Good news, everyone! Futurama is back… Again.
The adventures of delivery boy Philip J Fry, frozen in time and awakened in the year 3,000 was intended as Matt Groening’s sci-fi cousin to The Simpsons.
In the years since it was rudely cancelled after five seasons, series co-creators Groening and David Cohen have brought it back to life as a series of straight-to-DVD movies that are also cunningly able to split into episodes for showing on other channels.
The latest – Into The Wild Green Yonder – sends Fry, alcoholic robot Bender, kick ass lady mutant Leela and the rest of the oddballs on an epic quest to prevent dark forces from invading our universe.
You know, just the average, every day story that delves into biology and physics, with a little environmental message on the side.
We sat down with Groening and Cohen, plus voice cast members Billy West, Lauren Tom, Maurice LaMarche and Phil LaMarr to dig for fascinating nuggets about the new DVD and the show itself.
1. Doing multiple voices in one scene is easy. With training.
Billy West: I usually do about three or four in any one. I had training for that - I worked on a show back in 1999 for Nickelodeon, called Doug.
He was this sweet kid, and his nemesis, Roger, the bully kid, was based on a kid that I knew. And I was going from this needle-nosed voice for him to this mellow, kid and I'd just read one after the other because they don't want to go back and mix and match.
There was one time where a voice came out of me that wasn't supposed to. Everyone was, like "oooohhhh."
Phil LaMarr: On most animated shows, anyone doing more than one voice needs to read through it once as one character and then again as another. Not Billy.
In the first episode of Futurama, there's a scene where the professor brings Fry in to meet Dr Zoidberg. I was there, and Billy did all three of those voices on the fly. No breaks, no multiple takes. And Zoidberg is not a normal voice![page-break]
2. The show's team works quickly. Also, cheaply.
Matt Groening: One of the amazing things about Futurama and its team is we did these four movies fairly quickly.
David Cohen: It's been less than three years since day one of starting work and we've put our four of 'em, so...
Matt Groening: Theatrical animated movies take about four years to do. And we didn't do it for very much money. The thing I'm proudest of is that everyone really poured their heart into it.
David Cohen: Plus we've tried to have some really cinematic scenes in these movies, especially this one, which is incredible, because it was done in HD. But we got fined by the animation studio for having 250 characters on screen in one shot!
3. Co-creator/writer David Cohen has a stored knowledge of the show that would put pedantic fans to shame. For a month, anyway.
David Cohen: My memory is terrible. But for the month or two after we finish each movie, I have it memorised. It goes from 100% to zero very quickly.
I briefly remember every aspect of it and why we did everything and that's why I'm so desperate to get it on to the commentary tracks, so I can listen to it and keep it.
Matt Groening: Plus you're like the kid who does his homework the night before we do these things.
David Cohen: I never have more than one page of notes. Things like song titles that I might not recall.
Matt Groening: I have a theory about animation writers. Part of why Harvard or any good school spawns good writers is the amazing memory.
You're sitting there in a room and you don't have time to look things up - everything is off the cuff. David has a huge font of knowledge to draw on.
David Cohen: From the last month![page-break]
4. Main character Philip J Fry IS Billy West. At 25…
Billy West: I wanted a lot of my voices to be rooted in reality, but none of them were, except Fry. I have tapes of me when I was 25 and I sounded exactly like that. Whiny, nasally, flawed. Imperfect speech.
But when I'm creating the characters, I do put lots of thought into it. I try not to make anything a throwaway, I try to make it a big deal.
5 ...But Lauren Tom and the other cast members don’t draw from real life Well, not much.
Lauren Tom: That would mean I'm either a bimbo or a nasty old woman! You'd have to ask my husband about that.
Maurice LaMarche : There's a part of me that's very Kiff-like, the Canadian part that lets himself get stepped on all the time. But there's that part of me that's very egotistical and reminiscent of Calculon. And I've been known to lose my temper every now and again and rage like Morbo.
Lauren Tom: I've seen a vein pop up once in a while.
Maurice LaMarche: There was one moment in this new movie where they got us to do every character's thoughts doing a mind-reading sequence. I had Walt thinking, "I wonder what it feels like to have sex..."
There's NO part of me that's like him, by the way.[page-break]
6. Be adaptable - it could save your job!
Lauren Tom: Amy's voice is actually close to my natural voice. She actually started out much different than she ended up. She was supposed to be a car mechanic, really tough lesbian sort of character.
I came in and that's so... not... my natural essence, but Matt liked my laugh, so he said, 'we'll just cast you and we'll figure out what to do later - we have to get that laugh in there somewhere."
We tried to make it gruff at first, but Leela (Katey Segal) is so tough that it was a good juxtaposition to have something different. So I don't have to work too hard at Amy, not like Maurice, who does eight voices or so.
Maurice LaMarche: Yes, I am that stupid... er... inspired.
7. Sci-Fi can be funny if you treat it properly.
Matt Groening: I didn't realise quite how difficult it is to do science fiction that's funny. Most so-called "humorous" science fiction is really wacky and not funny.
Our first lesson was, you can't have a rocket ship that's a visual pun, which looks like something else, or it works against you. It might be funny for a quarter of a second.
David Cohen: We learned to take the sci-fi aspect completely seriously and to make a story that, even if you take the jokes away, still works as a good science fiction story, and a dramatic one.
So when there's a big battle or even just an argument, we try to play it seriously. The characters are delivering the jokes and it's about their personalities, their petty gripes and problems.
It helps the comedy because it sucks people in to the drama and the jokes act as a release. They work fine together - we like tugging at the heartstrings from time to time. You don't always have to have a goofy battle with rubber toys.
Matt Groening: We did do that, though...[page-break]
8. Swearing is acceptable on US network TV as long as it's in another language.
Lauren Tom: I usually throw the Chinese swearing in there to crack everyone up. I taught Billy (West) how to do it and he's perfect at it.
The Cantonese viewers out there actually know what I'm saying, it's not made up. So I make sure it's stuff like, "I'm going to beat him to death!"
But I only know certain phrases, because I'm not fluent. I only know the things that were said to me when I was little. Lovely things like, "I'm going to chop your head off!"
Maurice LaMarche: So nothing sexual, or to do with excrement, then. Just horrific violence. We've all seen that on TV.
9. It’s not finished…. Hopefully.
David X Cohen: The alien language during this episode’s opening credits reads, “The humans shall not defeat us!” It’s our nod to that.
Matt Groening: We would love to continue making more Futurama episodes in whatever form... Except Pogs.
I think we haven't even exhausted all the story ideas that we came up with back when the show started in '99.
David Cohen: Every morning, and I'm not making this up, I find myself thinking in the shower about the next episode that we'll do after this one. I have it mostly worked out, so we're ready to go if the call comes in.
There is a chance of it coming back as the DVDs sold well.
Matt Groening: You have a solution? We painted ourselves into a corner at the end of this one, but I think we can do whatever we want.
Into The Wild Green Yonder hits DVD and Blu-Ray on Monday 23rd February. Bender would want you to buy it. So he could steal it…
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