View Full Version : Lesean Thomas interview (Boondocks, TMNT, Cannon Busters, Arkanium)

02-01-2006, 06:03 PM

A Right to be Hostile
The LeSean Thomas Q-and-A

Aaron McGruder’s animated series The Boondocks has enjoyed a large measure of success in its initial season on the Cartoon Network, in part due to the efforts of character designer and co-director LeSean Thomas. Plucked from the indy comics ranks, he has been a crucial factor in helping to shape the look of the series. In the following interview, he talks about his role on the show, as well as the controversy it has attracted. He also talks about his comics work.

Rich Watson: So why don't you start by telling me how you got involved with Aaron McGruder and the Boondocks TV show. Did you come to him or was it the other way around?

LeSean Thomas: It was the other way around, actually. It’s pretty bizarre, but at the time that Aaron contacted me, I had just finished watching [the] dude being interviewed on The Tavis Smiley Show [laughs]. Enter Boondocks comic strip artist Carl Jones (who also currently serves as one of the shows producers). Carl and I go back a few years prior to him meeting Aaron. Upon us meeting, I was later commissioned to art direct development for an animated series for Roc-a-fella Records recording artist Beanie Sigel called The Play Pen (which is currently in development now) and I got at Carl to help me as character designer for the project.

It was redevelopment time and Aaron was having trouble finding brothas (or anyone for that matter) in TV animation who could competently combine anime, have a hip hop sensibility at a high level of quality and still be able to "get" the type [of] black humor he was bringing. Carl showed him my work. Once Aaron saw my Cannon Busters work, among others, I think it was a wrap. I got the call and within a week I was in Los Angeles with Aaron at Sony Pictures Television Animation studios, thumbnailing rough ideas to what would be the final look to what you see on the screen now. It was an exciting time!

RW: So was Aaron specifically recruiting black talent?

LT: I don’t believe it was that exacting of a requirement, but I do believe it would have helped, given the subject matter [laughs]. This is especially the case when dealing with overseas studios and talent because of the huge racial and cultural gap when it came to the humor. I remember at one time early in production, one of the overseas studios we were collaborating with were referencing the film Soul Plane as a requisite to all things “black.” We had to cut that out quick [laughs].

RW: Obviously this is of paramount importance - challenging established media images of black culture, at home and abroad. How do you, Aaron and the rest of the production staff ensure that as little as possible gets lost in translation for the foreign market?

LT: It was pretty challenging. One reason was the schedule. I mean, Television Animation Production has a fiercely compressed production schedule. Several shows are produced at once and overlapping each other. When overseas get materials – and this is with pretty much ANY show – they often have little experience with black American culture and information sometimes because of the language/culture barrier (unless you have an American overseas coordinator). It’s like Korean studios sending you material and you have to pretty much rely on the visuals and a Korean supervisor who also speaks English [laughs]. On top of that, things have to be done fast. As a result, we made sure the storyboards where as clear as possible. Often times I had to re-storyboard entire scenes myself, making them clear for layout.

The solution to it was being extremely anal in the pre-production phase. Every so often, we would send them reference, video footage and films along with a lot of the jokes that were being said/performed. It was pretty sophisticated, given the short time we had. Sometimes jokes would come back lost, or just misinterpreted altogether, which would lead to us re-taking and literally acting things out for their reference.

A good example of getting what we want back is at the top of episode 4, "Granddad's Fight." There's a cold open featuring the infamous "Nigga Moment" sequence, where two young black males bump into each other accidentally. It unfortunately results in them both pulling weapons to kill each other. After emptying an entire clip at each other at point-blank range [they] miss each other completely (heh). They are killed almost instantly by police officers off camera. I storyboarded that entire sequence (on top of designing the characters) from opening to closing, very tight and detailed. It’s a particularly well-animated sequence in that I had to make sure it was extremely clear. Aaron was pleased, and it was also one of the first scenes we got back. A good portion of how we control the amount of acting jokes that come back are in our pre-production boarding. It's extremely important.

As a face in the trenches from the production aspect of it, it’s a pretty ground-breaking attempt. None of this stuff has been done before. In today’s climate of overseas-dependent work, it’s something that’s extremely challenging to get right. Lots of patience and anal-retentive efforts were needed [laughs].

RW: How would you define animation with a “hip hop sensibility”? The main title sequence seems to provide an indicator, but I suspect it's more than that.

LT: When I say “sensibility,” I mean in the sense of an “essence” of hip hop – meaning, getting the look and feel of hip hop in a visual style (anime for example) that’s not known for repping the REAL people behind the culture: black people. It’s not that blatant. When we were looking for talent, we'd get a lot of portfolios that simply had characters with “big eyes” rocking an oversized clock around their necks. Or stuff that very “Cartoon Network-esque,” but with big eyes and a tilted brim [laughs]. It was funny. It was really startling how few people available there were who understood what we were trying to do. It was then I realized we were facing a daunting task in not only creating something new visually, but we also had to stay true to Aaron's original vision. Those two tasks were extremely challenging.

Regarding the main title, it was inspired by anime that Aaron has a great love for. I think the Boondocks main title is the livest main title for an American prime time animated show ever. The goal was to create a visual look that was so beautiful, it would distract you from the wild stuff that you see and hear in the series. As a designer, I've always tried to blend anime and hip hop in my works. The Boondocks just gives me a bigger palette to contribute to… with SUBSTANCE. I also think The Boondocks is the most honest peek into the humorous aspects of black culture, using the animation medium.

RW: I recall the first thing about the look of the show that impressed me was the lush background work. It was such a startling contrast to the more Spartan look of the strip, and it ties into what you said about making stunning visuals to distract you from the randy dialogue. Tell me a little about your animation process, especially the character design, which of course is your territory.

LT: I agree; I think there's a definite contrast from the strip to the animated version. As a strip, a lot of the world of Woodcrest you are familiar with is all in your head [laughs], meaning Aaron only provides but so much visual information, it being 3 to 6 panels and all. I think people who are fans of the strip, for them to see the show and these characters move and talk, you know, it’s a bit startling at first.

On the production end of things, most (if not all) animation for TV is more or less done overseas these days. My focus is on directing, character designing and supervision. I design the look of the show, translated from Aaron's original concept illustrations. Meaning the visual style of the characters look, style, approach and line application, how they move. The characters look, of course, play a visual anchor to the rest of the show and sets the tone of the show's overall look and aesthetic. Meaning the backgrounds are designed in such a way to make the characters believable in their environments.

For example, treating the line quality of the Boondocks’ background drawings and environments with a style akin to The Family Guy, The Simpsons, or even South Park with the existing character designs of Huey and the cast we have now would result in an inconsistent, out-of-place look. Since Aaron wanted the characters for the show to look more realistic in their simplicity, the backgrounds had to compliment them and look more lush, so that they would stand out.

This also applied to the characters. When I designed them, I stressed in making the incidental characters and non-talking characters more detailed, so that the main characters were more appealing to look at: bigger eyes, simpler shapes and colors, simpler line quality. These applications’ intentions were to make Huey, Riley, Granddad, Tom, Sarah [and] Jazmine all stand out from the rest of the world of Woodcrest. It’s pretty comprehensive. I think it works pretty well. Also, Aaron insisted they look "cute."

As a production, the show is very dense. Moreso than any other show I've worked on to date. There are a LOT of characters and the world is basically fully realized. All the things left out in the comic strips are here in the 22 minute animated version. It’s a very sophisticated show next to the stuff that’s out today. You definitely have to apply yourself mentally when watching it, and often times, like the jokes, you have to watch the shows more than once to catch everything. There's nothing out like it.

RW: So about the whole "nigger" controversy… Did you believe the level of outrage over the use of the word would be as big as it has gotten?

LT: Well, personally, yes and no. I'll choose my words carefully here. On one hand I think no, because some of the topics that Aaron and staff tackle have been touched on by the Pryors and the Murphys, the Foxx's and even more recently, Chris Rock and the Chappelle camp. I think at this point in the game, the public and media would be familiar.

What made me assume the worst response, however, was because the medium in which these similar topics are executed. Of all the years the general public has been exposed to the "rawness" of these issues through great comedians of color, none of them have been executed in so scathing a manner, using the medium of animation… prime time animation at that (save for Eddie Murphy's ill-fated The PJ's). Let's think about the animation medium for a second and the significance of its successes here in American society. The jump-off for animation, on a mainstream level, regarding its rise to being a lucrative form of entertainment in the last few decades, has been through comedy and entertaining children and more or less, white audiences.

There's never been an alternate portrayal of the "African American experience" so to speak, meaning on a mainstream level of animation, outside of the assimilated "Cosby" approach: the well-behaved Negro who causes no problems and appears "safe" to the majority by doing what we are supposed to do… which is "fit in" the system. Outside of that, anything else has been met with disdain or "skepticism" for the most part, lending itself to way of "shaming the culture." I love The Proud Family, and to a lesser extent, Static Shock, but I feel those are not the only "positive" experiences blacks have in this country. I do believe it’s "positive" to self-reflect, think a little more introspectively and expect more of our own. Not to mention blacks in animation are so severely underrepresented, and even more so, so few [are] behind the boards of power to get our types of concepts out there without catering to the popular views seen by most studios and networks. It seems as if the far and few who DO manage to get their foot in the closing door have to "play ball." It leaves very room for exercising the alternative to me. [Since this interview was conducted, Black Entertainment Television hired Boondocks producer Denys Cowan as vice-president in charge of animation.]

Getting to the epitaph in question and its use in the show – and being that animation is viewed mainly as a medium for kids and not an artform in this country – I had no doubt the series was going to be met with disapproval. Never mind that it airs on cable, on a Sunday night, LATE NIGHT, when people are supposed to be asleep [laughs]. No one cares. It’s about the fact that it’s being done through animation: a medium [which] up until now has been used as a tool for children here. I just assumed it was going to raise some red flags… then burn them [laughs].

RW: So let me switch gears and talk about Cannon Busters for a bit. The last thing I heard was that you were gonna abandon the ongoing series format and make it a graphic novel. Is that correct?

LT: Right. for those who don’t know what Cannon Busters is, it’s my creator-owned action-fantasy comic book that launched [in] early 2005. I thought it was received pretty well. After several attempts at trying to get the book on a monthly schedule, The Boondocks took full hold of my time and demanded my immediate attention. This, unfortunately, led to me deciding the best way to put it out is through the way of a graphic novel. I disappointed a few people and a few of my followers, but I feel this way, I could continue at my pace and not be pressured by the standard monthly deadlines. All this, while I help contribute to one of the most important pieces of animated entertainment in the history of prime [time] television.

My priorities are aligned more clearly, and given the circumstances, I don’t need to speak on which of the works are more important (especially since they are both getting done). I took the risk and it paid off. That just means when I do eventually drop the Vol. 1 OGN of Cannon Busters this year, it will hopefully be met with more people knowing my name and looking for it.

I consider it a blessing in disguise because it seems the market is going the "OGN" way these days moreso than ever. Also I think people would rather wait to get a whole chunk of something as opposed to waiting month to month. The OGN route also creates new opportunities for exposure through book stores like Borders and Barnes and Nobles, not just the direct market/mom and pop shops.

I just finished 3 pages yesterday and I'm nearing completion with pencils. It’s a challenge trying to find time for other works outside The Boondocks and my personal life, but I think in the end it not only keeps me sharper as an artist, but I at least make it one step closer to be done.

RW: How did you get J. Torres to write Cannon Busters?

LT: I recall briefly us meeting at an anime con in Chicago some three years ago. We both talked about each other’s works and at that time, J was writing a column at Comic Book Resources. I was doing TMNT: Animated for the late Dreamwave Productions and J was interested in covering my new anime/hip hop/graphed-out spin on the heroes in a half-shell. After our interview I got to talking to him about CB and wondered if he’d be interested in taking a look at it. He seemed intrigued. I asked if he’d be interested in scripting it, then sent him my outline along with the concept art. Upon reading it, he agreed to do it.

I was hyped because I’ve been a fan of his work since Sidekicks with Takeshi Miyazawa. The story was already written. I just wanted J to script it, a collaborative process he’s never done in comics before. But it’s working out well so far. I’ve learned a lot from just the little time we’ve collaborated. He’s a fair guy and a class act. He writes the Puffy-Ami/Yumi show on Cartoon Network along with a slew of other projects including [the] Teen Titans Go! comic. Also a big congrats to him as he’s about to get married.

RW: In terms of story, how far do you see the book going? Do you have a definite ending somewhere down the road, or is it more open-ended?

LT: In terms of story, this project will be about 3-4 volumes. I’ll release them as Graphic Novels only. Each volume will be around 90 pages of art and story. Technically, this story isn’t built to be an ongoing event. Not at the level I’m producing it. In that, I mean at the quality and detail it’s being produced. At this point, it’s pretty dense, but the plan is to end it for sure. I think the concept of Cannon Busters being open-ended in structure would take so much out of me. There are so many characters and species in this story; I have to concentrate my energies on the focal points of the saga: Samberry, Casey Turnbuckle, Philly The Kidd, 9ine and Prince Toji.

Not to mention with me playing as a main visual anchor behind The Boondocks animated series including other smaller projects in the works that I want to execute, means the Cannon Busters series will definitely be released periodically in volumes. I have to manage my time carefully.

I would like to release one volume per year, something that the fans can look forward to when it drops. I think as my workload increases and grows in comics and in other media, my fan base and name will grow along with it [and] hopefully getting a bigger following. I know that I have an audience for the work that I produce in and out of comics. It’s just a matter of tapping into it correctly. That’s my plan.