Beyond the Boardroom

Conversations with leaders who transcend traditional business

Behind Seth Green's stop-motion animation success

November 26, 2012: 11:42 AM ET

Robot Chicken's Seth Green and John Harvatine discuss the trials of pitching Robot Chicken to Harrison Ford and why the company has an RV for a conference room.

Robot Chicken's Seth Green and John Harvatine

Robot Chicken's Seth Green (left) and animated John Harvatine (right)

FORTUNE – The folks behind Cartoon Network's Robot Chicken care, deeply, about what happens to a Miley Cyrus doll. To make it onto the show, that doll must have started as a writer's brainchild, survived the pitch process, and undergone hours of arduous stop-motion animation. When an animated Miley Cyrus doll gets hauled around, Weekend at Bernie's-style, by other pop culture characters in miniature, what seems like a series of silly, possibly sick jokes is the result of specific creative choices and strict management.

Robot Chicken, which aired its sixth season in September as part of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim lineup, recently found a new home -- Seth Green and Matt Senreich's original production company Stoopid Monkey, LLC merged this year with John Harvatine IV and Eric Towner's Buddy Systems Studios to form the current hybrid incarnation: Stoopid Buddy Stoodios.

Robot Chicken co-creator Green and executive producer Harvatine recently spoke with Fortune about leadership, the trials of explaining Robot Chicken to Harrison Ford's agent, and why the company has an RV for a conference room.

What was the goal with this merger?

Seth Green: We wanted to make a place that had a positive vibe and a strong culture of collaboration because we felt like that would empower the artists that we work with the best way.

John Harvatine IV: We have a Winnebago that is kind of part of our theme, and it's one of our conference rooms.

The Winnebago is the conference room?

SG: Well, the Winnebago is sort of the de facto conference room. Buddy Systems Studios used to have a Winnebago that was their main offices and when we formed this studio, we brought it inside and converted it into a conference room

JH: Not only is it our conference room, but around there, we made a campsite environment. It's got fake grass and picnic tables, right where our stages are. So when the animators are doing their thing, they hear the quiet sounds of mosquitoes and woodland creatures. That's kind of our environment.

SG: But that's something important to say -- around that campground, we have a weekly social gathering for everyone that works in the studio. People eat and drink together and everybody celebrates their Friday.

That sounds like fun.

SG: You'd be surprised how fun work can be when you're actually doing something that you like and you're encouraged to have a personal stake in it, not just be working for someone else's success.

Our company logo is people high fiving. That should tell you a lot about the way we like to do business. But our bottom line says more -- everything we turned in this year was on time and budget.

Meeting deadlines and making budgets is impressive. Isn't stop-motion animation a painstaking process?

SG: It's the most arduous task of animation possible, the most time-consuming and exhausting thing you could possibly...

JH: There are no shortcuts with it, yeah.

So why use it?

SG: It's what the series needed, for Robot Chicken, at least, you couldn't make a show like that through any other means.

JH:  It's the ultimate kid's fantasy, it's like when you were a kid and you were playing with your toys, you imagine them doing these crazy things. The great thing about Robot Chicken is we're able to put it on the screen.

I think there's something kind of cute and hand-made about it. The show almost feels like it was made in someone's garage. The production value is really high, but it also feels very approachable. And I think a lot of people can respond to that.

How did you know they would? How did you explain your ideas in the beginning?

SG: I mean, when we first started the show, no one had any idea what the fuck we were talking about. And this is a pretty insane thing to pitch to professional people.

There was a moment where I reached out to Harrison Ford, and I not only had to explain to his agent what our stop-motion animated comedy sketch was, but I had to explain what the Cartoon Network was. She was like, "I have never in all of my career representing international movie star Harrison Ford, ever had to understand the concept of Cartoon Network."

Did Ford's agent sign him up for the show?

SG: Naw, she passed. I've had that conversation with a lot of people. It became a little bit easier once we had something as an example. We've been doing this a while now and it gives us a little bit more caché.

How do you decide which sketches will work?

SG: We have a crack team of scientists analyzing tons of metadata and marketplace research, and from that we've yielded these results.

JH: Yeah, that's where all the money goes.

SG: And that's why, in the skit, Skeletor and Beastman are babies.

….

SG: No, there's a voting process. Over the course of meetings, writers will pitch hundreds of ideas, maybe 10 of which will get in. So for the writers themselves, it's pretty exhausting.

Does every writer get a vote?

JH: We're not that fair, it's worse than that.

SG: Every writer can … present influence.

JH: That's funny.

SG: But it's still just the four of us that vote: me, Matt [Senreich], Tom [Root], and Doug [Goldstein]. And that came from the original writing pool -- we just kept that system in place. It's been hotly contested. The only reason we've kept it that way is for sheer order.

It seems like the system is working. What's your secret?

SG: I don't think there's a code to crack or a science behind it. The chemical mixture is the right people for a job all giving a shit about doing it together. You follow that formula and you will win every time.

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About This Author
Shelley DuBois
Shelley DuBois
Writer - Reporter, Fortune

Shelley DuBois writes on management issues for Fortune.com. Before joining Fortune, she was a producer for National Public Radio's Science Friday and worked for Wired. Shelley has a graduate degree in science, health and environmental reporting from New York University. She lives in Brooklyn.

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