Harold Moss, the founder of FlickerLab, latest project is the new, animated intro for the reboot of the beloved Reading Rainbow series, Reading Rainbow Live.
FlickerLab has also worked with media brands like Bleacher Report, Cartoon Network, Comedy Central, Disney, VH1, Michael Moore, Sesame Workshop, as well as the largest global agencies and brands, film studios, political candidates, causes, and educational companies.
He’s also the creator of Climate Ad Project, a non-profit organization that focuses on creating short media aimed to increase the public’s awareness of the global climate change crisis.
In an exclusive interview, Harold discusses recent (and past) work, technical challenges, and his approach to collaboration.
PH: Tell us about some of your recent and past work at FlickerLab! In particular, “Gridiron Heights: Season 6” for Bleacher Report and “A Brief History of the USA” from the film Bowling for Columbine stood out to us. What significance did they bring to your company and its trajectory, FlickerLab?
Harold Moss: A Brief History of the USA will always be a sort of founding document for FlickerLab, a perfect expression of using comedy and animation to take on deadly serious topics. I came to work with Michael Moore originally through the animated web series I created with Dan Perkins back in 1999, based on his comic This Modern World by Tom Tomorrow. The three of us wrote an animated feature film together while Michael was finishing Bowling for Columbine. While the film, President Dog, was green-lit at one point, it was sadly never produced. But the cartoon FlickerLab created with Michael for Bowling for Columbine was a first for using a cartoon in a major documentary. Now, of course, it’s common to see animation of all sorts in docs, but it was Bowling for Columbine that really opened the field up to that. Cartoons weren’t seen as serious enough, somehow, but that cartoon provided such a fulcrum for the film, and then with Bowling winning an Oscar and having a major cultural impact, that attitude shifted. So that cartoon both lined us up to create animation for a bunch of documentaries over the years, and set the tone for the kind of political and change-making media we’ve made since.
On the other side of the spectrum, in the category of cartoons making jokes just for the sake of being funny (which we also love), every week for the last 6 NFL seasons, we’ve been creating a 1 or 2-minute Gridiron Heights episode. The show has become part of the studio’s fabric. It’s a fast and furious process—a script on Thursday becomes a posted episode the next Tuesday, with lots of Monday morning jokes added to address whatever happened during Sunday’s games.
Series are always welcome for a studio. This one keeps a team of folks busy through half of the year, which is great. But Gridiron Heights has also, along with the many other shorts we’ve made for Bleacher Report, gotten us a reputation as a studio that nails the combination of sports, animation, and comedy. We’ve done work directly with the LA Rams for last year’s draft pick, for MLB, animated Kevin Durant’s epic Rucker Park pickup game for GQ, and on and on.
For a bunch of animation nerds who are more likely to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the backstories of 1980s Saturday morning cartoon supervillains than the average yards per carry for wide receivers, we absolutely love making these sports cartoons and we’re looking forward to continuing our animation nerd domination of the sports cartoon field.
PH: Which scene was your favorite to work on in Gridiron Heights during its 6th Season for Bleacher Report?
Harold Moss: Picking favorites on Gridiron Heights is always tough, as we love making this show every week. But if I had to pick a team favorite from this season, it would have to be the Super Bowl episode; Joe Burrow Crashes the Rams’ LA House Party. In a show that regularly packs 5 or 10 minutes of jokes into 1-2 minute episodes, and a truckload of Easter eggs squeezed in on top of that, this episode was still truly epic. Parties, fires, combat, a cast of thousands, celebrity cameos, a steady 3.46 gags per second—what’s not to love?
PH: What tools, plugins, or instruments did you use in your production of these projects?
Harold Moss: We create such a wide range of projects—animated and live-action TV ads, digital series, title sequences, learning platforms, VR, live streaming productions, games—so we pull in a huge range of tools and methods to get these various tasks completed. Building out pipelines for new kinds of productions is really a core strength of the studio. But there is a fairly standard toolkit for these kinds of animated projects. Design is generally done in Adobe Photoshop or Animate. Storyboards are completed in Adobe Animate or ToonBooms Storyboard Pro and timed to a voice track there. Animation is done in Animate. Backgrounds are created in Photoshop. Then everything comes together in Adobe After Effects, where we combine the backgrounds and animation with camera moves and effects. Then we’ll generally finish in Adobe Premiere, either mixing there or sending the sound mix out to Pro Tools.
In terms of plugins, we often use the Red Giant Magic Bullet color correction suite when we want to quickly give a strong look to a final piece.
PH: What technical challenges did you encounter while working on these projects?
Harold Moss: A Brief History of the USA actually represents a technical first—the first time Flash (now Adobe Animate) was used to create content for a theatrically released feature film. In those early days, we were really pushing the limits of what could be done with desktop technology and were also the first to create animation for Cartoon Network using Flash, when we animated Bob’s Burgers creator Lauren Bouchard’s Adult Swim pilot Saddle Rash.
So we started out building desktop to film and broadcast pipelines for what was still a burgeoning desktop animation environment. In fact, Macromedia, which owned Flash at the time, embedded our how-to FAQ on producing Flash for broadcast and film as part of the software for years.
PH: What was the dialogue like between you and your team at FlickerLab regarding these projects? We would love to learn more about your collaboration approach and philosophy!
Harold Moss: Collaboration is at the very heart of our approach, and one of the things that gets the people we work with to come back year after year. That’s why we’ve got client relationships that are as old as the studio itself.
Now, you do need a bit of ego to be able to stand up and say, “Hey, I’ve got a vision for this project, and I know how to get it done.” But great projects happen when you learn how to park that ego, and open up to all the best ideas, wherever they come from. As a director, I am happiest when I’m not needed, because it means the team is on track and doing what they do best. But these two projects are nice examples of different collaborative models.
When we first came on to make the Brief History of the United States short for Bowling for Columbine, it was just a black slug in the cut with the title “Animation Here.” Well, that, and some really nice designs by the illustrator Ryan Sias, which ended up being the final designs we used. There was a clear sense of everything the short needed to capture, and that was really the tough part. How to fit centuries of American colonization, genocide, gun violence, and fear into a couple of funny minutes of animation? So we bounced the script back and forth, and let me tell you, having Michael Moore write a cartoon you’re going to make is a real treat. We kept hammering, until the last minute, which is admittedly nerve-wracking for an animator. To the point that I ended up doing all the voices at 3 am the night before it was all due because it was too late to get anyone else in the studio to do it! But boy, was it worth it. I was able to travel to the Cannes Festival for the premiere, and listen to that crowd of thousands laughing uproariously at the cartoon then give the whole film a ten-minute standing ovation. Wow. That was definitely a peak experience in life. So this was a situation with a director who knew exactly what he wanted, but needed a collaborator to plot a course for that vision to be manifested in animation. So there was lots of back and forth, lots of iterations. Sort of the diamond-making process of taking the raw idea and applying enough pressure and force on it to emerge with a gem. That’s really how the best comedy is produced. Just grinding away until all that’s left is the stuff that works.
Given the speed of Gridiron Heights, it’s a very different process. At the start, we worked closely with the folks at Bleacher Report to develop a look and animation style that could deliver on the comedy while still hitting the crazy schedule. The regular production routine is, we get a script and radio play from the team at Bleacher Report on a Thursday, turn around a really rough animatic by the next day, then split it out for the animators, artists, and compositors over the weekend. There’s no room for a lot of back and forth and iterating over time. So, in this case, the collaboration comes from our team taking the radio play from their script and adding in gags and performance during the storyboarding and the animation. The teams on both sides are just sprinting towards Tuesday, throwing in every gag and bit to see what sticks. And a testament to both the Bleacher Report and FlickerLab teams that it lands so consistently. I hope we’ll be making Gridiron Heights for years to come.