Aqua Teen Hunger Force
is a unique and notable television program, but not only due to what you see on the air. It has a unique production process that helps fuel it to be the show that it is. Like most shows produced by Williams Street
the cast and crew are a small and closely knit group, most of which had worked with each other on Williams Street shows prior to Aqua Teen Hunger Force
. The close-knit feel to the cast and crew, the show’s unique writing process and its late night timeslot on a cable station have allowed those who make Aqua Teen Hunger Force
to work with an independent flair that isn't very common for television.
First off, there’s the writing process. ATHF creators and the co-writer/directors of every episode, Matt Maiellaro and Dave Willis, have joked about the relatively short writing process for each episode, with Maiellaro once stating in an interview with UGO.com that they write the episodes in "an hour." While this is probably not always true, a special feature on the third DVD release of the show titled "How To Score Big Making Money Writing For Television" shows the two hanging around Maiellaro’s suburban Georgia home, coming up with ideas for a new Aqua Teen episode off the top of their heads. As they brainstorm, we see them typing up the script on a laptop computer. They have some clear predetermined idea of what they’re doing (they clearly both begin with an idea of a TV going out in the Aqua Teen’s house) but nearly every gag they think up is off the top of their heads. While I’m sure there are re-writes involved, it’s amazing how nearly all of gags they brainstorm in this session end up making the episode they were writing for ("The Cloning" in this case). After the script is written, they have to have it approved by Williams Street. Yet nearly everything they suggest is a go. And while Williams Street is a part of Cartoon Network, which is owned by media conglomerate Time Warner, they seem to have little care in what happens after 11PM on some cable station that only plays cartoons. Thus the writers can get away with quite a bit.
Then comes production, which is done efficiently and cheaply. Every image on the show is created using Adobe Photoshop images, which are animated using Adobe After Effects. Then the animated sequences are edited using Apple's Final Cut Pro. Willis and Maiellaro then make a rough show on video and bring in Carey Means (Frylock), Dana Snyder (Master Shake) and whatever other performers that are to appear on the show to the voice work recorded. The animators then tweak the rough video until it looks presentable for television. The entire process is extremely cheap, costing an average of $60,000 per episode, an incredibly low figure even for an 12-minute animated television series.
I think this type of creative environment is what fuels Aqua Teen Hunger Force to be such a solid animated series and very much unlike any of its prime time, network competitors. While most animated series have a barrage of writers and directors from episode-to-episode, through four seasons Aqua Teen has only had two writers (Willis and Maiellaro) and two directors (Willis and Maiellaro). Most have to worry about FCC regulations and are under close scrutiny from executive big-wigs, while Aqua Teen doesn’t seem to have that problem. The world of television today is filled with cheap gags, tired plots and a final product that has been contorted by evil producers who don’t want to offend the people they are trying to sell Coca-Cola to. It’s refreshing to have a show like Aqua Teen Hunger Force, with engaging characters, clever absurdist humor, solid vocal performances and a unique vision that’s well executed in a very independent way.