With their recent 9/11 Series and previous hit Danny and Annie, the Rauch Brothers & StoryCorps team have crafted a powerful experience of tear-jerking true stories told through lovable cartoons. The Rauch Brothers kindly shared a few words about animated documentaries, the research they do before each piece, and upcoming projects.

From following your blog, it’s clear you do a lot of research before jumping into a story. What’s your process when putting one of the StoryCorps pieces together? How do you choose the right story to animate? 

From real life to animation in "John and Joe"

We look for stories where we see an opportunity to help add something that can’t be gotten just through listening to the story. There has to be places where we can accentuate or add a joke, heighten or emphasize an emotion, or clarify or strengthen a story point. Other than that, it’s a matter of finding a story that will speak to a broad audience and the ingredients that make for great cartoons, in particular compelling characters.

We meet the people featured in the stories whenever possible. That helps us better understand their story, their personality, and how to design and animate them in our cartoons. We also do historical and location research when necessary, which helps to create an authentic sense of time and place. Then we begin character design and storyboards armed with lots of reference photographs, interview notes, and the edited story track. Everything is built on that foundation.

Let’s talk shop a bit… You’re character designs are instantly lovable and your environments have a great textural richness to them. How do you find the right look for a story?

Character design for Richie Pecorella “She Was the One”

In the StoryCorps series, we mix the broad appeal of classic American cartoons with painterly, often impressionistic backgrounds. We believe that in animation, this kind of classic cartoon design for characters is the most relatable and engaging design. Often times, character designs with more realism subtract personality and leave you with something closer to a prop.

That type of design seems to work better for plot or action driven animation. These stories are character driven, so we’ve focused on an aesthetic that draws that out. Bill Wray’s background paintings offer a touch of realism to contrast with Tim’s cartoon characters, which creates a rich look and helps to ground these real-life stories.The look of each cartoon is founded in research, which we interpret in an effort to best communicate the story and the characters’ personalities.  For example, people who knew Danny Perasa from Danny and Annie, describe him as a “gnome of a man”. He had a nearly toothless grin. He was truly an unlikely romantic. That’s why Tim designed him to look a little awkward, but hopefully still lovable.

Background painting for "Always a Family" by Bill Wray

Meanwhile, Bill’s backgrounds are designed to support the story and create a sense of place. Danny and Annie is a retro romance between an elderly couple. Although certain background elements in the episode are based on the real thing, the color isn’t. Annie doesn’t decorate her kitchen with pink. In this case, the color was designed to support the retro romance story line. Of course, in other episodes reality may more strongly guide color choices. It’s always a balancing act trying to find the right mix of true-to-life authenticity and the right kind of artistic interpretation.

With traditional live-action documentaries audiences are used to believing what they see as reality. Now with animation, it’s no longer reality but a re-enactment or interpretation of an event. How do you balance reality and interpretation when you’re deciding how to visualize a story? What do you stay true to?

Character and story are the biggest influences on our decisions. We stay true to them first and foremost. We always look for ways to add authenticity and maintain fidelity to real life, but some artistic interpretation is essential. It helps us better capture the core of our characters and their stories. In fact, sometimes veering away from a strict reliance on pure reality makes these cartoons “true-to-life” in a way that live footage can’t be. The graphic qualities of cartoons can quickly and clearly communicate relationships between characters, the emotion of a scene, or other key story points. The key is to set out to tell the story in an honest and true way. That’s what we’ve found matters most.

What’s next for the Rausch Brothers?

Storyboard from an upcoming StoryCorps short film

We’re producing several more StoryCorps shorts and hope to start a third year of production on those in 2012. We have a Valentine’s Day short coming out in February 2012, and the other new StoryCorps shorts will air on P.O.V. next summer. We’re also working on a couple ideas for feature films and new shorts series that we’re excited about. Some of those continue to mix cartoons and real life, while others are the kind of pure fantasy animation is better known for. We would really like one of our next big projects to be unabashedly cartoony, and written from the ground up for animation, instead of built from pre-edited audio tracks.

Our home base is rauchbrothers.com, where links to all our projects and social networks can be found. We post new work and updates weekly on Tumblr, Twitter (@rauchbros), and Facebook. People can subscribe to our Vimeo and YouTube channels to see our newest cartoons, and soon we’ll start showing some work-in-progress videos there as well.

Thanks Mike & Tim Rauch and Krisi at StoryCorps.