Interview with Ghostbot Co-Founder and Animator Alan Lau

Sly Cooper Promo Art

As promised in last Friday’s Catching up with Animation Studio Ghostbot, we wanted to share with our readers an interview with one of the lead creative brains behind the studio – Ghostbot Co-Founder and Animator Alan Lau. A fan of Japanese Anime and an active gamer, he’s worked for several esteemed studios in the past such as Wild Brain, Laika, and Madhouse. His ability to seamlessly integrate captivating 2D animation to each and every project is what stands out when looking at all his works en masse.

For Ghostbot, their most recent project was working on every 2D cinematic for the new Sly Cooper video game out now on the PS3 titled Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time. I’ve seen the game in action and it’s great to see them keep the charm of the original Sly games intact while pushing the quality of the game art to higher levels. Recently,we had the good fortune to sit down with Alan and find out what other video game projects the company has worked on, what his reaction was on getting the opportunity to work on such a beloved franchise, and the amount of pressure they put on themselves to get the character attributes just right.

RTNDR: Our staff here has been fans of your studio for many years now and we’ve seen a variety of projects that you’re group is engaged in – from music videos, to short films, to TV commercials. For our readers who are new to Ghostbot, please tell us more about your animation studio, how it started, and talk about some of your company’s work that we might have seen on TV or online.

Lau: Thank you! I formed Ghostbot in 2004 with my partners Roque Ballesteros and Brad Rau.  We were three guys with a simple mission – work tirelessly to deliver the highest quality work.  That work ethic paid off; since the founding of our company Ghostbot has won numerous awards and is considered one of the premiere creative forces in the animation industry.  Our client list includes Walt Disney, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, Electronic Arts, Mattel and Esurance.  Our most recent endeavor is animation for Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time.

RTNDR: This isn’t the first time Ghostbot has worked on console animation – which other video game related projects has the studio worked on? Has it been challenging to collaborate with other companies’ game developers and programmers?

Lau: It usually breaks down into two parts. There are Game Cinemas which are small movies that play between gameplay levels. Then there are Game Assets, which are the specific actions of a character within the game (OR props and backgrounds).

Working on game assets, sometimes it feels like a mad scientist experiment, as it can be as equally technical as it is artistic. With new untested technology, you have to jump in head first into uncharted territory and try it to see if it will actually work. We just embrace those technical hurdles as healthy challenges. The key is to be creatively open and collaborate with game developers and programmers. We know that the animation has to look great, but it also has to work with what the other team members are doing.

One of the more interesting Game Assets we worked on was for Duck Amuck DS on the Nintendo DS console. It is a game where the player can control and make fun of the cartoon character Daffy Duck. Luckily, we were working with the awesome folks at WayForward. They are great to collaborate with and certainly know how to put a great game together.

Artistically, it was a great personal challenge for me to see if we could successfully animate a classic, beloved character like Daffy Duck. Since this was based on the classic 1953 cartoon “Duck Amuck”, the key was to replicate what the animation masters like Chuck Jones while still making it functional for a game.

Game Cinemas are a bit more straight forward as we are concentrating on telling a story within the game. We created Game Cinemas for Happy Tree Friends: False Alarm on Xbox live. That was a lot of fun as we got to collaborate with our good friend Kenn Navarro as well as with Mondo Studios. We’ve done Happy Tree Friends work in the past, so it was like a family reunion. The fun of this one was inserting as many gaming gags as possible and let the fans find them.

RTNDR: We’ve seen a few trailers for the upcoming game and the artwork is wonderful plus it’s absolutely refreshing to see 2D animation on the console. That got us asking, are there differences in working on 2D animation for console gaming versus online and TV formats? Which do you prefer working in?

Lau: Thank you! 2D animation on the console is certainly rare so we relish those opportunities.

The production process of creating TV, Web and Game Cinemas are similar in the sense they usually start with a script, and then proceed to voice, storyboards, animatic, layout, animation and post.

For TV it’s a marathon of getting a huge volume of work done by a deadline. The upfront work built out of a pilot, show bible, model sheets and scripts are the things you hang on to for dear life when you’re running and gunning 1,000 miles an hour.

For Web, the biggest challenge is working within a budget. The web is a big emerging source of entertainment for the world. However, the budgets are often smaller, so it’s all about trying to finding a way to be creative while maintaining a persistent feed of new material.

Games are very similar to TV. The most challenging thing is inventing alongside the game. There could be levels or story points that haven’t been fleshed out completely before we begin work on a Game Cinema. With that in mind, you definitely need clear direction and team work to pull it off.

I enjoy working in all formats! Each has its own unique challenges, but it’s all dare I say…. FUN!

RTNDR: Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time is the fourth installment in the beloved Sly Cooper video game series – are you a fan of the series and did you or your fellow animators go back and play any of the previous games for reference?

Lau: I am probably the biggest “gamer” at Ghostbot at this point. I played the Sly Cooper games when I was younger, so was already a big fan of the franchise. While in production we scoured over the previous games and looked at the art for inspiration, reference, and context and they provided a great road map for us.

RTNDR: What parts of Thieves in Time did Ghostbot work on and what was your reaction to get the opportunity to draw for such a great franchise?

Lau: Ghostbot created over 40 minutes of 2D Game Cinemas for Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time.

When our Executive Producer Corrine Wong and I walked into Sanzaru (video game developer of Thieves in Time – ed. note) to talk about this “secret project” I had no idea what to expect. During the presentation of the project, I had to do a double take when I realized they were talking about a brand new Sly game! So I guess my initial reaction was “fanboy shock” quickly followed by a lot of excitement and inspiration.

RTNDR: As an animator yourself, is it tougher to create and draw original characters or is it more difficult to work with other artist’s creations?

Lau: As a 2D animator you are taught to replicate. It’s fun to draw and animate your own stuff, but ultimately you’re usually being hired to do someone else’s style, and you have to be flexible enough artistically to handle it. One day you could be working on Popeye, the next day it could be Naruto. As an animator, you need enough solid drawing skills to be able to do both.

Even if a design is set by someone else, I find the best animators find their own creative energy to make it “their own” so to speak.

RTNDR: Was there pressure to get the mannerisms and physical attributes for all of the characters in Sly exactly how they were in the previous games or was your group given a good amount of artistic freedom?

Lau: Sly has a huge fan base so we definitely wanted to make sure we respected what they love about the series. Also, like most Ghostbot projects, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to get it right. Since we knew the level of animation was going to be denser in these new Game Cinemas, we had to add a lot more thought process and depth to the character mannerisms as well as make the compositions interesting, dynamic and fun.

Regarding the specific art style of the game it was our goal to match Sanzaru’s game models, environments and wonderful concept art. We have a fantastic Art Director on our side named Roman Laney who really brought a lot of richness, beauty and integration to our work.

RTNDR: Lastly, tell us what’s next on Ghostbot’s plate? Maybe more episodes of your awesome animated short Sly Cooper – Timing is Everything? How about TV episodes of Sly Cooper?

Lau: The funny thing about showbiz and gaming is you can never tell anyone what you are working on while you are working on it. We’ve been on Sly for over a year and at last we can finally discuss and share our involvement and excitement for the project!

Many fans, including myself, believe that Sly Cooper and the Gang would make a fantastic animated TV show or movie. With that mindset, Ghostbot presented to Sanzaru and PlayStation the idea of doing an animated short that would reintroduce Sly Cooper and the gang in a big way. Sly Cooper: Timing is Everything is an animated short that shows a story from Sly’s past that the fans haven’t seen. It also gives first time viewers a sense of fun and adventure that awaits them in Sly’s world.

There are many new and big developments on Ghostbot’s plate. Currently, we are starting work on a new pilot for television as well as multiple video games. Also we are currently pitching our own intellectual properties to create our own Ghostbot work. We have bigger announcements that speak to that last point that we look forward to sharing with you in the very near future.

(The staff at Retrenders would like to give big thanks to Alan for sharing some of his time to answer questions and chit chat. Also to everyone over at Ghostbot, you guys did such a great job and congrats on Sly!)

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