Interview: SAM LEVINE, creator of “Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero”

Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero is an adventure show about a kid who steps into various worlds and rights various wrongs. Like a lot of shows on Disney X D, it’s a fast moving, quick witted show with quirky and colorful designs. But if he found himself in this world, he’d have to work time & a half and probably on holidays to get this cartoon made! Just ask its creator, Sam Levine. Sam burns the candle at both ends to make sure that Penn and his friends show up to their part time, universe saving jobs every week. That probably required some coffee. As Sam wraps up the first season of Penn Zero and prepares for season 2, he took some time to answer, quite in-depth, what it takes to make a show (or in some cases not make a show).

How did you get into animation? Didja go to school for it? Hanging around the Disney commissary with some scripts? 

I went to NYU Film in the 90’s (Tisch School of the Arts).  I made some live action films, studied art history, film language and history, life drawing, screenwriting, but mostly animation.  I was obsessed with Disney Feature Animation in particular, and made animated films that tested my sense of storytelling, staging, acting and animation performance.  I had a great professor, John Canemaker who inspired me to put in the work to learn.  Like any creative discipline, the real learning comes from doing it, making mistakes and figuring it out for yourself.  After making a few short films at school, I was hired at some animation houses in New York (MTV Animation “The Head”, J.J. Sedelmaier “The Ambiguously Gay Duo”, Stretch Films “Courage The Cowardly Dog” pilot), before I was hired at Disney Feature Animation as a trainee.

I started on Hercules as an inbetweener, and provided assistant animation on films like Fantasia 2000 and Tarzan.  After that I followed my passion for storytelling and joined the story department on Treasure Planet.  I also worked on Home On The Range, Bolt, and a bunch of projects in between that never saw the light of day. They were all great experiences, storyboarding and writing, learning to work with a team and how to collaborate.  I learned when collaborating, the best idea should win despite what you personally fall in love with, and good writing is rewriting.  I also learned that despite what you pitch, whoever is directing the show makes the final call.  I learned the art of intimate detachment; pitch your ideas with the enthusiasm as if they are the final movie, but at the same time let them go if they don’t fit.  It’s a creative Zen place that is very necessary to work in animation story departments.

I also learned how to use drawings to tell stories.  Inspiring veteran animator and gesture drawing teacher, Walt Stanchfield, personally taught me that what a drawing is doing is more important than how pretty it is or how well constructed it is.  What’s the gesture?  What’s the emotion and the acting? Where do we want the audience to look?   Walt encouraged us to ask these questions, and change what the live model was doing; to caricature reality to tell a specific story. Are they leaning forward or are they leaning back?  Pick one and go with it; show the weight and push the attitude.  Walt was an inspiring teacher to me, and luckily, his lectures are now collected in books, edited by Don Hahn (“Drawn To Life”).

Storyboarding encompasses so many things; writing, acting, animation, editing, doing voices, pitching with a sense of timing and entertainment, improvisation, building  a thick skin because your ideas can always get thrown out at any stage.  That experience prepared me for my work directing, and ultimately running a TV show.  I developed my own instincts and taste.  You can learn from a class or a book, but the real learning comes from making your own choices, making your own mistakes and developing your own distinct point of view.  Having no fear of failure is necessary in the creative process.  Or, if you have fear, don’t let it stop you from trying new stuff.  Fear is the killer of creativity.  You can always start over if you need to, but it’s not worth it to be afraid in creative matters.

I spent my last three years at Disney Features developing and directing my own film.  I learned a lot, but the project ended up going on the shelf so to speak, and I decided after 12 years of personal growth in one place, it was time to move on to new things.

I developed, storyboarded and directed the pilot for Nickelodeon’s Robot & Monster, and went on to direct 15 episodes of that show.  It was a super fun show, with a great cast and crew; definitely worth a look if you haven’t seen it.  I loved working with brilliant creators Dave Pressler, Josh Sternin and Jennifer Ventimilia.  Having the pressure of at once directing two storyboard artists, two storyboard revisionists and one editor, while juggling 5 episodes at any given time, all at different stages of completion was very challenging and stressful…but also very rewarding.  I found that I could hone my skills and my creative point of view within the tight schedule.  It was a great creative atmosphere and the experience very much set the groundwork for how I would approach running Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero.  Moving from the comparatively leisurely pace of features where one can spend 3-8 years on 90 minutes of story, it was refreshing to be able to hone fifteen 11-minute cartoons in one year.  By necessity, you are forced to make strong definitive choices, and to trust your team to help you solve the problems.  TV schedules are tight and quite unforgiving, especially if you want to do quality work on each episode.  But it’s a very rewarding process to do the work within that schedule, despite the craziness.

You’ve been involved with a few Disney shows; is there a brain trust/bullpen that the company goes through, “now it’s Sam’s turn,” or did you have to pitch this to The Mouse directly? [How did you get Penn Zero greenlit?]

There is a great group of executives at Disney TV Animation.  The creative on each show is driven by the creators, themselves.  Development is always a process, challenging at times, but at DTVA, ultimately very fulfilling.  I was hired on an overall development deal and I developed various projects including Penn Zero: Part-Time Hero with Jared Bush, a brilliant writer and very funny guy.  Jared and I shared a point of view about storytelling, entertainment and comedy.  We both have feature sensibilities that we wanted to apply to a TV format.  We cracked Penn Zero together in development.  I pitched the pilot storyboard, which Jared wrote and I drew.  At the same time, we pitched the character designs and the art style of the show.  It went over very well, and with a few revisions, it was greenlit to pilot.  The pilot was animated and shortly after that, the show went to series.  It was an exciting, linear process.

What influenced Penn Zero? [The team jumping right into the adventure reminds me of the way Quantum Leap episodes would start.]

Penn Zero was not based on anything that came before it, but I can honestly say this show is inspired by all the things I love about movies, TV, scifi, fantasy, animation, musicals, literature, videogames, toys, comic books, pop culture – pretty much everything that I love is in this show.  Part of the fun of Penn Zero is that is we can go anywhere we want and do whatever we want… and we do just that.

As far as the visual style, the show is inspired by everything I love about a certain period in Disney Feature Animation’s design (mid-1950s to the late 60s).  That period’s strong graphic design in both characters and backgrounds was spearheaded by visionary artists like Milt Kahl, Tom Oreb, Mary Blair, Walt Peregoy, Eyvind Earle, Ernie Nordli – all of these geniuses from the past were inspirational to us.  I love the rough pencil Xerox line and the graphic, rich textures in the backgrounds from this period of animation design.  It’s flat and graphic, yet also has depth and is believable.  The tone of our show is comedic, yet there are real believable stakes in these worlds.  We took inspiration from this period of design, and created our own style that is a thing unto itself.  Luckily the technology of the Harmony software we use allowed us to bring a rough, hand-drawn line and rich complex textures to our 2D characters; which was so exciting for me.  It’s truly a new style of animation that you’ve never seen before Penn Zero.  I’m very proud of what we achieved.

The tone and feel of the show is inspired by so many things, but specifically the 80’s movies Jared and I grew up with.  The technology that Phyllis uses to send Penn and team to different dimensions has a certain vibe to it; inspired somewhat by 80’s scifi films (“Back To The Future”, “Ghostbusters”, “Weird Science” etc.)  Also, the feeling in the 80s, that kids can be the heroes was kind of new back then.  We took inspiration from these things for Penn Zero, among many other things…

Larry Wilmore: how awesome is he? [When you cast an actor like Larry, do you already have the character in place for him to voice or do you write the character to fit what you think Larry would say?]

Larry Wilmore is amazing.  He’s hilarious, brilliant and really fun to work with. Funny story about casting him; we actually had the character design completed and we had auditioned many actors. We had two good contenders, but honestly neither of them fulfilled the potential of the Principal Larry in our imagination.  On the last day of auditions, at the very end of that day, the very last person to walk in was Larry Wilmore.  Previously, I had wanted to bring Wilmore in for the role because I already loved his voice.  I enjoyed him on The Daily Show, whenever he appeared.  I enjoyed the way he always undercut Jon Stewart in a funny way; I thought he would be hilarious, undercutting Rippen.  Wilmore is a gifted improviser.  In the audition script, Larry was a goblin talking about what he would do with a magic hammer and Wilmore just went on a long improv run of three different and equally hilarious things one can do with a magic hammer.  At that moment we knew we had our Larry.

We have an amazing voice cast including Thomas Middleditch, Adam DeVine, Tania Gunadi and Alfred Molina.  Each made the characters their own and we are so grateful to them.  They’re all great talents and great people to work with.  The Disney TV Animation casting department is fantastic.  I couldn’t be happier with our Penn Zero cast.

What’s the most fun part of making a cartoon? Writing it? Producing it? Doing one of the voices? the naps after?

There are so many best parts.  For me the most fun parts are those that are immediate and in the moment: directing actors at voice recording sessions, doing some voices myself, pitching the storyboards, seeing the pitches, brainstorming on writing revisions, working in editorial and making big changes from inspiration and collaboration, writing songs, recording those songs, handing out scripts to be storyboarded and discussing all possibilities, assigning art and design work and then seeing that art come to life before my eyes while directing a group of the most awesome and talented artists.

There are also less immediately fun parts, like writing long and detailed animation notes that ship with each episode, writing long detailed notes on musical score previews, going through the initial animation that comes in from our vendor studio and making long, detailed notes for retakes, knowing I can’t get all the changes I might want – and prioritizing.  (All of these are often done late at night or on weekends, on my laptop)  While these are less fun ‘in the moment’, they are fun and thrilling in the long-term, because they all go towards making the show better from my standpoint; fine-tuning and shaping each individual episode so that all episodes express the singular vision that is Penn Zero.

Post-production is a combination of most fun and most challenging.  Making all the changes we can to get the animation and compositing right is hard, but is a creatively satisfying process.  The final audio mix of each episode is a big challenge – it’s a lot to get through in one afternoon. But by the end, we are bringing all the elements together, and for each episode it’s a unique ride.

Beyond all these details, the most fun part of making a cartoon are the people. On Penn Zero we have assembled the best group of talented writers, artists and exceptional production people.  We pulled together both experienced people and newcomers; people from features and people from television animation. Smart people.  Talented people.  Fun people.

All that said, one of the most fun and viscerally exciting parts is being at the voice records and directing the actors and laughing at their many different takes on the dialogue.  Especially with our great improvisers like Thomas Middleditch, Larry Wilmore and Adam DeVine – there is so much that happens in the booth that we never envisioned on the page – and we bottle all that lightning gold and put it right into the shows.  See “Rip-Penn” for an example of how Middleditch and Wilmore’s improvisation juiced up the comedy to a very high degree that we couldn’t have envisioned on the page — even though the script was very funny to begin with.  When writing and creating, it’s important to stay open to the unexpected magic that comes your way.  If you are too set in your ways, you will be closed off to absorbing the best stuff your cast and crew delivers.  It’s something I strive for, and often have to stop and remind myself of when I’m deep in the thick woods on any one show. Be open to the unexpected.

What’s coming up for season two? I understand some ROOOOOOBOTS might be involved? Is it a COMBINATION of 80’s toys? 90’s action?

Actually, the big giant combining robot episode, ‘MASSIVE MORPHY MERGE MECHS’ is season 1, and premieres this week, Tuesday September 29th.  It’s a love letter to all the giant Japanese combining and/or transforming robot/mech TV shows and toylines from the 80s and 90s.  But our Morphy Mechs have their own visual and story twists.  The fun of inhabiting a genre like this is to adapt the things we love about the genre, while telling our own character-driven story.  This one was very fun for me.  I wrote the script and worked very closely on the designs. I brought in Marcelo Matere, who has a lot of experience with transforming robots, to help with the character designs and the animation reference for all the transformations.  It really turned out great.  Very proud of it.

So many cool shows and worlds are heading your way in season two, including more, different kinds of robots to be revealed later…  We have an epic Rock, Paper, Scissors battle like you’ve never seen.  We have an anime world episode, which is frankly too much fun to work on.  We revisit some favorite season 1 worlds, in completely new ways and have some really exciting new worlds I can’t reveal yet.  We advance the continuing story of Penn and his quest to find his parents, and delve deeper into some backstories.  We develop all our main characters further as we propel the series forward.

What sort of coffee intake is required, for yourself personally and or maybe the rest of the staff, to stay away during production?

I drink coffee out of necessity, though I do enjoy it.  I tried to quit a decade ago, but my schedule and workload requires caffeine.  I drink tea as well, but coffee is a requirement.  I drink one big cup in the morning at home (or at work if I’m running particularly late that day).  I try to have tea in the afternoon.  But quite often I have a second cup of coffee at around 3 or 4pm.  I like to limit it to 2 cups a day.

As for my crew, many drink coffee. I know the design team has a daily ritual trek to Starbucks.  I am hoping my daily schedule opens up soon, so I can tag along.  I’m so busy these days that I barely have five minutes to sit at my desk, let alone walk to some outdoors coffee.  For me it’s the Keurig cups for now.

What comic books are you reading these days?

I read lots of comics as a kid in the 80s.  My favorite comics were mostly Marvel: G.I. Joe, Transformers, Amazing Spiderman, X-Men and X-Factor, Thor and The Hulk.  I stopped reading comics in the early 90s, when I got a girlfriend.  It wasn’t really a choice; I just kind of stopped.  I didn’t really read comics for about 15 years, though I did pick up an occasional book (like Mike Mignola’s Hellboy or Art Adams’ Monkeyman & O’brien) for the art mostly.  Actually, what got me back into reading comics was Transformers.  When I discovered ebay in the late 90s, I started buying old Generation 1 Transformer toys that I used to have as a kid.

Then, in the excitement leading up to the 2007 Transformers movie (which I’m not really a fan of) I noticed the IDW comics, and started reading the new trade paperbacks. I really dug the art, and since the 1980’s Marvel Transformers comic series was special to me, reading these comics felt right.  I’ve been collecting IDW transformers comics since 2008 or so (as well as obsessively collecting new transformers toys).  I enjoy the work of Nick Roche, Derrick J Wyatt, James Roberts, Alex Milne, Marcelo Matere, Mairghread Scott and Sarah Stone. ‘Last Stand Of The Wreckers’ and ‘Transformers: More than Meets The Eye’ are my favorite current TF titles.

I also collect Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead and Invincible and love them. If you don’t read Invincible, you should – it’s really amazing storytelling.  Lots of surprises, pushing genre boundaries, and just some really good, layered crazy sci-fi storytelling.  And the Ryan Ottley art is inspiring.  I bought the initial Adventure Time comics, but lost interest after a while.  I started reading the new run of Guardians of The Galaxy, but dropped out.  I’ve been collecting the new Marvel Star Wars comics, but have yet to read them.  I actually don’t know why I’m buying them.  I have no time to read them!

I also love ‘The Age Of Reptiles  comic by my good friend and Penn Zero collaborator Ricardo Delgado, published by Dark Horse. You have to pick up this series.  It’s spectacular.  It’s completely non-verbal dinosaurs, given the epic treatment of a classic western/ fantasy epic.  Just spectacular.

The show was renewed for a 2nd season. What do you have coming up? (I understand Wanda Sykes is a guest voice for a GI Joe homage?)

Our upcoming episode, ‘SHIRLEY B. AWESOME’, which guest stars Wanda Sykes is indeed a homage to many small plastic military toys, of which many brands I loved and collected in my youth.  One of the fun things we’re doing is that the toy soldiers shoot oversized sponge darts, that actually explode into real giant fireballs, like old toy commercials in the 80’s and 90s.  So it’s a little more like Toy Story directed by Michael Bay.  It’s a fun one and it airs Monday 9/28/15.

If you could have coffee with any fictional robot, who would it be, and where?

I don’t know if he’s technically a robot, but as far as a robotic personality, I love HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I would like to have coffee with the HAL 9000 from the beginning of that film, preferably in a place that is not near deep space, because I don’t really trust him not to try to kill me.  But I find his personality utterly convincing, fascinating and appealing. He’s so great in that film.

Thank you Sam for your time. Penn Zero is broadcast on the Disney X D channel but can be played on various on-demand services depending on cable provider.

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