How to launch an Iconic Cartoon into an Animated Series

Think Germans aren’t funny? Joscha Sauer proves you wrong. His family of characters — Death, the Abominable Snowmen, the Lemmings and the constantly bickering, time-travelling Scientists — continuously find novel ways to lure you into expecting something mundane, then slapping you silly with a dry mitten. NichtLustig (‘NotFunny‘) has been appearing since 2000 — also in English — and 3 years ago, Joscha decided to turn his one-panel comics into an animated series. He dived head-first into the world of animation, using SyncSketch to help with team communication. We ventured to his lair — dodging the suicidal lemmings and bewildered yetis — to ask him how it went.

Joscha Sauer’s characters were initially brought to life in his legendary german cartoons (see an english excerpt here)

Syncsketch: We’re honored that SyncSketch played a roll in “Nichtlustig – Die Serie”. Your humor is cult … what are you like in Reviews?

Joscha Sauer: I hope I’m precise and friendly. But you’d have to ask the animators on the receiving end.
Being an artist myself I always try to comment on creative work respectfully and friendly. Even if I don’t like something I’ll try to give the artist a reason for that. Also writing „Thanks!“ and drawing a smiley under a review helps a lot. The biggest obstacle in communicating this way is to remember that there are human beings on the other side who need to be treated with respect for doing the work they do. It’s easy to forget and just bark orders at the machine in front of you. But adding some positive emotion to the review helps a lot in my experience.

Syncsketch: How large is the Not Funny team? How do you use SyncSketch?

Joscha Sauer: The team wasn’t that big. We had around eight animators and I was the director AND the animation director at the same time (aside from some other jobs). So communication was directly between me and the animators who worked from home in several cities in Germany and even one guy in Denmark.
I decided which animator should do which sequence and handed them the layout animatic for this specific sequence. The animator then worked on the animation the way he prefered. Some used TVPaint, others used Flash or Moho. When they decided a scene was ready to be looked at, they uploaded it to SyncSketch and I tried to review it as quickly as possible. Some animators prefered to finish the whole sequence before they uploaded anything, others liked to upload a scene while still working on it. I tried to give feedback as soon as possible. Sometimes a lot, basically re-animating some parts again in SyncSketch, sometimes none at all. When I was happy with a scene, I approved it on syncsketch and the scene then went to the Cleanup and Coloring artists.
Then the process was repeated. The Cleanup artist uploads a scene, I give notes, it goes back… until I was happy and the scene could go to coloring. Same with them again, until I was sent the Toon Boom files to export the finished animation and use it to produce the final composite.

Syncsketch: What was the reason you used SyncSketch?

Joscha Sauer: We realized pretty early on in production that the way I handled reviews (making little 30-second-shorts with each animator) would not work for a production of this size. I would actually screenshot frames from a video file, then open it in Photoshop, draw in all my notes, save it out as a JPG and send it to the animator. We tried to do that in the beginning, but it turned out to be far too slow and chaotic.
Bernhard and Phil have been friends of mine for a long time now. When I told them about my production and the problems I was having, they offered me to try SyncSketch. It was still in development at that point and at first I was rather sceptical because a lot of what I needed in this specific, very old-school 2D-production was missing. But Phil was very quick to add features that I needed and SyncSketch grew with the production. Whenever I encountered a problem, I asked Phil about it and most of the time he had a solution ready a couple of days later.
By the time production really took off, SyncSketch was an integral part of our pipeline. Having this very decentralized way of working – with people all being in different places at different times – I don’t think production would have been possible without SyncSketch.

 “Reviews sometimes looked like the manifesto of a madman, but I felt I could communicate best that way and the animators I worked with seemed to agree.

Syncsketch: You’re author, producer and director in one… do these different personas make themselves noticeable during a Review? Does producer Sauer tend to use the text notes more while director Sauer likes to scribble more? Do they like to use different colors?

Joscha Sauer: There was never a clear line between all these jobs. Doing all these things at once, it was hard to see where one stops and the other begins. It was a constant back-and-forth.
So I just gave notes the way I always give notes, the way that seemed the easiest and fastest way: drawing and writing directly on the frame. So I never gave text notes. Giving notes on animation is so visual to me that I need a mix of text and scribbles all the time. Reviews sometimes looked like the manifesto of a madman, but I felt I could communicate best that way and the animators I worked with seemed to agree.

Syncsketch: Is there a specific SyncSketch feature that popped up as critical for your work?

Joscha Sauer: A lot of features were created specifically to target certain problems we had. The approved-buttons come to mind. The possibility to export frames with the notes intact. Lots of other things…

Syncsketch: How was the transition from a cartoonist occupied with a series of panel comics to a director leading a full animation team, from kickstarter onward, with all the various things you had to keep an eye on?

Joscha Sauer: It was an exciting but very bumpy ride. Being a cartoonist and working on my own for a really long time I always missed the interaction and dynamic of a team. So it was wonderful to see all these people join in and contribute to my animated series. But of course it was also hard to let go and accept that things can only be controlled to a certain degree. Especially being on such a tight budget as we were. So, overall it was an amazing experience and at the same time I was constantly overworked for a couple of years. I was basically learning about everything while doing it for the first time.
By now, it has been almost a year since production has wrapped and I managed to lock all that trauma away in a dark corner of my brain. So I’m ready for the next production!

Syncsketch: Any questions you’d like to ask yourself? It’s not every day that you’re given the chance to do so. 🙂

Joscha Sauer: Why did you think blonde highlights and pink Polo-shirts was a good look for you in 2003?
Also where do babies come from?

Syncsketch: Thank you so much for your time, Joscha!

We think it’s amazing work and hilarious IF you speak German. Check out the Trailer below!

NICHTLUSTIG – die Serie from Joscha Sauer

If your German needs some more polish,
make sure to check out Joscha’s latest project in English – a card game about movie cliches!

See it here: