Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s fantastical train ride through the bowels of the small town/big city of Portland, Oregon has spiraled into the dark crevices of a rat hole. Produced by Portland animation house Bent Image Lab, “Zero Rats” features Fred and Carrie as animated rodents attempting to break into a zero packaging grocery store. The nearly three minute segment directed by Rob Shaw, captures the essence of the improvisation show while not getting lost in animated translation.
The skit opens with a live action shot of Fred and Carrie discussing a new zero packaging grocery store. Fred’s comment about the rat threat prompts a cut to an attic set populated by stop motion rats. Fred Rat, Carrie Rat and a third rat friend, John, plot their pillaging strategy while assessing their strengths (not afraid of mice), weaknesses (freak out, jump all over each other, eat), opportunities (no rat poison and a well placed heating vent) and threats (raccoons, possums) to getting their food. With help from an unsuspecting grocery clerk, the rats’ dreams of a world with zero packaging foods rival that of Charlotte’s Templeton at the county fair, but their exuberance overrules their good sense and their adventure ends with comical results.
“Jonathan, Fred and Carrie came to Bent to take a tour and talk about some visual effects we were doing for other episodes of the show,” remembers Shaw. During the visit the Portlandians brought up an idea they had for a funny animated segment based off of a real zero packaging grocery store. “As soon as they started talking about the ‘Zero Rats’ concept I was completely on board.”
But creating an animated Portlandia segment was going to be tricky. Both live action and animation production require planning and precision, but live action production can thrive off of spontaneity and improvisation while animation requires commitment to its original vision. Capturing Portlandia’s improv style in an animated world while still remaining true to its live action roots required trust, creativity and commitment.
Building a live action show in animation
For the animation process to begin on “Zero Rats” the crew needed the final dialogue nailed down at the beginning so they could develop the storyboards for the animatic (a mock up of storyboards cut to dialogue). The Portlandia cast quickly recorded lines from a script and then jumped into an improv session for just under two hours, giving them plenty of material for the segment.
“Stop motion is rarely unscripted. The voice over is usually set in stone,” says Bent Senior Producer Kara Place. “You don’t get to do improv in stop motion very often. So to have the dialogue driven by an improv voice over session that hasn’t been cleaned up, perfected and smoothed out, where the characters are talking over each other and winging it, is really nice.”
For me, some of the best parts of the skit are when people take a long time to say their line,” says Shaw. “It’s not telling the story, it’s not setting up for another gag. In animation that stuff usually gets cut out but here it’s left in, so it actually becomes the joke.”
Shaw and team launched into creating the animatic, fleshing it out a bit more then usual to showcase the “acting” of the characters and helping to convey what the final skit would look like to the Portlandia crew. “In the end I think that really worked out to our favor because everyone who saw the animatic said ‘Oh this is already funny’ so we knew it would only get funnier when it was fully animated,” says Shaw. With a locked animatic the Bent team dove into production mode.
The Essence of Fred and Carrie
To capture Fred and Carrie in the rats, the puppet fabricators turned to the Internet and season one of Portlandia for reference. Shaw chose a wig for the Carrie Rat, styled after one Carrie actually wore on the show and a headband as a nod to her character in Portlandia’s “Hide and Seek” skit. Fred Rat features a fedora and Armisen’s signature black-rimmed glasses that are made of painted brass. The rats themselves were made from foam latex with a flocked fur application that was stimulated by an electro-static flocking gun that charges the fur, drawing it together and standing it on end. The hands, tail and feet are all silicone rubber, chosen for its natural skin tone appearance. Though they wanted the rats to look as natural as possible (with the exception of the light accoutrements) they did add whites to their eyes to make the rats more expressive. “We needed the whites in their eyes so you could see eye lines, who they were talking to or that they are rolling their eyes at each other,” says Shaw.
The Portlandish Attic
While the rat puppets evolved, Art Director Greg Arden began sussing out his plans for the attic set. Wanting to create the perfect rat cave, Arden utilized all sorts of garbage inspired props for his décor. “One of the most exciting things we heard from Fred, Carrie and Jonathan is that they wanted it to be really dirty,” says Arden. “Everything we normally do in our world is absolutely spotless, clean, no streaks, no fingerprints. This was the chance to go hog wild with details that could make it filthier.” Arden incorporated old 45s stacked by a window as a radiator, an old rat-chewed case stereo with a “Margaritaville” tape ramp, a few lamps made out of old fruit peels and lots of scraps, food crumbs and rat droppings to dirty up the set. As a nod to Portland, Arden even included a kombucha water cooler and based the overall design on a “vintage eclectic” look which he contributes to the Portland style. In addition, the crew created a tomato can oven and sardine can coffee table for the set. Not wasting the tomatoes and sardines Arden made a delicious spaghetti sauce which he slurped up for dinner. “Greg is a really funny dude,” says Shaw. “He added little jokes here and there like the rat turds, the little dried fruit Tiffany lamps, just things on their own that were kind of funny, that weren’t scripted or boarded.”
Once the rats and set were ready to go, the actual animation could begin. Bringing the rats to life with Carrie and Fred’s nuances fell to Lead Animator Jen Prokopowicz. Studying footage of both of them, including recordings from their voice record session, Prokopowicz worked with Shaw and the Director of Photography for Portlandia Bryce Fortner (who also DP’d the “Zero Rats” segment), to draw from their observations of the Portlandia actors. “Bryce noticed that when they were filming Portlandia Carrie would put her hands out in front and make these paddle-like gestures when she spoke,” says Prokopowicz. “We tried to use that as often as possible. With Fred, he’s being such a character as the rat [during the voice record] that we looked for characters that he played like that in Portlandia; where he is kind of a nervous guy.”
Shaw also worked with Prokopowicz to rehearse the scenes before going into animation. Shaw and Prokopowicz recorded themselves acting out the dialogue several times. “I really believe in acting out reference for animation because there’s all sorts of subtle nuances that you pick up,” says Shaw. “You do it a bunch of times and try to find what little weird things that you do naturally and apply those to the different parts of the shot. We wouldn’t have gotten that if we just listened to the audio and winged it.”
Once the animation was complete the footage was delivered to the Portlandians for their review. Bent Producer Nate Baston feels they were very happy with the final results “They loved it,” he says. Shaw was also told by Carrie herself that they were happy with the “Zero Rats” footage. “I said good, because we loved doing it,” says Shaw.
With a committed crew, a creative spark and a love for a show about their fellow Portlandians, the Bent crew hopes that the rats will be a big hit and that Portlandia will want to bring them back for more. “I just hope that they find an excuse to re-use the rats and we get to see more of them in the future,” says Shaw.
“Zero Rats” aired on Portlandia, February 3rd on IFC 10pm/9pm Central.