Dominic Bianchi and Mark Hentemann visited CCAD on April 29 and gave students a rare peek behind the curtain, showing what goes into creating a weekly, half-hour, prime-time network television program. The fact that they were hilarious while doing it shouldn’t be a surprise; they are, respectively, the supervising director and head writer/executive producer for Family Guy.
Like any good comedic act, the duo knew how to warm up their audience, opening with a montage of clips from the popular series. They then went on to detail the creative efforts that go into producing each episode—a process that takes approximately 13 months, which means that multiple episodes are in varying stages of development at any given time.
It all starts in the writers’ room, where Hentemann and his team collaborate on a script that must be ready for the first table read at the end of the week.
“That’s when the first version of the script is finalized and all the actors come in,” said Hentemann. “We get about 60 people in a room at the table read, and we hear a script on its feet. (We call it hearing it on its feet—it’s performed.) We hear how it sounds, get a good sense of what’s working and what’s not.”
From there the writers will go back and rewrite jokes (aka gags) that didn’t quite work. Hentemann went on to share a few gags that were proposed in the writers’ room but didn’t make the final script—they may not have made it into the show, but they still got laughs from the CCAD audience.
“Family Guy is storyboard-based show,” Bianchi said as he began to explain the process for dealing with the artwork on the show, which begins as soon as the audio track of the script is recorded.
“A director and assistant director will have two to three storyboard artists per episode,” said Bianchi. “They’ll take the audio file and listen to it, and go over the script and break it down into different scenes.” The team uses Cintiqs with Toom Boom Storyboard Pro software to begin creating thumbnails of shots for the show, which are then pitched to the supervising director, who makes edits. Bianchi and Hentemann used the episode “Back to the Pilot” (S10, Ep 5) to illustrate this process.
After more editing and rewriting, the team moves to animatics, which (at their most basic) are animated drafts that include sound. There are more rounds of editing and rewrites. At some point color is introduced, and even after that there are rewrites. During this process they also have to work with standards and practices, the network entity responsible for ensuring that a program’s content doesn’t cross legal, ethical, or moral lines that might result in anything from FCC fines to lawsuits or lost sponsors.
Anyone who has watched Family Guy can imagine the conversations between the show’a producers and the network. Hentemann read some particularly funny notes they received from standards, including one that involved the word “kleeman”—a word the writers made up to see if the standards office would tag it. They did. However, when producers noted that the word was not in any dictionary and did not actually exist, the standards office had to concede. Unfortunately, after the episode aired “kleeman” became a popular Google search term. When the writers tried to use it again four months later, they were denied, because several online dictionaries had come up with a definition.
The last stage of the production process includes final animation, which is done in Korea and can take as long as four months.
Bianchi and Hentemann ended their presentation with a Q & A that naturally generated questions about how to get a job in their industry. Both men noted that everyone has a different story for how they landed their careers, but Bianchi still offered some advice:
“No matter where you go, what job you are targeting, if you are at a job that you think will lead to that storyboard job (or whatever it is that you want), if you are PA [production assistant] somewhere, be the best PA, have a good attitude, ask questions, be indispensable at that job.”
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