I spoke with Levi George – an extremely versatile Australian animation professional, living in Adelaide, who recently published the much anticipated and highly praised Dream Clean-Up extension for Animate.
Levi was very kind to speak with me, and below is our conversation.
Interview with Levi George
Hi Levi! Thank you for agreeing to do this interview!
I can't wait to learn more about Dream Clean-Up, but before that, let's start from the beginning.
What were your favorite cartoons when you were a boy, and which is the first one that you remember seeing? Did you prefer shorts or feature films?
Thank you! Extremely flattering to be interviewed among all the amazing artists from this series!
I don’t remember having a preference between movies or TV. As a kid I loved shows like Dexter’s Lab, Earthworm Jim and Rugrats. My parents recorded a broadcast of The Land Before Time onto a VHS and I watched it at every opportunity. I also loved Aladdin and The Lion King, but I feel like my tastes were influenced by our small VHS collection.
What about comics?
I'm asking this, because as a kid I enjoyed reading comics, but I always considered them inferior to animated films. I could learn from them; they just lacked magic. In my mind then, the detailed and beautiful artwork and the masterful compositions could never compensate for the absence of movement or sound. How do you see comics' relationship to animation and illustration?
I love that you asked me this question! I am primarily an animator, but am also trying to tell stories in the comic-book format. Initially I started making and reading comics because animation is so slow and so expensive and so I also probably saw it as a less sophisticated medium. I definitely don’t feel that way after about a year of trying to write and draw them though. Both comics and animation utilize acting, staging, composition and color theory, but honestly they are so different. It’s really interesting to watch The Boys television series and then read the graphic novels. They share so much DNA and are telling the same stories, but the way they have to tell them is so different because of their formats. Comics really have to get to the point faster. The writing has to be so economical. I really admire it.
There is an undeniable magic to seeing a character come to life in animation, but when I’m absorbed by a comic I kind of do ‘hear’ the sounds and ‘see’ the movement. It’s like reading a novel, the story plays out in your head like a movie. The artistry that goes into panel layouts that tell a well-paced flowing narrative is so unique. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to break out of film's 16:9 aspect ratio. With a comic, you can! They are technologically less sophisticated compared to animated storytelling, but that limitation (if you want to think of it that way) is what makes it such a unique and fun art form. It’s also okay to prefer animation over comics though! I still do.
As you grew up and learned more about animation, did your taste change? Do you have favorite animated shows, feature films, animators and directors?
I'm really inspired by Patrick McHale who made Over the Garden Wall, Lisa Hannahwalt creator of Tuca and Bertie, and Owen Dennis who made Infinity Train. I still love Matt Groening, The Simpsons, Futurama and Disenchantment are all amazing. Growing up there were a few obscure (at the time) animated shows around and the only way to see them was to… let's say… find them online. I spent days downloading episodes of Mission Hill (still a favorite of mine), Clone High and Undergrads. I must have ruined at least one family computer in my pursuit of these shows.
How did you get into Flash and what was the path that led you to becoming an animation professional?
At some point in high-school, I ditched ABC Kids for Newgrounds. It was this amazing treasure trove of content made by folks a little older than me. To this day I still find myself quoting weird little lines from 20 year old Flash cartoons. I got really into Home Star Runner, Matt Wilson’s Bonus Stage, Ed Atlin’s Space Tree The Space Tree in Space. I was amazed at how one talented person could create hilarious animated entertainment. My friend Tim had the same interests and we started making Flash cartoons together.
I believe that many years ago your friend Tim and I worked on the same TV show in Hobart.
Tell us more about Awesome Fighter Animation studio.
Ahhh, small world! Tim is a mega talent! Yeah, so immediately after high school Tim went to Tasmania to work on a Flash series (where you must have run into him) and I studied Film & Television at UniSA. When he got back we managed to wrangle together some funding from a place called the Media Resource Centre to create a short film under the mentorship of a local group called the People’s Republic of Animation. The two of us (plus some other friends) managed to make a short film called Awesome Fighter. The film ain’t great, but the mentorship we received was invaluable. We were very lucky to have programs like that in place to support young artists. I’m still very grateful to both institutions.
During that production, we started Awesome Fighter Animation. A couple of years later, once I'd graduated, I wrote another series with my friend Jonny, called Living With Steve and we managed to get funding to make 7 episodes. Further down the line we made 6 episodes of a short comedy series for Catuna called Science!! Eventually, it aired on the Sci-Fi Channel. Recently we brought our expertise to Monkeystack to be production leads on Yolo: Silver Destiny and Yolo: Crystal Fantasy, but we do take on fun projects through AFA when the opportunity pops up.
What do you think of contemporary Australian animation production? Does it have its own unique face or is it a homogenized expression of the typical themes and styles set by the US entertainment industry, and identifiable only by the voice actors' accents?
Recently I feel like Australian animated content is moving past the cultural cringe you are talking about. Bluey seems like the biggest kids show on TV right now, and it’s unapologetically Australian. We have directors like Michael Cusack who made Yolo and Koala Man that are so Australian it’s sort of traumatic. All these shows seem to be doing pretty well in the international market too. Maybe a generation of people who grew up with the Internet are more open to international voices?
A lot of great Australian animation is appearing on Youtube. I loved The Future of Everything, which was Science Fiction with this weird Aussie twist. Childish Deano was a refreshingly honest and emotional look at Aussie culture. Australia’s cultural identity is extremely broad, animation has been a pretty inoffensive medium to explore that, probably because a lot of folks don’t take it too seriously. There are so many talented youngish Australian creators around that I have a lot of hope for Australian Animation.
What are some of the exciting projects you have been a part of in the last few years?
The most exciting project was working with Monkeystack and Princess Bento as one of the lead animators on Yolo: Crystal Fantasy and Yolo: Silver Destiny. I already mentioned being a massive Adult Swim fan and I was also a huge Michael Cusack fan too, so it was the definition of getting a dream job and using all the lessons from previous projects to make it happen. It was such an inspiring crew of creative people. Honestly, if you haven’t watched Yolo you are missing the weirdest funniest Australian content around.
Recently you published an extremely useful and highly praised extension for Animate, called Dream Clean-Up. Brush Off-Cuts, its main component, really brings in functionality which Flash animators could only dream of in the past. When did you start taking interest in programming, and what is your history with Flash / Animate extensions?
I was feeling frustrated by my workflow and wanted it to feel more fun, like playing an instrument or a video game. More time drawing and less time fighting the software, you know? I decided to invest some time fine-tuning my workflow. I already had some skills in writing code thanks to years of expression writing in After Effects. At this stage, I was really just building lots of increasingly complicated commands for myself, but didn’t have any plans for wider distribution. When I started leading bigger teams of animators I got really into ‘production maths’. A single smart production choice can save the animators hours per week. That time really adds up over months of animating. I thought I might as well release them to the the entire Animation community, so I decided to package and publish some of them.
We find the gradient idea at the basis of Dream Clean-Up absolutely fascinating! How did it come about? Was it one of those lucky accidental discoveries that suddenly solve decades-old problems?
Dream Clean-Up is my attempt to recreate a wonderful clean-up system that has existed in Toon Boom Harmony for ages. There is a tool called the Cutter Tool that finds where two strokes intersect and deletes the unwanted part. I think it exists in illustrator too as the Knife tool, but for some reason it wasn’t in Animate. I managed to program a command and a tool that brings a similar functionality into Animate called Brush Off-Cuts (although in the most recent version of Dream Clean-Up you don’t need the command).
I love the gradient solution too, but I can’t take 100% of the credit! It was inspired by an animator called Bryan V, @roastedstix, who posted a similar clean-up technique as an Adobe Animate hack in early 2021. I tried it out but you had to be really mindful of what order you cleaned up your lines in, and so I couldn’t really make it part of my workflow. It is genius though and sparked the thought that led to how Brush Off-Cuts splits up a brush stroke.
What challenges did you face during the development process, and how long did it take from concept to release?
For such a seemingly simple command, it took a lot of troubleshooting to get it to work the way I wanted. The best documentation for writing scripts for Animate is a manual from 2013 called Extending Adobe Flash Professional and a book called Extending Flash MX 2004. The titles are a good indicator of how underresourced this space is (although the latter book is amazingly useful). I got the Brush Off-Cuts command working in February 2022. I knew animators would immediately see the value of it so I made a little video that showed it off and put it online.
At that point production had started on Yolo: Silver Destiny, so I gifted the Brush Off-Cuts Command to the crew and they loved it. Occasionally I would get contacted by someone online checking if the tool was available, but at that point, I was in production mode and wouldn't have the time to package it for release for about 10 months. It’s possible I never would have released it at all, if not for the continued interest from the Animate community. While I was very happy with Brush Off-Cuts, I wanted the clean-up system to work as close to Harmony's as possible so I created the Stroke Slasher tool to speed up the process of deleting the lines themselves. I had also developed the Clean Colour Switch for the Yolo Crew. I put them all together and Dream Clean-Up was born!
Animators have been so kind and appreciative of Dream Clean-Up, the week it came out I saw so much excitement in the community. A few animators really went out of their way to promote it by making little videos showing it off. Friends of mine showed me posts about it in their production’s Slack channels. I really feel like the tool has helped a lot of folks which is a great feeling.
For almost a whole decade we had been quite lonely in this field. It is so refreshing and nice to see revived interest in Flash plugins, and to witness the positive feedback and enthusiasm with which the community has responded to the release of your tools. Do you have plans to develop more extensions?
I released another command called Frame Roller: a way to scrub through your animation and then effortlessly return to your in-progress frame with the tool you were previously using. It was one of my earliest ideas for a command, as I would find myself getting lost playing back own animation over and over again. Frame Roller is kind of a personal brain hack and a useful command. It flew under the radar a little, but it’s made my animation process much smoother this year and if others find a use for it then that’s a bonus.
A lot of my plugins are designed to bring some of Harmony's best features into Animate. I am reworking my original layer commands to include something similar to Art Layers from Harmony. If I can stick to my schedule it should be available in the first half of 2023.
I’m also in the early planning stages of building something like the Master Controller from Harmony, but as you can imagine that project is pretty ambitious.
I think with every new project I end up writing a script that’ll speed it up in some way. I’m planning on releasing some of the simpler ones for free onto Adobe Exchange when I have some time too.
Do you remember how and when you first discovered EDAP Tools? What were your first impressions then? What do you think about EDAPT in 2023?
I stumbled upon EDAPT in 2021. I had to change all the lineweights for each shot in a long project and I was sure that there must be a plugin that did it. Find and Replace Strokes was one of the commands in EDAPT and it worked like a charm! For that project I had spent a couple of weeks building some rigs, when I saw EDAPT's other features and kicked myself for not finding them sooner. They would have made that entire project so much easier. I’ve gradually played with all of them and fully incorporated many of them into my work-flow. I find it hard to work without them now. The IK rigging is unbelievably useful, same for the welding tool. Even the smaller functions like a hot-key to change the frame in a symbol save me so much time over a day of work. I can’t express enough gratitude to you, guys, for the amazing work you’ve done in this space.
Have you followed closely the development of Animate in the recent 5–6 years? What do you think about it?
I've used Adobe Animate for nearly 20 years and taught it for at least 5, so I have so many boring opinions on this. I’ve also animated using After Effects, Photoshop, Harmony and, for better or worse, I always find myself back in Animate. The strength of Adobe Animate is that it has a relatively gentle learning curve. Last year I took a bunch of animation graduates, many of who had barely used Animate, and got them production-ready in under a month. I don’t think you could do that with many other programs.
The downside of Animate is that it’s full of features that, frustratingly, you can’t reliably roll into an animation pipeline, because they work so conditionally. Animate introduced Layer Depth years ago, a very useful feature, but it doesn’t work if your layers are nested in a symbol. As a result I have never seen anyone use it. It has a 3D system, but it only works with Movie Clips (and not Graphics) which makes it nearly useless for animation. To utilize the features of Animate you have to use what you, guys, call a ‘bubble sandwich’ workflow… That sentence alone perfectly encapsulates how ridiculous Animate can feel. It would be nice if we only had to learn one workflow. But in the likely situation where a feature doesn’t work, you need a backup workflow, and I think Adobe Animate users have just gotten used to that.
Adobe Animate has been around for a long time and is used for more than just animation so I suppose this is a symptom of that. It’s a much loved stubborn ol’ mule that probably won't ever change in a big revolutionary way, but if all its current features worked more reliably it would be a beautiful young stallion! It is great that we have the ability to write scripts and sculpt it into the tool animators deserve though.
Besides your interest in programming, do you have any other hobbies or side projects?
Yeah! I am also doing a weekly semi-educational Flash Animation Twitch stream called The Dream Clean-Up Live Stream-Up every Saturday morning (Australian time). I take an audience prompt and try to animate a GIF faster than my washing machine can wash my laundry (I am usually unsuccessful). I try out some new techniques, test and promote any tools or commands I’m working on and just chat Animation with anyone who pops in! Mostly it’s fun to make time to animate something each week, even if it’s something really dumb.
Right now I’ve carved out some time to write again. I’ve got a short comedy horror comic that I’m inking at the moment called ConsFEARicy FEARY that should be online in March. I’m also writing a 32 page spooky comic called Hike or Die that I’ll move into after that. I also storyboarded an untitled short horror movie, which I think is going to go into production shortly. I’m extremely grateful to not have to put personal projects on the back burner right now, so I’m trying to get all the storytelling out of my system before the next animated production pops up.
Is there anything I forgot to ask, but you would like to add?
Nope! If anything I mentioned above interests anyone, then give me a follow on Instagram or subscribe to the blog on my website.
Thank you very much, Levi!