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Macworld | iWorld goes on down to South Park, has itself a time

Macworld | iWorld--the annual Mac conference--has taken on more than a new name this year, as it shifts its focus to the culture that Apple's products have helped foster. Perhaps it's fitting, then, that some of the creative team behind South Park headlined the talks at Moscone Center West on Thursday.

If you're wondering what the connection to Apple is, consider this: every episode of the long-running animated series is created almost entirely on Macs.

In a discussion moderated by Chicago Sun Times columnist (and Macworld senior contributor) Andy Ihnatko, three representatives from South Park's animation studio--Eric Stough, David Lenna, and Ryan Quincy--talked about the unique animation processes that go into making one of the most iconic, controversial, and hilarious shows on television.

Maya maniacs

South Park started out as a series of comedic construction-paper-stop-motion-animation projects by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Eric Stough, animation director and producer at South Park Studios, explains that the original pilot for the show took three months to do. Stough has been part of South Park Studios since the beginning, having grown up with Trey Parker; when Parker was 13 and Stough was 11, Parker dubbed him "Butters"--a name Stough shares with a series regular.

Despite the show's iconic paper-cutout appearance, South Park's animators have been using computer animation techniques for years. "We use advanced modeling [software] to make it look 2-D," explained David Lenna, South Park's chief technology officer. The biggest tool in the animation team's box? Autodesk Maya. Ryan Quincy, animation director and producer of South Park Studios, admitted that "We we're using [Apple's] Motion for a while. But we try to keep it in Maya." Now, every episode is produced primarily using Maya, 50 Mac workstations, and 40 Xserves. "Even Windows-based software is done through VM software on a Mac," Lenna said.

Stough credited Maya's flexibility as one reason the show has been able to do some of its bigger, more memorable episodes: "We can do flames and sparks and cars. We can do different styles of animation." Though South Park is most known for a specific type of animation, show creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone collaborate with the animation team to venture into new territory to accomplish the parodies and satires demanded by the show.

To illustrate that point, Slough introduced a series of clips for the assembled audience that highlighted the many different styles the South Park staff was able to create using Maya. The satirical World of Warcraft episode is perhaps the most famous example of South Park Studios' pushing its brand into new artistic territory. Like other episodes, it was produced primarily through Maya. World of Warcraft developer Blizzard worked with South Park Studios to produce the machinima scenes using in-game footage, and the characters were re-created in Maya.

Stough and Lenna also walked the audience through some of the more animation-intensive segments of the "Heavy Metal" tribute episode, explaining that the imagery in Kenny's hallucination was all done in Maya. The episode also incorporated live-action actors to use as models, combining with the 2-D characters in Maya to create a seamless whole.

Six-day cycle

Unlike other animated television shows, South Park has an exceptionally quick production cycle. Stough said that when Parker first wanted to a show with a two-week cycle, people thought it couldn't be done. South Park now operates on a six-day cycle. "We re-invented how you do an animated show."

After the writer's meeting, animators storyboard the scenes while Stone and Parker edit them. Then there's voice recordings, constant script rewrites, and the actual animation process.

Speed is essential to the South Park Studios staff, as they only have six days to create 22 minutes of animation--a feat unthinkable only a few years ago. According to Lenna, they're constantly experimenting with ways to trim the process but even if something "does something really cool, if it takes 20 seconds longer to do [it's] too long."

Due to the brutal schedule and small staff, it's not unusual to see the animation staff work from 11 a.m. on Tuesday to 11 a.m. on Wednesday to make that evening's 10 p.m. air date. Animators will often sleep under their desks in sleeping bags. Stough related an incident five years ago where the staff did a "pajama day" on a brutal Tuesday: "Trey's pacing about and we're wearing pajamas...yeah, we stopped doing pajama days after that."

Despite the tight deadline, Lenna admits that the staff always animates 24 to 25 minutes of content, roughly two or three minutes that never make it on the air. "We cut stuff all the time, [such as the] George Lucas raping Indiana Jones [sequences in the China Problem episode]. We did four or five other scenes" that never made it onto the air.

What's next

The South Park Studios representatives were cagey on details about what's next for the show, but they did say that both a new video game and a new season were in the works.

During the Q&A session, audience members asked about the company's relationship with Apple and what the animators would like to see next from the hardware and software maker. "We're all hoping new workstation spec comes out soon," David Lenna said with a laugh. "Oh, and I want to get rid of the Radeons [graphic cards]."

Lenna, along with the rest of the South Park Studios staff, professed to a love for Xserve line and wants to see them return to Apple's lineup. (Apple discontinued the server in 2010.) But when asked by Ihnatko if they thought Apple considers South Park Studios a major Apple installation, everyone on stage laughingly admitted, "no."


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