CGI meets sexy sci-fi in Tripping the Rift, Sci Fi Channels first adult-oriented cartoon.
Smut and sleaze in animation are hardly new, but where Comedy Centrals South Park made schoolboy humor even less of an art form that it already was, the latest crop of young-adult cartoons are reaching lows even the potty-mouthed Stan Marsh and Eric Cartman couldnt have predicted. In the last several months everyone from MTV to Spike TV has jumped on the adult toon bandwagon, and now the Sci Fi Channel is getting in on the act with its first ever original animated show.
Airing on Thursday nights at 10:30/9:30C, the 3D animated Tripping the Rift is an irreverent and lusty send-up of space adventure that revolves around five misfits who inhabit the starship Jupiter 42. The ship is controlled by a neurotic A.I. known as Spaceship Bob and captained by a sarcastic purple blob named Chode. Then theres a verbally abusive three-breasted pilot called TNuk, Gus, the depressive robotic chief engineer, teen slacker Whip, busty android sex symbol Six and various alien characters bent on dominating the universe.
The show started out as a short that was aired on Level 13, an Internet site operated by Simpsons/King of the Hill stable Film Roman, before being chosen by Sci Fi Channel for its weekly short-film showcase, Exposure. Canadas CinéGroupe, an animation house better known for its family entertainment, also picked up the buzz.
We noticed it, and when we started talking to Film Roman about working with them, we said wed be interested in developing it, says Ken Katsumoto, CinéGroupes evp and head of U.S. Entertainment.
That was almost two years ago, during which time the cartoon has evolved into a full 13-episode series, jointly developed by Film Roman, Sci Fi Channel and CinéGroupe.
We had never done primetime before, or targeted a show to the 1834 crowd, so Tripping was a real departure for us, adds Katsumoto. It knew its audience and went directly to that, and was exactly the type of individualized target entertainment we had set as our goal.
Sci Fi Channels svp Thomas Vitale notes that the original short has turned into a much more evolved show, with characters developed further and various stereotypes turned on their heads. The shows creators, Chuck Austen and Chris Moeller, are no longer involved.
After the original creators left, different writers were brought in, and finally we found the right rhythm and flavor of the show with Terry Sweeney and Lanier Laney, from Foxs Mad TV, says Vitale.
There is much more emphasis on writing, comedic timing, comedic direction, deftness and nuances, explains Katsumoto, of the shows current incarnation. Our challenge was finding the right tone and making it raunchy and fun, and making it intelligent. Under the sex jokes theres an intelligence thats woven into the series. We wanted it to have a backbone that was intelligent and smart humor.
The biggest technical challenge, he says, was nailing down the timing and getting lifelike movement for the humanoid characters, such as Six, the cyber sex slave. In cartoons, you can get away with squash-and- stretch, he says. But for humanoids, the expectation is very high. Replicating human movement was definitely a challenge.
The show was entirely created in 3ds max, which marked a new departure for CinéGroupe, a facility that prides itself on its large xsi studio. It seemed like the most feasible way to go with Tripping the Rift, because we had to reconstruct what had been done in 3ds max on the original short, says CinéGroupes Mitch Lemire, exec producer on Tripping the Rift. Its a very keyframe friendly software, which allows us to animate traditionally. Im very happy with the performance of the newest version of 3ds max. The xsi studio is more expensive, involves more people and takes longer to tweak. With the tight scheduling of a TV series, it made sense to do it this way.
Tripping the Rifts central theme a bunch of aliens manning a ship on its way through outer space may not be the most original concept, and indeed, there are many references and sci-fi in-jokes, not to mention homages to Star Wars and Star Trek; but what really sets the show apart is its distinctive CGI look. If at times the pacing is a little monotonous, the same cant be said of the shows visuals. Theres almost too much going on.
We really wanted to do something new, says Lemire. Weve seen all the Flash series, weve seen King of the Hill, and everything was getting more limited, less graphic; whereas when you look at games and feature films theyre getting more realistic. We wanted to go for a more high-end theatrical look. We think the show lends itself well to it.
A team of 40 laid out all the principal animation at CinéGroupe HQ in Montreal, where the entire first five shows of the series were completed. And a satellite studio in Malaysia with the same pipeline was set up, so that two teams could be working simultaneously a necessity if they were to meet the demanding deadlines of TV. Some of the post was also done at Film Roman, in Los Angeles.
The main challenge, according to Lemire, was the sheer volume of characters and the time it took to establish an overall look and feel to the show. It was a big series for volume of characters. We have close to 700 characters in 13 episodes. Fortunately, we had a good strong lead-time, which allowed us to fully develop the characters without having to worry about delivery. In traditional animation, that kind of development doesnt get thrashed out because the schedules are too tight. So we really knew what the characters were and we talked a lot to Tom Vitale at Sci Fi Channel and Sidney Clifton [svp and head of development and programming] at Film Roman; establishing if the characters would do certain things.
Getting the look and lighting technique was another area that we worked hard on. With the newer version of 3ds max, we had more lighting character, and we added a film grain to the look. All these technologies are relatively new, theres not that many series that have been put out with these softwares, so that was one of the main things going into it.
The team at CinéGroupe agreed that sticking with the creators original choice of using 3ds max a cartoon-friendly software, which seemed most suited the task in hand made more sense in the long run than going with anything too sophisticated. Even though all the characters had to be reconstructed in a newer version of Discreets 3D animation tool.
There was a huge question as to whether or not to go with motion capture. But for the sake of the show and the cartoon aspect, we found we could get more life and vitality with keyframe technology. Once you step over that line and make it more human, everything else has to follow suit. So we had to find that balance and set a level of animation for the human characters that didnt make it feel strange with the cartoon characters. It was a fine line. There was a lot of development work on Six to establish how she moves and stands and how much she bounces, says Lemire.
In fact, he says, thats something theyve copped some flak for how much the voluminous, unsupported assets of the ships first officer (voiced by Gina Gershon) move, seemingly independently of the rest of her body. Both Lemire and Vitale agree that Six was the most difficult character to get right. Shes the one theyre most proud of.
I think everyone on the production would agree, says Lemire. There are probably several hundred versions of her. After episode one, we went back and changed her face. We also had problems with her torso; it wasnt clean enough for us. So we redid episode one with the new one. Were using a software that doesn't do Final Fantasy; it does a lot of things, but not that. We didn't want to be too bogged down to make her realistic. Shes still very sexy.
Every detail, the size of the ship, the color of the ship there was a lot of research, he adds. Being a 3D show its a different staging process. The 2D designers work very closely with the 3D designers to make sure what they were proposing was feasible from a 3D perspective. Normally we design and send and its done; on this it was designed with 3D in mind. The bridge of the ship was changed and tested countless times.
Lemire also points out that the scripts were above and beyond what CinéGroupe had encountered before. And that meant a long process of getting them cleared from a legal perspective. We removed 50% of the script as far as jokes and connotations and insinuations, he laughs. It seems people are enjoying it. Its witty and smart. In the second season hopefully theyll allow us to go further.
As far as the Sci Fi Channel is concerned, the show is a success. Its premiere was the top cable telecast of the day among the 1849 demographic, and it set records for the channel.
Whats special about the show, is it works on many levels, explains Vitale. On the simplest of level its sex jokes and gross-out humor, but on a second level, every episode is about something and makes a satirical comment on the world we live in. It's not just about mindless laughs. The humor part of it is very topical there are Martha Stewart jokes and references to current events. Some of it is referential to classic science fiction, and there are certain in-jokes. Theres a lot of it that will offend and theres some shocking stuff, but in every episode there'll be stuff thatll make you think and stuff thatll make you laugh.
Sam Molineaux is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist. Her writing on film, music and technology has appeared in Variety, Below the Line, BPM, Installation Europe and the New Times, among other publications. She is currently writing a pair of books for publisher McGraw-Hill on digital music on the Mac OSX, to be published later this year.