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Toonzone Tours the Nickelodeon Animation Studios

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Nickelodeon Animation StudioOver 20 years and 50+ different cartoon shows, Nickelodeon Animation is just as strong as it ever was. Situated in a white building with big orange letters in Burbank, California, Nickelodeon Animation Studio opened its doors to Toonzone News and other members of the press for a studio tour in anticipation of the latest addition to the Nicktoons line-up, Harvey Beaks.

The studio itself is surrounded by huge hedges, and behind those hedges is a courtyard area with a basketball section, Nickelodeon benches, tables, tall hedges, and a giant Harvey Beaks mural.  There are currently 11 animated Nickelodeon shows in production, and while some, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, are worked on from the office in Glendale, California, the Burbank Studio is home to the more collaborative, script-driven shows. The tour explained how a Nickelodeon cartoon gets made.

Harvey Beaks C.H. GreenblattNickelodeon begins each of their shows in Pre-Production. The first stage of that is Concept, where the writers and producers decide what’s going to happen in the episode and what it’ll look like before moving on to Story Development, which goes into what the characters will say and do. Following this, actors perform their lines during the Audio Record stage. Once that’s done, they move on to Storyboard, drawing out the skeleton of the show, and the fifth and final stage of Pre-Production is creating Animatics. Animatics are great to test out how a show is going to look before fully animating it, and Nickelodeon has come up with a great way to test it for audiences. When screening an animatic for children, they’ll put toys in the room while the animatic is playing. Then they’ll watch and see what interests the children more, the animatic or the toys. If the toys are more interesting, they’ll know to punch up the cartoon.

Legend of KorraProduction stages differ between 2-D and CG shows, and Nickelodeon has both. 2-D Production begins with Black and White Designs of characters, props, and backgrounds. Following this is Color Design. Shows like SpongeBob SquarePants and Sanjay and Craig are actually painted in the Color Department before they are digitized. In the Timing Direction stage of Production, a stopwatch is used to time the movements and speeches of characters to make sure the each sequence is timed down correctly. Then comes the Animation, which again varies from show to show. With a show like The Legend of Korra, they use live martial arts experts to perform movements as a visual reference.

CG Production on shows like Kung Fu Panda and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles begins with Asset Design. Characters, props and backgrounds are designed, and in the Asset Model stage, they are built in the computer. They then go through Asset Rigging for character movement and Asset Texture for look. Next is a process called Layout to make sure everything is in the correct position and then Animation. Special Effects and Lighting are put in, and finally Composition is the stage where everything comes together.

All cartoons then go through Post-Production. During Editing, the team fixes anything they think needs correction. In the Sound Design stage, the Sound Department adds sounds and music. Final Mastering puts in the finishing touches. Multiple episodes are worked on at the same time, taking 9-12 months for one episode to go through the entire process from Pre-Production to Post-Production. This leads to careful planning and timing, as with animating the World Cup episode of Dora the Explorer so that it would be ready in time to be shown while the actual World Cup was being played.

Nickelodeon may have their rules, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t creativity and free expression in every corner of the studio. Cubicles are filled with personal items, and there are whiteboard cabinets everywhere for animators to doodle on.

SpongeBob SquarePantsEach show has their own production area. Although the SpongeBob movie wasn’t worked on in the Burbank studio, the SpongeBob production area is very lived in. Going along with the theme of the show, there’s a Tiki Lounge complete with a bar, couches, and a huge television right in the middle of the office. While other production sections haven’t been around for as long as SpongeBob, they have their own character and personality. We were able to walk through the area of a new show being produced called Loud House, and we got to see the Harvey Beaks’ forest-themed production area as well, complete with tree-stump seats.

Nickelodeon has three recording booths.  We were treated to a recording of Harvey Beaks with its star Max Charles and a few of the other actors. While the actor(s) stand in a booth behind a microphone (adjustable, which helps when dealing with child actors), the crew are at computers directing them. It’s a very efficient process, using each actor’s time wisely, and getting multiple takes and slightly different reads. They’ll say, “Let’s get one more for choice”, and they note their own reaction to see what gets the biggest laugh. They’ll ask for variety, such as when they need a crowd to cheer in different ways.

An animation studio is still a business, so naturally there are offices for administration, HR, and finance.  At the same time, it wouldn’t be Nickelodeon without having things like a cardboard stand-up of Aang, a SpongeBob made out of LEGOs near the entrance, or a staircase made to look like flowing green slime. You can really see the respect Nickelodeon has for past creators who have worked within their walls and left their mark. There’s a wall of creators with pictures from their shows, from Joe Murray of Rocko’s Modern Life to Peter Hannon of CatDog.  Even the main conference room has framed caricatures of Nickelodeon creators along one wall. Along another wall is a huge SpongeBob mural created by a European graffiti artist that shows what SpongeBob’s internal organs look like. The third wall, which is Nickeloeon Orange, has a monitor for video conferences.

It’s easy to see how Nickelodeon has produced so many quality shows.  It’s a fun place conducive to creativity that’s also organized and knows what goes into making a cartoon. Huge thanks to Nickelodeon for the tour.

Harvey Beaks airs regularly Sunday nights on Nickelodeon at 7PM.