Sep 142012

John Harvatine IV

Eric Towner

Inside an office next to the one Senreich and Green share are John Harvatine IV and Eric Towner. They met during Robot Chicken‘s second season, when they were both working as animators on the show. Both animators, who got their start making movies with their toys as children, were doing work on the side, so they decided to start their own studio. They launched Buddy Systems in Harvatine’s garage and when they needed offices and a space for post-production, they brought in a Winnebago before moving to a larger studio in North Hollywood. They remained friends with Senreich and Green over the years and an opportunity for a partnership presented itself. Now, the Winnebago is parked indoors, next to the animation stages, and it’s the spot where the Stoopid Buddy team holds its get-togethers. When Stoopid Buddy was ready to open, Harvatine and Towner selected the artists, a mix of veteran Robot Chicken staff and fresh talent that could make the brand new studio a competitive and cutting-edge presence in the animation industry.

Eric Towner and John Harvatine’s original studio location.

Turn just about any corner inside Stoopid Buddy Stoodios and you’ll find something that’s exciting. There’s a lunchroom that doubles as an art gallery and an arcade filled with vintage games. In a room that looks like a candy shop, two girls are making pint-sized costumes. A large warehouse space is filled with shelves of doll-sized props. But, the most interesting room here is the puppet shop, where fabrication artists work at thatched roof tables.

Tennessee Reid Norton is the Head of Character Fabrication. His first job was making heads for Jack Skellington, Sally and the Mayor of Halloween Town for Nightmare Before Christmas and he’s been with Robot Chicken since the second season. His own office is lined with ukuleles and has a tiki bar tucked into a corner.

Tennessee Reid Norton

“We all wish that we were in Hawaii all the time,” he says of the puppet makers. “We try to pretend that we’re not in Burbank, but on the island of Maui or maybe Oahu.”

There are a lot of ukulele players in the department, enough where they can jam together twice a week and put on concerts for the rest of the studio once a month. They’ll occasionally have meetings in tiki bars and have a reputation for being a fun-loving, and loud, department. “We are the department that everybody envies,” Norton says proudly. “We have a lot of fun because we do a lot of really hard work.”

Character fabrication

In truth, the Robot Chicken puppet fabricators have one tough job. They rarely use actual toys on the shows, as those don’t pose well enough to make it through an animated sequence. “Our biggest challenge is fighting gravity and fighting gravity one frame at a time,” Norton explains.

Sometimes, they’re able to modify existing toys into something that can function on camera. Usually, they build from scratch. They produce about 150 puppets for every episode of the show. The workroom is packed with rows of color-coded boxes filled with puppets from previous episodes. Some of those puppets will be refurbished for future episodes. Norton says that about a third of the puppets are what they call “re-uses.”

Delve deeper into the animation studio on the next page.