Q&A: Drawing Futurama's films

Good news, everybody! Futurama is back after a few years off the air, and this time the futuristic animated comedy is going where it has never gone before: the realm of feature-length films. After a successful revival on cable and good DVD sales, David X. Cohen's tale of a shipping company in the year 3000 makes its return on November 27 with Bender's Big Score, an hour and a half of shiny, new adventures with Bender, Leela, Fry, and the rest of the crew.

But that won't be it for the cult show--three more Futurama movies will also be coming to DVD in 2008.

Most know that Simpsons producer David Cohen is the creative force behind the show, but much of the look, style, and feel of Futurama is done in the offices of Rough Draft Studios, a Los Angeles-based animation studio. chatted with Rough Draft senior vice president Claudia Katz to talk about the upcoming Futurama films and how they're put together.

For all you hardcore Futurama fans, be sure to check back with Monday for an exclusive interview with the show's head writer, David Cohen. Could you tell me exactly what Rough Draft's role is with Bender's Big Score?

Claudia Katz: We're the animation studio for all four Futurama DVD movies, so we produce all of the pictures. We provide all the animation for all four DVD movies, and we're basically doing most of the production here at our studio in the United States, which would include basic design, storyboard, key animation, timing, all the [computer graphic] animation, the color styling, and the camera and compositing on the back end when the footage comes back. And we actually have a sister studio in Seoul, Korea, Rough Draft Korea, who is doing the overseas work on the project. How long has Bender's Big Score been in the making, and when did your studio get involved?

Claudia Katz: We started production on Bender's Big Score in August of 2006, and we delivered to the producers--Matt Groening and David Cohen--what we call a director's cut. That was delivered around July or August and the final retakes and all that footage was delivered in September. And you're doing the other three movies at the same time?

Claudia Katz: Correct. Yeah, every four months we started the next DVD feature. I mean, they take about a little less than a year, but it's a staggered production schedule. You send director's cuts to Matt Groening and he looks it over with a red pen and sends it back to you?

Claudia Katz: Yeah, we'll have a color screening with them and then we'll literally sit in person and get notes on the color. And those notes get divided into what we consider technical notes--things that will be fixed at no cost--and creative revisions, which are [additions] they decided. You know, "What if we did this?" type of things. One of the highlights at Comic-Con this year was the script reading, where the voice actors read a Futurama comic in the characters' voices. Do they send you the audio right along with the script?

Claudia Katz: Pretty much. How it worked for us is there'll be a table read--basically what you saw at Comic-Con--which the director and the board artist and I will go to. And then they will record the tracks, edit it together, and then send us a final script and an edited voice track, which is sort of like a radio play. And that's what we start with and continue to work from. Did you find it hard to concentrate during the readings? It was absolutely hilarious at Comic-Con.

Claudia Katz: Yeah. I mean, some of those readings can get a little wild in a good way. You know, the cast is just so funny, and they like to have a good time. They're generally really fun, and it's really nice to get to go to them. What's the difference between animating the TV and the film for DVD?

Claudia Katz: Firstly, all four of these DVD movies were written as features. So the stories are feature stories as opposed to just being four episodes that are jammed together. So they're definitely more epic and have feature storytelling. We're working in a 16x9 aspect ratio, so we're working wider screen than on the series. And we're also producing them in HD. I think the initial release is just standard definition, but they will be releasing the movies in an HD format. Is the animation quality going to be the same?

Claudia Katz: I think it'll be the same or better. I mean, I think the first DVD has one of our best, if not the best, space battles so far. Which is saying something. When we started Futurama, we were the first to be doing the 2D with the associated 3D. How did that idea of mixing the two come about? It was a pretty new technique at the time.

Claudia Katz: If you're going to do a sci-fi show, [you] sort of accepted the burden of, well, gosh, space and these ships and the battles have to look pretty amazing or you're going to lose a pretty large part of your fan base. And really the only way of doing that was in CG animation. And we spent a lot of time, honestly, sort of dumbing down the software to the extent that it really married well with the 2D animation. And at the time I think that was pretty groundbreaking. Can you give us any insight as to why you think Futurama was finally revived?

Claudia Katz: I suspect the DVDs of the series sold really well, and from a business perspective, at some point it started to seem like a good idea to do more of them. The entertainment industry is a business and most decisions are made from an economic standpoint, and there's nothing wrong with that. Was there any talk of bringing it back as a television series again?

Claudia Katz: You know, I'm not sure. I think there's always sort of been talk of that and I guess right now we're just concentrating on these DVD movies. And I mean, we're sort of hoping some day there'll be a bona fide theatrical Futurama feature. But, hey, if they want to bring the series back, we, you know, we'll be first in line. Right. You guys also do work on tons of other animated projects, including The Simpsons Movie. Do you have a personal favorite?

Claudia Katz: You know, I think for me, sentimentally, you know, Futurama is always, you know, that was our first really big prime-time series, and I guess for me that will always be my favorite.

Bender's Big Score hits stores Tuesday, November 27. For more information on Futurama, read's previous coverage.

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