Steve Borst is the writer. Gary “Doodles” DiRaffaele is the artist. Together they fight crime.
OK, actually, they co-created Nickelodeon’s new animated series Breadwinners, described as the adventures of “two booty-shaking ducks as they operate a bread delivery service out of their awesome, jet-fueled rocket van.” Borst’s animation credits include stints writing for Teen Titans Go! and MAD, as well as being the head writer for Cartoon Lagoon, an independently produced series that was an official selection of the 2012 New York Television Festival. DiRaffaele’s credits include Metalocalypse and storyboard director for the first three seasons of MAD.
I’ll let them tell the story of who the Breadwinners are and how they came to be, since we met with Steve Borst and Gary Doodles at Nickelodeon’s New York City offices for an interview while the pair were in town for the Cynopsis Kids !magination Awards. Among other things, the pair told the full story of how they teamed up to make cartoons about ducks. And fight crime (*).
TOONZONE NEWS: My first question for you guys is about how you guys first teamed up when you were working on MAD, because I’ve seen a couple of slightly different versions of this. My understanding is that Gary, you approached Steve in the breakroom and asked, “Hey, do you write cartoons?”
STEVE BORST: Yeah, I’m a writer, and I had been brought on and off of MAD because they rotate their writers. I was in and out starting in May of 2010, over the course of a couple of years, but Gary was there full time as an artist.
GARY DOODLES: I was one of the first artists to come on to MAD, to produce animatics, design the cartoon, and animate sketches. They don’t bring back many writers, but they kept bringing Steve back. They had their staff of writers, but they had two slots for rotating writers, so when Steve kept coming back, I was like, “Oh, this guy is probably good,” you know? And in the MAD machine, I don’t know who’s writing what because it’s always a collective of writers. Kevin Shinick was the head writer and everyone had their influence on the scripts. There was one day…
STEVE BORST: Yeah, it was one day, I was in the breakroom, where the copier was and also the coffee, and I was getting my coffee, and Gary…
GARY DOODLES: I was printing my timecard.
STEVE BORST: Gary came in, and I don’t know what you said, something like…it was like I was being asked out on a date, basically.
GARY DOODLES: Because, I mean, we’re grown men! And it’s like, “Hey, man, do you…do you…”
STEVE BORST: “What do you outside of work?”
GARY DOODLES: “Do you make cartoons? Do you write?”
STEVE BORST: “Do you think we could, maybe, like, collaborate on something?” (Laughter) It was awkward. It was super-awkward…
STEVE BORST: So yeah, I said, “Sure!” And we exchanged work that we had both done, and we got a sense of each other’s style, and then we just started kicking around ideas and developing different ideas and making tiny little shorts. It was not that much longer from the time we started collaborating until the first inception of what became Breadwinners. It was, like, a few months.
GARY DOODLES: We started jamming in…November?
STEVE BORST: Yeah, November.
GARY DOODLES: 2010. No, wait, 2011? The idea was to try and keep it topical, like, “Let’s come up with a Christmas short” or something like that. We started brainstorming ideas…I had a bunch of ideas I was pitching to Steve, and then we kind of landed on one idea, “Let’s do a Christmas cartoon because it’s topical, put it on the Internet.” And also, we just wanted to test how we worked together. Because we were clicking, but you don’t know how you really click until you collaborate together.
STEVE BORST: Breadwinners wasn’t the Christmas short, but Breadwinners came a couple of months after as we kept just generating stuff. It started with a doodle that Gary had in his sketchbook of two ducks.
TOONZONE NEWS: Ducks tossing bread at each other, right?
GARY DOODLES: They were tossing it up in the air. Just a really wholesome kind of fun image. We met at a bar, because we’d always be jamming after hours, so I’d be like, “Hey Steve, let’s just meet here, maybe grab dinner, and just talk.” I’d bring a printout, because I didn’t know what he was going to think. If he was just like, “Eh, I don’t really like it,” I would have designed something else. But he was reacting to it in a positive way, and then he was like, “I could work with it.” That was my contribution to it. He gave them names and personalities. The idea is that he writes it, I’ll produce it. That was our deal. And that’s how the short was born. He wrote it in about two weeks.
STEVE BORST: Because Gary had an animation festival, a Midsummer Night’s …
GARY DOODLES: Midsummer Night Toons. It’s like a screening. There’s no prize given out. It’s just a bunch of alumni from the School of Visual Arts, where I went to school, and people in the animation industry who make a new cartoon every year, and have a platform to show it. Matt Lee is the guy that runs it, and he rents out a bar. This was the fifth year I was doing it, but I didn’t have an idea. “Breadwinners” was the only thing that was most fleshed out. Granted, at this point, it was like…April?
TOONZONE NEWS: And you cranked it out by the summer? Wow.
GARY DOODLES: Two months. Yeah. I cranked it out for the screening, and once we put it in the screening, and before we put it on YouTube, we made a couple of minor tweaks to it. and then we posted it up on YouTube, and…then our lives changed forever (laughter). Pretty much.
TOONZONE NEWS: And that’s where Nickelodeon picked it up, right? That’s one of the other things that I’m a little hazy about, because it doesn’t seem like it was in the shorts program.
STEVE BORST: No, it wasn’t officially part of the shorts program. It was kind of wrapped up into it after the fact. Gary had actually been brought on as the director on another short.
GARY DOODLES: Yeah, I was in the middle of producing the short with them and that’s when we were pretty much done with the Breadwinners short, and I was building this trust with the network. Two comedians came and pitched this cartoon to the network called “Pam and Sid’s Port-a-Party,” and they needed a director to flesh their idea out. So they chose me, and I designed it and produced it with a storyboard artist and a background designer and a composer. It was such a small team. And they saw the result, and it was the same process that we used on “Breadwinners,” with the musical beat where everything is so tight and rhythmic and musical. We applied that same science to the Nickelodeon short, and then Nickelodeon was just head over heels. And then we created the “Breadwinners” short, and they were like, “Well, if he can do this, let’s let them make a show together.” Because the thing about the “Breadwinners” short is that it’s really fleshed out. It really had a heart and a soul to it, and all the foundation is there.
GARY DOODLES: We call that short the show bible. Because we do party punches, we do booty kicks, there’s that whole rhythm. To me, it’s a prototype, and I’m super proud of it, because in the short amount of time we produced that, we were able to really uncover so many little details that would later become the show. We reused so many elements in that. Now we’re essentially evolving from there. It’s pretty incredible, the process of where we come from. Where we’ve been and where we’re going to.
TOONZONE NEWS: Some animated series are described as being script-driven, and others are storyboard-driven. I’ve read about your process and it sounds like…what DO you do? It sounds like it’s you and even your composer Tommy Sica gets involved with the music really early.
GARY DOODLES: It’s a combination of everything.
STEVE BORST: It’s technically a script-driven show. A lot of my favorite cartoons are the board driven shows, but we do start out with scripts as opposed to a traditional board-driven show that just starts out with an outline. So we have a script, but because of the way we work, I feel like it’s very much a hybrid of things. We work closely together on the stories and then with the way the audio is worked in, it almost becomes an audio driven show in a way.
GARY DOODLES: Yeah, because we write the script and then we record the actors. Once we record the actors, we chop up their dialogue, we dump it into Pro Tools, and we time it all out. We audio-map the show and time it out to 10 minutes and 45 seconds. That’s exactly the length of the show. So there’s no reason to board 15 minutes of storyboard panels and know you’ve got to cut your boards down to 10:45. We start at 10:45.
STEVE BORST: Well, it’s not always exactly 10:45, but we are in the ballpark of that. It’s within 15 to 20 seconds.
GARY DOODLES: Yeah.
STEVE BORST: If our episode comes out and it’s 12 minutes long, we know we have to re-write stuff before the even artists get involved. We need to chop it down and get it to a workable place so artists aren’t wasting time.
GARY DOODLES: Exactly. So when the storyboard artists are ready to board, we give them the final audio of the characters, so you get to hear all of the emotions that they’re expressing, from happy to sad, and you can really draw what they’re feeling, as opposed to working from an outline for a typical board-driven show: “Oh, the character is sad.” So you draw the image of them sad, but there’s so much material to be inspired by. That’s why the script drives the audio, and then the audio drives the storyboard. Then the storyboard drives the animation. It’s a pretty tight process.
Right before we ship it to Titmouse Vancouver, there’s pretty much 80% music on it. Everything’s timed to a beat, and everything’s super-tight. Once it goes to animation, it’s pretty much roughly laid out. Everyone really has a clear understanding of what the shot is going to look like and when it comes back from animation, there’s no editing. If you take the animation and drop it over the animatic, it’s exactly the same thing. There’s no, “Oh, we have to rehaul this entire scene because this doesn’t work.” We figure it all out in the animatic. If it’s not going to sing in the animatic, it’s not going to sing in animation, so we make sure we’re extremely happy with the animatic, and the animatic has got to feel like it’s totally fleshed out and feels like a working cartoon to us before we ship it.
STEVE BORST: And that’s cool because that allows the animators to really focus on pushing the animation and making all of the animation super-cool, as opposed to having to figure out timing, and “Why isn’t this working?” At every stage of the process, if you try to answer as many questions and get it as far as you can, when you pass the baton on to the next person, they’ve got a really great foundation to work on. Everybody at every stage can really just elevate it instead of figuring out stuff that could have been figured out earlier.
GARY DOODLES: Yeah, it’s like when you send it to the next stage, you’re not fixing problems. You’re just enhancing the awesomeness that it is.
STEVE BORST: I think it’s up to 9 months now, isn’t it?
GARY DOODLES: Yeah, we started with 8, and now we stretch the schedule out to 9 months now. So it’s 8-9 months per episode.
TOONZONE NEWS: So there’s a lot of sweat going into those 10 minutes.
GARY DOODLES: Yeah. On all angles. From start to finish. Yeah. (Laughs)
STEVE BORST: We’re very fortunate to have an extremely talented crew, everybody from the directors to the writers to the art director to the animation director to the production crew. They’re really good at what they do, so it helps keep the ship keep moving. You definitely want your ship to be moving smoothly in an animation pipeline, because there’s so many moving parts and things that are moving so fast.
GARY DOODLES: Everyone is very passionate about our show. They really want to contribute their own personal flavor to it. And I think a lot of it is trust. We trust our directors. We trust our board guys. The trust trickles down in a way. We encourage them to kind of own their work and really make the best thing they can make. And be proud of what they’re making, and I feel like it really shows. You can see all the hands involved. I know all the artists on the show, and when it gets to animation and it’s final picture, you can kind of tell who directed the episode. Kind of like the old-school Warner Bros. cartoons.
TOONZONE NEWS: Like how you can tell the Tex Avery shorts from the ones by Friz Freleng or Chuck Jones…
GARY DOODLES: Yeah! And they’re all great, but they’re all just a little different. They all have their own attitude and their own voice to them. That’s what we want. Our style is not always on-model, and that’s the fun part of it. You can draw SwaySway and Buhdeuce a number of ways. It keeps it refreshing for every shot, so you’re not always looking at the exact same piece of artwork throughout the entire ten-and-a-half minutes. You’re always being entertained in a new way in every scene.
STEVE BORST: I think that kind of ties into Nickelodeon and the fact that Nickelodeon has been a really great environment for us to work in because it’s so creator-driven. They really do give us a lot of creative freedom to do what we want, and we try to give everyone on our crew creative freedom so that everyone’s voice and creativity can come through at every stage of the process.
TOONZONE NEWS: One thing I really like about the show is the real mixed media feel to it. There’s a lot of bits and pieces taken from a bunch of different places. Your show is even different because you’re even pulling the music in on that. It’s truly multi-media. Is that something you were planning? Where did that come up in your process?
GARY DOODLES: MAD was fun because every sketch you were working on let me challenge myself. I was like, “How can I make this different from the previous one that I designed, storyboarded, and animated?” Mark Marek, one of my directors, he brought in this photo collage element to it. And it was just funny. To me, if it’s funny looking, if it’s…I don’t know, it’s a stupidity kind of thing? “That looks super silly. Why would you put that there?” But you mix the 2-D and the photo-real, and you just start to laugh at what you’re looking at. So I feel like that was part of the reason why I was like, “If we’re going to have ducks, why not have a photo-real duck?” Part of that actually worked its way into the evolution of our show and how the characters, SwaySway and Buhdeuce are more evolved ducks. The less evolved ducks are photo-real, so SwaySway and Buhdeuce came from these photo-real ducks. They’re just more highly evolved, except that if you think about SwaySway and Buhdeuce they’re pretty zany and silly, so how evolved are they?
TOONZONE NEWS: They’ve evolved thumbs, at least, but that’s about far as it goes.
GARY DOODLES: Yeah (laughter). So there’s a lot of levels. And even like with the music, it’s not like, “Let’s make dance music.” If you’ve watched the short, it’s a lot of dance music. Some rock stuff. But, like, I used to be in a band, and it’s hard rock music, but I listen to pop music. Just good songwriting. So I feel like it’s a collage of awesomeness from 2-D animation to photo-collage to awesome music from any genre. Throw it all in there and put it in the blender. Also like the video games, that we grew up on. I’m a Nintendo baby, so Nintendo, Super Nintendo, N64…those were my jams. I love that stuff. And trying to incorporate that into the show is always fun, so that gives it that other element of the collage. Just put it all in there.
TOONZONE NEWS: It sounds like you have a pretty tight process, but outsourcing is always one of these great risks when you do animation. Are there any specific instances where either Titmouse plussed something that you weren’t expecting, or something got horribly misinterpreted or misunderstood and came back in a surprising way?
GARY DOODLES: You know what’s funny? The misunderstood aspect of it never happens, and the reason why is because our boards are so clear. The only way you could not fulfill the promise of the board is by following the board exactly. So if SwaySway is driving the Rocket Van and he’s got an A and a B pose, and he’s just doing two poses — arms stretched out, arms in, just two frames — if they just did that without adding any in-betweens, that’s just not fleshing it out to the point of what I’d want to see in animation, even if the integrity of the scene is there because he’s following the poses.
But I feel like they embellish more than they leave out. There’s two specific scenes that I can think about. There’s one in “Diner Ducks” where they’re in this diner and they’re posing as waiters, and they’re trying to run the restaurant all by themselves and they can’t. SwaySway is freaking out, and Buhdeuce is freaking out because the customers want all this food and they can’t serve it in time. And then SwaySway is out of eggs, and he’s asking for eggs, and Buhdeuce is like, “I’m out of eggs! What do I do?” and SwaySway is like, “You’re a duck! Think of something!” And Buhdeuce …(laughs) he goes into this pose like he’s trying to squeeze out an egg, you know? The board was just one frame of this one pose, but the animator did this crazy thing! It was on the ones and he’s totally stressing out and it just makes the joke so much funnier. The idea is that he’s straining and straining and straining and straining, and you think he’s going to pop an egg out, but then he goes, “Oh, wait!” and pulls one out of his pocket. And he breaks it. It’s one of those things where, like, everyone in the room just lit up when they saw that.
Then in “Buhdeuce Goes Bezerk,” he gets a bad haircut and every time he sees his bad haircut he just freaks out and explodes. Gets big muscles and he starts rampaging through town. The transformation sequence is just intense, it’s like…whoever animated it was adding so many drawings and there’s so much stress. I’m pretty sure it’s the same animator, and it’s just awesome to see them just saying, “OK, this is a scene I really want to have fun with.” And we don’t say, “Oh, you’re having too much fun. Stop that.” (laughter) We really like when the artists take control of the scene and really make it surprising.
STEVE BORST: I’m constantly impressed with the animation that comes back from Titmouse. They’re all super super talented, and every time we get animation, it’s like Christmas (laughter). It’s like we unwrap a present, so it’s really fun and exciting to see it all come back.
TOONZONE NEWS: Plus, by the time you get it I’m sure it’s been away for a couple of months and I’m sure you’ve forgotten a bunch of things.
STEVE BORST: Yes, exactly!
GARY DOODLES: That’s the best part! When we ship it, I’m always like, “This is a good episode. It’s not my favorite, but it’s a good one.” Then when it comes back from animation, I’m always like, “You know what? This one might be my favorite.” (laughter) It’s amazing what color and a couple of in-betweens can do, but it’s incredible the amount of work that they do and it really shows. Everyone is super-proud of it. We’re really proud of everyone who works on the show and we just hope that everyone keeps doing what they’re doing because everyone’s really enjoying it.
TOONZONE NEWS: You have been greenlit for season 2, and I assume you’re already working on that?
STEVE BORST: Yeah, the way an animation pipeline works, you’re always working on 20 different cartoons all at the same time at various different stages. We’re just delivering the 10th episode of our first season, but we’re still doing animatics for, like, number 30 and 32 out of 40. We’re still working on animatics for the first season, but now we’ve just started scripting the second season. We haven’t started recording any of those episodes yet, but we’re moving along now and coming up with more story ideas.
TOONZONE NEWS: Knowing what you know from season 1, are you changing anything? Are you going to do anything differently for season 2 that you can talk about right now?
GARY DOODLES: I always feel like you can improve on something that already works. We’re adding more bodies to the production. We’re filling those up just to alleviate some of the stress that goes along with the production. There were gaps on the audio side, where we didn’t think we needed the resources. So we’re building our team out a little bit more, which means that now that we can build out the show more. I feel like we can create bigger stories and bigger worlds. Just bigger and better kind of things. We love season 1, but we’re like, “How can we top this?” It’s like a video game. How many more characters can we add, how many more places can they visit, but Keeping with respect that we have to explore the spots that we’ve already set up. Like Tree City, we want to dive deeper into Tree City. Volcano Valley, we want to know more about that landscape, because all we know about Volcano Valley is Ketta’s tune-up shop. And introducing more characters. We haven’t really come up with any new ones yet, but I’m sure there’s going to be some new guys that we make.
STEVE BORST: Yeah, the first season was a whole period of development where we were figuring out our production pipeline, and it was really new. It was really new to Nickelodeon, too, and Nickelodeon was really great in supporting us and helping us figure out how to set up our whole pipeline. Now things are moving smoother they’ve ever before. On the story side we’re finding certain kinds of stories that we really like to tell. The bread that SwaySway and Buhdeuce mine was always kind of fun like huckleberry spaghetti bread and jelly-filled alfalfa. Then we discovered, “Oh, maybe the bread is magical and has magical properties,” which is where “Love Loaf” and “Stank Breath” came from. So now we’re exploring more magical types of bread because it’s a really fun story area. You can really do almost anything. It’s definitely fun. We’ve created this really big, crazy world and it’s really fun for us to explore it, so as we’re kind of exploring it, the audience is going to get to explore it, too.
GARY DOODLES: Even their catch phrases and the branding kind of stuff that we have like the booty kicks, we’re going to bring more of that back but maybe put a little twist on it as we go. We always try to find a way to keep things familiar but make it refreshing at the same time. I feel like everyone likes to hear the classics, but just kind of put a twist on it. We’re definitely excited to see where we take it.
Toonzone News would like to thank Gary “Doodles” DiRaffaele and Steve Borst for taking the time to talk with us, and to the awesome folks at Nickelodeon PR for setting up the opportunity. Breadwinners airs on Saturdays on Nickelodeon; check the official Breadwinners website for more information.
(*) = NOTE: Steve and Gary do not actually fight crime. Much.