You won’t find a cartoon on television that operates quite like this one. Welcome to WatchMojo and today we’ll be discussing How South Park is Made.
With traditionally animated TV shows like “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy,” it can take several months just to complete one half-hour episode. When it comes to “South Park,” however, an episode is written, animated, recorded, and sent off to Comedy Central in just six days. Of course, the production time for a single “South Park” episode wasn’t always so constricted
While still in school, Matt Stone and Trey Parker laid out the groundwork for an adult animated series in their short film, “The Spirit of Christmas,” later renamed “Jesus vs. Frosty.” The short caught the eye of Fox Broadcasting executive Brian Graden, who gave the duo $1,000 to produce another “Spirit of Christmas” short, which was later retitled to “Jesus vs. Santa.” The short’s popularity paved the way for Stone and Parker to develop the “South Park” television pilot, “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe.”
Both “Spirit of Christmas” shorts, as well as the pilot, were produced through a form of stop-motion animation called ‘cutout animation’. The characters were made through construction paper cutouts with their movements having to be meticulously photographed one frame at a time. It took around three months to produce the 28-minute pilot, which ultimately had to be cut down to 22 minutes for time. On a budget of $300,000, the pilot’s crew consisted of Parker, Stone, animation director Eric Stough, and a few assistants. As the series continued, the production staff grew and the animation process accelerated considerably thanks to computers.
While maintaining the pilot’s cutout style, all subsequent episodes have been produced through computer animation. The animation staff has used a few different applications over the years, but Autodesk Maya has largely been their go-to software from season 5 onward. Where most animation studios have different departments, “South Park” essentially has one animation department working on everything from storyboards to character designs. This is only possible because the animation style is so boldly simple.
The release schedule for episodes has also varied over the years. For a while, seasons were split into two parts. Several episodes would be produced in the spring and then the crew would return in October to produce the second half. As of 2013, the crew annually produces a season consisting of ten episodes, airing between September and December. They may only have to work a few months out of the year, but a standard workweek lasts between 100 and 120 hours.
In the past, the writers would habitually take a retreat before a new season in order to kick around ideas and cut loose. Stone and Parker decided to abandon this tradition going into season 20, fearing their improvised ideas would sound stale several weeks later when production resumed. An episode’s production commences on a Thursday as the writers start brainstorming. The whole script isn’t written in one sitting though. Typically, the team will come up with a basic premise and maybe a few scenes and pass it on. This gives the animators something to work on while Parker properly crafts the script. Although Stone and other people are present to provide input, Parker has ultimately been responsible for directing and writing almost every single “South Park” episode from season 4 and beyond.
Since scenes aren’t always written in order, Parker may need to backtrack and rewrite certain sections to make everything connect. Certain ideas can get left on the cutting room floor as a result. For example, Cartman was originally supposed to dress as Dog the Bounty Hunter in season 9’s “Die Hippie, Die.” Parker and Stone decided to simplify things at the last minute by having Cartman wear an exterminator outfit instead. And the bounty hunter idea was recycled in season 10’s “Miss Teacher Bangs a Boy” where Cartman channels Dog.
Sometimes, when the writers don’t know how to get from point A to B, they’ll throw in any random ridiculous place-holder idea, which Parker described in an interview. The most infamous example would have to be the “Crab People,” who were never supposed to make it into the final cut of “South Park Is Gay!” When they couldn’t come up with anything better, though, one of the show’s most ridiculous plot points was born. This practice was referenced again in season 8’s meta episode “Quest for Ratings,” which Parker described as the first time they were “out of ideas.” The season 8 finale was even more strenuous, as they endured writer’s block throughout the Thursday and Friday. It wasn’t until Saturday that the creative team finally decided to do a Christmas special about satanic woodland critters.
Since episodes are produced in six days, the creators are able to reference current events as they’re unfolding. The Sunday before the season 7 finale was set to air, Saddam Hussein was captured in “Operation Red Dawn.” It suddenly became clear how the episode should end with Saddam hiding in a spider hole. Yet, doing timely humor can also be a major gamble. Season 12’s “About Last Night...” was produced the week before but aired the day after the 2008 U.S. presidential election. Originally, the crew considered producing two versions of the episode: one where Barack Obama wins and another where John McCain wins. But seeing as how they barely have enough time to produce one episode in a week, they just assumed that Obama had it in the bag, which he did.
Alas, this method didn’t work out so well with another post-election episode that aired in 2016. The episode was initially supposed to be titled “The Very First Gentleman,” alluding to Bill Clinton. Since Hillary Clinton lost the election to Donald Trump, the story had to be altered at the eleventh hour and the episode’s title was changed to “Oh, Jeez.” Even with the clock ticking, they still managed to finish the episode on time. The only instance when the crew missed a deadline was “Goth Kids 3: Dawn of the Posers,” which was stalled due to a power outage that occurred a day before airing.
Given the show’s tendency to push the envelope, the creators also need to go through standards and practices. Parker and Stone have been amazed by some of the things the censors let them get away with, like when Randy got “ectoplasm” all over a computer after watching pornography. While working on the episode “The Death Camp of Tolerance,” the crew held off on animating the scenes involving “Lemmiwinks the Gerbil” inside of Mr. Slave’s butt, feeling something so disgusting would never make it air, which it did. Comedy Central will occasionally draw a line, however, especially when it comes to showing images of Muhammad. Even when a controversial joke does make the final cut, “South Park” is never totally off the hook, and its parent companies usually still receive backlash from either a thin-skinned celebrity or a religious or extremist organization.
With the scenes written, it’s time to record dialogue. Parker and Stone provide most of the male character’s voices, although the recordings for the boys are sped up. From there, the voices are lip synced with the animation and the episode is edited together. Parker usually feels burned out after an episode is completed, wishing he had more time. If he didn't have a deadline, however, chances are he'd never be satisfied. The final product will typically be delivered to Comedy Central just a couple hours before airing on Wednesday. Then the next day, the whole process starts over again!