By Nikolai Fomich
Earlier this fall, Echo Bridge Pictures, a Florida-based animation company which has worked on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for Nickelodeon, Axe Cop for Fox and Ugly Americans for Comedy Central, released the first episode in their new animated short series Mike & Wayne. The comedy series stars two hapless lowlifes whose efforts at making easy money lead them only to disaster. I spoke with the cartoon’s writer, director and producer, Esteban Valdez, about Mike & Wayne and other projects coming up from Echo Bridge Pictures.
Nikolai Fomich: Esteban, what is “The Grind”?
Esteban Valdez: It’s that daily hustle to get “yo paper right.” Mike and Wayne are just two everyday dudes who are looking to get their day in the sun. How they go about it is questionable to say the least, but that’s what makes the story that much more enjoyable.
[The Cornnah Storah]
NF: I thought the premise for this Mike & Wayne short was great – a convenience store set up with elaborate death traps. What made this the right story for the first major Echo Bridge Pictures animated short?
EV: Three things: the timing, the team and the project. We’d just finished doing production for Axe Cop season two (FOX/ADHD) and [were] getting ready to hit another project that was in our queue. Some financial snags happened, causing a delay, and we jumped at the opportunity without hesitation. See, I’d been working on Mike & Wayne for a little over two years, sketching and designing and coming up with all kinds of ideas for narratives, and seeing as the team was nice and warm, we went in full steam.
During client work, we’d spend a few hours in the morning and on weekends working on Mike & Wayne, coming up with gags and such. We thought that giving ourselves that little bit of time would quench our creative thirst a bit…nope. It just made us more anxious.
As for the decision to do Mike & Wayne specifically… well, I actually have three other short films that are in development right now that I was hoping the team could start working on, but the projects and ourselves just weren’t ready yet. Mike & Wayne was the most complete of all the picks and so naturally we went with that.
NF: Talk a bit about the development process. How did this animated short go from idea to the finished product?
EV: I had the project swimming around in my sketchbooks for a couple of years with these three characters who later became Mike, Wayne and Manny. The two main characters were based off a couple of old high school friends of the same name and the store itself [was] based off an old bodega that used to be by my house in Boston.
I struggled with the art direction for a good part of a year, looking for that voice that would make Mike & Wayne stand out, and took to my embarrassingly small comic book collection and came across some work from Daniel Clowes and Robert Crumb. The limited color palette intrigued me a lot and [I] thought it might be fun to make it look like an indie comic. At the same time I started watching a lot of the old Fleischer Popeye the Sailor and Fred Quimby Tom and Jerry cartoons and everything started to fit together like well-placed puzzle pieces.
Like I was saying earlier, I would work on Mike & Wayne during the early morning hours and weekends at the studio trying to finalize design ideas, and then we had that little hiccup in our pipeline and [so I] jumped to finish off the art bible and style guides for the team. We spent a lot of time dissecting the artwork to make sure everything was consistent throughout and that pre-production was air tight.
When it came to story, I had a loosely [written script], but seeing [as] the film is dialogue free, it posed a new set of questions that needed answers. What we did was have everyone gather round the conference table and start sketching out additional gags. Whatever made us laugh like idiots was what made it into the final reel, so everyone at the studio has their own personal touch on the film in a sense. Then it’s on to animation.
I have to be honest, animation production was kind of a slobber-knocker. You’d think that cartoons would be the easiest thing to draw, but because of the simplicity of the artwork, there’s really no room to hide your mistakes or cheat. Compound that with the limited color palette, [and] you’re just asking for technical problems. Most of the production was done frame by frame and so digitally inking everything also proved to be a challenge when it came to line consistency. We made it out alive though.
Post-production was kind of a breeze. Writing the soundtrack was rather simple. Mark [Mniece] and I would write tracks and bounce them back and forth until we had something that sounded fun. The punk rock soundtrack, well, we’re fans of punk and it just seemed to fit right in.
NF: How was the experience of working on an original creation different from the animation work you’d done before? Was it more challenging?
EV: It was absolutely satisfying and frustrating at the same time. Frustrating in a sense that you’re working on something where the success or failure of the project rests solely on you. You set the bar and then it’s up to you to make it. Unlike client work where we’re producing work up to the client’s standards, unless you know what you really want, you could spend weeks tweaking and adjusting things.
I know I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to things I do, and sometimes I set the bar a little bit higher than most, but with a really great team surrounding you and everyone wanting to achieve the same thing, making your goal is definitely much more plausible.
NF: Echo Bridge Pictures has been going strong for about five years now, your studio’s work having appeared on Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, BBC, and other major networks. Looking back, what animated work are you most proud of?
EV: There’s this one project that we did back in 2012 called “Leader of The Band” for Pure Bang Games. It’s a ninety second promo piece for a game that I don’t think [has] made it out to the public sphere yet, but it was one of those projects that really pushed the limits of everyone at the studio. Even though we’ve improved by leaps and bounds, it’s one of those projects that really showcased the dedication to the craft of cinema for us. We lost money on it for sure, but it looks fantastic.
NF: Finally, what’s the future hold for Echo Bridge? When will we see more Mike & Wayne?
EV: The future… hmm… Well, at the moment we’re working on this amazing project called T.A.S.K. with Damion Gonzales and crew, and I have to say that it is one of the finest pieces we’ve made this year. This is one of those projects that we really felt connected to and just gave it everything we had. Again, one of those projects that really pushed our limits and is really showing us what we’re made of. It’s definitely something like you’ve never seen before, yet at the same [time] you [feel] a sense of familiarity with it.
We’re also producing about five minutes of animation for a feature film documentary called Hustlers Convention which talks about the history of hip hop and rap. It’s another one of those projects which is having us break new narrative ground and we’re really excited to be a part of it.
As for Mike & Wayne, we’ve got about three more episodes that have been storyboarded out, but because we’re paying for this out of pocket, it kind of has to take a seat on the back burner until we’ve finished up on other obligations. Our original goal was to release a new short every month, but it’s expensive. Part of our plan was to crowd fund, but after much debate about the direction of the company, we’ve decided that this is going to be one of those projects we do for fun.
Over all for the company, I know that we’re going to be more selective [with] the kinds of projects we do. We want to give each and every single project we work on our complete and undivided attention, [so] that our clients are happy and [so that] we continue to push the bounds of animation with each project. We actually tried [that] out this year, [working] on higher quality projects that allow us to do the things we want to do, and I can’t tell you enough how amazing that feeling has been. To be able to just focus on a single project, uninterrupted… our clients thus far are seeing some amazing results.
In addition to that, we’ll be starting a monthly filmmaking workshop/mentorship program that’ll start in January 2015. It’s hard to say what’ll happen exactly, but we’re looking to make 2015 another banner year.
Nikolai Fomich is a writer and college teacher in the Philadelphia area. Follow him @brokenquiver