Film and TV animation is known for being expensive and time consuming, with some projects taking millions of dollars and years to complete. But new technology has opened the door for people like Fresno's Roshell and Franky Franklin to create animation.
From the bedroom in their west Fresno home, using a single laptop computer, they produce the new "Fresberg" cartoon series that airs through the Community Media Access Collaborative (CMAC) public access channel seen on Comcast 93 and AT&T U-verse 99. It's broadcast at 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays, plus 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
"We always do a lot of volunteer work and try to reach out to the community to help kids and families. We thought, what better way to reach people than through a family series?" says Franky Franklin. "You can not only reach the parents but also the children through something as simple as a cartoon series and teach common values."
Because the couple have four children, Roshell Franklin adds: "I wanted our kids to be able to watch something on TV that was educational and about their city."
"Fresberg" looks at the lives of eight young people who live in a city called Fresberg, Calif. (aka "Da Berg"). Roshell's not quite certain why the couple decided not to call the series "Fresno," except that by having a fictional name they can more easily get away with the comical look they take at the city and its population.
The idea for animation came from Franky's main job as an instructor for Aetna Insurance, when someone suggested having some of the training sessions animated.
Franky, who has had an interest in animation for almost a decade, realized he could use that idea for his own project. The idea became plausible when he found computer programs with templates for creating characters and backgrounds. The programs also let him move the characters with ease and that makes the process a lot quicker than traditional animation.
It's also a lot cheaper. If you don't factor in the hours they put into making each episode, the only cost of making the series is the annual $50 CMAC fee.
Each half-hour episode includes two or three short segments — running four to eight minutes apiece — tied together by the show's host, Jeremiah (who looks a lot like Franky).
The Franklins — along with their 14-year-old daughter, Alexandria — write each episode and provide many of the voices for the ever-growing population of Fresberg.
"We all come up with ideas for stories. If we like the idea, we stick with it. If we don't like it, then we try to find ways to make it work. We go to our 14-year-old for a lot of ideas. Because she's young, she knows what's happening with youth. She tells us what's hot. What kind of shoes they like. What kind of clothes they like," Roshell says.
Scripts include some type of educational material or important life lesson. Topics have ranged from bullying to Christmas around the world and holiday safety.
Because the episodes can be adapted quickly, they can react to hot topics.
"What we are finding when you are dealing with a younger demographic and parents in their 20s and 30s, their attention span is so short, that you have to stay current with what's out there. If I had written the script for this week's show — "J's on My Feet" — and J's is short for Air Jordans — that term would be old by next spring," Franky says. "So we have to be faster in making the shows to stay relevant."
While the animation has a slightly primitive look, the Franklins have been improving their cartooning skills with each episode.
Along with CMAC broadcasting the show, the Franklins use the facility's studios to digitally record the voices. It's not unusual for some of the CMAC volunteers to provide the voice of a new character.
Once all of the voices have been recorded, they are edited together and the animation can begin.
Franky uses a software called Poser to create the show. It's a sophisticated enough program that each character is given an internal structure that allows him to move hands, arms and other body parts with a click of the mouse.
Proof their series has advanced through each of the 10 episodes: In the beginning, heads would snap to a position left or right, but now the images move more smoothly.
If a new character is needed, Franky goes back to his basic designs. After he or Roshell have sketched out how the character should look, Franky can take an existing form in the program and change the body shape, add features and even change the size to create each new character.
"Just like all of the characters on 'The Simpsons' basically started with Bart, our characters have that similar start," Franky says.
On a good night, Franky can finish the animation for one show in four hours. On other nights, he's up all night, a challenge because he works two jobs.
Each episode must be finished and provided to CMAC on the Thursday before the new episode airs on Monday. For now, the episode gets repeated through the week but as the library grows, a mixture of episodes could be scheduled.
Getting on TV
Both series creators agree that the only way they were able to get this project on the air was because of CMAC. Fresno's locally produced government, education and public access channels originate in the space that was once the home for the Fresno Metropolitan Museum. The 7,000-square-foot second floor has a studio, editing stations, control room, learning center and offices available for use by the public.
The series had to get the approval of Jerry Lee, CMAC executive director, before getting on the air. Lee says "Fresberg" is an example of the mission statement of CMAC to "empower the voices of the community." He went on to say "Fresberg" is an example of the quality work that can be done and shown to the community using the facility's resources.
"Fresberg" reaches beyond the borders of television and includes the website www.fresbergcartoon.com/. The Franklins are looking to follow up the animated show in 2014 with a series of books based on the show and its characters. They already have all the copy and illustrations needed to get the book project started. Until they find funding, the initial "Fresberg" publications will probably be released as e-books.
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.