Adventure Time's Stop-Motion Ep: Director Kirsten Lepore on Creating Finn, Jake and the Land of Ooo

Emily Maas Aslanian
Adventure Time - Bad Jubies
Cartoon Network

Holy shmow, are you ready for Adventure Time's first stop-motion episode? If you're not, don't worry. We spoke to Kirsten Lepore, who directed and wrote the episode, titled "Bad Jubies," about all the things that'll have you going, "Oh my glob."

Adventure Time - Bad Jubies - Kirsten Lepore

Steve Gunther/Cartoon Network

Kirsten Lepore

What is going on with Finn and the gang in this episode?
Basically, some of our four favorite characters [Finn, Jake, LSP, and Beemo] are hanging out and a weather forecast comes in that there’s this crazy impending storm that’s trying to destroy all of Ooo. So, they all have to come up with a plan to save themselves; Jake, meanwhile, has a different plan.

Were there any other characters you wanted to add?
I wanted to add Shelby the worm that was in Jake’s viola. A lot of it though was, the more characters you add in, the more you had to build. So we had to keep it somewhat limited, but I just chose my four favorites. I’m pretty excited about some LSP moments because she’s my absolute favorite.

Since you wrote the story for this episode, in addition to directing it, how did you choose the storyline?
I had a ton of ideas coming into the process of all sort of ways that we can work in the stop-motion element, and I remember having a meeting with Pendleton Ward, the creator, and a bunch of other writers, and I think some of my initial ideas were too self-aware of the medium. One thing that Pen said to me that helped me get in the right direction was that the character can’t be aware that they’re animated. They’re real. They exist in this world. So I went down a different path with a story that I feel is a little more personal to me. Jake is similar to me as a child. So there’s a lot of little personal elements, and fun little bits that I pulled from different parts of my life.

What was it was like building a stop-motion world for Adventure Time?
There were a lot challenges in adapting the TV world into stop-motion. For example, LSP was a challenge, getting her lumps right and making her in 3D. There were also a lot of sets we had to build. When I originally wrote the episode, I was trying to keep a budget in mind and keep it simpler, but I think the crew got really, really excited about everything that was in the episode and just wanted to build it out. Everyone was so enthusiastic and really put their all into it making it as magical as it could be.

Adventure Time - Bad Jubies

Cartoon Network

Finn

How many people did you have on your team for this?
We did all the production at Bix Pix Studios in Sun Valley. We had about 30-40 people working on it. Not simultaneously; they would come and go throughout different parts of the process.

How did you make LSP float?
In stop-motion, any time a character is airborne, it has to be put on a rig, which then gets removed in post [production]. She’s basically suspended on a steel rod, so we have to go through and remove those rods afterwards. Even if it was something like Finn running up the hill, any time his feet hit the ground, you drill him into the set with just straight-up nuts and bolts. Then, as soon as both of his feet leave the ground, he has to be suspended by one of those steel rods again. You’re really fighting gravity with stuff like this. There are even people whose job it is specifically to rig. There was a rigger on this project, and his job was to come in and go over the shots, figure out where the rigs needed to be placed, what kind of rig needed to be use, the trajectory of the character and how that affects the rig. It’s a complicated job. It involves a lot of metal machinery knowledge.

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There's so much that goes into stop-motion that nobody really knows about.
That’s part of the magic of stop-motion. I think it’s good that the audience doesn’t know how much work went into it, or else they might not enjoy it as much. The littlest things, like a character being airborne for a frame, can be a whole ordeal.

How long did the whole episode take to come together once you had the story?
The story and pre-production process takes more than half the time it usually takes to make [the episode]. All the concept stuff is the first six months or so, really nailing it down, and then the actual production is the second half of that. All of our animation time, building the animation at Bix Pix, was only like 10 or 11 weeks, which seems to me really short. My other films took like two years and they’re like 11 minutes. It was five weeks for fabrication of all the puppets and the set and the props, and then five weeks for the animation. And while the animation was coming in, during those five weeks, there’s also a team of people doing post-production as well, taking out those rigs, and changing things up.

So if you wanted to change anything in the story, you couldn’t. You’re pretty much locked in.
Yeah, I’m pretty locked in. You have a little leeway with action and things like that. In the storyboards, we have the major poses and everything, but a couple times the animators would just call me in to approve a shot, and they’d say, “Kirsten, I’m sorry. I went rogue.” Basically, they thought of a really funny idea of something the puppet could do that would make it better, make it funnier, and it almost always was the right decision and made for a better shot.

Adventure Time - Bad Jubies

Cartoon Network

BMO

How much say do the animators get?
Your animators are kind of like your actors. You’re really just working with this puppet, but it’s all about an animator’s ability to act through the puppet, on a much lower time base as well. It’s taking you six hours to do 10 seconds of something. So as an animator, you’re acting in slow motion and each animator has their own style. I can tell, because I know them personally, like ‘Oh yeah, that’s a Michael shot. That’s a Rachel shot.’ You give different animators different characters based on their style and personality, just like you would with actors.

Were you a fan of Adventure Time before this opportunity arose? How did it come about?
It’s funny because I was very aware of the show before this came about, and I’d seen a couple episodes. There used to be this end tag for Frederator studios that would play at the end of the episodes in Seasons 1 and 2 years ago when I was living in my parents' basement in New Jersey. I had done that end tag, so I got to go to the premiere party when the show first started. I hadn’t seen anything except the pilot and Adventure Time’s come a long way since the pilot. It took me a couple years to finally watch some more of it. So I got this email and I was like, ‘Okay so for research, I have to watch everything. Every episode.’ It only took about two or three episodes before I was like, ‘This is the best show ever,’ and I totally love it. It made me even more excited to work on it and be apart of the massive world that is Adventure Time.

Adventure Time - Bad Jubies - treehouse

Cartoon Network

Treehouse

What was your favorite part of the episode to create in stop-motion?
It was just really exciting to see all the puppets come together, once they had done all the sculpting and pulling of the silicon pieces that are the characters and putting them together. It was like, this is them! They exist! Writing something down and seeing it transform into a physical object was super exciting.

What other fun bits of stop-motion should we look out for?
We remade the intro as well. That was one of those things where initially Bix Pix was supposed to handle the content of the episode, and I was going to do the intro. Production did end up building some sets for me, just to help me out with the ones that appear at the end of the intro, but especially the whole beginning of the intro. That was completely built and animated by me. I had to build all those little candy cane gumball characters, which was insane because you only see them for like, two frames, but I still had to build all of them. Remaking that intro was really a challenge. It was a garage creation.

If you could pick any show in the world for a stop-motion episode, which one would you choose?
I’ve actually never thought about this before. I feel like if it hadn’t been Adventure Time, I would’ve said Adventure Time. I wonder how a lot of live-action shows would translate, like a stop-motion special of X-Files!

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Adventure Time's "Bad Jubies" airs on Cartoon Network, Thursday, Jan. 14 at 7:30/6:30c.