Faves in Toyland: Robot Chicken’s Born Again Virgin Christmas Special

Robot Chicken’s Alex Kamer brings Santa and Superheroes back to the small screen.

Santa Claus got stuck in the chimney, stuck in the chimney….All images courtesy of Adult Swim.

Whether you’re been naughty or nice, there’s at least one good reason to rejoice this holiday season: Robot Chicken is back to deck the halls with the Born Again Virgin Christmas Special.  For those who haven’t followed the last six seasons of the Emmy-winning stop motion series, that essentially means more parodies of pop culture and yuletide traditions, plus a couple of choke-on-your-cocoa moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity starring some of your favorite childhood toys brought to life.  If you’re hoping to see something as satisfying as the climax of last year’s Special, which saw the Jim Carrey version of the Grinch shoved off a cliff to his death, we have especially good news.  Alex Kamer, who has been part of the Chicken team since the second season, can all but promise this virgin delivers.

“There’s one sequence that comes to mind which is maybe my favorite in the episode,” he teases.  “It’s a Scrooge sketch where he wakes up after he’s spoken with the ghosts and runs out into the street to tell everybody the revelation that he’s had.  The joke is he hasn’t really learned his lesson about being kind to people and he’s more just amazed that there are ghosts.  So, he runs out into the street and starts telling everybody ‘ghosts are real, man!’ and all the people are scared of him.”

The Jolly General calls the shots.

If you prefer your eggnog with a side of bloodshed, however, you can also look forward to the sight of Santa kicking some serious ass.  “There’s a WWII sketch where the Americans and the Germans try to have a truce but Santa doesn’t hear it,” he continues.  “Instead, Santa tries to fulfill a Christmas wish and starts killing all the Germans, so it’s this huge action scene with Santa rolling around killing Nazis,” he laughs.  “There was a lot of challenging action to animate there, from the blood effects to the jumping and the biting, but it came out looking pretty good.”

Challenges are a fact of life over at Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, where Kamer leads the charge as animation director.  With only seven months to complete each season and a limited budget to consider, animators have to find a way to successfully animate their scenes in one take regardless of the difficulties they encounter.  “We’ll only do a reshoot if something is so completely wrong that it causes a major story problem, but we can’t make a habit of it,” he says, noting that the situation does have its benefits.  “One thing that is actually pretty fun about Robot Chicken is that the schedule is so aggressive that we need to shoot the show at a pretty fast pace, so when we do something like a camera move, we’re not doing really slick motion control.  It comes out a little rougher than what would be in a movie like ParaNorman or something, but the animator actually moving the camera by hand and making decisions as they’re doing it adds quite a life to it.  It doesn’t feel mechanical or pre-programmed.  It has this spontaneity that’s really nice.”

Alex Kamer at work on the Robot Chicken set.

That kind of less-is-more approach extends to the puppet themselves, which are mostly vintage action figures from the ‘80s and ‘90s.  Though the production sometimes upgrades certain characters, like the popular villain Skeletor, with foam limbs over wire armatures to expand their range of motion, most retain basic articulation.  Luckily, Kamer and his team enjoy finding ways to draw expressive performances out of even the most basic chunks of plastic.  Their simple construction, he offers, “brings the show a certain charm and a humor that might not be there if the puppets were much more articulated.  For example, when there’s a sketch about G.I. Joes doing silly things, I love seeing G.I. Joes with their limitations moving the way a G.I. Joe could move because it makes it funnier.  It becomes more about really good timing and really good poses and really good staging as opposed to being ultra fluid because it’s comedy in the end.  It’s about making people laugh and doing hyper-real animation doesn’t necessarily lend itself to making people laugh.”

Having the opportunity to amuse the masses was part of what propelled Kamer towards a career in animation in the first place.  “I went to regular film school but after graduation I just started to get the inkling that if I broke into the animation world I might work on things that were a little more fun,” he recalls.  A fan of Adult Swim’s programming, he made the move from Atlanta to Los Angeles in order to get his foot in the door.  “The first thing I found was this internship at Shadow Machine, which was doing Robot Chicken at the time.  I started off working there as an unpaid intern, just helping out wherever I could, and over time I started to make friends with the animators and gravitated more towards the animation floor, where they were actually shooting.  I helped them out and started to do my own practice shots and get critiqued and eventually got hired as a production assistant and then animation assistant and then full-time animator and it just went from there.”

A reindeer-style eulogy.

Today, he oversees twelve animators while working closely with series director Zeb Wells and executive producers Seth Green and Matthew Senreich to bring each show to life.  “I try to create an environment for the animators in which they can do their job and have fun,” Kamer says.  It doesn’t leave him much opportunity to animate hands-on, however.  “There’s a finite amount of bodies that we can support on the stages, so having any more animators would burden them and at the same time I have too much to focus on, so I couldn’t really focus on animating as well.  I think it would be a little much.  There are some animation directors who do [step in], but I choose to just focus on the directing job.”

One of the regular items of concern, and amusement, are the requests made by Standards and Practices.  Because even on a series where celebrities are regularly disemboweled and famous mascots engage in sex acts, there are some lines Robot Chicken is apparently not allowed to cross.  “They have to approve the animatics and they give us really funny notes like: ‘can’t see the shit coming out of his ass.’  They also won’t let you show thrusting, like sexual thrusting,” Kamer states, quickly adding that the beloved Humping Robot is an exception because he’s a machine and not a man.  “We couldn’t depict humping against a human character, but at the same time you can have a grandmother blow her head off and get shot!  It’s quite weird.”

Fans can expect to see more of the strange and unexpected in the show’s seventh season, which is still in production.  “We’re shooting this pretty big action scene right now that’s a parody of Eyes Wide Shut.  It’s like a John Woo action scene breaks out in the middle of an Eyes Wide Shut orgy, so it’s a lot of choreographed action and camera moves and characters, but it’s going to be a really funny one I think.”

Robot Chicken-ized versions of Lex Luthor, Catwoman, Riddler and friends.

Excitement is also spreading in anticipation of the Robot Chicken DC Comics Special II: Villains in Paradise, starring the famous foes of the DCU.  In Kamer’s eyes, the original DC Special will always hold special significance since, “in a way, it was the first thing that Stoopid Buddy Stoodios made once Buddy Systems and Stoopid Monkey teamed up.  It was the first thing we shot and it was a new studio with the types of challenges that come with a new studio, but everyone pulled it off.  It came out of the gate and won the Annie Award…so there is a little pressure this time,” he concedes.  “But to be honest with you, I think the second one is funnier.”

With all that and more to look forward to in 2014, let’s take a moment and give thanks for Robot Chicken – the gift that truly keeps on giving.

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The Robot Chicken Born Again Virgin Christmas Special debuts Monday December 16th at midnight on Adult Swim.  Look for Alex Kamer’s new independent short film, The Well, at this weekend’s Google + Film Festival.  For more details, visit http://www.ugpff.com/short-film-block-1/.

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James Gartler is a Canadian writer with a serious passion for animation in all its forms. His work has appeared in the pages of Sci Fi Magazine, and at the websites EW.com and Newsarama.com.

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