last week I managed to get my hands on the making of South Park: 6 days to air documentary. I was itching to see it as I hadn’t seen any footage of Matt Stone and Trey Parker in years, and was wondering what they were up to and how they producing the new episodes. It’s no secret that they work long and hard over the 7 day period between episodes, with only one day off, and sometimes working 24hrs a day to get episodes done on time. “We work between 100 and 120 hours in a seven-day week to deliver the episodes,” says Frank Agnone, supervising producer at South Park Studios in Los Angeles. “We’re moving unbelievably fast right out of the gate.” The studio never finishes a episode ahead of time and every episode is delivered the day it airs. The creators stick to this frantic schedule to stay ahead of the game when it come to delivering up to date spoof’s and parodies of today’s new and hot topics.
To be able to cope with this demand The creators use a few dozen Macs and huge render farm so that they can hammer out a show from storyboard draft to broadcast final in-house in a matter of days. the animation factory is one of only a few in existence that can produce an animated show in one week. “We have very complex stuff that needs to be done very fast and we need to know that we can trust the machines to handle whatever we throw at them without crumbling,” says JJ Franzen, technical director at South Park Studios. “That’s why we use Macs.”
Originally the show as made using paper cutouts, but there was no way that the crew could cut out enough designs for a 14 episode series; So they did their best to mimic the look and feel of that original pilot using SGI workstations. “Matt and Trey designed the whole construction paper look,” says Stough. “It was crude and simple placement animation. But it made the characters come to life just by bumping them naturally. When you moved a character’s arm, the body moved a little too.” To duplicate that analog jumpiness today, the animation crew employs Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and Maya. “It’s incredibly fast,” says Stough. “It used to take three months to do a show. We’ve gotten it down to six days.” The animators scan the original construction paper characters and backgrounds. “We have a 10-year library of props and backgrounds and characters that we recycle and reuse,” says Stough. Those scanned images can be used as textures in Maya. The 3D modeling application can easily duplicate the physics of working in the real world with paper. “With Maya, we have puppets now and they’re grouped together as if they were glued together,” says Stough. “It’s kind of like a virtual camera stand in a computer. But instead of using a computer to make the animation smooth, the artist has to go in and make it jumpy.” Even though the process may look and seem easy, it however is not, “Whenever we bring a new animator or technical director on board they have to go through a pretty lengthy training process,” says Agnone. “The show may look pretty simple to the rest of the world, but it’s tough to produce.”
Any body who has seen South Park over the last few years can see that the style has not stood still, quite the opposite; it has evolved taking on new technologies giving an un-rivaled feel and look. For example the hyper real weather effects. “We used to use a snow wheel cutout in Maya,” says Stough. “We’d just rotate it and that was our weather. Now we use Motion, which allows us to bring the snow down and allow it to be a little more natural.” And when things go awry in South Park, Motion is the best tool for the job. “We’ve leaned on Motion for explosions and fire,” says Stough. “It’s really our special-effects tool.”
“The schedule starts on a Thursday, six days prior to air,” says Agnone (below). “We get the script and then the machine starts to churn. Trey and Matt go into the booth and record the dialog, then the audio editors cut it.” Simultaneously, a team is sketching out storyboards based on the script and animators are designing characters, locations and props for the episode. After this the lip sync department works on crafting the animation with the audio. Animators put it all together and the editorial department cuts the episode for broadcast using Macs running Avid. “It sounds like a straightforward process, but it’s always chaotic and we’re working under really tight timeframes and turnarounds,” says Agnone. Parker and Stone often have edits mere hours before the show is due at the network. “This schedule really developed to give Matt and Trey the creative flexibility to stay current, to touch on topics in the news. We’ve really custom-built this studio so we can turn around an episode every six days.” That studio now includes a 120-processor render farm, more than 30 Mac workstations and almost 10 terabytes of Xserve RAID storage space. “We put together a back-end render farm that can handle a full-length film, no problem,” says Agnone.
“There were times when Maya would crash on the Windows workstations,” says Franzen. “The entire system had to be rebooted, which would take three or four minutes. It simply happened too often and wasted too much time.” When Maya was released for the Mac, Franzen made the switch. “Mac OS X is UNIX-based and in a UNIX or Linux system, of course, when an application crashes, only the application crashes, not the whole computer.”
“There are time when we are buried in our 120-hour work weeks when we just need to catch a breath,” he continues. “But every Wednesday night, after working a very difficult six days, we get new gratification from a new episode going on the air. The positive feedback we get from our families and the media world is overwhelming and those 120-hour weeks are paid off immediately.” Lead Animator Jack Shih. Below is a fanart by Kuroi-Tsuki. sources taken from http://www.apple.com/pro/profiles/southpark/index.html