I Dig Giant Robots: An Interview with George Krstic
Everybody’s got a Firefly. That show that just gelled perfectly with your sensibilities, that you would follow to any timeslot, and was cancelled without sense or ceremony.
My Firefly is Megas XLR.
I saw the original pilot in 2002 at a friend’s house. It was eight minutes long, aired as part of an event to determine what should be picked up as a full series. I barely remember what aired alongside it, but Lowbrow, the pilot that would eventually become Megas XLR, had me hooked.
The show was a mishmash of giant robot anime, gaming, science fiction, comedy, rock, with an animation style and quality that blew its contemporaries out of the water. It felt like the show was the answer to a question I’d never even realized I was asking. When Lowbrow premiered as Megas XLR in 2004, I was there like a midnight showing for a new Batman movie. And for the entirety of Megas’ time on the air, I would catch every episode, new or rerun, that crossed my path.
Two seasons of 13 episodes apiece just wasn’t enough.
It turns out that I’m not the only one that thought so: After information was brought to light that the rights to Megas XLR may no longer be in Cartoon Networks’ hands, the fans made their voices heard. Chris Prynoski (supervising director for Megas) had his animation company, Titmouse, immediately figure out if there was a way to get the rights to the series back.
Cartoon Network does own the rights, but had ‘written off’ the series (you can find out the technicalities behind that here). Titmouse is currently in talks with about purchasing or licensing the rights to the IP. While talks are ongoing, I had the opportunity to speak with George Krstic, co-creator of Megas XLR and current Titmouse employee, about Megas and its role in things to come.
This interview was conducted via Skype on 12/16/12, and transcribed (with minor edits for the sake of readability) due to problems with the original audio.
Hi! This is so cool to have you here, it really is.
Thank you for having me, this is cool for me as well. As we were chatting before, it’s always cool to connect with fans, and have someone out there who remembers our show, so this is awesome.
I’d like to know a little bit about you and your background, so where did you grow up?
I kinda grew up all over the place, mainly in a really small town in Ohio, but I had a lot of family in Europe, so we would spend a lot of time, you know, traveling around Europe. And, you know, went to college in New York, at a small art school called SVA (Editor’s Note: School of Visual Arts), though I think it’s gotten bigger since then, and I met a bunch of wacky animators and crazy film-makers, and those are the guys I’ve been working with ever since. It’s the same team of people behind Titmouse, and we did Downtown together, and then we did Megas, and most recently we were working on Motorcity. And the interesting thing that all three of those shows have in common, as I’m sure you know, is that they got canned pretty early on. In fact, Megas was our longest running show, oddly enough, we got two seasons on that. But yeah, that’s kinda me in a nutshell.
I read that Chris Prynoski, and I apologize if I’m mispronouncing that…
You got it, got it in one.
That he kind of dragooned you out of live action, in to animation.
(laughs) That’s a very interesting phrasing, you’re absolutely right. Basically, after college I went in to live action and I was working on a bunch of really crappy TV shows, but I was learning the trade as it were. And Chris called me and he said “Hey man, I actually sold a show to MTV, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, will you come and be the story editor on the show?” And I asked what a story editor does, and he was honest and said “I don’t know.” So I was like sure, that sounds great. So we kind of figured out everything on the fly, kind of like what we were talking about earlier, we got to learn the job on Downtown. But I thought it came out pretty well, we got an Emmy nomination. We only got one season, but I don’t see that as our fault, just kind of the network was going through some changes at the time. But yeah, Chris kind of sucked me back in to animation and I’ve been here ever since.
With all the references going on in Megas I’m kind of surprised that animation wasn’t your goal from the beginning. What made you start with the ‘crappy TV shows’ that were live action?
That was basically the first job that was offered to me, and as we spoke earlier, the dirty secret is that I can’t draw to save my life. So those two things added up to me going in to live action. I teamed up with Chris, and I also teamed up with Jody, who are artists and directors, so that way we could balance each other out where I would take point on story usually, and they would obviously take point on the visuals.
Very cool. You know, I’m a little unclear as to what exactly Chris Prynoski’s role on the show was, because it looks like animation works a little differently in terms of a showrunner’s role in live action. Can you clarify that for me?
Well, each show is different, each genre is different. For Megas, Chris was our supervising director, so he would set the directing tone, and we had a number of other directors who worked under him, our episodic directors. And Jody was the art director, he set up the visual look and feel of things, and Chris would work on timing and action and things like that.
That is an excellent triangle right there.
Yeah, the Triad of Evil.
So, Downtown, at this point has been cancelled: And you’re sitting there waiting to write/draw/direct something. How did you get the opportunity to make the Megas pilot, Lowbrow?
It’s a bit of a long story, but if you’ll bear with me…
We were still working on Downtown at the time, and I think one of the weekends Jody and I were hanging out, and we were watching one of those robot fighting shows, Robot Wars or something along those lines, and we were watching Macross, and we were playing videogames. And literally we said “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could create a show that had all three?” And that was the inspiration, and from there, we put together a little trailer, outputted it to video, and shoved that videotape in an executive’s hands at ComiCon that summer. And we thought we’d never hear back from her, but three months later she called us and said, “Hey, I’m interested in this thing, whatever it is.”
And that’s how the process began. We did that small pilot, called Lowbrow, and it was part of a voting program called, I think, “What a Cartoon”, and we actually got voted by the public to a series. And that is the winding story.
Cool. Does that original pre-pilot pilot still exist?
It exists and I think someone’s actually posted it to youtube.
Okay, well I’m definitely going to have to look that up. I’m gonna come back to the way the pilot developed in to a series in a little bit, but I wanted to talk about the cast for a bit.
So, in any other show, Kiva would be the hero, Gorrath would be the villain, and it’d be a tense dramatic battle across space and time for the future of humanity… and instead we have Coop and Jamie, who are a well-meaning slacker, and just a slacker. What was the idea behind that dynamic in the cast?
Well, as with everything on the show, we wanted to take the archetype, where there was an archetypical story or character, and kind of flip it on its ear. As you pointed out, in those shows – usually it’d be the shounen shows – which would be the pretty boy who would drive the robot and be all angsty. So we were like, “Hey, let’s have a big guy who’s happy and just wants to have fun: He’s gonna be the hero.”
That was kind of our ongoing theme, “Let’s take what’s expected and make fun of it.”
That certainly explains casting Peter Cullen as the villain.
Of course! You have to make Optimus Prime the villain once in awhile.
I’ll admit, I am a big huge TV junkie and I was just shocked when his character just sliced that robot in two.
(laughs) That’s right, we also had Megatron in there as well. I think – didn’t Megatron play a good guy?
Yup, yeah he did. It was a remarkable set of bait and switches. I love that episode.
I heard part of it was the cast of Cowboy Bebop that went in to picking the main cast, is that true?
Yup, absolutely. I think that was it, there wasn’t anything else. We were huge Bebop fans, and we thought Spike and Faye were amazing voices, and were like “Wouldn’t it be great to work with them?” And then obviously the secondary cast, where people that were in franchises or films that we really loved as kids. We had Michael Dorn from Next Generation, we had Bruce Campbell from the Evil Dead movies, and we had Clancy Brown from so many movies. So we were just nerding out.
I looked up David DeLuise’s past record and I was trying to find out how many voiceover roles he had, but how did you go from – and I say this with all the respect in the world because I love his voice work – but how did you go from Cowboy Bebop to David DeLuise?
We wanted to take that expectation, in most shows that hero would be all angsty, and he’d have a certain kind of voice, but Coop isn’t that guy. We wanted kind of that big, full-bodied guy who loves life, and that was David DeLuise.
Huh. And see, I always thought he had a great traditional hero voice, but it really shows what that combination of art and voice work can do. I love animation… if I dork out just a little bit over the process in this, I’m sorry.
So once the pilot was selected, what was the process that went in to making it a full series?
With any series you have to, obviously, you start with the scripts and – but once we had most of the first season down, we went to storyboards, design, layout, and then we would send a lot of the animation and the coloring overseas, we’d get that back, we’d do retakes… which, if you didn’t get what you wanted, you send it back. Then we start cutting it in, laying down color, laying in all the sound effects, etc. Obviously here in the US, we record the voices, and in Japan they record them last, so we recorded voices in there as well.
And then the train was a-rollin’, at any one point in the series you might have seven shows that you’re working on at the same time. And yeah, that’s super-simplifying the process, but that’s basically how it went.
How long did production on Megas actually go for, from Episode 1 to Episode 26?
I think we were in full production for, I think, two years, something like that. Because we did not have a hiatus, we just ran, we got greenlit for a second season while we were still finishing the first, if I’m remembering that correctly. If we did have a hiatus it wasn’t too long, but I do remember the same crew working throughout both seasons.
What was a typical day going to make some giant robots like for you, personally?
It would really vary depending on what the schedule called for. When you’re in an executive producer or creator position, you’re kind of asked to oversee a lot of aspects. So one day you might sit in a script meeting, you might give notes on an animatic, you might go to a voice record, you might go to a board pitch, you might meet with voice actors, so it really, really varies. It’s not kind of, like, set in stone, it’s very loose and very flexible.
Were your days twelve hours then? I hear that 12-16 is, for the EP jobs…
Those days were eighteen hours, definitely, if not more.
Wow… that’s incredible. When you sat down in a room to write episodes, did you write them for specific actors, because the idea that you can decide to have a villain voiced by Bruce Campbell who’s just a giant chin, and write it, is so fascinating.
I’m curious if that’s the way that worked.
I mean, what would happen is when we created that character, Magnanimous, we used Bruce Campbell as an inspiration. And obviously we wanted to use him as a voice, but sometimes those things don’t work out. Luckily we were able to get Bruce, he was very excited about the project, he was very cool. Sometimes it didn’t work out: We wanted to get General Zod from the old Superman films, but it didn’t happen. I forget what reason it was, but he was the inspiration for a character. But we tweaked things, we work around those things.
Were there any episodes that you had in mind where you just couldn’t get them to work, no matter how hard you tried?
Not really. I mean, we never killed an episode. I see that as kind of like giving up. I hear that that happens on other series, not necessarily always on animation, but… so I’d say no. I’m really happy with all the episodes. Each have their strengths and weaknesses, but we had a lot of fun making both seasons and I think that each episode has a lot to like.
And what was your favorite episode that… well, I know you had a hand in all of them, but what was one, or a couple of, your favorites?
I really like “Bad Guy”. I think that was my all time favorite. And a close second would be the series finale two-parter. That was also solid, I thought.
That was one thing that really struck me, looking at it as a fourteen year old and looking at it now: It was the only two-parter you guys had, and it didn’t feel like a different show, but it had a very different tone compared to the rest of the show. At least, it felt like it to me. What was your thinking making that different kind of story?
That was a good observation. We got cancelled in the middle of the second season, we knew we were done. So we wanted to go out with a bang, sorta wrap things up, so we went a little darker, and then we felt because we went darker, the comedy would play a little better. So that’s why, yeah, you’re absolutely right, we did alter the tone a little bit.
I guess there’s no delicate way to put this: But what was it like to be cancelled on Megas?
I mean, obviously it’s not great to get any project cancelled, but that’s part of the business. And we got cancelled on Downtown, and we recently got cancelled on Motorcity. Every show gets cancelled, it’s not as heartbreaking as one might think, it’s just part of how things work, unfortunately. Maybe one day we’ll get to a point where we can make a show as long as we want, but we haven’t found that balance yet.
How much of you would you say is really in Megas?
Well Coop is based on a good pal of ours, who still lives in Jersey City, and Goat is actually based on a pal of ours who lives in Jersey City named Goat. So we took inspiration from a lot of people who we know, and a lot of pals, and a lot of experiences, so there’s a lot of us in there, and there’s also, you know, there’s our specific things that we’re really in to, that we’d work in visually. We had a great group of designers, and you can tell the things that they were in to. Whether it was Star Blazers Yamato, Gatchaman, G-Force, etc., everybody on the show put some of themselves in to the show. And that’s what I like about it.
And now the “Bring Back Megas” movement…
To be perfectly candid, this is odd.
From the outside looking in, you see this kind of thing going on with Firefly, sending nuts in to save Jericho, but this is very different in that Titmouse is actually trying to purchase or license the property. But I only have an outsider’s perspective on it. I’m curious what it’s like for you, to see all the support going on.
It’s wonderful to see all the support, and part of the reason we’re doing this is because of all of the fans kind of rallying behind it. We’re still in the early stages of talking to Cartoon Network about exactly what we could do, whether it’s getting the rights back, or actually purchasing a license to our own show, or trying to get it resurrected somewhere else. There’s a thousand different things that we’re talking to them about, seeing what’s realistic, but yeah, we kept getting emails, we kept getting, any time we went to a convention… people are actually calling up Titmouse and asking about Megas. So it’s been long enough that it’s been dark: Megas is playing everywhere in the world, except for the United States, which we thought was odd. We want to do anything we can to bring it back.
The Nielsens are such an odd system.
(chuckles) It’s a very outdated system, and it’s, I’d say it’s catastrophically wrong, many times. I think that in five years, no one will be using Nielsens.
I think so, I think things are changing, I think TV is changing, I think the way we access entertainment is changing. So I think that the days of sitting at home, making an appointment and watching the big box, I think those will come to an end in five to ten years.
Television is such a very odd… When I look at Megas, I swear this is what came to mind when I saw the Bring Back Megas movement, is Baywatch. In the first season, the ratings were junk. But David Hasselhoff, for whatever reason, managed to figure out that this was probably the most genius idea that had ever happened in terms of making him money.
So he actually bought the rights to the show, and put it in syndication.
I didn’t know that, that’s awesome.
So I guess my question to you, at least the first one is: Is Megas the next Baywatch?
Well… (laughs) It’s apples and oranges, obviously I’d love to see Megas… if nothing else, I’d love to see it get in to the hands of people who care about it. Even if it is a DVD box set. I’d just love to give the fans something other than watch the cut-up episodes on youtube, and if we can do better than that, absolutely. I mean sure, let’s do fifteen more seasons, I don’t know how long Baywatch ran. But there was a very specific reason that Baywatch was successful…
Our show doesn’t have those things, we’ve got other things. We’ve got giant robots.
Well… it had two giant reasons it was successful, I suppose, but…
Yeah, the acting and the writing, right?
Oh yeah, absolutely. Just gorgeous cinematography.
Television is may be the, and I apologize if I’m editorializing a little bit here, but I’m really curious to hear what you think about it since you work in this business. Television is unique in that there hasn’t been really, creator-owned content, and really can’t be the way that television has traditionally has been delivered. It’s been produced by soap companies, networks, and government subsidies for PBS… and now with what Titmouse is doing, and the work I’m being seen done with Arrested Development coming back on Netflix for a fourth season, it makes me curious what you think is changing in television.
Well I think again, it’s the aspect of distribution. As before, it was very traditional, and there were a lot of gatekeepers, and now with the broadband aspect, and the fact that you can access entertainment on a cell phone, or through a browser, I think that’s changing. The playing field is being broken up now, and the blockers are being lifted. It’s gonna be a new world out there soon.
Do you think Megas could be one of the pioneers in that new world?
Well that’s what we’re trying to do, that’s why we’re talking to everyone and anyone… we’re talking to video game companies, we’re talking to, you know, online distribution. We’re trying to find a way to… all we are is just, we’re just a bunch of storytellers. We just wanna tell stories. We’re not in this to make money, we’re not in this to create empires. It’s just the people who own the distribution are very specific about how they control things. If you don’t get the ratings, if you don’t sell the ads, if you don’t sell the toys, etc. They cut off distribution. So we have to find a way to get these stories out there, and to fund these stories.
But looking at this, it’s kind of a brave new world out there,so that’s why we’re exploring all these other options. That’s why Titmouse and I are talking to everyone and anyone, trying to figure out what this new model is.
Assuming that you removed the BS&P, the restrictions so that you weren’t worrying advertisers… without those restrictions, in this hypothetical place where you can create Megas for the first time again, in this new distribution model, what do you think you might have done differently with the show?
Honestly, I really feel we made the show we wanted to. The creative executives were awesome, they really supported us. And the comedy was the kind of comedy we wanted to explore. So if we could do it again, obviously we’d probably try to redefine the designs, and some of the storytelling, but I feel pretty good about what we did, and if we can capture that tone again? I think that’d be a big win.
It’s unusual and very gratifying to hear a creator to say of a cancelled work that they’re happy with the result.
Absolutely. All of our shows we’re very happy with, because they’re all passion projects. They were shows that we came up with that our team, that have been working together for years, put their heart and soul in to it. So we’re very proud of each of our shows. And we’re proud of the next shows that we’re working on, we have a lot of stuff in development that we’re very proud of, so hopefully one or two of those things will go as well. But yeah, absolutely, each show that I’ve worked on I’m very proud of.
I think you have good reason to be with how much fan support you’ve been getting for bringing back Motorcity and Megas… I told some people that I was going to have the chance to talk to you, and they didn’t know what they wanted to ask about Downtown, but they at least wanted to say that they loved it.
Well we appreciate that, I’ll definitely let Chris know.
I’ve heard you talk about you wanting to have some toys for Megas.
Now what kind of toys, in particular, would you really most want to see?
Something that I’ve been talking to people on twitter about is we’re seeing what the reality is of putting out die-cast toys for Megas. Because that’s something that I know personally, die-cast robots. And I think there’s a market for it. But we’re trying to figure out what the reality is. Some of the things we’d like to do is, you know, die-cast magnetic Megas so you could take the car off. Obviously his chest would open up, and different weapons would come out, and things like that. But this is all still in very early brainstorming stages.
Sure. I can’t imagine how complex the rights issues must be.
Yeah, they’re kind of a mess, but hopefully we’ll work through that.
I can tell… I actually looked up the tax-write off that Cartoon Network did.
Yeah. I had a lawyer look at it, and he was still a little baffled, and he explained it to me. I kind of understand what happened, but just looking at it, it really does surprise to me to think that quality is not banked on first and foremost as the cash-making method for television. And I’m not trying to dismiss Disney or Cartoon Network or anything like that. Oftentimes, we just end up seeing these shows we love getting cancelled, and we end up wondering why.
Yeah. But then again, quality and also, what’s interesting to one person is not to another. It’s all very subjective. And as I mentioned earlier, the networks are also using an outdated system of gathering information on what’s popular and what’s not. So I have a feeling that sometimes they’re right. Sometimes we didn’t make a connection. Other times, they’re probably horribly, horribly wrong. And in the three shows that we’ve gotten cancelled, probably somewhere in there they’ve been horribly wrong. I’m not sure if each time they’ve been wrong, but they probably did not get each one right.
Yeah. Because the second that word got out that Megas was in any way open, the floodgates really just opened. The internet gave a voice to the people who didn’t have access to those Nielsen boxes.
You’re absolutely right. The thing is, those voices were always there, they just didn’t come together until recently. I’ve been getting emails since we were cancelled, consistently, people asking “Where can I find it”, are there any merchandise, what’s going on, and Titmouse as well. We’ve been hearing you, and we’re gonna try to do something about it.
I’d like to talk a little bit about what’s also going on in the future, because I’ve heard some stuff from you. Something about some stuff on SyFy, something at Nickelodeon… what can you tell us?
I can’t really say much because we’re in very early development, but I have a series, a live action series at SyFy that’s in development. Hopefully we’ll find out if it’s going next year. And I also have an animated series at Nickelodeon in development. In addition to that, Titmouse has just… like fleets of shows in development, which I’m very excited about. So I’d say in the next year or so, my hope would be that we get at least one show picked up. But you never know: We might get everything shot down. That’s part of the biz.
I don’t think I’ve spoken to anybody who worked with you who was not just elated to hear that the show might be coming back, and that you guys are doing as well as you are. And that these opportunities for new shows, and the goals for Motorcity and Megas are happening.
That’s very cool to hear. And that kind of stuff gives us the energy to keep moving forward, because at the end of the day we’re fans, just as much as fans of our shows are. So we are the nerds who go to the conventions, and we geek out on the same stuff, so it’s really awesome to hear that kind of thing.
You’re the first generation of what they call the ‘remix culture’, I think.
Is that what they call it?
Yup. Taking the things that are old, making them new. Homages, parodies, all those things just coalescing as things are made new. You are, I think, leading, along with Titmouse, a very unique charge to change television.
We’re trying, we’re trying and we’ll see what happens. I’m sure we’re gonna fail you in some way, but that’s how… I don’t mind failure, because obviously we learn from failure, we make the next thing and it’s better for it. I’m happy to keep trying, as long as you guys will come along for the ride and watch this crazy stuff we’re making, I’m happy to keep beating my head against those walls.
Of the shows that you’ve worked on, what do you think is maybe your favorite story to tell about the production?
You know what, I would have to say that there’s a lot of great stories with Megas, because that was a show that I had a hand in creating. There’s all kinds of great stories, there’s all kinds of painful stories too, but I’ll give you one story to kind of close things out which was pretty awesome, going back to Bruce Campbell.
We wrote Magnanimous with him in mind, and we reached out through official channels to his managers and agents, and we’re like “Hey, we’ve got this crazy MODOK character that we want Bruce to voice, and we kind of based it on him.” And we got stonewalled. We couldn’t get through, couldn’t get anything. So then Chris Prynoski went to, I think it was a screening of Evil Dead 2 or 3, I couldn’t go, and Bruce was appearing and there was a Q&A. And Chris actually brought the script with him, and at the end of the Q&A, as Bruce was kind of being shoved away, Chris broke through all the bodyguards and was like, “Mr. Campbell, please read our script, we have a show!”
And Bruce was cool enough to say like, “Hey, let the kid through.” And he took the script, and he actually read it, and was like, “I love this show, I wanna be part of it.” I think that story kind of sums up how people reacted to what we were doing, and also how crazy we were. That one of us basically attacked a celebrity to make him part of our show.
Wow. Same strategy that got the show started to begin with, I guess, huh?
Yeah, that’s true, I wasn’t even thinking about that. I mean, that’s what I’d say to your listeners and yourself and anyone else: If you wanna make something, just do it man, find a way. Don’t do anything that will get you in jail, don’t attack anyone physically, even though we did. Just do what you gotta do to get your stories told.
I think listening to this that a lot of people that watched your show, and the shows that you and Titmouse are going to affect are going to do just that.
I wanna watch your guys’ shows. I’m just as big a nerd as anyone on the con floor, so I can’t wait to see that stuff.
Well thank you very much for talking with me. Is there anything you’d like to say that I just should have asked, shouldn’t have missed, or you just wanna say?
No man, I think you did it all. Thank you again for the opportunity to listen, well, not to listen, but to speak to your listeners. And yeah… it was very cool. Thank you for having me.