Toonstruck is the wonderous point & click game from Virgin Interactive starring (quite literally) Christopher Lloyd as the main protagonist Drew Blanc. Adrian is a big fan so he tracked down the game’s lead animator and retro gaming legend, Laura Janczewski for this quick Q&A to find out what really happened throughout the game’s troubled development.
Please can you share with our readers a little more about yourself and how you started your career in art and the video game industry?
After I got my BFA from Michigan State, I went to California to get into animation. Michigan State didn’t offer animation or film, or anything like that as a career, so I took print-making. I liked serigraphy best, so when I got to California, I worked making fine-art serigraph prints while I took classes from various schools to learn animation. Once I knew enough, I did some samples on the computer, and took my portfolio plus samples to Virgin, as a completely inexperienced game artist, but they liked what I had, and they hired me.
What was your role on Toonstruck and can you go in to some detail about what tools and skills were needed for this title?
I was hired to be a video compositor and background animator. I used Animator Pro by autodesk to make the animations. It was frame flipping and pixel pushing, but I also did a lot of hand-drawn animations. I had a desk for animating, and in our team’s office we had a camera set up to take pictures of our animations for digitizing. I also used photoshop for the larger format images.
Toonstruck really showed-off amazing visuals alongside a great story. What particular pieces of artwork within the game did you work on and did any of your art not make it into the final game?
All of the background animations were mine, minus about three or four. I worked continually under the request of the game designer. He would tell me the animations, I’d do them, and ask for more. Almost all my animations were used except for the part of the game that was cut or the occasional puzzle that had to change.
My animations included everything Drew Blanc interacts with in the scene as well. I had to take all the raw footage of Christopher Lloyd, reduce the frames to around 8-10 per animation, make it come back to his idle poses. This included dialog sprites, walk cycles and all the images for him in the game play. Then I also did all the specific animations of him picking up objects or interacting with in-game objects. I had to integrate with the scene, which I worked directly on. It often involved me redrawing Christopher Lloyd’s arm and keeping it looking real, because his motions didn’t fit the strange perspectives of the backgrounds. In some extreme cases, I had to redraw his whole upper body, for example.
I also made some of the character animations that were missed from the animation house in Asia which they hired. I also made all the background changes that were needed, such as changing the languages and items on the plans for the Cutifier into Spanish, German, and French. Since I was there from the beginning, before we started production, I worked a lot on character design. Only some of my characters were used, such as in the Cutopia tavern, or the pink kitty that the evil squirrel takes to be his bride. The other wolfs in the wolf den were mine, and there was probably a lot more, but I don’t remember all of them.
Toonstruck stands out as one of the most visually stunning games of the 90s. How did you and your team create such high quality cartoon art and bring in real life footage in the mid 90s?
We had a good story boarder who worked on Animaniacs, we had character animators, and we hired an animation house. As far as how bringing in the video images of the actor was done, Christopher Lloyd was filmed in the green room (we had one at Virgin, which later was named Burst). The raw video was given to me, and I did all the integration. I started by reducing the frames, I dropped off the background, then I made his sprites, and that’s pretty much it, except where he interacted directly with items-as I mentioned above.
Did you ever get to meet any of the actors working within the game such as Christopher Lloyd or Tim Curry?
I met them all, except Ben Stein. They were all very nice. Dom Delouise, Christopher Lloyd, Tim Curry, and some lady voice-actor, who I don’t remember her name, but for sure she’s famous.
How do you feel Chris Yates and the large team on the project worked together?
I worked with the programmers, game designers, artists, and team supervisors, Ron Allen and David Bishop. Neil Young was always talking to us more about Toonstruck than Chris Yates. I think in all the time I was there, he spoke at one meeting. The legendary people I always heard about at Virgin were David Perry who started Shiny Entertainment, and worked on Earthworm Jim, and Louis Castle–some Disney animator or something that had worked on a game there before I was there.
Toonstruck had a long and staggered development period. Was this game changed a lot throughout its development and how did the mood of the team change throughout?
Virgin had an enormous budget for our game when it started, because they made a lot of money on other titles. It was like joining a country club. Holiday parties in fine hotels, big picnic on the lake with sailing and games, and weekly outings for dinner to the Shark club (pool hall restaurant), and little by little, all those perks were being cut.
More people were leaving as games concluded. We worked on Toonstruck right into the financial downfall of “Burst” which we joked was named that because Burst would go Bust. Well, about the time they changed the name, it became a lot more stressful for everybody. It wasn’t pay cuts or anything, just more pressure to hurry, and finally as we approached the end, we heard there was nothing left for the cost of marketing our game.
Is it true that only 35% of the game’s animation was used in the final product?
It may be true of the animation they got from Asia, but with mine and Jackie Corely’s (she animated Flux Wildly), we didn’t get that much cut.
How do you reflect back on your time working on Toonstruck and what is your personal opinion of the game?
It was a great time. I loved the team, they were great people. I’d spend off time with them, too, and we were pretty much all friends. There were some on the team that couldn’t get along, but that didn’t affect my opinion of anyone. I’d work with them all again, in a heartbeat.
The game, was disappointing, only from the side that it didn’t get a good release, but I enjoyed the game, and never really played it until it was complete. I wasn’t so fond of some of the sick things in it. Personally, I think that turning the cow and sheep into S&M was pushing it. It was ok for kids until that turn. And had they just left it out, they could have made it for a much bigger audience.
Did you ever start work on the sequel to Toonstruck?
Yes, we had about 3/4 of the complete game finished when they decided to cut our game in half and make two games of it. They said it would be too long, and I believe it had 4 acts, so that was going to be a huge game.
What we actually did was shove the best of what we had completed into the first half, and Rich and Jennifer set out to re-write and re-film the ending so it could be left open for the sequel. There was more to the dark town. There was a whole section of Drew Blanc’s memory places that got cut out, such as his childhood bedroom. But as it has been 25 years, wow! that long! Yikes! I don’t remember it too well.
You also worked on the highly rated EverQuest: The Scars of Velious. What was your role on this title and how did this project differ from Toonstruck?
I did some animation and tile art for them from home, so I was never involved with the team. Skinning creatures were new to me at that time.
Are you a fan of the EverQuest games?
Honestly, no. They gave me a free membership as soon as I hired on, so I played it enough to know what was going on, and got a feel for the game.
How would you describe your style of art and where are the best places for our readers to enjoy your work?
Never thought about verbal description of my artwork style. I have been influenced by celtic design and a whole range of California styles. My work is a bit cutesy and illustrative. I’m currently finishing up a novel, and all the illustrations are done, some of which I put on my website: lauraj.net
If you could share a few drinks with a video game character, who would you choose and why?
That’s a very silly question. That’s hard to answer because of the games I
played. How about Leisure Suit Larry, lol!