“Take a seat. You can take photos of the lobby, and we have some new coloring books,” says the 20-something receptionist at Stoopid Buddy Stoodios in Burbank, California. Despite its quirky title, the 21-stage lot that the Buddies call a “campus” is the largest studio specializing in stop-motion animation in California. Best known for the adult animated character Robot Chicken, the stages also produce Super Mansion, LEGO Scooby-Doo, Bratz and MAD “Spy vs. Spy.” Today they are wrapping a promo spot for Superbowl 2016 and a Verizon commercial.
While stop-motion animation has been around since the silent-film era, Stoopid Buddy gives it an irreverent and often R-rated twist. While mainstream Hollywood looks for sources offshore, Stoopid Buddy prides itself on creating everything in house. With its own model-making, wardrobe, set-construction, lighting, grip and camera departments, the studio operates like a traditional, self-contained studio-lot, but the comparison ends there. The mostly millennial team of directors, camera operators, editors and writers collaborate in ways that blur the historic divisions of labor. With log-cabin offices and a Winnebago executive suite, the creative team is often rewarded with Boy Scout merit badges. The collegiate atmosphere works for camera operator and best boy Andrew Malek: “This is not your normal work environment. We all do everything. It’s an awesome place to work.”
Gaffer Dwight Campbell and cinematographer Aaron Wise give me an inside tour of the 21 stages, each about the size of a spare bedroom, taking me through the looking glass into their miniaturized world. “We have a constant need for small, focusable and dimmable fixtures,” says Campbell. “The Source Four Mini is perfect for us.”
“We found the ETC units gave us much sharper optics for a lower wattage, just like the grown-up Source Fours,” adds Wise. A nearby cart carries a full range of pre-cut gels and accessories. “The fixture is truly versatile. The 50-degree with diffusion works great as a keylight and the 19-degree makes a good hot backlight or gobo effect,” describes Campbell.
With a large set, measuring only eight feet by four feet, light levels and angles are critical. Stop-motion animation is about attention to detail: each movement of the scale-model character is carefully shot (they use Canon 70D bodies and Nikon lenses), moved a few inches and reshot. The whole process is repeated from a different shooting angle, and the footage transfers to post-production for final edit. “You have to have a touch of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) to work here,” laughs Wise.
Wise and Campbell came to Stoopid Buddy after film school, paying their dues as grip, gaffer and camera techs, mainly doing features and commercials. “We grew up with Source Four, and for the larger sets, we still use the full-size fixtures with a 375-watt lamp,” says Campbell. “The Series 2 Lustr would work really well for us here, especially with the CYC attachment.”
Right now, their biggest problem is that with the packed shooting schedule, they are constantly running out of the Source Four® Mini. “It’s the fixture everyone wants and the last Robot Chicken shoot used every one we had,” bemoans Campbell. New projects walk through the door every day, and keeping track of the activity on each stage is a surprisingly analog process. Wise explains: “We have 21 stages shown in grid form, where each panel is a shot, each line is a week, and each color is a different episode. When it works, it’s great.” A quick glance at the production wall tells me that more ETC Source Fours – a lot more – are needed.
Written by Marshall Bissett