By Mary Ann Skweres
Over the seven seasons that it has been broadcast, South Park has developed a postproduction pipeline that allows the production company to deliver an animated show from scratch within the short span of one week. The system has evolved as the show expanded in complexity. The original pilot was completed in six weeks with five people working 80-hour weeks to animate cardboard cutouts. Currently the company consists of 16 technical directors and animators, five lip-synchers, picture and sound editing departments and various production and technical support teams.
The production of South Park is almost completely self-contained. Except for final color correction, everything is done in-house—all sound recording, animation, music and editing. Turnaround time is one of the show’s critical concepts. Between the moment a writer gets an idea and the animators are sending it to the editors is a mere 2–3 hours.
To keep the work flowing without a catch, everything is monitored—from the number of shots that are outstanding to what each workstation is being used for, and whether it is busy, idle, or has crashed. The weekly script comes into production the Thursday before a show airs, allowing a mere 5 to 6 days to complete each episode. A guided tour of the studio, hosted by systems administrator J.J. Franzen, revealed the sophisticated pipeline developed to achieve this grueling schedule. “It is as close to real-time as you can get on an animated television program,” says Franzen.
The first people to see the script are the storyboard department. The department is responsible for character designs, background designs, how things are going to flow and what locations and props are needed. They take the word and translate it into images. Meanwhile, the dialog tracks are recorded by creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker (with female voice-over artists brought in as needed) using the on-site, isolated sound recording booth, then edited on in-house sound editing workstations.
Once storyboards are completed, they get handed off to the technical directors who model the characters and prep the backgrounds and everything for animation. Then the process moves on to lip sync. The job of the lip sync department is to listen to the recorded dialog and animate the mouths to match the audio. Once they’ve finished, the work goes on to animation.
With a multiplicity of characters in some scenes, the animation is not as simple as it looks. Eric Stow, the director of animation, has been with the company from the very beginning. He worked on the original cardboard cutout animation when Stone and Parker were in college, and was one of the core people helping define the look and style. The animation department handles all the acting and motion—from the walk cycles to the blinking of the eyes. One hour of animation is created for each 23-minute show. In other words, for every four shots created, only one ends up in the show.
The show has two edit bays. As the animations are completed the assistant editor preps the footage for the editor who assembles all the pieces into the final show before sending it out-of-house for online color timing.
Over the years, the computer system has changed from all SGI to Windows on the desktop and Linux on the back end, but it has been an ongoing process. At first the producers never expected to go beyond the initial episodes, so everything was slapped together with duct tape and crossed fingers. But with the success of the pilot and the first episodes, the company decided to do 26 episodes per season versus the contracted 23. Engineer Sean Laverty needed to set up the means to achieve that ambitious goal. The company doubled the number of artists and tripled the render farm potential.
At the company’s initial location—a small room in an attic in Westwood—there were 13 artists and about 200 file servers. At that point the work was tripping the circuit breakers about once every three hours. Moving to a converted warehouse in Marina del Rey gave the company more room. Instead of having the server underfoot, there was an actual machine room. Render capacity was increased. To keep up with the schedule, the production shifted from the cardboard cutout animation to the digital Power Animator software, running on additional hardware.
However, when the artists’ workstations were upgraded, rendering couldn’t handle the volume and the pipeline would back up. Engineering realized that the render cue software for handing off rendering to the various processors needed to be upgraded. Using the rendering software Condor as inspiration, Laverty took that model and adapted it to the needs of the show with a massive rewrite of South Park’s software so the rendering would not hold up the creative process.
In January, the company moved to a new facility to work on the next season. They continue to upgrade technology. One thing is guaranteed: the more advanced the technology, the more the creators will push the limits. Ironic for a show that is made entirely with cardboard cutout characters.
By Mary Ann Skweres