Instant Karma: DP Jim Matlosz Animates “My Name is Earl”

With a career that reflects good karma, good luck, or perhaps a little of both, Director of Photography Jim Matlosz has worked with some of the top names in advertising and feature films, including Tim Burton on “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” For the past 16 years this cameraman-turned-cinematographer has worked on numerous commercials, music videos, features, and documentaries in a variety of film and video formats.

About a year ago, Matlosz’ visual effects skills attracted the attention of the producers of the hit NBC sitcom, “My Name is Earl.” Now in its second season, the series depicts how the title character, Earl, tries to improve his karma by undoing all the wrongs he had committed earlier in life. Matlosz’ team was tasked with creating some stop motion animation for some scenes in which Earl’s brother Ricky hallucinates that everyone around him is animated.

MVWire recently interviewed Matlosz about how he initially landed the project and put together the stop motion animation segments for the “Rob a Stoner Blind” episode of “My Name is Earl.”

MVWire: Talk about starting the project.

Jim Matlosz: A friend of mine works for a company that does 24-frame playback for several TV Shows called Jargon Entertainment. I shot some smaller budget stuff for them like internet interstitials and lower budget broadcast commercials. The owner does all the 24-frame playback for the TV shows; he overheard a conversation that they wanted someone to shoot some stop motion for My Name is Earl. He was very interested in it but (had) limited experience with the format. Shortly afterwards I met the guy and he found out that not only had I worked on “Nightmare Before Christmas” but had shot a short indie film called “Oedipus” that played at Sundance in 2003.

He talked to the producers about me and that was about November of last year. So there was talk about us shooting in February/March of last year. The truth is they didn’t have a script; all the scripts were approved and finished, (so) they’d get back to us the following season.

In July of 2006 Jargon Entertainment called and said they have a script and want us to read it. They are probably going to green light it, (so) let’s put a budget together. By the end of July 2006 the script was approved and budget was approved after some severe cuts.

We started building puppets and sets in August, and started shooting October 1st.

MVWire: Was it a long process?

JM: We already had our crew put together for budgeting purposes as far as animators, people to build sets, people to build puppets, people to break down dialogue… myself to shoot it, lighting, grip—all that kind of stuff.

The puppet makers started about mid-August building the puppets, which gave them six weeks. You have to do sketches … How do you want them to look? Do you want them to look exactly human or characters? We went with more of a caricature design. Chris Rybolt was actually one of our puppet makers (who) is also a sketch artist (and) also did the final sketches. They started building the puppets once all the sketches were approved. My friend John Millhouser designed and had the sets built by some mutual friends of his that are miniature and stop motion set builders. They had to be exact replicas of the live action set, scale to scale, everything had to be exact. I mean, down to a bottle of beer on the counter or something on the shelf; flowers and curtains and the exact same materials on the floor and everything. The minute detail is pretty amazing.

MVWire: How many people did it actually take to make the episode happen?

JM: As far as puppet makers there were at least four or five. The lead puppet maker was a guy named Rob Ronning, a good friend of mine who also did “Nightmare Before Christmas,” “James the Giant Peach,” “Monkey Bones” as well countless commercials.

We had three or four set builders, a total of four animators but only two working full time. (With) myself as camera, grip and electric, (and) data wrangler…Once the show was done I would transfer to a Zip drive, make backups and hand that over to the editor who would then convert the file, remove all the flicker convert to a 1920 x 1080 QuickTime and then ship it over to production.

MVWire: How were the puppets made?

JM: They are foam armature puppets that have dated back since stop motion began back to the original King Kong in 1933 and even before that. They are cast heads made of a hard resin, and then what they do is replace the eyelids to get blinks and mouths to get dialogue.

MVWire: You guys kind of did your own thing, right?

JM: We were invited to the live action set and were there most of the day. I was there for most of the live action shooting to get an idea of the reference and interact with the director, basically just feel it out. This way when I got into the animation world I would know … have a better feel for what I was trying to portray. I took a bunch of reference stills but never looked at them. We had a QuickTime of the shot and would use that as a reference and add my own personal touch.

MVWire: What were the cameras and lights you used on this project?

JM: We used Canon digital still cameras – 20Ds—my preference for shooting stop motion. The drawback is that it does not give you a live video signal out.

MVWire: How did you pick up working in stop motion?

JM: I worked in visual effects and then I was out of work for almost a year. Then I was lucky enough to get picked up as a camera assistant on “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and was on that show for nine months. The DP was brilliant, inspirational; I learned a ton off of him. I didn’t touch stop motion for another ten years.


Animated Segment produced by Jargon entertainment:

Producers: Lucas Soloman / Sean Buck
DP: Jim Matlosz
Animation Consultant: Chris Calvi
Animators: Joe Mello / Chris Finnegan /
Tennesee Reed Norton
Sketch Artist: Chris Rabel
Puppet Fabrication: Rob Ronning and Company

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