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Zeb Wells Talks ‘SuperMansion’

The makers of ‘Robot Chicken’ bring 13 episodes of stop-motion superhero feebleness to Sony Crackle.

No one does superhero parody like Stoopid Buddy Stoodios, those talented and supremely twisted creative types behind perennial favorite Robot Chicken. Not sufficiently exhausted after generating Season 8 of their award-winning stop-motion superhero mayhem sketch comedy series, they upped their game by tackling a stop-motion superhero lameness series – SuperMansion.

The brainchild of self-described superhero junkies Zeb Wells and Matt Senreich, SuperMansion brings the comedic acting talents of Bryan Cranston [Breaking Bad, Malcolm in the Middle] and Keegan-Michael Key [Key & Peele, MADtv] together with Stoopid Buddy’s formidable though slightly melancholic roster of talented artists for a new, slightly skewed sendup of the superhero genre. An aging superhero mentoring a disinterested group of millennial heroes-in-training, all under one roof – the SuperMansion!

I recently chatted with series co-creator, writer and director Zeb Wells, who shared his thoughts on the shows origins, his love of all things “superhero” and how the production was not quite as easy as he imagined it might be.

Dan Sarto: So how did SuperMansion come about? Where did the idea come from?

Zeb Wells: I came on as a writer for Robot Chicken around 2007 and just had a good time working with everybody over there. Eventually, Matt Senreich [Robot Chicken co-creator, executive producer and writer] and I decided that it might be fun to make fun of our own characters instead of always making fun of other people's characters like we do on Robot Chicken.

We both grew up in the comic book world. Matt worked at Wizard Magazine for years. I wrote for Marvel Comics for 12 years. We just love superheroes. We love how they look. We love how they act. We love poking fun at that whole genre. So we set out to make some characters that we would love spending 22 minutes with, as opposed to the 30 seconds a pop small sketches we do with Robot Chicken.

We got to work and tried to make characters with more dimension, that we thought would be funny over the long term. We worked on it for about a year. Now, we're finally bringing them to life with SuperMansion and we've got 13 22-minute episodes.

I worked with a team of writers on all 13 episodes, then directed all 13 episodes as well. It's been a lot of hard work and I'm really excited to see what people think about it.

DS: Stop-motion is ridiculously difficult, especially with the short production schedules and small budgets for TV series production. Describe the challenges of creating this much animation in such a short period of time.

ZW: It's more animation by about 30 minutes than the biggest season of Robot Chicken we've ever done. That was challenging for sure. In some ways we thought it would be easier. We figured that since we have recurring characters, the puppet department only has to make a smaller amount of characters instead of hundreds of characters like they do for Robot Chicken.

But then, we realized that since these characters are being used so much, the puppets are breaking all the time because the stop-motion process is actually very hard on our puppets. The wires that make our armatures only have a certain amount of moves before they break. Instead of making hundreds of different puppets, the puppet department, for example, still had to make 17 different Titanium Rexes and then those Rexes were breaking all the time.

I don't know if we achieved any net gain by using the same characters over and over. I think if you ask our crew, each SuperMansion episode definitely seemed just as hard as a Robot Chicken episode. I think it was fun for all of us to be challenged to create and build out a consistent world. I think all of us at the studio are really proud of what we accomplished when we were able to focus our energy on one world.

I was also surprised by the writing challenges. In Robot Chicken, it's kind of a fun sketch show in that you come up with a funny idea and if that idea is only funny for 15 seconds, then your sketch is only 15 seconds long. If it's funny for 2 minutes, then your sketch is only 2 minutes long.

When you're doing a 22-minute episode, there's nowhere to hide. Every scene has to be funny. Everything has to go somewhere. You can't just channel flip when something's not working.

DS: It’s much, much harder to sustain the humor over 22 minutes. With Robot Chicken, you take a gag, you get in, get out and move on.

ZW: There's a certain integrity to the process that I love about Robot Chicken. Nothing is ever allowed to overstay its welcome. We're ruthless. We brought that same sense of ruthlessness to SuperMansion. Everything has to be funny. Nothing can just be there to be there. But, since scenes have to be longer and things have to pay off, you just have to do the work and make sure that it's all doing something that makes sense.

DS: You've always had really stellar voice acting guest stars on Robot Chicken. The cast for this new show is quite good. Tell me a little bit about how you came upon this group of actors and whether they came to you, so to speak, after you had written everything or if you wrote specifically with any of these folks in mind?

ZW: You'll find there are a few lesser known voice actors on the show. I'm one of them. We also have Heidi Gardner and Tucker Gilmore. These are friends we knew who did voices that we loved and we wrote their characters for those voices.

We did that when we made our animatic to take out and pitch the show. I kind of assumed that at some point, Crackle [the show’s streaming network] would ask me to replace these people and myself with more well-known actors. But I think they just nailed these characters so well that the first time you watch an episode, you can't imagine anyone else doing that voice. So we got to keep them on the show, which I'm proud of, because I feel like these are brand-new talents that we're showing to the world.

But then, of course, there are other characters that we wrote with the dream we might get top talent to perform. Titanium Rex is a great example, where we kept saying, "Wow, it'd be great to get a Bryan Cranston type in this role." Eventually, we remembered that Bryan Cranston had done some Robot Chicken episodes and absolutely killed it. And seemed to have fun doing it. So, we thought it was worth at least getting him the script.

Then, with Keegan-Michael Key, I don't have to tell you how funny that man is. My wife and I have been fans of his work on Mad TV for a long time. We’ve also seen him perform at The Groundlings doing ‘The Black Version,’ which is an improv show where African-American comedians take a movie idea and improv what the black version of that movie would be. It’s 45 minutes of absolute brilliance. He was amazing at that so I kind of went to him as a fanboy on the off chance that I might be able to work with him. When he came on board, being able to work with him in the booth and have him improv right there in front of me, it's just so much fun every time.

DS: I bet that's been really a treat.

ZW: Oh yeah.

DS: How did you get connected with Crackle? There's this burgeoning online streaming network world now with Amazon, Netflix and Crackle among others. How did you hook up with them for the show?

ZW: We were sending the 11-minute presentation around and we got word that Sony Crackle was interested. A couple of weeks later, we had a call with them. What we really responded to was on the phone, it became very clear that they really, really loved the presentation. They loved what this show could be. They also challenged us. In the back of our minds, we thought this should probably be a 22-minute show, because it has 6 characters, it has storylines.

The fact that Crackle came out of the box and said, "Hey, we think this is a 22-minute show. We think that it should be 13 episodes. We would love to do it with you," that enthusiasm is what really drew us to them. It's so much fun making this show with other people that love it as much as we do.

And then, going back to Robot Chicken, we started on Adult Swim while Adult Swim was kind of just getting started. At Stoopid Buddy Stoodios we like getting in on the ground floor and at least trying to help define a new platform. That's exciting and challenging to us.

DS: You never know how these things will go but everything big we have today started small at some point.

ZW: Exactly.

DS: So where do you find time to do all these projects? Is this going to change your involvement with Robot Chicken moving forward?

ZW: I'm super in love with this show but you hit the nail on the head. There's no way that I have time to do this and Robot Chicken. We actually found another director, Tom Sheppard, who was a great writer on Robot Chicken, did some great writing on SuperMansion and is a great director in his own right. We actually shot the shows concurrently for a couple of months there because there was a little bit of overlap in the schedule. Me and Tom are bumping into each other all of the time and he's doing a great job.

When you start a new project like this that you haven't done before, everybody at the studio all works as hard as they possibly can. Then, you hope for the best. That's what you do on anything. Coming to the end of production, what I’m most proud of is how proud all of the artists at the studio seem to be of the show. Everybody just worked insanely hard and I think we got it all up there on the screen. I think it's really exciting, not just for me but for the whole studio.

These shows don’t get made without all of these super passionate artists with all of their years of expertise. There really isn't a stop-motion school that you can go to. You're relying on the expertise of your staff, all the different jobs that they've worked on, bringing together the knowledge that they've gained. When you finally do see something up on the screen, it's the result of a lot of hard work and a lot of smart work by these people.

Stop-motion, even on my worst day, busiest day, as the director of the show, these super talented artists are constantly coming up to me and showing me cool shit that they've made, that they've worked really hard on. That never, ever is going to get old.

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

Dan Sarto's picture

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

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