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‘Thundarr’ Meets ‘Modern Family’ in Fox’s Brilliant New ‘Son of Zorn’

Director Eric Appel discusses Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s raucous, biting and hilarious new hybrid live-action/animated series about an animated 80’s-style barbarian reconnecting with his disaffected live-action suburban family.

All images © 2016 Fox Broadcasting Co.

Time will tell whether or not Fox’s brand new Phil Lord and Chris Miller series, Son of Zorn, can sustain, let alone improve on the raucous and biting humor displayed in the preview episode. The series itself premiers this Sunday, and if the pilot episode is any indicator, audiences are in for a unique and entertaining treat.

Shot in live-action with animation added through an integrated, sort-of parallel production pipeline, the show centers around the premise that Zephyria, an isolated Pacific island, is a land not only lost in time, but lost in medium – every person, creature and “thing” is actually animated in a throw-back 1980’s minimalist Saturday morning-style. Think Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Thundarr the Barbarian’s ill-mannered love child.

Zorn journeys back to Orange Country, California after a ten-year absence, to attempt reconciliation with his now remarried ex-wife and not the least bit warrior-ish teenage son. Funny fish-out-of-water mayhem and a bit of commentary on contemporary PC sensibilities ensues.

I recently had a chance to speak with Eric Appel, director of half the first year series episodes, about how this highly anticipated show from one of entertainment’s hottest creative team is produced.

Dan Sarto: The talent behind the series is tremendous. How did you get attached?

Eric Appel: When I came onto the show, they were getting ready to make a pilot presentation, a 13-minute cut down of the initial pilot script. The original idea for the show came from Phil Lord and Chris Miller - they hired Reed Agnew and Eli Jorné, who at the time were running season four of Wilfred, to write the script.

Fox was working on the script and developing the idea for a couple of years. Maybe it almost started a couple times. I'm not sure if Phil and Chris were ever going to direct it themselves but I think one of the things that held it back for so long is that it’s so different. There has never been a show like this on television, with this level of integration between the live-action and animation. They needed someone that not only understood comedy and was familiar with directing comedies, but also could technically figure out how we were going to produce the show.

I was never an animator but I went to school for animation. I got into comedy right after college and that led me to writing and directing. I’d been doing network television for about five years. I came in with a pretty solid plan for here's what I think the best approach to this show would be. Part of it was in the performances and how everyone reacts to Zorn. I thought the only way that…since you have a cartoon character…I looked at Roger Rabbit, the way that the live-action characters in that movie react to the cartoon characters. They exist in this reality where there’s a place called Toon Town that's right outside of Hollywood and every live-action person is aware of these cartoon characters and the cartoony things they do. Roger Rabbit can do something absolutely insane and people don't treat it like it's an insane thing they've never seen before - it's just that boring, obnoxious thing that the cartoon character does.

That was part one of my approach – I wanted to make sure that people weren’t doing double-takes when Zorn walked by. Zorn exists in their world. He comes from an island that's on Earth and while maybe people have never seen someone from Zephyria walking around town, they are aware they exist and react to them that way.

The other part was the technical side. I think they did some preliminary tests the year before I came on. Are we going to put someone in a green suit and put tracking dots on them? Is that how Zorn is going to interact? One big thing I brought with me was the idea that Zorn should look like he's from this era of cheaply made Saturday morning action cartoons.

DS: Like He-Man.

EA: Right. In approaching the character design and style of animation like Herculoid, Thundercats and He-Man, I said I think the only way we can do it is if we have the actors acting to nothing - we have to have them look at eye line dots and X's that we put on the wall. I said we should cast a comedian that's 6'7" or 6'8" -- who might be tough to find, who can do improv, because we have such a great cast of comedians and improvisers -- to play Zorn on set. We could rehearse with them and then after rehearsal, when we knew what Zorn was doing, set eye-line marks - they could read their dialogue off camera while the actors acted with invisible Zorn. Coming in with that approach, I got hired shortly thereafter. And that's what we stuck with.

The thing we altered when we went to series was we brought on an on set animation supervisor, Barry Kelly, from Titmouse, the studio that handles the animation. We would film the rehearsal take and then, while we were shooting the actual scene, that rehearsal take would get sent to Barry sitting on set, who with a Wacom tablet, took all the key poses of the live action actor standing in for Zorn, and drew Zorn over those for editorial reference to make sure we got the perspective and angles right.

With a normal cartoon, you're looking at the characters from one angle most of the time. We're a live-action show - our angles change all the time. The camera is a little bit lower looking up at Zorn, the camera is a little bit higher looking down at Zorn. We couldn't just build and use a Flash puppet version of Zorn. Zorn has to be drawn at the correct perspective and the correct size no matter where he is. There was a lot of complicated stuff to figure out. I came in with a lot of passion and eagerness to figure out how to make it work.

DS: I bet. This is a fantastic opportunity on a high profile show. I don’t recall any show like it. And your idea to have live-action characters reacting to Zorn like he’s no big deal, almost a nuisance, is a key ingredient to the tone of the show.

EA: Yeah. About 40% of what we shot for that original pilot presentation made it into the first episode. Some of the Zorn stuff had to get redrawn a little bit but the one scene that made it all the way from the presentation to broadcast was the bird scene where he kills this bird in the driveway. That scene perfectly encapsulates the tone of the show and how people react to Zorn. His ex-wife tells him to get rid of this bird, and he agrees. Okay, he's doing the right thing. The way he gets rid of the bird, of course, is he stabs it through the throat and kills it, because that would be okay where he's from. The rest of the family watching, they don't react in horror to this horrendous mayhem. They’re more concerned with the fact they have to clean up the mess.

Everything that Zorn does is a metaphor. All the outlandish cartoony things that he does, barbaric things, are metaphors for the embarrassing things that a live-action dad would do.

DS: Walk me through your main duties on the series. As a director, do you do any writing? How do you interact with the animation studio partner?

EA: Okay. First and foremost, I was responsible for creating the visual language for the show, the way we shoot everything. With a show like this we have a lot of rules obviously, certain camera moves that we try to avoid with Zorn, and an overall visual aesthetic to the live-action side of the show as well. We tend to shoot with wider lenses - we try to do group shots where Zorn is on camera with other people. We try to not do a lot of long lens over the shoulder shots. Our close-ups all use a 30-millimeter lens, almost like the Coen Brothers’s style. Creating that visual language for the show was a big part of my job.

I directed half of the episodes. But because the series is so complicated, I ended up shepherding the other directors at least for their first episode if they did multiples. That was definitely one my duties.

I was the liaison between production and the animation studio as well. I would sit with the animators in pre-production and help work out exactly what we could and couldn’t do. Overseeing all of the designs for other characters and animated props that you will eventually see throughout the season…I oversaw all of production including the animation side. I gave notes on scripts and pitched things, some of which would end up in scripts. On set, since there was some improv involved, I would pitch things out to the actors as well.

We finished shooting our live-action portion in mid-June or July, the week before we got the animation back for the first episode. Making 13 episodes is a year-long process. When we're in editorial, because there's such a long time from when you shoot it to when it airs, you get to do all these animation revisions - we have the ability to rewrite some of Zorn's dialogue or add a new Zorn scene because we have some plate shots of his apartment interior. If we want to enhance the story a little bit or create a new funny moment, we can come up with these new Zorn moments that happen in post. In that sense I'm doing a little bit of writing along with the writers that are still on in post-production.

Throughout post I'm overseeing the music, the mixes, the color correction and the animation. We have weekly animation reviews of where we're at and we do retakes and change little things here and there. It's definitely a hands-on position for the EP/director of this particular show, more so than, I think, if it was just a live-action show.

DS: How did you choose Titmouse Animation Studios to handle the animation on the show?

EA: We met with a bunch of animation studios and Titmouse's sensibilities and their body of work, they seem to…when we first sat down, they really understood what we were going for. I think in the very first meeting with Titmouse we came up with the idea to do that throwback title card you'll see at the beginning of every episode instead of an opening credits sequence. It looks like it's pulled right out of Thundarr the Barbarian.

DS: It sounds like the unique live-action / animation production process allows you iterate quite extensively quite far into post-production, so you can continue refining the comedy as well as add in things that you didn't script initially.

EA: Correct. For example, in the very first episode, there's a scene with Zorn sitting around a campfire, when Edie comes over and he makes the decision he's going to stick around town. Originally what we shot was Zorn leaving a voicemail message for his son just before Edie shows up. In the post process we decided to add a FaceTime video phone call with his friend Headbutt Man in Zephyria, and in doing so came up with one of my favorite moments in the episode, where Headbutt Man's son gets killed on camera.

DS: He gets cut in half.

EA: Yeah, he gets cut in half. That's an example of something we came up with while we were editing. We have a good opportunity here to do something a little more dynamic, a little funnier.

DS: What would you say were the biggest challenges for you, given this unique live-action / animation integration?

EA: From a production standpoint, the most difficult thing -- and if we're lucky enough to get a second season, one of the things we need to refine -- is getting the scripts locked early enough that you have the proper time to prep shooting the episode. Oftentimes in network television, you're doing a table read for the script on the Monday before you shoot it, and if there are rewrite notes, you're getting your new script as late as Friday, and then you're shooting on Monday. With a normal live-action show, it doesn’t hurt production that badly as long as you're not changing the shooting location.

On a show like ours, if you're making last-minute revisions to the script, even in a simple scene…say if we have Zorn pour a cup of coffee…that's a really complicated thing we have to prepare for. The biggest challenge, if we were to do more episodes, is altering our script schedule and making sure we figure out a way to do that table read and get those notes and polish up the script a week before you normally would on a normal network show. The biggest challenge is the prep for a show like this.

You can always be a jerk and kick the can down the road and say, "Whatever, we'll shoot it and our compositors and animators will figure it out four months from now." A big challenge is to do the work up front and know exactly 100% what you're walking into and what you're going to do on set, prevising more scenes and storyboarding a bit more than we did in our first season.

DS: You mentioned storyboarding and previs. Can you describe the storyboarding and previs you’ve been doing and how it helps the production?

EA: Yeah. It depends on the scene. If it's a normal scene where we know Zorn is going to come into the living room, at some point he's going to sit down in this chair, and then he's going to pick up this book off the table, that's something we don't necessarily have to storyboard. Especially once we got rolling into the season we knew how to handle a scene like that. Barry was always there to make sure that, “Okay, what you guys are doing…yeah, this is the way we do it…it will be fine.”

For more complicated scenes -- you'll notice as the season goes on there are some action scenes and pretty big set pieces -- things like that needed to be storyboarded. Barry, besides the on set work he did, would previs some of those scenes with us - we'd storyboard those scenes and he would cut them together. He'd cut together a little previs so we'd know the exact pacing, what shots we had to get, how long we had to hold on the shots, things like that.

Next season I'd like to storyboard a little bit more, maybe even some of the simpler things, so we don't have to shoot it without really knowing, “Okay, this is the way we shoot this thing.” We can be a little more dynamic in everything we do. I'd say every episode, probably starting with episode four or five, has at least one area that was storyboarded out and prevised.

DS: The first episode was excellent. I’m looking forward to watching the rest of the season.

EA: I'm excited for people to start seeing other episodes. Every character grows. Zorn grows and there's some pretty interesting stories and insane animated things we get to do this season. People are going to be pleasantly surprised. I'm glad you dug it.

Dan Sarto's picture

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