The Robot Chicken Press Panel At NYCC 2011

Back in February 2005, The Cartoon Network launched a quirky new stop motion animation program in the Adult Swim lineup. Robot Chicken, currently in its fifth season, quickly became the number one show in the Adult Swim block and has won four Emmy Awards and six Annie’s. Series co-creator Matthew Senreich sat down to answer some questions about the show.

Right off the bat, I asked Matt if there was any possibility of a Robot Chicken video game. He said they’ve had discussions about it and said “I’ve always thought of it as a kind of a Wario Ware type of scenario” but “nobody has gotten serious in talking to the Adult Swim people about it”. He felt that it was an awesome idea that he’d love to see happen at some point. He also figures that since they’re a sketch based show, people are probably intimidated by the idea of it. It would be a daunting task for sure since the show is based mostly on parody of existing properties, but I believe there’s a developer out there with the creativity to pull it off.

When talking about the process of the show and how it’s changed over time, Senreich was very candid about their rocky beginnings. They were originally doing some stop motion on Sony’s website in 2000. Cartoon Network approached them and gave them a show but they had no idea what they were doing or how to run something like this. Nobody understood how much work would be involved in meeting deadlines and getting the show on the air. It all came to a head during Episode 7 of the first season and it all fell apart during an Olsen twins sketch. They were over budget and behind schedule, paint was still drying on the figures as the animators were trying to pose them and everyone ended up in his office until 3AM telling him what a horrible job he was doing. Senreich didn’t even have Seth Green to fall back on because he was in Bulgaria shooting a movie at the time. That day turned everything around for the show because as Senreich said, “It taught me how to run a business and how to talk to people”.

Now there’s more pressure on just mainlining the quality of the jokes on the show, but even with that, they have to “”think less about what people will find funny than just making ourselves laugh”. So what’s the production schedule like? Would you believe it takes 11 months to get a 20 episode season done? They work in five week cycles, writing five episodes in that time. They have four head writers, four main writers and two others that get rotated out every five weeks to help bring new ideas to the table.

Seth Green takes a picture with fan during the Robot Chicken autograph signing at NYCC

According to Senreich, the writing basically goes like this: For the first three weeks, everyone sits alone from 8AM to 3PM and writes up as many ideas as they can. It can be a bunch of one liners or a fully formed idea. At three o’clock they print out their ideas and everyone reads through them for an hour. The four head writers then cast yes or no votes and for an idea to pass it has to receive three yes votes. Because of this system, a lot of sketches end up in a 2-2 tie and will never get made. You can also end up on the losing end of the vote and have to make sketches you don’t believe in. Senreich had this to say about the process, “I will come back to the Yellow Submarine sketch that aired. I could not hate it more. I don’t find it funny, I don’t see the humor but I was out voted so I had to make it the best I can possibly make this thing that I hate.”

All the ideas that pass end up on index cards that get laid out into a rough outline for a show. The last two weeks are spent taking the ideas and writing the sketches. After that, each episode is shot in six days. It’s a pretty hectic process since as Senreich stated, about 98% of the show is stop motion. They’ll use visual effects only if it’s absolutely necessary for time or if it’s something that can’t be done in camera.

I asked about what happens to the old sets and was told that they’re all in a giant warehouse. During the first season they would alter sets to use them for other sketches but at this point, they have a good back catalog built up so they can go back and reuse anything they may need. This may be a factor in not seeing Robot Chicken in 3D any time soon. According to Senreich, it’s something they’ve talked about but there’s a logistical problem along with the budget. The current sets are pretty small and to do 3D they’d need two cameras. Two cameras means bigger sets, bigger sets mean more production costs. Ultimately it wouldn’t add up but it’s definitely something they want to do. My guess is that a potential Robot Chicken movie some time in the future would certainly feature 3D.

Guest stars are a staple of Robot Chicken and they usually come about in one of two ways. Either it’s someone the staff is a fan of or someone will ask to be on the show. Christian Slater cornered the head writer at a party and kept quoting an A-Team sketch all night. he’s since become a go-to voice for the show. When asked about bringing in video game voice actors to guest on the show, Senreich said, “We would love to. Seth just did Mass Effect and knows all the people from that.” The problem that they run into currently is that SAG rules only allow for three parts to any one person cast on the show. At this point, they have a history built up so some parts are automatically cast. For example, if there’s a Superman or Lindsay Lohan sketch, Breckin Meyer is the voice, so by the time all of this is done, they usually end up with one open spot for a guest and they have to be selective.

Senreich mentioned that they’ve been trying to get Harrison Ford forever and felt they had a shot for the Robot Chicken Star Wars III episode. Jon Favreau was going to approach him during Cowboys and Aliens but their shooting schedules never matched up anyway so it fell through.

So how did the Star Wars connection come about? Apparently a week or so after the Emperor phone call sketch aired Lucasfilm appeared on the caller ID in Seth and Matt’s office. They were afraid to answer it. When they picked up, it was Tracy Cannobio (who was with them at Comic Con). She said they saw the sketch, everyone loved it and would they like to come take a tour. Well two Star Wars fanboys jump at the chance of course and during lunch, Senreich got up the nerve to ask “Wouldn’t it be cool if we do like a Star Wars maybe half hour Robot Chicken?” Green immediately kicked him under the table as if to say shut up you idiot but within three weeks, they were in production for the first Star Wars special.

With the release of the entire Star Wars Saga on Blu-ray, Robot Chicken’s sketches are featured prominently in the bonus material. Asked about this Senreich said “it’s kinda weird, in a great way” and that people are now telling him that their introduction to Star Wars was through Robot Chicken, for which, he then apologizes. That led to a discussion about what Star Wars means to different people and how he got into a fight with a group of interns who were explaining to him why the new trilogy is so much better than the original trilogy. He also mentioned that his son watches the new Clone Wars cartoon, so for him, that’s Star Wars. It was an interesting observation on how the franchise has grown into such a huge property with so many in-roads that depending on where you jump in, it can be something entirely different for you than it is for somebody else.

With the second half of the fifth season just hitting the airwaves, the complete Season Five Blu-ray and DVD sets are coming out before the last 9 episodes air. A risky move for sure, but as Senreich pointed out, Robot Chicken is on Adult Swim something like 1200 times a year and the reruns do just as well in the ratings as first run shows.

The package will contain a lot of celebrity driven extras. They actually planned ahead this time and had cameras rolling when guest stars came in to record their parts. There’s apparently almost two hours of behind the scenes footage included. Episode 100 will close out the season and according to Senreich the chicken gets loose and “it has the greatest action sequence ever to be done in stop motion.” There’s a teaser of it in the following trailer and I think he just may be right.

When asked how he would like the show to end, Senreich said that they talk about it at the end of every season. He’d love to see it turn into something like Saturday Night Live where they can just bring in a whole new staff of writers a decade from now and let them take the show in their own direction. If it wasn’t going to continue however, “if we had a final episode to do and I knew we were being cancelled, I think we’d do the dramatic episode of Robot Chicken where our goal would be not to tell one joke.” Apparently the two Head Writers desperately want to do just that, so if it came to a final show, they’d let them loose. Until then, we can continue to enjoy the show that delights in “taking the absurd environments and making them mundane.”. Hopefully for a long time to come.

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