Six productivity lessons from South Park

The subversive American cartoon show South Park debuted in 1997 - it's nearly 20. As opposed to its stars who are perennially nine-year olds.

" Data is useful, but you can just talk to your audience too. Don't let the data be a barrier."
Guy Thompson, Communications advisor, content at ANZ

Everything in an animated show must be produced from scratch, so the process has to be streamlined and easy for a team to collaborate.

The original pilot episode took 70 days but South Park Studios in Marina Del Rey have reduced the production time for a single episode down to just six days.

That pilot was created using 5000 construction paper cut-outs and stop-motion photography. But as soon as the team landed a deal to produce the show they leveraged computer animation to simplify and optimise the process.

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The producers did not want to lose the charming visual appeal of the construction paper so they used photographed and scanned elements into computer animation software to build each scene.

Every year the show has become more visually complex and ambitious.

Now South Park may not be to everybody's taste, either stylistically or content wise, but it is a phenomenal success on its own terms. Part of that success has come from the production's ability to innovate and simplify.

The following tips have allowed the production team to stay on track - and can be applied to any complex project.


By analysing the sound files from voice actors, animation software can automate the laborious lip-sync process. Animators still need to review and swap out the mouth shapes to improve the performance but this automated, predictive process is a huge leap from doing it manually.


Every single visual element used in South Park is categorised and searchable so animators can quickly build a scene, based on a few key words. If an asset has been created once with the potential for re-use it's value is magnified by being searchable.


Animators need to manipulate a character quickly and easily without having to rebuild anything. Eric Cartman always looks the same, no matter which animator is controlling him.

This approach to making a solid template with built in flexibility is handy for an individual user but it can provide serious time savings when the tool is shared and with other users across a team.


The writing team knocks together the story in the first day and a half of production. With so many previous episodes and successful seasons, they could call on a cache of detailed analytics to help them build new stories but trying to make each other laugh is still the best starting point for new South Park jokes.

Data is useful but you can just talk to your audience too. Don't let the data be a barrier.


With a short production schedule, there is no time to fully craft and curate an idea. Just like the agile methodology for software development, the writing team takes the best of what they have and moves to the next stage.

The idea can always be improved and tweaked but it's just eating up time if it's still sitting on the drawing board. Meetings, project trackers and slide decks are not content.


As soon as a script has the green light, the production and animation teams fly into action. With such a tight deadline, the studio team has to focus on their specific roles to deliver maximum performance. This approach ensures tasks do not bounce around between team members to be actioned.

By following some of those tips, you can be sure to knock some of your complex and frustrating procedures into shape and make it simpler and easier to work together.

Co-creator Trey Parker was passionate about film making and musical theatre and opted for using cut-out construction paper and stop-motion photography to create animated films with fellow co-creator Matt Stone when the pair met at university.

The humour and story was always more important to them than visual polish. The first episode was completed for $300,000 as a pilot, without a guarantee of a full TV series. That legendary episode was one of the first viral video hits on the internet in 1997.

An MPEG1 video file was recorded off TV by a fan and distributed around the world on file sharing servers and CD-ROMs. South Park gained immediate cult status and redefined animation at a time when the Simpsons still reigned supreme. Vice magazine has a great article covering this history.

Part of the initial joke was it was 'supposed' to look bad, but once the visual style was established, there was no turning back.

There has been 19 seasons of the show since, resulting in 267 episodes. Each is 22 minutes long, so that's a massive 98 hours of animation, plus two feature films, TV specials and gaming content.

It pays to keep things simple.

Guy Thompson is a communications advisor, content at ANZ. This story originally appeared as a post on LinkedIn.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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