Inside a New Culver City Animation Studio, Two Grown Men Are Playing With Dolls
Creators Carlo Moss, left, and Mark Cope with series protagonist Dr. Havok
Courtesy of Extra Credit Studios
"Los Angeles makes you cynical," says Mark Cope, who is seated next to Carlo Moss in the recording booth of their Culver City–based Extra Credit animation studio.
Over the past five years, the SoCal natives sublimated their jaded worldview into the viral stop-motion web series The Most Popular Girls in School, and its baby brother, Dr. Havoc's Diary, which premiered Aug. 18 on the subscription-based network Fullscreen. "We come from a place where there’s nothing we like more than making fun of things — people’s choices, or the ridiculous things they get into — and pointing out the ridiculousness of it," says Cope. "That’s what these shows are. Let's take something everyone takes for granted and treat it very real."
This verisimilitude is evidenced in Dr. Havoc, a pastiche of superhero and spy genres in which the titular protagonist is a supervillain in the throes of a midlife crisis.
"Kinda Curb Your Enthusiasm meets Archer," explains Moss, a Venice native in his early 30s, who vaguely resembles a young Jimmy Fallon.
"The show is about looking at things practically," adds Cope, a product of the Inland Empire who sports a ginger beard. "How would this work practically if you had this job? How would you have a family? [He's] a supervillain stuck in a world we are used to, with superheroes and secret agents and all those tropes, but he looks at everything so practically that he goes, ‘Why is everything like this?’ Through him we can poke fun at the entire genre. Let's take the scenario of fighting on top of a train and treat it very real. How difficult would it be to fight on top of a moving train? Almost impossible."
Cope and Moss on set of The Most Popular Girls in School
Courtesy of Extra Credit Studios
Cope and Moss honed this skeptical perspective while working on MPGIS, which Variety described as "Mean Girls meets South Park." The show features customized Barbie dolls portraying the eponymous foul-mouthed alpha females vying for top tier on their social food chain.
"Let's take these pretty little girl dolls and show what real high school is like, how crazy and vulgar and aggressive it can be," Cope says.
Cope and Moss are both products of L.A.'s sketch community. While Moss flourished as a writer, Cope carved himself a niche with his valuable production skills. "Mark was the one who knew how to edit and shoot things," Moss says. "So he was gold in the sketch community."
The concept for MPGIS originated while Moss was working with the local sketch troupe Associates of Awesome. During a rehearsal, where the cast would improvise scenes in order to generate material for their shows, Moss went out on stage cold.
"I stepped out with nothing for a scene," he recalls. "Somebody at some point had told me, 'It's kinda funny when you do that dumb girl voice.' I was like, 'I have nothing, so I’ll step out with this.' We stumbled on this scene with three bitchy girls in a bathroom arguing over who was more popular. I wrote it down as a sketch and put it up live. Mark was in the audience of the show, and came up to me afterward and said, 'What would you think about doing this with dolls?'”
One of the myriad dolls employed in the productions of Extra Credit Studios
"'I’d been wanting to make an animated short." Cope continues. "I knew I wanted to do stop-motion, because I knew I couldn’t make my own stuff. I was thinking something with toys, like a Lego idea or an army idea with GI Joes. Then I saw Carlo’s sketch. You never heard female characters talk that way. It was the funniest thing of the night. And I was like, that would be so goddamn funny as Barbie dolls. Because they were playing these pristine, nice-looking girls being so awful."
The process of translating the concept to something that worked on the small screen was long and arduous. Dialogue was recorded in a friend's podcast studio; then Cope taught himself to animate the first episode over the course of three months on various kitchen tables across Los Angeles. Cope and Moss' dedication was rewarded when the premiere episode was picked up by both College Humor and I-Am-Bored.com, garnering 30,000 views in its first day. The tipping point came during the hiatus between the first and second season, when MPGIS hit it big on Tumblr.
"This kid on Tumblr, who wasn’t a Tumblr celebrity or anybody, just found it and posted the first episode," Moss says. "It got reblogged like 30,000 times. From there we started adding like 10,000 subscribers every day for the next couple of months."
This success led to a development deal with tween-centric network Freeform. It also gave the duo the capital to establish Extra Credit Studios, their animation studio nestled in the heart of Culver City's burgeoning arts district, in the space that was formerly home to Heart 'N' Soul gallery. While what the studio produces may not be considered art in the traditional sense, these animators find they mesh well with the neighborhood.
One of the sets for Dr. Havoc's Diary at Extra Credit Studios
"What’s nice about what we are doing is we are making stuff," Cope says. "I wouldn’t go as far as saying it's art, but there are a lot of artists working hard in here. It got to the point where we had to black out the windows because people kept coming in thinking we were a gallery still."
"'Oh, what is this? So inventive!’" Moss says, mimicking one of the many confused potential patrons who would accidentally crash their filming.
The mix-up is understandable. The space easily could double as an avant-garde art installation. Entering through the curtained glass doors, you're greeted by the overt smell of peanuts. An animator is molding protein bars into a mountain for a commercial project. Diagonal from him are a series of large dioramas under lighting rigs populated with action figures, which serve as the sets for Dr. Havoc. The entire studio sits on a concrete floor, which is crucial to filming.
"With a hardwood floor, the slightest vibration will adjust the camera just a little, and it will make the animation shaky," Cope explains.
During production, the studio is crammed with as many as 16 animators a day. The bulk of Cope and Moss' responsibility is to have everything prepped and coordinated so these artists are working at peak capacity.
"The whole production is based around the animators, making sure they constantly have something to do," Cope says. "They are the most expensive part and the part that takes up the most time.”
To accomplish this, the duo arrives to work in staggered shifts, dividing management duties between them. Their partnership is complementary. Moss takes the helm with the dialogue recording while Cope focuses on the visual aspects. Beyond this innate symbiosis, their relationship exemplifies their core SoCal cynicism.
"Me and Carlo have a unique partnership," Cope says. "In a good way. We are not traditional friends. If we did not have this company, or these shows, we would not hang out with each other. We would most likely hate each other. We kinda do hate each other."
"Exactly!" Moss exclaims with a laugh.
Moss and Cope in their writers room
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.