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The panel started as many do: with computer trouble.
“We’re celebrating 10 years of awesome shows like ‘Aqua Teen Hunger Force’ and ‘Squidbillies’!” said Scott Fry, the CEO, President and Founder of Radical Axis, as his team worked to set up their laptop. “There is a bit of a video presentation, and I’m going to push this button and hope it works.”
It did not.
However, “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” (“ATHF”) creator Matt Maiellaro leaped to the rescue and, after a moment or two of window-dragging, we were treated to the hilarious “trailer” for a live-action “Radical Axis: The Movie in 3D!”
Afterward, we were introduced to the panelists. In addition to the previously mentioned Fry and Maiellaro, there was animation director Craig Hartin, animator Todd Redner, and moderator Whitney Matheson of USA Today.
Matheson began the panel by asking the obvious: Is Radical Axis doing anything to celebrate 10 years? Hartin jumped in first with, “Keep making more of the awesome shows we did for the last 10 years!” Fry quickly followed up with “a party.”
After, Fry talked about how Radical Axis came to be. He had left the company he was with and started the studio. Originally, it was only going to be a motion-graphics design shop, but he got “randomly pulled” into “ATHF,” and the show caught on. He added that at the time “ATHF” was brought to him, he was “offered a job at Country Music Television,” and asked an editor friend if he should take it or he should keep working on “ATHF.” After seeing the pilot for the show, the editor turned to him and asked, “What the heck is that?” But Fry stayed the course, and the rest is history.
Matheson’s next question was, “At what point did you realize ‘ATHF’ had taken off?” Around the time the “ATHS” season 2 DVD was coming out, Maiellaro checked the DVD pre-sales for the week, and in first place was “Star Wars,” and in second place was “ATHF.”
Asked what it was like being based in Atlanta (versus New York or Los Angeles, where animation studios are typically based) Hartin said, “Things are slower, it’s nice.” He joked that it was “great, because we can run the competition … since there is none.”
Switching gears, Matheson asked whether the show’s budget had increased since it started. “Ugh,” was Fry’s response. “It’s challenging to work on a tight budget.” He said they’re still waiting for that job where their biggest problem is “all this money, all this time!” “If anyone has that, we’re interested!”
Keeping the topic on money, Matheson wondered how Radical Axis made their shows work the way they wanted to on a limited budget. It starts with the scripts, Hartin said, where Fry and Maiellaro lay things out and try not to ask for anything too money-consuming. Coming from his background on “Space Ghost Coast to Coast,” Maiellaro enjoys the challenge of low-budget writing, and mentioned that the rest of the team does a great job figuring out how to do what they ask.
Once the animation starts, they make a list of what the new animations they need for the episode (i.e. the things they need to spend money on), and whether they need to be 2-D animation or composite, and what other workarounds they can figure out.
Asked about other projects, they just finished up episode 60 of “Squidbillies”, the musical episode. The studio has also worked on “Perfect Hair Forever,” “12 Oz. Mouse” and Comedy Central’s “Freakshow” (which received no applause).
Redner talked about sneaking Easter eggs into the show, and mentioned that, yes, they do. In one of the MC Pee Pants episodes, the wall behind the band The Metal Scorpions was graffitied with all the Radical Axis names and studio logo. And when they need background or recurring characters, Craig will use the guys in the office as a starting point for design.
Matheson’s next question was about the infamous Danzig episode, and explained that her dream is “to get a photo taken on his lap” at Comic-Con. “He was one of the most challenging guests we had,” and also the most expensive, but “he wanted to do it.” When Redner faxed him the initial character sketch, Danzig’s response was, “I’m bigger than that.” They ended up redesigning his character.
In the upcoming “ATHF” two-parter, Shake has an encounter with a facehugger from the “Alien” series, but because of copyright issues, they had to change the design a bit. Redner’s solution? “I gave it hair.” Steven Wright is the voice of the creature.
Did the guys ever not get a guest star they wanted? While they admit they’ve been lucky, they haven’t gotten everyone. For the “ATHF” movie, “Steve Martin turned us down.” They got Tina Fey, though.
Redner had some advice for budding animators: “My advice for people looking to break into animation in general is really just do it and get your stuff out there as much as you can. Show it.” He continued that, “little details make a difference,” especially when submitting to the Radical Axis summer internship. He concluded, “Do it, network, and keep moving forward.” Fry added, “Really know your audience, really know who you’re presenting to, but entertain yourself.”
Did they ever do anything that Adult Swim rejected? Yes. An episode about “the Boston event.” (For those who don’t know: The Boston event was a viral marketing campaign that went wrong. LED signs of “ATHF” character the Mooninites were left all over Boston, and city officials believed it was a terrorist attack.) Another rejected bit was in the “Standards and Practices” episode, where a character put a shotgun to his head, pulled the trigger, and blood went everywhere. They got around that by making rainbows come out instead.
Redner remarked that he was “shocked” the network allowed his original design for Dr. Wongburger go through, since Fry and Maiellaro told him to take the character design further and further. Maiellaro summed it up pretty succinctly: “If we write ‘dick’ enough in a script, it’ll be okay, but we put a bunny rabbit exploding in and they take that out.”
Then Matheson opened the floor to the audience Q&A.
In “ATHF,” when the characters throw any object, it explodes. The first questioner asked why, and Hartin explained that in one episode, one of the characters threw a plate of spaghetti, and Maiellaro began suggesting “What if it explodes?” Maiellaro chimed in that we’ll see an episode this season that explains that.
Next up was a budding animator who asked Redner what to do, since she was too poor to go to art school. Fry revealed that Redner doesn’t have an animation degree, and Redner told her to “learn on your own. School is a great thing,” but doing it and actually learning it on your own is possible. “For me, it was just hooking up with the right people at the right time,” he said. He continued that he “went to school but didn’t finish,” and when he left, a studio who knew he could draw brought him on and helped him with his animation skills.
Will Handbanana reappear? “He’s in my nightmares every night,” Hartin said.
The next fan asked how “Squidbillies” came about. “Pete Smith and I wrote the original pilot,” Maiellaro said. It was “crazy backwoods rednecky,” with “shotguns going off every three seconds.” Afterward, it took tons of rewrites, changes to the format, and two years before Radical Axis got involved and produced it.
A concerned fan asked about the whereabouts of Dr. Weird and his assistant Steve. “I loved them too,” Maiellaro said. “They got a big role in the movie,” and he returns in the upcoming two-parter. But, “a little bit goes a long way.”
The show is called “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” but how old are the characters? Shake is 43, since in an upcoming episode he talks about how he’s turning 44 and that’s his “magic number for sex,” and Meatwad “we believe is six,” because he asks when he turns seven in an upcoming episode.
A confused fan asked if Frylock has a nose, and continued that “he does in some [episodes], and not in others.” After some discussion, Hartin responded with, “I don’t want to blow your mind, but it’s a cartoon.” Then Redner pointed out that, while it doesn’t happen often, when you see Frylock in profile, “you can kinda see a little nose.”
A younger fan named Alex asked the panelists what their favorite episodes are. Maiellaro quickly sniped, “Anything with the Mooninites! What’s yours?” Alex said he enjoyed the 100th episode, and Redner talked about how fun it was to redesign the characters “in a Hanna-Barbera kinda way.” If you watch closely in the new opening for the episode, you can see a lot of redesigned “ATHF” characters, like Dr. Weird dancing, Billy Witch Doctor with a ‘fro, and even Handbanana.
Another young fan asked why they went with a wad of meat, as opposed to a hamburger, as a character, since they already had a shake and fries? Maiellaro said they wanted a “vulnerable, kinda pathetic character … the scrapings of meat that fell off the real burgers. It’s cute, right?”
One question has probably been on people’s minds since “ATHF” debuted: “How do you get inspiration for the random things that happen in the show? Smoking marijuana?” The guys laughed, and Maiellaro explained, “It’s just what makes us laugh, what we think is funny.”
There’s no plan for the show to end anytime soon. “I hope it’ll keep going on,” Maiellaro said.
What happened to “Perfect Hair Forever”? “It was too perfect.” The never received a real answer; however, they fondly reminisced about the show. Redner enjoyed it because “they told me to hide stuff … hot dogs … little sayings in the back.”
Maiellaro explained that they “never figured out” what perfect hair was. “That’s why we stopped,” he said. “We were driving ourselves crazy.” Redner hid a reference to “Perfect Hair Forever” in the last season of “ATHF,” where they recycled the animation of Twisty the Tornado when Meatwad turned into a tornado.
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