When Eric Stough was studying film at the University of Colorado Boulder, he wanted to get a job working on the big-budget, high-production value cartoons made by The Walt Disney Co. Then South Park happened.
And instead of making Christmas specials about Mickey Mouse, he was bringing the holiday spirit to life via a character named Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo.
“When [South Park co-creator Trey Parker] originally came to me and said he wanted to do a show where this kid dies every episode, of course, that’s so not Disney at all,” says Stough, who has spent the past 16 years as South Park’s animation director and co-producer. “I didn’t think it was going to go anywhere. But the way he writes it, it was just so funny. You just have to believe in his writing, and help him produce these and make sure they make air. It’s been very challenging and very rewarding.”
Stough is back at his alma mater April 11 as part of the International Film Series, which is showing an episode of South Park called “A Nightmare on Face Time.” He will discuss what goes into making a show, share some concepts and ideas that didn’t end up making it into the episode, and answer questions from the audience afterward.
(An interesting aside: Parker and co-creator Matt Stone actually designed the character Butters off of Stough’s personality.)
“A Nightmare on Face Time” aired last October and is a rare South Park Halloween special. In the episode, the show’s creators aim their satirical rifle at the relationship between technology and media consumers and take shots at now-outdated business models, all told via a loving lampooning of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
“Our schedule landed right before Halloween last year; usually it doesn’t land anywhere close to Halloween,” Stough says. “So we decided to do a Halloween episode, and Trey, who’s a big fan of Stephen King and has read all his books, worked out the idea of doing a Blockbuster Video taking on the role of the hotel.”
The episode starts with Randy, fourth-grader Stan’s easily excitable father, bursting into the family home with good news, the golden ticket that will make them rich. He has bought the old Blockbuster store. The rest of the family is less than enthused. (“You excited, Stan?” “Huh? Sorry, I was watching a movie on my iPad.”) Turns out, no one wants to rent movies, creating a retail isolation that fuels Randy’s inevitable plunge into insanity.
Like most South Park episodes, Stough says “A Nightmare on Face Time” took the 25-person production crew about six days to make.
“We knew one of our shows was going to land on Halloween,” Stough says. “We were able to get a jump on the Blockbuster backgrounds. One of the scenes that Trey had written, besides Randy coming home saying he had bought a Blockbuster, ... [was] the bartender scene, where Jack Nicholson goes and talks to the bartender about killing his wife and kid. So that one went into production I think maybe four weeks, five weeks before the show, but once we had done that scene, we didn’t really work on it until the show aired.”
Parker will write part of the script on his own and then flush out the rest of the story with a team of writers, Stough says. If the script calls for special effects — like the ghosts that appear in “A Nightmare on Face Time” — the animation department will have to figure out how to make that happen.
“[An animation idea] mostly comes from the script,” Stough says. “Trey kind of envisions it as he’s writing. Usually with effects like that, the ghost effects, he’ll just kind of throw them out.
“He’ll give us creative freedom to sort of experiment. So what I like to personally do is show him three different versions and say, ‘Which one do you want to go with?’ “Sometimes when we’re doing that on a Tuesday, the day before the show airs, we kind of have to go with whatever effect that we can come up with. But obviously, because we were parroting The Shining, we kind of wanted to mimic some of the effects that you see in The Shining and give it that feel.”
Stough’s history with Parker actually pre-dates their time at CU; the pair went to junior high and high school together. Stough originally entered the art program at CU, but Parker convinced him to join him in the film studies department.
“He said, ‘If you want to do animated movies, you should just come over into the film school and start doing animated films. You’re only here for four years. If you spend all your time trying to draw, you’re not going to make any films.’ It was really good advice,” Stough says.
The two started working on each other’s films, and the rest is history.
“When I was done with my films, he was doing the sound design for them and just totally fell in love with them. And even though I had known him from high school and junior high, it was a whole other level. He got to see what I could do. And from that moment on, you know, when they got the South Park gig from Comedy Central, I was the first person hired onto the show, just because of my interest in animation.”
"A Nightmare on Face Time" will screen in the Visual Arts Center on the CU campus Thursday, April 11. Screening starts at 7:30 p.m. Visit www.internationalfilmseries.com for more information.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly named the International Film Series.