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An Interview With Alan Lau From Ghostbot

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What do ghosts and robots have in common? I mean, other than being kick ass sci-fi fodder? Well, not much really. That is, until you go to www.ghostbot.com, the Internet home for Alan Lau, Roque Ballesteros and Brad Rau.

These creative geniuses left the hallowed halls of Wild Brain to create their own company, Ghostbot. I was determined to hunt each one of them down- corner them and use age old torture techniques (like razorblades and lemon juice) to find out their secrets for making such great animation.

Alan Lau was my first target. You may have seen his creations on Cartoonnetwork.com where his overhaul of cartoon legends Penelope Pitstop and Hong Kong Phooey were all the rage but he has a wide range of material out there from Happy Tree Friends: Third Strike DVD to the anime giant Madhouse.

It took me quite a while to track him and lure him into my trap but I did it. After several lashings, a gallon of lemon juice and a very sound beating- Alan let me get up. As I was licking my wounds I asked him a few questions. Here’s how it went down:

KG:
Tell me a little about your background and how you came to find yourself directing animation. Where are you from? What was your upbringing like?

Alan Lau:
I’m a native of foggy San Francisco and grew up in a typical working class Asian family. My father owned a laundry that my family took care of. He was an incredibly hard worker. That’s where I think I got my endurance for animation production.

KG:
At what point did you know animation was your thing?

Alan Lau:
Ever since I was a little kid I was fascinated by animation. At Christmas, I was more excited about watching the Rankin Bass Rudolph stop motion cartoons than I was about presents. When I was 10, I would rush home from school just to catch a glimpse of Star Blazers or Robotech on my old black and white TV.

In college, I feebly tried to get into careers my parents approved of (science, business or anything practical for that matter) but in the end I was only good at animation. I guess it was destiny at that point.

KG:
Those Rankin Bass Rudolph cartoons were awesome. For the longest time I couldn’t find “The Year without a Santa Claus’ which was my favorite. Which was yours?

Alan Lau:
I like the Rankin Bass cartoon with Bumble the Abominable Snow Man!

KG:
You, Roque and Brad were once parts of the awesome creative team that made-up Wildbrain. What made you guys get together and form Ghostbot?

Alan Lau:
Wild Brain is an awesome animation company founded by John Hays, Jeff Fino and Phil Robinson. That was a place where Roque, Brad and I worked together on web content and commercials. Our relationship with them is great and every once in a while we get called in to do some fun stuff.

During the last few years, Roque, Brad and I discovered that the best work we did seemed to happen when we worked together and that we could land bigger gigs as a team instead of individuals.

KG:
What is the overall mission of Ghostbot now and where do you see Ghostbot being 5 years from now.

Alan Lau:
The mission of Ghostbot is to create compelling, kick ass quality animation.

In 5 years, I’d like to see us developing original content as well as working in TV, feature level work, and merchandising.

KG:
You’ve done a lot of work for television as well as the Internet. Which do you prefer?

Alan Lau:
Both. I like television because it doesn’t have the technical limitations of streaming flash animation on the Internet. I like Internet content because you don’t have to adhere to censorship constrictions of television.

KG:
Your work is just so damn ACTION PACKED! How do you feed all that imagination? Man, just going to the mailbox has to be exciting for you.

Alan Lau:
Ha! Thanks! I am a big fan of Japanese anime and that is basically what feeds the action portion of my brain. The mailbox is only exciting when there is a paycheck in there.

KG:
Your most familiar work on the web would probably be the Hong Kong Phooey and Penelope Pitstop revamps you did for Cartoon Network. Are there any plans to make those into shows?

Alan Lau:
Penelope Pitstop GT and Hong Kong Phooey were done for the infamously cool Sam Register. At the time he was executive producer in charge of web content for Cartoon Network. His concept was to take these classic characters and revamp them for a modern day audience.

There was an early buzz that something might be happening with Penelope but I haven’t heard about anything recently.

KG:
I could see saucier versions of these shows on Adult Swim!

Alan Lau:
Yes most definitely! I have quite a few ideas for Penelope. Adult Swim would be the perfect home for her.

KG:
Which other toons would you like to put a revamp on? Frankenstein Jr.? The Herculoids? Blue Falcon and Dynomutt?

Alan Lau:
The Herculoids, Blue Falcon and Dynomutt would rock! Dick Dastardly and Mutley are on the list of cartoon characters I’d like to work on before I die.

KG:
It’s Mutley’s laugh that gets ya, right? I never got into them much but that laugh was the bomb.

Alan Lau:
Mutley’s snicker is totally funny. I love that. I also admired his irrational obsession for medals. That was the only reason he hung out with Dick.

KG:
Now, you’re a Director- Do you enjoy that aspect of animation more than the actual hands on or do you do both? What is the biggest difference?

Alan Lau:
I usually work on short format animation ranging from 30 seconds to 7 minutes long. When that is the case, I definitely try to storyboard the whole thing. That is where I can get the most input and influence on the overall product. Then if there is time, I try to animate sequences that are difficult for others or ones I am very particular about.

KG:
How do you approach a project you are going to direct?

Alan Lau:
Very cautiously. I usually poke it with a stick to see if it bites.

KG:
Ha, Ha! And if it bites? Do you have to get a Tetanus shot or a vaccination for rabies?

Alan Lau:
If it bites, I pull out my stunt director and have him take the hit while I run down the fire escape.

KG:
What is your process in deciding what to do and how do you carry it out?

Alan Lau:
Budget, art style and time are the main factors in working out any production. I usually keep these aspects in mind when I work.

KG:
You’ve directed 2D animation, 2D for the web and 3D animation (rendered as 2D)- is there one that is better than the other? Did you find that 3D gave you more options or too many options?

Alan Lau:
Actually, I haven’t directed 3D animation yet. The work you might be referring to is the Nissan spot. The 3D portion of that job was done by Rhythm and Hues in LA. The overall animation was directed by Eric Wiese at Celluloid (which is now part of Vinton). I was Animation Director for a unit of 20 people here in SF helping out Eric on roughly 1Z2 the spot.

I’ve done little bits of 3D animation here and there when I had the time. From an animation standpoint, 3D is compelling because you get to concentrate on the pure timing of animation without the struggle of trying to draw every frame. On the flip side, with 3D there are many technical struggles you have to overcome.

KG:
Which one do you think is more conducive to producing for the Internet?

Alan Lau:
At this point, I’d say 2D flash is the most practical for the Internet. It’s a little less expensive and can be done in a quicker turnaround than 3D.

KG:
Which work are you most proud of?

Alan Lau:
I’d say the two projects I am most proud of are Penelope Pitstop GTS and “Buddhist Monkey II: Books of Fury”. You can find that one on the 3rd Happy Tree Friends DVD (Third Strike).

KG:
I have to get that bad boy. The clip on your site left me hangin’, so I gotta see what happened. My favorite part is when we get a close of the monkey pivoting his foot as he’s laying the smack down. Are those little details your specialty?

Alan Lau:
That’s all inspired by the millions of hours of Japanese anime and kung fu flicks running in my head. I think the little details are what people appreciate when it comes to well choreographed fighting. That particular little foot turn bit was inspired by an awesome anime called Rurouni Kenshin.

KG:
What is Madhouse and what works did you do with them?

Alan Lau:
Madhouse is one of the top anime companies in Japan. They worked on ‘Ninja Scroll’ and ‘Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust’. I recently did a small sliver of animation for them on a show called ‘Gungrave’. It was one of the toughest things I’ve ever worked on but it was a blast!

KG:
So what is your favorite kind of anime? Are you old school like Ninja scroll, high tech like Ghost in the Shell or silly like Ranma 1/2?

Alan Lau:
I love it all. Some of my favourites are FLCL, Evangelion, Cowboy Bebop and of course anything done by Miyazaki. Right now I’m watching a lot of Naruto, Samurai Champloo and The Last Exile.

KG:
FLCL is one of my favorites, lots of awesome style there. Speaking of style. I have loved every bit of your work that I have stumbled across- mostly on the net, how can we see more stuff? Is there an Alan Lau vault somewhere?

Alan Lau:
Thank you. I think most of my work will be showing up at www.ghostbot.com.

We are planning on a refresh sometime soon but we’ve been very busy starting up.

KG:
Could a refresh include an episodic series? The web needs another really good animated series. Ya’ll wanna step up to the plate?

Alan Lau:
I agree. The web can definitely use some good animated stuff. We just wrapped up a few episodes of Happy Tree Friends. One episode “Remains to Be Seen” is a special Halloween show that I believe you can see on the main site www.happytreefriends.com.

KG:
What have you got coming down the pike? You must have fans beating down your door to get that animated action fix.

Alan Lau:
As mentioned earlier I just wrapped up ‘Buddhist Monkey II’ for the Happy Tree Friends Third Strike DVD. I did animation for a music video directed by Roque Ballesteros. It’s a song titled ‘Wizard Needs Food Badly’ by a band called Five Iron Frenzy. Also, I just wrapped up a television commercial for ‘Esurance’ directed by Phil Robinson at Wild Brain.

KG:
I noticed that you directed one of the episodes for (what I consider one of the best Internet series ever) Roque Ballesteros’ Joe Paradise. What was that like?

Alan Lau:
I didn’t direct any episodes of Joe Paradise. That was all directed by the amazing Roque Ballesteros. I was strictly animation muscle on that project.

It was amazing to work on Joe. With each episode, it seemed like we were trying to find ways to top ourselves creatively. It gave me a new found respect for flash animation and the possibilities that could be created with it.

KG:
That Roque is amazing, and Joe paradise was an awesome series. So again, I beg you guys. Do another series. Please!?

Alan Lau:
Ha ha ha! We would love to create another episodic series for the web. Right now we’re focused on spreading our studio’s “wings” but in the future, an original Ghostbot series is definitely the goal – be it for the web, or for broadcast.

Well, there you have it. Keep an eye out for Alan and Ghostbot ‘cause there’s going to be some hot stuff coming out of that box. Also, peep in on the Dope Sheet as I chase down Roque and Brad – interviews with them will come soon…after I get all this lemon juice out of my hair.


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