A Conversation with Seth Macfarlane

“Motion Capture technology was something that had been more or less perfected, but yet no one had really used it in a comic format before”

With the continuing success of his animated TV series Family Guy, American Dad and The Cleveland Show, Seth MacFarlane’s star continues to blaze resiliently above an ocean of controversy and adoration. For every protest and boycott launched by right wing parental groups, his scathing, witty and audacious repertoire of creative musings continue to elevate his celebrity, regardless of their crudity or inherent offensiveness. After all, landing the gig to host the 2013 Academy Awards, Hollywood’s so-called night of nights, is no mean feat for a guy who’s never actually appeared physically on the silver screen.

And while his meteoric rise as a self-contained celebrity can be partly contributed to his panache for showmanship, as recently flaunted during his stint as host of Saturday Night Live, and the Internet’s ability to drag the most reluctant of celebrity into the unrelenting clutches of fandom, MacFarlane’s latest endeavour, the live action R-rated comedy Ted, proves that the irreverent and irrepressible writer/animator/director still has plenty of moxie to be unleashed.

Fletcher: The whole idea of Ted is a little left of centre; can we get some back-story on where the concept originated?

Seth MacFarlane: The idea had been floating around for a while. Originally it was something I thought would make a good animated series, but for a number of reasons I ended up putting it on the backburner. So several years went by and eventually I got to the point where I was ready to start thinking about doing a movie, and it felt like it would be the perfect script to turn into a feature story. In many ways it just lent itself more toward a single arc than a series format.

Also, the technology that we used in the movie had really come into its own; to the point that it had become a viable process for us to use in creating the bear.

Motion Capture technology was something that had been more or less perfected, but yet no one had really used it in a comic format before – I mean really there had only Avatar and Lord of the Rings up to this point.

F: So considering the sophistication of the technology at your disposal and the creative talent you had working on the 3D animation, did you find the physical look and movement of Ted had evolved from what you had initially envisioned?

SM: I had very specific ideas of what I wanted to do with the bear itself. All we had to go by from the design standpoint was a drawing that I had done of how the bear should look. Having come out of 2D animation, I was used to characters that were kind of understated in a lot of ways, and very self-contained and therefore they could be realistic in their performances. And that’s a hard thing to get out of animators.

F: So to get that realistic performance in a 3D character animated via computer graphics, you worked with an Australian company. How was it working with the guys in Melbourne?

SM: They were amazing. There was an enormous amount of bear work to be done and we used a company based out of Melbourne called Iloura. They approached the job in a very, very intelligent, sophisticated way.

You often think with animators it’s always big and broad, and that’s an area where Iloura really stepped up and broke new ground by making this very hard thing with the bear extremely realistic. They took that little sketch and turned it into a three-dimensional character while retaining the simplicity. It was really extraordinary.

F: And apart from handling the writing, serving as producer, manning the director’s chair and Voicing the bear, you also suited up to play Ted himself via the motion capture?

SM: Yes, that’s right.

F: Can you give us a little insight into how that process worked for you as an actor? Were you confined to working in front of a green screen or were you onset with the other cast members?

SM: We did it all live. We did all the character work live on the set just as you would with any normal shoot. It was a deliberate choice we made in order to get as much ‘life’ into the performance as possible.

F: And what about your experience working onset with an actual cast and crew? Was it difficult going from directing voice actors to dealing with an ensemble who need to navigate real environments?

SM: Not as much as you might think. The only thing that I found myself doing out of habit was directing more with my ear than my eye.

With animation, you’re beginning with what is essentially a radio play and you tend to be more in tune with the audio rhythms rather than the digital rhythms, and I do sort of let the audio drive that kind of process.

But as with any medium – whether it’s animation or live action – I think 90% of your acting is casting. And here everyone was on the same page. Mark Wahlberg particularly. I mean he was being asked to basically do a movie without a co-star, but he was able to tap into something and just visualised the bear next to him. So when the bear was eventually put into into the different scenes, it was just like it had always been there.

F: Was Mark always your first choice for the role of John Bennett or did you audition for the role?

SM: No, with a lead like that – you don’t audition. You make an offer to whoever you think is going to be best for the part. And Mark was really a no-brainer. First of all, he gets the Boston vibe and there’s a heavy Boston vibe in this movie. But also, as a comedian, he really is the perfect blend of comedic skill and realism, and that’s what this character needed to be.

Ted is a comedy so I needed someone who could be funny, but I also need him to be a very real character, not broad and over the top; it needed to be a real relationship. And as much of a fan as I am of Will Ferrell, I don’t think it would have worked if it had been done in that kind of tone. I needed it to be more understated and Mark was just the perfect choice from the get-go.

F: Family Guy and American Dad are notorious for their social commentary and anti-establishment rhetoric. Were you tempted to climb any soapboxes with Ted, or was this simply not the right format?

SM: It’s not really the format for that kind of thing. Television, and much more animation, is suited to that type of thing. Ted is more a fairytale for grownups.

F: When you’re writing a project on this scale, are you conscious that you’ll be reaching a new audience? And when you write, are you writing for fans, for yourself or for an audience you hope is there?

SM: We were writing beyond the Family Guy audience for this one. The sense of the movie alone necessitated that we reach a broader audience and we wanted to. We didn’t want to do the same thing – there is a tone and there is a brand that you don’t want to abandon, but at the same time it is a different medium.

Over the course of making the movie, I learned enormous amounts about the differences between television and feature writing, as well as live action and animation writing. In a television sitcom, there’s a necessity for hard, raw joke writing and with a movie, we found that a lot of what works was a more subtle approach. The jokes that really came out were the ones laid down early on and which were called back on later. So stylistically, it was a learning experience. And I think what we came out with was hopefully a really fresh blend.

Sure there’s a little Family Guy in there buthopefully it goes far beyond that. 

F: Considering some of the other projects that you have in the works, including the continuation of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series and your stage work with the Influence Jazz Orchestra, did you ever question wether your first feature film as a director would be in comedy?

SM: It’s really more about the idea; it’s not really about the genre. If I had a great idea for an hour-long drama television series, I probably wouldn’t hesitate to pursue it. I have no desire to stay in one genre. It’s really about the idea and if it’s a good idea, I’ll execute it in whatever idiom or genre it suits.

F: With all the well-published issues you’ve had with the censors, studio politics and your continuing legal battles with the Parents Network Society, did working across a feature film offer you any reprieve or was just a different set of rules and activists to push.

SM: A little bit. I mean you have no advertisers you have to please so you don’t have to worry about any of that. And there are no broadcast standards. But the liberties we took here were really language more than anything else.

They’ve been calling this a Hard-R comedy, but I don’t see this as a Hard-R. I see it actually as a Soft-R comedy because really, the only thing that prevents it from being PG 13 is the language – the occasional or not so occasional use of the word Fuck.

There is no hardcore violence or sex… there’s one scene of brief nudity. So in that sense, if I was 14 and I wanted to go see this movie, my parents probably would have taken me.

F: Talking about films and TV land, what’s out there at the moment floating your boat? What are you really excited about right now?

SM: Oh gosh, I’m really loving Game Of Thrones right now. I would love to know what the episodic budget is for that show because it’s so damn impressive looking. That’s probably it though. I watch Real Time with Bill Maher, I catch it every week but as far as narrative, Game Of Thrones is probably the only appointment viewing I have.

F: Do you think television is suffering at the moment considering how many shows fail in the first few weeks of broadcast?

SM: Yes, television is struggling – I don’t think there’s any danger of it being usurped by the Internet or anything like that.

I think the big problem is that nothing’s given a chance if it’s not a hit after three episodes. You look back at a show like Seinfeld, which was not a hit when it started, but it was allowed to grow and develop into the biggest sitcom of the nineties on American television. And that’s what is missing right now – shows now live or die based on audience perception – and there’s only a handful of executives that I know of who have the vision to pick up shows based on what they like and what their opinions are, and not just what the numbers are telling them.

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