Q&A with Josh Weinstein of Sit Down, Shut Up

Editor’s Note: We covered the upcoming Fox animated series Sit Down, Shut Up in our most recent issue (on sale now!), but had so much good stuff left over we’ve decided to run the extended interviews here on the site leading up to the debut of the show on April 19.

Josh Weinstein, whose credits include The Simpsons, Futurama, Mission Hill and The Mullets, takes a break from his hectic schedule as exec producer & animation director on FOX’s new primetime toon, Sit Down, Shut Up to tell us all about this spankin’ new project.

What makes this project different from your other work in the field?

SDSU is one of the most interesting (and funny) animated shows I’ve ever worked on. We have a cast of some of the funniest actors ever, a show that was created by one of the funniest writers ever [Mitch Hurwitz] and a look that’s never before been attempted on a primetime animated show. That’s the use of live-action backgrounds.

How did that work out?

Because we need to find actual, real-life locations, our animators actually go out with cameras, both still photo and video, to find these locations. I think we may be the only animated show ever to have a location scout! We’ve sent them as far as Oxnard to film a beach! And that’s one really funny weird aspect of the show’we’re using state of the art animation but we still need to send our animators out in cars with cameras to get the backgrounds. I feel very lucky that we’re working with Rough Draft Studios, who are the very best animators in town’they made Futurama look so incredible and they’ve really gone all out for this show. This was a show that called for a whole new look, and therefore approach to doing the animation.

Were you concerned about integrating live action?

The combination of the live-action backgrounds and animation was a look we didn’t know for sure would work, but we wanted to take that risk’because if it works, it’s such a totally new look. And, now having seen color animation back, I am really excited to see it does work, even better than I imagined. After a few seconds of watching it, it really appears to be one unique world you’re looking at. And when characters actually move within the backgrounds’for example a character running from the foreground to the background’that’s when there’s some real magic to it.

What were some of the challenges to creating this new look?

One of the biggest challenges of this look is for the animators. For any scene, say one in a classroom, because we need shots from different angles, they actually need to photograph that room from every conceivable angle. After we’ve been going for a while, we’ll actually have a library of all these locations and angles, so we can go back to them’but in the beginning, it was a huge amount of work to get all this. And, invariably, every new episode has at last one if not many new locations, so there’s always a new challenge.

For example: In one episode all of the teachers are heading to Washington, D.C. for a field trip, but each is in their own vehicle, including one set of teachers in a hot air balloon! (Which of course requires a live action sky, but also a live action ground below it’more complicated than it sounds!) When they get to Washington, we have the fun of being able to use stock photos of D.C., but also playing with how we use them. With these live-action backgrounds, it can be a whole new way to tell jokes!

[Portraying] moving vehicles was another specific challenge, because we needed movement in the BGs obviously (it would look terrible to have them drive by a still photo). After fiddling around with different techniques, we found video shot from a moving vehicle works great. It’s really fun to see our animated characters in their animated car driving down a real life street!

There’s also use of one specific live action character that I don’t want to reveal right now, but it’s hilarious seeing this real live action character interact with our animated characters.

And what’s interesting about all these challenges is, since this is something that hasn’t really been done before, we discovered the challenges as we went along. It would be impossible to foresee them all’but what’s exciting, and reassuring, is that with every challenge we (and a huge amount of the credit has to go to Rough Draft here) found a way to do it, and in a way that’s very visually fun.

With all these kinks to iron out, how long are you typically in production?

To produce an episode, from start to finish, it’s about the same time I remember from The Simpsons’about 10 months.

Got any good production stories?

One of my favorite anecdotes from the show involves a guest star. We had a story were we learn that Helen [the librarian, played by Cheri Oteri] and Sue [the principal played by Kenan Thompson], who are sort of enemies, attended Knob Haven High together 20 years ago and were part of a late 80′s style rap group.

In their group was also their DJ, who never sang, just spun records’a DJ they always dumped on. But now it’s time for their 20th High School Reunion and we learn this DJ is now a world famous singer. Everyone wants the group to reunite, and they get the DJ back and we learn she was the one who had sown so much of the trouble in the first place.

She was the one who intentionally caused all this animosity between Helen and Sue, in part because she had a secret crush on Willard [played by Henry Winkler], who was the “hip” teacher back then. And to play this part, we got Alanis Morisette! Playing herself! She was our first choice and we couldn’t believe our luck in getting her. Alanis is not only a great singer, but has an incredible sense of humor. She totally got into playing the villain in our story and was so incredibly good in her role that I’d like to think she’ll become the Sideshow Bob of Knob Haven’coming back once a season to wreak some new form of havoc on the school.

Sit Down, Shut Up premieres Sunday, April 19 at 8:30 p.m. as part of FOX’s Animation Domination block.