For those of us who grew up in the 1980s, who doesn’t have fond memories of playing with action figures? Whether you were plotting elaborate battles and all-out dirt mound warfare with GI Joe and Star Wars characters, or continuing the adventures of She-Ra and Strawberry Shortcake, those toys were a big part of our childhood.
Today, some lucky — and very talented — people still get to play with those toys, and get paid for it. Breathing life into these inanimate objects, the hit Adult Swim TV show Robot Chicken resurrects classic action figures and projects them into wild scenarios, or the everyday mundane world of real life, making for some side-splittingly hilarious situations.
Marking the end of the special exhibit "Between Frames: The Magic Behind Stop Motion Animation at the Walt Disney Family Museum," the creative team behind the show is coming to the city this weekend for several special events celebrating their craft. Seth Green, Matthew Senreich, John Harvatine IV, Eric Towner, and Alex Kamer will be on hand Fri/26 for an after-hours party featuring food, drinks, an audience Q&A and screenings of behind the scenes footage, and then on Saturday for a special animation workshop followed by a panel discussion.
“When the Walt Disney Family Museum reached out to us as they were starting to work on the stop motion exhibit, it was one of those surreal moments — they were talking about what they were looking to do for this exhibit, and mentioned how Gumby was going to be a part of it, and they were going to have pieces from movies like Nightmare Before Christmas, and wanted television shows like Robot Chicken — we had that moment where we were like, ‘Wait, why are you including us?’” laughs Senreich, co-creator, producer and writer for the show.
“So we had to slap ourselves, and go, ‘Well I guess this is going to happen!’ It was very surreal and amazing, and they’ve been so good to us.”
The creative group behind Robot Chicken all first met when most of them worked at Wizard Magazine, a now-defunct publication that covered comic books and toys. Green was a fan of the magazine, and after meeting Senreich they became friends. They came up with the idea for the show “after many years of just geeking out over things. For us, this is what we live for; we were the people going to Comic Con before it turned into the event that it is now, we’re the ones who are still going to the small or cult comic shows. I want to find the random bootleg thing, that’s the stuff I love,” says Senreich.
When the group first started working on Robot Chicken, which premiered in 2005, they had never really worked with stop motion animation themselves, and after a few mostly failing attempts, gathered a team of professionals to help out. The animation technique — where an object is photographed one frame at a time, and gradually moved each time to create the illusion of actual movement — has a long and influential history in filmmaking, but is an incredibly time-consuming and detail-oriented art form.
“You come to appreciate what these animators do every day and the patience that they have, and you realize that they are actors and their performance either makes or breaks the stuff that you write,” says Senreich.
Although he can’t give an exact estimate of how much time is spent producing one particular episode of the show, as many multiple skits and shows are being made at once, Senreich says that they currently turn out about 20 episodes in 11 months. “We try to write as many episodes ahead of time as possible — what slows down stop motion is having to take a set off the stage, put a new set up, re-light it, re-configure it to get it ready for the next shot. If we can keep the lighting the same, and we can maintain a set that’s there, it simplifies the process.”
He adds, “If we have say 15 bathroom shots over the course of 20 episodes, we’ll keep the bathroom on the stage as long as we can and shoot all of those bathroom shots in order.”
In this day and age where so much of the work that goes into Hollywood productions is shipped overseas, or done in several places around the country, the Robot Chicken team keeps it all close to home in Southern California. “We have two buildings in Burbank where we’ll do everything from the storyboards to the building of the sets and puppets to the animation, and we have a voice booth. With the exception of our sound mixing, which is done literally down the block — everything is done in-house,” says Senreich.
Coming up with hilarious scenarios and which toys or characters to use in them is all part of the fun of working on the show. “What I like about our group of writers is that it’s a bunch of friends trying to make each other laugh; it’s really just whatever we find funny for the day, or what a topic of conversation has been about, that’s where things start. We like to take these very grandiose worlds and just find the very simple and mundane within them, I think that’s what makes it relatable — if you can have Thundercats and simplify Lion-O to just being a cat, and being treated as such, where a spray bottle will affect him, there’s something fun about that.”
One of the toy realms that has been featured prominently on Robot Chicken over the years has been Star Wars. The first bit they did revolved around Emperor Palpatine getting a phone call from Darth Vader after the Death Star had been destroyed — and it immediately got the attention of Lucasfilm.
“We did that ‘Emperor's Phone Call’ sketch, and right after it aired, the phone rang and the caller ID said ‘Lucasfilm,’ I thought, ‘Oh God, we’re going to get sued!’ But it turned out that George Lucas and some other people at the company had seen the show and liked it; they were calling to invite them to come take a tour of Skywalker Ranch. While there, Senreich threw out the idea of doing an entire Robot Chicken special centered around Star Wars, and within three weeks they were up and running.
“Meeting George was an experience; I was tongue-tied, and probably made a fool of myself — but now I’m the guy who can talk to him and go, ‘I don’t like that idea, George.’ It’s really nice to have that kind of relationship — he’s the first person to say back to me, ‘Well I don’t like this idea either,’ and we can have those kinds of creative conversations and we respect each other in that way, and it’s really nice,” says Senreich.
After this weekend’s festivities in San Francisco, Senreich and crew will head back to Los Angeles to start working on season seven of Robot Chicken. They'll also be announcing several other upcoming projects in the near future. While his plate is full of work at the moment, and his schedule can be hectic at times, Senreich takes a laid-back approach when thinking about it all.
“The thing that we always come back to is that we’re playing with toys! There’s the pressure of deadlines and all of that, but you can’t get away from the fact that if the biggest stress is looking at a Star Wars figure and trying to figure out a way to make it funny, that’s not that bad!”
Robot Chicken and Stoopid Buddy Stoodios events
Fri/26, 7pm; Sat/27, 10am and 2pm, $8-$60
Walt Disney Family Museum
104 Montgomery, SF