The creator of the hot new Comedy Central animated series tells us what it's like creating a satirical world full of not so scary monsters.
New York City literally gets freaked out in the new animated series, Ugly Americans, on Comedy Central, Wednesdays at 10:30/9:30 c. Created by Devin Clark and developed by former Simpsons writer David Stern, Ugly Americans follows Mark Lilly (Matt Oberg), a social worker at the Department of Integration as he helps new citizens, both human and non-human adapt to hectic life in the Big Apple, including weaning vampires off blood, socializing land-whales and housebreaking werewolves. Between his stressful job, a zombie roommate and a demon girlfriend, Lilly barely gets any sleep, especially with a drop-dead gorgeous mermaid sitting at the bar. Aaron Augenblick serves as director, supervising producer and animation director. The Flash-animated series is done at Cuppa Coffee Studios, with Lucy Snyder and Lou Solis directing layouts and animation.
The series was originally picked up for seven episodes, but has been renewed for seven more to air in October. Clark, who used to work at Augenblick Studios, has had projects featured in Stash, Animation Block Party, Rooftop Films, the Ottawa Film Festival, Platform and Atom Films. He explains the genesis and experience of making Ugly Americans.
Bill Desowitz: How did you get the idea for Ugly Americans?
It really started as a simple idea, taking these sheets of paper and breaking them into eight panels and dealing with one topic like sex or the economy, and there would be eight creatures (zombies or robots) talking about that one topic. And it was more of an excuse to kill time while waiting for the subway and come up with weird characters with strange designs. When I started thinking about pitching web shows, I thought about one with different character designs every time, like a man in the streets interview show with the reporter interviewing a different creature on a specific topic. That's what I brought to Comedy Central three years ago [which became 5-On]. And it took a long time and we ended up paring it down from eight to five creatures and rather than broad, esoteric topics, we made it more topical, like zombies on presidential candidates, robots on immigration. They paired me up with fantastic writers and we just started making episodes, writing little scripts and knocking out these two-minute web shows. It was a blast.
BD: Had did that lead to Ugly Americans?
DC: And so after we finished about six of those, Comedy Central came back to me and said they really love these characters and the whole premise of this world where these horrific and bizarre monsters were like these normal people you would interact with on the street. So pitch us this whole idea back as a TV show and let's see what we can do. I gave them a rough idea, but they said I wasn't a writer, and they paired me up with David Stern, who got it right off the bat. We went out for a couple of beers to meld and mesh our brains together and get as much of the backstory and mythology and craziness that I absorbed from movies and comic books over the years. And so went out and did a pilot and have been doing this ever since.
BD: What's the transition been like to TV?
DC: Where, say, Adult Swim can do some pretty niche and pretty absurd, off-the-wall humor, Comedy Central wanted something that was accessible to a broader audience, so since we were already dealing with a fairly bizarre concept, they wanted to make sure the structure was accessible. So when we were moving forward in trying to figure out how the whole flow of each episode would work, we ended up sticking with a four-act structure and core characters, like a live-action sitcom.
BD: What's a prime example?
DC: Like Randall coming out as a zombie. So it's like coming out homosexual but spun on its head.
BD: And isn't the heart of the humor this sense of normality?
DC: Right, we are taking these horrific creatures and normalizing them, so sticking to a more typical structure is part of selling that human.
BD: What's it been like collaborating with Cuppa Coffee on the animation?
DC: It's been great. Of course, none of us had ever worked together before so there were some growing pains at first, including throwing Cuppa Coffee into the works. There were some bumps along the road, but they're totally up to speed.
BD: And the workflow is like hand-drawn?
DC: Yeah, so even though it's being done through Flash, a big part of the style of the show is a hand-drawn aesthetic. We're obviously pulling a lot from the world of comic books, both in our content and in the style, so we wanted to make sure it had that very frame-by-frame movement, not just puppeted animation that's typically done in Flash, so Augenblick Studios excels at that traditional animation style and they were able to verse Cuppa into that whole language of trying to get that aesthetic and they've been quick to pick it up. We go scene by scene and it's hard to tell the difference now. We think Cuppa's been really great about adopting the traditional aesthetic.
BD: What sort of adjustment was requirement on their part?
DC: A lot of it was that these young animators coming out of school are not versed with working that way in Flash. And so even though they've all worked in traditional animation, once they get in Flash they used it as a tool for cutting corners and doing puppeting and we just had to push them back to really drawing everything out. We use Cintiqs for all of our production and we're just drawing on the screens -- everything from character designs, thumbnails, storyboards, all the way up. It really helps save a lot of time, no scanning.
BD: What are some of your favorite influences that have made it into the show?
DC: Being a horror/comedy show, we draw on the world of DC Comics pretty heavily. And even with the aesthetic we try to have that dark, inky look to the show and even the color palette that we're utilizing for the horror moments is more extreme and inspired by DC Comics and horror movies.
BD: What's been the best part of this process?
DC: Really seeing what everybody brings to the table on every level of production. It started out as a small idea and everyone who gets involved brings their own energy and their own ideas and their own creativity. And that's the most exciting part for me: just seeing this world take life.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.