The studio behind some of the most evocative animated television since South Park can all be traced to one man, Aaron Augenblick. The creative mind behind shows like Ugly Americans and Superjail, as well as animations on MTV's Wonder Showzen and Saturday Night Live, Augenblick has helped transform the landscape of today’s animated television.
The Brooklyn-based studio head, who spent much of his early days making independent comics and self publishing, eventually found his education at MTV, working on such shows as Daria and Downtown, “While I was working at MTV, it was all sort of prep work to opening the studio,” Augenblick recounts.
After taking a number of freelance gigs, getting a staff, buying a space and entering independent works into festivals, Augenblick generated enough of a reputable portfolio to get pegged to help with a new Comedy Central program at the time called Shorties Watchin’ Shorties. The rest is history.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Augenblick about early influences, the state of modern animation and even a new top-secret "Zoolander" project.
Where do you pull a lot of your artists and influences from?
[The studio’s artists are] all local New York people and East Coast people. I have a lot of friends in animation, and even more than animation, I end up working with a lot of comic people, cartoonists and illustrators. That’s where a lot of my influence comes from. I’ve always loved animation and mainly a lot of early animation like Fleischer, Ub Iwerks and Winsor McCay. In addition to that, I’ve always been a fan of underground comics like Robert Crumb, Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Peter Bagge, people like that. I’ve also had a lot of ties to the independent comics scene in New York, so I end up working with a lot of cartoonists, a lot of comic people, a lot of animators and basically anyone that draws really well and has a good sense of humor.
Augenblick's Comedy Central project, 'Ugly Americans' has been on since 2010.
I’ve always considered Augenblick Studios to have a fairly defined style, visually if not always in content. It reminds me of a mid-to-early '90s look, similar to the Liquid Television type of stuff. How would you describe the work that comes out of your studio?
The connecting thread of all the projects we do is me. I have a hand in every project that we do. So aesthetically, I’m always drawing on the projects, usually designing on the projects we are working on. Whether it’s super cartoony shows like Shorties Watchin’ Shorties and Wonder Showzen, to things that are a little more realistic like Ugly Americans, it all gets filtered through my own sensibilities. And that goes hand in hand with the artists I work with. I think we have a crew of people that appreciate an underground sensibility. I grew up on Liquid Television. I think even more than just Liquid Television itself were the artists involved with the shows. Watching it as a kid, it was my first exposure to a lot of New York underground cartoonists that I wouldn’t have ever seen otherwise; people like Kaz, Gary Panter, Charles Burns, these were all people that were involved in Liquid Television because they were on the New York comic scene.
Aside from what I’ve heard about South Park, animated television usually takes a significant amount of time from drafting to final product. So how does a series or episode come about at the studio? Do you have it down to a science by now?
We have a very good system. I’m really interested in classic animation so I read a lot and do research about the studios; Warner Brothers, Iwerks Studios, Fleischer and how they operated. So the system that we’re using is the same system they have been using for cartoons for the past 100 years, only updated with modern technology. We’re still doing the same type of things they used to do when making Bugs Bunny. The only difference is we’re using things like After Effects, Final Cut and Flash to make things easier and make it look even better.
Augenblick Studios, Brooklyn NY
You’ve worked with a number of companies, NBC, Comedy Central, PBS and even TED Talks. Is there one that you like working with the most?
Companies are like big, weird people. They have their good sides and they have their bad sides. I think every one is unique, I don’t think I have a straight favorite. I love working with Comedy Central and I had a great time working with Adult Swim. I’ve been working with Paramount on "Zoolander" and they’ve been amazing. I’ve been lucky to work with big giant corporations that are open to the types of cartoons that I want to be making, which is not Pixar. We are almost the opposite of Pixar. We are doing things that are very raw, hand drawn and underground and not slick. Our stuff is super flat and weird. I’m happy that there is an audience for that and there are places out there that are interested in promoting our kind of animation.
There will always be animated television, especially in the children and Pixar genre. With the fade from reality television and a growing trend towards scripted serials, how does animation on television adapt and stay relevant?
I think that hand drawn animation seems to work better with television and also with comedy in general. There’s something about the crudeness of real drawings and weird cartoons that works with comedy and it always has. Since the dawn of time, people like to sketch things out because they’re funny looking. I don’t respond well to super slick production, I don’t like the aesthetic of it. I tend to not be emotionally affected by music or artwork that is overly produced. I like things that are raw. To me, I think there will always be an audience for that. As people go on and tastes change, I think cartoons are adaptable and always reflect the mindset of where the world is at any given time. Things go from Bugs Bunny, the voice of a generation, to South Park, a voice of this generation. The thing that stays consistent is it’s cartoons and it’s funny drawings. That’s something that will always be in existence.
Do you think animation has reached its highest peak? And when I say that, I mean, do you think an animated show could ever compete with the likes of a Mad Men or Breaking Bad?
I do [think an animated show can compete.] I think there needs to be the right project that comes along. I think it’s a shame that there isn’t an animated show that’s the equivalent of Breaking Bad. There should be. There are in comics. There are really heavy themes going on in comics, but animation gets pigeonholed as fluff to a lot of people. I think you just need a place that is interested in trying out a project like that. A story is a story and it’s all about great storytelling. I think you could have a puppet show version of Breaking Bad that would be amazing. I think you could do anything with any sort of storytelling in an interesting way and it could be a great show.
Do you think that a movie studio is more apt to snatch up rights to a darker comic, something like Fatale by Ed Brubaker comes to mind, rather than a television studio taking the chance?
I don’t know if that’s entirely true. The thing with television is there are so many channels now, and when you factor that in with things like Netflix and Amazon and all these people that are doing original productions, I think the playing field outside of features is more creative and daring. Features cost a lot of money. To sit down and make an animated 90-minute movie takes time and it takes a lot of money. Making a weekly television series can be done for a lot cheaper. I think a lot of creativity lies in limited funds. When you don’t have a lot of money, you’re forced to be creative and I think that happens in smaller scale productions and these smaller scale cable companies are doing more creative things.
With the increase in funding and talented actors and directors in television, do you subscribe to the idea that we are entering a new Golden Age of television?
I wouldn’t call it a Golden Age. I actually feel like television is in flux. I don’t think television knows what it is. There is such a crossover and gray area between television and internet, people are not exactly sure how people like to watch things anymore. Where we were ten years ago and where we’ll be ten years from now, there’s a huge divide. Right now we’re right at a crossroads between people knowing they have their favorite show and it comes on at 8:30 on Monday once a week and they sit down to watch that show, which is how we watched shows ten years ago, to being able to watch your favorite show at any time you want to watch it and be able to watch it on your phone or on your computer or on the TV. You have different options for the shows your watching. Also being interactive with the things you’re watching, being able to influence the shows you're watching. The viewer is no longer passive anymore. I wouldn’t call right now a Golden Age, I would call it a time of change.
With all of these new places putting out original content, from Netflix to YouTube to standard cable, is it good for business or does it make you a bit more leery to put all of the time and effort into a direction that may or may not pan out?
I think it’s good and bad. I think its good because there’s so many new venues for work and so many new places that are trying out new types of shows. I think that’s a great thing. I think the more people that are doing interesting programing, whether it’s on the internet or on TV is a great thing. The bad thing is that because there are so many ways to watch shows now, production costs are going way way down, really really fast now. They are not willing to spend as much on any given project as they used to. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, I do like being creative with low budgets, but the standards of animation, specifically, are dropping at alarming rates. So for someone who likes to make hand crafted animation, the fact that people are just as excited about really crudely puppetted animation is really unfortunate.
Would it be fair to say that your audience is the anti-Pixar, an alternative to the mainstream animation? Do you feel you have your finger on the pulse of that alternative market?
Yea, I would. I think our studio has always operated outside of the mainstream and that’s on purpose. We turn down a lot of jobs that I don’t find appealing, that to me are overly produced and not interesting. I gravitate to underground production, with people like John Lee and Vernon Chatman who do Wonder Showzen and now The Heart, She Holler. People that are like-minded in that they like things to exist outside of the mainstream and be a little more daring and dangerous.
When can we expect to see the "Zoolander" feature?
The "Zoolander" feature will be released in early 2014. It’s 90 minutes, and it has the original cast: Ben Stiller, Own Wilson and Jerry Stiller. In addition, we have a lot of new people. We worked with Patton Oswalt, Nick Kroll, Katy Perry, and Tim Gunn, a really great group of actors that all lent voices. The concept is Derek and Hansel are superheroes that use their good looks to fight crime and fashion-based criminal activity. They fight against characters like The Paparazzo, The Red Carpet, Botox-o and a lot of other villains. It’s really, really exciting and it’s really, really funny.
Where will we be able to see this on?
That I can’t reveal, it’s top secret.