Alumni Profile Series: Eric Stough— Co-Producer & Animator of South Park

Eric Stough, animator and producer, completed his undergraduate career at the University of Colorado Boulder and earned a BFA in Film in 1995. While attending university, Stough took on the role of a resident advisor at Williams Village. He is best known for his work with serving as animation director and now producer of the satirical television show, South Park. Eric Stough took on the role of animator since the pilot of the adult-animated sitcom. While attending the film school here at CU, he was presented this opportunity by co-creators and fellow classmates, Matt Stone and Trey Parker. South Park has since grown immensely from its origin at CU and through its 24 years of production, has received numerous accolades. I had the honor of interviewing Stough and was able to discuss the inner workings of South Park and how his success as an animator came to be. The transcript of the interview is provided below and has been edited for user readability.

Source//South Park Archives

HCCU: Can you tell me a little bit about your educational background?

Eric Stough: Yeah, let's see. I grew up in Evergreen, Colorado, which is right there in the foothills. So I went to Evergreen High School, and I always loved animation and I knew I wanted to stay close to home and Colorado, so I picked Boulder to go to school. I actually started off wanting to be a math major or maybe even something that has to do with astronomy. But so I started taking a lot of math classes and a lot of the time you had to teach yourself really hard math and it was so hard and just not fun. And it kind of made me not want to do math anymore, but I always had this underlying thing which was wanting to do animation and even up until college, I wanted to be an actor. So I was in all my high school plays, which is where I got to know Trey Parker. We were actually in a few plays together but he was two years ahead of me. But he gave me the advice on joining the film school. I knew I was going to quit math, but I really just focused on art but knew I wanted to become an animator; so he gave me the advice and was kind of like ‘forget learning how to draw, just start making animated films anyway that you can’. And so I followed his advice and entered the film school.

 

HCCU: You're most notably known for your involvement with South Park, what other projects have you been involved in and what would you say that you're most proud of?

ES: It’s mostly all South Park. I helped Matt and Trey do a little bit with the Book of Mormon and do some Photoshop work for the play. I also did a little bit of computer animation for Team America and acted in one of their films just for a small part in a film called Orgazmo. But mostly it's been producing and animation directing South Park. So I'm really going to have to say South Park because I mean it's gotten me five Emmys and a Peabody award.  It’s just such a close family, and I mean we're all very proud of the 23 years that would have been in production.

 

HCCU: You're often associated with Matt Stone and Trey Parker, both of whom you’ve known since college and in the case of Trey Parker, even longer. So what has it been like to work with them and grow with them as you've solidified yourself in the industry?

ES: It’s been amazing. We’ve really set out to make our own rules and have kind of broken the rules along the way. No one in Hollywood thought that we would be able to do an animated TV show and produce it in five days, from writing it to getting it animated. So we kind of set out and did our own thing with our own rules. And I mean, those guys are so talented and so smart. And it's been a surprise and it's been really great to have that. Every episode we do is fresh. And when we do a run of 10 shows, we do a bunch of contrasting different episodes, so they're all not just becoming the same thing. They’re all about the different characters and the different character arcs. Also, other animated shows they have to wait like six months before they get to see their show air. And for us, we get to see it once a week. So, I mean, it's invigorating. It's amazing. And we still work that way too, even after 23 years.  

Source//Getty Images

HCCU: So you mainly serve as the animation director. So tell me a little bit about what that's like.

ES: When we first started out, we didn't really have an assembly line. We were all kind of doing everything on our own. I started out as an animator because I had worked on the pilot and I had worked on one of the Spirit of Christmas’; so I knew Trey’s style really well and I knew what he was going after. So when we came out to here to Hollywood, we hired a few guys who knew the computer really well but when they showed us what they were making, the show just looked really fake, with basic circles and just basic colors with no textures. In the original one, we had cut them all out of construction paper using scissors, and then we had glue and stains and stuff like that, so it didn’t have that same texture and feel. And so as we were doing them, my shots just kept coming up and Trey was like ‘yeah, that's the look we want, who did that?’. I knew exactly how they wanted it to be and look based on the original and the pilot. And then I was told that I had to train six more artists, and then next thing I knew, we did a movie and we had to teach all these film crews how to do the “look”. But I have kind of gone from animation director to more of a producer, so it's been quite a ride. I'm grateful for it, and I really worked as hard as I could early on to make sure that it had longevity, and it paid off.  

 

HCCU: Could you briefly outline your animation process and how you really make the characters come to life?

ES: Yeah. So the process is a little different than the traditional animation because traditionally, animation is done at 24 frames a drawing, but we were using these construction paper characters and doing more like stop-motion. The pilot took us three months to do, but we can now do the show in like five days. Just with the longevity of the show, it had to be produced faster. So the artists got better, the people who were drawing the characters got better, the animators have gotten faster, and the computers themselves have gotten faster. But the animators are just bringing the characters to life when they listen to Matt and Trey’s voices with their reads.

Source//Colorado Daily

HCCU: You're credited for being the inspiration for the software character ‘Butters’, how exactly did that come to be?

ES: That came to be because I grew up in the mountains of Colorado, and Trey went to my high school but I was two years behind him. I had met Matt separately, and Matt had worked on one of my student films. But I think that Tracy kind of knew me as a little buddy, a little brother, and then there was this time where they just put ‘ers’ on the end of everything just to be cute. And then that's how the name Butters came about. I think it was season three, and that they actually did a show with Butters, and I saw it Butters in the script, it was a little cringy and I was a little worried of what they were going to do to the character. At first, it bothered me, you know, I didn't want to be called Butters, but everyone loves the character now. So I definitely embrace it now.

Source//University of Colorado Alumni Association

HCCU: More on the CU side, in what ways did completing your academic career at CU open any doors for you or help you establish yourself in the industry?

ES: So I was an RA (Resident Advisor) for about three years four years at Will Vill. And one of the nice things about Will Vill was that they have these conference rooms that are in between the towers and they're not always taken advantage of. But one of the things that I was able to do with my films is that I actually was able to build sets in the unused rooms and actually use them as a soundstage. For one of my stop motion films, I did it in an empty room that was not being used. I think it was in the basement or something like that, but I was able to keep my animations set up, keep them untouched so I could go and work on it at a later time. So just having access to that really what helped me out a lot. And throughout college, I had to complete a couple of films, so I did a live action film, and then two animation films, and one with puppets, similar to Kermit the Frog. I was pretty well rounded with the education that I got at the film school there. It's pretty much whatever you put into it, you get back out of it with the small film school that was there at the time.

 

HCCU: Do you have any notable mentors at CU or otherwise that come to your mind throughout your career?

ES: You know, every time I was a director’s assistant, that director would be a role model for me. So I, when I worked at Celluloid Studios in Denver, they're not around anymore, but his name was James Walberg. He would do all these commercials for things like Fruit Loops, McDonald's, Keebler, and then a couple more live-action like Tony the Tiger. And that was really cool to see, be a part of, and watch the production on all those. And then for the film teachers there at the University, Stacey Steers and Jerry Aronson; they were a big help for me. Mainly Jerry opened a lot of doors for me. He helped me get that internship with Jim Henson [known for his work with Sesame Street and The Muppets]. One of the good things about working at CU in their film school is that you really learn how to network. You really, learn how to get a finished product by working on other people's films, they depend on you and you depend on them, and that's one of the things that definitely came out of CU for me. And then that mixed with being an RA and helping students go through and transition to college, it's really helped me work well with people.

Source//University of Colorado Alumni Association

HCCU: What advice would you have for aspiring animators or producers or even those currently pursuing film related studies here at CU?

ES: You have to live, breathe film. You have to be both feet in and really work at it. You have to be writing every day, learning new techniques, but then also have some outside activities too. You don't want to just be a filmmaker; you want to be able to apply life to your films through experiences. You really have to prove yourself. And it was hard because everyone wants to be a writer and everyone wants to be a director, but you need so much more than just that. You need lighting, you need sound; there's so many different facets of film making, you need to just find your niche and see what you really like the most.

 

Special thanks to Eric Stough for his help with this article and giving me this opportunity!