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Adults-only series Robot Chicken (2005-current, Season 1 is now available in full, absurd glory on Showmax) uses stop-motion animation footage of action figures, toys, modelling clay creations and assorted bits of junk to tell pop culture sketch stories.
It’s full of child-like glee, gore and sheer anarchic imagination as it explores scenarios like, for example, what would happen if the characters of the Golden Girls (1985-1992) acted out a Sex and the City (1998-2004) script, or it lets us peek under Disneyland, where the re-animated Walt Disney creeps about with his robot spider body-eating stray children and park service staff.
At times it feels as if someone was watching over your own shoulder as you and your closest childhood friend snickeringly put your toys through crude, cruel and even inappropriately sexual scenarios that would make you shrivel up and die if your mom ever caught you.
The two best buddies whose heads we’re in are series writer-creators Seth Green and Matthew Senreich.
“Starting with the writers’ room, it’s just a bunch of friends playing with toys,” says Matt. “We’re geeks. We play with toys, we see toys, we like them and we buy toys. We go to Toys R Us a lot. If we’re playing with a toy, we’ll think of something funny, or we could just see something on television that triggers us to laugh. It could be us talking about a movie we just saw, or a movie we remember from 1985. Whatever it might be, we’ll start laughing and then we start to write it down.”
Simple, but effective
Part of what zaps life into their Robot Chicken creation onscreen is the way that the seeming simplicity of the models and the animation matches and even enhances the off-handed comedy of the sketches.
The figures are moved a little jerkily frame by frame. Clay, foam and wire figures are lumped together instead of being smoothed out, and expressions are very obviously animated with cut-out frowning and smiley mouth-stickers and brows (taken on and off the models by animators with a set of tweezers).
And if, sometimes, the action figures bounce along as if an invisible child’s hand was moving them, it’s all a calculated part of the game.
The inner child
Robot Chicken’s animators know how to create a seamless, smooth product, but that’s not what is wanted here: the animation has to look home-made, to connect us to the inner child who told these sorts of stories and feels nostalgic about the shows being parodied.
Their match of storytelling and animation has won the series the 2007, 2010, 2016 and 2018 Emmy awards for Outstanding Short Form Animated Programme, while individual animator Sarah de Gaudemar won the 2006 Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animation.
While the toys look like the ones that you might have played with yourself, as the series went on the team found that they broke too quickly. Character fabricators then replaced many of them by making latex moulds and casting replicas in modelling foam with movable wire frame skeletons.
“We have to rebuild probably 120 toys per week in-house. We need the talented puppet department to be able to build them all, make them do the things that they’re going to do, build multiple versions of each one and they break a lot on stages. They have to fix things as everything is moving at the same time – it’s a magical department. It’s amazing what they’re able to produce,” says Matt.
And because of the kind of stories being told on Robot Chicken, some people’s day at the office becomes as absurd as anything you see onscreen. “You have someone on staff who specialises in making vomit for our puppets, or someone who has to shuttle the naked puppets from one set to the next,” reveals series co-writer Zeb Wells.
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