Good things sometimes happen when you behave in a geeky and enthusiastic fashion. For example, from the minute I heard that four brand-new Futurama movies were going into production, I wet myself a little and then went insane. (Examples of the aforementioned insanity can be found here, here and here.) So not too long ago, I got an email asking if I'd like to express my Futurama obsession in the form of an interview piece, I said "Yes!" Which is how I got to ask a bunch of questions to:
- Claudia Katz -- Partner at Rough Draft Studios and producer of the Futurama movies and TV series.
- Dwayne Carey-Hill -- Director of Futurama movies one (Bender's Big Score!) and three (Bender's Game) and season four of the TV series.
- Peter Avanzino – director of Futurama movies two (The Beast with a Billion Backs) and four (Into the Wild Green Yonder) and seasons one through four of the TV series.
Not bad, eh? So knowing that I was about to chit-chat with three of the more "hands-on" creators, I set out to create some questions that were as interesting as they were amusing. So here's how the conversation(s) went down!
Futurama freaking rocks. Everyone in the universe knows this -- except for the small handful of people who used to work at Fox who canceled it. How painful was it when the final news came down? Did anyone make a beeline for the prototype suicide booth? At that point, did anyone hold out any (REALISTIC) hope that the series would be re-born in some fashion?
Claudia Katz: Well, the sad truth is it took a very long time for the news to officially come down. And even then we were lodged in limbo (between no pick-up and not canceled) and eventually got the hint. I believe, after what seemed like an eternity, they let Matt [Groening] know we were not getting a pick-up "for now," and we all figured it was time to move on. Before we reached this point, I felt it was a good idea to remove the studio's suicide booth. In retrospect, I consider this a very prudent decision. By Season 4 we had assembled the perfect crew [but] unfortunately the series came to an end. At Rough Draft we've always held out hope for its return. Right after the series ended, there was some brief talk of a possible theatrical Futurama feature. This, of course, is my new Futurama hope!
Dwayne Carey-Hill: Futurama came to an end in such a non-definitive way that there was a lot more standing around scratching heads than there was taking of one's own life. It was more like the ending to our Halloween parties. You don't want it to end and a lot of people hang around talking and laughing. But eventually, all the conversations come to an uncomfortable end and everybody just turns and goes their own separate ways.
How many DVDs had to sell before someone (new) at Fox said "Heyyyy, there's still some more money to be made here! Someone politely get Matt Groening on the phone!"? When discussing the new Futurama projects, does the word "vindicated" come up very often? Is it pretty much the same crew from the series that's working on the movies? And do you haze the newbies like in a frat house?
CK: It's very hard to get the numbers on DVD sales, but clearly for Fox to consider producing more, they must have sold well. Understandably for Fox, it come down to a business decision, and we're thrilled they decided to go ahead with the DVDs. We've always had a great relationship with Matt, David [X. Cohen] and the writers, and this time around there's also been a great collaboration with the Studio (Fox). We feel vindicated, but more importantly, it feels like you can go home again. As far as the crew, we're super-fortunate to have a lot of great return talent. In addition to the other Rough Draft partners Rich Moore, Gregg Vanzo and Scott Vanzo, both Dwayne Carey-Hill and Peter Avanzino who directed on the series are back. Scott is back as the head of CG, as well as our lead CG artist Eric Whited. Our color supervisor Samantha Harrison and colorist Rachel Stratton returned, as well as our digital producer, Geraldine Symon, and our associate producer Elise Belknap. Luckily some layout artists returned, but we geared up for the DVDs in the midst of production on The Simpsons Movie. So we hired a largely new crew, which was some initial cause for concern, but they've done an incredible job. I can't release any exact hazing details, but we try to curtail them to activities that don't leave any marks or cause lifelong therapy needs.
DCH: We have a great sense of pride as to how well the series turned out and a bunch of us, still working at Rough Draft, knew what it took to get these done. So there was the feeling that when doing these DVDs that we should push what we had done even further. We managed to bring back about a third of the old crew and the new people have proved to be great artists as well. We all had to hit the ground running so the normal hazing rituals have been put aside for now.
Hypnotoad tells us that there will soon be four (4!) feature-length Futurama movies on the DVD market. Was this the original plan for the series' resurrection? Did someone maybe float the idea of a new season instead? Did that one dreamer in the corner say "Yeah, or maybe a theatrical movie!"
CK: The first DVD will be released November 27, 2007. I'm not sure of the exact release dates for the next three, I believe Spring 2008 is when the second should hit stores. Regarding the theatrical release, I am that dreamer! I think in many ways, okay, in every way, Futurama is incredibly well suited for features. I'm talking franchise if anyone's listening.
DCH: Hypnotoad talks too much and should learn when to keep his big mouth shut.
It's been widely reported by several geeks (like me) that these new-fangled Futurama movies will eventually hit cable television in episode form. Explain this process while not confusing anyone.
CK: While the DVDs have been written and produced as "features,"I believe the intention is to create four new episodes from each DVD movie.
It's a well-known FACT that Futurama offered the prettiest animation anywhere on network TV. What can fans expect from the new movies? Will we get a few more of those mega-nifty 3-D sequences like the time Bender's head drove a car? Man, that was cool. Surprise guests? Shocking deaths? The return of Slurms McKenzie perhaps?
CK: Thanks. What a great compliment. We're trying to evolve from pretty to beautiful. There are definitely some more great 3-D sequences, perhaps the best Futurama space battle ever, and many more fun surprises and deaths.
DCH: Fans can expect some more pretty animation, 2-D as well as 3-D sequences. The writers gave us four really ambitious scripts and I feel like we've been able to do them justice.
Will the new Futurama movies have a "connective arc," as it were? Like, if Bender's Big Score is Star Wars, will The Beast With a Billion Backs be ... The Phantom Menace? (OK, bad example.) Or are they more "stand-alone" movies in which stand-alone crazy things happen and then end? I just wanna know if Kif and Amy get married, OK? Jeez.
DCH: Much like the series, some DVDs connect and some are stand-alone. I won't talk about specifics but love is in the air.
Which Futurama character is the most fun to draw? Seriously, it's got to be Horrible Gelatinous Blob, right? Between the four seasons and the four movies, what are the toughest sequences to animate? (Action scenes, musical numbers, crowd shots, Umbriel's bedroom?) And how do you keep coming up with new robot designs?
DCH: I think the Professor is the most fun to draw, maybe Bender. Toughest scenes to animate? Crowd shots get the biggest grumbles because you can see what hell lies ahead. And there's a lot of them. The scenes where you're trying to convey real human emotions, however, definitely present the greatest challenges. It's really satisfying when they're done right and that is the stuff that I think makes Futurama a cut above.
Peter Avanzino: I like a challenge, so action sequences, musical numbers, (not crowd scenes), new locations, are all fun to figure out. The real fun comes, though, when you get a show that has all of them at once. Take Parasites Lost, for example. It has microscopic characters inside a human body, a 3-D colonoscopy, a sword fight, a holophoner sequence (involving otters and characters dancing on Saturn's rings), some sweet sweet lovemaking, and a space-truck stop. All in 22 minutes! Thank god there was no Busby Berkely Worm dance number. And Horrible Gelatinous Blob is a huge pain in the ass to draw. Roberto the Robot is the funnest.
What's a normal day at work over at Rough Draft Studios like? How's the coffee? Is there a casual Friday? Obviously what you do takes a lot of skill, practice and experience, but just admit it already: animation is fun!
CK: Well, let's face it, normal is a relative term, we like to think of Rough Draft as a Work Hard / Play Hard Studio. I think we produce some of the best-looking animation out there and yet find time to throw the best Halloween party in town. Our crew gifts aren't bad either! Ah, the coffee. We take our coffee pretty seriously here at Rough Draft. We finally found the perfect coffee, Intelligentsia's House Blend -- which we have flown in every two weeks from Chicago. If someone makes a weak pot of coffee, the punishment can be far worse than even the roughest hazing! As far as wardrobe, for the most part every day is casual Friday. As the producer, I try to respect some basic level of decorum, but I'm pretty much alone in that.
PA: First I go to work. Then I look at scenes. Then I eat lunch. Then I look at scenes. Then I go home. Seriously, though. The coffee's OK. Everyday is Casual Friday, except Friday, which is casual, but we don't call it Casual Friday, because who needs five Casual Fridays in one week? And, yes, animation is fun. Time-consuming, soul-draining, back-breaking, thankless fun.
DCH: A normal day is very busy. Futurama doesn't draw itself. There are a lot of people putting in long hours to make sure these DVDs look great. The coffee, by the way, is fantastic and not by accident. It has has taken Scott Vanzo a lot of years and equally as many variety of beans to get it just right. Thanks, Scott. Is animation fun? To quote my wife Tricia, " cartoons are hard." It is a lot of work to do any animated project well and so I feel we've been very fortunate to work on things we really like.
Explain how the magic of computers makes Futurama possible. For example, how long would it have taken to produce Bender's Big Score if you were making it in ... 1963?
CK: Ultimately, Futurama relies on a fair amount of sci-fi conventions. From the beginning, we knew space, the ships, and the battles had to look awesome -- or suffer the fans' wrath. This would be impossible on a TV schedule and budget without the 3-D. That said, I think good storytelling and filmmaking are far more important than the medium you choose to work in.
DCH: Regarding 2-D animation, the computer has allowed us to try more and more complex shots and rework things like color, composition and even the re-timing of animation. We would never be able to do this if we weren't working in a digital format. As far as how long it would take, I'm guessing the production schedule would remain the same so we just would never be able to try the kinds of things we're doing. Of course 3-D animation is not the way Disney's animators did it. The process is very different. But our 3-D department has always worked right along with us with the same goals. We want to use the computer to its fullest extent to make things look great. We sit down together to figure out how the 3-D animation will serve the show best. That could be a small bouncing, rolling die or a giant space battle for the control of Earth. And still retain the look of a hand drawn show. I think the 3-D department does an incredible job. In the end, even though the process may be different, I think we're all still trying to do great animation.
PA: Instead of comparing how computers have made my life easier since 1963, I'll compare it to 10 years ago. Just having a computer on my desk helps me, as a director, because I can do more things more quickly. I can review and give notes on designs, animatics, color footage. I can look for any reference footage or image I need via the internet. (Visual Dictionaries, anyone?) I can edit, spot music and sound FX. I can play almost any video game. I have all four seasons on my desktop ready to pull up for reference.
Since geeks love Futurama, they'd probably like to know that Rough Draft also animated the rather cool Clone Wars shorts. Explain how a project like that differs from Futurama, and I don't just mean "there's less jokes."
CK: On Futurama, we are responsible for the entire animation production of the series. Clone Wars was a collaboration between Cartoon Network and Rough Draft Studios. We worked on the 3-D animation and our sister studio, Rough Draft Korea, worked on the overseas animation. The pre-production for the 2-D was produced at Cartoon Network in Burbank. Oh yeah, and the joke quotient is a big difference as well.
Explain why the sickeningly clever Roswell That Ends Well holds a special place in the collective heart of the Rough Draft crew. (And congrats. It really is a superlative episode on all counts.)
CK: Roswell is one my top three episodes of all time. Made great of course by our very own Rich Moore, as well as our fantastic crew. It was also the studio's first Emmy Award. After several nominations and no wins, I was sure we would never get that Emmy. That year I persuaded the writers (mostly because they probably agreed anyway) to submit Roswell for Emmy consideration. I remember driving to the Emmys thinking, well at least this year we'll lose on our own terms. When they called out Futurama, I was literally sitting in my chair thinking, well, they didn't say "The" as in The Simpsons. Both Rich Moore and I were so shocked we had to be prodded out of [our] chairs. It was a great night, the only downside was [that] our partner Gregg Vanzo was in Korea. We graciously agreed to hold his Emmy until his return, and Rich and I took turns pretending we won two.
In closing, I submit to you that every one of my readers has $21.50 burning a hole in his pocket. Briefly explain why that money should go towards the purchase of a Bender's Big Score! DVD. Extra points will be awarded awarded for sincerity and enthusiasm.
CK: Well, simply put, the more DVDs people buy, the greater the chance we'll get to make more. And if they sell really well, talk of a Futurama movie may surface. So lets not think a mere $21.50; real fans should think about buying more than one copy!
DCH: You should buy this because it's good. Real good. And as far as I can tell George W. had nothing to do with it.
Bender's Big Score! hits the shelves on November 27. (Expect a review soon!) Three sequels are guaranteed to follow. Enjoy!