Spotlight: Big Wide Action Show (Part 1)

This is part 1 of a 4-part series on the making of The Big Wide Action Show Open. Check the rest of the series: Part 2. Part 3.

Welcome to the first installment of Spotlight here on The Ward-O-Matic, a special series where I focus on a past job that I worked on and share with you all some of the processes that it took for me get the job done. I realize that I've pretty much neglected the work aspect on this blog, but hopefully this will right that wrong. It's kinda weird that I have not mentioned much of what I do at Primal, and quite frankly, I'm sure that most of you have absolutely no clue what I do. Actually, most at Primal are in the dark as well, so don't feel so left out. Anyway, with Spotlight, I plan to show how each job has been a learning experience for me, and I'd like to share some of this knowledge with my readers. You'll get a little insight to how I approach each job as well as check out my thought processes and methods. One thing I must say is that even though I've been animating for 10 years and have been at Primal for the past five, in no way am I saying that my methods are the best. Every director (I've observed) has a vastly different approach to animation -- from broadcast to feature to TV production -- and so there are many, MANY different ways to skin a cat. All I'm doing is letting you in on some of my methods, no matter how quirky they may be. Either you may get something out of this or have extreme sympathy for my assistants (in that case, please email me and let me know where I'm going wrong).

About a year and a half ago, I had the great opportunity of creating original characters for this all hi-def animation network called Animania (part of the VOOM HD network). They needed an open for this block of mostly action shows (primarily aimed at the boys, obviously) called The Big Wide Action Show. Since Primal Screen has done a good amount of show opens (see: Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law), as well as created the entire identity packaging for Animania, it seemed like a perfect fit.


The story for the open was conjured up by a writer hired by Animania and thusly, it was up to me to visualize it. I was given a one-paragraph treatment of the story and once I got the characters designed and locked down (another whole post coming up), I started to work on the storyboards (or 'boards). But I didn't start with full 'boards just yet. I started with thumbnails.

Thumbnail sketches, or "thumbnails," are an early part of the animation process. Basically, it's a brainstorming session to see just what the spot (in this case, the open) will look like. Done in a smaller scale (and quickly), it gives me a chance to focus on the placement of the characters and action as a whole. Working small allows me to see the entire frame sans extraneous detail. Once I get the thumbs looking right, I then take the images that I like here, scan them, and put them together in After Effects to create an animatic, or "moving storyboard," to check for timing and pacing. I also resort to thumbnails when planning out my keys when animating. Most animators know about this very important part of the process.

The basic premise of this story is that our superhero BIG and his robot sidekick WIDE (Animania's tagline is "Big Wide Fun") are called to action to save the world -- multiple times within 30 seconds. It's done tongue-in-cheek, with obvious nods to superhero and action clich├ęs. Remember, we're living in the Age of Irony. There was A LOT of action to be planned out from that initial one-paragraph treatment for just 30 seconds, but the clients wanted it all. My first challenge was to get it all in there and make it understandable for the viewer. Not an easy task. What you'll see in the following thumbnails are my gut drawings, drawn quickly, and drawn with the viewer in mind. The action skips around, but if you follow the numbers, you'll (hopefully) understand what's going on. Be sure to click on each page for a closer look:

After a couple of false starts (we went through several versions of the treatment before the clients liked this one), you can see that I didn't get it started until halfway down the page. The joke here is that it would seem kinda funny if a superhero and a robot are tending to their garden when they get the signal.

Sorry it switches around here, but if you can follow the story, BIG and WIDE nab a runaway burglar in their trusty, rusty bucket of bolts.

Inexplicably, we are now underwater with our two heros battling it out with an underwater nemesis. We changed the robotic octopus to a manta ray-like submarine because having to animate eight metal tentacles would prove to be insane. Also, we got rid of the damsel-in-distress for timing purposes.

After blowing up the underwater bad guy (boys like things that blow up real good), the scene switches to a city under siege by a Godzilla-like monster. The scenario pretty much remains the same here, save for the fact that the monster went through some changes before animation.

Of course, the joke here is that BIG smacks the monster on the nose like a naughty puppy and the monster leaves, dejected. I really liked working on this scene. Once that creature is gone, our two heros are suddenly wisked away by aliens in a spaceship. Hey -- they covered all bases here with action, superheros, monsters, AND sci-fi.

More explosions. Gotta love that. There was this running gag at the end where BIG and WIDE see their signal in the sky again, causing them to take off and save the world again, but we nixed that. No time left.

Next installment I'll talk about how I created the characters of BIG and WIDE. Stay tuned....

Check out how I created our two main characters, Big and Wide, in Part 2: Character Design.


  1. Great post Ward! Always a treat to see how you work. Can't wait for the next installment. What was the timeframe for the whole project and how long did this stage take?

  2. You're stealing my questions, Jared!
    I agree, Ward ... great stuff here. I've always been intrigued by the way you work and how your brain processes things.
    I love seeing this part of your process.
    I wish I could see the finished product after these posts. Is there a chance of that?

  3. Cool Ward! With the title "Spotlight", I can't help but envision you on a dark stage, sitting in a prop chair, smoking a cigar with a single spotlight shining down on you and the rings of smoke spiraling up from your cig. A sort of arty intro to your bio!!! Love it!

    It's good you're posting a look into your work process. I thought you did a nice job on that spot in particular. I'm impressed how you were able to work with the writer's idea, and make it look so natural (not translated), and sooooo Ward.

  4. I am curious about what the "ministry of excellence" written on the bottom of the underwater thumbnails is in reference to. It kinda sounds like a global justice organization that Big and Wide work for..like "Justice League", or "S.U.P.E.R.I.O.R.", or "Department of Fudge"...

  5. Out of all the stuff you've done at Primal, this is one of my favorites. I took one look at it and said "I'm not cut out for this business."

  6. Thanks for the comments, guys. Yes, you will be able to see the final of this. It's actually up on Primal's site currently, but the size is so small. I want to talk to the tech guy and see if we can get a larger version available for you all to check out the details.

    Jared, the project took about 10 weeks to produce, give or take a couple of days. I spent a good two weeks (maybe more) on the pre-production side of it, creating the characters and nailing down the look of the entire open before animation began. Like I mentioned, I'll talk more about the character development next time.

    Thanks, Justin for the nice words. I really enjoyed this project. And "sooooo Ward?" Not sure how I should take that. Just kidding.

    Jo, I'm not sure what that was about. I think it was something I scribbled down while talking on the phone with someone. No mystery there, I'm afraid.

    Klahd, I appreciate the words, but you're too hard on yourself! You are a lot better than you think. Trust me.

  7. Hey Ward, "Sooooo Ward" means the expressions of the monster were priceless...he totally reacted in a way that let us know he's just a big softy. I can see you in my mind, acting out his expression before you animated him.