With the Adult Swim series finale set to air this week -- including a song from Rock legend Patti Smith -- creative studio Awesome Inc. reflects on the minimal animation and maximum fun of the beloved show.
It’s hard to imagine that in the pantheon of TV animation history, Aqua Teen Hunger Force Forever is the longest running animated series in Adult Swim’s history. First airing in 2001 as Aqua Teen Hunger Force – starting in 2011, the show donned a new name each season - the Space Ghost Coast to Coast spin off and brain child of creators Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro has badgered audiences for a decade and a half with the bizarre mischief of three fast food items, Master Shake, Frylock and Meatwad, along with their neighbor Carl.
Claiming the show employs a “minimal” style of animation is akin to saying the 8-bit Mooninites can be a bit pushy. While budget and schedule have certainly dictated much of the visual design, fans will say the show’s choppy and limited animation style, coupled with great writing and voice work, is what makes Aqua Teen so funny.
For the last three seasons, that choppy and limited animation has been produced by creative studio Awesome Incorporated. I recently had a chance to speak with Awesome founder and executive producer Ashley Kohler, Aqua Teen producer Brandon Betts and lead compositor and VFX artist Nate Churney about their work on the show, the challenges of “doing more with less” and their feelings about show’s inexplicable longevity.
Dan Sarto: How did you guys first get involved with the show?
Brandon Betts: Actually I was a fan of the show in college before I worked my way onto the production. I worked my way up on the production assistant side at studios that were doing animation on the show before coming here [to Awesome Inc.]. Nate has actually been on the show longer.
Nate Churney: I've been on the show since the third season, maybe late second season. I had never heard of the show before I started working on it, but it seemed to fit my sense of humor - a kind of surrealism - just fine.
DS: How did Awesome get involved? How long have you guys been doing the show?
BB: We’ve been animating the show since 2012. During a previous season, the animation swapped from another studio over to Awesome Inc., and Nate and I came aboard as well with Awesome to work on the show. We've done three seasons here at Awesome and a handful of promos for the show as well.
DS: Describe your actual animation process. This is not your typical animated series by any means. How do you guys put together an episode?
BB: It's funny. I've worked on a number of different series including much bigger shows. Aqua Teen is more of a labor of love in that we use a very small team. Other shows might use upwards of forty to fifty animators and compositors. But Aqua Teen uses just a handful - maybe five or six, all told. Episodes start at Williams Street with the writers and producers. Typically, we'll work with them early on any new designs that are needed. We do a lot of the character designs here. Next, they'll cut the radio play and animatics. Then when we get the show, it's sort of like a loose blueprint.
For the animatics on Aqua Teen, it's kind of funny. Unlike other shows, Aqua Teen doesn't really go through a storyboarding phase. It's more like episodes are directly blocked out in edit. That's just another unique part of how we make the show. When an animatic comes to us, it's bare-bones. It just kind of implies all the action and animation. At that point - and a lot of credit goes to Nate - we flesh it out and create all the funny character movements, throwing little things in here and there.
NC: I've been working on Aqua Teen for 10 years and I still kind of find it hard to explain what a 2D compositor does on the show.
BB: Dave [Willis, the show’s co-creator] and Matt [Maiellaro, the other co-creator] are the creative forces behind the show. Where does the humor come from, the funny bits, all the explosions and the stuff like that? It starts with Dave and Matt…
NC: It comes a little bit from everyone. Everything from sound design to the editor’s pacing and the composite with effects.
BB: One of the big things that Nate does is a hybrid style of animation. He gets a lot with a little. A lot of times, characters won't necessarily be fully animated in the traditional sense. Nate will kind of puppeteer them.
NC: It really is pretty unique with Aqua Teen. We have full animation with some moves that I have to blend into the puppeted style. We decide when to implement that and when to fully animate traditionally.
DS: What are some of the tools you're using to do all of this?
NC: The 2D guys started out with paper, but it went pretty much to full-on Photoshop.
BB: Yeah. For a while, they were still using paper even way beyond its [loss of] practicality. I think it was just the nostalgia of actually using paper and pen. When we moved over here to Awesome, we made a move to full 2D and Photoshop frame-by-frame animation. Then that’s exported to Nate. Nate does all his stuff in After Effects – he handles a lot of the puppeteer animation and of course the compositing and adding effects.
DS: How many people at your studio will actually have their hand at something on an episode?
BB: Probably only five or six in total. About half of those are 2D animators, and then there's two or three compositors that'll touch a show. A lot of that rests on Nate's shoulders too. It depends on how pressed we are on deadlines. Honestly, Nate's done all the compositing on a whole show himself this season. The finale that we're working on is pretty big in scale. We have about six or seven maybe total touching it in the studio.
DS: From both a production and creative standpoint, what are the biggest challenges you guys have faced on this show?
BB: My take on that is the fact we have to get a lot with a little. First off, it’s a low-budget show. You have to get a lot of mileage from a funny character design or funny character pose. We try to cheat a lot of things. We can't fully animate everything. That goes to what Nate's process is, to do a lot of things that appear styled with animation. Instead of fully animating a walk cycle Nate will kind of popsicle stick the character in. It goes to the quirky style of the show where we just make it work. I see that as one of the big challenges in what we do, trying to get away with a lot of minimal animation.
NC: When we have two gestures, we might not have an actual tween between them. I've got to figure out which arms I can use and chop up in After Effects to get that tween looking right.
BB: Creative recycling of existing animation. Carl [a character on the show] might have five or six arm moves that you may see the entire series, but Nate does a really great job of reusing those and getting a lot of different emotions out of the same arm movements by playing with timing and speed of the animation.
Ashley Kohler: It's so funny. My perspective is totally different than Brandon’s and Nate’s. My day to day, from the EP perspective, is I'm the one that runs in to say, "Oh, we have to change the air date," or, "Oh. We're out of money." That's my challenge.
DS: So you're always the bearer of good news?
AK: Yeah, exactly. Those are my challenges, not the limited animation.
DS: What type of back and forth do you have with Dave and Matt? Tell me a little bit about that creative dynamic.
BB: Like on any show, we do a round of reviews. We'll have review sessions with Dave and Matt where they give a lot of valuable feedback. They have a lot of trust in us. The show has such a history. There's a lot that they trust in us to make sure that the show is in line with previous episodes.
NC: They give us a lot of freedom. They trust us and let us go wild with whatever we want to do.
DS: Do what you do best.
BB: We’re always trying to crack them up. We’re trying to make ourselves laugh too. We're all fans of the show.
DS: The show has such a loyal following. It’s amazing to think that this show has been on the air for 15 years. Who would have ever imagined that type of success?
AK: It's amazing. It's been so much fun to have had it here at the studio. We're so proud of it. We're coming up on our studio’s tenth anniversary. I talk to people about the various projects we’ve worked on. But since the show came to us in 2011, if I talked about five things, and I'd say, "Oh, and then we also do Aqua Teen Hunger Force," everyone would immediately recognize that show. That was really something special to me, to be able to talk about the show and its rich history.
It's not traditional animation. It's something unique, and that's okay. It definitely will always have a special place in the world of animation. We don't have to try to defend it as the world's best animation. I don't think we'd go up against other studios in a street fight about the quality level and try to pretend it's something it's not. And that’s just fine. It is what it is and it's special because of that.
BB: The look of the show is instantly recognizable and instantly approachable. You've got very simplistic characters drawn in a classic style so it can kind of welcome the viewers in. But what keeps people there is just how crazy and avant-garde the humor is. The minimalism of it. The quirkiness of it.
AK: It's just a magic potion to me of this amazing writing, amazing voice actors and amazing animation. A lot of people have tried to duplicate the show’s success, to capture what has made the show last so long and be so approachable for so many people. You've got great writing and characters that people love and keep coming back to over and over. The voice talent, the look of the show and the animators that make it all work, all kind of get cooked up into a stew you just keep coming back for more of over and over and over. It just works.
BB: You kind of take the success of the show for granted at a certain point. I've worked on a few series that have gone one season and then been cancelled. That seems to be the norm in this industry. And then you realize that Aqua Teen has been on the air for 15 years. We've had that wonderful luxury of working on a show that's been in the popular consciousness for that long. It's easy to overlook how impactful that is and how lucky and rare that is to be a part of.
AK: I’d be remiss if I didn't say anything about Michael [Kohler, who handles the music and sound design on the show and also is Ashley’s husband]. He's working on the audio for the finale right now. Talking about the show’s magic, I should mention my poor husband in the other room. He wrote the theme song for this season and he's been working on show’s sound for the last ten years.
It's funny, because for me, Aqua Teen has been a big part of my life since before our studio started doing the animation. I was working with Michael on the audio and sound design before I came here. I met and started dating Michael when he was working on the feature film [2007’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theatres]. We went out to Skywalker together to mix it, and our whole courtship happened during the making of that feature film. If I wanted to hang out with him, I had to go sit on a couch behind him while he was working on the film. Then the series came to Awesome and we started animating it.
It means many things to people in different ways and I know it means a lot to me. I'm glad we worked with the creators. I think their talent on this show is going to be missed, though it’s great they’re doing other things people can watch. The show has been such a huge part of my life. I will miss it. I think a lot of people will.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.