In a lot of ways, Robot Chicken is constructed in a fashion similar to other animated shows. Scripts are visualized as storyboards. An animatic is then made to guide the whole team through the episode. The difference is simply the nature of stop motion animation.
“Animation forms like CG or 2D animation have the ability to be extremely controlled,” says Animation Supervisor Alex Kamer. “With stop motion, you have a plan but when you actually move into execute it, you’re moving into 3D space and objects that are affected by gravity.”
In a show like Robot Chicken, where there are action-packed, gravity defying scenes, that makes a difference. With other kinds of animation, if you want an epic, bloody brawl, you can draw it. With stop motion, you have to figure out how to make that happen in real life with toylike figure. Kamer and Norton constantly discuss the technicalities of breathing life into the puppets. What kind of ridiculous torture can a puppet endure? How long did it take to make the puppet and can they do another one if needed? Those are the kind of issues constantly present on the set of Robot Chicken. Every move of the characters on this show is dictated both by script and by the capabilities of the fabricators and animators. “It’s a very circumstantial form of animation,” says Kamer.
Down in the animation department, Helder K. Sun is running between stages. He’s the Director of Photography, an important player in the stop motion process. This type of animation is heavily reliant on photography.
The stages here are small, about the size of a closet, and cloaked in thick, black fabric. The stage itself is more like a table filled with tiny scenery and tiny puppets. An animator will pose and repose the characters, all the while shooting still photographs. They shoot 30 frames per second using Canon Digital SLR cameras. They also use software called Dragonframe, the same program used for ParaNorman and Tim Burton’s forthcoming film Frankenweenie. With this software, the animators are able to see the results of their work immediately. Given the amount of work involved in stop motion and their relatively short time frame, this is really helpful. Animators can spend entire days working on a sequence no longer than a channel flip. “If something bad happens,” says Sun, “we want to know right away.”
There’s a lot of effort that goes into those blink-and-you-might-miss-it moments that make Robot Chicken so fun. No doubt, the work here is intense, but, it’s worth it. “We’re playing with toys. That’s the thing that we’re always reminded ourselves,” says Senreich. “For as grueling and long as the days are, we’re playing with toys.”
The story’s over, but the photos continue. See the next page for more behind-the-scenes photos from Stoopid Buddy Stoodios.