Advertising, Web, TV

Hulu: SECRET CHEF, a Mischievous Cooking Show!

Cheffy Oil Painting

The Assignment:

Our clients at Spoke/Wheelhouse asked us to complete two separate tasks for their new Hulu show, Secret Chef. First, create an animated “host” in the style of an N64 CG animated character that the production team could operate on set while they were filming using real time performance capture tools. Second, design and create a complete in-show broadcast graphics package that included animated title treatments, lower thirds, etc. Let’s take a look at each of these tasks one at a time. But for context, here’s the description of the show:

Ten contestants from all walks of life — from professional chefs and home cooks to social media influencers — are isolated in a secret underground kitchen labyrinth connected by a series of conveyor belts. Guided by a mischievous animated talking hat, the chefs are tasked to perform a series of cooking challenges. However, there are no judges, and the chefs must rate each other’s final dishes in blind taste tests.

Creating Cheffy:

While the show was designed to have no judges or host, EP/Showrunner, Patrick Doody still needed a way to guide the contestants on set. His clever idea was to have Pipsqueak Animation create an animated character that he could use to convey information to the chefs. But because production couldn’t script the interactions ahead of time, we quickly realized we needed to come up with a character that could easily be animated in real time on set.

Fortunately, Adobe had the perfect solution for us, a relatively lesser known product called Character Animator. With a similar level of complexity as setting up a puppet in Adobe Animate or ToonBoom, Character Animator allows a user to animate a character by tracking their head movement and lip sync with nothing more than a garden variety web camera. And their product team offered us super helpful support throughout the show making the choice of picking a new package (for us!) much less risky.

2D Design:

While the technical details of how we needed to setup the character were slightly different from other animation packages, our general pipeline was very similar. As always, we needed to start with a design for what quickly became known as “Cheffy”. Or in the case of this show, probably a hundred or more designs! While the showrunner, Patrick, was pretty sure he wanted Cheffy to resemble a Nintendo 64, 90s era animated character, on big shows like this with a lot of stakeholders, it’s always critical to show the team a variety of options.

In the end, we landed on the following design:

Production used the above design for all of their on-set print graphics. So, for instance, they printed Cheffy on note pads and evaluation forms that the contestants used throughout the filming of episodes.

3D Design:

But production wanted to separate this more cartoony version of Cheffy from the animated character that would speak to contestants. And for that version, we started with the cartoony version above and figured out how to break it into pieces and shade it to feel like a 90s CG character. That meant we thought about how we would have modeled this character way back when. And that meant, we considered how we would construct each piece as a small number of triangles. We then shaded each “polygon” to feel like the old lighting models we used back then. So, yes, the jagged silhouette is all intentional!

Here’s what the “fake 3D” version of Cheffy looks like:

From here, we created three sets of phonemes for Cheffy — happy, neutral and sad. From there, it was a straightforward process of creating the digital puppet, designing a handful of backgrounds and testing it out to make sure all of the head movement, lip sync, and eye controls worked as expected. In addition, we hand animated several special purpose clips that the production could trigger on set — things like confetti exploding out of Cheffy’s head or having Cheffy spin on and off screen.

Check out one of our special animations below!

In case you were wondering why the show used all of these various styles for the character, it’s because the entire set was conceived as a mish-mash of different time periods and styles. Here’s an image from the actual set.

One of the cool things about using Character Animator is that the showrunner was able to use his voice while shooting the show but when they later cast an actor as the final voice of Cheffy, they could simply run the new vocal performance through the system and the lip sync automatically updated to match the new vocals! Pretty nifty and a huge time saver.

Broadcast Graphics:

While we were working on Cheffy, we also began work on all of the onscreen graphics that the show would need. We started by designing the logo — a challenge that ended up taking considerable effort. Like the initial designs of Cheffy, we needed to first come up with a variety of different styles to show to the creative team. But because the tone of the show wasn’t set yet (this was all prior to filming), it wasn’t clear what combination of mystery, spy craft, nostalgia, comedy or puzzle solving the show would emphasize.

In the end, the network decided they wanted a simple, clean look for the graphics. After many rounds of different ideas, they ultimately really liked the following two ideas but decided on more of a gold treatment for color.

Here’s a test we did that combined these ideas for the animated opening — it’s a combination of a 3D camera move over a 2D treatment. And they liked all the various paper and distressing treatments we did so much they decided to use them all!

Once we had the design language locked (fonts, feel, background style, etc), we were off to the races designing and animating all the other elements needed for the show. These elements included things like lower thirds, rating cards, countdown timers, split card treatments, “alias” cards and more. In all, we had 100+ separate elements to deliver. Check out a few below:

And there you have it! A taste of of what it takes to design graphics for a big streaming reality cooking show. It was a lot of work but quite fun and rewarding. We hope you enjoy.

And remember, if you need personalized, white glove service for any of your animation needs, give us a holler. We provide great value for your dollar and we guarantee you’ll enjoy working with us!