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CGEF Interview with
Claudia Katz & Peter Avanzino

Claudia Katz is an Emmy winning producer who has worked on various shows including The Maxx, Star Wars: Clone Wars, Drawn Together and The Simpsons Movie as well as being heavily involved with Futurama since it's inception. She is also Executive Vice President of Rough Draft Studios.
Peter Avanzino is a long time Futurama Supervising Director who has directed some of the shows most beloved episodes including 'Parasites Lost' and 'The Late Philip J Fry'. He has also directed and storyboarded on shows such as Drawn Together, Ren and Stimpy and The Simpsons.

reed@CGEF: Hi guys, thanks for taking the time to chat. Futurama returns 23rd June and we'll talk about that in a bit but first I wanted to talk about your early experiences in animation and production. How did you start on this road to being involved with some the most well known animated shows?

Claudia Katz: I came to Rough Draft in early 1994 to work on The Maxx with Gregg Vanzo. Prior to that, I produced TV commercials for an Ad Agency in NYC where I worked on the Nestle Butterfinger campaign featuring The Simpsons. As fate would have it, I met both Gregg and Matt Groening working on those commercials-and that was 20-years ago!
Futurama was Rough Draft's second prime-time series and we fought very hard to get it. We'd been talking to Matt about the series, but as it got closer to being a reality, there was a lot of pressure on Matt to choose a more established studio. In the interest of not going down without a fight, I decided we should do a short demo so Matt and David could at least see our vision for the series. Rich Moore came up with a 30-second pitch that we animated quickly in house. As luck would have it, we screened it for Matt about fifteen minutes before the show was supposed to be awarded to another studio! Thankfully, that phone call was never made, Matt went to the mat for us (punny I know), and the rest is history. Once we got the show, having something to prove served us well.

CGEF: Was there a point where you realized this was something you were good at and could make a living doing?

Claudia: I think somewhere in the first season of Futurama I felt some teeny sense of accomplishment. We went from 13 to 80 people in about a month and somehow managed to produce a full season of good lookin' episodes on schedule. At the same time, the studio's culture really began to take shape and the underdog, "we try harder" attitude set-in for the whole gang. Rich Moore and Gregg Vanzo set very high standards and we managed to find a building full of artists who found joy in overachieving and also enjoyed drinking, which helped.

CGEF: Claudia, you joined Rough Draft over 15 years ago producing the MTV series The Maxx. I believe that show was the first that started using the 3D animation style that Futurama is well known for.

Claudia: The Maxx represented several firsts for an animated television production. It was probably the first television series to feature integrated 3D animated graphics with traditional 2D animation. At the time, we would have loved to achieve the cel-shaded contour rendering that we use today for Futurama, but back then it didn't really exist. In fact, our 3D software vendor didn't really understand why we would want to make 3D graphics look like 2D Animation when the popular goal at the time was to make 3D graphics look more and more photo-real. So instead, we opted for texturing the 3-D models so they would integrate with the photoshopped backgrounds.We were also one of the first studios to set up a Digital Ink & Paint and Composite department for television. And, I think it was the first attempt to really adapt a comic book to the screen in a very literal way.

CGEF: Did it take a lot of perfecting to get it right?

Claudia: In short, yes. After cutting our teeth on The Maxx, we set up a computer lab at our sister studio, Rough Draft Korea in 1995. RDK handled scanning and ink & paint services, while in Los Angeles, Rough Draft performed all composting, effects, and 3D animation. We were probably the first studio to deploy this divide and conquer production model for television, and our process remains largely the same to this day. The benefit of handling final composite and 3D animation production in Los Angeles is huge and affords us a great degree of control over quality, which is essential. We are able to fix technical problems, improve timing, composition, and effects on a frame by frame basis before the client sees the product for the first time. This was not possible back in the early 1990's. Plus it makes all of us at Rough Draft who suffer from OCD very happy. So yes! It took a lot of perfecting. In addition to assorted and not very entertaining technical challenges, we learned early that to meld the 3D with the traditional animation, we needed to emulate the imperfections of the hand-drawn character, prop and background designs in the 3D models. Note, this is not as easy as it sounds. Next, Rich and Scott Vanzo, our Director of CGI, decided that lighting needed to be constrained so that the interaction of light across 3D surfaces didn't become too distracting. Lastly, we tried to distill the 3D motion so the animation is clean and not distracting. Often, the trick is simply to emulate traditional animation timing by thinking in terms of easing in and out of poses, sometimes overshooting and settling back to pose.
Utilizing 3D Effect animation (particles, glows, paint EFX, et cetera) is always a challenge as it involves a balance of realism and the show style. The Episode Director may give us clear reference (ie...WWII nuclear explosion test footage), but we have to come up with an effect that emulates that and stays grounded stylistically in the Futurama universe. This involves dialing back detail and distilling physical behavior. We have revised our space ship thruster smoke and the sun's corona several times to improve behavior while remaining stylistically abstract.
We used to joke that we are experts at "dumbing down" 3D animation since a good portion of our (rather exhaustive) integration efforts are spent making 3D animation look less complicated.

CGEF: What was it like in those early days of the studio?

Claudia: The early days of the studio were both fun and challenging, and at times a little frustrating. Thankfully, we were all a lot younger! We finished The Maxx in 1995 and it took us almost 3-years to get Futurama. In between we did a lot of short term projects and development, but we were always on the hunt-which can be the definition of fun and challenging. In true feast or famine fashion, once we got Futurama, I got calls for series work constantly. Although there was suddenly a lot of work, we made a very conscious decision to make Futurama our sole focus to avoid spreading ourselves thin. We knew anything that sacrificed the quality of our work would come back to haunt us and hinder our long term plans.

CGEF: Did you think you would become as big as you are now with the impressive list of projects you have? I mean Gregg Vanzo started this in a garage!

Claudia: Relatively speaking, we're still a small independently owned studio and that keeps the work at the forefront. The size of the studio may fluctuate with the projects we're producing, but I think the minute we lose our "small studio" roots we're in big trouble. We still chase projects that excite us and we've remained focused on the craft of animation and storytelling. We've been extremely lucky to work with so many great writers and actors and we hope to have the privilege to continue that lucky streak long into the future.

CGEF: You've both been involved in a bunch of other shows. What's your favourite thing you've worked on other than Futurama?

Claudia: That's like picking a favorite child! I've had a great time on pretty much everything we've worked on with some minor exceptions. Right now I'm having a blast working on Napoleon Dynamite for Fox. Jared Hess & Mike Scully are terrific to work with and I think animation is a great way of translating the universe Jared & Jerusha created for the movie.
Peter Avanzino: Some of my other favorite other shows... Duckman, where I got my first directing chance. It was a lot of work, but I got a lot of creative freedom back then. I got to try a lot of things and I learned a lot. Also here at Rough Draft I had a lot of fun doing Drawn Together. I love the variety of challenges that that show brought, whether it was how to stage a Superhero having a temper tantrum, a Ren and Stimpy style insanity fit, or an inappropriately themed Disney-style song. And I got my start on The Simpsons which was really exciting because I loved that show. I came into that job knowing nothing and just sat and worked and learned from everyone there. It was great.

CGEF: I'm guessing you both love your jobs but what is it about what you do that is so enjoyable and satisfying?

Claudia: I'm so fortunate that I can honestly say I love what I do. I love being a part of Rough Draft studios. I love the quality of the work we do and I love working with all the super talented folks here. It's a thrill to watch artists grow and thrive here and become part of the Rough Draft family. A lot of our staff has been here for 10+ years, and I'm proud to say three of our current directors, Dwayne Carey-Hill, Crystal Chesney-Thompson, and Edmund Fong are all home grown and rose from the ranks to be the superb directing talents they are today. Pete has evolved from a great Director to a fantastic Supervising Director, and there's a whole new generation of talent coming up that's going to kick some more ass. Our production staff is also top-notch and is made up of mostly veterans. We have incredibly high standards and a terrific crew, which is essential since as it turns out, even after 20-years, we're still not good at half-assing anything. I also love collaborating with all the great writers, producers, and executives we work with. It's nice to be surrounded by smart and funny. Oh, and attending Futurama table reads being part of your job description doesn't suck either. I also love the problem solving and analytical parts of my job, but they didn't sound that sexy when I started writing them out.
Peter: I like watching funny shows and good looking animation, and I enjoy seeing something that I worked on fit both of those bills. I like being part of the process of making a show as funny as it can be, and also making sure it is done in a way that is visually stunning. I love working at Rough Draft because the studio, as a whole, is completely devoted to doing the same thing-- putting stunningly good animation on the screen.

CGEF: Primetime animation seems to be having a slight resurgence at the moment with the Seth MacFarlane shows, Bob's Burgers, Futurama and the always popular South Park and The Simpsons. What's also noticeable is they're all hand drawn/2D shows not 3D as is the norm in features now. Do you think this will always be the case and what do feel about the lack of major studio hand drawn animated features?

Claudia: I think it will be the case for a while. It's very difficult to produce nuanced character animation and great timing in 3D within a TV schedule and budget. That said, in many instances I think 2D is actually the best tool for the job. There's a real charm to 2D animation, which I think helps make both Matt and Seth's characters intrinsically likeable. It can also capture a great range of humor and emotion and ultimately that's what makes the shows that work, work. As for features, I feel like the 3D = instant success formula has fallen on hard times, and let's face it, there have been some not so great big budget 2D movies that may have doomed the medium for features, at least for a while, but there's also The Simpsons Movie which we worked on which did huge box-office. At the end of the day what really makes a film great is story and characters. Animation is just another way of telling a story, whether it's 2D or 3D. The medium doesn't make something good or bad. I believe there's a viable business model for big 2D animated features, as well as those that cater to more of a niche or genre audience.  For example, the characters and scope of Futurama would translate to features very well. Hint. Hint. Personally, I would love to see some animated PG-13, or even R movies start to trend. I would really love it, if I worked on them.

CGEF: When Futurama came back with the movies it went widescreen AND HD. That's also something that's happened over the last couple of years with The Simpsons, Family Guy and other animated shows. Was there a real challenge doing that? I'm guessing everyone was so used to doing it 4:3 ratio by the end of the original run.

Claudia: We absolutely loved the idea of going widescreen. Presently, the real challenge is trying to take advantage of more filmic staging but still protecting for 4:3, which we are still required to do. This is pretty tricky as it really prevents the Directors from using the full frame. On the Futurama movies we were extremely lucky. Matt & David and Lee Supercinski were very supportive of the format and agreed to implement pan and scan in post for any necessary shots, which let us use the frame more effectively.
Peter: With the movies, we found it very freeing to have the wider format, it made it easier to be more cinematic in our staging and compositions. Remember, our show often features 3, 4, 5 or more characters on the screen at a time. Cramming them into the 4:3 screen was always hard.
The challenge we did face was that we wanted to protect the shows for the 4:3 ratio. We had to make sure that nothing important was on the sides of the screen because it wouldn't be seen if the show was watched on a regular TV and cropped. Remember most people weren't watching widescreen TV then. I don't know what the stats are now; I just made the shift about a month ago. This could be pretty frustrating and made for some shots that just looked too wide and loose. Overall though the format change has made the show look a lot better.

CGEF: Peter, how do you get involved with directing an episode? Do you request one based on a script? Are they assigned? Names out of a hat?

Peter: The way our schedule works we have 6 or 7 directors working on the season. We start a new episode every week or two. A director takes their episode through storyboarding (7 weeks), animatic and revisions (3 weeks), timing (4 weeks) and then they ship it to Korea for animation. While this director is doing all of this on their episode, the other 6 directors have started their episodes and then (in a perfect schedule) this director's next episode will be ready to begin as soon as they've shipped this one. You can see from this schedule that there is no room for picking and choosing, a director gets what they get, and there's no regret. (Unless you're the director who just happens to get all the big disaster/raging party/incredibly complex machinery type episodes.) Usually you get a nice mix, though. I've been very lucky with the episodes I've gotten to do.

CGEF: I remember on one of the commentaries (for 'When Aliens Attack') one of the directors said how happy they were when they received the script and the screen direction just said 'big space battle' because they could just go crazy with their ideas. Has there been any other times when the script has allowed you to really let loose with your creativity.

Peter: The flip side of that is the feeling you get when you get a script that says "Thousands of robots are there, dancing and partying like there's no tomorrow." Or "Every character in Futurama gasps." Or "The EMMY-WINNING ANIMATION EXTRAVAGANZA continues as stars and galaxies form."
Generally the writers won't write out a battle scene unless there's a specific shot or action that they want to be in there for whatever reason. Other than that, they leave it up to us to wow them.
Sometimes after we board a scene, we will hear from the producers that it is more than they expected. We're all fans of the show, and fans of animation, and we all want to do things that look good on the screen. If we have to do a space battle, or the Universe forming, or a group of lost DaVinci inventions that fit themselves together into a spaceship, we want to do it that in a way that's interesting and funny to watch and maybe even new. The key part when planning big scenes like this is remembering that we are a TV show, on a TV show budget and schedule. We can board anything we want, but can it be done? Our board artists, 3D artists, color and camera artists have all gotten so good at what they do, though, that it's become easy to expect more and more of them on each show and that leads us down the path of trying to do bigger and bigger things. As I mentioned before, we haven't hit the ceiling of what's possible yet.

CGEF: Futurama's probably one of the most ambitious shows out there animation wise. What's been the most challenging bit in an episode so far? Are there any times when you have to go back to Matt and David and say that something's not possible?

Peter: I don't think we've hit the "not possible" mark yet. Generally we will go back them and ask them to try and cut back on scenes that would generate a large amount of character or background designs or just a lot of hard animation. Generally if we ask for this, it's because the episode already has a lot of good stuff that we want to be able to spend time on. Sometimes Matt also watches out for us on this front. In The Late Phillip J Fry, when Fry, the Professor and Bender are traveling through time, I heard the original script had a large amount of dinosaur fighting in it. Matt suggested to the other writers that perhaps that episode had enough stuff for us to do already, and so they came up with a great joke that dealt with the dinosaurs off-screen.
Generally the most technically challenging things involve 2D animation registering to 3D animation. But getting a strong acting moment can have its challenges as well. In a lot of ways the quiet moments are the hardest to get right. They have to resonate with the audience based on emotion and feeling rather than spectacle.

CGEF: Leading on from that, could you explain your respective relationships between you and the writers? Do they consult you at all when writing? What's the process for creating new things such as characters and locations?

Peter: We get consulted every now and then, but not often. They will usually go ahead and write what they need and then we will discuss any issues during the design or storyboard process. We went back and forth a lot during the designing of the Time Machine from The Late Phillip J Fry. I originally wanted something sleek and cool, but they wanted something more Jules Verne looking. I eventually saw things their way and everything worked out just fine. Seriously though, I think they write it assuming we can do it, or sometimes wondering if we can do it, and then they just wait and see what comes out the other end.

CGEF: Which character is most fun to draw and animate? Any ones that are a nightmare?

Peter: I love Roberto and the Robot Mafia. I love getting emotional performances out of their limited faces. We designed Roberto with those wide-set eyes because I knew he was going to have a lot of crazy head action. (I was basing his performance off of Dick Shawn in Mad Mad Mad Mad World and The Producers.) I love spending time timing the Donbot's hand acting. I love getting to work with Clamps in any capacity. I even enjoy timing out their Mouth Glows. Robots = Fun in my book.
Anything with tentacles is hard for me. Or a character like Nibbler, who is supposed to move very rapidly and erratically. I find characters like that take a lot of work to get right. And while I like doing song and dance numbers, they are a huge pain in the ass.

CGEF: There's some wonderful work in The Late Philip J Fry when they're watching the universe end and then start. You directed that episode Peter. Could you talk through how you came up with that? Were there cues from the script or did you just let your imagination run wild?

Peter: There were definite cues from the script. Most of the progression of how that scene played out was written. The challenge was to make it doable. I can imagine a lot of things, but can they be done? If you watch it, you'll see there are several spectacular 3D scenes of galaxies forming, there are a few fast forward scenes that involve many many backgrounds and characters, and then are as many simple shots as I could squeeze in to break things up. I knew that the big scenes were going to be a lot of work. The 3D creations scenes took our animators several weeks to do. The scenes were you see the city grow up outside of the window involved scores of backgrounds that had to be done carefully so they could be lined up in sequence to look like a time lapse. The imagination part for me was for how to do all of those things and have time for the other 20 minutes of the show. (As I think about it, virtually every part of this show needed special attention: Future Planet Express Building, Future Future Planet Express Building, Future Earth Song montages, Non-song Future Earth scenes, Time Traveling Bikini Girls from the future...)
The one bit that wasn't in the script that I knew I wanted to add was the sequence of scenes that happen in the conference room as they are moving through the last few years of time. I thought it would be fun to see some key scenes from all of the earlier seasons. I immediately thought of the Vergon Six scene from 104 and the Professor Tentacle scene from Beats with a Billion Backs, so I and my assistant went through the old shows to look for more fun moments that took place in the conference room. It's great when I can come up with something new like that, something that will surprise Matt and Dave. And it did.

CGEF: What can we expect from this season? Any personal highlights coming up?

Peter: I plan to do my finest work this season. Or coast, I'm not sure yet.

CGEF: Something I'm really looking forward to is the finale which will feature 3 different styles of animation. From IMDB it says you're directing that Peter. Could you tease us a bit about the episode and how it was to work on? How did this affect the way you made the episode compared to others?

Peter: This was another script that I was excited to get. It was a lot of fun to do. Each act of the show needed all new designs- one is Black and White Fleischer era, one is 80s television Anime style, and one is 8 bit Video game style. Each required that I do a lot of reference of their styles. I had a passing knowledge of each, but needed to look into them more.
I was able to hand each act out to a different board artist and have them help research each one and come up with ideas. That really helped a lot as I lucked into having board artists who were interested in the style of show they were working on. Also when you get these shows there is a lot of fun to be had in finding the right music for each. The music for the Anime section was right on in the track- it was all scored with Battle of the Planets music I think. I have some CDs of a band called The Beau Hunks playing Little Rascals music that I had playing non-stop while I worked on the Fleischer section. I think when you see it you'll be smiling a lot.
I was able to draw the whole video game section myself. My assistant, Ira, storyboarded it, and then instead of shipping it to RDK, I did it all in Photoshop. We decided to do most scenes on a 320 x 180 pixel screen, so I set up a document at that size and drew each scene with a one-pixel brush. Characters were drawn and animated very simply with cycles and then panned around in camera. I guess I could have learned how to program an actual game and done it that way instead, but I chose to draw, draw, draw. Another fun episode.

CGEF: What's been your favourite moments/episodes on the show so far?

Claudia: As I mentioned, I love the table reads. I also love screening the episodes with Matt & David and the writers. It's great to show off our work, and I really enjoy the chance to collaborate and work through the episodes with both sides at the table. As for episodes, my list evolves as we keep going, but here are my favorites in chronological order: "Hell Is Other Robots" directed by Rich Moore, "Parasites Lost" directed by Peter Avanzino, "Roswell That Ends Well" directed by Rich Moore, "The Sting" directed by Brian Sheesley, "Obsolutely Fabulous" directed by Dwayne Carey-Hill, and pretty much all of Season Six! I think it's our best yet. I still relish "Roswell" winning the Emmy. Rich and I were so shocked when they read "Futurama" we forgot to get out of our seats and had to be shoved back into reality and out into the aisle.
Peter: 'The Late Phillip J Fry' is the episode with the best heart I think. 'Roswell That Ends Well' was great from start to finish. The gag I think I did that came out best was the space ship scene in Fry's stomach, where the Planet Express Ship gets stuck in Fry's pyloric sphincter, then gets knocked through by the worm ships, and then the Worm Ships crash into the pyloric sphincter and blow up. That was awesome.

CGEF: Writing's already started on the next season. Have you started any work on it yet?

Claudia: As of today, we've had two table reads. Both excellent. We start work next week!
Peter: No, we will start in the next few weeks. We may start early on some designs, as the writing and recording of the voices has already started, but we have not started storyboarding yet.

CGEF: Who or what else out there do you admire and get inspired by?

Claudia: I admire anyone who makes a great quality product in any medium -- movies, television, books, music, or my sweet made-in-America New Balance sneakers. It's hard not to admire Pixar's work. I also loved "Tangled", which featured some of the best 3D character animation I've ever seen. I'm inspired by anyone who respects the Craft of what they produce and tries hard to honor it.
Peter: Superjail. I like a lot of Cartoon Network and Adult Swim stuff. I like seeing shows that get creative in their format like The World of Bubblegum, Chowder, Storm Hawks. I love The Venture Brothers and am a sucker for any DC Superhero stuff. I read lots of comics, mostly Ultimate Spider-Man. From my Simpsons days I learned to watch a LOT of movies and study them for staging, acting, lighting, etc. All of this stuff goes in and swirls around and comes out into my storyboards.

CGEF: Finally, if there are any budding producers/animators/directors out there, do you have any tips to break into the industry?

Claudia: Choose something you really want to do and jump in, which probably means an entry level job. Take that job. Expect to work hard and work your way up-there's actually a lot to learn along the way. If you're lucky enough to jump in mid-stream, please note, there's still a lot to learn along the way. I'm still learning and I think the day I stop will signal my retirement.
Peter: Learn how to do what you want to do and find a place to do it. There's a lot of people doing animation these days, both in prime time and elsewhere. Almost everywhere else. Shows, commercials, webisodes, interstitials, private movies. Learn how the computer can help you. My kids just did stop motion projects using a still camera and putting it together in iMovie. There's a lot of equipment out there for you to use. Draw a lot. Even with all the new technology being used, we still draw everything.

CGEF: Thanks for taking the time to chat folks and good luck with the new season!

This interview was conducted via eMail in June 2011. Questions were posed for CGEF by Reed.

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