The heads of Fox’s Animation Domination High-Def weigh in on the future of TV animation

The heads of Fox’s Animation Domination High-Def weigh in on the future of TV animation

Fox is taking a gamble on animation in late-night television with its new Animation Domination High-Def, which right now consists of just two shows—Axe Cop and High School USA!—airing late Saturday nights, but will eventually encompass a full 90 minutes of programming. The effort is being headed up by Nick Weidenfeld, who transitioned from a career in journalism to working on many of Adult Swim’s most vital programs, including Childrens Hospital, Moral Orel, and Metalocalypse. He’s been joined by Hend Baghdady, who has produced several other animated and outsider-comedy programs during her career, including the Community animated Christmas episode. The two producers sat down with The A.V. Club at San Diego Comic-Con International to discuss the impetus behind ADHD, why Adult Swim has those bumps, and how to pronounce “GIF.”

The A.V. Club: What was your philosophy in starting ADHD?

Nick Weidenfeld: When I first started talking with Kevin [Reilly, Fox president], it was really about why it takes so long to make a cartoon. From making the pilot to reviewing the pilot to picking up the series, it’s so expensive, and it’s really hard to break a series that way, especially when you’re Fox and you need to fill Sundays. So the basic thing was just: Is there a better way? Can we make shows quicker and keep the quality high?

If you talk to anybody on almost any show, literally anyone other than Matt [Stone] and Trey [Parker, of South Park]… There’s some point that the process breaks down. Ultimately in animation, when you’re sending the thing across the world, and the people don’t speak English, they don’t know the jokes. At some point, there’s a breakdown. To put it all under one roof and have everyone working together to get the best product, that became the philosophy.

Hend Baghdady: The process that Nick is talking about dilutes the voice of the talent, and we wanted a way to bring in people and really give them the freedom to create what they wanted to. Given where we are with budgets and the efficiency we built, we really can experiment and take those risks in a way that you can’t in an outside studio.

NW: All the shows that we like, whether it’s Louie or Bob’s Burgers or even Seth MacFarlane’s shows, they all have such a strong voice. The closer you get to a refined creative voice, the better. And in animation, it can break down. If you look at Matt and Trey, if you look at Mike Judge, if you look at Seth MacFarlane, these are guys that write, voice, and draw the shows. Those packages make the best shows, and those are really hard to find. 

So in the cases where you have really talented people like Loren Bouchard or Dino Stamatopoulos, who don’t necessarily draw and do all the voices… If you bring it all together, we can develop it. We can develop the art while you’re writing, which I think is important, and that doesn’t happen often. 

HB: Having everybody together really lets the process be more fluid and the collaboration be stronger. When we started animating High School USA! we really could work together to talk about how the movement worked and the colors and the character design. In a process that’s very segmented and linear, which is the studio system, you can’t really do that. We also wanted the animators and the designers and everybody to be invested in the block as a whole, so having people sitting next to each other and keeping everybody involved in all the shows allowed us to create more of a community. 

AVC: So you just have one writer’s room with a bunch of people in it?

HB: We’ll have a couple, but people jump from one to another. 

NW: The way it works is that a core group of people who’ve had experience writing on shows and show-running are in every room. There was this article a year or two ago that said if you have all new people working on any kind of creative endeavor, they won’t jibe at all and you’ll make something shitty. On the other hand, if you have everybody’s that’s worked together for so long, it’s homogenized, it’s just everyone saying yes to each other, and it’s shitty. But if you can get a good mix of people… You have a core group and a sensibility, then you bring in kind of these innocents to work with people like Dino, who’s seen everything. You’ll have a support system that works.

AVC: There’s a raw enthusiasm to your shows, and there’s usually a lot of a cynicism in—

NW: You just made me the happiest any single person has. I’m glad you see that, because I think it would be easy to see on the surface the cynicism of High School USA! Obviously it’s impossible to see any cynicism in a show written by a 5-year-old [Axe Cop], but the whole point is that I wanted something earnest. I think that’s the most important thing that any brand can do is define a voice, to play against the cynical thing. 

I was really influenced by the kids I saw making the Cartoon Network stuff when I was there. Not the Adult Swim stuff. I already knew all those guys, and that’s what I was doing. But when I moved to L.A. and met guys like J.G. Quintel [of Regular Show] and Pen Ward [of Adventure Time] and the kids who worked on those shows, it’s just a totally different thing. And when I started working on Odd Future and realized that Tyler The Creator’s favorite shows are Adventure Time and Regular Show, it started to fuck with me. Odd Future are really earnest, emo kids, and have a millennial youthful sensibility, and that’s what I want to bring to this. 

HB: Honestly, that’s one of the first conversations we had. We don’t want to be cynical, we want to be earnest and positive.

NW: And with High School, it’s sort of a satire. Satire is critical, satire is pointing something out that’s fucked up and saying, “This is fucked up.” I think my mom or grandparents or whatever are going to see the show and say, “These kids are so fucked up.” Maybe I’m desensitized, but it doesn’t feel risqué to me.

HB: It’s relevant. And the way they’re approaching the situation is in a very open, positive way. 

NW: That show doesn’t deal with like things I dealt with before, with race-issue stuff. But it deals with sex stuff. Kids that are 16 years old are fucking, and they’re doing drugs, and they’re going to Deadmau5 concerts. I went to Bonnaroo, and every kid there was doing drugs. I learned from a 17-year-old what candy flipping was. I didn’t know. It was taking ecstasy and acid at the same time. It seems like their heads were on pretty straight. They didn’t seem like bad kids. They were just having fun partying, but you still want to deal with those sorts of issues.

So with a thing like bullies, that comes from my Cartoon Network work. I’m more scared that my 2-year-old son would grow up to be a bully than almost anything else, but that’s a crazy thing to think, too. So with this sexting, dick-pics episode, one of the guys sends a picture of his dick out to Amber, and he’s got a really ugly dick and she is a virgin, so she shows it to Cassandra, the sort of slutty one and says, “Is this right-looking? Is this okay-looking?” And she’s like, “Just send it to me, and I’ll study it for a while,” and that girl sends it out to every girl in the school. Last year I read four or five articles about the exact same thing happening. It’s tragic, and some of those kids end up killing themselves. I’ve had to have conversations with my niece, like, “Do whatever you want, just do not send a picture of yourself out naked because that will destroy you.” The kid who works with us said, “I don’t find this shocking.” You can ask every 25-and-under kid, and they know someone in their high school that that happened to. It’s not that shocking. It’s blasé for a kid now. In that way, I do feel like there’s a youthful energy because we’re not even actually being critical of it. We’re just saying, “Hey, this is happening,” and life is crazy. But you made my day pointing that out because that’s what we really wanted, and I know that the next two shows will feel that way.

AVC: The times I’ve heard you speak about this, you’ve talked about Adventure Time every time. What did you draw from that show in terms of sensibility and storytelling?

NW: Beyond the earnest thing, it’s just about two buddies. Because it’s a cartoon, I wondered how we could replicate it for adults and give it a little bit more emotional weight. It’s like Workaholics. When I see Workaholics, it’s like Regular Show for adults. Regular Show was a college short about two dudes at an AM/PM taking acid, and they become Rigby and Mordecai. So it’s essentially an adult idea that was very much made into a young thing. But the thing that’s very specific about Adventure Time is its lack of storytelling. It’s not a romp. It’s just this very unironic, full-on embrace of imagination. It has more rules than Axe Cop, but it will track a fairly crazy story or introduce a new character in a fairly interesting way just because. But I think the difference between that and a sort of very surreal Adult Swim show is that Adult Swim shows don’t have interpersonal dynamics. They’re character-driven in the sense that you like Master Shake, but you don’t feel the emotional part of it. So we have the surreal element and we’re embracing imagination and we’re doing whatever we want, but it’s very heavily grounded in emotional connection between friends. 

That’s what we tried to do with Axe Cop. Axe Cop is nuts, and we can all see that he’s a psychopath, because a 5-year-old is a psychopath when you break it down. He’s really mean to Flute Cop. It’s never said, “But why is he always nice to Sockarang and so mean to Flute Cop?”

But that’s what I think I learned the most from Adventure Time. It’s hard to make a non-board scripted show like a board-driven show, but it’s just the feeling that you can embrace the silliness and imagination in a non-cynical way. It’s just a beautiful part of the show.

AVC: What did you take from Adult Swim as you were preparing this? 

NW: I was there for so long. My wife still works there. My brother showruns China, IL. The No. 1 thing that I think about is that Adult Swim has a very strong and specific voice. When you talk about Louis C.K. or you talk about Lena Dunham or Loren or J.G. or Pen or Dino, the shows have these specific voices. The fucking network, the brand has a specific voice, and they did it so smartly, like, “Hey, this is literally our voice.” We’re writing you bumps, and we’re telling you. It’s a very adult, cynical, in my opinion, Gen X kind of voice, and it works brilliantly. It’s very ironic. There’s a little bit of “fuck you” in there, too. But it works so well for them. And if you look at any other network, they just don’t. They do not speak directly to something.

I think that as important as a Childrens Hospital or a Boondocks or a Robot Chicken is to them, I know a lot of people are watching Adult Swim just to watch Adult Swim. They’re part of a sea that just washes over them because they’re inside the experience, and that comes from that voice. When Fox said, “Hey, do you want to make some shows?” our reaction was not just “Yes.” I wanted to figure out our voice. I want to give our audience something different.

HB: When we started, we had the opportunity to really be a production company that went to other animation studios. Ultimately, the reason we decided to build Animation Domination Studios was not only to create shows but to create this brand, which we wouldn’t have done otherwise, and I think that’s where the Adult Swim thing carries over. We really had to think very hard about what that voice is and how to bring our audience into investing in the block. 

NW: I hope that the TV side plays right. Have you gone to the website yet?

AVC: Yes.

NW: I feeling fucking insane with how I’ve proselytized the GIF maker, but I really do think it’s an amazing thing. I think it’s game-changing, and I’d like to talk about it, because I want someone to really understand. I think that the experience when you see it on the website or on mobile or however you view it, it starts to feel immersive. It feels very different from a network website. You interact with it not just in the way it moves or the color or the design, but the way in which we’re all like, “Take whatever you want. Click whatever you want. GIF whatever you want. Be part of this.” To me that feels like we’re starting to create an environment and a voice. 

HB: It’s not about us telling people what’s funny or what they like. It’s about creating a dialogue with the audience and having them decide what they want, what speaks to them, what they want to share with their friends. 

NW: When you go on to a network website, I don’t care what clips you’ve pulled. I want to watch the episodes. I’m not going to sit here and watch the one-minute clip that you’re telling me is funny out of context. I will watch something and decide that moment, that’s something I want to send to you, you know? People must do it, but you look at those numbers on YouTube, and those clips never have millions of views. 

HB: But the clips that people steal have millions of views, and it tells us what people like and what we should continue to do. With High School USA! we’re trying to create such different visual shows and all the characters move differently. You just sit there and watch what people are generating over and over and over again. Our site went from having a retention-rate average of two minutes to a half-hour. Because you just sit there, and you’re seeing what your friends are liking and consuming.

NW: I hope there’s a way to create that experience on TV because the TV experience is so important still. Look: I’m not in the business if it’s not for Mike Lazzo and Adult Swim. I was a journalist before this, so that’s my only experience to pull from. I’m heavily influenced by that experience. You know why Adult Swim programs 11-minute shows? It’s because kids’ shows are traditionally 11 minutes. Cartoon Network from the earliest Looney Tunes to Hanna-Barbera, they’re 11 minutes, and you don’t break up an 11-minute show with commercials. So essentially, Cartoon Network is the only network other than the kids’ networks that is programmed to have only one commercial break during the half hour. When Adult Swim starts, they only have one commercial break, so Mike Lazzo is doing Space Ghost the way you’d do Powerpuff Girls. It’s not because he’s like, “Hmm. People have shorter attention spans.” He’s working within a model. But then Adult Swim gets so far ahead of the curve because people are getting shorter attention spans, and you’re like, “Eleven-minute shows. Why do I need to stay for a whole half-hour?”

Also, do you know the reason behind the bumps? The FCC says on a kid’s network, you have to delineate between commercial breaks and your television content. So all the kid’s networks have those bumps. They’re working within something they had to when they started. That actually gave them a voice. But when we go to Fox and say, “You have to change your formatting of late night because I don’t want to put a commercial break in the middle of an 11-minute show,” that doesn’t make any sense to them. 

HB: Or, “We want bumps.” 

NW: They’re like, “What are bumps?”

[pagebreak]

AVC: Axe Cop is center of your launch lineup. What was the process of turning that comic, which is very random and crazy, into a TV show that does have logic to it, even if it is a 5-year-old’s logic?

NW: It was a long process. There’s a couple of key moments I really remember happening. I remember having a group of people that were fans of the comic come in a room and talk.

HB: It was almost like a mini retreat where these guys went into a room, and we had all the characters up and all the books out, and we just had a story break down and really hung out. 

NW: And because you’re a nerd about this stuff, what ended up happening was that Nick Offerman told me about this book years ago, this comic, and he said if you ever make it, I want to do it. Then we made it happen. I had talked to [Phil] Lord and [Chris] Miller about it because they were huge fans of it, and they said, “You have to ground it. It has to be emotional. That’s the number-one thing.”

Then they were doing 21 Jump Street and were like, “Maybe you should talk to our friend Judah Miller, who I think would really get this.” He was on American Dad. So we started talking to Judah and then had this retreat which was me and Judah and Matt Silverstein and Dave Jesser and Nick Offerman and Ken Marino and Patton [Oswalt] came in for a bit and Ethan [Nicolle]. And we all just sort of talked about some of our favorite moments from the book. 

The moment, for me, that it all clicked was, Ethan was relaying a story of basically his process with Malachai [Nicolle, Ethan’s brother and Axe Cop co-writer]. Malachai would say something like, “We need a dinosaur horn to stop this thing.” And Ethan, not trying to be a dick, but being someone that’s trying to understand and follow this train of thought says, “Well, aren’t dinosaurs extinct? Didn’t we just write that dinosaurs were extinct?” And Malachai would go, “Not on Dinosaur Planet, they’re not.” [Laughs.] Ethan is Flute Cop, and Malachai is Axe Cop. This is in some ways a buddy comedy between these two, where it’s an older and younger brother, and Axe Cop will say something insane, and Flute Cop is there not to poke holes but to try to genuinely understand what this crazy person is doing. That was a huge moment because we were like, “Okay, there’s this character connection here.”

That’s how the character stuff started happening, and then Ethan said that the way he puts the stories together is he actually gets tons and tons of information from Malachai. It’s very hard to do a narrative with a 5-year old, and he takes all those moments that are 100-percent pure Malachai, but then he Frankensteins it and rearranges them. So that’s what we did with the books: We took the moments from the books that we loved that are definitely 100-percent Malachai, then we build in some threads, and call Malachai when we hit dead ends.

AVC: What was some of the advice he would give you?

NW: The first one is like okay we’re doing this story where Bad Santa—

HB: —wants to go to heaven.

NW: Bad Santa killed Axe Cop’s parents, and now in a typical superhero revenge story, he’s going to go kill Bad Santa. And we get to the end, and we’re like, “Well, what’s Bad Santa’s plan? Why’s he doing any of this?” So we call Malachai, and we run around some stuff, and it’s all Batman-y and worn out. And Malachai—again he delivers everything like it’s obvious, which is the funniest part about Malachai because he is Axe Cop—so he goes, “He wants to go to heaven. He wants to go to heaven so he can kill God so he can become Jesus.” And we’re like, “OBVIOUSLY.”

My favorite story is he came into the office while we were in the animatics stage. First of all, the thing about this kid is that you can’t impress him. If I was 5 years old and 100 adults were working and making this show for me, I’d be like, “Lemme look.” Not him. He walks in, he says, “Let me see it.” I’m going to show him Zombie Island, because that was something he’d created when we called him over the phone. And he goes, “It’s Zombie Island in space,” and I was like, “Oh my God, that just made everything so much funnier!” Because hearing Hitler talk about Zombie Island in space and have everyone talk about Zombie Island in space… You’re also like, “Isn’t an island in space just a planet?” But he came in and that was his only note. He watched it and was like, “Come on. If you’re going to do it, it’s Zombie Island in space.”

HB: We have this amazing character designer that’s a director now, Chase Connelly, and he was drawing. I can’t remember if it was the dog or what, but Malachai went over his shoulder and said, “No, no, no. This line should be this way, and this is the way he’s colored, and he should be older,” and Chase was like, “Okay, that makes it better.”

NW: Do they send you the electronic press kit?

AVC: Yeah.

NW: The thing where it’s just Axe Cop talking?

AVC: I never look at those things. 

NW: You have to. 

HB: It’s so hysterical. 

NW: I’m not bullshitting you. It’s the funniest thing that I think will be done for this. I’ve been on your side. I’ve also had no interest in making an EPK. It’s usually a waste of time, but it was so good that I was trying to figure out a way—and this is the first time this has ever happened on TV—to put an EPK into an episode. Nobody had time to do this EPK stuff, so Fox asked Malachai questions and recorded it. And now Nick Offerman does his imitation. 

HB: He just reads it verbatim. So we had 20 questions, we gave them to Ethan. He called him and recorded the phone call. It was a stream of consciousness.

NW: It was like a 20-minute answer to “Are you going to go on vacation?” And it’s like, “Axe Cop doesn’t get vacations. Actually, my summer break would be half my vacation, and I’d go to Legoland.” And then it goes on and on and on. He’d go, “You know what? There’s probably bad guys at Legoland, so I’d kill them.” My favorite was they asked him if he’d ever want to be on American Idol, and Axe Cop is like, “No. I’m not a very good singer.” And to hear Malachai do it is so funny.

AVC: Has Fox shared with you any expectations of where it wants to go with this business-wise or what they’re looking for?

NW: There’s a lot of metrics of success for these shows that we’ve talked about from the beginning. I think obviously creating some sort of indelible late-night brand is huge. To have something else to do on Saturday night that’s not that expensive for them to produce, that brings in 18-34-year-olds, is huge. And then whether it can get upstreamed to Sunday night, and it’s a product they own, that’s huge. So I think those are the two things. Success would be if both of those things happened.

HB: From an expectations standpoint, they understood that this is an investment, and because it’s a brand, we weren’t going to start out with a certain rating that we wanted to hit.

NW: They’ve said again and again that they don’t expect us to do very well, so let’s hope they believe that. 

HB: They say it takes three years to let it simmer and grow, and we hope it remains that way. Their expectation and their goal was to give us the creative freedom to experiment and play around as long as we maintained a certain cost, so that we could do that long-term investment and experimentation. So we’ll see. [Laughs.]

AVC: It seems like so much of TV is moving into that short-form independent model, outside of dramas, which are getting more and more expensive. Why do you think that is?

HB: I think from a production standpoint, if you keep it cheap, you can give it a voice. You can really let that freedom of someone like Lena Dunham or Louis have that voice. When you have a show not diluted through 20 different people and a studio and a production company and this executive, you can really experiment and let somebody make the show that they want to make. That’s where you can measure if something’s successful or not. 

NW: I also think comedy just does not need to be that expensive. I think that the studio system made sense for a while. Syndication is getting harder and harder. The reason you see it going that way is because it’s harder to make it pay off. The reason it’s okay from a straight-up business model and the reason dramas can be expensive—and I’ve heard [FX president John] Landgraf say this, that if he knew Damages was going to get picked up overseas, he would have just fucking made it—is because dramas can get licensed internationally. Comedies are hard to play internationally, so if you’re not going to make your money back on that and DVD sales are down, why do you need a massive budget? It’s harder and harder to go into syndication because what does syndication even mean anymore? The moment was, for everybody, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. People will watch a show that isn’t massive, and you can get an audience for a show that was only $500,000-an-episode?

HB: The production value isn’t the focus; it’s really the comedy and the characters. So why not?

NW: It’s imperative that every network start to find comedy that is cheaper and easier to make, and obviously, that comes from more of a pure vision. Now, on the other side, you get very small shows. Louie does not do big numbers. Girls does not do big numbers. New Girl, The Mindy Project: Those aren’t even doing huge numbers, but by comparison they are. At least those shows are trying to be broader. 

But if you can find that perfect mix of a singular vision that’s a little broader and that isn’t wildly expensive, that’s what networks have to do. I mean how much money is put into these pilots? You probably know more than I do. It’s insane, and there’s no payout in the end. They don’t even air these pilots. So I think in terms of comedy, there’s going to have to be a shift. Drama is a better business that way. It just plays more. And definitely with animation. Animation done traditionally is not only massively expensive, but you won’t get it for two years. 

HB: I was at a dinner yesterday with people writing on American Dad, and they wrote an episode in January, and it’s expected to air next July. And they were laughing because… What’s that dog’s name?

NW: Boo.

HB: Boo. “I hope the Boo joke is still relevant.” Especially with comedy, there’s a relevance and a topicality to it, and you want that. Axe Cop not so much, but High School is a great example, and if you can’t turn that around in six weeks or eight weeks, something gets lost. I don’t know how we’ve done it, but we’ve created a situation where we can animate a show in two weeks. It’s not my favorite thing, but we’re working on shows where we’re changing the animatic, and it’s going to air in four or five weeks. It’s difficult, but we can do it. 

NW: And all this online stuff… You’re competing against things that can get turned around so quickly and it’s much cheaper to make. Childrens Hospital is nominated for another Emmy, and I was like, “Wow, we have real competition now.” The Emmys have figured it out. It’s Between Two Ferns and Burning Love. These are high-quality shows in a different format. So what are you going to do? Continue to make $1-2 million-an-episode comedies?

HB: I think it’s really cool finding talent that wants to work in a different kind of way. Our animators, it’s so refreshing for them to be able to come and see that process, and there’s a lightness to it, you know? People get really invested and involved and can see what they’re making right away, even from a writer’s standpoint. So there’s just a different kind of investment into the content. 

AVC: One last question: When you say the word .G-I-F, you say it with the hard “G.” 

[Both laugh.]

NW: Holy shit! You’re a soft “g” guy?

AVC: Convince me. 

NW: It’s funny because we put this GIF video up, and all the YouTube comments were [hard G] GIF vs. [soft G] GIF. I thought it was tomato/tomahto. I didn’t think there were such hard camps. But it’s “graphic.” I just don’t know. There are so many words that have an etymology that changes the meaning and everything, that by this point because of graphic, I just don’t know. So you convince me: Why is it supposed to be [soft G] GIF? 

AVC: It sounds better to me that way. 

NW: I want one of the Lucas Brothers or some rapper to put up the [YouTube] video of every time that ghost says [hard G] GIF, it goes [deep voice; soft G] GIF over it, just to make these people happy. It wasn’t just one or two guys. It was like a trove. So I say [hard G] GIF, and to me it’s tomato/tomahto, so if someone says [soft G] GIF to me, I’m not going to correct them. By the way, that’s how I’ve always said it. When I asked someone what it stood for, and they said graphic, I’m like, “Oh. It’s [hard G] GIF.” But if you want me to say [soft G] GIF, I will. I’m not in any camp.

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