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

May 1, 1998 12:00 PM, Matt Cheplic


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No one is safe. Not on South Park. Not third-graders Stan, Kyle, and Cartman, who confront alien visitors, decimated brain-eating zombies, and Death himself. Not their friend Kenny--he gets killed in every episode, his carcass carted off by scurrying rats. Not the townspeople, who battle vicious, genetically-engineered turkeys; narrowly escape molten lava; and host a boxing match between Jesus Christ (weighing in at 140 pounds) and Satan (320 pounds, 4 ounces). Amazingly, for all its self-conscious offensiveness, the show has generated little negative attention.

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

South Park was born as The Spirit of Christmas, a five-minute short in which Santa Claus and Jesus use hand-to-hand combat to determine who truly reigns over the holiday. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone cut their characters and backgrounds out of construction paper and filmed the show stop-motion. The short gained underground popularity on the Hollywood producer/agent circuit and is now a cherished item among hardcore fans, who download it from the Internet.

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

"We have the technology, and our animators have the skills to do 3-D," says supervising producer Anne Garefino. "We don't want it to look computery," agrees director of animation Eric Stough, who's been on board since the pilot. "We want it to look as crappy as possible."

That would make Westwood, California, Crap Central. It's in Westwood that Stone and Parker have their offices, in the same complex where the animation and audio for the show are produced and posted.

To keep it "crappy," the animators took Parker's original construction paper cutouts, scanned them into the computer, and built exact replicas in Alias|Wavefront. "Trey drew all the original characters in Corel Draw," says Stough. "We actually take those illustrator curves directly into Alias PowerAnimator 8.5 and build what we call smart puppets."

With the characters constructed, Stough and company then tap into the Expressions function of Alias to manipulate specific body movements. "We animate all the visibility-the front heads, the side heads, the mouths-they're all on these little sliders you push back and forth which make 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 Alias for such a 2-D show-it's like swatting a house fly with a nuclear bomb. But it was the package that made the show look as much like construction paper as possible. And if you watch the pilot, there's a lot of shadows that stick out. Alias has the best shadow and ray casting, so it looks like construction paper sitting on a camera stand."

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

"We used the lighting effects in Alias for that scene," says Stough. "One of our technical directors took about half a day to set that up." The same Alias function supplements a musical number by the school's Chef in the episode "Damien." Voiced by Issac Hayes, Chef might be the only level-headed adult in town, a guru in a greasy apron. His only caveat (excepting, perhaps, that he calls the kids his "little crackers") is spontaneously breaking into sexually explicit song while the boys wait for his wisdom. In "Damien," Stough explains: "It breaks out into a '70s-type psychedelic 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 become a 20-story-high menace-only to be foiled by mecha-version of The Cure's Robert Smith. "It involved some cheesy Godzilla effects-laser beam-type stuff-and we added a glow to those in Alias, too."

"Mecha-Streisand," which aired in March, beamed into 3.2 million households, according to Nielsen ratings. Not surprisingly, Garefino reveals the series has been picked up for 20 new shows. The first of the new season aired in April, followed by six more new episodes starting this month. All of which means things are getting busy at South Park headquarters.

Here's how the work takes shape: After each script is complete, the storyboard process begins, which typically takes from a week to a week and a half. Simultaneously, Parker will draw the new characters and backgrounds introduced in the episode (Stough will often realize the construction paper versions). From there, Parker and Stone record the voices while animators cut an animatic, scanning the boards into the Avid and cutting storyboard frames to the voices. That provides the template for the show.

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

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

At this point, the mouths have also been animated by the lip synchers, who work with the exposure sheets (dialogue cut down frame-by-frame) to decide which mouths are to be used and how to time those out correctly. The animators 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 and loaded into an Avid Media Composer for assembly. Everything but color correction is done in-house, and not once is the animation filmed or videotaped.

"The helpful thing about doing it in the computer rather than under a camera stand is that Trey will fix things-he might want a character to turn his head halfway through a shot-and we can reuse all the other animation-all we have to do is change that one head," says Stough.

Besides Alias, the animators also rely on Adobe Photoshop, most noticeably for the kids' classroom. The writing on the chalkboard is created in Photoshop, as are the real photos-although all people and things in South Park appear spawned by a third grade art class, all photographs are actual filmed images. Says Stough: "Every once in a while, I get out of the office and take pictures."

Photoshop also figures in Kenny's oft-seen blood, although that wasn't always the way. "Originally, we would take a Sharpie underneath the camera stand, draw a dot, make a bigger dot two frames later, and make the Sharpie kind of bleed. I do that in Photoshop now and transfer that onto an animated 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 show one of a kind. The voice of Eric Cartman -delivered by Parker-alternately whining, taunting, or shrieking in protest, is worth the trip alone, especially when serving up such nuggets as: "Too bad drinking scotch isn't a paying job or Kenny's dad would be a millionaire."

Audio producer Bruce Howell has the task of working on a show where audio isn't really produced as much as it's contained. Consider: While most engineers are always seeking crystal-clear performances, Howell has to capture the voice of Kenny, whose speech is rendered inaudible to the viewer by his ultra-tight winter hood. Of course, his pals can understand him, 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 subject presents itself.

"Matt does Kenny's voice," reports Howell, who adds that Stone used to trade off with Parker. Stone delivers Kenny lines-all of them improvised on the spot-into his hand. (Listen closely to Kenny's line in the opening theme 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, and several others. Stone's other main characters include Kyle and Jesus (Christ has a recurring role; when he's not defending his crown in the ring, he hosts Jesus and Pals, a local call-in show).

An actress named Shannon Cassidy performs most female voices, such as the mayor, the kids' moms, and Stan's quasi-girlfriend, Wendy. Although, Howell says, "Sometimes, Matt and Trey will do the female voices temp, and they're so 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's character, Chef. The 70s icon of soul who gave the world Hot Buttered Soul and Shaft!, records his parts to DAT in New York, with Stone and Parker directing over the phone. The tape then gets rushed to Westwood.

Naturally, Hayes will record his vocals for the original Chef songs in New York, as well. Says Howell: "We have to come up with the concept, record it, 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 rhythm tracks for the Chef songs. Howell, who records dialogue directly to hard disk, says, "I go to [Tascam] DA-88 for that [musical] stuff, because it takes up a lot of hard drive space." He'll also go back and overdub guitar parts.

One person besides Hayes provided a remote recording for the show: Mike Judge was the original voice for the title character in "Damien." But Howell recalls: "There just wasn't enough time to edit him in."

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

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

If anything, Howell's job at South Park should afford him more impromptu studio time with Jesse: His production schedule on the show whizzes by like Ike after one of Kyle's kicks.

"I used to work at another cartoon house, where we did three 10-minute episodes in six hours," Howell says. "Then I got here, and they did a 20-minute cartoon in about 35 minutes." He adds, chuckling: "Their goal is to do it in real time."


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© 2009 Penton Media, Inc.

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