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Penn Zero: Part Time Hero

By Marjorie Galas

Sam Levine and Jared Bush had fantastic childhood influences ripe for comedic storytelling; and each man independently was looking for the proper delivery method. Fortunately both men worked with Jonathan Schneider,Executive Director, Development, Disney Television Animation, who insisted the two should meet and see where their creativity take them.

“We met for lunch, and the ideas started flowing. As we were talking Sam began doodling on a napkin,” said Bush. “We immediately saw eye to eye on the potential and the world.”

“Penn Zero: Part Time Hero” was the result of their lunch time meeting. Penn, voiced by actor Thomas Middleditch, is an average boy who inherits the duty of zapping through the universe to fill in for absent superheroes. The concept is a melding of the two men’s childhood experiences: Bush’s father and grandfather worked for the CIA (inspiring the idea of a secret legacy) and Levine spent his youth with his projectionist father watching fascinating worlds unspool. (inspiring Penn’s ability to be zapped through the universe through a special movie projector called the Multi-Universe Transporjector.) While Bush had initially toyed with the idea of creating a sitcom style show, the duo immediately saw the benefit animation could supply their universe-jumping, character-driven comedy. Defining a style that supported the story-lines and remained visually compelling was a top priority for the team.

“I felt TV comedies had started to fall into a simplistic look,” said Bush. “I wanted the animation to be rich and push boundaries.”

Finding inspiration in the Disney animation style of the 60s, Levine and Bush turned to Tim Moen, lead character designer and Benjamin Plouffe, co-art director, to define the show’s style. In addition to films “101 Dalmatians” and “Paul Bunyan” and the illustrations of Mary Blair and Eyvind Earle, the animators drew inspiration from Cubist paintings and mid-century furniture.

“I went in my own direction, working with strong shapes in a contemporary style,” said Plouffe. Added Moen, “I take that similar approach to character design, boiling details down to the essence, keeping shapes intact.”

Utilizing an internal line detail style of drawing, embellishments are defined within the confines of the shape. The team focuses on building texture and shading within the contours, then minimize the outlines.

“What we do is boil down the visual to the essence,” said Moen. “We’ll draw a wrinkle or stretch mark in the fabric, but keep the shape intact.”

Added Levine, “It supplies a fun, visual, painted quality. There is nothing arbitrary. It’s a character driven comedy with life and death stakes as they travel and fight for good. The style supports this.”

Music and sound design were also crucial to Bush and Levine. They wanted their score to be as varied as the many unique worlds and genres seen in each episode, genres as diverse as sci-fi space epic to film noir to cheesy game show. They found the perfect composer in Ryan Shore, who utilizes a wide range of musical styles for the diverse scenarios the characters find themselves in. Sound design is overseen by Eric Freeman, who finds a balance between the comedic nature of the situations and the high stakes of reality.

“The show feels really big at times, and the sound has to support that and be grounded in some level of reality,” said Levine. “Eric Freeman is doing a great job finding the balance. In fact, he has been nominated for a Golden Reel Awards for his work on the first episode.”

The core of Penn Zero is the writing team. They focus not only in creating unique worlds and finding story lines that match these worlds, but also on defining the friendship between Penn and his best friends Sashi and Boone. The writers focus on maintaining the character’s multi-faceted personalities: while the characters have frequent friction, they remain buddies, work their fears and continually support their team efforts.

“Real people evolved slowly. Your journey does gradually shape you,” said Bush. “We want our characters to be interesting, have depth and most of all be people kids can related to.”

Added Levine, “We’ve created weaknesses and blind spots. Everybody has good days and bad. Penn isn’t always thinking things through, so his friends do keep him in line.”

While the words have been carefully crafted, Bush and Levine encourage the improvisation of their talented voice actors, especially leads Middleditch, Tania Gunadi (Sasha) Adam DeVine (Boone) and Alfred Molina (Rippen).

“Tom does so many wild and wacky things, Tania goes into places you’d never dream she would and Alfred Molina is just a fun guy. He loves playing the mustache twirling villian,” said Bush. “We are lucky to have such a great cast.”

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