"Everyone knows it's Butters!"
Eric Stough is not Trey Parker's little brother, though many people believe he is because he looks and behaves like the sweeter, younger version of the South Park co-creator. In fact, Stough, the inspiration for the Butters character, has been close friends with Parker since middle school and is, in many ways, the fifth Beatle of South Park. Stough, a University of Colorado Boulder graduate, assisted with the animation of both incarnations of the infamous short film, "The Spirit of Christmas", that spawned the award-winning animated series on Comedy Central. Now in it's 11th season with over 160 episodes, Stough currently serves as the Animation Director over at South Park Studios.
Last night, Stough was a guest speaker at Boulder's International Film Series, a CU event. In his presentation, he treated the audience to an inside look at the production process, as well as an insight into the minds of the show's two creators, Parker and co-founder Matt Stone. (As if ANY Trashwire reader doesn't know who they are!)
Using his MacBook Pro filled with behind-the-scenes goodies, Stough took the audience through the production process from conceptualizing the plot to beaming the show up to the network just in time for that Wednesday night air time.
He explained that the brilliant minds at South Park Studios, or just South Park as they call it, work about eight weeks a year on shifts that can last more than 24 hours to crank out the cartoon in only a few days. As most of us know, South Park has an insanely quick production time, keeping the show incredibly relevant and up to speed on current events. In the Emmy-Award-winning episode, "Kenny Dies" the show was able to parody the Terry Schiavo feeding-tube drama as the story was unfolding in the news.
The show begins at a writers meeting where several consultants contribute ideas to the script. Parker then takes those ideas and writes a script for the show. The shots are storyboarded out and the voice tracks are recorded, creating the animatic that Parker uses to fine-tune the show before the animators step in and begin rendering the shot. Lip sync artists match the mouths, modeled after the original construction paper cut-outs from "The Spirit of Christmas", to the dialogue and before long, the show is ready to air.
This rapid process not only keeps the show topical, but keeps it funny as well. Stough explained that Parker and Stone don't particularly love doing feature films because it takes so long from script to release and the jokes get stale in the process. Also, with a feature, there are hundreds of hands involved in the finished product and it can become diluted from too many cooks in the kitchen. On the tv show, Parker and company can get an idea one day, create the animated scenes, and have the show ready to air as quick as three days later. The entire process feels much more organic and natural and has made South Park the beloved series it is today.
Stough explained that this is why Family Guy, who South Park notoriously ripped on in the legendary "Cartoon Wars" episodes, can never compete. Word on the street is that Family Guy is making an episode in retaliation for South Park's claim that it's gag-loving writers are actually just a bunch of manatees picking idea balls out of a tank. Stough remarked that he was sure the retaliation show wouldn't be funny or relevant since it would probably air years down the road from the initial controversy due to Family Guy's months-long production process.
Aside from taking us through the quick history of South Park, Stough also gave a quick demonstration of the software used to animate the show, showing character conceptualizations in Corel Draw and the multi-part key frame animation process in the powerful 3D animation tool, Maya. He also gave the audience a glimpse into the brand new season which starts October 3rd by showing us a background image of a scary forest that will be used in a Halloween special and Corel image of a hot air baloon/zepplin that may appear in another show in this new run.
Because Stough is an original member of the South Park family, he had a unique perspective on the series. He was able to give an audience of major South Park fans a glimpse into the small little world that cranks out some of the best content on television. He also answered questions about the process, past and future projects, the way the show's creators come up with ideas, and even what his own goals were before the little animated Christmas card he worked on became one of the greatest tv shows in the history of the medium.
The tight group of South Park originals help maintain the highest level of comedy on television right now. It was truly an honor to get a tour of the process from someone who helped pioneer it.