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“As Crappy As Possible”: The Method Behind the Madness of South Park

No one is safe. Not on South Park. Not third-graders Stan, Kyle, andCartman, who confront alien visitors, decimated brain-eating zombies, andDeath himself. Not their friend Kenny–he gets killed in every episode, hiscarcass carted off by scurrying rats. Not the townspeople, who battlevicious, genetically-engineered turkeys; narrowly escape molten lava; andhost a boxing match between Jesus Christ (weighing in at 140 pounds) andSatan (320 pounds, 4 ounces). Amazingly, for all its self-consciousoffensiveness, the show has generated little negative attention.

Subjects ethnic, religious, sexual, political-it’s all fair game for theshow’s creators. And like the stray gunfire that claims Kenny in theepisode Volcano, the jokes hit all targets and tastes, from smart mediasatire down to the raw juvenilia of Terrance and Philip, the boys’ favoriteshow, which subsists on the slings and arrows of outrageous flatulence. Andthe humor isn’t all that’s crude. So is the animation.

South Park was born as The Spirit of Christmas, a five-minute short inwhich Santa Claus and Jesus use hand-to-hand combat to determine who trulyreigns over the holiday. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone cut theircharacters and backgrounds out of construction paper and filmed the showstop-motion. The short gained underground popularity on the Hollywoodproducer/agent circuit and is now a cherished item among hardcore fans, whodownload it from the Internet.

Now a weekly series in its second season on Comedy Central, South Park istoned down. Slightly. More importantly, it is the reverse image of mostcurrent animation. While most shows cut corners and milk practicaltechniques to mock up the look of more advanced, more expensive animation,the South Park crew actually uses high-end software and hardware to makethe show look cheap and amateurish.

“We have the technology, and our animators have the skills to do 3-D,” sayssupervising producer Anne Garefino. “We don’t want it to look computery,”agrees director of animation Eric Stough, who’s been on board since thepilot. “We want it to look as crappy as possible.”

That would make Westwood, California, Crap Central. It’s in Westwood thatStone and Parker have their offices, in the same complex where theanimation and audio for the show are produced and posted.

To keep it “crappy,” the animators took Parker’s original constructionpaper cutouts, scanned them into the computer, and built exact replicas inAlias|Wavefront. “Trey drew all the original characters in Corel Draw,”says Stough. “We actually take those illustrator curves directly into AliasPowerAnimator 8.5 and build what we call smart puppets.”

With the characters constructed, Stough and company then tap into theExpressions function of Alias to manipulate specific body movements. “Weanimate all the visibility-the front heads, the side heads, themouths-they’re all on these little sliders you push back and forth whichmake different mouths visible.” To keep up with the fast turnaround needed,the production department relies on a variety of SGI boxes.

Stough remembers: “When we started, people asked us why we were using Aliasfor such a 2-D show-it’s like swatting a house fly with a nuclear bomb. Butit was the package that made the show look as much like construction paperas possible. And if you watch the pilot, there’s a lot of shadows thatstick out. Alias has the best shadow and ray casting, so it looks likeconstruction paper sitting on a camera stand.”

The animators will occasionally use Alias for effects, as well. In theHalloween episode, Pinkeye, Kenny becomes a zombie and bites a chunk out ofanother student. The boy’s blood was treated to a pulsating glow effect. AnAlias effect also enhanced the much-heralded Big Gay Al’s Big Gay BoatRide, in which Stan’s gay dog is outcast and finds sanctuary at a refugefor other persecuted pets. When Big Gay Al shows Stan his disco club(obvious, yes, but undeniably funny), a complex scheme of lightselectrifies the dance floor.

“We used the lighting effects in Alias for that scene,” says Stough. “Oneof our technical directors took about half a day to set that up.” The sameAlias function supplements a musical number by the school’s Chef in theepisode “Damien.” Voiced by Issac Hayes, Chef might be the onlylevel-headed adult in town, a guru in a greasy apron. His only caveat(excepting, perhaps, that he calls the kids his “little crackers”) isspontaneously breaking into sexually explicit song while the boys wait forhis wisdom. In “Damien,” Stough explains: “It breaks out into a ’70s-typepsychedelic thing. He gets into it so much, disco lights come on.”

Stough also recalls PowerAnimator’s role in the “Mecha-Streisand” episode,in which Barbra Streisand procures two ancient mystical triangles to becomea 20-story-high menace-only to be foiled by mecha-version of The Cure’sRobert Smith. “It involved some cheesy Godzilla effects-laser beam-typestuff-and we added a glow to those in Alias, too.”

“Mecha-Streisand,” which aired in March, beamed into 3.2 millionhouseholds, according to Nielsen ratings. Not surprisingly, Garefinoreveals the series has been picked up for 20 new shows. The first of thenew season aired in April, followed by six more new episodes starting thismonth. All of which means things are getting busy at South Parkheadquarters.

Here’s how the work takes shape: After each script is complete, thestoryboard process begins, which typically takes from a week to a week anda half. Simultaneously, Parker will draw the new characters and backgroundsintroduced in the episode (Stough will often realize the construction paperversions). From there, Parker and Stone record the voices while animatorscut an animatic, scanning the boards into the Avid and cutting storyboardframes to the voices. That provides the template for the show.

“Then I get the boards cut to the animatic,” says Stough. “I go through theboards to make sure all the staging is going to work right and all thebackgrounds match. Then I write notes for the technical directors, tellingthem what backgrounds they can recycle from previous episodes.”

The animators inherit layout, backgrounds, and props from the technicaldirectors (the TDs typically take about three weeks to set up all the shotsfor a single episode).

At this point, the mouths have also been animated by the lip synchers, whowork with the exposure sheets (dialogue cut down frame-by-frame) to decidewhich mouths are to be used and how to time those out correctly. Theanimators then refine the timing and breathe life into facial expressions,walking, and head bobs, for instance, about a three-week process.

The frames are then rendered out, sent through an Accom WSD Extreme 1 andloaded into an Avid Media Composer for assembly. Everything but colorcorrection is done in-house, and not once is the animation filmed orvideotaped.

“The helpful thing about doing it in the computer rather than under acamera stand is that Trey will fix things-he might want a character to turnhis head halfway through a shot-and we can reuse all the otheranimation-all we have to do is change that one head,” says Stough.

Besides Alias, the animators also rely on Adobe Photoshop, most noticeablyfor the kids’ classroom. The writing on the chalkboard is created inPhotoshop, as are the real photos-although all people and things in SouthPark appear spawned by a third grade art class, all photographs are actualfilmed images. Says Stough: “Every once in a while, I get out of the officeand take pictures.”

Photoshop also figures in Kenny’s oft-seen blood, although that wasn’talways the way. “Originally, we would take a Sharpie underneath the camerastand, draw a dot, make a bigger dot two frames later, and make the Sharpiekind of bleed. I do that in Photoshop now and transfer that onto ananimated texture map in Alias.”

Still, looks aren’t everything. And any South Park diehard will tell you,it’s how the characters talk the talk-not walk the walk-that makes the showone of a kind. The voice of Eric Cartman -delivered by Parker-alternatelywhining, taunting, or shrieking in protest, is worth the trip alone,especially when serving up such nuggets as: “Too bad drinking scotch isn’ta paying job or Kenny’s dad would be a millionaire.”

Audio producer Bruce Howell has the task of working on a show where audioisn’t really produced as much as it’s contained. Consider: While mostengineers are always seeking crystal-clear performances, Howell has tocapture the voice of Kenny, whose speech is rendered inaudible to theviewer by his ultra-tight winter hood. Of course, his pals can understandhim, and much to their delight, little Kenny has one filthy mouth. In fact,the other kids will often defer to Kenny when a baffling, adult subjectpresents itself.

“Matt does Kenny’s voice,” reports Howell, who adds that Stone used totrade off with Parker. Stone delivers Kenny lines-all of them improvised onthe spot-into his hand. (Listen closely to Kenny’s line in the openingtheme song to learn what type of girl he likes.)

Parker and Stone actually handle the lion’s share of the voice work.Besides Cartman, Parker plays Stan, Officer Barbrady, Mr. Garrison, andseveral others. Stone’s other main characters include Kyle and Jesus(Christ has a recurring role; when he’s not defending his crown in thering, he hosts Jesus and Pals, a local call-in show).

An actress named Shannon Cassidy performs most female voices, such as themayor, the kids’ moms, and Stan’s quasi-girlfriend, Wendy. Although, Howellsays, “Sometimes, Matt and Trey will do the female voices temp, and they’reso funny I’ll keep them; I’ll speed them up and make them sound like girls.”

Probably the farthest thing from a girl’s voice is that of Issac Hayes’scharacter, Chef. The 70s icon of soul who gave the world Hot Buttered Souland Shaft!, records his parts to DAT in New York, with Stone and Parkerdirecting over the phone. The tape then gets rushed to Westwood.

Naturally, Hayes will record his vocals for the original Chef songs in NewYork, as well. Says Howell: “We have to come up with the concept, recordit, and put a melody on the left side of a DAT. Then we send it to Issac,and he cuts his vocal on the right side of the DAT and sends it back.”

Howell, Parker, and Stone will actually become the South Park house band,grabbing a bass, keyboard, and drum set, respectively, to record the rhythmtracks for the Chef songs. Howell, who records dialogue directly to harddisk, says, “I go to [Tascam] DA-88 for that [musical] stuff, because ittakes up a lot of hard drive space.” He’ll also go back and overdub guitarparts.

One person besides Hayes provided a remote recording for the show: MikeJudge was the original voice for the title character in “Damien.” ButHowell recalls: “There just wasn’t enough time to edit him in.”

Howell, who edits in AudioVision software, took the whole concept of audioproduction to a new level for South Park. That is to say, he produced oneof the voiceover artists. Ike, Kyle’s little brother (and erstwhilefootball), is voiced by Howell’s 5-year-old son, Jesse.

“Three years ago, I put this really beautiful mic on him and interviewedhim for about 20 minutes,” Howell recalls. “I just chopped up thatinterview, and I use it for Ike. A lot of the stuff comes from me askinghim about the circus or what toys he has.”

If anything, Howell’s job at South Park should afford him more impromptustudio time with Jesse: His production schedule on the show whizzes by likeIke after one of Kyle’s kicks.

“I used to work at another cartoon house, where we did three 10-minuteepisodes in six hours,” Howell says. “Then I got here, and they did a20-minute cartoon in about 35 minutes.” He adds, chuckling: “Their goal isto do it in real time.”