Powerhouse Animation (www.powerhouseanimation.com) is a full service creative studio headquartered in Austin, TX, and with an office in Los Angeles too. The studio has been in operation since 2001 and has contributed animation to television, film, video games and commercials projects, as well as to music videos, explainer videos and educational content. The talented team is known for its ability to visualize action.
Powerhouse CEO Brad Graeber recently wanted to work on a project that had an authentic kung-fu focus and featured Mexican heroes. He worked with Alvaro Rodriguez (Machete, From Dusk Till Dawn The Series) to create
Seis Manos, a new animated series that was optioned up by VIZ Media and picked up by Netflix.
“We started pitching Seis Manos in the summer of 2014,” notes Graeber. “We made an animated trailer to pitch the preliminary idea in 2015, and had Carl Thiel - who had done a lot of music for Robert Rodriguez’s films - do a score for the trailer. Carl introduced me to Alvaro Rodriguez, who had written Machete and things like
From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series. Al came to our offices, and he wrote a pilot for
Seis Manos and co-created the series.
“Powerhouse is blessed with a crew that excels at action and fight choreography,” Graeber continues. “I have been doing martial arts for about 20 years and always wanted to do a show that featured legit kung-fu.”
In the Austin headquarters, Powerhouse uses a PC-based pipeline that features a lot of Dell equipment, including some of their more powerful desktops and the Canvas. They use Adobe products, including Premiere, Photoshop and After Effects, throughout their pipeline, but do most of their boarding in Storyboard Pro. A team of 3D artists assist in environment and prop creation that the studio’s board artists can use to keep things consistent.
After scripts have been approved, Powerhouse kicks off the visual development phase of pre-production. The first few weeks are dedicated to locking down the visual style of the show. Though there were early designs of the characters created for the pitch deck, the changes made during the writing phase necessitated some updates to the character designs.
Eddie Nunez was brough in as lead character artist, and he updated the designs with his trademark fun, bombastic style. For the background department, Powerhouse veteran Jessie Pyles lead the crew of background artists to establish of the visual style of 1970s Mexico. Painstaking detail helped make the environments as authentic as possible. At one point, Graeber led the entire vis-dev team to a local Austin Botanica (Green & White Grocery) to make sure depictions of Garabina's Shack was shown as accurately as possible.
BOARDS & ANIMATICS
Powerhouse initially had a crew of six storyboard artists, which was later bumped up to eight due to the sheer amount of action written in each of the scripts. For each episode, the board crew met with local Kung Fu expert Sifu Thomas Leverett to help choreograph the fight sequences to ensure that the movements, hand shapes and poses were as accurate as possible, relative to authentic Kung Fu.
Powerhouse tends to do more of its animation in-house in comparison to many domestic studios. Their board artists work hard to make sure the fight choreography and emotions of the characters are clear. The studio partnered with Korean studio DR Movie, which took on the herculean effort of bringing Seis Manos to life.
After animation was complete, every episode underwent a rigorous compositing polish that Powerhouse uses for all of its series work.
"Powerhouse houses an entire crew of extremely talented After Effects artists,” notes Adam Conarroe, assistant director at the studio. “Their ability to tweak lighting, re-time animation, and augment special effects is essential in any production. Trying to make a show without all the bells and whistles they provide would be like giving a gift without wrapping paper - it's all in the presentation."
From the beginning, director Willis Bulliner had a clear vision that the final picture needed to be evocative of old ‘70s grindhouse thrillers. With that as the guiding light, and throwing in some Shaw Bros Kung Fu for inspiration, Powerhouse tried several different methods to obtain the right feel for the picture. In the end, they used a combination of Sapphire's Film Damage and Magic Bullet's Looks to include film damage, film grain and LUTs to achieve a retro-inspired 35mm pallet.
The studio aimed to create vintage feel without constraining themselves to what was truly authentic to traditional film media. In fact, the degree of the vintage treatment ebbs and flows throughout the show as a storytelling device. When the show begins and everything is peaceful, the vintage effect is minimal, but as things start happening and the story becomes more and more grindhouse, the vintage treatment is ramped up with the epic fight sequences being the most heavily treated.
“I didn’t just want the final picture to look like it was paying homage to films of the 70s, I wanted it to feel as though it was produced in that time period,” explains director Willis Bulliner. “The color grading was important in that regard because I think things needed to go beyond film scratches and dust -which were important in their own right. The final picture needed to feel like it was shot on film, and I think our post team did a fantastic job mimicking that.”
Composer Carl Thiel was involved very early in the project, scoring the music to the original trailer that was used as a proof of concept for the series.
Austin’s TBD Post handled sound editing, making sure every punch and kick felt real, as well as created the original soundscape. Brad Engleking headed the team, helping to elevate the entire series.
The first season was in production for approximately two years. Boards take about a month per episode to create, then DR Movie spends 22 or 23 weeks animating each episode. The post polish is performed over three or weeks for each episode.