With his latest animated series gen: Lock, Gray G. Haddock looked to build on the previous successes of Rooster Teeth, the Austin-based studio where he serves as Head of Animation, while presenting an experience that pushed boundaries, in a number of ways.
A viral hit in 2012 that was then expanded with four subsequent volumes, Rooster Teeth’s RWBY set a precedent that all of the studio’s later series would strive to live up to. “Creatively, there was an incredible amount of pressure placed on the production for this show to succeed right out of the gate,” Haddock says. “I wanted to apply the lessons learned from stumbling backwards into the success that was RWBY, trying to recreate some of that alchemy, but also adding enough fresh ingredients and approaches to things that it wasn’t simply a RWBY clone.”
An action-heavy science fiction series grounded in the tradition of mecha anime, gen: Lock is set in the year 2068, observing a free society that is being forcibly absorbed into a vast autocracy. In this pivotal moment, it’s up to one military force—and one pilot, in particular—to get things back on the right track.
Looking to give Rooster Teeth “its best shot at an instant, new, successful franchise,” Haddock worked with the team at Rooster Teeth to pull together an artistically ambitious series, the studio’s first to feature SAG-ACTRA talent. With Michael B. Jordan behind the project as its star and executive producer, and talents like Maisie Williams and David Tennant in the mix, gen: Lock would undoubtedly benefit from a new level of visibility, taking Rooster Teeth to the next level.
That’s not to say, though, that recognition came without a fight. Engaging in a “grassroots campaign” to get word out mouth out about the show, Haddock employed every strategy in his playbook to build an audience for it, embracing the power of social media while dropping the pilot episode online a month before the series’ premiere—all of which resulted in “visceral, immediate positive feedback.”
For both Haddock and Jordan, making gen: Lock was deeply gratifying, placing each on the road to further endeavors. Bringing the show to life was also “an incredible learning experience,” Haddock says—and with Rooster Teeth’s recent acquisition by WarnerMedia, the series creator is embracing the possibilities at hand in “this amazingly fascinating time.”
“There’s so much that I’ve learned on a personal level that I want to apply,” he explains. “I’ve got a huge appetite for seeing how I can personally add to the creative, and work with the crew in better and more creative and efficient ways.”
Below, Haddock and Jordan discuss their personal attachments to the medium of anime, gen: Lock’s signature aesthetic and more.
Gray, how did gen: Lock come together? What made this series exciting, both for you and Rooster Teeth?
Gray G. Haddock: From a strategic standpoint, Rooster Teeth was looking to show the world that it wasn’t a one-hit wonder, and we had an opportunity to let the animation department really spread its wings, and show off everything it’s learned as a result of doing RWBY over the years. [Over] a nine-month period, the company was taking internal pitches, trying to figure out what would be the best show to put into the production pipeline, and towards the end of that process, after the company had near misses with some other IP, I decided to go ahead and pitch a show, which was basically just something I wanted to watch myself.
I grew up on old anime, including mecha and cyberpunk shows, and there was kind of a dearth of those at the time, particularly here in the West. I just wanted to make something that I would look forward to waking up on a Saturday morning and watching with everybody.
Michael, what inspired you to come on board the series, both as an actor and an executive producer?
Michael B. Jordan: For me, being able to come on something that spoke to my anime roots was something that I just really wanted to do. I’m an ’80s baby—born in ’87, growing up on DuckTales, and Thundercats, and Dragon Ball Z, all these cartoons and Disney animated movies. I used to collect and cut the cases, because they had the cool covers and all that crazy stuff. So, that was my childhood; that played a huge part in my imagination. I guess I gravitate towards those things, and once I got older, having the means to create content, that opportunity to actually tell those types of stories and make anime, I was like, “Wow, okay. Let’s try that.”
How did this series reflect your ambitions, in terms of the kinds of projects you’re pursuing through your company, Outlier Society Productions?
Jordan: For me, honestly, you just want to tell stories through different lenses, creating worlds and stories that are a reflection of the world we live in. I’m 32 years old; I’m at a time of my life where I can remember being a teenager like it was yesterday—the process of growing, the growing pains of life. So, I love coming-of-age stories, telling stories that are close to that experience, as well as imagination and fantasy elements—the wish-fulfillment element of things—really trying to get into those spaces. Like my career, I want Outlier Society to be diverse; I want it to be eclectic, and I want all different types of stories to be told.
What did your first conversations look like, in terms of the direction you would take with this series?
Jordan: Luckily for me, Gray and everybody over at gen: Lock that worked tirelessly on this show had a lot of it already figured out. Coming on a little late in the process, I just tried to add certain flairs and things that I felt would add value, and make the character a little bit more dynamic. We collaborated on a lot of character stuff. But a lot of the show, honestly, I can’t take credit for. A lot of it was on the page already.
Haddock: I wanted to blend intimate, character-driven storytelling with some big-idea, science-fiction action, just because I’m a sucker for that sort of thing. It also serves as a personal outlet for me to put some themes out in the world that I thought could potentially be useful right now, with everything that’s going in society.
What inspired gen: Lock’s aesthetic?
Haddock: Despite my tendency to [make] everything dark and more nihilistic, I wanted to make sure this was not a truly bleak dystopian future, that there was still some color and life in it. A lot of the technology in the show was me playing around with futurism-style headlines that were going by in the press, wanting to have a 15-minutes-into-the-future sort of feel to the world, but at the same time, pay homage to a variety of science fiction shows and Japanese anime.
What was involved in the initial stages of putting the show together? I understand that you lent your voice to all of the show’s characters in the early stages of animating, before your voice cast came in.
Haddock: Oh, yeah. The development process for the show was probably more than a year and a half, and that process was all over the place, in terms of developing a show bible, and figuring out the first season’s story, gathering a whole bunch of references for the art team and so forth.
As we were going into the art phase, some interesting things happened. In order for me to shorthand to my art directors certain qualities of the characters, I began to reference some real-world actors, in order to help them accelerate to what I had in mind for the look and feel of the characters and the world. For example, Michael was somebody we had added to our visual guide for our lead hero, Chase, very early on in the process. Then a couple months later, when the production came to me, letting me know it was time to start thinking about casting, no one said we couldn’t reach out to some of these actors, just to see what happened. So, we relied on our naiveté and wholeheartedness, and just went ahead and humbly got the materials out there.
We were very fortunate that so many incredibly talented individuals actually paid attention to the pitch packages, some of which we actually customized to the particular talent. We would take the current state of our 3D assets and animate them to audio from that talent’s other projects, just to let them know the potential, hearing their performance coming out of our visuals.
Then, we started to get such fantastic traction with the casting process that the production as a whole found itself in a position to be the most flexible we’ve ever been on any show we’ve made. We were doing several steps out of order, compared to the traditional flow, and that included needing to start certain aspects of the animation without the final vocal performances in place. So, I decided to go in and record every single performance for the first several episodes to indicate back to production the intended timing and energy levels that I was hoping to direct these performances into at a later date. The production rolled with it, and I can’t say enough good things about the flexibility of the crew.
We would go ahead and block the scenes and do the broader physical parts of the performance, and save the exact facial expressions and mouth flaps for the dialogue until the final dialogue was in. Then, the animation team had to schedule a second pass, where they would go through and fine-tune all the characters’ performances to really make use of the magic that the cast brought to those parts.
gen: Lock is visually ambitious, featuring a lot of mecha action. What was key in bringing your grand vision for the show to fruition?
Haddock: We began by standing on the shoulders of what we learned working on RWBY, which is also a high-action show. At least 25% of any given season of RWBY‘s runtime tends to be high action, so there are certain aspects of that workflow that we’ve already been coming up with our own solutions to over the years—and the current state of 3D animation software, as well as our incredible tech team’s approach to adding some cool tools on top of that, allows you to do a crazy amount of experimentation on a good budget.
There’s been this phenomenon in the industry, spearheaded largely in Japan—I think the West has been catching up just in the last couple of years—of using 3D CG pipelines to provide a product that can be very much 2D animation-inspired. You can pick and choose what aspects of traditional animated content you want to apply to your particular production. I think a lot of studios are experimenting with that right now, to varying degrees of success, and I’ve been thrilled that Rooster Teeth has had such an early voice in this global conversation. It was also fantastic timing to have Into the Spider-Verse come out just the month or so before gen: Lock premiered, having such similarities in our pipeline, and I think we coincidentally stumbled into answering some of these questions in a very similar fashion, in terms of a whole bunch of things under the hood, regarding frame rate and where to place your animation keys, and how to deal with motion blur.
With gen: Lock, I had a goal of hanging on to certain aspects of traditional animation approaches and using some light inspiration from anime specifically, but I wanted to take the whole production in a much more live-action, cinematic direction. We picked a 2.39 aspect ratio, and we reserved more time and budget for visual post and color than we have on some of our other shows, [in hopes] of providing an experience that absolutely mashed the buttons for fans of anime and general animation, but could potentially bring in a wider audience that might just be craving a summer blockbuster experience. I think that the crew did an amazing job of getting us as close as possible to that mark.
Michael, while you’ve often lent your voice to video games, gen: Lock is the first animated series you’ve taken on. Do you intend to pursue further projects in this space?
Jordan: I definitely have some animation ideas and projects that are brewing at the moment, so this won’t be the last anime project that Outlier will be taking on in the near future.
What’s the status with your debut feature, The Stars Beneath Our Feet? Is that still a project you’re going to pursue?
Jordan: Honestly, it’s one of those things where it’s a project that I’m extremely passionate about, and I’m just trying to find the right time to take the time away to dedicate towards directing. It’s not something I want to phone in. Obviously, growing up on set, you’ve seen it done the right way, and you want to make sure that the first time you step into that lane, you’re doing it the right way. So, I just want to make sure it’s right. It’s there; it’s just a little further out than I thought it was going to be.
You’ve completed production on Destin Daniel Cretton’s Just Mercy, and will star in Denzel Washington’s next feature, Journal for Jordan. Could you talk a bit about your recent experiences on set, and what has excited you about your upcoming projects?
Jordan: I had an amazing time with Destin and Brie [Larson] and Jamie [Foxx] working on that project, telling the story of Bryan Stevenson. I think it’s going to do some good in this world, and make an impact on people, so I’m really excited about that project. And yeah, I’ve got a few things that I’m brewing on and kicking up. Denzel is obviously one of my idols, so to be able to work with him on a project that once was written for him, it’s really a special moment.