James Fino wasn't sipping coffee while we chatted via phone, but visions of a Starbucks Peppermint Mocha were dancing in his head. That's appropriate for the El Paso native and University of Texas alumnus who was instrumental in creating the stop-action animated holiday outing of NBC's "Community." The ensemble comedy follows a group of misfit students at fictional Greendale Community College.
The 45-year-old Fino spoke to me from the studios of 23D Films in Los Angeles where he, partner Joe Russo and dozens of animators produced the episode of the NBC comedy, which he says took emotional cues from "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," but shared a visual sensibility with more recent fare such as "Coraline."
Fino, who says he knew he wanted into the movie and television business as early as the fourth grade, double majored in UT's radio, television and film program and advertising, graduating in 1988. "I credit my mother with the suggestion," he recalls. "Film was highly suspect, so my mother said u2026 'Advertising is just like film, except you'll get paid for it.' "
A post-graduation job with J.C. Penney Co. Inc. in Dallas ended five years later when Fino discovered that he still longed to head to Hollywood. Without a job waiting, Fino contacted friends who had headed west after college.
"I discovered there was a very strong UT network out there — a Texas network, in general. We call it the Texas mafia," Fino laughs. Friends helped him land a job on a television pilot.
"It was so sudden, and I was so grateful," he says. At that moment, he vowed to help other Texans who wanted to join the industry.
Assistant gigs on "Home Improvement" led to a writer's assistant position on Texas-set "King of the Hill." Fino organized a field trip to Texas for the writing staff, many of whom had never visited the Lone Star State. Starting in San Antonio, the group trekked up Interstate 35 to Austin, stopping at a snake farm along the way.
Fino worked on other sitcoms, but ultimately returned to animation with Russo at 23D (Russo's animation career harks back to the original "Simpsons" shorts on "The Tracey Ullman Show").
"Community's" Dino Stamatopoulus (he plays the character Starburns as well as consulting and writing) hooked up with the duo a year ago when he was looking to create new animated projects. In August, he introduced the pair to "Community" creator Dan Harmon, who told them that an NBC executive had dreamed that there was an animated episode of the show. 23D signed on with the knowledge that the completed episode would need to be delivered by Thanksgiving.
Stamatopoulus came up with a story in three days: "Community's" Abed imagines that the show's characters are animated figures and takes them on an imaginary journey to discover why. The second week of October, Fino and company got to work in a 16,000-square-foot facility with 66 puppets and 19 sets on 10 stages. Six and a half weeks later, the principal animation was completed. 23D delivered the last visual effects shots on the Tuesday morning before the episode's initial Dec. 9 broadcast. (The episode will air again on Christmas Day.)
"We were all exhausted by the time we were done, but very proud of the work we delivered," Fino says. The clever and surprisingly deep episode earned high marks from critics. Televisionary.com called it "a true Christmas miracle" and TV Guide's Matt Roush pegged it as "a very special episode without being a 'very special' episode."
23D transformed "Community's" characters into ballerinas, toys and stuffed animals. Fino was dismayed upon learning that Chevy Chase's character, Pierce, would land in a wheelchair before the animated special. Two wheelchairs had to be constructed because animators were filming different scenes with the same characters simultaneously. "It was incredibly expensive to get both of them built," Fino recalls.
Another challenge was the Christmas pterodactyl, which flies away with Shirley. "We're like, what — a Christmas pterodactyl? Where did this come from? It turns out the Christmas pterodactyl scenes are my favorites," says Fino, who considers them a homage to the groundbreaking stop-action work of Ray Harryhausen.
With the episode behind him, Fino has moved on to other projects. 23D just completed a stop-motion commercial for Little Caesars Pizza and is gearing up for production of a second season of Adult Swim's "Mary Shelley's Frankenhole."
And Fino has made good on his promise to himself to help other Texans into the business. Mark Estrada, a recent UT graduate and El Paso native, contacted Fino while enrolled in the Semester in Los Angeles program sponsored by UT's College of Communication. The program places students as interns in Los Angeles entertainment industry outlets during the summer semester. Fino brought Estrada to 23D where he worked on the "Community" episode.
"It's really great bringing the next generation of Longhorns in here," Fino says.
'Community: Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas'
7 p.m., Saturday