Robot Chicken, Star Wars and Finding “Folk” in the Art of Fan Films

Robot Chicken is a show featured on Adult Swim, that consists of satirical vignettes of action figures of everything from current pop stars to vintage ’70s and ’80s TV show characters. The show’s aesthetic is couched in a larger historical frame of fan-driven cultural production. This form’s re-absorption into the mainstream is particularly telling, as it speaks to both an older dynamic that took place between folk and mass culture, as well as the new, more ambiguous interplay that takes place in convergence culture.

It is only appropriate that there should be (three) Robot Chicken Star Wars specials, as the action figure “film” was first made popular through the use of fans redeploying their own collectible Star Wars action figures to create new narratives, inscribed onto digital film. One of Robot Chicken’s most notable aesthetic precedents is the work of Evan Mathers, who created such short films as Les Pantless Menace (1999), Kung Fu Kenobi’s Big Adventure (1999) and Quentin Tarantino’s Star Wars (2002).

The palimpsestic nature of the action figure film aesthetic lends itself especially well to comedy, in that historical and cultural meaning is inscribed onto the “bodies” of these toys (in that they are physically molded into a fixed form, connoting a specific character or even a character at a specific moment), and, in a new context, these meanings become absurd. The narratives do not challenge Lucas’s Star Wars universe, much in the same way Robot Chicken’s do not. Both carve out a place in comedy (and art) to be recognized simultaneous as alternative, as well as reinforcing the franchise’s established and unwavering narrative and “world order”.

Unlike regular fans, though, Green and Senreich (the Robot Chicken creators) were granted access to far greater means of production, as well as access to iconic voice actors or personae whose contributions add a layer of meaning that only re-establishes the distance that exists between the show’s creators and the amateur fan film-maker. Getting George Lucas to lend his voice to the program, along with Mark Hamill (the original Luke Skywalker) and Ahmed Best (voice of Jar Jar Binks) reinforces the professionalism that is taken for granted by the seemingly juvenile, action figure-filled aesthetic.

In the appropriation of the “amateur” medium and aesthetic by a medium with a mass audience, we see an interesting parallel to an earlier phenomenon. The popularization of the folk musical (such as Meet Me In St Louis, Oklahoma!…) relied on an effacement of professionalism (where the professional performer must appear to be improvising) in order to mobilize an imaginary nostalgia for the “community” that was sacrificed with the advent of mass communication. Here, folk culture and mass culture interact in such a way that mass culture exploits a stylized image of folk culture, all the while employing the techniques of mass production to achieve its aesthetic convincingly. With the case of Robot Chicken, the “amateur” aesthetic is employed to mobilize a similar nostalgia, one of playing with action figures and thus participating in that mythology. However, the amount of labor that goes into the stop-motion process, into creating every single original action figure, every prop, set … all to create 11 minute episodes that star everything from Alien to Snarf, via Britney Spears.

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One thought on “Robot Chicken, Star Wars and Finding “Folk” in the Art of Fan Films

  1. Pingback: “Psh, amateurs…” : The Future of The Star Wars Franchise and Monetizing Fan Cred | WIIH Fellows: New Media, New Knowledge

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