Digital tools keep comedic cartoons current

“Topical animation” on TV sounds like an oxymoron, since animation typically takes so long that up-to-the-minute references are impossible.

Not anymore. Thanks to improved digital tools, animated comedies can be almost as nimble as “Saturday Night Live” — with some of the pressures that come with that, as well.

“The Simpsons” has incorporated contempo references in Bart’s chalkboard-writing during the credits ever since its 11th season (way back in 1999), and with today’s digital tools, writers can slip something into the show within hours. “We usually deliver on Thursdays, so if something happens on Wednesday, we could most likely get it done,” associate producer Alex Duke says.

But that’s a few seconds in the show’s opening. The ultimate high-wire act may well belong to “South Park,” which has been working — and thriving — on a schedule as compressed as any weekly live-action laffer.

“I don’t know of any animation production that works like this,” says Lauren Corrao, president of original programming and development for Comedy Central. ” ‘South Park’ is seven days from idea to delivery. They have changed things as late as a Friday for a show that airs the following Wednesday.”

Corrao says “South Park” keeps a library of all its locations and characters, precisely to be topical. “I do think that’s what allows them to be so brilliant,” Corrao says. Though the time difference from the show’s Los Angeles production offices to the network’s Gotham HQ means standards and practices are sometimes working in the middle of the night.

Tight as the schedule is, says Corrao, “it’s not really a white-knuckle experience. There have been some hairy moments, but the show has always gotten on air. They have never missed a deadline.”

Now that “South Park” has proven it can be done, others are trying to bring topical humor to animated TV. Van Nuys-based Animax, founded by SCTV alum Dave Thomas, is getting ready to deliver its new animation/sketch-comedy series “Popzilla,” tentatively slated for a Thursday slot on MTV starting in August.

Animax is using Flash animation to present about 35 celebrity-skewering sketches per show. Think: the Onion meets TMZ, but with animated characters.

“We have to be able to get something from the news and flip it in a week, so we use photo backgrounds and jpeg faces,” says “Popzilla” executive producer and co-creator R.J. Fried.

Flash-animated toons that lampoon topics ripped from the headlines are common on the web, but not so on TV. Thomas observes, “This show uses Flash the way it should be used, as opposed to using Flash to try and do cel animation. This is a digital tool that allows animators to build libraries of movement and reuse them, and this show utilizes that well.”

Brent Haynes, MTV senior VP of series development says that when Thomas pitched the show to him, he gave them three weeks to deliver a 6-minute test tape.

“That was the time when Christian Bale had exploded on set, and Animax had a Christian Bale piece,” Haynes says. “We said, ‘OK, they can do it.’ ”

Animax is devoting two-dozen of its 85 employees to “Popzilla,” with everything done inhouse. Animation director Rob Fendler explains, “We had to economize the design and the animation in order to get everything to work. Our characters don’t have fancy run cycles, they have ‘piston legs.’ We’re using designs that we can easily change at the last minute.”

The show is to deliver three days before airdate. Most of each episode is done well in advance with holes left open for late additions. Haynes concedes the deadline is probably going to be 2½ weeks before airdate, but says, “if something massive happened, we’d try and figure out how to do it.”

“The hardest part,” he adds, “is always getting something past our legal people.”

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