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Frisky Business: Adult Swim Behind the Scenes

March 1, 2008  |  12:00am
Frisky Business: Adult Swim Behind the Scenes

When Al Gore lost the 2000 presidential election, he grew a beard. When Killface, one of the stars of Adult Swim’s Frisky Dingo, loses his bid for the White House (on account of Article II of the Constitution’s requirement that a candidate be a natural-born U. S. citizen and not, say, a cloven-hoofed demonic supervillain), his natural reaction is to avenge his dead penguin by destroying the world. You know, the same thing Gore would’ve done if he hadn’t come up with that global-warming slide show. Welcome to the world of Frisky Dingo, where the political landscape is only slightly more absurd than our own. The show, currently in its second season on the Cartoon Network, introduces viewers to moronic billionaire/ playboy/superhero Xander Crews and his nemesis, the aforementioned Killface. The show is smart, hyper- violent, highly entertaining and—like most of the Adult Swim oeuvre— occasionally scatological. Creating this bizarre world is an ambitious task, especially considering that almost all the work done on Frisky Dingo is done literally in-house. The staΩ of 70/30 Productions—the studio behind Frisky Dingo and early Adult Swim favorite Sealab 2021—consists of eight hoodie-wearing guys in their late-20s and early-30s inhabiting an unassuming house in a quiet East Atlanta neighborhood. Finishing a single episode of the show takes this ragtag bunch from four to seven weeks. What follows here is a peek behind the curtain and into the creative process during this period, from the initial script all the way to sound mixing. Sure, watching cartoons is all fun and games. Making one isn’t.

Step 1: Series co-creator Adam Reed pens a script. The old industry adage requires one page per minute of show, but Frisky Dingo’s rapid-fire scripts are wordier than most: the show is only about 11 minutes an episode, but scripts usually run between 14 and 16 pages. It’s sort of like if Gilmore Girls had more explosions and an evil supervillain. And a penguin. And a half-man/half-crustacean. And instead of a mother and daughter who are best friends, it had an army of mech-suit-wearing soldiers called Xtacles. Actually, the Gilmore Girls reference might be a little hasty.

Step 2: A “notes” meeting, wherein everyone in 70/30’s employ—from art director to interns—weighs in on the new script. Matt Thompson, the show’s other co-creator, moderates. At a story meeting in late December, the discussion meanders from new character names to a McSweeney’s essay, “On the Implausibility of the Death Star’s Trash Compactor.” (How can a lone metal rod slow it down so much?! And why oh why is there a worm creature in there?!) Step 3: Once a script is finalized, voice actors arrive at the 70/30 house to record their parts in a closet-sized sound booth. Reed and Thompson edit audio in-house as well. Although voice acting on the show is a healthy mix of mostly Atlanta-area actors and 70/30 employees, rapper Killer Mike and pundit Ellis Henican voice, respectively, a rapper and a pundit. But they’re not alone in their commitment to method acting. Mr. Ford, an elderly black man who lives near the 70/30 house, voices a character WHO IS ACTUALLY AN ELDERLY BLACK MAN NAMED MR. FORD. Now there’s a method undertaking Mr. Brando would balk at.

Step 4: While the voiceover artists are recording dialogue, art director Neal Holman draws storyboards. Many characters, like Crews and Killface, appear in almost every episode. But if there’s a new character, Holman and his team have to call a casting agency, or more often, call a friend and ask if they’d be keen on gracing the small screen. (Full disclosure: I was briefly featured on the show as—you guessed it—a hard-nosed news reporter. My sister then called me and told me my character looked fat. Thanks, 70/30.) Designers Christian Danley, Casey Willis, David Caicedo and Eric Sims assist Holman in drawing the visual elements of the show. Then, the animation staΩ takes over.

Step 5: Lead animator Mack Williams and Sims use a computer program called After EΩects to move characters from hinged joints like their shoulders, elbows and knees, as well as head, neck, waist and feet. They’re information-age puppetmasters using a digital marionette. Like several other Adult Swim shows, Frisky Dingo uses a method called “limited animation,” which means not every element in a scene moves. Although the aesthetic is obviously diΩerent from lushly animated stand-bys like Fantasia, it’s quicker and cheaper to produce. Larger studios have the resources to outsource their animation overseas, but when your animation staΩ consists of two guys and the occasional intern, more in-depth animation isn’t feasible. Plus, Williams says, “You’d be surprised by how little your human eye can see in two frames.”

Step 6: The episode is sent to post-production at Soapbox Studios, also based in Atlanta. This mostly consists of “sweetening” the existing audio track by tweaking vocals and improving sound eΩects.

Step 7: Once an episode is mixed, it goes to the Cartoon Network’s studios, where it will stay until it airs. This is where you come in, gentle reader. You watch. You laugh. You buy aΩordably priced merchandise.

New episodes of Frisky Dingo premiere this month on Adult Swim, and Season One is slated for DVD release March 25.

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