Joe Strike sits down, but doesn't shut up with Mitch Hurwitz as they chat about his new FOX comedy Sit Down, Shut Up.
If there's one thing Mitch Hurwitz likes, it's orchestrating a bunch of bizarre characters and sending them bouncing off each other like billiard balls. His legendary-from-day-one series Arrested Development vanished from the FOX schedule back in '06, but Hurwitz has been busy in the interim. Word on the street is AD is due for a big screen resurrection next year, and this Sunday his new ensemble series Sit Down, Shut Up joins the network's animation block in the cushy post-Simpsons time slot.
If anything, SDSU's ensemble -- the dysfunctional faculty of Knob Haven High School -- is even cartoonier than the Bluth clan, which isn't hard considering they really are cartoon characters. It's Hurwitz's first foray into animation. What led him to adapt a live-action Australian sitcom into an animated series for American audiences? "Mostly it was because I needed money," Hurwitz admitted, tongue-in-cheek, during a recent over-the-phone press conference, but went on to credit an intriguing source: Mo Willems' award-winning children's book Knuffle Bunny. "I saw it on a shelf in a bookstore. It's got all these pictures of Brooklyn and these little drawings on top of it."
Hurwitz may or may not have been aware of Willems' track record as an animation producer and scripter (The Off Beats, Sheep in the Big City, Codename: Kids Next Door) before moving onto a new career as a children's book author and illustrator. Knuffle Bunny itself had been turned into a cartoon short using the same technique of drawn characters atop photographic backgrounds, but Willems' sharp-edged character designs also caught Hurwitz' eye.
"I got in touch with Mo, and he actually designed [SDSU's] characters. He has asked that the show not be represented as Mo Willems' show, because he's like the number one picture book guy and there's a lot of inappropriate stuff for kids. There's a lot of stuff that's inappropriate I think even for Will Forte."
The Saturday Night Live player voices Stuart Proszakian, the school's clueless Ass Principal. He's joined by Arrested Development veterans Will Arnett (would-be womanizer Ennis Hofftard), Henry Winkler (sad-sack Willard Deutschebog) and Jason Bateman as reluctant PE teacher Larry Littlejunk. As on AD, Bateman's character is the closest thing the show has to a voice of reason, but even he's not immune to the air of not-so-quiet desperation hanging over the faculty in his eternally backfiring attempts to woo hippy-dippy science teacher Miracle Grohe (Kristin Chenoweth).
In reality, there's more to Hurwitz's decision to toonify his cast than the search for more money or a bookstore Knuffle Bunny sighting. "I had this script [first written in 2000, years before Arrested Development premiered]. You pitch it to different networks and you try to get a little bidding war going. What everyone kind of said is, 'We're interested in a show about teachers, but these characters are way too broad and way too self-centered and oblivious, and you have to rewrite it.' So I thought, maybe I can avoid some work -- and this is where the joke's on me -- by doing it as an animated show. Cut to like 17 months later, and I'm still rewriting the pilot. Yesterday at 5 o'clock I was still rewriting it, still putting jokes in. I mean, it just never ends in the animation world -- which is kind of great too."
SDSU isn't all-cartoon, though; like the animated Knuffle Bunny, the show keeps one foot in the real world by superimposing its characters over live-action backgrounds. "People said you don't want to have detail in the background; you want the background to be bland and to fall away," Hurwitz recalls. "But you really stop noticing it. It's just more interesting to see actual grass than just a field of green. And in a way it helps keep the show in the real world. It's changed the show's scale so that you don't expect animals to talk or UFOs to land. You somehow believe you're in the world that we inhabit, and I think it lets us reset the comedy bar a little bit."
Sit Down, Shut Up began as a co-production between Sony Pictures Television and 20th Century Fox, with Sony producing an animated presentation piece to pitch the show to the network. When it came time to put the series into production, Futurama veterans and SDSU producers Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein pointed Hurwitz in the direction of Rough Draft Studios, the folks responsible for Matt Groening's sci-fi series and The Simpsons Movie. Rough Draft producer Claudia Katz recalled being called in "to do a little bit of additional development on the show and characters. I think the thinking was we had lot more experience in doing prime-time, script-driven shows."
According to veteran Futurama and Drawn Together director Peter Avanzino, Willems designed the initial line-up of eight teachers while working with Hurwitz and Sony "and we had to build the rest of the world. They had some really nice initial designs that needed some tying together. Characters always need a little adapting to make them work on a week to week basis, adjusting their mouths, eyes, whatever. Some characters needed more work than others; we had to make sure cartoon characters could act the way the live actors Hurwitz chooses to work with could.
"Our biggest asset is we have a lot of experience working with networks and having to take a million notes," he continued. "Mo was probably not used to that. I think just the back and forth they had to get the characters where they wanted them just frustrated him enough that he said, 'They can just do it.'" Was it an 'I've had it, I'm outta here' situation? "Pretty much," Avanzino agreed. It's a perspective shared by one industry insider: "Mo had disagreements with FOX, he kind of got disgusted with it and walked away."
Willems provided his own description of his Sit Down, Shut Up experience in a recent e-mail: "I was pretty sure I'd retired from television, when I got a call out of the blue from Mitch Hurwitz about a year or so ago and we started to become pals. Before I knew it, I was making some drawings for his new show.
"We worked quickly and fairly intensively, I flew out to Los Angeles and met with the network, then I flew back and drew. I worked off of a pilot script and Mitch and I messed around with different ideas, altering characters both in design and conception.
"Fairly quickly, however, I realized that working on the show interfered too much with my ability to make children's books, both in terms of schedule and content. My books are my passion, so I left to focus on them (and produce the occasional animated short). Ultimately, the designs were altered after I left, so you can sort of see the shadows of my doodles in the final. I hope that the folks who love the show do so solely because of my minimal input, and those that hate it do so because Mitch is a big fat poop-face.
"Not really. Mitch's face isn't fat; just poopy."
Rough Draft's number one job was making the drawn-characters-over-photos concept work, and work efficiently. "It was definitely a very challenging experience," Katz reflected. "At Rough Draft, we like a good challenge, but it did feel like we were hitting our heads [against a wall] sometimes. We had to do a ton of location scouting where usually we just draw whatever we need."
The studio ultimately came up with a process that began with background angles roughed out on preliminary storyboards after which a photographer hit the road to capture matching backgrounds. Two local schools stood in for Knob Haven High: Eagle Rock High School in Los Angeles for interiors and campus shots, and Pasadena's John Muir High School for the building's front exteriors. "Originally we thought 95 percent of the show would take place in the school," said Katz. "That sort of went out the window by episode two -- episode one, really."
"We have to pre-plan our staging," Avanzino explained, "Then go to the location and shoot all the backgrounds for it. If we're smart we get a few extras. I'll be there and I'll try to guess -- they might want a close-up here, so let's make sure to get that. When we get back we storyboard it digitally so we can put the photos in and from that point on the storyboard artists can draw the characters to that -- but it limits a lot of what you could do staging-wise. It enforces the need to conserve angles.
"A lot of [the show] takes place in the school so we could reuse locations. But every time we came back to Willard's classroom the writers would come up with some new gag so we'd have to go into the school and shoot it again. Sometimes we'd go back and they had repainted an office, or taken down the chalkboards and put up write-on boards." Katz interjects, "We were like 'whoa-oh-oh, what're you doing?'" "Yeah, they redesigned the principal's office," Avanzino continued. "So the first episode that airs will have one principal's office; when we come back after the break she will have re-designed it.
"At the school we knew the location so we could storyboard with that knowledge, but if we were going to a mansion for a big party, that's really difficult. Hopefully we can get in there and do a pre-scout and sketch where [everything] is, then come back and rough the action so you know where to shoot. At one point they needed an observatory on the beach which we agonized about until they cut it."
The backgrounds were shot on a high-end Canon digital camera and loaded into the Rough Draft computers as full-resolution 12-megapixel files. "We started working with low-res versions for the boarding, but the hi-res stuff gets on the servers," explained Katz. "We may have hundreds of those. It's sort of ironic -- this show became a complete memory hog, more than a feature. I think we used up more storage than we did on The Simpsons Movie and the Futurama DVDs simultaneously."
It might have been worse; Rough Draft's photographer suggested an even higher-end camera capable of 20-megapixel images way, way beyond the studio's storage capacity. Katz says the 12 (some went up to 16) megapixel images offered enough resolution to handle a 50 percent zoom-in without loss of quality.
In fact, that resolution was so detailed some backgrounds had to be retouched. One reason Hurwitz believes people will stop noticing the individual blades of grass in a background (especially on their HD flat screens) is that they may not actually be there when the show airs. "You'd shoot stuff outside that had trees and tons of incredibly detailed stuff," Katz admitted. "We started knocking those a little out of focus so your eye isn't going, 'What's that?'"
Until they pick up on the show's rhythms, viewers may have more of a "what's that about?" reaction to its many breaches of the fourth wall: characters look at the camera and announce, "We'll be right back," before a commercial break, discuss the appropriateness of their catchphrases and speculate whether or not the producers will provide a Family Guy-style flashback to a line of dialogue. (After one fails to materialize, a character observes that "if they're not going to show her coming out of a fuzzy monkey, they're sure not as hell not going to let you say that," referring to a word bleeped out seconds earlier, to which another responds, "I'll be shocked if they let you say 'fuzzy monkey.'") Just as Hurwitz has a knack for creating offbeat characters like the Bluths of Newport Beach and Knob Haven's bargain-basement teachers, Rough Draft also enjoys cooking up screwball universes. "That's our dirty little secret," Katz confessed. "That's why we work in animation -- we just want to rule our world."
And rock it, too.
Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.