"Apple Pro" April 04, 2008
By Dustin Driver
You can't talk animation without mentioning Rough Draft Studios. The shop is, in one way or another, behind nearly every major American animated series in the last two decades. The creative powerhouse helped drive the cartoon boom of the late 90s, churning out work for colossally successful toons like The Simpsons, Futurama, Beavis and Butt-head Do America, and Looney Tunes. They also pioneered cutting-edge animation techniques for The Maxx, Star Wars: Clone Wars, Baby Blues, and Spy vs. Spy. ... (read more)
And Rough Draft is still going strong: The studio produced half the animation for The Simpsons Movie, the soon-to-be-released final installments of Futurama, and Comedy Central's Drawn Together. Rough Draft Studios produces a staggering amount of animation - and its assembly line is 100% Mac.
"Macs are extremely flexible, and that's key," says Scott Vanzo, Director of CGI and Chief Technology Officer at Rough Draft. "The work we do involves everything from traditional 2D animation to 3D CGI to video editing. An iMac can be an office machine one day, and the next day it can be put into production. Every Mac in the studio can do what we need it to do. There simply isn't another platform out there that can do as much as the Mac."
Gregg Vanzo founded Rough Draft in a Van Nuys garage in 1991; he and his wife Nikki established Rough Draft Korea in Seoul shortly thereafter. Claudia Katz joined Rough Draft in 1994 to produce The Maxx, and later became a partner. Rich Moore, former director on The Simpsons and supervisor for The Critic, completed the core team in 1995. The studios quickly earned maverick reputations for their work on edgy shows like The Ren and Stimpy Show and Beavis and Butt-head, as the staff perfected cutting-edge techniques like non-photorealistic 3D rendering
Gregg's brother Scott Vanzo joined the studio in 1993 to set up digital ink-and-paint and camera production facilities. Soon after, he became the head of all things technological, and oversaw the studio's transition from early Silicon Graphics machines to Windows-based PCs to Macs. Today the studio uses Macs in every aspect of production: office work, storyboarding, film editing, and 3D animation.
“We’ve always used Macs, and we have tried to include them in as much of our production as possible,” says Vanzo. “But since the release of OS X, and more recently the incorporation of Intel processors, they’ve represented great flexibility for us. We love Final Cut Studio — we use it for storyboard and layout animatics. QuickTime is the de facto delivery and review medium for our facility. We run Maya on the Mac for our 3D work, and if we need to, we can use Boot Camp to run any Windows-based app.”
This flexibility lets Rough Draft take on virtually any animation project. “We strive to deliver what the client needs and wants,” says Producer and Senior Vice President Claudia Katz. “With some studios, you can recognize their work. The only stamp we want is great quality. To us, Macs are the best way to deliver that quality, because they give us so much freedom.”
Rough Draft has come a long way from that Van Nuys garage. The studio occupies prime real estate in Glendale, CA, and works with a team of highly trained, efficient 2D animators at Rough Draft Korea. Now the studio can take on full-length animated films even while producing weekly series. To get it all done, Rough Draft has developed a slick workflow to crank out project after project without hiccups.
At Rough Draft, the typical animation project starts with an audio file. The studio receives voice tracks from the actors — basically radio plays of the episode or scene. Artists then hash out storyboards, which are scanned and sent back to the directors and writers. Nothing resembling animation appears until the Rough Draft crew cuts animatics — stills set to audio in a video track. To cut the animatics together, they use Final Cut Studio.
“We’ve been using Final Cut to put together animatics for years now,” says Vanzo. “In layout animatics, you have a lot of individual pieces of art that you have to put together in a single frame, but on many different layers. Final Cut is good at editing monolithic pieces of QuickTime, but it can also handle multiple layers of artwork really well. When we have something put together, we export a QuickTime file for the client to review. It couldn’t be easier.”
The approved layout is shipped to Rough Draft Korea, where animators hand-draw every frame, the old fashioned way, on paper. Then they scan and paint each drawing and send the data back to Rough Draft, where it’s composited and edited into a finished product.
“We used Final Cut for Futurama and Drawn Together,” says Vanzo. “With its drag-and-drop features, you can just bring footage right over. In animation, you can often slice, splice, and retime footage to your heart’s content. You can’t do that in live action without making things jump. The editing software needs to be flexible and not bog down. Final Cut makes it a breeze.”
Rough Draft’s 2D workflow is straightforward, but things can get tricky when is involved. And at Rough Draft, there’s no substitute for seamless non-photorealistic rendering, a.k.a. NPR. NPR makes the Planet Express spaceship in Futurama look like hand-drawn animation, and the 3D antics of Bart and Homer in The Simpsons Movie mesh with the toon’s distinctive style.
Rough Draft first used the technique in the groundbreaking animated series The Maxx. “Back then it was unheard of, and the 3D software wasn’t set up to do NPR,” says Vanzo. “We had to make do by blending the 3D with the background. Now most 3D software — like Maya with Mental Ray — has NPR tools built right in, so we can integrate the look with the 2D characters.”
This technique is key to Futurama. “For a sci-fi show you really have to nail space and the ships,” says Katz. “If you don’t have that, it really works against the genre. We felt that if you have 2D animation in the Simpsons style, and then you have shiny, realistic 3D animation, it’s just not going to work. So we developed cell-shaded 3D. In Futurama, it lets us animate things that would be impossible or extremely difficult to animate in 2D and make look good — like cars, and ships, and vehicles that fly and turn in space.”
To process all the 3D footage for shows like Futurama, the Rough Draft team uses an all-Mac render farm. “We work with HD-resolution footage, and we had to set up a render farm for it,” says Vanzo. “We set it up ourselves using Mental Ray and Axceleon EnFuzion. It’s very simple to set up, and extremely flexible. Any of the Mac Pros in our studio can be recruited to work in the render farm with the click of a button. It allows us to scale our processing power for each project, and we’re not wasting resources on dedicated render-farm machines.”
Connecting the Dots
Networking is key to production at Rough Draft. CGI animators and directors produce and swap large images and video files constantly, funneling them over the studio’s high-speed gigabit Ethernet network. There are about 60 machines on the network, each tapped into an Xserve RAID storage system and a couple of Mac Pros running OS X Server. It sounds complicated, but Vanzo set up the infrastructure in a matter of days with no outside technical help.
“I set up the network myself, and it was very straightforward,” says Vanzo. “Keeping things running smoothly is easy. Apart from Mac OS X Server's admin tools, we use Apple Remote Desktop to monitor our servers and all the machines on the network. It lets me log into any machine from my desk, or even from home, and address technical issues. Mac OS X and Mac OS X Server let us have a very small IT staff. I supervise administration in my spare time, and we have one other person who’s dedicated to IT. It’s great. Other places have this gangly IT structure, while we can do it from our desktops very easily without specialized training."
“We’re a small independent studio that works on big things, so we have to run efficiently,” says Katz. “It would be a financial burden to have a big IT staff. For us, it’s about putting every penny on the screen — using our resources to make quality animation. If we spend a lot of time and money on IT infrastructure, it’s not going into our projects.”
Finding the Future
Rough Draft has brought Futurama back from its long slumber in the cryogenic chamber of canceled sci-fi shows. The first of four straight-to-DVD movies, Bender’s Big Score, has already been released — and the next, The Beast with a Billion Backs, is primed to hit the shelves this summer. Rough Draft also continues to work on animated series like Drawn Together. Thankfully, fans seem to have an insatiable need for good animation, and the studio is almost always swamped with work.
“We have a lot of projects going right now, and we’re excited about all of them,” says Katz. “But we’re very excited about developing our own projects. The studio just optioned a novel for the big screen, and we’re working on several series as well.”
It’s a lot of work, but Rough Draft is ready for it. “When I joined the studio, we couldn’t handle this kind of volume and keep producing high-quality work,” she says. “Now, with the Rough Draft team in Korea, our staff here, and our Macs, we can. There’s really no limit to what we can do — I can only imagine what the future will hold for the studio.”
There’s a lot of drudgery in animation. To take away some of the toil, Rough Draft employs AppleScripts and UNIX scripts. “Between AppleScripts and UNIX, we’ve been able to create glue scripts that hold our workflow together,” says Vanzo. “For example, there are numerous scripts we’ve written for converting and exporting all the flavors of QuickTime that we use.” And it doesn’t take a programming whiz to write those scripts. “Automator is a very friendly way for people who aren’t comfortable at the command line to make scripts,” says Vanzo.
“We use FileMaker Pro and FileMaker Pro Server to format, manage, and disseminate our 3D Model Packs — characters, props, background designs,” says Vanzo. “Our directors have access to the database, and there are FileMaker client kiosks in the building for the artists. It lets us perform comprehensive searches of all the designs we’ve ever created. The directors and artists have what they need without having to dig through hard copies. We can export the database as PDF files, and an Automator/UNIX script imports the objects into our digital ink-and-paint system for Rough Draft's color department. It’s a real timesaver.”
It’s hard, if not downright impossible, to grasp animation without seeing it in motion. To show people what he does, Vanzo carries the Rough Draft reel with him — on his iPhone. “It’s pretty exciting to have the company reel on my iPhone,” says Vanzo. “Now I show it to everybody. It’s a big deal for me, because I don’t even carry around business cards, much less have my work to show.”
"Screen Magazine" February 04, 2008
Back To The "Futurama": Rough Draft Studios Updates Animated Series For Home Video Market By Dixon Galvez-Searle
The trailer to the new "Futurama" movie, "Bender's Big Score," opens with a bold claim, but one that hardcore fans can take to heart. "This holiday season, a story that began with the greatest tragedy in television history..." says the narrator as the camera pans past a series of shocked faces. Cut to protagonist Philip J. Fry, who wears a surprised look on his face. "We were cancelled?!" he asks. ... (read more)
"Bender's Big Score" is the first of four feature-length, straight-to-DVD installments of Fox's dearly-departed animated series. Rough Draft Studios (Glendale, Calif.) is slated to produce the remaining three movies, and also worked on "Bender's Big Score," which debuted on DVD November 27. Rough Draft has produced several other high-profile cartoons, including "Beavis and Butt-Head," "Drawn Together," "Ren and Stimpy" and "The Simpson's Movie."
In "Bender's Big Score," Planet Express is taken over by criminals. Bender falls under their command and is used to execute their schemes. "Bender's Big Score" features the same gang from the "Futurama" television series and guest appearances by Al Gore, Coolio and Sarah Silverman.
It's been five years since "Futurama" ceased production. Throughout the series' four-year run on Fox, scheduling changes made it hard for "Futurama" to find a consistent audience. But the show found new life on Cartoon Network, as well as on Comedy Central and through DVD sales.
"It was sort of a tough go when we were on Fox. Comedy Central had it on [the] same night, same time and I think it found a whole new fan base than from Fox," says Rough Draft partner Claudia Katz. "I think that probably led to increased DVD sales [and] at some point [it] made sense from a business model to produce more."
The new straight-to-DVD, feature-length "Futurama" movies are a different beast, just by virtue of their length. Dwayne Carey-Hill, director of "Bender's Big Score," agrees, saying, "It's a much bigger, longer story. It's definitely written as a feature-length story...that was a writing challenge and a directing challenge."
With the time elapsed since the last original "Futurama" production, animation technology has changed. While the television "Futurama" episodes were high-end – specifically in the "revolutionary" blending of 3D and 2D – the five-year time gap poses unique challenges to the new direct-to-DVD "Futurama" movies.
"I can really appreciate how well It's animated and how great it looks," says Carey-Hill.
Despite the five-year gap and the switch from 30-minute episodes to feature length, the "Futurama" creators are maintaining the same ethos as before: "Now a lot more people are [blending 2D and 3D] and I think we felt the need to up the ante a little bit," says Katz. "I think in Dwayne's movie we will probably have, if not the best CG battle, one of the best space battles ever. We just constantly feel the need to challenge ourselves and improve what we're doing."
For "Bender's Big Score" the producers switched from Alias Power Animator to Autodesk Maya. With this switch, producers had to change every single model for the show to fit the new system. Rough Draft Studios also became an entirely Macintosh-based studio for this production.
Fans seem to be enjoying the results of Rough Draft's efforts. "The response has been overwhelmingly positive, which is really nice," says Carey-Hill. "We've been in the top 10 in Amazon. We don't really know what that translates to in numbers, but we're assuming that's pretty good." At press time, "Bender's Big Score" ranked #30 on Amazon.com's best-selling DVD list.
"Animation World Magazine" December 03, 2007
Back to the Futurama: Bender's Big Score By Joe Strike
Futurama is back, and Joe Strike tells us how the TV series found new life on DVD in the new feature release, Bender's Big Score.
When Philip J. Fry stumbled into that cryonic freezing chamber back on New Year's Eve 1999, he had to wait 1,000 years to be defrosted into the world of the far future. On the other hand, when Futurama itself fell into the deep freeze of cancellation, it only took four years for the show to come back to life. Vociferous, dedicated viewers have saved more than one series from cancellation, but it's an exceedingly rare television phenomenon when audience demand puts a cancelled show back into production. ... (read more)
Family Guy blazed that particular trail, vanishing from Fox's Sunday night schedule in 2002 (after a previous cancellation had been reversed at the last minute), only to return three years later when a succession of comedies flopped in its place. Surprisingly strong DVD sales convinced Fox there was still life (and money to be made) in the show and put it back on their Sunday night schedule, where it continues to thrive.
DVD sales also played a big role in Futurama's return. "Fox Home [Ent.] brought up" the idea of a Futurama revival, says Rough Draft Studios' Claudia Katz, one of the producers of the show's triumphant return as the direct-to-video feature Futurama: Bender's Big Score. " Ultimately there was a business model there from Family Guy [also distributed by FHE] and it started to make economic sense for them.
"We're very grateful they decided it was a good idea. They contacted Matt [Groening] and David [X. Cohen, the series' executive producers] with the idea. I think Matt and David went to the meeting hoping Fox was interested in a DTV feature. When they got there, Fox told them 'we're looking at the numbers and it would only make sense if we can do at least two of them.' Matt and David were like, 'oh, okay, that sounds great.' I think that meeting went better than they expected."
As flush as Fox Home's pockets might've been with Family Guy cash, a production partner was still needed. It just so happened that Comedy Central had defeated Adult Swim in a fierce battle for the next round of rerun rights to Futurama, and both it and Family Guy were still attracting healthy audiences. Once they had the reruns locked up (and scheduled to begin airing in January), working out the financing with FHE for new episodes was "easy," according to Dave Bernath, Comedy Central's SVP of programming. "Getting fresh Futurama content was always very exciting for us."
The deal finally took shape: four direct-to-video movies that will be released by FHE, beginning with Big Score this past Tuesday (November 27), followed by three more at several-month intervals in 2008. Ultimately each of the four movies will be cut into half hours that will run on Comedy Central a few months after their DVD release, with the episodic version of Big Score airing sometime during the 1stquarter of 2008.
The next step was pulling together a new crew to work on a show that had been out of production for several years. "I was really the only person on board with what the series was like," says Dwayne Carey Hill, Big Score's director. Hill had been part of the series from the start, first as a designer, then as director of the fourth-season episode "Obsoletely Fabulous." "It was a big learning curve getting everyone on board and getting them to understand the way Matt and David tell a Futurama story.
"We had a great series and all the DVDs to reference. A lot of our crew had been doing storyboard and design on Drawn Together and were using Futurama as a storytelling model anyway; some of them had even worked on Futurama prior to Drawn Together. It helped them to storyboard the way we liked to begin with. Basically it was a crew we were very familiar with, artists we enjoyed working with."
There was no creative interference from FHE or Comedy Central beyond "getting some standards known," as Katz puts it. "Content-wise it was producer driven, which was really nice. They were, 'here, go ahead.'"
It must've been a dream come true for Groening and Cohen, who fought Fox TV executives for creative control of their show since day one, a battle which undoubtedly contributed to the premature end of its broadcast run. Producing the new episodes for home video and basic cable meant the shows could be scripted with the same freedom enjoyed by South Park and Drawn Together. "The movie is looser than the series," Katz acknowledges. "Network standards have tightened quite a bit since we were on, since the Janet Jackson incident. On Fox you can't show Bart's butt crack any more, something they'd been doing for years. Writing them as DVD movies was a little more liberating -- we see more of Fry's ass than we ever have before."
It was also more challenging. "The film has a bigger, more epic story arc," she adds. "Usually you approach a 22-minute episode as a three-act arc, but they're writing it like a movie you could look at as having four acts. They wrote it like a movie and then sort of backed out of that [to divide it into four episodes]. It's a pretty big challenge and I think they did a great job structurally."
That feature-length structure is built around a complex time-travel story that toys with all the clichés and paradoxes inherent in the genre and builds to a twist ending worthy of The Sixth Sense. If anything, fans of the show may feel the movie's dense plotting shortchanges the zingy dialog and gags they've come to expect. Katz admits Big Score is "a very heavy sci-fi genre story and might be a little lighter on humor in favor of serving the story." For his part, director Hill sees the first movie as "a great fan-based story. The fans will really, really enjoy the return of something they've been waiting for. At the same time, it's a great intellectual story. It kind of introduces all these characters without you having to know who they are -- but it definitely feels like more of a fan script."
Bender's Big Score comes to a definite conclusion -- then introduces a cliffhanger that will be resolved in the second direct-to-video release, The Beast with a Billion Backs. "The next DVD is another great Futurama story, but it's more of a standalone, even though they hook up together," says Hill. "It takes up where the first one leaves off, but definitely in a not-expected Futurama way."
(Visit this article online at http://mag.awn.com )
"Wired Magazine " December 2007
Futurama Is Back! Grab a Can of Slurm and Settle In By Chris Baker
David X. Cohen is watching a short animation clip on a computer monitor. It's a tight shot of two robots' pelvises. They thrust their cube-shaped midsections together and swap a DVD from one of their disc drives to the other. This, Cohen explains, is footage of a sci-fi stage show, a suggestive all-robot version of Cirque du Soleil. "Nothing makes me happier than a scene with no living being in it," he says. ... (read more)
Cohen has another reason to be happy. The segment he's watching is from Futurama, the show that he codeveloped back in 1999 with Simpsons creator Matt Groening. (Cohen wrote and produced some of the animated sitcom's most popular episodes.) With that pedigree, Futurama seemed like a can't-fail proposition, but it was canceled five years ago. This footage, however, is new: Futurama is back in production, and the unexpected return is as curious as the story of its abrupt cancellation.
Set in the year 3000, Futurama's interstellar sci-fi future isn't a shiny utopia like The Jetsons or a dark dystopia like Blade Runner. It's a time that seems wonderful or awful depending on how you look at it — just like the present. "On The Jetsons, there's a machine that ties your tie for you," Cohen says. "On Futurama, there'd be a machine that tied your tie, but it would malfunction and start strangling you."
Those kinds of macabre twists would be Futurama's undoing. Fox was expecting something familiar, The Simpsons in space. Executives certainly were not prepared for the bizarre contours of Groening and Cohen's brave new world. "The network's attitude quickly went from tremendous excitement to great fear," Groening says. "They were very troubled by the suicide booth. They didn't like the 'All-Tentacle Massage' parlor."
Futurama premiered to strong ratings, but as the show was shuffled around the schedule, viewership slipped. Every season, the renewal notice came late — so late that there wasn't always time to deliver a full slate of episodes. After the fourth season, the people working on the show waited and waited for a renewal notice until they eventually assumed — correctly — that it wasn't going to come. "We didn't get to finish the way we would've liked," Cohen says.
Futurama was never a mass market success — it never generated universally known catchphrases like "Don't have a cow, man" or a movie that grossed half a billion dollars. It just attracted a niche of enthusiastic devotees. But in the modern media landscape, a hardcore niche of fans can be all you need.
Futurama was killed, but like some B-movie cyborg it refused to stay dead. The fans watched the 72 episodes religiously in syndication and shelled out $170 to get the entire run on DVD. So, in 2005, Fox green-lighted 16 new episodes. Cohen and Groening have reassembled many of the hundreds of writers, animators, and voice artists who'd gone on to other projects to create four DVDs of new material, including sexy robot stage shows. The first DVD hits stores on November 27, and the features will then be divided into half-hour episodes when the entire run of the series begins airing on Comedy Central next year.
At last, Futurama is getting a fifth season.
Star Trek had a token alien crew member. Futurama's crew includes an alien, a mutant, and a robot.
[Image: Matt Groening; Futurama TM and 2007 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.]
Matt Groening's studio in Santa Monica, California, is where Futurama is written and where Groening draws his comic strip, Life in Hell, which has been a newspaper fixture for nearly three decades. It's also where Groening keeps his music collection. There's an entire room stacked floor to ceiling with LPs, CDs, and tapes, everything from Swiss yodels to Balinese gamelan. It's a sunny afternoon in late September, and Groening's a day late delivering the latest installment of Life in Hell. "When I'm procrastinating, I come in here and file a few dozen records," he says.
Groening, 53, is an omnivorous mediaphile, and it shows in his work. The Simpsons began as a straightforward parody of the conventions of domestic sitcoms but quickly turned into a nonstop barrage of pop culture references and allusions. For Futurama, Groening drew upon a childhood shaped by Isaac Asimov stories and the colorful covers of pulp magazines. (There's a stack of Amazing Stories and Fantastic Adventures from the 1950s on a shelf near a few of his Emmy statuettes.)
Groening shows me another media archive housed nearby in the studio: a wall full of sci-fi paperbacks. He points to some that he and Cohen studied while working on their show. Arthur C. Clarke! Alfred Bester! Stanislaw Lem! Rudy Rucker! Kurt Vonnegut!
Futurama plays off of what science fiction has taught us to expect from the future. It plays off of Star Wars and 2001 just as The Simpsons plays off of Leave It to Beaver and The Brady Bunch. But Groening's sci-fi literacy is incomplete. There's a glaring black hole in the center of his geek cred, one that Futurama fans may have a hard time fathoming.
Matt Groening has never seen an episode of Star Trek.
Cohen, on the other hand, likes to brag that he's never not watching Star Trek. Which is one reason that Groening approached him to work on Futurama.
In the early 1980s, while Groening was making a name for himself as a cartoonist chronicling the punk rock and bohemian subcultures of LA, Cohen was making a name for himself on the New Jersey high school math-team circuit. He went on to study physics at Harvard and get a master's in computer science from UC Berkeley. But he was also the president of The Harvard Lampoon, and he left academia to write comedy.
After he started working on The Simpsons in 1993, he became fascinated by the "freeze framers" — obsessive fans who videotaped episodes so they could pause them and look for gags that lasted only a split second. So he gave them little Easter eggs. In a 1995 episode in which Homer Simpson enters an alternate universe and becomes a 3-D model, Cohen inserted an equation into the background of one scene. It seemed to offer a counterexample to Fermat's last theorem. Then he lurked on the alt.tv.simpsons newsgroup to gauge the geek response. (Confusion at first, then astonishment when they tested it, then despair when they discovered that it was accurate only to eight decimal places. D'oh!)
Cohen mercilessly lampooned the passion and the fickleness of these fans through the character Comic Book Guy. He wrote the episode in which that character first utters the line "Worst. Episode. Ever." (Cohen's voice is a touch nasal; he does an excellent rendition of this immortal phrase.)
By the time Groening tapped him to codevelop Futurama, Cohen had a rep as "the sci-fi guy" in the writers room, the one who scripted a parody of The Fly and lobbied for more screen time for slobbering alien characters Kang and Kodos. Groening had already thought a lot about Futurama and had conceived many of the characters, but Cohen injected a left-brained sensibility, a background in math and computers... and that encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek.
The two sketched out their vision of the year 3000 on a whiteboard, which now sits in a storage area at Groening's studio. Among the tenets they set down: Robots should have their own soap operas. There won't just be smart dust and smartphones, there'll be smart sausage. Medicine will be much more advanced, so slapstick humor can include amputations. A quote credited to Cohen is the centerpiece of the board: "Reality should not stand in the way of comedy."
Futurama focuses on the staff of an interstellar package delivery service: a 150-year-old inventor and his prepubescent clone, a one-eyed mutant, a kleptomaniacal robot, and a nebbish from the 20th century who just emerged from a cryofreezer. One week their jobs might take them to a planet where all the creatures are pure liquid (hijinks ensue when someone accidentally guzzles the emperor). Another week they might visit a planet inhabited by giant slugs, which excrete an addictive substance that's become the most popular soft drink in the galaxy.
Cohen explained to Groening that there had to be a doctor character on Futurama — like "Bones" McCoy on Star Trek. But in a clever inversion of Dr. McCoy — a human frequently called upon to treat weird aliens — Cohen dreamed up Dr. Zoidberg, a crustacean-like physician with a distressingly limited knowledge of human anatomy.
The two carefully plotted a story arc and a series of revelations that could unveil over several seasons. Then they took it to the network. "It was the most worked-out pitch in Fox history," Cohen says.
After the show got a green light, Cohen assembled the geekiest writing staff television had ever seen: one MA in math, one MA in computer science, one MA in philosophy, one PhD in chemistry, one PhD in applied math, and some normals to balance things out. "I went from Home Improvement, where people earnestly pitched jokes about farting and table saws, to a place where there were discussions about nanophysics and string theory and quantum mechanics," writer Eric Horsted says. "I could only follow the conversation for a few minutes before my brain would start sweating and I'd have to reach for a copy of People."
Cohen was the head writer and showrunner, handling the day-to-day operations and directing voice-over sessions. Groening chimed in on what was funny and what wasn't and shielded the staff from network interference as much as he could... even when they had a character traveling back in time and inadvertently sleeping with his own grandmother. "I'm very proud that I never said no," Groening declares. (That episode went on to win an Emmy.)
The comedic style of Futurama was similar to The Simpsons: A single joke could blossom into an increasingly hilarious cluster of gags. And there were lots of celebrity guest voices. (In the year 3000, many 20th-century celebrities' heads have been preserved in jars.)
The animation was by Rough Draft Studios — it had done ink and paint work for The Simpsons and caused a stir with The Maxx, which combined hand-drawn art with CGI and live action. Rough Draft's artists smoothed out Groening's sketches but maintained the essential feel. For instance, the delivery company's spaceship is a 3-D model as sleek as a star barge from Amazing Stories, but the prow appears to have an overbite, like a Simpsons character.
The show premiered on Sunday, March 28, 1999, at 8:30 pm, immediately after The Simpsons. But within a year, it was moved to 7 pm, where it was usually preempted by football games. "After they moved us to 7, they launched a promotional campaign with the tagline 'The Fun Begins at 8!'" Groening says. "I never got that. I think 'The Fun Begins at 7!' just rolls off the tongue."
At Rough Draft Studios in Glendale, California, these artists working on paper get windows. The CGI geeks work in the dark basement.
After the cancellation of Futurama and the delivery of the last episodes in 2002, the staff dispersed. Several of the writers went to work on The Simpsons. One who had scripted a note-perfect satire of Star Trek actually went to work on Star Trek: Enterprise. Cohen wrote a couple of pilots, including an animated comedy called Grandmaster Freak & the Furious 15 that would have starred rapper Ice Cube. Ever the math buff, Cohen was excited about the many different ways to geometrically arrange Grandmaster Freak and his posse onscreen.
But Futurama refused to die. Cartoon Network began airing reruns in January 2003, and they were greeted with wild enthusiasm. "It was beating late-night talk shows in key demographics, like 18- to 34-year-old men," Cohen says. The show has also been a hit on DVD. Sales figures are closely guarded, but one of the nerdier writers calculated that, based on their residual checks, the total gross to date is more than $100million.
"One of the great things about the show was the instantaneous, intense fan reaction," Groening says. It operated on several levels, rewarding multiple viewings, and it was full of catnip for geeks: In addition to the riffs on The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and Star Wars, there were allusions to classic videogames, programming languages, Schrdinger's cat, and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
"The operating principle of Futurama was that you can do a joke that 1percent of the audience gets, as long as it doesn't derail the enjoyment of the mass audience," Cohen says. "And that 1 percent becomes a fan for life."
Some jokes in Futurama were written in a strange alphabet that fans had to decrypt. "Most were jokes about aliens eating people," Cohen says. "Like, an alien sign on a restaurant says TASTY HUMAN BURGERS." He checked the Web a few hours after the pilot aired and discovered that the freeze framers had already cracked the code. A trickier alien alphabet was devised.
Soon, the obsessive audience members knew the mythology of the show better than its creators. "We'd have to search the fan sites to check references we'd forgotten," says Patric Verrone, a Futurama writer. For instance, in one episode a character casually explains that all videotapes were erased hundreds of years before by the Second Coming of Jesus. None of the writers could remember the specific year. But a Web fan had created a detailed timeline of the show, which noted that the resurrection and erasure occurred in 2443.
In 2005, Groening and Cohen met with Fox execs to discuss the possibility of bringing the show back for a feature-length DVD. "It was a great meeting," Cohen says. "One of the first things we heard was that two DVDs would work better than one." The network eventually agreed to fund four features, which would be divided into 16 episodes for syndication — nearly a full season. For instance, one DVD, "The Beast With a Billion Backs," can be viewed as a full-length movie about a creature that carries on a simultaneous affair with everyone in the galaxy. But it can also be viewed as four 22-minute installments.
Groening seems almost stunned by the support and encouragement of the network. "It's been," he hesitates, searching for the words, "different. They've really been gracious and enthusiastic and supportive." But that hasn't softened the tone of the show. The new episodes feature a product called Torgo's Executive Powder, an all-purpose substance that's used as a cleanser, an explosive, and a treatment for jock itch. It's supposedly made from ground-up Fox network execs.
On a monitor, there's a wireframe 3-D image of what looks like a Death Star. We're in the Rough Draft Studios office in Glendale, California. Actually, we're directly under the Salvation Army next door; the studio had to expand when it was working on the original Futurama episodes back in 2000. During the busiest months last year, when both the new Futurama episodes and The Simpsons Movie were in production, there were 140 people employed here and an additional 500 in Rough Draft's sister studio in South Korea.
Rough Draft's director of CGI, Scott Vanzo, explains that the tricky part of mixing 3-D animation with traditional 2-D animation is making the 3-D look suitably rough. This Death Star model is from the climactic sequence of the first new DVD. A group of nudist alien con artists have bilked the people of Earth out of all their possessions, including the planet itself. Then the nudist aliens do what any colonizing force would do — they surround Earth with solid gold, jewel-encrusted Death Stars. A ragtag band of Earthicans (not Earthlings — they now call themselves Earthicans) leads a last-ditch attack on these Death Stars. The rebels include Futurama's main characters, the Harlem Globetrotters, and the mascots of three major holidays: Robot Santa, Kwanzaa-bot, and the Hannukah Zombie. Oh, and also Al Gore.
Gore provides his own voice — it's his third time on the show. He appeared the first time as the leader of the Vice Presidential Action Rangers, and then as Emperor of the Moon, but the new DVD is his finest hour. Geeks will be on the edge of their seats as the Nobel laureate fights his way past the defenses of the nudist aliens and enters a gold Death Star through an unguarded vent, shouting, "Finally, I get to save the Earth with deadly lasers instead of deadly slide shows!"
Cohen says that they're giving hardcore fans no excuse to wait for the airing on Comedy Central next year. "We're producing it in HD with 5.1 surround sound, and we're filling up every bit of available space on the disc," he says. There'll be a few minutes of material that won't appear on the TV versions of each episode, an in-depth lecture on the role of mathematics in the show, and a full episode of Everybody Loves Hypnotoad, the most popular show in the 31st century. It consists of a shot of the titular amphibian, who fixes viewers with his trance-inducing gaze. (Diehards who watch the motionless toad for half an hour will discover hilarious fake commercial breaks and a few other surprises.)
Cohen credits DVD sales as the force behind Futurama's return. "This new revenue stream saved our neck," he says. "It might be a very brief window when DVDs are so powerful. If the show had been on 10 years earlier, we'd be dead. A few years from now, when Internet speeds are better, maybe one person buys it and shares it with a hundred of their friends."
Back at Groening's studio, he is talking up an idea he had for another episode inspired by Kevin Kelly's death clock. Kelly recently calculated how much longer he had to live — he estimates around 23 years — and posted his own personal life countdown clock online. "I started thinking, wouldn't it be cool if you had a death wristwatch?" Groening says.
He and Cohen bat around the story potential of the death wristwatch. Surely, by the year 3000, a gadget like that could recalculate the time of your death on the fly, beeping if you are in imminent danger of dying? They start toying with the concept: Wouldn't it be funny if the death wristwatch were running fast? What if the battery died?
All of the episodes for the Futurama DVDs have already been written, and as far as these two know that's the end of the show — for real this time. But they continue plotting, just in case. "It would be a great episode, and there's a message there," Groening says. "You can't live your life constantly looking at the death clock."
"Associated Press " November 29, 2007
Back to the ‘FUTURAMA’ By Marc D. Allen
Glendale Animators Are Bringing Matt Groening’s Series Back to Life.
In the year 3000, TV network executives will know better than to cancel series which have small but rabid audiences and a potential for growth. But in 2003, Fox pulled the plug on “Futurama,” its four-season-old animated comedy series about a pizza delivery guy named Philip J. Fry who wakes up in the 31st century after having been cryogenically frozen since Jan. 1, 2000. ... (read more)
But “Futurama,” like Fry, had more life left. Cartoon Network picked up the series for its Adult Swim channel, where 2.1 million viewers now watch and re-watch the original 72 episodes each week. DVD box sets sold well. Web sites sprang up. Fans clamored for more.
Four years later, they’re finally getting what they want. On Tuesday, “Benders’s Big Score,” the first of four new “Futurama” movies, was released. It will be followed by three more direct-to-DVD movies, all of which will be edited into 16 half-hour episodes scheduled to air in early 2008 on Comedy Central.
“We worked really, really hard to bring it back,” said executive producer David x. Cohen, “and the four years were not due to lack of trying. It paid off, and ultimately the fans are responsible because money talks. It was the success of the reruns and the DVDs, once it as out of our control, that saved the day.
As it was for the original television series, the animation for the DVD movies is being produced at Rough Draft Studios, located along Brand Boulevard n Glendale.
“for us it’s sort of like coming home again, said Claudia Katz, a producer with Rough Draft Studios, which produced much of the animation for the summer blockbuster “The Simpson’s Movie.” The sheer volume of work required by a feature format is a little intimidating but a labor of love, said Katz.
At the time the show was canceled, Cohen actually felt relieved. Everyone involved – from creator Matt Groening on down – had become accustomed to bring on edge, waiting to hear whether the show would be renewed. The show, which won the Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program in 2002, required a lot of work, and Cohen had spent four years giving it his all after putting in five years on “The Simpsons.” He was tired.
During his rest, Cohen wrote two series pilot no one saw, punched up movie scripts and worked on miscellaneous projects. In the meantime, his exhaustion wore off. He started making phone calls – first to Groening, who called 20th Century Fox Television and pitched the idea of a direct-to-DVD movie.
A couple of years went by. Yes, years.
Then 20th Century Fox Television called back and said, “How about two DVDs?” Two became three, then four. Executives brought back the voices (including Billy West and Katey Sagal) and reassembled the writing staff, including Mike Rowe, who’d gone on to “Becker.”
“I was on what I thought was one of the coolest, hippest shows,” Rowe said, “and then suddenly I was on a show that was more for my dad. It was kind of whiplash in a way. When we came back, it was a great, non-pressure, let’s-get-the-work-done situation.”
And with four movies, the project became economically viable. Comedy Central is paying for part of the production; DVD sales will cover the rest.
“It’s a new economic model for putting on a show,” Cohen said. “There’s no network license fee, which is a normally a large chunk of the budget.”
“The numbers fell into place and made sense to us,” Comedy Central president Dough Herzog said. “We’re big fans of David’s and Matt’s and te show has performed really well for Cartoon Network and Adult Swim. We thought it was something that would work here if we could ever get our hands on it. So we did.”
The project as come full circle for Herzog, who was the president of Fox when “Futurama” and “Family Guy,” another animated series resurrected by fan support after being canceled, belonged to the network. Herzog acknowledges that his stewardship didn’t help either show.
“But you have to remember,” he said, “it was 1999, and they were more cable than network to a certain degree. That’s not a knock; I would say that’s a compliment. They really found an audience on cable – and an audience that knew where to look for it – which gets harder and harder. On a Cartoon Network or Adult Swim or Comedy Central, with shows that appeal to young males, you’re in the right place.”
Older males, too. Tim, 51, Webmaster of Futurama Madhouse (futurama-madhouse.com.ar), discovered the series two years ago and calls it “probably the only television show I’ve seen in 30 years that has so much appeal to me.” The comedy, the science fiction elements, the math and science-fiction elements, the math and science jokes embedded in the show, the retro technology of the stick-shift spacecraft with vacuum tubes – all that sucked him in.
Time, who asked that his last name not be used, took over as Webmaster of the site, whose owners live in England and Argentina, in August 2006. At the time, no one in the public knew the show would be back. On July 27, the site celebrated its eighth year. The next day, at Comic-Con in San Diego, the producers announced the DVD movies to a standing-room-only crowd of more than 4,000.
For Cohen and the rest of the “Futurama” crew, “It was a huge burst of adrenalin in there to see that we had people who still cared what we were doing after four years. Deafening is probably the best world for the response we got there.”
Fans will be rewarded, Cohen said, with DVDs that are technically superior to the old shows.
The productions are in widescreen and surrounding sound.
“Working on the widescreen aspect ration as well as in HD (high-definition) resolution, has definitely been a big difference from working on the series,” said Rough Draft Studios’ Katz. “There’s a lot of technical stuff that’s different” – from storyboarding to layout, even the paper it’s drawn on – “but we’re very happy to work in widescreen. I think ‘Futurama’ is really well-suited to it.”
Plus, with no network censor to deal with, the producers will push boundaries a little more. In “Bender’s Big Score,” the crew of Planet Express, where Fry works, runs into some nudist alien Internet scammers and loses ownership of their delivery company. The scammers begin a campaign to steal all of Earth’s greatest treasures from history using time travel and force Bender, who is Fry’s robot roommate, to participate.
The voices include a guest appearance by former Vice President Al Gore, as well as Tom Kenney, Sarah Silverman, Coolio as a Kwanzaa robot and Mark Hamill as a Hanukkah zombie.
The next three movies will deal with a planet-sized creature that has a romantic relationship with all living beings in the universe simultaneously, a Dungeons & Dragons/Lord of the Rings fantasy world and an epic sci-fi story involving the clash of two powerful races. And all the DVDs will be packed with extras, including a lecture by Sarah Greenwald, associate professor of mathematics at Appalachian State University, talking about math references in “Futurama” and “The Simpsons.”
No one is sure what will happen after the DVDs are released.
“My dream,” Rowe said, “is that these things fly off the shelf enough to get people to do much more.”
"Washington Post " November 27, 2007
It’s Back to the Drawing Board By Scott A. Rosenberg
‘Futurama’ makes a triumphant return in direct-to-DVD film returns - Good news, everyone!
After a long, long four-year wait, “Futurama,” the black sheep of Matt Groening’s animation family, finally returns with a feature-length, direct-to-DVD film, “Bender’s Big Score!”. ... (read more)
The crew of Planet Express, relegated to nightly syndication on Adult Swim, makes its triumphant return Tuesday with an adventure that picks up right where the series abruptly ended, taking a similar path as its Adult Swim brethren “The Family Guy” – canceled, and then miraculously uncanceled.
“It feels like finding an old friend,” said director Dwayne Carey-Hill. “It was a lot of fun to jump back in and draw familiar characters, getting back into that same kind of sense of humor.”
Longtime fans of the show can expect to be reunited with the entire group, from the time-displaced Fry to the crustacean Dr. Zoidberg to the lovable robot Bender. In between episode references that will make the “Futurama” faithful swoon is a yarn about con artists, time travel and a viral robot pilfering the civilization’s riches. The intelligent humor mixed with clever pop culture references (The head of Al Gore returns!) results in a welcomed return from a lost classic.
The road to resurrection presented some complications for Rough Draft Studios, the animation house responsible for “Bender’s Big Score!” as well as work on “The Simpsons Movie” and Comedy Central’s “Drawn Together.”
With animation technology developing at a rapid pace, the studio had to update the show for current standards, as well as introduce wide-screen aspect ratio and HD resolution. In its original run, “Futurama” was one of the first productions to blend 2-D and 3-D animation. With the new technology, the studio had to return to ground zero.
“We actually had to rebuild everything in 3-D – all the models, everything for the new DVD movie,” said Claudia Katz, producer and senior vice president of Rough Draft. “We had to go back and replicate the original title sequence shot for shot, both in wide-screen and HD, which was actually a bit of a challenge.
All that hard work paid off with this movie, the first of four scheduled “Futurama” features and a brilliant successor to a revered series. For all “Futurama” fans everywhere pending for a bending, this is your big score.
"411Mania.com" November 26, 2007
411 Movies Interview: Futurama Producer Claudia Katz By Joe Strike
Claudia Katz has helped produce a number of diverse and interesting shows. She's worked on such projects as Futurama, The Simpsons Movie, Drawn Together, and a whole lot more. Recently, she helped produce Bender's Big Score, which is the first of four Futurama direct-to-dvd movies... ... (read more)
Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Claudia Katz, and we talked about her storied career at Rough Draft Studios. Bender's Big Score hits DVD on November 27th. Be sure to check it out.
TONY: When you look back on your time with Rough Draft, are you just in awe? I mean, you guys have been involved in so many different projects.
Claudia Katz: In retrospect, I'm always really proud of our sort of very wide variety of work, and most of all, the quality of our work. It's funny, because once in a while, we'll re-cut our reel and I'll go back and look at things that are really, really old like The Maxx or things we did a long time ago, and you go, "Wow, that looks really good." We would love to do even more, so we sort of really don't get impressed with ourselves and sort of constantly want to do sort of bigger and better things. But I think we're very proud of the work we've done.
TONY: How did your when you were a child, and were your parents supportive of your decision to join the animation world?
Claudia Katz: I came at it from really more of a production side, so, I mean, there's a lot of artists and directors here who I think probably knew they wanted to be animators from the time they were children. Especially because I can't draw, that was never a real aspiration or a realistic aspiration. Honestly, to me, the thing I love about it is it's this great blend of sort of art and commerce, and I'm sort of more of the business end of it. Although, I'm probably more of a creative producer than just a straight pragmatic producer, but I sort of came about it more as a fan than an aspiring artist.
TONY: What can we expect from these new Futurama DVDs?
Claudia Katz: The first DVD movie comes out November 27th, so we hope everybody buys at least two of them each. They were written as movies, which is pretty exciting, so each DVD movie has basically a story arc that carries over the whole movie. It's not just sort of four episodes that were jammed together. We're producing them in 16 by 9 aspect ratio, which has really been fun for us, and in HD. So, they're definitely a little different than the TV series, but I think the fans will be thrilled with them, and hopefully we'll get some new fans as well.
TONY: What is one aspect of your job that maybe we don't know about, but we should know about?
Claudia Katz: Hmm, that's a good question. I mean, to me, it's sort of to keep the studio running very smoothly, and some days that requires a lot of work and sometimes that doesn't. It basically means staying on top of everything, including making sure there's coffee and coffee beans for everybody. So, to me, I'm sort of the great facilitator. It's my job to make sure everybody sort of has what they need and who they need to do a great job and produce a great product.
TONY: How do you manage your time at Rough Draft? I mean, you're involved in a lot of projects.
Claudia Katz: Well, one, I'm an excellent juggler, which is essential. Really, some of it's time management and some of it is we have great people here, so it's not just me sort of juggling everything, but there are times where you do fall short on some things, and unfortunately that's usually in your personal life as opposed to work. I mean, last year when we were working on Drawn Together and Futurama and The Simpsons Movie, there were times where that was just a really tough year, but we all survived it and are the better for it, so you get really good at multi-tasking.
TONY: Now that you've been with Rough Draft for over ten years, is there one aspect of your job that maybe you didn't expect?
Claudia Katz: I'm a partner in the studio, but Gregg Vanzo, who's the owner, is a director and very creative, and we have it sort of different than other studios, because to us, it's all about the work. Ultimately, I'm surprised, honestly, by the good friends I've made and really just how integral a part of my life work is, just from a work standpoint and a social standpoint. I mean, some of my best friends are from work now, and it's really sort of a second family to some extent.
TONY: I want to talk to you a little bit about Drawn Together. I enjoy the show, but it's obviously not for everybody. Have you shown Drawn Together to a lot of your friends and family? If so, how did they respond to it?
Claudia Katz: It's funny, because my mom, who's actually going to be 80 next year, was actually a pretty avid fan for the first two seasons, and I'm not sure what turned her off in Season Three, but she actually lasted far longer than I would have guessed. But clearly something crossed the line for her, and in fairness, I don't think she's the demographic they're going for, but we had a lot of fun working on Drawn Together, and we're just really huge fans of Matt and Dave, the creators. And we hope to work with them again soon, and that was just a great collaboration, but it's a little blue, and even at times, at the table reads, there were definitely some groans from the audience.
TONY: Do you get that a lot from different people? I mean, I think you guys do a great job, but it's a very specific kind of humor.
Claudia Katz: I know that Drawn Together's probably gotten a little bit of heat for that. I mean, I think, as the producers, we're slightly removed from that. We got a really weird letter on Futurama from some kooky guy. It was very strange. It was a very weird sort of racist letter about how we were promoting interracial marriage and relationships. That's probably like the strangest letter we've gotten. I've also gotten a pitch letter from a guy in prison, which was a highlight for me.
TONY: What was it like working on The Simpsons Movie? Did you feel a lot of pressure on that project, because it's such a huge hit?
Claudia Katz: Story wise, the writers really had that burden, which I think they considered sort of a very serious responsibility. To us, it was really, "How do we bump up the visuals enough to really make it very theatrical looking but not so much that it just becomes alienating as to what you now as The Simpsons?" So, initially, they decided to work in CinemaScope, which is just this hugely wide aspect ratio, which right off the bat, I think, is so different than the show. Between the color pallets and that widescreen aspect ratio, it just gives you so much more to work with from a composition standpoint. It was a combination of many things ... plus the acting, the visuals. We used cell-shaded 3D, which they do not do in the show, so that was obviously a great tool. We do that in Futurama, but they had not done that on The Simpsons television show.
TONY: How do you feel about the current state of animation here in 2007? It seems more popular than ever with your studio and also with Pixar. Everything seems to be going really well. What's been the key to all this recent success?
Claudia Katz: I think Pixar's success, honestly, is just completely due to great characters and great storytelling. They can't seem to doing anything wrong, and I think that's because they just work so hard on the story. They sort of have the essentials down, and they really stick to them and they honor them and they just do a fantastic job. I think animated movies, if they're good, they do really well. And I think we've finally seen a slew of CG movies that were not so great. And I think we've gotten to the point where people don't think just because it's a 2D movie, it's sort of not good, and because it's a CG movie, it must be fantastic. So, I think it's sort of a more honest marketplace and I think The Simpsons Movie sort of proves there's definitely still a great appetite in theatricals for 2D. I know Disney is sort of totally redoing their 2D animation division, which I think is really terrific. I think we're gonna see some more animated prime time shows coming back to television and hopefully some more 2D movies.
TONY: I've talked to a number of producers and animators, and they all seem very self critical. Do you ever go back and watch old footage and obsess over the little details?
Claudia Katz: Yeah, we're pretty OCD here. We actually go through a tremendous amount of quality control passes before we even show the footage to our client, but I think for the directors, there's always a couple of things that will bother them. It's the stuff that nobody else in the universe will notice that will just bother them for eternity. Ultimately, no matter what the budget or schedule is, there's always constraints we have to respect and we really try and do the best job we can within those constraints, so we really set up the whole studio around trying to have the most control of the product that we can, so we can do the most amount of fixes here that we can. And I think that's a large reason of why our stuff looks really good.
TONY: Do you think we'll see more R-rated animated films in the future?
Claudia Katz: I mean, I hope so. Ultimately, it's all a business model, so I think if those movies do really well, people will be inclined to make more of them. I think there's also sort of a price point for them, so if you can deliver that movie at a certain price point, then it makes it worth it to go after that niche audience. I mean, you're probably not going to make a 160 million dollar R-rated movie, because in terms of getting your money back, you're sort of limiting your audience, but if you can make 20-30 million dollar R-rated movies, that may make perfectly good business sense.
TONY: Have you ever wanted to get more involved in the animation world? Maybe as a voice artist?
Claudia Katz: I did one voice role in a pilot we did called Vinyl Cafe, and that's sort of my only claim to fame. I think enough people here at Rough Draft have to listen to me, and I don't think I need to subject many more people to that.
TONY: Finally, what are your plans for the future?
Claudia Katz: We still have three more of these Futurama DVD movies to finish, which will keep us busy for a while, and we have a couple of prime time series in development. We're really trying to make a serious push to develop our own material and sort of get out there in that market as well as do more features. So, I'm hoping 2008 will be another great year for Rough Draft.
"ToonZone.com" November 24, 2007
"Futurama: Bender's Big Score" Still a Winner for Casual Fans
By Ed Liu
I always enjoyed Futurama, but I never managed to get into the habit of watching it. I guess that means it's all my damn fault it was canceled for disappointing ratings, so maybe this is an incredibly bad way to start off a review of the direct-to-video movie Futurama: Bender's Big Score. ... (read more)
We're back on the air, baby! Woo-hoo!I have ALWAYS been a HUGE fan of Futurama, adoring it with a love that burns like an eternal, undying flame. Or maybe like jock itch. Sometimes, they feel a lot alike. Anyway, longtime fans of the show get a second chance now with the direct-to-video movie Futurama: Bender's Big Score, and unappreciative bastards like me who KILLED YOUR FAVORITE SHOW have a chance to atone for our sins by buying the first of four DVDs that will give the show a second lease on life.
For those who have never watched the show at all, what you really need to know is that Futurama follows the adventures of Philip J. Fry, a pizza delivery boy from the 20th century who was cryonically frozen and woke up in the 30th century. He lands a job at the Planetary Express delivery company, joining the shapely, one-eyed Leela and the crass, selfish robot Bender. After taking several amusing jabs at the executives who cancelled the show, Bender's Big Score cuts to an intergalactic nude beach, revealing a tattoo of Bender's head on Fry's butt and a trio of nudist scammer aliens. The scammers quickly manage to steal control of Planetary Express through assorted e-mail frauds and seize control of Bender through a computer virus, and discover that the tattoo on Fry's butt contains a binary code for time travel. Before long, subplots begin piling up, including the revelation of the truth ablout Leela's pet Nibbler; a love triangle between Leela, Fry, and newcomer Lars; a limbo accident that just keeps getting worse; and the story of how a narwhal changed Fry's life in the 20th century.
It's one of the hallmarks of a Matt Groening's show that it tends not to focus on one thing for very long, and Bender's Big Score is no exception. By the time it's done, it will have linked the nudist scammer aliens and the time-travel tattoo to spin out a story that careens between the 20th century and the 30th, lurching around and dashing off in unexpected directions every five minutes. This isn't meant as a criticism, since the show would often do the same thing. The movie only loses coherence near the end, when the cuts between the time eras get in the way of the two stories that are being told. Still, the movie holds together pretty well. It also holds up on repeated viewings, proving that it didn't cheat on the time-travel.
Robot Santa, Kwanzaabot, and Chanukah ZombieThe movie shares the same sense of humor as the show, with equal bits of slapstick physical comedy, witty and razor-sharp verbal humor, lines that are taken a bit too literally, gleeful extensions of a joke past its obvious punch line, surprise guest stars, math and science gags, running jokes, and the occasional gross-out or pop-culture reference. Futurama has always been a show made for DVD, since many of the jokes weren't apparent on first viewing or flashed by far too quickly to be caught while the show was running. Bender's Big Score follows the same tradition, with more signs in alien alphabets and myriad blink-and-you'll-miss-it background gags. I'm sure that the movie is even funnier to the hardcore Futurama fans, but it still delivers plenty of laughs even if you only have a passing familiarity with it. There are also an array of guest stars, including Sarah Silverman (reprising her role as Michelle, Fry's 20th century girlfriend), Coolio (returning as Kwanzaa-bot), and former Vice President Al Gore (having way too much fun poking fun at himself). Futurama fans will also get a kick out of identifying the dozens of supporting characters who all get at least a background appearance in the movie.
The DVD itself is excellent. The movie was animated in widescreen and gets an beautiful anamorphic transfer for the home-video presentation. Futurama has never looked better than it does here. The 90-minute movie gets a full, feature-length commentary track by creator Matt Groening, executive producer David X. Cohen, producer Claudia Katz, writer Ken Keeler, Bender's Big Score director Dwayne Carey-Hill, and voice actors Billy West, John DiMaggio, and Phil LaMarr. The commentary is excellent, being informative and nearly as funny as the movie as the crew points out show references, explains some of the more esoteric jokes, and generally make each other laugh a lot.
The disc is also packed to the gills with extras, starting with the occasional interjection by Bender throughout the DVD menus. Three deleted scenes are presented as animatics, with the funniest being a scene (cut for time, sadly) where Bender crashes an expensive Monte Carlo casino. There is also a full 22-minute episode of Everybody Loves Hypnotoad, which the crew has apparently been threatening for a while; it's surreal and hilarious minimalist humor. We also get "A Terrifying Message from Al Gore," the animated YouTube promotion for Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, which also gets a video commentary by Gore, Matt Groening, and David X. Cohen.
Nudists. Why'd they have to be nudists?There is also "Bite My Shiny Metal X," which is a fun lecture and demonstration of the math and science jokes in Futurama led by Dr. Sarah Greenwald an unidentified math professor who DOES NOT run a Futurama-themed math website and whose career will IN NO WAY be ruined by being included on such a disreputable video. Two more extras come from the ever-popular Futurama panels at the San Diego Comic-Con: a live comic-book reading with the cast of the show and the original five-minute preview for this DVD. The official extras are rounded out by two art galleries and the first draft of the script, but there is also an Easter Egg of the scribbled timeline that the writers used to keep track of the different plot lines running through the movie.
Perhaps the best compliment I can pay to Bender's Big Score is that it rekindled my interest in Futurama. It's funny as it is, but I can't escape the sense that I'm missing something more and I want to catch up. If you had even a passing interest in Futurama before, you'll still hit the jackpot with Bender's Big Score.
"The Washington Times " November 23, 2007
Futurama Release By Kelly Jane Torrance
Reruns and DVD sales don't just add a few bucks to a studio's coffers. Sometimes, they can resurrect a show from the dead.
That's the fan-driven story behind the release next week of Futurama: Bender's Big Score (20th Century Fox, $29.99), a feature-length, direct-to-DVD film. "Futurama," the Emmy Award-winning animated series created by "Simpsons" mind Matt Groening about a pizza delivery boy who is accidentally cryogenically frozen and wakes up in the year 3000, ran on Fox from 1999 to 2003. ... (read more)
But while the network gave up on the clever show, its fans never did — they followed it to the Cartoon Network, which made it a centerpiece of its Adult Swim late-night programming block
"They aired it shockingly in the same time slot on the same night so people could actually find it," wryly notes Claudia Katz, an Emmy Award-winning producer and senior vice president at Rough Draft Studios, the company that animates both "Futurama" and "The Simpsons." (Fox notoriously moved the show around and frequently pre-empted it for sporting events.) "It really kept the series alive and fueled the DVD sales as well," she says.
Those ratings and DVD sales got the attention of 20th Century Fox Home Video, which commissioned four new feature-length films. Comedy Central, which bought the right to air reruns when Cartoon Network's contract ends next year, will eventually air each film.
"Bender's Big Score" packs a lot into its 88 minutes — just about every character from the series, including minor ones, makes an appearance. Alien Internet scammers take over the Professor's delivery business and, ultimately, the Earth when they take command of a time travel portal.
Those wondering if a short and sharp show can make the transition to feature length need not worry. "Bender's Big Score" is as good as the best "Futurama" episodes. The writers, animators and voice actors are all on their game; it feels like the show never left the air.
In the first few minutes, the writers poke fun at the network that cancelled them — never mind that it's owned by the same company that's producing the new films. "Bender's Big Score" is, unlike the television episodes, in the 16:9 ratio.
It looks great, but then "Futurama" has always been in a more cinematic style than, say, "The Simpsons." Rough Draft also worked on the movie version of that series, which required more work to get to the big screen — the movie looks a lot different from the TV show.
" 'The Simpsons' television show visually is a lot simpler than 'Futurama,' " Miss Katz notes. "A lot of the things we did in the ['Simpsons'] movie to make it bigger visually were things we were already doing on 'Futurama,' like painting backgrounds and adding cell-shaded 3-D. ... It's a swanky-looking show."
One cameo character from the TV series shows up in the film, but he's won the Nobel Peace Prize since his previous appearance: former vice president Al Gore, unveiling some heretofore hidden talents. "Finally, I get to save the Earth with deadly lasers instead of deadly slide shows," he jokes before letting off a series of screams worthy of Janet Leigh.
There's also a nod to another resurrected Fox show, in the form of a "Family Guy" calendar on Fry's wall. Miss Katz says the world of animation is a lot less competitive than the rest of Hollywood. "Ultimately to me from a studio perspective, the more successful animation out there, the better for everyone," she says. "In some ways, 'Family Guy' paved the way for our return."
Miss Katz says that Rough Draft is already in production on the remaining three films; expect the next one in stores in about six months. "There's a lot here for the fans, which I think is great and well deserved. Fans are the reason we're back," she concludes.
Director Dwayne Carey-Hill and Producer Claudia Katz on Bender's Big Score: The RT Interview By Alex Vo
DVD sales speak volumes and nobody's listening more closely than Fox. After robust sales in the home market paved the way for a Firefly movie (Serenity) and re-opened production on Family Guy, Futurama -- Matt Groening's and David X. Cohen's beloved sci-fi animated series, unceremoniously canceled in 2003 -- is returning for four new DVD movies. The show is also reappearing on television: each DVD will be chopped into four episodes, to be aired on Comedy Central in 2008. ... (read more)
The first DVD, Bender's Big Score (in stores this Tuesday), features everything Futurama fans should expect from the series: one-liners from Bender and Zoidberg, an earnest love story between Fry and Leela, a head-swimmingly intricate time travel plot, and Al Gore's angry head. Rotten Tomatoes spoke with Dwayne Carey-Hill, director of Bender's Big Score, and Claudia Katz, producer for Futurama's animation studio, Rough Draft, on the joys and perils of returning to one of television's best animated series ever.
After Futurama ended, at what point did it look like it could come back?
Claudia Katz: At first it felt like it was never ending because it was so inconclusive. We weren't cancelled but sort of went to a slow fizzle. [But] I think it was at least three years before anything was plausible.
Dwayne Carey-Hill: And never in this concept. Never four DVDs. I think we always hoped we'd do a movie. A big, grand scale sort of thing. We all felt like the look was great, the writing was great, and there was so much more to do with it that it would make for a good feature.
At Comic-Con, Rich Moore said the budget was a little bit smaller but the CG department was a little bit bigger. How did that change your approach to the movie?
CK: The budget basically was a little smaller than it was than that last time we worked on it, which was probably five years ago. The only real change was computer technology has improved to the point where you can get a lot more bang for your buck from a hardware/software perspective. Honestly, our margins are just a lot smaller and all the money is going up on the screen.
Did you approach Bender's Big Score as four episodes put together or as a single feature?
DC-H: The writers had to approach it like four episodes and we had to keep it in mind that we'd direct it like one movie.
CK: We definitely had internal milestones we were trying to lock. We divvied it up and wanted part one done by this date and part two done by this date. But you would do that with any movie. You have to divide and conquer.
Was there any difficulty transitioning from TV series to feature?
CK: Working in 16:9, which is great except that we still have to protect the 4:3 standard depth. That was a little tricky from a composition standpoint because anything else you can pan and scan. That's an extra element for the directors and the storyboard people to have to worry about when that wasn't really there before. We're working in HD and that takes a certain amount of planning and legwork but, really, by the time we got to the fourth season of Futurama we really had the whole thing running pretty smoothly. We had gotten to the point where we had honed it down to a phenomenal crew and unfortunately as soon as we got to that perfect point...
It got cancelled.
CK: We were only able to bring some of those people back and I think the initial challenge was trying to staff up a fairly large group of people while production was going on The Simpsons Movie and several other movies. We were initially concerned about it.
DC-H: But we ended up having a really great crew.
There are a lot of guest voices lined up for Futurama, like Al Gore again.
CK: I have to say his acting this time around is really terrific. I was personally a little surprised!
DC-H: He was less the candidate and more the actor.
What other guest stars will be in the four movies?
CK: I don't know if we can talk about that.
DC-H: Really fun ones!
Were there certain elements fans responded to in the shows that you made a point of including in the movies?
CK: The first movie in particular, the fans will feel very well honored. It sort of tips a hat to the fans. There's a lot of really cool inside stuff in it. All of them really pay homage to the fans.
Dwayne, you're doing two movies and Pete Avanzino is doing the other two movies. What was the working relationship like?
DC-H: We definitely talked. He was a director on the series. I wound up being a director on the series and he ended up working on Drawn Together and I worked under him as one of the directors on Drawn Together, so we've had a great working relationship. I was really excited to work with him on these four DVDs. We'd trade ideas, we'd talk about which characters we'd trade between the series, which characters would look good, try them out in different shots and play them out in different ideas. At the same time we each had such difficult workloads that we both had to fend for ourselves.
What did you contribute to the story of the first movie and the third movie?
DC-H: I'm really fortunate to get a well-written script. And from the script, just like the series, we take off and storyboard it, trying to make sure their jokes play well visually. A lot of writers will write things that sound funny but are then hard to translate to pictures. That's a struggle. I just move forward and try to tell it in picture. If I see some bumps in the road that need ironing out...
The first DVD has a lot of back and forth storytelling and it's really important to keep track of who's who and where they are. When you see the DVD you'll understand. I had to make sure their writing comes out really well on the screen.
Considering that there might not be more after these DVDs, will there be closure at the end of the fourth movie?
CK: The way the series ended was a little anti-climactic, and we feel really lucky to have gotten to re-visit the project again. If we're done I think we all feel much better about it.
All four films are completed now?
CK: We're still in production. We've delivered the first but we won't be delivering the color on the second DVD until sometime in December. We're not even halfway through from that standpoint.
Have any stories been developed past these four movies?
CK: That's really a writer question. I'm sure there's always a story they'd like to do that they didn't get to do.
DC-H: I'm sure if they had the opportunity they'd write lots more.
What would it take for the show to be renewed after the 16 Comedy Central episodes? Would one DVD selling well be enough?
CK: Ultimately, those are business decisions. The better those DVDs sell, the greater the interest will be. That's sort of the Family Guy model of return. I think that's what gets people's attention so if sales for the first and second are great there might be some discussion there. I'm not sure if the Comedy Central deal is a cable window. I'm not really sure what the specific points of that deal are.
What aspect ratio will Comedy Central air the episodes in?
CK: I don't think we know that yet. We think it will air as a letterboxed version but I'm not really sure what the plans are for that.
DC-H: I think the series itself should have always been widescreen. It was a really great-looking show. So even though we had to compensate for the 4:3 and keep that as a consideration, hopefully they'll air it as a widescreen because it really looks so much better.
Do you know when the episodes will air on Comedy Central?
CK: The old episodes will begin to air in January 1st, 2008, but I have no idea what their plans for the new episodes are.
Any favorite Futurama episodes?
DC-H: I really like "Parasites Lost" and "The Devil's Hands are Idle Playthings."
CK: I have a holy trinity of Futurama episodes. The first would be "All's Well That Roswell," "Parasites Lost," and [then] it's a tie between "The Devil's Hands are Idle Playthings," and "The Sting."
What's in store for Rough Draft after Futurama?
DC-H: Big things.
CK: We're going to single-handedly settle the writers strike.
"TV.com" November 21, 2007
TV.com Q&A: Drawing Futurama's films By Tim Surette
Rough Draft draws, colors, and animates Fry, Leela, Zoidberg, and the rest of Planet Express; animation studio's exec talks about the process. Sweet gorilla of Manila! Hermes' head is in a jar! ... (read more)
Good news, everybody! Futurama is back after a few years off the air, and this time the futuristic animated comedy is going where it has never gone before: the realm of feature-length films. After a successful revival on cable and good DVD sales, David X. Cohen's tale of a shipping company in the year 3000 makes its return on November 27 with Bender's Big Score, an hour and a half of shiny, new adventures with Bender, Leela, Fry, and the rest of the crew.
But that won't be it for the cult show--three more Futurama movies will also be coming to DVD in 2008.
Most know that Simpsons producer David Cohen is the creative force behind the show, but much of the look, style, and feel of Futurama is done in the offices of Rough Draft Studios, a Los Angeles-based animation studio. TV.com chatted with Rough Draft senior vice president Claudia Katz to talk about the upcoming Futurama films and how they're put together.
For all you hardcore Futurama fans, be sure to check back with TV.com Monday for an exclusive interview with the show's head writer, David Cohen.
TV.com: Could you tell me exactly what Rough Draft's role is with Bender's Big Score?
Claudia Katz: We're the animation studio for all four Futurama DVD movies, so we produce all of the pictures. We provide all the animation for all four DVD movies, and we're basically doing most of the production here at our studio in the United States, which would include basic design, storyboard, key animation, timing, all the [computer graphic] animation, the color styling, and the camera and compositing on the back end when the footage comes back. And we actually have a siste studio in Seoul, Korea, Rough Draft Korea, who is doing the overseas work on the project.
TV.com: How long has Bender's Big Score been in the making, and when did your studio get involved?
Claudia Katz: We started production on Bender's Big Score in August of 2006, and we delivered to the producers--Matt Groening and David Cohen--what we call a director's cut. That was delivered around July or August and the final retakes and all that footage was delivered in September.
TV.com: And you're doing the other three movies at the same time?
Claudia Katz: Correct. Yeah, every four months we started the next DVD feature. I mean, they take about a little less than a year, but it's a staggered production schedule.
TV.com: You send director's cuts to Matt Groening and he looks it over with a red pen and sends it back to you?
Bender's other, smaller score.
Claudia Katz: Yeah, we'll have a color screening with them and then we'll literally sit in person and get notes on the color. And those notes get divided into what we consider technical notes--things that will be fixed at no cost--and creative revisions, which are [additions] they decided. You know, "What if we did this?" type of things.
TV.com: One of the highlights at Comic-Con this year was the script reading, where the voice actors read a Futurama comic in the characters' voices. Do they send you the audio right along with the script?
Claudia Katz: Pretty much. How it worked for us is there'll be a table read--basically what you saw at Comic-Con--which the director and the board artist and I will go to. And then they will record the tracks, edit it together, and then send us a final script and an edited voice track, which is sort of like a radio play. And that's what we start with and continue to work from.
TV.com: Did you find it hard to concentrate during the readings? It was absolutely hilarious at Comic-Con.
Claudia Katz: Yeah. I mean, some of those readings can get a little wild in a good way. You know, the cast is just so funny, and they like to have a good time. They're generally really fun, and it's really nice to get to go to them.
TV.com: What's the difference between animating the TV and the film for DVD?
Claudia Katz: Firstly, all four of these DVD movies were written as features. So the stories are feature stories as opposed to just being four episodes that are jammed together. So they're definitely more epic and have feature storytelling. We're working in a 16x9 aspect ratio, so we're working wider screen than on the series. And we're also producing them in HD. I think the initial release is just standard definition, but they will be releasing the movies in an HD format.
TV.com: Is the animation quality going to be the same?
Claudia Katz: I think it'll be the same or better. I mean, I think the first DVD has one of our best, if not the best, space battles so far. Which is saying something. When we started Futurama, we were the first to be doing the 2D with the associated 3D.
TV.com: How did that idea of mixing the two come about? It was a pretty new technique at the time.
Claudia Katz: If you're going to do a sci-fi show, [you] sort of accepted the burden of, well, gosh, space and these ships and the battles have to look pretty amazing or you're going to lose a pretty large part of your fan base. And really the only way of doing that was in CG animation. And we spent a lot of time, honestly, sort of dumbing down the software to the extent that it really married well with the 2D animation. And at the time I think that was pretty groundbreaking.
TV.com: Can you give us any insight as to why you think Futurama was finally revived?
Claudia Katz: I suspect the DVDs of the series sold really well, and from a business perspective, at some point it started to seem like a good idea to do more of them. The entertainment industry is a business and most decisions are made from an economic standpoint, and there's nothing wrong with that.
TV.com: Was there any talk of bringing it back as a television series again?
Claudia Katz: You know, I'm not sure. I think there's always sort of been talk of that and I guess right now we're just concentrating on these DVD movies. And I mean, we're sort of hoping some day there'll be a bona fide theatrical Futurama feature. But, hey, if they want to bring the series back, we, you know, we'll be first in line.
TV.com: Right. You guys also do work on tons of other animated projects, including The Simpsons Movie. Do you have a personal favorite?
Claudia Katz: You know, I think for me, sentimentally, you know, Futurama is always, you know, that was our first really big prime-time series, and I guess for me that will always be my favorite.
"MediaWeb.Com" November, 16 2007
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Claudia Katz on Futurama the Movie: Bender's Big Score By Evan Jacobs
Futurama is one of the most loved shows to have ever graced the television airwaves. ... (read more)
This show follows Phillip Fry, a 25-year-old pizza delivery boy whose life is going nowhere. When he accidentally freezes himself on December 31, 1999, he wakes up 1,000 years in the future and has a chance to make a fresh start. He goes to work for the Planet Express Corporation, a futuristic delivery service that transports packages to all five quadrants of the universe. His companions include the delivery ship's captain, Leela, a beautiful one-eyed female alien who kicks some serious butt, and Bender, a robot with very human flaws.
Recently, we had a chance to sit down with Futurama producer Claudia Katz to talk about the show and the upcoming straight to DVD Futurama movie, Bender's Big Score. This is the first piece of original programming of the show since 2003. Katz is also a partner at RoughDraftStudios which is the animation house behind Futurama.
What brought about the production of 4 Futurama movies?
Claudia Katz: Probably the most important component was, I believe, when Comedy Central started sort of negotiating for the cable window rights and Fox said, "Hey, would you be interested in new episodes?" They sort of agreed to commit to 16 new episodes. At that time we were sort of negotiating on these DVD movies and there was a question of doing 2 or 3, then it looked like it was going to be 3. I think when Comedy Central committed to the 16 it turned into 4 because, really, each of these DVD movies is going to be sort of divided into 4 episodes. Honestly, part of the reason is also economics. It's sort of the more of them we do the greater the economies of scale are.
When dealing with the kind of humor that the show deals with, what do you think is the best way of keeping everything evergreen? I only ask because I know how long it takes to make these things.
Claudia Katz: I think Futurama tends to, and this is not exclusive to us, tends to sort of turn sci-fi conventions on their ear for humor, as opposed to super relevant pop culture shows, or fleeting pop culture references where 5 years later you're like, "I think I know what they're talking about." I think a lot of that lies in sort of the relationship between those characters but also twisting a lot of the conventions of science fiction and the sitcom on its ear. There's always new sci-fi stuff so it's always easy to sort of take that and run with it.
Seeing how well The Simpsons Movie did in the theater, did you guys ever think about going out theatrically with Futurama?
Claudia Katz: Not with these. My great hope is that eventually there will be a true Futurama feature that is designed that way from the beginning. These were definitely written as features however our production model is definitely a direct-to-video production model. If we were going to do a true feature it would be ideal if we sort of started that way.
Could you describe a little bit about what your job is producing for animation?
Claudia Katz: Basically, I pretty much set up the production in terms of the budget, the scheduling, the staff that works on it and the constraints within which we have to work and deliver. It's pretty much like finding the right people for the right job and giving them the best tools possible to enable them to do the best job. It's really trying to find great people and talented people. We're sort of doing the same components here we did on the series but we're moving at a breakneck speed. You really have to stay on top of it because it would be a terrible snowball if you had one.
Do you have an aspect of production that is maybe your favorite out of all them?
Claudia Katz: At this point we've worked with Matt (Groening; the show's creator) so long, it's sort of really rewarding to be challenged consistently on these movies and then get the satisfaction of delivering them. And having everybody really pleased with the work that we're doing.
What might fans be able to expect from the next three Futurama movies? We seem to know a little bit about Bender's Big Score...
Claudia Katz: There are some big, sci-fi/fantasy genres that have been untapped thus far that we're going to get into. I think I can say, there's a little bit of Lord of the Rings-type fantasy stuff coming up that's pretty cool. There's just a lot of really great sci-fi stuff. All the movies are really, really well written and are each different from each other and a lot of fun. I think in many ways Futurama is extremely well suited toward a feature because the ideas can be so big. It's sort of like a very epic premise.
Which is all the more impressive because you were doing it as a TV show and now you have a much larger canvas.
Claudia Katz: Yeah, but I don't know if most people appreciate in most animated sitcoms you sort of get to rely on... a lot of the episode will take place in the house, or sort of fairly recurring locations. With Futurama we've never really had that luxury. It's a great challenge but it also makes the show fun to work on because you can definitely never get bored.
Futurama the Movie: Bender's Big Score comes to DVD on November 23 from Fox Home Entertainment.
"Cinematical.com" November 14, 2007
Interview: 'Futurama' Movie(s) Producer(s) & Director(s)! By Scott Weinberg
Good things sometimes happen when you behave in a geeky and enthusiastic fashion. For example, from the minute I heard that four brand-new Futurama movies were going into production, I wet myself a little and then went insane. ... (read more)
(Examples of the aforementioned insanity can be found here, here and here.) So not too long ago, I got an email asking if I'd like to express my Futurama obsession in the form of an interview piece, I said "Yes!" Which is how I got to ask a bunch of questions to:
Not bad, eh? So knowing that I was about to chit-chat with three of the more "hands-on" creators, I set out to create some questions that were as interesting as they were amusing. So here's how the conversation(s) went down!
Futurama freaking rocks. Everyone in the universe knows this -- except for the small handful of people who used to work at Fox who canceled it. How painful was it when the final news came down? Did anyone make a beeline for the prototype suicide booth? At that point, did anyone hold out any (REALISTIC) hope that the series would be re-born in some fashion?
Claudia Katz: Well, the sad truth is it took a very long time for the news to officially come down. And even then we were lodged in limbo (between no pick-up and not canceled) and eventually got the hint. I believe, after what seemed like an eternity, they let Matt [Groening] know we were not getting a pick-up "for now," and we all figured it was time to move on. Before we reached this point, I felt it was a good idea to remove the studio's suicide booth. In retrospect, I consider this a very prudent decision. By Season 4 we had assembled the perfect crew [but] unfortunately the series came to an end. At Rough Draft we've always held out hope for its return. Right after the series ended, there was some brief talk of a possible theatrical Futurama feature. This, of course, is my new Futurama hope!
Dwayne Carey-Hill: Futurama came to an end in such a non-definitive way that there was a lot more standing around scratching heads than there was taking of one's own life. It was more like the ending to our Halloween parties. You don't want it to end and a lot of people hang around talking and laughing. But eventually, all the conversations come to an uncomfortable end and everybody just turns and goes their own separate ways.
How many DVDs had to sell before someone (new) at Fox said "Heyyyy, there's still some more money to be made here! Someone politely get Matt Groening on the phone!"? When discussing the new Futurama projects, does the word "vindicated" come up very often? Is it pretty much the same crew from the series that's working on the movies? And do you haze the newbies like in a frat house?
CK: It's very hard to get the numbers on DVD sales, but clearly for Fox to consider producing more, they must have sold well. Understandably for Fox, it come down to a business decision, and we're thrilled they decided to go ahead with the DVDs. We've always had a great relationship with Matt, David [X. Cohen] and the writers, and this time around there's also been a great collaboration with the Studio (Fox). We feel vindicated, but more importantly, it feels like you can go home again. As far as the crew, we're super-fortunate to have a lot of great return talent. In addition to the other Rough Draft partners Rich Moore, Gregg Vanzo and Scott Vanzo, both Dwayne Carey-Hill and Peter Avanzino who directed on the series are back. Scott is back as the head of CG, as well as our lead CG artist Eric Whited. Our color supervisor Samantha Harrison and colorist Rachel Stratton returned, as well as our digital producer, Geraldine Symon, and our associate producer Elise Belknap. Luckily some layout artists returned, but we geared up for the DVDs in the midst of production on The Simpsons Movie. So we hired a largely new crew, which was some initial cause for concern, but they've done an incredible job. I can't release any exact hazing details, but we try to curtail them to activities that don't leave any marks or cause lifelong therapy needs.
DCH: We have a great sense of pride as to how well the series turned out and a bunch of us, still working at Rough Draft, knew what it took to get these done. So there was the feeling that when doing these DVDs that we should push what we had done even further. We managed to bring back about a third of the old crew and the new people have proved to be great artists as well. We all had to hit the ground running so the normal hazing rituals have been put aside for now.
Hypnotoad tells us that there will soon be four (4!) feature-length Futurama movies on the DVD market. Was this the original plan for the series' resurrection? Did someone maybe float the idea of a new season instead? Did that one dreamer in the corner say "Yeah, or maybe a theatrical movie!"
CK: The first DVD will be released November 27, 2007. I'm not sure of the exact release dates for the next three, I believe Spring 2008 is when the second should hit stores. Regarding the theatrical release, I am that dreamer! I think in many ways, okay, in every way, Futurama is incredibly well suited for features. I'm talking franchise if anyone's listening.
DCH: Hypnotoad talks too much and should learn when to keep his big mouth shut.
It's been widely reported by several geeks (like me) that these new-fangled Futurama movies will eventually hit cable television in episode form. Explain this process while not confusing anyone.
CK: While the DVDs have been written and produced as "features,"I believe the intention is to create four new episodes from each DVD movie.
It's a well-known FACT that Futurama offered the prettiest animation anywhere on network TV. What can fans expect from the new movies? Will we get a few more of those mega-nifty 3-D sequences like the time Bender's head drove a car? Man, that was cool. Surprise guests? Shocking deaths? The return of Slurms McKenzie perhaps?
CK: Thanks. What a great compliment. We're trying to evolve from pretty to beautiful. There are definitely some more great 3-D sequences, perhaps the best Futurama space battle ever, and many more fun surprises and deaths.
DCH: Fans can expect some more pretty animation, 2-D as well as 3-D sequences. The writers gave us four really ambitious scripts and I feel like we've been able to do them justice.
Will the new Futurama movies have a "connective arc," as it were? Like, if Bender's Big Score is Star Wars, will The Beast With a Billion Backs be ... The Phantom Menace? (OK, bad example.) Or are they more "stand-alone" movies in which stand-alone crazy things happen and then end? I just wanna know if Kif and Amy get married, OK? Jeez.
DCH: Much like the series, some DVDs connect and some are stand-alone. I won't talk about specifics but love is in the air.
Which Futurama character is the most fun to draw? Seriously, it's got to be Horrible Gelatinous Blob, right? Between the four seasons and the four movies, what are the toughest sequences to animate? (Action scenes, musical numbers, crowd shots, Umbriel's bedroom?) And how do you keep coming up with new robot designs?
DCH: I think the Professor is the most fun to draw, maybe Bender. Toughest scenes to animate? Crowd shots get the biggest grumbles because you can see what hell lies ahead. And there's a lot of them. The scenes where you're trying to convey real human emotions, however, definitely present the greatest challenges. It's really satisfying when they're done right and that is the stuff that I think makes Futurama a cut above.
Peter Avanzino: I like a challenge, so action sequences, musical numbers, (not crowd scenes), new locations, are all fun to figure out. The real fun comes, though, when you get a show that has all of them at once. Take Parasites Lost, for example. It has microscopic characters inside a human body, a 3-D colonoscopy, a sword fight, a holophoner sequence (involving otters and characters dancing on Saturn's rings), some sweet sweet lovemaking, and a space-truck stop. All in 22 minutes! Thank god there was no Busby Berkely Worm dance number. And Horrible Gelatinous Blob is a huge pain in the ass to draw. Roberto the Robot is the funnest.
What's a normal day at work over at Rough Draft Studios like? How's the coffee? Is there a casual Friday? Obviously what you do takes a lot of skill, practice and experience, but just admit it already: animation is fun!
CK: Well, let's face it, normal is a relative term, we like to think of Rough Draft as a Work Hard / Play Hard Studio. I think we produce some of the best-looking animation out there and yet find time to throw the best Halloween party in town. Our crew gifts aren't bad either! Ah, the coffee. We take our coffee pretty seriously here at Rough Draft. We finally found the perfect coffee, Intelligentsia's House Blend -- which we have flown in every two weeks from Chicago. If someone makes a weak pot of coffee, the punishment can be far worse than even the roughest hazing! As far as wardrobe, for the most part every day is casual Friday. As the producer, I try to respect some basic level of decorum, but I'm pretty much alone in that.
PA: First I go to work. Then I look at scenes. Then I eat lunch. Then I look at scenes. Then I go home. Seriously, though. The coffee's OK. Everyday is Casual Friday, except Friday, which is casual, but we don't call it Casual Friday, because who needs five Casual Fridays in one week? And, yes, animation is fun. Time-consuming, soul-draining, back-breaking, thankless fun.
DCH: A normal day is very busy. Futurama doesn't draw itself. There are a lot of people putting in long hours to make sure these DVDs look great. The coffee, by the way, is fantastic and not by accident. It has has taken Scott Vanzo a lot of years and equally as many variety of beans to get it just right. Thanks, Scott. Is animation fun? To quote my wife Tricia, " cartoons are hard." It is a lot of work to do any animated project well and so I feel we've been very fortunate to work on things we really like.
Explain how the magic of computers makes Futurama possible. For example, how long would it have taken to produce Bender's Big Score if you were making it in ... 1963?
CK: Ultimately, Futurama relies on a fair amount of sci-fi conventions. From the beginning, we knew space, the ships, and the battles had to look awesome -- or suffer the fans' wrath. This would be impossible on a TV schedule and budget without the 3-D. That said, I think good storytelling and filmmaking are far more important than the medium you choose to work in.
DCH: Regarding 2-D animation, the computer has allowed us to try more and more complex shots and rework things like color, composition and even the re-timing of animation. We would never be able to do this if we weren't working in a digital format. As far as how long it would take, I'm guessing the production schedule would remain the same so we just would never be able to try the kinds of things we're doing. Of course 3-D animation is not the way Disney's animators did it. The process is very different. But our 3-D department has always worked right along with us with the same goals. We want to use the computer to its fullest extent to make things look great. We sit down together to figure out how the 3-D animation will serve the show best. That could be a small bouncing, rolling die or a giant space battle for the control of Earth. And still retain the look of a hand drawn show. I think the 3-D department does an incredible job. In the end, even though the process may be different, I think we're all still trying to do great animation.
PA: Instead of comparing how computers have made my life easier since 1963, I'll compare it to 10 years ago. Just having a computer on my desk helps me, as a director, because I can do more things more quickly. I can review and give notes on designs, animatics, color footage. I can look for any reference footage or image I need via the internet. (Visual Dictionaries, anyone?) I can edit, spot music and sound FX. I can play almost any video game. I have all four seasons on my desktop ready to pull up for reference.
Since geeks love Futurama, they'd probably like to know that Rough Draft also animated the rather cool Clone Wars shorts. Explain how a project like that differs from Futurama, and I don't just mean "there's less jokes."
CK: On Futurama, we are responsible for the entire animation production of the series. Clone Wars was a collaboration between Cartoon Network and Rough Draft Studios. We worked on the 3-D animation and our sister studio, Rough Draft Korea, worked on the overseas animation. The pre-production for the 2-D was produced at Cartoon Network in Burbank. Oh yeah, and the joke quotient is a big difference as well.
Explain why the sickeningly clever Roswell That Ends Well holds a special place in the collective heart of the Rough Draft crew. (And congrats. It really is a superlative episode on all counts.)
CK: Roswell is one my top three episodes of all time. Made great of course by our very own Rich Moore, as well as our fantastic crew. It was also the studio's first Emmy Award. After several nominations and no wins, I was sure we would never get that Emmy. That year I persuaded the writers (mostly because they probably agreed anyway) to submit Roswell for Emmy consideration. I remember driving to the Emmys thinking, well at least this year we'll lose on our own terms. When they called out Futurama, I was literally sitting in my chair thinking, well, they didn't say "The" as in The Simpsons. Both Rich Moore and I were so shocked we had to be prodded out of [our] chairs. It was a great night, the only downside was [that] our partner Gregg Vanzo was in Korea. We graciously agreed to hold his Emmy until his return, and Rich and I took turns pretending we won two.
In closing, I submit to you that every one of my readers has $21.50 burning a hole in his pocket. Briefly explain why that money should go towards the purchase of a Bender's Big Score! DVD. Extra points will be awarded awarded for sincerity and enthusiasm.
CK: Well, simply put, the more DVDs people buy, the greater the chance we'll get to make more. And if they sell really well, talk of a Futurama movie may surface. So lets not think a mere $21.50; real fans should think about buying more than one copy!
DCH: You should buy this because it's good. Real good. And as far as I can tell George W. had nothing to do with it.
Bender's Big Score! hits the shelves on November 27. (Expect a review soon!) Three sequels are guaranteed to follow. Enjoy!
"Below The Line" August 2007
Rough Draft Goes Back to Futurama By Thomas J. McLean
A survey of innovative animation shops, plus hot toon properties at this year's NATPE conference.
They say you can't go home again, but when it comes to Rough Draft Studios' work on Matt Groening's Futurama, all bets are off. ... (read more)
Producer Claudia Katz says returning to Futurama is a pleasure, given the unceremonious ending to the series. "I don't know if we were ever officially canceled. I think we were just never picked up," she says. "We were thrilled to have the opportunity to work on it again because we never felt like we said goodbye properly."
Katz says there was talk near the end of the series among Groening and co-exec producer David X. Cohen of a feature film, but what really spurred the return of the series was strong ratings on Cartoon Network's late night Adult Swim Block. As with another Fox toon, Family Guy, interest was strong enough to warrant a return. Katz says Comedy Central's purchase of the next cable window and rights to any new episodes put the DVD projects over the top.
But a lot has changed technically in animation in the years since Futurama went off the air. Kats says Rough Draft is employing new technology in producing the features, while trying to retain the look of the original. "Our hope is they look as good or hopefully better than they did in the show," she says. The most important changes for the features are they're being produced in HD using a 16x9 aspect ratio.
Scott Vanzo, Rough Draft's chief technology officer and director of CGI, says the studio operates mostly the same way it did back on the original series, with a close affiliation with its overseas operation, Rough Draft Korea. Software has switched, going from Alias PowerAnimator to Autodesk Maya, and rendering with Mental Ray.
"The goal is to make the same kind of cel-based, integrated look that matches the 2D animation," he says. "We can just do a lot more complicated work now."
Rough Draft has kept its camera department in house, allowing animators to more easily fix shots on the back end than if they had to communicate with an overseas operation. The move to 16x9 aspect ratio and HD was one of the major challenges. Katz says many of the designs and models from the original series had to be converted or rebuilt because they couldn't be simply brought over.
Vanzo says it also affected things like the opening title sequence, which was originally created for 4x3 and had to be redone. "It's not only retooling the models, but also figuring out how to deal with the aspect change, which in animation is very significant. There will be standard definition and 4x3 versions made as well, as each DVD feature was written so they could each be broken up into four half-hour TV episodes.
"That's a little challenging for the directors and the artists because they have to keep the fielding in mind," Katz says. "I think we prefer to just work in 16x9, but it's something the producers really wanted to protect for in case they decided to air them in 4x3."
The advances in technology allow the studio to do more with each shot more than save time. "It just allows us to pull off some shots we couldn't do previously or couldn't produce as gracefully before," she says. Technology also has made it easier to work in HD. "Everything has sort of caught up with HD," says Katz. "We're able to work at this resolution, which is four times greater than standard definition and it's not slowing us down at all. "Production schedules on each of the four planned Futurama features run just under a year, with production starts staggered by about 16 weeks. The first film was begun last August and delivered in July.
"With the exception of the director and the assistant director, there's pretty much the same crew working on each DVD movie," says Katz. "The crew drops down when they're done with one and starts work on the next one. "The crew totaled about 60 or 70 people, including storyboard artists, designers, layout artists, timing, CG model and animation artists, compositors, various production people, and an on-site editor.
"From an artist's perspective, instead of getting four crews up to speed and waiting to get the benefit of that, we had to get one crew up to speed and everyone gets to benefit from that," Katz says. Vanzo says Rough Draft used Toon Boom Harmony for compositing on The Simpsons Movie, but went back to a software called Toonz for Futurama. "Basically, it gives you a lot of versatility in how to composite elements in the computer."
Autodesk Maya was used for animation, with Shake used to do some previz work. All sequences were rendered out in HD and edited in Avid. Rough Draft provides a "director's cut" to the producers, who use it as the basis for the final cut, Vanzo says. Adrenaline HD is used to finish the project.
The studio, which produced all 72 episodes of the 1999-2003 animated series, returned to animation duties on a series of four direct-to-DVD features, starting with the release of Bender's Big Score on Nov. 27.
"Newsarama.com" August 2, 2007
GETTING ROUGH ON THE SIMPSON & FUTURAMA By Steve Fritz
As Mike Scully mentioned in his previous interview, when Matt Groening and company finally gave The Simpsons Movie a green light, they came to realize the work was just way too much for their usual production studio, Film Roman. To help them out, they then called on old partners Rich Moore and his company Rough Draft. ... (read more)
For those who read the credits, Rough Draft is one of the busiest for-hire studios in the world. It’s Korean operation does a ton of work on anything from Warner Bros. to many of the top anime shows Japan has to offer. Moore is one of the partners of the Los Angeles branch. His work has won him four Emmy nominations and two of the actual statuettes (both for Groening’s other beloved animated project, Futurama).
Speaking of which, Moore is also hard at work on the upcoming direct-to-DVD escapades of Fry, Bender and the crew of the Planetary Express. So to have a shot of actually talking to the extremely busy man could not be ignored. Here’s what he had to say about working with Mr. Groening and his latest success:
Newsarama: Now you’ve worked with Matt Groening before the movie, right?
Rich Moore: I worked on The Simpsons for the first five seasons. I worked with them when they were being done by Klasky-Csupo and when they moved to Film Roman. Now to make things clear, when you look at the TV show and see the Rough Draft listing, that’s really Rough Draft Korea, who does the overseas work. Rough Draft has a studio here in Los Angeles as well as overseas. But yes, I’ve worked with Matt both on The Simpsons and on Futurama.
NRAMA: What’s it like working with Mr. Groening?
RM: It’s great. He’s a very creative and funny guy. I’ve had a lot of respect for him since I was in college and reading Life In Hell. I started working with him when I was a 25 year-old kid just when I got out of college, which to me was a dream come true.
NRAMA: Was there an education process for him?
RM: I started on The Simpsons when it was a TV series and past being on The Tracey Ullman Show. I think Matt fell right into animation. From what I understand, he literally hit the ground running. What many don’t realize is Matt has a pretty extensive understanding of animation in general.
NRAMA: So how did you guys get to work on The Simpsons Movie. From what I understand there was just too much work for Film Roman.
RM: Yes. The schedule was a really big one. It needed to be done quickly. We had worked on Futurama. So it was decided by Gracie Films that they needed to split the workload in half. So Film Roman did one half and we did the other.
NRAMA: Was it literally split in half, like Film Roman did one half and you did the other?
RM: No, but proportionately it was half and half. I directed the very beginning of the movie and then I was responsible for the climax of the film.
NRAMA: So, did you work on the skateboard sequence?
RM: No. I worked on the motorcycle driving off the Dome, the Emperor Moe sequence and all the stuff at the end though.
NRAMA: One thing I gathered from Mike Scully was there were a lot of improvatory, last minute changes while making the film. A good example is the Spider Pig bit. That was thought up in the last six months.
RM: Yes. That was thought up really late in the process. We storyboarded that section and then handed the animation part to Film Roman. That was really working on the fly.
NRAMA: So it wasn’t uncommon for Matt or someone else from Gracie coming in with an idea saying it had to be done immediately.
RM: Oh yes. I’ll be honest. The last six months of the movie was challenging.
NRAMA: So was it like the animated version of Casablanca, if you know that story?
RM: Yes, I do. We would get new pages every other day. A lot of times it would be new pages on things we had just started or were already in production. I remember conversations going like ‘Well, wouldn’t you like to see the first version?’ and them saying ‘No no no…we want to do it this way.’
NRAMA: Did they come at least with the voice tracks already recorded for you?
RM: Yes. We would get the pages one day and then the voice tracks would follow.
NRAMA: So I imagine there’s a lot of guys at Rough Draft now sporting toupees from all the hair they lost.
RM: Actually I’m getting mine fitted today. Believe me when I say that everyone on the staff feels the extra five or so years they’ve lost in the time we worked on the project (Laughs).
NRAMA: Well, one thing I have to congratulate both you and the Roman guys for is the seemlessness of the movie. It’s hard to tell the two of you apart.
RM: Thank you. That’s to the credit of all the sequence directors keeping the movie focussed and on track. It was never competitive. What it’s about is with The Simpsons there is a certain style and look and we all aimed for that target.
NRAMA: But wouldn’t you also say the quality of the animation is stepped up for the movie?
RM: We did more animation and, more important, kept more of it here in Los Angeles. Usually, with the TV show, you do the main posing of a scene and then sending it overseas. A lot more work is done in Korea. On the movie, we were doing pretty much 65-75% of the work in Los Angeles. We were only sending to Korea for clean-up.
NRAMA: Must be nice to be doing that much of a movie.
RM: It is. It felt like how it must of felt back in the golden age of animation when they did everything in the studio. I mainly have a television background, having worked on The Simpsons, The Critic and Futurama, and I always used to dream about doing more over here. So here was this great chance to do that.
NRAMA: That hasn’t really happened since Filmation. Say what you will, they kept it all over here.
RM: They did. It was a crazy stock system where only about 10% of any episode was ever new animation, but it was.
NRAMA: So do you feel satisfied with the movie?
RM: It was Mike Reiss, one of the writers, who said ‘After seeing it, I kind of think to myself that it was ALMOST worth it. He was just joking, of course. It was a lot of incredibly hard work but it did feel good to sit in the theater at the debut and seeing it was playing, the jokes were landing and this thing that was like a blood cyclone and sucking everything we had out of us somehow congealed into a really entertaining movie.
NRAMA: How do you feel about the public reaction? Being #1 at the box office and all that.
RM: I can tell you that we were at San Diego Comic Con the night of the national debut and hearing that the film was going to make $30 million that night just felt overwhelming. Our jaws dropped to the floor. I mean we knew it was going to be good. But that good? Who knew?
NRAMA: It must also be nice to see a traditional pen and ink movie doing so well.
RM: It is, and I hope it finally puts to rest the idea that all feature films must be computer generated and the whole notion that 2-D is dead. It’s not. I think we’ve now seen enough 3D movies bomb to have the studios realize that CGI is not the magic bullet they thought it was.
NRAMA: Even Disney is back doing traditional movies.
RM: And that’s great. It’s great news for a lot of traditional animators in L.A. We had a lot of Disney animators working on this movie. Hopefully, after Futurama, a lot of them will go back to their roots.
NRAMA: So with that cue let’s go back to the future. Now the first Futurarama is subtitled Bender’s Big Score?
RM: Yes. We just got the animation back and it looks really great. I think the fans are going to go nuts for it. It’s got everything that Futurama is all about. It has the Fry and Leela romance, there’s great action running through it, as well as great moments from Bender, Zoidberg and everyone else. It’s just a very satisfying, well woven film. Animation-wise, it’s also very worthy of being on the big screen. It would make a terrific theatrical feature.
The animation will be a blend of traditional and CG, much like the original TV show. We do have a CG department because there are certain effects that are very hard to do traditionally. I mean if you enjoy science fiction movies, there are certain things that you expect and they must look good. If it looks kind of shlocky then fans will end up saying the whole film isn’t great.
NRAMA: Well there must be something about Futurama considering how Adult Swim runs it so much even these days.
RM: I think it’s just people love those characters. It’s not like The Simpsons, who everyone can easily relate to, which is based on your average American family. Futurama is genre-based. It’s heavy science fiction. If you like science fiction, then you can immediately identify with it. I mean Fry’s the hero. Leela’s the leading lady. The Professor is the wise old sage. Event though they play with them, they are the conventions of science fiction. But it also takes a little longer for the general audience to accept that. Once they did, they realized there’s a lot of depth to the show. There’s also a lot of comedy from all those science fiction conventions, but just like The Simpsons Matt has made it easily accessible. There’s something for everyone from children to adults.
NRAMA: It’s the entire original voice crew, correct?
RM: Yes. Everyone’s back.
NRAMA: In a way to me that’s just as important. Even if someone like Lauren Tom was missing, it wouldn’t be the same.
RM: It wouldn’t be. We’re very lucky to have not only the original voice cast back, but just about the entire original animation staff back. I mean this time David Cohen put together a smaller writing crew, but it’s comprised of a lot of the principles from the original series. So it’s really great to be working on it again.
NRAMA: So this is the first of three direct-to-DVD releases, right?
RM: Actually, it’s four. The first of four. It’s slated for around November 27.
NRAMA: What a nice holiday gift?
RM: Perfect, isn’t it? You can watch them carve up the world while you carve up your turkey leftovers.
NRAMA: So things are going pretty good at Rough Draft?
RM: Yes. We finished The Simpsons Movie just in time to get to work on Futurama. We have some other things in the works, too.
NRAMA: Anything you can tell us about?
RM: Not yet. We starting to do some original stuff and we’re also talking to other people about their projects. Hopefully they’ll soon the be the source of more interviews.
"CHUD.com" August 2, 2007
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: RICH MOORE (FUTURAMA) By Jeremy Smith
Name your favorite Simpsons episode, and there's a good chance Rich Moore directed it. "Cape Feare", "A Streetcar Called Marge", "Flaming Moe's", "Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie", Marge vs. the Monorail"... all of these were overseen by Moore. After several seasons with The Simpsons and a stint on The Critic, Moore became the supervising director on Futurama, where he remained until the show was tragically cancelled in 2003. ... (read more)
For most shows, that's the end of the story, but thanks in large part to heavy rotation as part of Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" lineup, Futurama is making a comeback with four direct-to-DVD features - the first of which, Bender's Big Score, is scheduled to debut this November. It's not quite a Family Guy revival, but it's close. And who's to say the show won't eventually find its way back to prime time?
Though the two-time Emmy Award-winning Moore was certainly enthusiastic at the notion of Futurama returning to Fox's regular lineup, he seemed most interested in the potential for a big screen adventure for Fry, Bender, Leela and the rest of the gang. And why not? After all, our interview - comfortably conducted inside a vintage muscle car parked on the outskirts of Fox's booth at Comic Con - took place the Saturday of The Simpsons Movie's opening weekend. It was a good day to be associated with Matt Groening.
Q: I feel like I should be congratulating everyone connected to The Simpsons today. $28 million on Friday?
Rich Moore: Oh, my god. It's unbelievable. Who would've thought? But, then again, who thought people would watch an animated series in prime time? It's the natural evolution of The Simpsons, from the TV to the big screen. It's amazing.
Q: Now that The Simpsons have been re-validated, and Futurama has been revived due to... I guess, aggressive interest from a select audience--
Moore: The fans on the internet are really the ones who got the show back. There are so many fan sites. They're great. The fans are great. I know there were letter writing campaigns, email campaigns, sending anchovies to Fox... and I really think it made Fox take another look at a property that died before its time.
Q: Do you think there's a point coming where Fox will say, "Um, we fucked up; you're back on the air."?
Moore: The people [at Fox] responsible for it being gone, they're gone now. The new regime might say, "Hey, this is a great show. I don't know why we ever let it go. Let's give it another shot!" They did it with Family Guy. I guess it just depends on how well the DVDs do. Fox is always looking for something. All of the networks are. And if it means bringing back one of their old shows, so be it. I would love to work on it again. I love comedy and science fiction, and putting those two together... when Matt told me he had this idea for a show, I was like, "I've got to work on this, Matt." When it was cancelled, it was heartbreaking. We were at that point where it was like, "We know exactly how to do this. It's running like a well-oiled machine." And then to find out you're done, it's like, "What!?!? No!!! I love these characters!!!"
Q: Even with The Simpsons, it took until the fourth season for it to start cooking. That's when they moved beyond Bart's antics and really developed the universe. And Futurama was right there.
Moore: "It was at that point. Having been a director on The Simpsons in those early years, I could feel that. It felt like the third or fourth season, where it was starting to come together, we knew the characters well, everyone had a handle on it. That first year on The Simpsons, there were maybe six people who really understood what the scripts were all about, and what the comedy of the show was all about. We'd constantly have to explain to people, "No, we don't do big, goofy takes. This is a little more restrained." The theory was that you had these goofy looking cartoon characters, but they react like human beings rather than Bugs Bunny. We were never trying to draw attention to the animation; we never wanted people to be like, "Hey, I'm watching a cartoon." We wanted them to say, "Hey, I'm watching a very funny sitcom and it just happens to be animated."
That was the same thing with Futurama. And especially with it being a science-fiction show, I knew from the beginning that, visually, it needed something more. Movies are so advanced now that we couldn't just get away with some cheesy, hand-drawn spaceships, so that's why I really pushed for a CG look that matched the Matt style, where the acting in 3-D was similar to the acting in 2-D. Before that, there were so many 2-D shows and movies where the regular cell animation... you'd put it up against this highly-rendered CG spaceship, and it just looked like two different worlds. We really wanted to create something where it looked like it was all of one universe.
Q: The great thing about Futurama, though, is that you unabashedly appeal to the nerds. I'm consistently amazed by the obscure science geek references you guys squeeze in.
Moore: Oh, yeah. I'm one of them. The show goes all through the science-fiction genre. The authors, the movies, the TV shows, D&D... everything is up for grabs. For me, it's a dream project because I love all of those different things. And the fact that it's a comedy... I could work on this show for the rest of my life.
Q: At least you've got the new movies.
Moore: There's four of them. The first one is coming out in November: Bender's Big Score. It's really funny and a great science fiction story. It's got everything in it. Ken Keeler wrote it, and they really fashioned it to appeal to the fans and to people who've never seen Futurama before. It's a very enticing story; it really pulls you in. But everything you love about the characters is back, and all the secondary characters have a little appearance or moment. The relationship stuff between the shippers is there, but then it's got a great action sequence in the third act, a big space battle. And lots of nudity. (Laughs) And lots of math jokes. It's all there. It's very intelligent.
Q: You've got Al Gore's disembodied head again?
Moore: Al Gore is back. And the whole cast is back. We're just finishing the animation.
Q: I was talking with friends earlier about how I'd love to see Futurama go really nerdy with its guest voices. For instance, whereas The Simpsons gets all the famous folk, you guys could get someone like Raymond Kurzweil.
Moore: David loves to get people like that. And if it becomes a series again, that would be great.
Q: But you haven't heard anything from David in terms of conversations with the network?
Moore: They haven't said anything yet. Matt hasn't said anything. I think they're really looking at The Simpsons movie right now and how well it performs. Who knows? It may make over $100 million this weekend, which might lead them to look at Futurama and say, "Hey, let's try this on the big screen." And I think that would be great.
Q: Well, do you think Bender's Big Score could play on the big screen?
Moore: I think it could, but I think it would be better if David and Matt came up with a story intended for the big screen. This is a great story, but I think they could come up with something even grander. I just think that, with the genre, Futurama is more a appropriate show to put on the big screen than The Simpsons, even though they did add an epic feel to it.
Q: I have to ask: do you have any favorite episodes?
Moore: I really like the one that Peter Avanzino directed, "Parasites Lost", where they go into Fry's body. I love that episode. I could watch that over and over. And I don't want to toot my own horn, but I really love the script to "Roswell That Ends Well". When I got that, I said, "Oh, this is going to be fun". I really enjoyed directing that one. And "Godfellas" was a good one, too.
This interview is far too brief, but my schedule on Saturday was packed; I was already running late for an interview with the King of Kong boys. Hopefully, there'll be an opportunity to get more out of... Moore in the coming months.
Until then, remember this: Bender's Big Score is set to street this November. Let's make sure we buy the shit out of this thing.
"Animation World Magazine" July 27, 2007
Rough Draft Animates TV Family to Look At Home on the Big Screen in The Simpsons Movie By Joe Strike
After 400+ TV episodes, The Simpsons come roaring onto the big screen.
Once upon a time the TV set was referred to as `the idiot box.' It's taken more than a few years, but Homer Simpson, TV's number one idiot has finally broken out of the box and made his way to the movie screen. The Simpsons Movie (opening July 27, 2007) is far from the first animated TV series to travel from living room to multiplex; at the peak of their popularity Hanna-Barbera stars Fred Flintstone and Yogi Bear made the journey, and more recently SpongeBob and South Park have done so as well. Like those shows, The Simpsons is faced with the same challenge: making sure their characters look as much at home on the big screen as they do on the TV screen. ... (read more)
One way to make sure is to bring as much as of your creative team with you as possible, people who know the Simpsons so well they could live a few houses down Evergreen Terrace. Rich Moore is one of the movie's four main sequence directors (working under director David Silverman) and oversaw most of the movie's slam-bang climax. A regular director on the show's first five seasons, Moore jumped ship to join Gregg Vanzo's Rough Draft animation studio in Glendale, California, where he served as visual designer for The Critic and supervising director of Futurama. With Rough Draft and Film Roman (the TV series' production studio in Burbank, California) sharing animation duties, Moore has returned to Springfield.
"The TV show is pretty much limited animation, and we knew from the beginning that trying to add too much slickness would take away from what people know about the characters. We tested different levels of animation -- we tried going all the way to really fluid, all done on ones animation -- not Disney style or making them Disney-type characters, but fully done. Basically, that was going too far. It started not looking like The Simpsons and seemed foreign. "
"There's definitely animation on ones in the movie," adds Claudia Katz, Rough Draft's producer. "We're making sure to use it at the right time. The main difference is that we kept more of the animation here in the U.S. than the TV show does. It gave the directors more control and allowed for better acting. We were able to capture some subtle, observational details and get more nuanced performances."
Moore admits that thanks to Homer's usual brain-dead stare, some of those subtle details may be products of the viewers' imagination -- which is just the way the movie's creators want it. "Depending on the camera angle, we could use a Homer's blank face to say he's hungry or sad. The audience does a lot of work for us.
"We studied The Muppets a lot during the first season. Kermit is just a piece of felt with two ping-pong balls for eyes, but there's something within the situation of the moment that with the slightest change of expression on his mouth, the audience projects the right emotion on him."
The biggest difference between the TV Simpsons and the movie Simpsons is the size of the canvas their adventures are set on. "We're working in CinemaScope," Katz explains, "this ridiculously widescreen format, the widest there is. It's a very different palette from a composition viewpoint. It sets a very different tone right off the bat; on a subliminal level you sort of go `this is a movie.'"
"They wanted to make it as different as possible from the TV show," Moore adds. After doing the show for so long, you're used to over-the-shoulder angles, closeups and wide shots. Now you have to figure out how these work in CinemaScope. It took a few days, but once we got the hang of it I loved working in that aspect ratio. I thought it was terrific.
"We studied a lot of `Scope movies from the '50s and '60s," he continues. "They're just beautifully composed and we kind of just followed their lead, but if you have a really tall guy onscreen, you're out of luck." When Katz suggests, "you've got to be far away, I guess," Moore agrees: "Really far away."
In keeping with the Springfieldians' simple, stripped-down designs and their flat, 2D TV origins, only a simple shadow level was added to the characters. It's a touch of shading designed to help them pop a bit out of that CinemaScope frame -- and away from the backgrounds. "They're handled differently than in the series," says Katz. "On the show they're just flat-colored, one light-source backgrounds. Everyone agreed that wasn't going to play on a 100-foot screen."
"You're going to see deeper looking compositions," agrees Moore, and when asked if that includes multiplane effects, he enthusiastically adds "oh, you know it."
Production-wise, another upgrade is the movie's merging of CGI and 2D animation. It's a technique that's responsible for much of Futurama's futuristic feel, but new to The Simpsons. As key players on Matt Groening's sci-fi spoof (and key creatives on the upcoming direct-to-video Futurama movies), Moore and Katz are 100% comfortable going the hybrid route. "It's definitely a challenge to bring 3D in without it getting too fancy or losing the hand drawn look," Katz cautions," and we're trying to protect that." Homer's run-in with a construction crane was a highlight of the movie's earliest TV advertising; while that sequence was directed by Mike Anderson and animated at another studio, Katz says the CGI was produced at Rough Draft.
The Simpsons Movie has been a long time a-borning, with creator Groening back in the show's earliest days promising its eventual arrival. In a 1995 interview, series writer/producer David Mirkin commented, "there's always a lot of pressure on us -- " presumably from 20th Century Fox " -- to do a Simpsons feature." The show's creators resisted, worried that a movie might cannibalize the series' audience, while at the same struggling to develop a script capable of sustaining a feature-length film.
The voice talent's 2001 contracts for seasons 13-15 included an option for two movies (which grew to three in later contracts), but according to one website's catalog of rumors about the film, the first script reading didn't take place until 2005. Finally, in 2006, Groening told USA Today that the producers had come up with, "a script that would be worthy of people actually paying to see The Simpsons.... We felt the time was right for a movie... and for Milhouse to win an Oscar."
Another upgrade is the movie's merging of CGI and 2D animation. It was a challenge to the filmmakers to bring 3D in without losing the hand-drawn look.
Now a year later in 2007 -- a remarkably quick turnaround time in the world of feature animation -- the movie's IMDB credits list 13 writers for the film, including Groening, exec producer James L. Brooks and an assortment of show veterans from Al Jean to Jon Vitti. Early on many people thought a Simpsons movie would follow the end of the show's TV run, but, instead, both the movie and the series were produced simultaneously.
Katz says only two series animators joined the movie's production staff, but in a May AWN interview, veteran series director Mark Kirkland reported that Film Roman (where the series is animated) had to recruit new talent to cover both the show and their portion of the movie's animation.
The film revolves around a Homer-instigated catastrophe that threatens to destroy Springfield. According to Moore, "Every character that's ever appeared in the show" will put in an appearance." When asked if that included Roy, a Simpsons 'houseguest' who briefly appeared in one episode as a gag about tired series adding new characters, he admitted "except for him." And "Poochie," a similar, canine add-on to The Itchy and Scratchy Show? "We can't say. Oddly enough Lenny and Carl get a lot of screen time; if you like Lenny, you're going to like this movie."
For her part, Katz hopes The Simpsons Movie will spark. "a real resurgence in 2D animation now that there's been enough CGI flops so that CG is no longer seen as a magic bullet that guarantees instant box office success. There's a million great stories to be told and family comedies are a great genre for 2D animation that hasn't really been tapped yet."
"Home Media Magazine" July 26, 2007
It's Back to 'Futurama' for Fox With New DTV Release By Thomas K. Arnold
“Futurama” is coming back. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment at San Diego Comic-Con International is expected to announce more details about the first original “Futurama” productions since the animated show went off the air in 2003.
Futurama: Bender’s Big Score will be released Nov. 27 directly to DVD. It’s the first full-length “Futurama” feature based on the TV series; three more films will be released individually through 2008, all with the original creative team and voice cast on board. ... (read more)
The plot finds the “Futurama” crew fighting to save Earth in an epic battle against nudist alien Internet scammers. Bender the robot soon comes under the aliens' spell and is sent back in time to loot the Earth of its greatest treasures. At one point he runs into Al Gore, who guest stars as himself, during the 2000 Presidential recount. Other guest stars include Coolio and Sarah Silverman.
“Futurama” is the second Fox TV series to spawn a made-for-DVD program. Two years ago Fox’s home entertainment unit released a direct-to-video feature based on the “Family Guy” series, Family Guy Presents: Stewie Griffin — The Untold Story.
In fact, DVD sales of “Family Guy” helped bring the show back to network TV.
For her part, Claudia Katz, a partner at Rough Draft Studios, which produced the animation for “Futurama,” hopes history repeats.
“I think for business models anytime you can look at a successful example or formula it helps,” she said. “We’re thrilled to have the opportunity to go back and work on this again.”
While the DTV movies will be feature-length, they likely will show up as episodes on Comedy Central, which is slated to air reruns on the show starting next year, or on some other outlet, she said.
“I think they can — and probably will — be divided into episodes,” Katz said.
She said the DVD sales potential helped boost the budget for the project.
“It’s really well-written and from an animation standpoint very well-produced,” she said.
As for future prospects for the show, she said DVD could help there, too.
“I think if [the DTV titles] sell really well, that’s a huge vote of confidence in the property,” she said.
Additional reporting by Stephanie Prange.
"NY Daily News" July 22, 2007
It's HomerScope! By Joe Strike
The first family of animation gets, um, more animated.
No one will ever mistake Bart Simpson for Bambi, but Springfield's best-known slacker and Disney's four-legged forest dweller have one thing in common: Both are animated in classic, pencil-to-paper, 2D animation. When "The Simpsons Movie" opens Friday, it will be the first 'flat' feature-length cartoon in over a year, and the first major one since Disney gave up on 2D with 2004's unmemorable "Home on the Range." ... (read more)
Computer-generated (CG) animation may be the way of things now, but a CG version of Springfield's first family just wouldn't cut it - as anyone who remembers the Halloween episode starring a digital Homer would attest. After some 20 years on TV, everyone knows the real dimension of Homer, Marge, Bart and company - which is a challenge when trying to make their simple shapes fit the big screen.
"You can't take it too far away from what people are used to, or they'll feel like something's wrong," says Rich Moore, one of the sequence directors. "We tried going all the way to really fluid animation with everything animated on 'ones'[a separate drawing for every frame of film], but it started not looking like the Simpsons. It was a little too slick."
Moore and company dialed down the slick, saving the fanciest animation for fast-moving action scenes. Even without CG animation, Springfield's citizens will still look rounder (if that's possible for Homer) and pop off the screen just a bit.
"We added a simple shadow level to add some depth to the characters," explains Claudia Katz, Rough Draft Studios' producer on the project. "Another change from the series was to combine 2D animation with CG effects," as when Homer commandeers a computer-drawn construction crane. "It's something we did a lot of on [creator Matt Groening's now-canceled 'Futurama'], but was never done on 'Simpsons.' It's definitely a challenge to bring 3D in without it getting too fancy or losing the hand-drawn look."
Katz promises the movie's backgrounds will be richer, too, and not "done in flat colors lit by a single light source" as on TV. "Everyone agreed that wasn't going to play on a 100-foot-wide screen, so you're going to see deeper-looking compositions."
That screen size may be the biggest change of all from the TV show. "The Simpsons Movie" is filmed in ultra-wide-screen CinemaScope, just like "The 10 Commandments" or "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" or ... "Sign of the Pagan."
"CinemaScope gives a more epic feel," explains Moore, a veteran director from "The Simpsons'" earliest seasons. "It was one way to really let people know they weren't watching a TV show. It took a few days for us to get the hang of working in that aspect ratio. On TV, you're really used to doing standard over-the-shoulder shots, closeups and wide shots, then all of a sudden it's like, 'How do these work in CinemaScope?' We studied a lot of 'Scope movies from the '50s and '60s. They're beautifully composed, and we just kind of followed their lead. But if you have a really tall guy onscreen, you're out of luck."
While the Simpsons TV series is animated in Korea ("Where American cartoons are made!" as Springfield newscaster Kent Brockman once noted), a good chunk of the movie was done in the U.S. Even though Katz claims the change "let us get better acting out of the characters," Moore admits their minimal design "gives the illusion they're thinking and feeling.
"Back in the first season, we studied the Muppets a lot. Kermit is just a piece of felt with ping-pong balls for eyes, but with just the slightest change of expression on his mouth, the audience projects emotions onto him. Homer's the same way: Depending on the angle, his blank expression could mean he's hungry or sad. The audience does a lot of the work."
The "Simpsons Movie" studio, 20th Century Fox, is doing its best to keep the movie's plot under wraps, but advance word is that it revolves around a Homer-triggered environmental disaster. There could be celebrity cameos, but Moore does boast that "Every character that's ever appeared in the show" will put in an appearance."
Then he adds, cryptically, "If you like Lenny, you're going to like this movie."
"The Hollywood Reporter" January 15, 2004
Special Report: Animation By Ray Richmond
A survey of innovative animation shops, plus hot toon properties at this year's NATPE conference.
Things continue to hum at Rough Draft, a production house founded in 1991 by Gregg Vanzo, and Rough Draft Korea, which Vanzo co-founded the following year with his wife Nikki. During the past year, the companion studios, which have worked together on the likes of Fox's "The Simpsons" and "Futurama", Nickelodeon's "SpongeBob SquarePants" and Cartoon Network's "Dexter's Laboratory" and "The Powerpuff Girls," have co-produced with Lucasfilm Ltd. the critically lauded "Star Wars: Clone Wars," a 20-part series of three-minute shorts for Cartoon Network. Rough Draft Korea is in preproduction on a long-planned "SpongeBob" feature that will hit theaters in late 2004 or early 2005. ... (read more)
Meanwhile, in the 30,000-square-foot Rough Draft Studios in Glendale, production is kicking off on the comedy series "Drawn Together," slated for primetime on Comedy Central. Rough Draft senior vp Claudia Katz says the show features "all kinds of archetypes of animation living under the same roof. There's like a Captain America-type superhero, a Disney-style princess, an anime character. You've got all these genres represented. It's a really fun challenge for us."
"The Hollywood Reporter" January 21-27, 2003
HOT SHOPS : These innovators represent the cutting edge of television's new toon renaissance.
These surely are the best of times for Gregg Vanzo, who in 1991 founded the red-hot animation production house Rough Draft Studios and the following year co-founded Rough Draft Korea with his South Korea-born wife, Nikki. ... (read more)
Operating from a massive 30,000-square-foot "crib" in Glendale and a 500-person facility in Seoul, Rough Draft is an industry unto itself. The two divisions have had a hand in some of the hottest animated shows of the past decade, including Fox's The Simpsons, Nickelodeon's SpongeBob SquarePants and Cartoon Network's Powerpuff Girls and Dexter's Laboratory.
But it is on the Fox series Futurama, which has four seasons in the can, that Vanzo and Rough Draft truly have come of age: He and his U.S. team have producer and director duties on the space-age animated comedy, guiding storyboards, layouts and designs. The triple Emmy-winning Futurama has been bolstered by some of the most progressive 3-D computer animation work in the business.
"We have always taken the approach of 3-D being a tool, not a focal point," Vanzo says. "It takes a lot of energy to make the 2-D and 3-D blend seamlessly; we invariably work really hard to 'dumb down' the 3-D software in order to get the 2-D look."
While having divisions based in Southern California and South Korea seemingly should streamline the complex animation process, Vanzo says that is not really the case.
"All of the technology that was perhaps developed to save time and money has simply made the process more complex and painstaking that ever," he says. "But it's painstaking in a good way that allows us to produce more exciting, interesting and entertaining projects."
"The New York Times" November 10, 2002
Commuting the Pacific, Unseating 'The Simpsons' By Ted Loos
Gregg Vanzo won his first Emmy award this year, the payoff for 15 years of serious "pencil mileage," the grueling hours required to make drawings come alive. ... (read more)
But on the September night when "Futurama" toppled the perennial winner, "The Simpsons," for outstanding animated program, Mr. Vanzo was nowhere near the Shrine Auditorium. He was almost 6,000 miles away in Seoul, South Korea, where he lives and works much of the time these days.
"It was too bad that I missed it," said Mr. Vanzo, a partner in Rough Draft Studios, which animates "Futurama." He was working on a visit to Rough Draft's offices here a month after the awards. "But I'm not a big guy for fame," he added. "As long as we can keep the phone ringing, it's O.K. with me."
Eleven years after Mr. Vanzo founded Rough Draft Studios in his garage in Van Nuys, he and his partners - two of whom did pick up their Emmy statuettes that night - have turned into a highly respected animation company known for richly detailed work and technical innovation. But Mr. Vanzo's own time has increasingly been spent in Seoul, where his wife, Nikki Vanzo, a Korean native, founded and runs Rough Draft Korea. That company, with 500 employees one of the largest privately owned animation firms in the country, works on more than a few of today's most popular and critically respected animated series, including "Futurama," "The Simpsons," "SpongeBob SquarePants," "Dexter's Laboratory" and "The Power Puff Girls."
As David Cohen, the executive producer of "Futurama," put it, "They have a real family affair going over there."
The two Rough Drafts are separate companies, but work together frequently. On "Futurama," the space-based comedy that begins its fourth season tonight on Fox, Rough Draft Studios in Glendale does the storyboards, layouts and designs and then ships the materials to South Korea for the labor-intensive finishing work that is traditionally done overseas.
That fractured process is typical in animation, though only a few television shows can afford to have the first stages done in the United States, where labor costs are higher.
The linchpin of this Pacific pairing is the unassuming Mr. Vanzo, 41, an unlikely jet-set mogul. He speaks only what he calls "taxi Korean," and when in Glendale he prefers to eat lunch every day at Quizno's, the submarine sandwich chain.
"He's pretty much the lowest-profile head of a company you'll find," said Claudia Katz, president of Rough Draft Studios. "He draws, and that's what he loves to do."
While in Seoul, Mr. Vanzo animates projects for Rough Draft Studios and when needed, facilitates cultural translation between the two companies. "People have criticized me for being too hands-on," he said during a break from drawing part of a Warner Brothers theatrical short. "But animating is where I'm happiest. I'm not a great communicator, and I don't like meetings and schmoozing."
By all accounts, he has a classic animator's personality. "Gregg is very soft-spoken, almost taciturn," said Matt Groening, the creator of "Futurama" and "The Simpsons." "But he delivers the goods over and over again."
Rough Draft Studios almost didn't get the chance to deliver the goods on "Futurama". Though respected in the industry for smaller projects, like "The Maxx" for MTV in 1995, Mr. Vanzo and his partners had never done a prime-time network series. Primary animation on "The Simpsons" is done by Film Roman, a publicly held Los Angeles company.
"We had a lot of pressure from Fox to go with a known quantity," Mr. Cohen said. "And on the other hand we had this small studio that really had something to prove."
Mr. Groening recalled the unanimous advice of industry executives: "Anybody but Rough Draft."
"As one of them told me, 'The inmates are running the asylum over there,' he said. He meant that it was a company started by animators, rather than by businessmen who are beating up animators." Rough Draft's offices reinforce that impression; a large set of bleachers, the kind found in high school gyms, dominates the conference room.
But Mr. Groening and Mr. Cohen were soon pleased with their decision, and even Fox came around when they saw the finished product.
"It's just so lovingly done," Mr. Cohen said. "They have gone far beyond what I could have hoped for."
Part of Rough Draft's achievement is technical. Some episodes of "Futurama" have hit a "cel count" of 50,000 drawings; even in a prime-time series, the normal range is 20,000 to 25,000.
The show also began at a time when three-dimensional computer animation had just become affordable for series television. It blends the newer technology, overseen by Mr. Vanzo's brother, Scott, with traditional two-dimensional animation.
"These are times when I'm not sure if I'm looking at a 3-D model or a drawing," Mr. Cohen said.
The episode that won the Emmy, he said, demonstrated how Rough Draft improved the show's dramatic content as well. In one scene the character Leela absent-mindedly picks up a salt shaker and starts rolling it around in her hand, a move contributed by Rich Moore, a Rough Draft partner.
"When I saw that scene I said: 'That's not a cartoon character. That's a real person,'" Mr. Cohen recalled. "That's the kind of thing you can't write in a script."
Mr. Vanzo, who was born in Webster, N.Y., studied illustration at Syracuse University and animation at Cal Arts. One of his first jobs in the industry was as an animator for Marvel Comics, working on a television show based on the toy My Little Pony. "I was the only one who could draw the ugly pony," Mr. Vanzo said.
Sent to Korea by Marvel to supervise work on a feature film, he met Ms. Vanzo, now 41. She was an animation checker, someone who scrutinized final drawings for errors. It was a case of opposites attracting - Ms. Vanzo takes the spotlight and to the task of managing a large company. "He is just so different from me," she said on the phone from her office in Seoul. "But it's a nice balance."
After they were married, the couple moved to Los Angeles for three years. Mr. Vanzo helped found Rough Draft Studios, and Ms. Vanzo worked as a checker for "Ren & Stimpy," created by John Kricfalusi. "One day I went to John and said, 'Why don't I take this stuff to Korea, and Gregg and I can do a better job,'" Ms. Vanzo said. "That's how it started."
Now Ms. Vanzo is something of a celebrity in a country where there are few female chief executives. A recent Korean television documentary re-enacted moments from her life, including Mr. Vanzo's first meeting with her extended family.
Mr. Vanzo and his partners at Rough Draft Studios have been focusing on theatrical shorts and a pilot for Cartoon Network, "Fungus Among Us." Work for this season of "Futurama" is over and Fox has not decided whether to renew the show.
The Glendale office, which at its height had 130 people, mostly devoted to "Futurama," is now down to 30 as they await word. "It's sad to see people go, and annoying because we'll have to restaff again if the show comes back," Mr. Vanzo said. "But that's just the way the animation business is."
In truth, he does not seem to mind the journeyman aspect of his career, which has taken him farther, geographically and artistically, than he could have imagined.
"I think that I'm more of a craftsman," Mr. Vanzo said. "My grandfather was a stone mason in upstate New York who built these beautiful houses. He was not a guy looking for a lot of appreciation, but who did his best and enjoyed the project. And then he moved on to the next one."
"I.D." September/October 1999
City Without Limits
Norman Bel Geddes and a streamlined aesthetic set the tone for Futurama, which imagines a Y3K Manhattan more complex than the city today.
Claudia Katz is the lead producer of Futurama at Rough Draft Studios, the firm Matt Groening selected to design and animate his latest cartoon. From her studio headquarters in Los Angeles, Katz told how she lends shape and humor to the future. ... (read more)
I.D.: Tell us about Futurama's production process.
Katz: The audio for the entire show is recorded before we begin animating, so we start with a tape, like an old radio show. The storyboards are done by hand. After we review them with the writers and make changes, we go into layout - establishing the key animation poses for each scene. Then we shoot an animatic, a limited story reel, and ship it to Korea where we have the cells painted and animated. The show gets passed through different crews of artists in our studio — 30 or so in all. From start to finish it takes about seven months of work to produce each episode.
I.D.: That's a huge amount of work for a half-hour of airtime.
Katz: The best — and worst — thing about Futurama from a production standpoint is that the environment for each episode is disposable. There's a limitless palette of things to do: We're always designing new societies and architecture that we'll never return to. The Simpsons, on the other hand, returns to the same kitchen, the same living room.
I.D.: How does one go about designing the future?
Katz: Very painfully. When we started the show last year we has met with Matt [Groening] many times and gone over references we thought were appropriate. Matt had a particular vision of how he wanted to stylize the show and make it more '30s and '40s pulp science fiction rather than Star Trekky [realism] — the kind of smooth-edge, so-called "streamlined" aesthetic you saw in Norman Bel Geddes buildings, in the car design of that era and in those old bubbly trains that looked like spaceships or submarines.
I.D.: So you try to integrate archaic inventions, obsolete, technologies and high-concept, futuristic design.
Katz: Right. We call it "high-tech/low-tech." Matt wanted this to be a future in which things don't necessarily do a great job — our machines are a reflection of ourselves.
I.D.: The future, according to your design, will retain everything that is baffling and inefficient about the present.
Katz: We have no choice but to define the future through things that exist now or through inventions that have a second incarnation. In New New York, the subway has been replaced by a pneumatic-tube system, which isn't a new idea but a new application. You can't make the future so alienating that the people watching it don't feel a part of it. Also, society has been wiped out a couple times [by aliens] so they're not necessarily a thousand years ahead.
I.D.: And the design can't be too refined because it would represent the dystopia.
Katz: Yes. If everything looked perfectly beautiful, it would defy what's really going on. Matt's a big advocate of just shoving antennas on rooftops and exposing all the observational detail really exists — ugly air-conditioning units, an old dumpster, a machine with springs popping out. You wouldn't want a clean aesthetic. New New York is just as much of a mess as old New York.
I.D.: So a computer in your future wouldn't be too elaborate design-wise. It would represent a more ambiguous concept?
Katz: In one episode a professor invents this alarm clock that, when you stick your finger in it, tells you exactly when you're going to die. It looks like a clock radio with a finger hole in the top. It would have to be an incredibly sophisticated thing if it could actually work, but we tried to make it a recognizable shape and put a futuristic spin on it.
I.D.: Humor must be a significant factor also. The design doesn't want to take itself too seriously.
Katz: Absolutely. Contrasts are always funny. For the professor to be building this huge desktop invention and come up with a little clock radio is much funnier that if he wheeled out a complicated apparatus.
We work closely with Matt on most designs that are instrumental to the story since they have so much to do with the humor. They play a big part in telling the joke. They have to be dead on.
I.D.: Did you decide to base Futurama in New York because the landscape is as conducive to humor as it is to futurism?
Katz: There was never any question that we would set Futurama in New York. It has more texture, more layered meaning and vertical chronology than any other place. And we can project into the future the important dilemmas of the present.
Trash disposal, for instance: They've been rocketing garbage into space because the landfills are full. The giant mass of waste is eventually going to boomerang back and demolish the city. There's also the frantic scurry for fashionable space: People put their bodies in storage and their brains in a box at a good address, preferably rent-controlled. Brains are shipped to the bodies when necessary. The elite exist on the Upper Upper West Side, which is floating above 86th Street. Zoning laws are so complicated that only a supercomputer can understand them.
I.D.: So ultimately, new New York is beset with complications that it pretends to resolve with futurism, but actually resolves with humor.
"Variety" April 7, 1995
MTV Oddities: THE MAXX
MTV hits all the right buttons with this stylish, fast-paced animated series, which combines snappy dialogue and rapid-fire witticisms, while tapping into the burgeoning popularity of other-world existences. ... (read more)
"MTV Oddities," which bowed in December with six segs of the toon "The Head," is an umbrella title for various offerings. "Maxx," based on the Image comic books by Sam Keith, offers six episodes detailing the daily doings of Maxx - a transient with incisive observations about human nature and some unexpectedly funny one-liners - and Julie, a freelance social worker who finds the good in even the most deviant of personalities.
The pair, while battling external and internal demons, also must battle a villain with the moniker Mr. Gone, who dispatches his diminutive, carnivorous henchmen - dubbed bloodworms - to do his dirty deeds.
The voices are perfectly cast, with Michael Haley giving Maxx a low-end growl that's the ideal foil to Glynnis Talken's peppy, yet cynical chatter as Julie.
Maxx's delusions - where he travels to the Outback and Julie is a jungle queen - add an unusual dimension to the offering and the switch (as well as the blurring) between real and imagined helps keeps seg interesting.
Though the show may seem a bit esoteric for the MTV crowd, scripters Keith and Bill Messner- Loebs have wisely incorporated enough elements including violence, cleavage and crude jokes to keep its core demographic tuned in.
The scribes and producers also will likely get the testosterone set interested, but the NOW folks angry, with its rendering of Julie as a bosomy, tank-top sporting, button-nosed do-gooder who uses her street-smart charms to handle even the most demented of down-and-outers.
Animation is top-notch, differing from web fare by more closely emulating comic book panels with split screens and shadows, and darker linear tones, all of which aid in fully communicating the gust and nuance of each scene.
"The Hollywood Reporter" April 7-9, 1995
"The Maxx" by Miles Beller
"The Maxx" succeeds with its edgy, spiky style and disjointed storytelling.
The latest in MTV's "Oddities" series is rendered with a certain panache, transmitting a darkly compelling view of animation in the service of visceral fantasy. Indeed, "Maxx" based on the comic book created by Sam Keith, has been packaged with a sharp appealing look. ... (read more)
The conceit powering mad "Maxx" casts the protagonist as a violent, hulking homeless man in a purple outfit (living out of a cardboard box in the squalid bowels of the big city) who is looked after by a free-lance social worker named Julie, a young women dressed like an over-the-top call girl. Yet in another reality this large man of the grubby streets is a being battling existential perplexities and knobby, bald, bouncing creatures while protecting Julie.
What is most alluring about "Maxx" is the cagey use of shadow and chiaroscuro, forms bathed in deep penumbra about to rip the unconscious and pounce on flesh.
The recent history of TV cartooning has most nearly been evolution in reverse, that is, a willful drive to primitive and kid-like images, the less accomplished the better. "The Maxx" stakes its claim on reversing the cavemanization of video animation, giving viewers drawings that show more than a passing interest in art and craft. Moreover, where else are you going to get a snippet of the fictional top-10 pop song heard in Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange"?