The Making of “Rancho Pillow”


I love cartoons, especially the classic stuff. I thought it would  be fun to stretch my animating skills a bit and make a cartoon-style music video. Here’s a few tips and tricks I picked up along the way.

This project was created for “Twisted Roots”, a Port Angeles, Washington-based music group. Known for their fun music and “twisted” sense of humor, just another boring YouTube gig video wouldn’t do.

twisted rootsI envisioned something like “Terry Gilliam animation meets Deputy Dawg” with a little Warner Bros mixed in. The cartoon uses the song “Rancho Pillow” from the bands first CD “Coming Home”. This song was originally made popular years ago by the Andrew Sisters and Gene Audry.


bobs heads

I started by doing head shots of all the band members with various expressions, using mouth shapes I might need to create lip sync, then cut out and lined everything up as separate layers in photoshop, then saved each as separate files . After designing each characters body and costume, I cut them apart like paper dolls to be animated later on in After Effects.

bob front view Since these are flat characters, numerous angles (front, side back, 3/4) had to be created for the various actions they might do. I’d found a nice rig plugin for After Effects called “Duik” which was a helpful in rigging the characters like CG puppets which saved a lot of time during animation.

It wasn’t always necessary to rig every character quite so completely for some of the simpler movements and actions though.



storyboardA timeline template was created in Vegas Video, set to  24 frames a second, frames actual. After adding in the music, I used crude storyboard pictures in the timeline to work out the timing of the cartoon and the action.A marker was placed at the start of every measure of the song to work out the musical timing and how many frames of animation were needed for each piece of action.

x sheet

This was all written down by hand on standard X sheets old-school style and put into a big book. While all this preparation and homework in the beginning is very tedious, It saves a lot of confusion later on.


The nice thing about animating to music is you pretty much know where all your cues are going to land and how many frames you have to get there. It became obvious early on that everything should be timed to the music or it wouldn’t look quite right.

It’s always best to let your imagination run free as you’re creating your story, then figure out how to do it later.

Here’s a few challenges I faced:

How does a a horse canter/walk/gallop? How do I keep my hero in the saddle How do I animate to fit the music?

How do you make a animated character play guitar – convincingly?

How fast does a background move past on a fast moving train?

How does a steam engine work? How do you animate smoke?

How was “Cowboy Bob” going to save the day with nothing but a pillow and a rope?


To get lip sync I dropped the disembodied heads right into the timeline, matching the mouth movements and facial expressions to the music,  then rendered them out again as single frames to attach later to the characters bodies. I made small low-res videos to check my work at each stage before adding backgrounds and doing the final renders.

Though this project was largely done a lot like a traditional animator might have done it, a few technical advances  available today certainly helped. It’s now possible to animate each character separately, then combine and track them all to a bouncing vehicle which itself is moving in a scene. This saves a lot of  work!

Every shot was rendered as single frames of 1920×1080 ping files, with alpha transparency. Once everything was finished and touched up a master edit was created in After Effects, recreating transitions and fades  worked out in Vegas, creating a master folder of 4000+ single frames used for dubbing online, for DVD and for Blu-Ray.


I found myself many times during the course of the project “reinventing the wheel”, doing things that I later discovered were invented decades ago.

horse gallop

(Click to see Ginger Gallop)

The stuff worked out in pencil and paper on the animation table always looked better to me than the puppeting/posing I did from scratch on the computer. It was harder to do in some ways, but it just seemed to come out more fluid and elastic and full of life. Later I discovered that lots of animation houses do this very same thing on their projects (like Pixar – sometimes for years!). Everything is worked out ahead of time before committing to CG. It’s a lot easier to erase and fix a drawing or two than change thousands of keyframes to get that little extra “push” out of the action.

Here’s a few tips:

Burn a frame number into every frame. You can always mask it out later. This saves confusion.

Add black corners to every frame (like an old picture book). Certain programs won’t auto-center pictures that have an alpha transparency.

Reference is good. You might think you know how a guitar is strummed – until you try to animate it. Shoot videos of yourself doing it. Watch videos of horses running, trains moving, smoke, etc. Lots of stuff on YouTube.


No matter how you do it, animating takes a long,long time. It’s like acting VEERRRY SLLOOOWLLLY.

There’s a few great reference books on the subject that I constantly referenced throughout the project:

The Illusion Of Life – Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson

The Animator’s Survival Kit – Richard Williams

Character Animation Crash Course – Eric Goldberg

Timing For Animation – Harold Whitaker and John Halas

Here’s a popular YouTube site using a similar animation technique:


The Twisted Roots band site:
© 2015 Leo Bidne


  1. Gregory Bodny

    What a pleasant piece of art. It made me laugh. Its especially fun knowing the actors and having the connection. Well done Leo!

  2. Sig

    Will watch it over and over through the years!


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