Jake Hollander on embracing challenges in My Wife the Monster

In the My Wife The Monster pilot, a husband returns home one evening to discover that his house is shrouded in darkness and filled with mysterious tendrils. He deftly dodges the angry tendrils as he works his way to the home office at the back of the house. Inside, his wife is a swirling vortex of stress – until she sees him, jumps into his arms, and happily suggests that they go get ice cream.

The charming and metaphorically resonant short was created by Studio Ursa, run by Jake and Maggie Hollander. The Hollanders plan to release a series of wholesome vignettes based on wholesome and relatable moments inspired by their own marriage.

With his background in storyboarding, supervising, and directing, this was Jake Hollander’s first substantial foray into character animation. We spoke with Jake about his learning curve with Toon Boom Harmony, the demand for wholesome content, as well as the creative possibilities of writing a “monstrous” character.

The Pilot episode of My Wife The Monster, written by Jake and Maggie Hollander.

You cut your teeth as a storyboard artist and now you’re an indie showrunner. What did that career trajectory look like?

Jake: Funny enough, I haven’t really worked full-time as a storyboard artist in over five years. I’ve been directing and supervising for most of that time. And I love directing. I love being in control of certain aspects of the shot flow and the style and everything.

Animation was always this incredible gateway to get better at making my own stuff. But you get on all these interesting projects and they’re all different. They’re all specific to their own showrunners, creators, writing styles. And you kind of adapt to all these things. 

You develop a more keen sense over time of what you want to make. I wanted to make something that was at the level of the expertise I’ve been building over time. So that was the focus of [My Wife The Monster]. The studio was my wife Maggie and my entry level into taking this concept that we love, these inside jokes about us, and making it to the scale. We jumped right into that pilot and started with one of the funniest things that always happens.

You have a rough day at work, you’re in the zone, and you don’t even know what’s going on around you. And then one of us comes home and we forget everything and eat trashy food and watch TV for a little bit. So that’s the heart of it. And that’s where we jumped into it.

From a technical perspective, I can write and board. I’m still getting better at animating because it’s not my main thing. When you’re boarding you’re sticking to your proportions, your anatomy, your characters. So I have a sense of animation. It’s something that I can do. But there’s a nuance to it.

Like any craft, there’s expertise and then there’s what looks good. We’re in that area right now, building up to what our expertise is. It’s really funny because, even though that short’s a minute, I spent a couple months working on it. And by the last shot, my animation was so different from the first shot as I got used to it. 

I guess the TL;DR of that is that I always want to make my own projects. And the kind of projects I want to see being made are not always the projects that studios  want to make. So one of the fundamental reasons I spend most of my free time working on my own projects is because I just want to see the projects get made.

Colors and line art from My Wife the Monster in Toon Boom Harmony.

How big is the team on My Wife The Monster? You mentioned your wife is part of it.

Jake: Maggie Hollander, my wife, did the color scripts after I boarded it. We wrote it together. She is incredible at color. She set up all the pre-design, she designed what the characters are wearing and locked in the color for them.

And then after I boarded everything out, I did all the animation and then I just dropped in all the colours. A good friend of ours, Janna Bock Powers, helped us out. She did some of the background colour for a bunch of stuff. After I coloured it, she did some finessing to make it look a little more cohesive. 

And then my buddy, Josh Jackson, is really good at comp. He helped me with one of the scenes so that I got an idea of how to comp the rest of it. And Lester Park-Knight helped me comp another scene that was a little different. He works in lighting for features, so he has a nice overall understanding of colour. All the animation and the sound design and all of that stuff was done by me with Freesound.

The pilot is already up on YouTube. Are the next episodes in production?

Jake: We have dozens of short episodic ideas that we’re going to move forward with. This whole series is kind of like an anthology of Mag’s and my relationship. And we just exaggerate it to reflect the jokes we have in our daily lives. 

And there isn’t much of an antagonist or narratives that reflect a larger arc, but the arcs that you’ll see in this series are about communication. It’s about how relationships grow, the challenges and how those are navigated. It’s more of a personal thing. 

We love the title of My Wife The Monster because of the connotation behind that term. But the joke of it always being wholesome, because it’s about love and relationships and communication. And as you’ll see in the series, I’m probably more of a “monster.” The guy’s character eats messily, he doesn’t like to clean up, you know what I mean? That’s the running joke of the series and the joke Maggie and I have together. 

Even in the one minute pilot, there’s subversion. My Wife The Monster implies this adversarial marriage. And it’s like, “No. She is literally some kind of creature, but that’s not a problem.” 

Animatic, rough animation and final render from My Wife the Monster provided by Studio Ursa.

The pilot did make me wonder if the wife’s monstrousness is meant to be a metaphor. It’s definitely a funny joke, but is it more than that?

Jake: There’s a lot of metaphorical resonance to a monster. We kind of like that it’s somewhat ambiguous. We’re not going to ever specifically explain what kind of monster she is. It becomes what we need it to be. In the back of our minds, she’s a catlike shadow creature.

One of the biggest and most fun reasons we wanted to make her a monster is so that we can show physical manifestations of emotion. If you can break it down, it’s what happens when an extrovert marries an introvert. I have so many introverted friends working in animation. So many of them are like, “I just want to sit in my cave and I want to do art and sit with my cats.” And I’m very extroverted. There’s a million stories that you can think of about the funny interaction between those two personality types.

One of the funniest running jokes in our marriage, which is a huge inspiration for this project, is that Maggie needs her “introvert time.” She’ll need to recharge. What does it look like for a monster to have to recharge? Do shadows swirl around them? Do their eyes glow like they’re in charging mode? There are so many funny visuals we can apply to it.

And there’s analogous relationships to something everyone can relate to. Anyone who’s ever been in a relationship, they know that it’s communication first. I hope they know that.

Colors and line art from My Wife the Monster in Toon Boom Harmony.

On the more technical sides of things: boarding in Storyboard Pro was already in your wheelhouse, but how was the learning curve with Harmony?

Jake: I’ve done retake directing, so I have a familiarity with it. But when it comes to hierarchies, write nodes, comp… I’m still trying to wrap my head around comp in Harmony. From day one, I knew I was going to use Storyboard Pro and Harmony (and then After Effects if needed). So scripted written, boarded it all out in Storyboard Pro. I broke down all of the animation process like I would do sequencing at work. Being a director is helpful when you’re making your own shorts. 

I made a Google sheet and broke it down entirely by sequence. There would be the storyboard rough, any notes I had, any notes Maggie would have. Then  we would apply them, we would adjust them. Then I would have an animatic and set the timing, make sure that all of the beats were there. And then the fun part: I broke down all those sequences and I exported them all into Harmony files. I either do an MOV or I’ll export the JPEG sequence and then import that into Harmony. I actually kind of like doing the JPEG system a little better because I have more control of the frame-by-frame. 

In Harmony, I predominantly use what I do in Storyboard Pro. I just go to the next drawing, which translates in Harmony as “next drawing” as well. But when you break it up into the JPEG format, it gives you a one-frame panel for everything. So I can just go and I’ll always have a timeline where I can see everything at once.  I took all of what I liked about Storyboard Pro and set that into my interface for Harmony.

After I got all the sequences done, I would rough out all the animation first. I’d have a rough animation pass and I’d do it for everything. So I make sure I have all the GIFs. And once I do a whole pass of the shorts, I look at all the GIFs. I make notes, see how they hook up with each other. Then I go through the next pass, which is the cleanup and the rough animation pass. The more I usually do something, the better it starts looking, as is pretty normal for most people. The difference between my first shots to my last shots are significant in many aspects. I tried to mitigate that by doing rough passes on everything and doing it in waves. 

Once I had all the roughs done, I did all the backgrounds. Because I knew I was making this whole thing in the boards, I made sure my backgrounds were more accurate to what the final compositions would look like. So for anyone who’s trying to make it easier for themselves, make sure you have a horizon line in there if you’re making your own projects. When you finish painting or finalizing a background, as long as your horizon line  is accurate, you can always build your BG compositionally around that. Whereas if you don’t, sometimes you won’t have the character line up to the perspective of the BG. And that’s a problem.

After doing that, I incrementally went through all the BGs to paint them. Then Janna took a look at about a quarter of them. She would do like shots that were like some of the wide shots. So I always got the color key down for the big shots. And then would apply all the coloring to the rest of them.

Then I would do the final animation. I’m so used to boarding, so I love rough lines. And by the end of it, you can see like I was all excited about rough lines until I figured out that Harmony works way better when my lines are cleaner for colour filling, which takes a long time. 

So after all of that, I exported everything into Premiere. And then that’s when I did all the sound. Maggie and I got our final voices done. Maggie knows a lot more about sound than I do. She helped extensively with leveling the effects and leveling the voices properly. After that, we threw the credits in and it was a wrap. And then I said to myself, “Look at all this stuff you could have done better.” And then I said, “I’ll do it on the next one. Otherwise, I’ll never release it.” That’s usually the hardest part.

Concept art from My Wife the Monster.

It will be fun to see what changes from episode to episode as you make new choices and as you discover new features in Harmony. 

Jake: Oh, one hundred percent. I have so many friends who I’ve worked with that live and breathe Harmony. And I ask them a million questions. And they’re always down to suggest things.

But ultimately, all the suggestions in the world pale in comparison to making a process that works for you when you have to do the lion’s share of the work. You have to make it work so that you don’t hit any hurdles. I feel like with me, the easier it is for me to push forward without any obstacles,  the higher the chances that I am to finish something quicker and better.

That’s why Storyboard Pro and Harmony are my go-to, because they are the best for what I need. The way they are built feels like I’m a cyborg just doing something that’s natural to me. 

What are your hopes moving forward for My Wife, The Monster? 

Jake: My hope for it is that we continue to have a great time making it. And that people can feel excited to be able to relate to characters that have, in my opinion, a healthy relationship, and continue to explore communication and how important that is in relationships.

  • For more information about Jake and Maggie Hollander and Studio Ursa, check out their website.
  • My Wife The Monster will be available to view on YouTube, and you can already watch the pilot episode. 
  • Thinking about your next independent project? Artists can download a free 21-day trial of Toon Boom Harmony.

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