Antonio Canobbio: Creating the Universe for Lower Decks

Antonio Canobbio
Antonio Canobbio

In many ways, Lower Decks may have been the most creative and spectacular vision of Star Trek yet. The reason this happened is thanks to the incredible talent of the writers, producers, and animators who recreated familiar worlds, but one we’ve never enjoyed so much in any of the previous shows or films. 

Much of that came from the creative folks at Titmouse, Inc., who created the worlds in which the ten episodes of Lower Decks took place. By “worlds,” we mean all the background illustrations, paintings, and scenery that built the places where Mariner and Boimler had their adventures.  

We were lucky to speak with Antonio Canobbio, Chief Creative Officer and EVP at Titmouse. He walked us through how he and his team created so many new places in the Star Trek Universe.

Canobbio is the concept artist and creative director for all Titmouse projects. He began his animation career working as a layout artist in his native city, Paris, for Rooster productions, until MTV brought him to New York. Canobbio joined Cartoon Network, which led him to Los Angeles. Canobbio later joined his friend and former colleague, Chris Prynoski, at the studio Prynoski started, Titmouse. 

Antonio Canobbio, Chief Creative Officer and EVP at Titmouse. This gentleman is out of this world. Courtesy of Titmouse
Antonio Canobbio, Chief Creative Officer and EVP at Titmouse. This gentleman is out of this world. Courtesy of Titmouse

The worlds that ​your team is creating is just amazing… in a way, you all are able to surpass what we’ve seen before at any level. How did you approach this project?

For this show we were creating worlds and needed to know before the design even started a lot more about the planets than would actually appear on screen.

That is the funnest part of conceiving any design whether it’s a planet or a cup. Without the understanding of its origin and its function, the design becomes abstract to the viewer. The more answers you have before you start designing, even if it’s made up, the design becomes tangible and relatable.

Hopefully that’s what you got out of the show’s crazy locations!

What kind of input do you get from the writers / producers about the look of the various planets?

We discussed things at length with (showrunner) Mike [McMahan] and the crew. It was important that we created something new but also reverential. As fans, we have a legacy to protect and we don’t mind adding to it. 

This is where all the superfans on the show came to the rescue!

The surface of the planet Galrak, as seen in Episode 3, “Temporal Edict.” Courtesy of CBS
The surface of the planet Galrak, as seen in Episode 3, “Temporal Edict.” Courtesy of CBS

Can you describe the process that you and the team undertake when planning and then painting/drawing the backgrounds and planets? 

For the design planning, we start by meeting with Mike and the directors when the script comes off the press and we discuss setups and vision for each major set up. 

I’m a bit of a hoarder when it comes to Pinterest and tend to gather and organize as much reference as possible to help the process. Once we rough out our basic shapes and figure out our main setups, I usually share the concept load with the incredible design team we put together. 

This is the fun part! The purely creative! We invite them to think, conceive and enhance concepts!​

I’m guessing that Episode 2 — “Envoys” — with the Vazquez Rocks cameo must have been fun. Adding a familiar place on Earth to an alien world… an unusual request. Mostly people make cameo appearances on shows, not landmarks like the Vasquez Rocks.

It was the best way to convey to our audience that we are fans! Glad you saw it!

The Vasquez Rocks, as seen on “Envoys.” Courtesy of CBS
The Vasquez Rocks, as seen on “Envoys.” Courtesy of CBS

It really struck me watching Episode 5 — “Cupid’s Errant Arrow” — with the moon that was buckling on itself, the shield around it, and the ships that were in orbit. I am imagining that this particular ‘shot’ was complicated. How would you describe the level of intricacy that your team is putting into these designs?

​It was hard! But we have a crack team of designers, animators, compositors and directors that have been working on in-house shows like this for years. They know what it takes. We can plan all we want, with this kind of set up; there are always unknowns. It takes long hours and iterations to get it right. Hopefully, we did!

I spoke with Barry Kelly a while back, and he described creating the ships was more like a filming process, rather than an illustration process. Would you say that is similar to the planets / scenes you all create?

When we first started conceptualizing Lower Decks, we wanted to break the standards that come with most primetime shows. Flat, cutty (fast cuts) with some after thought of action. We wanted the humor first, but why not be badass as well! We kept the characters simple enough to be able to move them with intention for the action to be some of the best, but for planets and ships we went full on cinematic, adding rendering, compositing, FX and everything we could!

Do you worry about animation styles? Meaning, do you worry about animating in a style that is too similar to any other shows?

That’s one of my biggest worries. But even worse would be to do something that we’ve already done. We always find a way to make it our own and unique in the long run.

This show in particular was not a worry. The scripts were funny from page one. Nothing can go wrong with a set up like this.

An amazingly cloudy scene by Canobbio and his team at Titmouse. Courtesy of CBS
An amazingly cloudy scene by Canobbio and his team at Titmouse. Courtesy of CBS

How long does it generally take to create a scene for an episode?

I do not know how to answer this! Ha ha! From script to final? About a year. It really depends on the set up, too.

What kind of challenge is it to recreate a real world in animated form?

The biggest challenge is knowing enough about the location that you can fool people into buying its tangibility. If you don’t understand function, it will just be a bunch of nonsensical forms. We wouldn’t want that! 

You have to know what kind of atmosphere you have, government, etc.… before you even put the pen on paper.

Is there anything you have to add now that the first season has come to a close? 

I want to say thank you to all the people I worked with on this series. I don’t feel that I say it often enough, but I’m proud of you and the work we did and I hope it carries onto the screen.

Stream the entire season of Star Trek: Lower Decks now on CBS All Access.