Brad Neely doesn't watch a lot of TV. That statement wouldn't be surprising if I were talking about a professor, or a research scientist, or even someone who works third shift. But Brad Neely's job is TV. He is the creator of China, IL, a comedy cartoon series on Adult Swim. Most folks I've talked to who have a TV show immerse themselves in a variety of programs; steep themselves, if you will. But Brad has only a handful of TV shows he watches. During an interview, he says, "I only really watch The Simpsons, Seinfeld, and South Park, and SNL; only the shows that start with S."
And that title. How is it pronounced? As if the country of China is sick? "No, no. 'China, Illinois' is the way to say it, but you're not alone in that confusion. It was a bad choice on my part. Not only [is the show named] in a confusing manner, but also after the largest nation in the world. Just to make it nearly un-Google-able." When I say that at least the title is a conversation starter, Brad replies, "It can be. It's ended plenty, that's for sure."
China, IL will finish its second season on Adult Swim Sunday, November 24, at 11:30 p.m. The cartoon series is based on Neely's previous popular web series The Professor Brothers and I Am Baby Cakes. These two series were combined in character and concept to create China, IL. In China, IL, Frank and Steve Smith are two professors at the state university. However, its the professors who are wild and crazy, not the students. With an animated series set on a university campus, Brad Neely must have used his own college experience as an inspiration, right? "I didn't finish college," explains Brad. "I really just took art classes and then decided to try my hand at real life as soon as possible. All of my stuff that I'm saying about college is pretty speculative."
For someone who has little college experience and also doesn't watch a lot of TV, Brad Neely has crafted a funny, smart cartoon that is aimed squarely at adults. China, IL explores sibling rivalry, unrequited love, loss and regret. These all very deep emotions, especially for a cartoon that airs on Adult Swim, a late-night block of programming whose biggest demographic is young men. "We're telling coherent stories, and really not doing just the crazy stuff, but really digging in the character.
"I write all of the script. We do have a room of maybe six or seven writers initially to assist in figuring out those beats. But even early on in the development of the show, even when it was an eleven minute show, I wanted to have at least three stories going," Brad says. "I like having as much going on as possible."
Neely isn't only the creator, executive producer and writer. He also voices Frank, Steve and Baby Cakes. Plus, he has written approximately fifty original songs for China, IL. And he's the father of a two-year old. How does he find the time? "I got a lot of good people around me. We figure out a schedule and we plan a lot in advance. We don't waste each other's time. I really feel like that's the key to it. We have a pretty structured work day."
An episode takes approximately a year to complete, from writing to final cut. He continues to break down his strategy. "At any given moment we have probably six or seven at various stages, whether [episodes are] being recorded or edited tighter or in different stages in the animation process. About six months ago we had probably almost all the episodes in some state of production."
As for acting, Brad creates three distinct voices for the characters he plays. Recording can wear on an actor's voice. "It can be [painful] for sure," he says. "Especially doing ten episodes in a row and doing as much as you can in a day." The recording schedule is arranged to maximize Brad Neely's time, as well as to preserve his vocal chords. "We do the voices first thing in the morning. I roll in as an actor knowing who I'm going to be and we kind of plan the day around that. We'll do like an entire episode of Baby Cakes in a day. Then the next day all Frank's lines for that episode and the next day all Steve's lines for that episode."
Some cartoon casts, like Bob's Burgers, record their lines as a group, with the whole cast in one booth. China, IL records only one actor at a time. "I think that [recording as a group] causes trouble down the road in editing. We have to shuffle a lot of stuff around to fit for time. We bring a single person in and have them do all their lines for that episode or multiple episodes," he explains. "Each line is isolated, so we can move it around when we're editing."
China, IL's animation is partly driven by the actors, which is also a different process from some traditionally written and animated shows. Instead of having the actors record their lines after most of the cartoon is drawn and animated, with only minor changes for mouth movement, Brad says, "We don’t do any drawings until all of the actors have done their lines and we've cut it all together and it's exactly the [running] time. Then we draw after that." He goes on to say the benefit in having the actors record first is that "we are an actor friendly show. I feel like the way that we animate and the way I encourage everybody to draw is leaning heavily on what the actor has chosen to do, and we find the emotions that are represented in that actor's takes."
The cast of China, IL includes a pro wrestler, a comedian and a veteran actor. Brad explains, "We did not want to pull from the usual voice-actor stables. We wanted to really go for some cinematic voices and we really shot for the moon and just got lucky with some folks. We have Hulk Hogan and Greta Gerwig (Arthur), Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development). We had Jason Alexander (Seinfeld) on an episode. We've really been lucky with Tambor or people who want anything to do with us."