Nightmares in Stop Motion
Adult Swim’s latest series The Shivering Truth is everything you might expect from the insane stretches of Vernon Chatman’s brilliant, twisted mind. By Ramin Zahed
Nothing can quite get under the human skin like stop-motion animation. That’s why The Shivering Truth, the latest addition to the Adult Swim toon madhouse, does such a great job of being both weird and wonderful. The brainchild of Emmy-winning South Park writer-producer Vernon Chatman (who also co-created the insanity feasts known as Wonder Showzen and Xavier: Renegade Angel) and directed by Chatman and Cat Solen ( Take My Wife), the seven-part quarter-hour series is billed as a darkly surreal anthology featuring stories “that crawled out of the deepest caverns of the unconscious mind.”
During a recent phone interview, Chatman say he’d been thinking about some of the ideas for the show for quite a while. “I’d been collecting ideas for short films and sketches for years,” he says. “They were all cinematic and short, but they were also comedic. Cat and I had been looking for a project to do together, and this just fit the bill, because we are both drawn to impossible projects. We took the idea to Mike Lazzo [Adult Swim’s senior exec VP], who trusted us to deliver something interesting. Stopmotion is very labor-intensive and expensive, so we had to produce a pilot to prove that we could do this.”
Chatman and Solen reached out to the animators at Shadowmachine’s studio ( Bojack Horseman, Dallas & Robo) in Portland, Ore. to produce the series’ pilot, while the show’s post and sound was done in New York City. (About 80 people worked on the show in Portland and 25 in New York.) They also managed to attract quite a voice cast — which includes the likes of Maria Bamford, David Cross, Andy Daly, Janeane Garofalo, Trey Parker, Jordan Peele, Martha Plimpton and John Reynolds.
Chatman says stop-motion has an amazingly sustained miraculous quality about it. Then, he jokingly adds, “I think we made the perfect show to finish television forever. I’m lucky that Cat can do anything, and she has good taste. Our constant inspiration was the format of stop-motion because it can carry so much tone, both emotion and comedy. It’s really visceral, and you can have blood and guts falling out of the characters’ bodies, and it all feels tangible. The show is tailormade to maximize that potential. Our goal was to have no limits, and the only way to achieve that is to do this show ’til infinity!”
Insane, Talented Animators
Solen plays along. “I think there’s something so postmodern about letting your medium tell you what is impossible,” she points out. “You push back and make it go even further. There are lots of pre-established norms in stop-motion, and I wanted to do something different and show that the medium is capable of a lot more. You have to have a script that says something wasn’t feasible to make, and then you try and do it. You need to find people who are open to try something insane. You don’t have a guidebook, so you test out various strategies. You also try to keep it beautiful, precious and special.”
Featuring surreal mini-nightmares about nasty creatures that live inside a hole in a character’s head or self-bleeding underwear, The Shivering Truth has a way of really messing with the viewer’s mind. “Cat is one of the people that I can
show the scripts to, and she doesn’t throw up,” says Chatman. “Or she throws up for the right reasons.”
Chatman brings up the fact that Portland, which is also home to Laika Studios, has emerged as the hub for stop-motion. “It is a very specialized medium,” he adds. “You just have to have the right gene for it. It’s amazing because you can ask them to make you a teeny tiny melon baller or a very tiny water bottle, and they’ll do it. They actually love it and don’t get mad.”
The Shivering Truth creators were also aiming for a special kind of “crude and rustic” stop-motion. “Stop-motion today integrates 3D graphics so much, but we wanted the original loveliness of the medium,” says Chatman. “When you’re a kid and watching Rudolph on TV, it’s so engaging and draws you it. We didn’t want to get rid of the rough edges. We just didn’t have the patience to get rid of them — they’re all organically there!”
As Solen points out, “If you’re working in a model shop of a big movie you have to paint the same one object for several years … and these are insanely creative people. So in a way, the time and budget restrictions work in our favor. It’s about finding the balance of having enough money to do the work, and doing it an artful way.”
Hypnotized by Puppets
The animators worked with 10-inch-tall puppets with wire-based armatures that are created with silicon, wool, polystyrene and resin. Chatman says, “We were so lucky because our animators are insanely good, and they were also multi-taskers who were helping with other things that they were good at, besides animating the puppets.”
Solen mentions, “You can really appreciate the real fibers that are used in the sweaters,” she says. “There’s something about real textures and materials that really grabs the back of your brain and massages it.” Or as Chatman explains, “The material opens up your brain and takes you to a terrible place, and we can ruin your childhood retroactively!”
Chatman says it takes about six months of actual physical production, a month of recording and two and half months of post to make the six episodes come to animated life. “Cat and I have to get together and mind meld because every single detail is invented and a tiny thing can throw everything off,” notes Chatman. “The constant thread in all the episodes is depth and profundity, mixed with sadness, loneliness and
Over the past decade, we’ve come to expect great things from the discerning animation production team of Michael Rose and Martin Pope of Magic Light Pictures. Fans of award-winning specials such as Room on the Broom, The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child and The Highway Rat are familiar with the kind of heart-warming, witty and lovingly animated family fare they deliver year after year
This Christmas, they are back with a new half-hour special based on another book written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, who also inspired their previous specials. “Martin Pope and I have produced a number of specials based on Julia and Axel’s books over the years, beginning with The Gruffalo in 2009,” says Michael Rose.
“The first time we read Zog, we loved the characters, story and the world and wanted to bring it to screen. Max Lang and Suzanne Lang found a great way to adapt the book, and we then asked Max (who had previously directed both Gruffalo and Room on the Broom for us) and Daniel Snaddon (who co-directed Stick Man) to direct the film.”
Zog features the voices of Sir Lenny Henry (Narrator), Tracey Ullman (Madame Dragon), Hugh Skinner (Zog), Patsy Ferran (Pearl) and Kit Harington (Sir Gadabout). It centers on the friendship between an accident-prone dragon and a young girl who patches up his bruises and grazes. Zog faces a big challenge during his fifth year at Dragon School, when he has to capture a princess.
Finding Their Bliss
Lang and Snaddon were instantly drawn to the book’s characters and humor. “Zog, Princess Pearl and Sir Gadabout are all struggling with finding their place in the world,” says Lang. “There’s a big gap between what they and the world wants from them, and who they actually are. This creates a nice conflict and leads to a lot of character driven comedy. The other strong pull for us was the relationship between Pearl and Zog which adds a warmth to the story that we were keen to capture in the animation.”
Rose also praises Donaldson’s clever, character-led stories which take readers on imagi-