Monday, June 18, 2012

The King of the Hill Archives

As I very very anxiously await my letter from BYU Animation, I thought I'd share some notes from a recent trip to the Texas State University library. In the Wittliff Gallery I had the chance to look at a collection of production material from one of my favorite shows, King of the Hill directed by Mike Judge.

"Yep. ....Yep. .......Yep. ....Mmm-hmm." Genius.
I had access to 118 boxes of material which were donated to Texas State when the show was in danger of being canceled back in 2007 or so. Contents ranged from character sketches and storyboards to show notes taken from Mike Judge's personal production binders. I was interested in the animation stuff more than the production stuff, but I branched off into other categories because it was really interesting to see how this show was run.

King of the Hill is the third-longest running animated series on American television. Being raised in San Marcos, Texas, I have always demanded respect for this show. But after my experience in the King of the Hill Archives, I demand it even more. Now, I recognize that KOTH relies heavily on the "Texan experience" that most people outside of the Confederacy won't understand. To me KOTH is important because it represents the unique (and oftentimes bizarre) world of the Texas town, celebrating its more redneck qualities. This is a sitcom about middle-aged conservative Southern men struggling against the eccentricity of their neighbors and the government bureaucracy that threatens their peaceful family life. No matter who wins that struggle by the end of the episode, the message remains the same: the Texas Dude abides, and his lifestyle is compatible with the changing world that surrounds him. As a proud Texan, I add my witness that both the struggle and the triumph are real. Maybe this post will help some disillusioned viewers give this amazing show a second chance.

In the research room at the Wittliff Gallery.

Animation and Design
This box was extremely interesting because, besides housing character/prop/background sketches, it contained a few folders explaining how the show was supposed to look. I was surprised by how specific some of the show rules/standards were. But without them, the show would have lost its consistency. The KOTH "Bible" went over each character, describing their personality and telling their back-story. Hank's description called him a "blue collar Everyman". What was funny to me was how in Hank's notes it is stated quite simply that "He sells propane and propane accessories". His notes also included a footnote defining B.C. Powder, a product Hank refers to frequently in the show.

Hank's son Bobby's "Bible" excerpt describes him as "the kind of boy who wears a t-shirt at the public swimming pool". Hank's boss Mr. Strickland was described as "Big, big, big, big. Larger than life." All of these notes are evident in the show itself; obviously the directors wanted these characters to be well-defined from the beginning.

I read the Design/Directing pack and the Animation Standards packet for the show. They put forth a series of dos and don'ts for how things were supposed to be in the show (often with illustrated examples). Some of them got pretty specific:
  • No talking to the camera.
  • DO NOT hold mouth open during drinking. DO NOT hold eyes closed during drinking.
  • When Hank is upset, he doesn't lean forward into people. His tendency is to lean back, standing tall.
  • No High Fives! John Wayne wouldn't do it, neither would Hank.

Others were more general:
  • Make people look realistic. No Disney figures or poses please.
  • Though the characters are from Texas, they are not hillbillies or freaks.
  • Keep beer drinking to a minimum. Keep Dale's cigarette smoking to a minimum.
Those points were all quoted exactly as they appeared in the materials. The Animation Standards packet, prepared in 2002 well into the show's run, referred a lot to the show's animation team in Korea. Apparently little mistakes or inconsistencies made by the U.S. team carried over to the Korean studio and were manifest in the final product. Some of the standards called for an end to some "bad habits" ("Stop using Hank w/hand rubbing neck in every show...INVENT original acting!") from previous seasons.

It was evident that Judge was dedicated to detail. The animation of the show might not be that exciting, but it's consistent (KOTH is, after all, a sitcom). In the character/prop design folder I saw an animator's design for a pair of pliers with a handwritten note that said "This doesn't look like any pair of pliers I've ever seen. Please do more research."

I was so impressed by the consistency of the show's animation that I became interested in the materials from which the KOTH crew drew their inspiration (pun intended). There was a list of books that were used as reference material for the show. I thumbed through one of them, a "Dictionary of Texas Misinformation" by Anne Dingus. It has an entry on most every person, place, and thing from the Texas mythos, identifying all the legends and tall tales that we Texans hold sacred while at the same time correcting any misinformation. It also explained important Texas cultural phenomena such as the Texas-A&M rivalry and John Wayne. Its entry on the Battle of the Alamo was kind of a buzzkill. But I'd rather not talk about that.

I also looked at some photographs from the KOTH crew's research trip to Texas. Among the photos were shots of a Dairy Queen, inside a Home Depot, and Hill Country Middle School.

"Weird. That's where I went to school." - my girlfriend.

Mike Judge's Production Notebooks
The bulk of the collection was material saved from each episode of the show's 10+ seasons. Apparently Judge had a 3-inch notebook for each episode. The notebooks' contents included scripts, revised scripts, twice-revised scripts, storyboards, memos, and handwritten notes taken by Judge himself. The pilot KOTH episode, referred to as "Untitled Mike Judge Pilot" in the production notebooks, was highly interesting to examine.

There seemed to be some fuss over the character Boomhauer. There was a note in the pilot episode notebook requesting that Boomhauer's lines be "more unintelligible". I was surprised to see that Boomhauer's  lines were actually typed out onto the final script, including all the "dang ol"s and "tell you whut"s. In the earlier drafts of the script for Episode 1 there was actually a page with several different takes of Boomhauer's lines. Also, keep in mind that Boomhauer's voice was done by Mike Judge himself. It seems Judge wanted this character to be treated with special care, along with Hank.

Episode 2, entitled "Square Peg", had a few interesting notes. The episode, featuring Hank's wife Peggy being called to teach a sex education class, underwent several draft revisions. I read one fax from Standards and Practices calling for one of Boomhauer's lines to be revised for appropriateness.

The last box I looked at contained new story ideas for the show. They ranged from pitches that were just a single sentence to detailed plot outlines. Still others were a title or a premise followed by bullet points describing situations or scenes that they wanted to see in the episode.

So What's Your Point?
After going through the King of the Hill archives I gained a deep appreciation for the show. Judge and the KOTH animation crew made a tremendous effort to make the show authentic and consistent. The show is more sophisticated than the skeptic might think.

The folks at the Wittliff Gallery were very professional and accommodating. If you've ever visited Texas and found yourself intrigued/fascinated/in love with our unique culture, then check this show out. You might not understand all the jokes at first. Additional trips to Texas will probably be needed.

Hint: All 13 seasons are on Netflix Watch Instantly.

"That is a water-tight seal. I can mow my lawn in a hurricane. Can you mow your lawn in a hurricane, Bill?"

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

X-Men Cartoon, Bub!

"Get a load of THESE, Bub!"

You all know my views on the live-action Marvel films. With the exception of The Avengers and maybe two others, they're all attempts to take these amazing fantastic super heroes and villains and bring them down to our level. I don't care from which story arc they took the insecure moody teenager Rogue. It doesn't do anything for me. And Juggernaut is supposed to be bigger than what they offered in X-3. And Sabretooth (from X-1) looked like an Austin hobo on bath salt.

I really don't like the live-action X-Men films.

So I was really excited to see that Netflix was offering the "original" X-Men cartoon series on Watch Instantly. I started watching Fall last year and I finally finished the 5th and final season recently.

This was the X-Men show I'd been waiting for. Oh wait. You should know I never watched the X-Men cartoons as a kid. I was more a Nick/One Saturday Morning kid. Anyway...the show has the more recognizable costumes/personalities of the X-Men and their foes/allies. The bad guys are great. The music has that quirky 80s-90s Saturday morning cartoon vibe. And, surprisingly, lots of cameos by other Marvel characters.

One thing that struck me overall was the depth of some of the episodes. The whole show is about the X-Men struggling against their adversaries (which are oftentimes their own inner demons) while trying to live in peaceful coexistence with Earth's non-mutants. While the rock-'em-sock-'em action is fun, the careless or casual viewer might miss some of the series' deeper themes/issues:
  • Racism
  • Government extremism (both left and right-wing)
  • War and peace
  • Corruption of the justice system
  • Forgiveness and vengeance
  • Poverty
  • Trauma and suppressed memories
  • Slavery
  • Abuse
  • Absolute power
  • Time travel
  • Gang violence
  • Family feuds
  • Time travel
  • Guilt and redemption
  • Unrequited love
  • Exploitation in the entertainment industry
  • Modern genetics and evolution
  • Addiction and substance abuse
  • Religion and faith
  • Terrorism
  • Freedom of choice
  • Eastern/Western relations
Pretty serious stuff for a Saturday morning cartoon. And yet one of the greatest things about this series is that there's no tender "life lesson" moment where everyone gathers around and blatantly states the moral of the story. The fact is, the characters often don't overcome these issues by the end of the episode. And relationships between characters, for example Charles Xavier and Magneto's relationship, are very complicated. My point? This show has solid, mature depth and has some surprisingly adult themes. Animation is just as effective at telling stories as live action.

I think that's enough for now. Go check out this show on Netflix. You'll be hooked.
"How 'bout THESE hooks, Bub?!"