The Emmy Award-winning ‘Robot Chicken’ executive producers bring their signature fast-paced, raucous and violence-driven humor to a stop-motion world of evil kings, insatiable queens, and peasants caught in the crossfire.
Crossing Swords, the stop-motion adventure, created and executive produced by Emmy Award-winning Robot Chicken executive producers John Harvatine IV and Tom Root, debuted on Hulu June 12. Starring Nicholas Hoult, Adam Ray, Tara Strong, Tony Hale and Luke Evans, the show is an often funny, raucous mix of wooden peg characters, colorful sets, witty banter, bloody gore and often vulgar contempt for accepted social boundaries made seemingly normal by its bold depiction of puppet sex. It’s obviously made some folks happy; a mere days after its debut, Hulu renewed the Stoopid Buddy Stoodios-produced show for a second 10-episode season.
In Crossing Swords, our hero, Patrick, is a good-hearted peasant who lands a coveted squire position at the royal castle. However, his dream job quickly turns into a nightmare when he learns his beloved kingdom is run by a hornet’s nest of horny monarchs, crooks and charlatans. Even worse, Patrick’s valor made him the black sheep in his family, and now his criminal siblings have returned to make his life hell. War, murder, full frontal nudity—who knew brightly colored peg people led such exciting lives?
The idea for the series initially came from the studio’s desire to produce a show based on simple peg person characters. As Root explains, “We knew we wanted really simple peg people. Once we decided on the form of the puppets, we wanted to pick a world that would allow them to have the greatest available selection of adventures. We settled on medieval sorcery fantasy because nothing seemed too out of bounds.”
For Harvatine IV, Root, and the well-oiled stop-motion animation team at Stoopid Buddy, Crossing Swords plays to all their creative strengths; sex, blood, gore, violence, vicious social satire, and perfectly timed gags, wrapped together in charming, playful, wonderfully shot stop-motion animation that can even make impalement seem fun.
The show also afforded the studio an opportunity to work without the usual broadcast and cable network Standard and Practices oversight they’ve operated under since they opened as Stoopid Monkey back in 2005. But, according to the creators, they don’t need anyone’s oversight to determine what types of content are appropriate, or not, for their show. “We’ve had years of network and Robot Chicken experience on where the ‘line’ is drawn and where to go to pass it,” Harvatine IV shares. “There's definitely a gut check on what makes us laugh and what goes too far. We're pretty good at coming right up to that line, but not getting crazy and going past it. We just safely hover above it. An example is if you're seeing a penis or whatever on one of the characters. It’s really funny to see how simple a nubbin is, as opposed to blurring it out. Blurring it out was something we'd have to do for a network. But, just seeing it, it's just so silly looking, that it's kind of fun to push it in that direction once in a while.”
“The restraint comes internally now, because we don't have Standards and Practices the way we do on a broadcast or cable network,” Root adds. “We need to be conscious of creating the kind of show that we would want to watch. And there's something really tiresome about a TV show that gets too 'potty mouthed' for the sake of breaking the rules. So, we decide the aesthetic that we wield.” Noting that it’s a creative challenge to decide where the line is if there are no rules to push up against, Root says, “It’s a unique thing we haven't experienced before. That’s not to say Hulu will let us do anything we want. But, pretty much, content wise, they're not the ones who would know the current degrees of our own judgment.”
In an increasingly crowded adult animation field, Crossing Swords definitely evokes some of the best aspects of Robot Chicken, but with a more fluid, cleaner, more sophisticated stop-motion style. “We really wanted to find something that looks different than everything else,” Harvatine IV explains. “And when we found this peg look, we got really excited. It looks different, but it's also exciting because it's very simple. So, making a show that looks different, but is also very simple, was a real rewarding and fun challenge visually.” Describing the show’s visual design, he goes on to note, “We've created a whole new look, a whole new color pattern, a whole new visual style, a new camera style…everything about this show is just a little different than we normally do. It's a little more cinematic and bigger than some of our other shows.”
The show borrows heavily from a fast-paced, gag-driven storytelling style developed over years of Robot Chicken production. “Our style…we've really honed, a kind of poppy, I don't want to say Robot Chicken style, action figure-type animation,” Harvatine IV explains. “A lot of that has translated to the show. The animation is simple and purposeful. A lot like the puppets themselves. Everything is just the least that you need. And when you put that all together, it makes it a cleaner experience.”
Budget-wise, the creators claim the show is similar to their other productions, with a bit of money saved, coincidentally, by one of their design choices. “There's a little bit of savings…I mean, it sounds funny, but not having arms and legs, the puppets are easier to make,” Harvatine IV laughs. “They're a little cheaper to build than full ball and socket stuff used for other shows. So, we spread that money out a little bit in other areas.”
“As far as the animation goes, we really try to do things practically as much as possible,” he continues. “So, whenever there's fire or blood or anything like that, we try to make it in camera. It's a little bit like Fantastic Mr. Fox, where you see the charm of the fingerprints and imperfections. That's part of the fun. We have all these organic materials; our world is mostly made of wood, not rapid prototyped plastic.”
From a story standpoint, the show is far removed from the short segment, sketch comedy-style setups of Robot Chicken, which come and go quickly over the course of an episode. “Robot Chicken is really fast paced and the amount of time a sketch is allowed to live is getting shorter and shorter the more seasons we do,” Root describes. “You just don't let anything sit on screen for too long. And so, with Crossing Swords being 22-minute episodes, it's been really interesting to realize that things aren't always funnier shorter. Sometimes, the length of things makes them funnier. And sometimes living with these characters for 10 episodes can make something funnier in the 10th episode than it would have been in the first episode. Those are muscles you don't have to flex when you're writing Robot Chicken. It's been a completely different writing experience.”
Root doesn’t concern himself with how the show compares to other adult animation shows. “I don't think of it like ‘how do we fit into the rest of adult animation,’” he says. “I kind of think of it like ‘how are we going to use each minute of screen time to be as entertaining as we can be?’ Adult animation can be anything at this point, and all we're trying to do is take advantage of our own universe to the fullest, rather than place other ambitions on top of this thing. We're just trying to make this thing that we are creating as good as we can for what it is, and that thing makes us really happy.”
Harvatine IV concurs, sharing that on Crossing Swords, “things aren’t perfect. We don't take it too seriously. We're having fun, the writing is fun and the artists who help create it, it's fun for them. We really had a good time making it. I think the artists did to. I hope they did.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.