June 22, 2006
Ode to Robot Chicken

Henry Jenkins asked that I also pass along this post about Robot Chicken to this blog from his blog promoting his new book, Convergence Culture:

I recently had a chance to catch up with the first season DVD of The Cartoon Network's Robot Chicken series and found it an interesting illustration of some of the trends I discuss in Convergence Culture. For those of you not in the know, Robot Chicken is a fifteen minute long, fast-paced and tightly-edited, stop motion animation series, produced by Seth Green (formerly of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Austin Powers) and Matthew Senreich: think of it as a sketch comedy series where all of the parts of played by action figures. The show spoofs popular culture--vintage and contemporary--mixing and matching characters with the same reckless abandon as a kid playing on the floor with his favorite collectibles.

For example, the first episode I ever saw included a Real World: Metropolis segment where Superman, Aquaman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Cat Woman, the Hulk, and other superheroes share an apartment and deal with real life issues, such as struggles for access to the bathroom or conflicts about who is going to do household chores. The same episode also included an outrageous parody of Kill Bil l, in which Jesus does battle with the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and George Burns (as God). And a spoof of American Idol where the contestants are zombies of dead rock stars and the judges are breakfast cereal icons--Frankenberry (as Randy), Booberry (as Paula) and Count Chocula (as Simon).

The humor is sometimes sophomoric (in the best and worst senses of the word)--lots of jokes about masturbation, farting, vomiting, and random violence--an entire "nutcracker suite" sequence consists of nothing but various characters getting hit or kicked in the groin. Yet, at its best, it manages to force us to look at the familiar icons of popular culture from a fresh perspective: one of my favorite segments features a series of breakfast cereal icons (Tony the Tiger, Toucan Sam, Captain Crunch, The Trix Rabbit, and the Lucky Charms Leprechaun) as forming an international drug cartel smuggling "sugar" into the country. Many of the sketches depend on the juxtaposition of toys remembered fondly from childhood with adult realities (such as a segment which restages the violent murders of S7even within the Smurf kingdom): it has all of the transgressive appeal of cross-dressing a G.I. doll or staging a ritual hanging of Barney the Dinosaur, speaking to a generation which has only partially outgrown its childhood obsessions.

Action Figure Cinema as Fan Practice
In Convergence Culture, I described the ways that the ancillary products surrounding Star Wars were being redeployed by amateur filmmakers who wanted to pay tribute or spoof the original film franchise:

"The amateur filmmakers often make use of commercially available costumes and props, sample music from the soundtrack album and sounds of Star Wars videos or computer games, and draw advice on special effects techniques from television documentaries and mass market magazines...The availability of these various ancillary products has encouraged these filmmakers, since childhood, to construct their own fantasies within the Star Wars universe....The action figures provided this generation with some of their earliest avatars, encouraging them to assume the role of a Jedi Knight or an intergalactic bounty hunter, enabling them to physically manipulate the characters in order to construct their own stories. Not surprisingly, a significant number of filmmakers in their late teens and early twenties have turned toward those action figures as resources for their first production efforts."

For many of us, these action figures introduce us to the idea of participatory culture, creating a space where we can rewrite the narratives of popular television and where we can immerse ourselves in vast fictional universe. For some kids, the goal is to lovingly recreate the worlds of their favorite fictions with as much accuracy and plausibility as possible. For others, the goal is to subvert -- do rude things with characters from television, turning Skeletor into a good guy, criss-crossing program boundaries at will.

I go on to discuss the works of amateur filmmaker Evan Mather: "Mather's films, such as Godzilla Versus Disco Lando, Kung Fu Kenobi's Big Adventure, and Quentin Tarantino's Star Wars, represent a no-holds-barred romp through contemporary popular culture. The rock-'em sock-'em action of Kung Fu Kenobi's Big Adventure takes place against the backdrop of settings sampled from the film, drawn by hand, or built from LEGO blocks, with the eclectic and evocative soundtrack borrowed from Neil Diamond, Mission Impossible, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, and A Charlie Brown Christmas...Apart from their anarchic humor and rapid-fire pace, Mather's films stand out because of their visual sophistication. Mather's own frenetic style has become increasingly distinguished across the body of his works, constantly experimenting with different forms of animation, flashing or masked images, and dynamic camera movements."

Action figure cinema is an emblematic example of the capacity of grassroots media makers to archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content. Fan filmmakers essentially take toys that were sold to them as commodities and transforming them into resources for their own creative output. Action figure cinema makes a virtue of the technical limits of amateur filmmaking. The movies are intentionally crudely done -- everyone is supposed to recognize that the sets are built from Lego blocks and the roles are performed by molded plastic figurines.

Mass Media Absorbs and Amplifies Grassroots Creative Practices
Action figure cinema was quickly absorbed by commercial media-makers. We see a similar blend of low tech production and pop culture references in MTV's Celebrity Death Match and Nickelodeon's Action League Now!!! series, both of which used stop motion animation and in the case of Nickelodeon, actual action figures, to parody icons of contemporary popular culture. If amateur filmmakers parody and remix popular culture, commercial media engages in "cool hunting," monitoring their local innovations and pulls back into the mainstream those that they think may have a broader market appeal. And then the process begins all over again. Innovation is most likely to occur on the fan fringes where the stakes are low; the power of mass media comes through its capacity for amplification.

We can trace this process at play within the history of Robot Chicken. As the show's head writers, Douglas Goldstein and Tom Root, explain, the series originated as part of a regular feature in Toy Fare, a niche magazine which targets action figure collectors and model builders. Seth Green, a fan of the publication, asked Goldstein and Root to help him put together a special animated segment for Green's forthcoming appearance on Conan O'Brien's show, which, in turn, led to an invitation to produce a series of web toons for Sony's short-lived but highly influential Screenblast, which, in turn, led to an invitation to produce a television series as part of the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim lineup. We can thus trace step by step how this concept moves from the fan subculture across a range of sites noted for cult media content.

As the aesthetics of action figure cinema moves more mainstream, the media producers never-the-less want to maintain some of the grassroots authenticity which gave the approach its initial edge. Many of the earliest web cartoons (see the shows at Mondo, for example), specifically spoofed the content of television and cinema--trying to establish themselves as closer to the viewer than the mass media (even when, or especially when, the content was actually produced by companies like Sony which were themselves part of the so-called "mainstream media.") In fact, almost every journalistic account I've read of the series stresses Seth Green's own status as a fan boy and toy collector and often describes the challenges faced by the program's "toy wrangler" who often has to go onto eBay or move into retro shops in search of the specific toys needed to cast a particular segment, again blurring the line between amateur and commercial media making practices.

Fan-Friendly Television
When this approach is done well--and Robot Chicken really does this about as well as any show I've seen, the program enjoys enormous credibility within the fan community. For all of the crude comedy and broad parody, the show consistently respects the nuances and details of popular culture. As a parent, I would sometimes step on some artifact of my son's action figure collection trying to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Extracting a sharp chard of molded plastic from my barefoot, I would grumble about "god damn Teela" only to be told by my still three-quarters asleep son, "No, Daddy, that's from Evil-Lyn." My son would respect a show like Robot Chicken because it would know the difference between Teela and Evil-Lyn, even as it breaks down the borders between different fictional universes and brings the characters screaming and kicking into the world of adult realities.



Here's a link to a detailed interview with the creative director of the studio responsible for the "Lego Star Wars" computer games... a really well-executed version of a toy mash-up, deployed in an interactive digital form.