I set a lot of goals for myself at the start of making this film. At the top of the heap was my desire to entertain myself and the crew who slaved over making The Zit in their spare time. While I didn’t plan on spending three years making this cartoon (I’m not sure I could have convinced myself to undertake the project had I known!), I knew that if I couldn’t get genuinely excited to pound away at the minutiae each and every night, there was no way we would even finish let alone create something that we could all be proud of. I knew that passion would not guarantee a good film, but I also knew from experience that the lack of passion would most certainly damn it to mediocrity at best.
While I tried to ensure that The Zit would operate on a couple of different levels–at a minimum–I wanted the cartoon to first work as a fun, gross out, mystery. I figured if I couldn’t make 10 years olds laugh at a story about a boy with a huge pimple, I was probably in trouble. I knew that some people would be disgusted by the very idea of a pimple flick, but for those that giggled at the title or premise of The Zit, I wanted to give them the best damn pimple movie ever.
Even though The Zit is in many ways a classic gag cartoon, I wanted the gag (or gags) to be truly unexpected and dramatically realized. I wanted to keep the audience a little off-kilter throughout, but at the end of the movie, I hoped people would look back and see how each event logically precedes the next. For instance, even though most people will probably know the title of the cartoon before they see it (and hence, have an idea of what they are getting into!), I hope that those who don’t will think they are settling in to see some kind of cute, cuddly, Norman Rockewell-esque coming of age film until the title card is squirted on screen. Each time the pimple gets bigger, they should think it can’t possibly get any worse. When Timmy has tried everything imaginable to extricate himself from the mess he brought on, the audience should see his clever solution as both completely unexpected and at that the same time logical based on Millie’s obsession with birds. And by the end, I hope people will lament that if he had just let well enough alone, he could have avoided his pimple catastrophe.
While there is nothing wrong with making a simple, funny gag cartoon, if I was going to pour my heart and soul into a project, I wanted to create something truly universal. I wanted to make a cartoon that adults could relate to. After all, who hasn’t had to deal with the embarrassment of an inopportune pimple? Or with body image issues in general? Or who hasn’t had to figure out what it means to grow up and be yourself? Hopefully, at least subconsciously, The Zit will speak to anyone who has had these concerns. And by the cartoon’s end, I hope that the audience is keeping their fingers crossed that Timmy has learned his lesson. In order to have the film resonate at this more universal level, I needed the audience to both fall in love and empathize with Timmy.
I tried to make every other movie making decision reinforce these goals.
Art Direction/Production Design
First and foremost, I wanted to make sure our characters, props and color choices were all appealing. The term “appeal” is vague, but in the context of this short four minute film, I needed audiences to start rooting for the characters as soon as they see them. And the environment needed to be warm and inviting to contrast with the gross, chaotic action. Next, because kids in every age struggle with adolescence, I wanted The Zit to feel timeless and not rooted in any particular era. The retro 50’s feel was our attempt at meeting these goals.
To keep the audience feeling empathetic towards the characters and not repulsed by the action, I was very conscious of keeping the film “funny gross” as opposed to “nauseatingly gross.” In order to straddle this line, we tried to think of the room like a stop motion set where each element was made of some real world object, but not necessarily the element’s real world corollary. So, we have a cat that looks more like a chenille stuffed animal, a pimple that resembles a child’s balloon (with no whitehead!), and zit goop that looks more like men’s shaving cream.
I established a few basic production design principles to enhance the story. First, to make Timmy’s final solution to his pimple problem seem all the more reasonable (if not inevitable), the only sharp object in the room would be cat’s claws. We took this principal so far as to bevel each corner of the room and to dull the end of the plastic fork. I also wanted Timmy’s room to mirror the way he was shaped and reflect his self image, so every piece of furniture is round, dumpy and bottom heavy. Finally, to both reinforce the 50’s-esque feel of the room and allude to the flying action that is at the climax of the short, we peppered room with different kinds of rocket ships: on the wallpaper, on Timmy’s belt buckle, on his shirt, and in the actual flying saucer shape and texture of the ceiling light.
Animation is acting. And if I was going to have audiences connect at an emotional level with the characters and root for Timmy to figure out a solution to his ever escalating predicament, I needed to get great acting performances from both Timmy and Millie. To achieve this, I needed the characters to be rigged with enough controls to allow for the range of emotions that they progressed through to be realized. For Timmy, these controls needed to allow animators to move his flesh around enough to enforce the idea that he was a real, albeit stylized, boy with something organic growing on his face. And since Millie acts partially as a surrogate audience member, observing the action without being omniscient, it was equally important to be able to clearly read her indifference, surprise and fear.
The best, most sophisticated controls in the world mean nothing if you don’t have animators capable of making use of them . And while I had a group of extraordinarily talented animators working on the cartoon, because their time was so limited, I needed to be very precise in my instructions on what needed to be achieved emotionally and physically for every shot. We had no time to re-conceive actions, so each shot needed to be nailed down on the first pass. Iterations had to be limited to merely enhancing the original blocking.
From the earliest conception of the cartoon, I knew that the lighting of the film would be a critical story telling tool that we would use to set the mood of each section of the film. And while I wasn’t radically concerned about maintaining strict continuity between each distinct lighting phase, I did attempt to motivate each lighting change. Since the initial dance hall sequence was all in Timmy’s head, my only goal here was to misdirect the audience and sell the idea that Timmy was actually at the dance, nervously plucking up his courage. The next section of the film is the golden hour period. The sun is starting to set, but we have warm rich sunlight pouring into the room to highlight Timmy’s initial courage and optimism. As Timmy’s predicament is revealed and his situation becomes more desperate, we gradually gradate down to a more somber late golden hour period.
If we succeeded, the audience shouldn’t notice the change as it’s happening. Once Timmy starts flying around the room and hits the ceiling light, we quickly accelerate “sunset” and switch to our film noir period. Here, everything is lit coolly in shadow or light to enhance Timmy’s fear of looking in the mirror. Once Timmy realizes his pimple is gone and he’s skinny, we switch to our last lighting scheme which is somewhere between late golden hour and film noir to highlight both his brightened mood and his fear of a repeat incident.
We found inspiration for the score of The Zit in the classic Warner Brothers cartoons of the 40’s and 50’s, and it was designed to both propel the story forward and to convey the cartoony realism of the piece. Brian DeBoer (our composer) and I had talks as far back as the storyboarding phase about devising music that underscored without telegraphing the action while never overwhelming the animation. A particular challenge was scoring the central portion of the cartoon to highlight Timmy’s ever increasing desperation as the pimple grew. As his actions became more frenzied, the music needed to keep pace in order to make the audience as anxious as Timmy. The opening “dance hall” section was another difficult section to score. I wanted to keep the film as timeless as possible, but at the same time I needed music that would clearly convey “dance” music. Our solution was to score a 50’s-esque swing/love song to reinforce the nostalgic retro-50’s look of the room itself but instrument it in a way to make it feel more modern.
We used sound design in a few concrete ways to help enhance the story. As with every other aspect of the film, I wanted to imbue the material with a heightened, cartoony reality in order to cue the audience that it was OK to laugh but at the same time remind them that from Timmy’s perspective, some pretty scary stuff was happening. In other words, the audience needed to connect with the characters emotionally, but be able to laugh at the ever increasing gross out action. Next, I wanted to subtly cue the audience that Timmy was not a “real” boy, but that he was, in fact, filled head to toe with puss. While the gag works without any explanation, I wanted to set up a universe where a deflating little boy was actually reasonable. By making Timmy slosh and gurgle every time he moved his body, we hoped to make the final reveal more satisfying. Finally, I wanted to leave most of the actual pussy grossness to the audience’s imagination, so when Millie finally pops the zit, I kept the camera locked and had most of the deflation take place off screen. To cue the audience as to what was happening, we used many layered sound effects to play up the action (jet engines, explosions, compressed air sounds and more) and then used all five speakers in the mix to place the audience in the center of Timmy’s fly around.
Was it a Dream?
Many people have asked me if the first three-quarters of the cartoon was just a Timmy daydream. Did he fear he was fat because he was nervous about asking out Suzie? I think it’s great if people want to read the film in this way. While the dream idea wasn’t the primary reading I was shooting for, I did consciously think through this interpretation from the beginning and allowed for some ambiguity during the story development and boarding process.