A Brief History of ‘The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’ and Animation

For the better part of this year, Tim Luecke and Rob Dubbin have been making animated magic happen in the Ed Sullivan Theater Graphics Lab. Luecke, Lead Animator, and Dubbin, Senior Digital Producer and Writer, for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert are the men responsible for bringing us Cartoon Donald Trump and Cartoon Hillary Clinton.

Cartoon Clinton and Cartoon Trump

© The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

With interactive animations of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and a Bernie Sanders-like bird, the Late Show has become a sort of testing ground for Adobe Character Animator. Since its release last summer, the program has helped animators reduce production times from weeks to mere hours. A face tracking camera allows the animated characters, or puppets, to imitate the eye, lip and shoulder movements of a person.

While there have been many motion capture and real time digital animation programs introduced, Adobe has the distinction of being one of the first companies to offer a relatively inexpensive, user friendly program that can be used live. With these two important factors, Cartoons Trump and Hillary may be just the beginning.

The Late Show began its animation work with Crunchy the Squirrel, a premade character who had been fully animated and completed before the show aired. Although Luecke and Dubbin were happy with Crunchy, bringing him to the screen took a month of production.

A similar situation arose on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, when Colbert interviewed Smaug the Dragon from the “Hobbit” series. The segment was visually stunning, but all the limitations of a pretape were present.

In an interview with Adobe, Dubbin recalls this of the early animation process. “I worked on a series of cartoons on The Colbert Report that were tightly scripted and highly orchestrated. But whenever Stephen tried to interact with a cartoon, the delay between the animation and his jokes always bugged me. You just didn’t feel like the two characters were in the same room with each other.”

Luecke had his eye on the new Adobe program before its initial release, and when he finally began playing around with Character Animator, the staff was excited, but at a loss for what to do with it. Dubbin continued to figure out how to apply the program to the show. First, they began by creating an Irish ancestor of Colbert’s for St. Patrick’s Day, which didn’t make it to air. Later in the month, however, the Bernie bird appeared, with Cartoon Trump fast on its heels. July saw the live Democratic National Convention show, including a segment featuring a live Cartoon Hillary Clinton. Trump and Clinton’s animated counterparts have since become regular guests on the Late Show.

Luecke had his eye on the new Adobe program before its initial release, and when he finally began playing around with Character Animator, the staff was excited, but at a loss for what to do with it. Dubbin continued to figure out how to apply the program to the show. First, they began by creating an Irish ancestor of Colbert’s for St. Patrick’s Day, which didn’t make it to air. Later in the month, however, the Bernie bird appeared, with Cartoon Trump fast on its heels. July saw the live Democratic National Convention show, including a segment featuring a live Cartoon Hillary Clinton. Trump and Clinton’s animated counterparts have since become regular guests on the Late Show.

The speed of the program is essential to the Late Show team. “Half an hour before we went live, Bill Clinton made a speech that drew a contrast between the “real” Hillary Clinton and the “cartoon” version of her. Thankfully, I’d been working on a Cartoon Hillary, and we had a writer, Jen Spyra, who could do the voice, so we got to comment on the speech less than an hour after Bill delivered it.” It’s flexible enough to allow for a rewrite of the entire piece between rehearsal and the taping.

The show is slowly branching out to other characters with the help of Character Animator, such as, Ghost of Abraham Lincoln, and Vladimir Putin. There’s really no limit to the number of characters for Colbert to interact with, and the limits of the technology will continue to evolve with use. We look forward to what the animation team can bring in 2017.

For more on bringing these cartoons to life head to CNet, and read the complete interview with Rob Dubbin and Tim Luecke at Adobe

  • This is such a cool behind-the-scenes look at how Adobe Character Animator works. Cartoon Clinton was so good. I really liked last week when the did Cartoon Trump and Cartoon Putin!

    On a side note: Welcome aboard The Hub, Karen! Your first article is excellent!

  • RA

    Wow, hasn’t technology come along way! What an amazingly powerful program. And I am sure one they didn’t expect to spend the next four years using to animate the Don.

    Welcome aboard Karen!