Padded envelopes and express packages pile on top of Nick Weidenfeld's desk with all the promise of unopened Christmas presents. As Adult Swim's program development manager, he shuffles through scripts searching for a clever idea to turn into a new show.
"Every day, I see the worst idea I've ever seen," he says, shaking his head and tucking his stringy hair behind his ear.
Hopeful writers often have no concept of what Adult Swim wants. Someone once pitched Weidenfeld a feature-film length script about a woman who discovers she has breast cancer, becomes a yoga instructor, finds love and recovers. In other words, the perfect Lifetime movie, but completely wrong for the fast-paced, "something different" comedy that the Adult Swim audience expects.
Many pitches are derivative twists on other Adult Swim shows, starring more defunct superheroes and classic cartoons. "People pour their hearts into these things, and they just aren't funny," says Weidenfeld. "It's like I break 10 people's hearts every day."
But Adult Swim needs fresh ideas. The staff is stretched thin with many people working triple duty on multiple projects. "There's like three people at [Atlanta's] Williams Street [lab]," says Weidenfeld, exaggerating for effect. "They can't produce any more shows."
Traditional animation requires resources and time, both of which are limited commodities at the Adult Swim lab. For example, 18 writers worked on the Fox network's last season of Family Guy, while Adult Swim shows depend primarily on two-man writing teams. A single episode of The Simpsons takes about nine months to complete and might pay $135,000-$250,000 for one voice actor. An Aqua Teen Hunger Force script is cranked out in two or three days. Ten to 12 weeks later, the 11-minute episode is completed for a modest budget of $75,000-$200,000.
In 1994, when Space Ghost Coast to Coast debuted, the production crew sidestepped its limited budget by recycling archive footage from the '60s Space Ghost cartoons. Editor/producers Jay Edwards and Ned Hastings reorganized clips to fit the new talk show format using expensive Avid nonlinear editing machines, which they had to lease.
The editors made characters' lips move when they spoke, but they ignored other continuity problems, like when characters' coloring changed between shots. Characters didn't walk: They bobbed up and down while they moved across the screen like paper dolls glued to Popsicle sticks. In other words, the final result looked cheap.
"There was always a wink, wink," says Hastings. "We know it's cheap, you know it's cheap, but we're going to entertain you, anyway."
But when the lab started cranking out new cartoons, the process evolved. For Aqua Teen Hunger Force, animators started drawing the characters and backgrounds on paper, then scanned them into Adobe Photoshop where they're colored. But that's where the drawing ended.
Each element of the show, from Meatwad to a chair, exists as a Photoshop or Quicktime file, and those files are edited together by Edwards and Hastings. The Avid editing machines they used for Space Ghost were replaced with Apple Computers and an off-the-shelf software program called Final Cut Pro, a move that saved the production 75 percent of its budget and two weeks of production time. So when some punk kid says, "I can do that," with the proper programs, yeah, he could.
Edwards and Hastings manage a library of images from the show. They add new elements and recycle what they can to keep costs low and minimize the workload. "That's why Meatwad only morphs into a hot dog and igloo, 'cause that's all we could afford to do," says Edwards. "He changes into other things, but it's always a cutaway and then cut back."
One benefit of having so few people work on the show is that changes can be made mid-process. Writer/producers Dave Willis and Matt Maiellaro not only script Aqua Teen Hunger Force, they also provide some of the voices. So when the dialogue is being recorded, it's not unusual for the voice talent to ad-lib lines or improvise spontaneous bits of business, which are added to the script on the spot.
"Even though they're good writers, they're better producers because they're always making the show better at every step," says Edwards.
In their darkened offices, Hastings and Edwards block out a rough version of Space Ghost using still images and the soundtrack. Then they hand off the show to another set of animators who use Adobe After Effects to add motion, from facial expressions to explosions. From there, the QuickTime files are handed back to Hastings and Edwards, who import the files to create digital Beta tapes, ready for broadcast.
So when will Adult Swim cartoons look like polished, fluid animation? The upcoming show Squidbillies is animated in Macromedia Shockwave Flash, which means it could be broadcast in high definition. But while the gorgeous folk-art backgrounds look spectacular, the characters look like kids' doodles.
"We could work for Pixar some other time if we wanted to pay attention to animation," says Hastings. "For right now, we just want to tell stories."