by Andy Lyons, Editor-in-Chief
Kansas City Comic Con marked a shift for comic colorist Jeff Balke, who is changing gears from his sketch colorings to Jeff Balke Studios, his animation studio. Balke has done comic book coloring, including covers, for several years and decided to make a clean break from the industry to focus wholly on his own characters in the form of comic strips and cell animation.
KCCC marked the last time many of his superhero products would be available as he plans to completely discontinue them to focus on his two-year-old animation studio. He said he has big plans for 2018, including launching four minute shorts and short animated comic strips.
“What I’m really excited about is that what I’m doing now is animation, 2-D animation,” Balke told CMN from his booth at KCCC. “And we’re drawing all of our shorts up to about four minutes long, which are going to be done by what’s called cell animation, so hand drawing every single frame.”
Balke has worked on a assembling a team behind him which includes people like Rick Farmiloe, who spent more than 35 years as an animator for companies such as Disney and Hanna Barbera, working on titles such as “Beauty and the Beast,” “Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” as well as “Smurfs,” “Flintstones,” and more.
Balke said he’ll always love comics but it’s nice to be able to focus on his original characters.
“I wanted to tell my own stories, I had a lot of my own characters in my head for such a long time,” he said. “But I had my own ideas and in the comic book world you really can’t do that, and if you can it’s limited to a certain degree and you definitely can’t animate them. So ever since I was a little guy I wanted to animate and it’s finally my time I can do it.
“I’m pushing 40 in a couple years but I feel like a 16 or 15 year old, because I’m completely reinvigorated and excited. It’s scary, because you know getting rid of the superhero stuff you lose the money at shows because nobody knows my characters… yet,” he said with a laugh.
The move from comics and illustrating to animation hasn’t been completely smooth, Balke joked “there’s no pamphlet or book detailing the business side.” Making the move from a creator to a business person is a process Balke said he took two years to realize he can’t do. So after some consideration he’ll take a position as a lead creator and hire someone to be the business manager of Jeff Balke Studios.
“I’m scared as heck but you know what it’s time,” he said. “We’ll be alright, we’ll do good. I have a lot of things in the works, we have a lot of things coming out for next year.”
The plans for the first short is a cartoon version of himself and his husband Brandon, as The Balkenator and B. The short is titled “Clear Storm” and carries a theme of not always believing what you hear on TV.
“The news is on warning of a big storm and The Balkenator gets all razzled and prepares for it and B comes over,” Balke described. “The Balkenator gets all razzled and puts on a life vest and is ready for 90 feet of water and opens the door to a clear sky and a little girl riding her bike down the street. He stays in his uniform and just goes. It’s one of those things where you don’t listen to everything the TV has to say.”
With the focus being on shorts that are around four minutes long and 24 frames a second, Balke said he’s in talks with two more Disney animators who haven’t switched to digital means of production and still prefer the cell animation. It’s an arduous process, but Balke said it’ll be worth it with the end product.
“It’s a feel, it’s just kind of a feel that you get,” Balke said of cell animation. “Even when I do my sketch colorings, a lot of people like those because it’s always different. It looks quote-unquote original but it is kind of, every single one is always different. And that’s kind of how I feel with the cell animations. Every single frame is always going to be different. It’s going to be different anyway if you do it on a computer because you’ve still got to redraw. But it just has more of an artistic style to it and an artistic feel.
“When you actually have a cell animation or you have a cell, you can actually go and frame that, you can put it up on a wall somewhere, you can talk to somebody and say what’s different between this and this print, is that this cell moved. It was part of an animation, it was part of this movie, and that’s something that you can’t recreate. It is absolutely a one-of-a-kind.”
Balke has also been producing a weekly comic strip through the studio’s blog, and plans to give them short animations in the future. In the coming months, Balke said he’ll have a premier at a theater in Wisconsin, where he lives, with a red carpet event to let people know what he’s working on.
For more, follow Jeff Balke Studios on Facebook here. Be sure to check out the Jeff Balke Studios website at https://www.jbalkestudios.com/ for the latest from the studio. Listen to our interview with Balke in its entirety below.