In the 1960s, he was famous for his intergalatic crime fighting. But today, Space Ghost has a new career -- as a talk show host. Considering that he's actually a cartoon, not a real person, it's safe to say that his talk show is one of the most unique programs on television.
Space Ghost Coast to Coast has been part of the Cartoon Network since 1994, with more than 24 episodes under its belt and several more in various stages of production. The show features real guest stars, who communicate with Space Ghost via satellite and appear on the set in a television monitor. Each episode also includes some sort of subplot, which usually disrupts the program in one way or another. Joining Space Ghost for the fun are Zorak, the bandleader, and Moltar, the director. Both are former prisoners of Space Ghost that he recruited from prison to help him with his show.
In reality, Space Ghost Coast to Coast is brought to life by a small group of talented individuals in the Turner Techwood Facility in Atlanta. It usually takes about two months to produce a single 15-minute episode, due to extensive scripting, editing, and animation.
"It's a kind of weird thing," explains Dave Willis, Associate Producer. "It kind of debunks a lot of celebrity, and it's kind of absurd." Still, the show features plenty of celebrities. Previous episodes have featured Jim Carrey, "Weird Al" Yankovic, cast members of Gilligan's Island, and The Simpsons creator Matt Groening.
The show began as an attempt by Michael Lazzo, then Vice President of Programming for Cartoon Network, to bring back some of the old cartoon stars in new programs. The pilot episode used clips from old cartoons and clips from a CNN interview featuring Denzel Washington. Producer Andy Merrill pieced together an interchange between Washington and Space Ghost which was "very primitive." Still, it was agreed that the idea had potential, and production began.
"I just like the concept of an animated superhero talking to real people," says Keith Crofford, a Producer who has been with the show since the beginning. Crofford makes sure that Space Ghost has no concept of celebrity and interviews the guests on an incredibly superficial level. Talent coordinator Isabel Gonzalez talks with the publicists for a variety of celebrities on the wish list. Guests are then interviewed in Atlanta or Los Angeles or New York CNN facilities. Not everyone who is asked to appear on the show agrees. Crofford says the holdouts are usually "people who just don't quite get the joke."
During the interview, Willis will sit slightly off-screen and ask the celebrities to address him as Space Ghost. Then come the "completely and utterly ridiculous questions," including inquiries regarding super powers, secret identities, and challenges for staring contests. When the show was first being produced, guests were pretty confused by the bizarre questions. Since people are becoming more familiar with the program, however, Willis says they are getting "a lot less of that."
The script is written after the interview has been taped, which means producers are free to edit the content for humor. "We generally have to rework it," says Willis. The interview is reviewed by either an in-house writer or one of several freelancers from across the country. "We work a script until we're happy with it," Willis explains. "Bizarre is always cool. We want to be funny, and we don't want to spoof other people. We want to be this individual, original show."
Next comes the rough cut, which has no effects. Space Ghost Coast to Coast is initially cut on an Avid Media Composer and Flame. Rough editing is done in-house or by Bill Wilner at Runway Editing in Santa Monica, CA. Crofford says the Avid is "the tool that allows us to do the show."
The dialogue (or radio play) is edited first. George Lowe is the voice of Space Ghost, though the superhero was originally voiced by Gary Owens. Clay Croker, Animation Director for the show, provides the voices of Zorak and Moltar.
Editing the video is the major challenge. Regular viewers of the program know that there are only a few different shots of Space Ghost used in all of the programs and movement is minimal. That's because each show uses the same reel of shots, and there is less than 90 minutes of footage available. Most of the shots of Space Ghost, Zorak, and Moltar used on Space Ghost Coast to Coast are original shots from the 1960's cartoon series by original animator Alex Toth. According to Crofford, these shots are rotoscoped, a process that digitally removes the characters from the old backgrounds. Then, a map is created of the character, which is composited into the backgrounds for the new series.
The producers actually created a real miniature set for Space Ghost Coast to Coast. The futuristic talk show set is shot from a variety of angles, and the animation element is composited onto the set using the Flame.
There is a very limited amount of new animation generated for every show, such as a shot of Space Ghost tapping his cue cards on his desk (a movement not required back when he was saving the universe). New cell animation is produced by Croker and shot using a Michell animation camera. New animation is also saved and used for later programs.
Perhaps most difficult is what producers call the lip flap; that is, the moving of Space Ghost's mouth to match what he is saying. Crofford describes it as a "system of freezes, reverses, and pauses." Looping certain images together creates the illusion that Space Ghost is phonetically saying the right thing.
The edit list generated by the Avid for the lip flap is used during the final cut at the Atlanta-based Crawford Communications, Inc., Post Production Division. Tom Roche is the online editor for Space Ghost Coast to Coast, and says that each episode contains over 1,000 edits and takes over three days to edit, even working with the rough cut.
Roche enjoys working on the show. "It's a blank canvas," he explains. "There are few rules. It confines you and liberates you at the same time. It's limiting because it's the same element over and over again, but liberating because it's completely the writer's mind at work."
Most of Roche's work is unsupervised. "I think I bring my own kind of vision as far as random humor and audio humor and the kind of humor they're going for," he says. Usually, only a small portion of the show will have to be revised after Roche has completed his cut.
In Space Ghost's universe, guests are interviewed via satellite, and there are always some audio and visual problems with the feed, problems that Roche has to create. Every show features a large number of feedback images, intentional picture breakups, and intentional static. Roche likes to trigger most of the effects by hand. "I feel I can put a little more soul into it," he explains.
Roche takes his fake technical problems very seriously. "It's a curious challenge," he says. "I try to be as accurate as possible." To that end, he has accumulated a library of actual satellite test patterns, interference signals, and audio and video noise that can be inserted into the program for authenticity. "When I create a technical problem, it looks real," he says.
Crawford Communications is a multifaceted facility, offering post production, multimedia, audio services, telecine, production, mobile, and satellite services. Although they have complete digital edit suites, Roche prefers to use one of their few remaining analog edit suites for Space Ghost Coast to Coast.
"It allows some very old school analog effects that are ideal for this show," he explains. He uses an Ampex Century 330 switcher with an Ampex ACE touchscreen edit controller. He says, "It runs circles around contemporary editing devices," and adds that the controller talks to the switcher very well.
But where analog is preferred for the "look" of the show, audio is state-of-the-art. Sound Designer Roy Clements, from Clements Music near Atlanta in Lawrenceville, creates and sweetens the audio. Like Roche, he enjoys the challenge of Space Ghost Coast to Coast.
"I like working on cartoons because there is no natural sound," says Clements. "You have to create an ambiance for every situation. I have a lot of fun putting these characters into believable scenes. The most challenging is making Moltar's mistakes...seem like real problems without being technically wrong."
Most audio sources for the show are from Beta SP. "I take the Avid EDL and auto conform the audio with Studer Editech's Smartlog software for Dyaxis II," says Clements. "Smartlog is by far the best and most logical audio auto conform software I've seen."
Clements conforms, edits the dialogue, and sweetens the audio from his home using the Dyaxis II audio workstation, Emulator E-4, and the Yamaha SPX50D. "The conform and dialogue edit take about 12 hours. Creating sound effects and sweetening takes about another 12," he says. Clements keeps all the music and sound effects on a separate hard drive, and recently had to upgrade to a 4 gig hard drive to accommodate all the data.
Stereo tracks for dialogue, effects, and music are mixed and recorded on the Tascan DA-88 eight-track digital audio recorder. "This is a wonderful stereo split archive of the shows," says Clements. "It also helps with changes. I can load any portion of the stem mix(es) into any workstation and replace a line or a sound effect without affecting the mix on the other stems and without having to use the studio." Once corrections have been made and the show has been approved, audio and video are mastered to D-2.
Space Ghost Coast to Coast airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m., Fridays at 11 p.m., and Saturdays at midnight. (transcriber's note: as of December 5, 1997, the show airs at 11:30 p.m. Fridays, 3:00 a.m. Sundays, and 12:30 a.m. Mondays, Eastern Time.) For more information on Space Ghost Coast to Coast, including downloadable images, movies, and sounds from the show, visit the official website at www.ghostplanet.com.
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