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Go Behind-the-Scenes: ‘Robot Chicken’ Puppet and Costume Fabrication

Stoopid Buddy Stoodios’ Caroline Kastelic and Julia Rosner share production secrets from the upcoming 10th season of Adult Swim’s Emmy Award-winning stop-motion sketch comedy series.

Mark your calendar: the longest-running stop-motion animated series on TV, Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken, returns for its 10th season with back-to-back episodes this coming September 29. The Emmy Award-winning animated series is set to broadcast its 200th episode sometime in 2020, a commendable achievement and milestone for any TV show, let alone a stop-motion sketch comedy generously sprinkled with boldly colored body fluids and expertly choreographed, marginally appropriate musical numbers. Kudos to all involved.

The series debuted in February 2005 and remains one of Adult Swim’s highest rated original series. The show was created, and is executive produced, by Seth Green and Matthew Senreich, and their Stoopid Buddy Stoodios partners, John Harvatine IV and Eric Towner, who also serve as executive producers. Green and Senreich also write, voice and with Tom Sheppard, serve as directors on the series.

During a recent visit to Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, the famous home of Robot Chicken, AWN went behind-the-scenes to see firsthand some of the production’s inner workings. Tour a CG animation studio on any continent and, besides the snack wrappers and energy drink can labeling, they almost all look the same. But each and every stop-motion studio is unique, an oasis of truly hand-crafted animated filmmaking that with few exceptions - and nods to technology - is done exactly as it was done at the dawn of filmmaking over 100 years ago. Stop-motion studios are reminiscent of Junior High shop classes, or grandpa’s old work shed. Part garage, part kid’s room hastily neatened up for a parent’s inspection, stop-motion studios always feel crowded and messily inviting. This is no performance capture stage. You can’t help but want to touch everything. You look around and think to yourself, “This… this, I could do!”

The palpable energy lurking around the Robot Chicken production space was especially enticing.

Puppet fabrication and costuming lies at the heart of the stop-motion animation process. It also lies at the heart of what makes such a studio tour so intoxicating – standing in the puppet fabrication space, you’re instantly transported back in time to that point in your life when a large portion of your waking existence was spent in rapt devotion to dolls. G.I. Joe, American Girl, Barbie, Gumby and Pokey, UglyDolls and thousands more (sorry for the US-centric list), they ignited our imaginations and filled our lives with countless hours of adventure. And here you stand, talking to an elite, chosen few who get to design, fabricate, assemble and clothe moveable, animatable dolls for a living. There’s something tremendously and wonderfully unfair about it all, which makes their work seem all that much more magical. The presentation begins…

For Caroline Kastelic, head of puppet fabrication, and Julia Rosner, head of costuming, keeping up with the production is no small task. The show’s format – multiple short sketches per episode – means puppets are rarely used more than once, unless cannibalized for future use. On a season with dozens of sketches produced across tight, overlapping schedules, the pair, and their teams, are never at rest.

Delivery schedules vary: some custom puppets take several months, stock-type puppets a few weeks. Costuming on a given puppet often needs to be completed in a week. Overall, fabrication and costuming take around six weeks per episode, with a large amount of multi-episode overlap. And while puppets like The Nerd or Bitch Pudding have multiple versions, most puppets are made once, hopefully rugged enough to stand up to animation without requiring repair.

“We make about 100 puppets per episode, or over the season, about 2,000 in total,” Kastelic shares. “We have around nine different standard body types on Robot Chicken -- child female, a couple different types of males, teens, stuff like that. To make them, we often use what we call a stock puppet. We get a body sculpt, then make a mold, make armatures - the skeletons inside the puppet, made out of aluminum wire, steel wire and body blocks - and then cast them out of silicone or foam, depending on what the puppet needs to do. We can also cast them in different colors.”

“Because these are stock bodies, and we know which body types are being made, we can start work on costuming, where we drape the costumes on the bodies, make patterns, and then sew them,” Rosner chimes in. “There’s a lot of engineering that goes into stop-motion costumes. But, unlike full scale puppet costuming, our attention to detail is different because everything here needs to be smaller. But we still have to resource fabrics, and get them approved by the director and the director of animation so that they read as desired. We also discuss costume functionality as far as what the characters need to be doing. For example, for a cape, we need to put an armature inside. We have to determine which wire gauges go inside the material and where they get placed so they’re invisible to the eye. Then, all the costume elements need to be locked down on the puppet, whether with Topstick, glue, or starch like materials, so they stay put and don't break when they’re in front of the camera.”

In addition to the large number of puppets built from stock puppet templates, the show employs numerous custom, one-off puppets crafted using some combination of foam, latex, armatures and 3D printed materials. They also modify commercially available toys. And, like all the show’s puppets, they must be costumed, painted and made ready for rigging and animating. All by hand.

“For custom puppets, they’re not a humanoid form, so we just build them from scratch, like the Jersey Devil, who’s a mythical creature,” Kastelic continues. “We look at some reference, talk to the director to figure out what they want, and then somebody builds it by hand. We use the same kind of armature wire with a foam build up around it, then wrap it with latex or other materials. Fat Slender Man is a good example of a custom puppet.”

“In dressing a custom body, we can’t bend it or move it and pin into it,” Rosner adds. “We have to be really careful and gentle not to stress it too much. So, there's a bit of a different process to dressing it. But, the final product looks the same. We just arrive there through a bit of a different journey. And like with all costumes, we have to take into account where the rig openings are so we can hide them. We have to leave little openings in the costume, invisible to the eye, so the animators can have quick access. That’s a key part of costume fabrication.”

One such custom puppet build for the upcoming season was particularly challenging. According to Kastelic, “We have a sketch this season about an island of recalled toys. We have a character, Mandusa, where we had to address legal notes and try and figure out what we could show. He’s an original character, and we had very specific notes on how the genitalia should look. And move. So, our build was very specific so it wouldn’t have to be blurred in the final version. It couldn't be penis-like. The pubic snakes were good though. More snake than pubic hair-like. The main snake was more the issue. We had very interesting, straight-faced tech meetings about this.”  

Wherever possible, puppets and props are reused. “We reuse as much as we can,” Kastelic reveals. “We have tons of boxes of old puppets from past seasons. This is our 10th season, so we have a lot of stuff to pull from. And when it's appropriate, we use toys. But those have to be modified. We put tie downs in their feet, so they can be tied down to the set. We put rigs in them for flying, wire them if needed, and send them for costuming.”

The show makes significant use of 3D printing in puppet fabrication, though not to the degree employed by most studios working on stop-motion shorts or features. On Robot Chicken, 3D printers are primarily used for custom heads, some body parts and various accessory props. “Every episode uses around five celebrity heads,” Kastelic explains. “We make them by hand or with 3D printers. We also make a lot of accessories with 3D printing. We'll make sunglasses, hats, different tiny things that are faster to do that way, especially if they're fitting on and off the head. We use a lot of helmets. If a puppet has to put a helmet on and take the helmet off, we can do in between versions of that. We also use 3D printing for our hands. And shoes. We print shoes, make molds of them, and cast them with tie downs so they can be affixed to the set. So, we have a bunch of different shoe types that the fabricator has to make, paint and put on the puppet. Because the show is done so quick and dirty, we don’t really use 3D printed replacement parts for the animation, like with faces. We generally use clay eyebrows, sticker mouths and digital mouths sometimes instead of stickers.”

Ultimately, for Kastelic and Rosner, they always try to make and dress puppets that stand up to the rigors of production. “We try to avoid using any material that frays, because when it pulls away from the armature, it’s really hard to repair,” Rosner notes. “We try to use stuff that has a certain stretch to it. We are always opening up pants to access the rig, then closing it, and if the fabric rips, we can’t really repair it. Whites, or any light color fabrics, are bad too because people physically handle the puppets and after a while, they get dirty. So we try and avoid that.” “Fur is a challenge, for a chatter of reasons,” Kastelic continues. “Or real hair, like with a wig. We don’t need something moving when you don’t want it to.  So, we have to treat the material, like with hairspray, to stiffen it. On set, when an animator is hot, in the middle of a shot, you want things to move as little as possible. Makes it always fun for us.”

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.