The series derives from Cooper’s previous SMALLS short, Message in a Bottle, about a Duchess looking to patch up a romance with her fiancé only to find out he’s a fuckboy who wants to party. “In this series, I wanted to expand her world and explore an absurdist 19th-century dukedom where men are majesty and a woman’s role is to try to get married and otherwise remain quiet and place this loud duchess (and her best friend, a seagull named Judy) in the middle of it.”
Lanier produced everything with Adobe Animate, then exported and edited in Premiere. “I animated the first six episodes of DAP alone, but in these last episodes, Cameron McManus, a great animator, helped me animate them,” he explains. “The designs were really opportunistic. I didn’t think about them much and just went with my gut. I figured Felipe is this energetic, nervous guy, so he should be a gibbon. Sam is this sorta lumbering jock, so he should have a huge misshapen head and these really expressive eyebrows. Come to think of it, maybe I based Sam a little bit off my brother Cole, who has big, big eyebrows.”
You can watch SMALLS shorts on Adult Swim’s YouTube channel; AWN has looked at four recent films, one launched each Saturday beginning this past April 15, with the fifth, Sarah Schmidt’s Gassy’s Gas n’ Stuff, debuting May 13.
For Schmidt, the most challenging part of the production was getting voice recordings just right. “It’s a classic case of cringing at the sound of my own voice,” she admits. “Thankfully I kept my own lines to a minimum and had the pleasure of working with recordings from a few of my favorite voices in music: Mo Doron (of Riot Fest), Jer Hunter (of JER and Skatune Network), and Eric Egan (of Heart Attack Man). Getting Ohio musician Steve Perrino to make me a metalcore track kept the spirits up, too. It was overall pretty bittersweet trying to pack up, say goodbye to everyone, and move from Columbus to Chicago during the final stretch. I kinda worried I was inadvertently making something too sentimental or corny, but in the end, we were pumped about how it all turned out.”
“As a performer and comedian, I tend to play pathetic and oblivious characters like Kimberly, who are so caught up trying to please others that they don’t realize they’re acting insane – so it was fun to see how that character deal could create conflict in ‘proper’ society,” she shares. “There are also not a ton of lead female protagonists in animation, so I liked thinking about premises that women of that time might have faced – the pressure to marry for status, how to properly faint on a couch, etc.”
The series was animated by Grant Lindahl, with Cooper handling the writing, producing, arranging the radio plays, working with the composer… “all that fun stuff.” “For the design, I wanted the animation to reflect a vague regal world (à la Downton Abbey or Pride and Prejudice) but a little crappier, as if Kimberly lives in ‘the dukedom next door to the much nicer one,’” she continues. “Grant nailed a vibrant yet grittier look. There are also a lot of new characters, and Grant came through with some hilarious character designs, notably with the fortune teller. At one point, I asked, ‘Can we give her a weird eye’ and then improvised a joke about it which made it into the final cut.”
Gassy’s Gas n’ Stuff – Sarah Schmidt
Sam Lanier, creator of the ongoing DAP short series, an animated comedy about “adult roommates who are always trying to have a good time though all their experiences are actually mediocre and pathetic… but they don’t know it,” has recently dropped DAP The Oven, where the roommates get locked out of the apartment… with the oven on broil.
Five years and more than 300 animated shorts. That’s a tremendous programming and production feat for any studio, let alone the folks at Adult Swim SMALLS. Program head Dave Hughes, noting his development pace shows no sign of slowing down, says, “The program has shifted over the years to focus more on comedy and animation, and we are working more closely with the development team now in hopes that some of these shorts make the jump to specials, pilots, or series.”
DAP The Oven – Sam Lanier
“The most challenging part of my role is probably passing on pitches,” he adds. “We get a lot of enthusiastic young artists, who are fans of SMALLS and Adult Swim, and I’d hate for an early rejection to discourage them from pursuing their ideas. If something isn’t right for us, it doesn’t mean it’s not right for the world… and sometimes, it just means we blew it.”
“Most of my animation is really dialogue focused,” Di Poi explains. “So, with Little Edy, I wanted to make a more classic visual-gag cartoon. That meant I was drawing storyboards more than writing dialogue. The rest was a kind of traditional pipeline. I had some assistants help me in-between, that kind of thing.”
“The main character represents a little bit of me and a little bit of the kind lady manager who has worked there for years – nicest lady I have ever met,” Schmidt reveals. “I tried to infuse the short with early 2000s coming-of-age feelings that anyone who maybe grew up with a similar thing going on could relate to.”
Felipe Di Poi’s Little Edy tells the story of a weird little girl with weird abilities, who helps her nerd friend Banjo exit his video game addiction and try to interact with other people. The short is based on a comic Di Poi has been publishing on Instagram for three years. “I came up with the design back in 2014, during a summer when I was reading a lot of comics, and I really liked the work of Michael DeForge,” he shares. “The character carries a lot of his DNA – a sort of stoic, weird little girl. I combined that with Ernie Bushmiller’s “Nancy,” who’s the kind of classic, newspaper comic strip mischievous girl. So those two ideas came together into the character of ‘Little Edy,’ but I didn’t really make anything with her until 2020 during COVID, and I didn’t pitch her to Adult Swim for something like a year after that.”
Little Edy – Felipe Di Poi
What’s most challenging? “Timing,” Lanier reveals. “I really obsess over the timing and rhythm. A lot of attention goes into the radio play, which I make first. But then, once the animating is done and I put everything into Premiere, I often change the timing again because some things don’t work or feel different once there are actual images going with the radio play. It’s in service of capturing this specific rhythm in dialogue and events that I want. The key to keeping people attentive and laughing, especially for a short that lives only online, is in the timing and rhythm of the video.”
Visit the Adult Swim’s YouTube channel to find a host of SMALLS shorts… and more.
The Duchess of Nothing – Kelly Cooper
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
What’s especially interesting about the production to Di Poi is are the bumpers and credits. “I wanted Little Edy to be represented in all these different animation styles – inspired by how Adult Swim will have different animators interpret their characters in their own style for bumpers,” he says. “So, I got a lot of my friends who are animators I really admire, including Pedro Bello, Sophie Koko, Jack Wedge, Harrison Wyrick, Parker Davis, and Simeon Kondev, to do the interstitials, and then I spent two months learning enough Blender to make the credits. They took a really long time considering how short they are, but I really had the vision of recreating a Nintendo 64 snowboarding game, and I almost got more into it than the short itself.”
AWN has already taken a deep dive into Sean Godsey and Nic Collins’ hilarious Thoron the Conqueror, which is actually an anthology of several very short episodes. The filmmakers used their own often dispiriting experiences as inspiration for the struggles faced by their eponymous hero, Thoron, who quits his stable job to become a freelance conqueror of world, where he battles horny aliens, discovers an ancient fear-killing crystal, and – on a particularly bad day – gets gobbled up by the fabled Eater of Worlds!
Creators in the program have noted, as Hughes acknowledges, they’re mostly free to produce their film free of significant “studio” oversight. Regarding creative guidelines and directives, Hughes shares, “Aside from the importance of strong characters, unique and funny stories, etc., we try to keep a light touch. We check in at various points during production to offer thoughts on where it’s headed or any legal or production issues, but ideally, we want the purest version of what the artist wants to showcase.”
Kelly Cooper describes her The Duchess of Nothing as a short comedy series “that follows hopeless romantic Duchess Kimberly Calamine – and her best friend Judy – on her quest for love – or at the very least, likability. In this series, they’ll navigate the romance, rules, and pressures of regal society.”
Almost the entire film was created in Adobe Animate by Schmidt and her partner, Ian Ballantyne. “We have been working together on commercial projects for years as ‘Sunshine Mall LLC,’ so the process from rough animatic to full, layered animation files was really smooth,” she says. “I started with scratchy, paper storyboard thumbnails and character art to get a feeling for the vibe; my mood board had bodega cats, Mike Judge/King of the Hill, Home Movies, Rocko’s Modern Life, and the Greaser Gang from CatDog. Animate is the descendant of Macromedia Flash so I love to play into the flat, layered drawing style – half the time I feel like I am playing some old Flash game. I made sure each scene had a built-up set of finished keyframe drawings before we started animating in-betweens and kept a mad organized Google Spreadsheet to keep track of shots.”
Sarah Schmidt’s Gassy’s Gas n’ Stuff – debuting May 13 – is an homage to her family’s convenience store in rural Ohio. “My formative years were spent there stocking the shelves, making food, and getting to know the customers,” she says. “Being stuck between two state routes, we always had a mix of regulars as well as people who were not sure how to use our old-fashioned gas pump.”
Noting how in short-form comedy, it can be difficult to center on the bit or funniest thing, Cooper says, “I have so many situations I want to put Kimberly in that it took some time to make those choices. I’m also still learning what makes a good radio play or a great gag, the best type of workflow, and trusting my choices there. But that’s what’s nice about the SMALLS program – it really gives you the freedom to explore and learn as a creator.”
The goal of the SMALLS program is to discover new talent and ideas. “We’re open to all types of stories, creators, and techniques, but finding that tone is really the hardest part,” Hughes says. We often get referrals from artists who we’ve worked with before, and we will also reach out directly to any artists that feel like a fit. We also recently started the @adultswimsmalls page on IG, which is a good way to reach out.”
Noting he spent the summer of 2020 in an apartment in Brooklyn stuck with only his two best friends, Lanier says, “DAP comes out of that time period and is really about describing this sorta funny and pathetic adult living situation where these three guys are always with each other, always up in each other’s business, and never get a rest from being together.”