This Sunday, at 11:30 p.m., China, IL returns for its second season on Adult Swim. The animated series centers around UCI, touted as “The Worst School in America,” in the opening credits. The teachers are incompetent. The students are misguided. The dean, voiced by Hulk Hogan, is brash.
It's satire that, on occasion, is eerily relatable to contemporary university life. There's an episode in the new season — titled “Is College Worth It?” — in which the dean drops teacher salaries to minimum wage and raises tuition to half a million bucks. However, UCI isn't based on any particular school. “I didn't really go to college,” says creator Brad Neely. “A lot of it is imaginative vindictiveness on my part.”
“It's the way most people imagine high school,” says executive producer Daniel Weidenfeld. “It's dumbing down the idea of academia.”
China, IL has its roots in Neely's two prior web series, Baby Cakes and The Professor Brothers. Both feature characters who are now part of China, IL's regular gang of teachers and students. For the second season, the show has grown considerably. Episodes have doubled in length, clocking in at the standard sitcom time of 22 minutes. “We have a lot more room to tell a comfortable story with jokes that aren't just servicing the plot,” says Neely.
It's an effort that has been in the works for a long time. The stories that will come to animated life on TV screens over the next few weeks were written at least a year ago. The first writer's room meeting — a gathering of about six minds — came in January of 2012. By August of that year, Neely had finished work on the scripts.
“It felt like we were making a TV show,” says Weidenfeld. “The first [season] felt like we were stuck in an attic somewhere making paper airplanes to throw notes out of a window.”
Last month, I visited the team behind China, IL at Titmouse Animation Studio as part of a press event. In early August, the show had hit its home stretch. Eight episodes down, two to go with six weeks to spare until the season premiere. The staff dwindled from 65 people at the peak of production, at Titmouse's L.A. and New York offices, to 15. Inside bungalows on the Hollywood campus, only a small handful of people were at work, mostly clean-up artists. There weren't many people inside the studio when I visited, but there were signs that, not too long ago, it was pretty busy. There were movie posters on the walls, odds and ends on desks and couches.
In order to double the length of the episodes, Neely and Weidenfeld had to expand the team greatly. They brought in more storyboard artists, although Neely still draws a lot of those. This is one of the crucial elements of making this show. “We don't do any storyboards until there's a full radio play signed off on,” says Weidenfeld. “That gives us the luxury of doing all of the storyboards to voice and takes out a lot of the guesswork as it goes. We have a more cinematic show.”
The storyboards also help keep the episodes inside the small window of air-time they have been allotted. “I hate it when we have to cut something that's huge, so we might as well plan better to save people,” says Neely.
Now that the biggest part of the job is done for the team behind China, IL, there's a different sort of tension in the studio.
“The pressure is only on ourselves,” says Weidenfeld. “We love it so much and are so proud of everything. Right now, it's all up in the air. There's nothing we can do except hope that people watch.”
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