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Seth Green and John “Harv” Harvatine, along with partners Matthew Senreich and Eric Towner, forged their full-service production company from an old Winnebago a decade ago.
A union of Green and Senreich’s late Stoopid Monkey shingle and Harvatine and Towner’s Buddy System Studios, Stoopid Buddy Stoodios specializes in stop-motion, CG and 2D-animated content for TV, film and digital. Their longest-running project, Adult Swim’s flagship Robot Chicken, is where the four first collaborated, in 2006. “We’ve been officially married for almost 10 years,” says Harvatine. “But we’ve been dating for, like, 15.” And, of course, that same vintage RV — since converted into an office for visiting directors — is now parked in the lobby of their Burbank facility.
Robot Chicken, a stop-motion variety show with action figures, may be what audiences associate with the studio, but they’ve been quietly expanding efforts. Those bizarre getups on Fox’s The Masked Singer? That’s the Buddys. Those anthropomorphic crackers in the commercials for Pepperidge Farm Goldfish? Also the Buddys. Pre-pandemic, as many as 300 staffers worked on site on the company’s various endeavors — primarily on ever-growing TV efforts, like an F-bomb-slinging Marvel villain voiced by Patton Oswalt (Hulu’s M.O.D.O.K.). It is easily the raciest thing Kevin Feige has ever christened with the Marvel stamp, and it dropped May 21. Green and Harvatine, speaking on behalf of their counterparts over Zoom, discussed their unique lane and how it’s wider than some might assume.
Tell me about this Winnebago.
SETH GREEN When Harv and Towner were running Buddy System, they needed it for a piece of content. Then they just parked it in the driveway of their small studio and converted it into an office. The first meetings we had as a company, like meetings with high-level people from Sony and Adult Swim, were in it.
JOHN HARVATINE There’s also a Winnebago code of ethics, which is like, “Share the road, clean up after yourself, never leave fires.” That idea resonated with us with respect to running a studio, so when we moved into these buildings, it was important to preserve that.
How do you and your two counterparts divvy up the workload?
HARVATINE There’s a lot of overlap, but Seth and I really love working with the artists. The spreadsheets, numbers, budgets, schedules — that’s the stuff where my eyes just gloss over.
Everybody was talking about the COVID animation boom. Did you get a lot more calls?
GREEN There are a ton of misconceptions about animation. Most of it became more viable during the pandemic because, at least with 2D animation, you can produce it all remotely. But stop-motion is shot frame by frame, like cinema, so it’s all the same builds, interaction and departments you’d need for a regular production.
But could you bank other stuff?
GREEN Oh, I recorded two seasons of Family Guy and an entire season of Robot Chicken from my closet. That was a game-changer. But for everyone else, it was a lot of building pieces at home. Every episode of Robot Chicken has over 80 puppets with very little reuse. That’s a ton of construction.
Stop-motion sounds tedious.
GREEN Oh, it is. That’s why we’re not animators. I tried to do one shot, once, and it was terrible.
HARVATINE You don’t get famous for it, so you have to love it. So many things can go wrong — like an eyebrow falling off — when you have gravity working against you. That’s part of the sick pleasure.
And you do everything, for a single series, under one roof?
GREEN Yes. We took a page from the South Park production, which was managed under a single roof, just for the ability for oversight.
HARVATINE It makes it easier to track jokes and story elements because Seth can walk around to different departments at each stage and explain, “This is a joke.” It’s not always obvious. (Laughs.)
You just opened a second office in Toronto. Why there?
HARVATINE There’s an amazing talent pool up there — a lot of it from Sheridan College.
GREEN Not to sound obnoxious, but the U.S. has only recently realized that it’s possible to collaborate with artists from other countries. There’s an epic amount of talent out there.
Marvel is precious about keeping things PG-13 — yet your new collaboration, M.O.D.O.K., is TV-MA. How did you make that happen?
GREEN There was a plan to make four adult-oriented animated Marvel shows for Hulu — and then they shut down the others in deep stages of production. I don’t know how we survived. But I think Kevin [Feige] is even more of a visionary than anybody gives him credit for. He understands, within the Marvel universe, you’re always looking for access portals via any channel, any age group, any demo and any genre.
With your longest-running show on Adult Swim, which is part of WarnerMedia, do you get concerned by the idea of another parent company coming in?
GREEN It depends. The funny thing about this industry is that the executives all seem to shift from company to company every few years. The ones who are really good at their job will do that same job at several different companies throughout their career. The people who are still at the heads of those chains, Adult Swim or HBO Max, are people who I’ve worked with for 10 or 15 years in some capacity. So, as content providers, it’s a little less terrifying because our goal is not to compete with DreamWorks or to create a subscription streaming service. We just make stuff.
But being an independent studio, do you worry about how vertical integration at these streamers might impact future prospects?
GREEN The economy is going to consistently fluctuate. I’ve been earning a living since I was 7 years old, and the only reason I haven’t flamed out or lost all my money is because I don’t do crazy things. We’re not trying to be the biggest. But what we’ve worked to ensure is that anybody who works under this roof enjoys that same collaborative, patient and empathetic creative process.
In the world of puppets and toys, what gives you IP envy?
GREEN I love the Micronauts and have, for over 20 years, tried to help that property become a movie. It’s not happened.
HARVATINE For me, the thing that’d be most amazing to play with would be Gumby. Applying some modern sensibilities to it would be awesome.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the June 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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