. It’s crucial to clearly convey what you want to the artists, as they can’t read your mind. Trying to articulate what you want – giving visual notes effectively without just doing the task yourself requires really describing it properly. It really is a skill, you have to learn it.

Working with my sound designer has introduced me to many terms I wasn’t aware of. When I try to explain what I want, they often provide the correct term, like, “Oh, you mean this?” It’s cool to learn the specific lingo, which simplifies communication and avoids convoluted descriptions by using the right word.

What do you have to manage on the business side?

Zi: I’ve mainly learned by consulting other independent filmmakers, following their advice, and conducting my own research. There aren’t many people in independent filmmaking, so it’s important to ask peers about their experiences and the business challenges they’ve faced. My only prior business knowledge was from a college class that I didn’t pay much attention to, so learning by going through it myself has been easier. When unsure, I ask others for help, having contacted numerous accountants and professionals both within and outside the industry. Each production or studio is unique, so I gather all this information and apply what fits to my specific production.

Do you have any advice for artists who are interested in crowdfunding pilots of their own?

Zi: If you don’t have a fan base yet, it’s important to build one first. Starting with smaller projects, like how Ramshackle evolved from a comic to a thesis film and then to a pilot, can help build an audience. Comics are an effective way to introduce your characters and story, creating a context that can make people more interested in supporting your Kickstarter. Even simple character drawings can generate interest, especially if they showcase your characters’ behaviour personalities and place them in situations that will make people fall in love with them.

Building a fan base is crucial before launching a crowdfunding campaign, as it helps in garnering trust and love for your project. A lot of independent pilot creators start with comics, establishing a solid foundation for their characters and story before moving into animation.

Do you feel that that experience of having an audience and having a publication schedule had an influence on how you developed as an artist?

Zi: Yes, creating webcomics really pushes you to learn various skills quickly since you have to produce content consistently. You learn to handle backgrounds, expressions, pacing, and writing, effectively becoming a jack of all trades. This process not only enhances your artistic abilities but also helps in growing your fan base, which is a win-win.

How many people are working on the Ramshackle production currently, and what are they doing?

Zi: We have around 50 people in the server, but this count includes friends who may have contributed just once and then left. In total, there are 50 to 60 people involved, covering voice actors, managers, and various production roles. Specifically for artists, about half are involved in cleanup, animation, or compositing. It’s a medium-sized crew, though the exact comparison is uncertain, but it’s a decent amount.

If someone wanted to work on Ramshackle, what would your advice be for them?

Zi: Please include very strong posing and acting in your portfolio, as I’m assuming this is for animator positions. I prefer snappy animation to overly fluid animation, so that would be a plus. It’s crucial to have lip sync examples in your portfolio since this project is a comedy with frequent dialogue. Not having lip sync could lead to portfolio rejection. Also, include human characters, not just animals, to show you can draw both. Portfolios with a style similar to Ramshackle are ideal, as it’s hard to gauge your ability to draw our characters on model if your work is exclusively in a different style, like anime. If you have something similar in your portfolio already, that’d be perfect.

Are there any YouTube videos, podcasts books that you’ve used as resources that you found particularly helpful when working on Ramshackle?

Zi: I enjoy watching streams of other artists working on their projects, like Lackadaisy’s work streams, where they chat and share insights about their animated pilot. It’s a great way to learn, although I’m too shy to actively participate and usually just lurk. Fable and Tracy from Lackadaisy are really awesome. I don’t really listen to podcasts, but I find watching other indie shows helpful for understanding what I like or dislike, particularly in writing. Observing how other Indie shows to see what you like helps how you approach my own pilot.

Within the process, what in terms of creative process do you enjoy working on the most?

Zi: I really like writing, especially when I’m in the right groove. Crafting silly jokes or character moments is enjoyable, though I’m not as skilled at character moments. When writing flows, it’s satisfying because it’s a crucial step in bringing characters to life. Your episode hinges on the characters and story; a gorgeous animation can’t save a flat story. Another favourite aspect is rough animation. I’ve always wanted to be an animator, so although I don’t animate as much nowadays, but when I do it’s very nice

What parts of the animation pipeline did you learn more about on this production?

Zi: Definitely backgrounds and compositing, as those are my weak points. I didn’t focus much on them in school, especially compositing, where I often feel out of my depth due to my limited technical knowledge. While I don’t composite shots in Ramshackle myself, I still need to provide notes and learn the terminology used by compositors. It’s really interesting to see how it all works.

We’re blending layers and adding rim light all using Toon Boom Harmony. I’ve been working with Harmony throughout my animation career but didn’t fully understand what those nodes did until the compositing team showed me. When I opened one of their files, it was enlightening to see the function of each node. I’ve learned a lot about compositing through this process. Directing backgrounds is challenging for me since I don’t specialize in them. Sometimes, I know something looks off but can’t pinpoint why, so I work closely with the background artists to address any issues. Communication is crucial to maintain a smooth animation pipeline. I didn’t need to focus on this during my thesis film since I worked alone, but in a team environment, clear communication is key.

  • Interested in seeing more from Zi Chen and the world of Ramshackle? The pilot will premiere this spring on Zi’s YouTube channel as well as X at @ZeddyZi.
  • Ready to get started on your own animated project? Artists can download a 21-day trial of Toon Boom Harmony.

The post Zi Chen on making a Ramshackle Pilot appeared first on Toon Boom Animation.

Courtesy: https://www.toonboom.com/zi-chen-on-making-a-ramshackle-pilot