All Hail the Kingmakers
Courier-Mail, January 15, 1998
By Mark Nollinger

SPRAWLED around a conference room on the fourth floor of a Los Angeles skyscraper one recent afternoon, executive producer Greg Daniels and half a dozen writers on King of the Hill are taking their first crack at revising a new script.

It's mid-spring, and the episode in question isn't scheduled to go to air until Christmas. But time is of the essence. King of the Hill -- created by Daniels, former Simpsons co-executive producer, and Mike Judge, the brain behind Beavis and Butt-head -- is an animated show, and animation is complicated. Animation is demanding. Animation, as Judge puts it, is a big hassle. A look behind the scenes bears this out. Each episode's 22 minutes of animation -- the actual running time of a half-hour show -- takes nine months and about $1 million to create.

Written in Century City, Los Angeles, recorded in West Los Angeles, drawn in North Hollywood, and animated in South Korea, the series is a logistical nightmare. By the time the script being dissected today hits the air, 300 writers, producers, animators, actors, editors and others will have had a hand in bringing put-upon propane salesman Hank Hill to life.

Like most editions of King of the Hill, the Christmas episode grew out of brainstorming sessions.

The premise: Hank's mother, Tilly, brings her Jewish boyfriend to visit for the holidays and Hank goes blind after walking in on them making love. This idea was jotted down on an index card, where it languished alongside dozens of others on the conference-room wall until it fired the imagination of executive story editor Paul Lieberstein.

Though Lieberstein finished the script a week ago, the writers have been too busy to look at it until today.

As Daniels leads the group in reading through the material and hashing out the story points, flurries of inspiration are balanced by moments of utter silence.

The risque description of the senior-citizen sex scene stops the producer cold. "We can't do this," Daniels flatly declares. "We need to find a way to have adults know what's going on but have kids see something else."

But his biggest problem is with the boyfriend's character. "He's just so boring," says Daniels, "and Hank's reaction is so muted."

The meeting breaks up without a resolution. The writers have two days to revise the script before the first read-through with the cast.

On Friday morning, the voice actors, studio execs, and assorted staff trickle into the production office. It turns out that the writers worked on it until 5am: "That's a record for us," writer and co-executive producer Brent Forrester admits. "It's come a long way."

Everyone grabs scripts and sits around a conference table. A speakerphone emits the voice of actress Pamela Segall (Bobby Hill), who's at home after recently giving birth.

Then Judge's face appears on a computer monitor -- he'll be playing Hank Hill via video link from his office in Austin, Texas.

The reading commences, and it's quickly apparent that the writers' all-nighter has paid off. They've made a number of changes, adding new scenes and redefining the characters of Tilly and her boyfriend. The sex scene, re-worked as a montage of body parts, elicits huge laughs.

The reaction is positive -- the writers only have to make some minor revisions. So the following Wednesday -- five days later -- the actors and staff gather again, this time in a basement studio on the Fox lot. But there's a new problem: Kathy Najimy (minor car accident), Brittany Murphy (shooting a movie), and Segall (busy with baby) won't be coming in, so the writers will have to stand in for the actors.

Meanwhile the animators' work is just beginning. They have six months to turn the script and soundtrack into a living, breathing cartoon. "It's insane," director Klay Hall says of the schedule, which has him working many 18-hour days.

The initial step in animating the material is small, very small. "First, we make thumbnail sketches to get the jokes across and figure out the staging," director Tricia Garcia explains. The rough ideas are then transferred to storyboards, a series of panels that map out the essential shots and poses in each scene. This takes about five weeks.

The artists devote another five weeks to cleaning up the panels and sketching more character poses to flesh out the acting. The drawings -- about 2000 of them -- are then enlarged, scanned into a computer, and combined with the dialogue track. The resulting "animatic" -- a skeletal, black-and-white rendering of the episode that resembles a talking, moving comic strip -- is presented to the writers for feedback.

Animatic in hand, the artists spend the next five weeks making additional changes to reflect script revisions and new voice recordings, as well as finishing up the final sketches. Once they're done, the artists ship a package containing the voice track, guideline drawings, and directions for camera moves to Seoul, South Korea, where the animators -- who generally don't speak English -- will have three months to finish drawing and colouring the episode.

"When it goes out of here, it has to be foolproof," says Hall. "(The Korean artists) need to be able to animate the joke without necessarily understanding it themselves. You hope and pray that (what you get back) is what you sent out."

Once the episode returns from South Korea -- a little more than a month before it airs -- one of the show's composers goes to work on the music; the sound-effects department jazzes up the soundtrack and an editor whittles the show down to 22 minutes.


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