‘Our Cartoon President’: Tim Luecke on Animating the Trump Administration in Real-Time

     May 19, 2018

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It’s rarely difficult to differentiate between the real world and that of animated comedy series. Not so in Showtime’s Our Cartoon President, a show that takes the cartoonish characters of President Donald Trump and his administration and animates them in real-time in order to offer comedic commentary on their often incomprehensible actions. As the stranger-than-fiction story of the Trump administration continues to unfold, the surreal experience of bringing Our Cartoon President to life is both a blessing and a curse for the show’s co-creator Tim Luecke.

I chatted with Luecke, the lead animator, writer, and co-executive producer of the series, about the crazy production timeline for the show, the use of Adobe Character Animator CC and its lip-sync technology as an essential tool in bringing it to life, and the cognitive dissonance he and his team experiences on a daily basis by satirizing the already bizarro real-world personalities as bigger-than-life characters. It’s a fascinating conversation that hardcore animation fans and artists should enjoy, but it also gives more casual fans a peek behind the curtains of one of the zaniest animated series on TV today. Additionally, seven new episodes of Our Cartoon President are confirmed to arrive on Showtime this summer, so Luecke teases what the team has in store for fans.

But before we get into the detailed breakdown, here’s a solid introductory look behind the scenes of production:

For folks who aren’t familiar with Our Cartoon President, how would you describe it to them?

Tim Luecke: It takes place in a sort of crazy reality where Donald Trump has become the President of the United States. We start with that as our premise. If I had to describe it in a few words, I’d say it’s “Stupid West Wing.” If you put a lot of bumbling fools in the highest office in the world, that’s sort of what you’d get with Our Cartoon President.

What’s the process of bringing this idea to a full series been like?

Luecke: It happened incredibly organically. This really started as a bit that we did on The Late Show back in 2016, back when it still seemed ridiculous that any of this could happen. We had started using Adobe Character Animator to interview a cartoon version of Donald Trump, who at the time was not yet the nominee, and so we would do these bits that … reality has become so cartoonish that the only way we could possibly engage in a conversation with it is to engage with an actual cartoon character. We found success in those.

I had originally made the Donald Trump cartoon as kind of a test project to learn Character Animator. I never thought that it would find any use beyond one or two bits on the show, if any, but then he kept winning and we had to keep responding. Eventually it got to election night and we thought that we needed to find a new way, a more cinematic way to talk about some of what had gone on in this election and sort of delve into the psyche of Donald Trump and what causes a man like that to seek the attention and power that he does. So myself and Matt Lappin, who is a producer and writer on The Late Show, rather than doing the sort of interview bit that we had been doing, we wanted to create more of a short film and tell what we thought was the origin story of candidate Trump. Many people had pointed to the 2011 Correspondents Dinner where Obama made some jokes at his expense in front of a room of upper-echelon society types, and it’s been posited that that sort of sent him into a spiral and he wanted to prove everyone wrong and basically take Obama’s job.

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Image via Showtime

So Matt and I wanted to do this more cinematic piece, still using Character Animator but using it in a way to tell more of a comic book villain origin story. We took some inspiration from Batman: The Killing Joke and sort of posited that that night was when Trump was thrown into a vat of acid and came out the other side as a super-villain running for president.

Again, we thought that was going to be the last of it. We wrote and produced that from premise to final air-date in 18 days. It was a huge push because it was Matt doing the writing and just me doing the animated, and it was a three-and-a-half minute piece. The only thing that got me through that was knowing that this would be the last big push and then we’d be done with him and I could go back to my normal life. It aired at 11pm Election Night, which was still just about half an hour too soon to know for sure what the results would be, so it became very prescient very quickly.

Actually, in the room we had discussed playing it maybe the day after the election, as one last punch to Trump, but people thought maybe everyone would just want to get away from Trump and never think about him again, so we played it on Election Night. Twenty minutes after it aired, it took on a very different tone. What was supposed to be this comedic comic book story about this terrible man with a bloated ego became more of an ominous look into what the next four years was going to be. That was sort of our transition from doing these lighter, comedic interview bits, to doing something that was a little more narrative and cinematic with the character.

When he actually took office in January, we had sort of proven to ourselves that we could do these short-film style things and we made it a goal to do more of these narrative-style pieces of Trump now that he was occupying the White House. What was going on behind the scenes? What were his conversations with Steve Bannon? Because this was back in the day when he was still relevant.

So we started doing those for a couple of months and they seemed to perform well online. There was a popularity to them. Chris Licht, the showrunner of The Late Show, basically said, “We’ve got this popular segment that you and Matt have been doing. Let’s turn it into its own show. Unfortunately Trump’s not going anyway, so let’s develop this.” So Matt and I created a pitch for Showtime with the characters, basically saying, “This would be behind the scenes at the White House,” and the goal always was to be able to produce it as quickly as we possibly could so that we could begin to keep up with the news cycle.

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