Richmond's had its brushes with television fame. It's been a production home for short-lived network dramas such as UPN's "Legacy" and ABC's "In the Line of Fire" and "Commander in Chief," but the River City's never seen anything like "Epic Abraham."
On a recent afternoon at Shockoe Bottom's Superior Production Exchange building, a small group of animators are hard at work in the offices of the Pixel Pirate animation studio bringing to life what appears to be one badass, pissed-off Abraham Lincoln. They're crafting an 11-minute pilot program to pitch to the Adult Swim lineup on Turner Broadcasting's Cartoon Network.
"Epic Abraham" is the most prominent of many projects under way at Pixel Pirate, which was founded in 2009 by Saxton Moore, an Emmy-nominated animator who's worked for Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon and has illustrated books for Random House, Penguin Books and Scholastic. Pixel Pirate launched its own book imprint last year with Moore's children's book, "Yin the Master of Yo," about a young yo-yo practitioner. He's developing the product into an iTunes game app, with accompanying yo-yos and other merchandising.
A native of Atlanta, Moore, 37, moved Pixel Pirate to Richmond in 2010 to be closer to family after he was laid off from American Greetings, where he worked with former Disney animators to revamp the Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake for a new generation of children, with cartoons and merchandising. He also co-designed characters for American Greetings' CBS animated children's series "Sushi Pack."
Moore got his start in advertising and then began working at Primal Scream, an animation studio that was working on early ads for Cartoon Network, promoting characters from "The Flintstones" and "Speed Racer."
"That's how I developed my style," Moore says. "There was only a handful of us ... and we only had an hour or so to grab onto George Jetson's style to Jonny Quest's style to the Powerpuff Girls." He also worked on seminal Adult Swim shows such as "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" and "Squidbillies," along with properties for kids.
"We developed 'Cartoon Cartoon Fridays,' and a lot of people see my stuff on YouTube now and they say, 'Man, I was 6 when that came out!' and it makes me feel old as dirt!" Moore says, laughing.
Last year Moore was working on a series of history shorts for Nickelodeon's Nick Jr. lineup when he went looking for local help. Through Craigslist, he found Joseph Ryan, 28, an adjunct instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University and graduate of its kinetic imaging program, which includes film and animation. The series Moore and Ryan produced was nominated for an Emmy this year. Now they're working with Richmond production house Shave Effects on "Epic Abraham," Ryan's brainchild, billed as "Blood, Guts and Gore in 1824," and featuring an Abraham Lincoln character fighting zombies and a Frankenstein-like wrestler.
"It takes history and plays with it," says Ryan, a Mechanicsville native, calling it a "dark history lesson. ... I grew up around here and I'm really into ghost stories. There are a lot of supernatural elements [in "Epic Abraham"] but there are also Western elements."
Among the history it plays with is Lincoln himself, who was just 15 in 1824.
"That's kind of the kicker," Ryan says. "I set it up to play with the idea that it might be Abraham Lincoln, but instead ... eventually you find out that this is the guy Abraham Lincoln is based on."
"It's like an alternative world," Moore says. "I'm kind of fond of not saying the last name and letting whoever watches it figure out the idea on their own."
Ryan draws the characters and backgrounds, writes the script, composes the show's Western-themed music and provides the voice of the title character, combining a dash of Clint Eastwood with a healthy dose of Aussie Mad Max.
"The word 'multitalented' should always precede the name Joseph Ryan," says Dave Gau, owner of Shave Effects and executive producer of "Epic Abraham." Other voices in the show are provided by local improv actors, including Gau's wife, Terry Menefee Gau, a Screen Actors Guild actress who was in the film "Evan Almighty."
Pixel Pirate and Shave are employing VCU art-school students and graduates in their endeavors. Moore enjoys being able to provide a hands-on experience in animation here in Richmond for them, rather than forcing them to seek jobs in Los Angeles or New York.
On a typical day, Nick Sampson, 22, is lip-syncing Abraham's dialogue, while Anne Lantz, 20, works on texturing, coloring and shading the characters. Nearby, Daphne Ching, 22, is working on a tablet computer, drawing a saber-toothed tiger for a project for Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, one of Pixel Pirate's clients.
"It's cool to be able to stay around," Sampson says. "We already know the area and the people, so it's awesome to be able to have this opportunity." S