Silas Lesnick has a super fun time asking the SuperNews! guys, Josh Faure-Brac and Steven K.L. Olson, how they keep their sketch comedy super fresh.
Whether it's a zombie Abe Lincoln reborn with stem cells or gay Martians with severe heterophobia, the world of SuperNews! promises one thing: if it's making headlines, it's ripe for animated parody.
Originating with the launch of Current TV back in 2005, SuperNews! is the brainchild of Josh Faure-Brac who, in addition to creating the series' unique up-to-the-minute lampooning style, also writes nearly every segment and provides voices for a majority of the characters.
"I did the first one just in my apartment," laughs Faure-Brac, whose show has only this year expanded from shorts to a weekly half-hour collection of sketches, "It was very rudimentary, rough animation. Kind of unrecognizable to what the show looks like now."
As production increased early on, Faure-Brac quickly found a creative partner in Director of Animation and Lead Character Designer Steven K.L. Olson (who came to him through, of all places, a simple posting on Craigslist). Trained as a classic animator, Olson sketches early impressions of characters in pencil the minute they leave Faure-Brac's head, usually moving from rough sketches to finalized characters in a matter of days.
"He definitely brought some legitimacy to the look of the show," says Faure-Brac, "It was just us and a very small crew for a few years, actually. We just did these shorts every week or every couple of weeks for Current and every once in awhile they'd sort of go really big online."
It's thanks in no small part to the online presence of SuperNews! that the series has been able to build up such a fan following. Faure-Brac explains that a lot of the time people may not recognize the series as a TV show at all, but have seen individual sketches through e-mail chains or message board postings.
"People pass it around," he suggests, "Like our one on Megan McCain. She Twittered about it literally hours after it went online because someone sent it to her. She ended up following my Twitter and I followed hers... It's kind of crazy how quick and instantly the stuff goes out and bounces right back at you."
The immediate nature of the humor is the central idea behind the show's origin in news-based sketches. It's vitally important to stay up-to-date and to offer audiences something they can't get anywhere else. Though Faure-Brac cites other programs like Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show as examples of comedy built on current events, SuperNews! is unique in that, just a few years ago, animation with this kind of speed would have been impossible, let alone with this small a crew.
From a modest two-story office, the SuperNews! team of 12 (with, now and then, one or two more working freelance) can write, design, animate and edit a full sketch and have it on the air in less than a week's time. Often, the animation process begins even before the script is fully complete. In a recent sketch that parodied Rush Limbaugh, Faure-Brac knew that he wanted to go with a Star Wars gag he called "Jabba the Rush." Before a single line of dialogue was written, Olson was already moving forward, designing the characters and background based solely on the premise.
Once the design is locked, the team begins creating each character in Flash.
"We completely build out characters," explains Olson, "My New Year's resolution was that all characters have complete turns. We're crude so we only have one view of the head. It's a 3/4 view that we'll just flip it back and forth. We make sure they all have at least two sets of mouths to emote properly."
Voice recording is done in-house and Faure-Brac is usually joined by a few guest-voices like, for instance, Mad TV star Jordan Peele and his dead-on Barack Obama impression.
Once voices are fully recorded, work begins on syncing animated mouth movements to the audio. For this, freelancers are often called in, sometimes working remotely from way outside Los Angeles.
"One of our best dudes is in Hanford [California]," says Faure-Brac, "and we just send him files via FTP. He does our lip-sync while we're sleeping and in the morning it's done."
When it comes to animating the movement of the characters, SuperNews! has the advantage of dealing with very short (usually three to seven minute) sketches. In traditional animation, a single animator will work with a chunk of footage disembodied from the whole. Here, animators are able to work with extended segments, giving them a better feel for the flow of the scene and a single animator is usually able to tackle 1,000 frames (roughly 40 seconds) in a single day. That includes tweening by hand with keyframes on the twos. Motion tweening is only employed for very action-heavy sequences, though resourceful animators have created code that mathematically position keyframes, speeding up the already-rapid process.
Other custom scripts that have been created within the SuperNews! office include an in-program camera, much like in a 3D software program, that allows for shots to be chosen pre-rendering. A normal Flash cartoon will export the entire scene in an extremely high resolution and select final shots in Adobe After Effects. Skipping that step, SuperNews! is able to render only the end result, saving a significant amount of render time and enabling the segment's directors to call the shots without relaying orders through a technician. To this end, SuperNews! doesn't use storyboards of any kind, calling instead upon the omnipresent "camera" within the program itself.
The final step has each sketch exported as either QuickTime or .AVI and edited accordingly. Because it's meant to be viewed as a complete short, SuperNews! never exists in a .SWF format, even when it's placed online.
Once the episode goes out, both on television and on Current TV's website, the internet then again becomes a resource for providing instant feedback from fans.
"We try to read every single comment that a cartoon has," says Olson, "It's kind of the current way to be steered by the audience. We have, for example, a miniseries about Britney Spears within the show and we had one made and three more in development. We don't know if we'll do all four of them so we go to message boards to see how people respond to the first one. If they like it, we'll make more. If they're indifferent, we'll sort of phase it out."
When it comes to analyzing the audiences' response, Faure-Brac takes a lot of pride in his aim to remain as politically indifferent as possible.
"You can go on YouTube and see us being attacked by angry Republicans on the 'Jabba the Rush' thing and angry Democrats on the first Obama thing we did.
"The best thing we can achieve," adds Olson, "is when we find that people are arguing to each other on both sides that our cartoon is proving their point. We see that on the message board a lot, 'Yeah, they proved my point! Immigration is terrible!' and someone else says, 'You're stupid! They obviously said that immigration is great!' That's when we feel like we've nailed it."
Of course, SuperNews! isn't 100% late-breaking stories. A number of sketches are considered "evergreen" gags and, though they still deal with modern issues, the jokes are set up in a way in that, with some luck, they'll still be relevant months or years down the line. These (their Twitter cartoon, for instance) have been planned out well in advance of the season and can balance out more immediate jokes in the half-hour block.
Now in the middle of its first full-episode season, SuperNews! is already set to return for a second season with an as-of-yet-undetermined number of episodes. Faure-Brac and Olson are both hoping to try some new things, including potentially devoting a full-episode to a single half-hour story. No matter what, though, it's important to the whole team to stick by Faure-Brac's personal mission statement.
"[Sometimes] we have to take a step back," he explains, "and let the characters breathe and let the characters just bounce off each other rather than make any kind of massive, amazing point. It's something that's very loose and something we have to kind of play with as these stories evolve. It's about weighing it out. If the story is so big that we feel like we have to do something on it, we'll do a quick gut-check and say, 'Is everyone already doing stuff on this?' And, if so, and we decide that we can't do something different from them, we'll take a step back and just say no."
SuperNews! airs on Current TV Friday nights at 10:00 p.m. ET with episodes available online at www.current.com/supernews.
Silas Lesnick is a freelance writer and critic. Now living in L.A., he graduated from Emerson College with a degree in media arts and has spent time working with the American Film Institute in Washington, D.C.