[Exclusive Interview] Christy Karacas On The Triumphant Return Of His Galactic Anime Love Letter, Ballmastrz: Rubicon
Adult Swim emerged in its salad days as an incubator for fearless creative talent and Christy Karacas is emblematic of gonzo and genius animated madness. Karacas’ Superjail! overloaded audiences with wild visual spectacles and his follow-up series, Ballmastrz: 9009 is an equally challenging creation that operates as a passionate love letter to anime. Ballmastrz is like if Star Wars, Mad Max, and the XFL had an anime baby. It focuses on Gaz Digzy, the leader of the Leptons, a scrappy intergalactic deathsport team who use the power of friendship–but not in a lame way–to thwart rivals, blow minds, and stay alive.
Ballmastrz: 9009 left audiences on a gamechanging cliffhanger after its second season that fans assumed would never receive closure. Thankfully, Ballmastrz has returned in a special installment, Ballmastrz: Rubicon, that’s able to tie up loose ends and further push the boundaries of animation and sanity. In honor of Ballmastrz’s big return, Christy Karacas gets candid on his series’ swan song, anime’s growing influence on his storytelling, if there’s a possibility for more Superjail!, and his plans for a potential Ballmastrz: Odyssey trilogy!
Daniel Kurland: To begin with, season two ended on a major cliffhanger. Was a season three initially planned, cancelled and then turned into this?
Christy Karacas: It was weird because the story of the special was what we always intended a season three to cover, but then all of the stuff with the mergers, Mike Lazzo leaving, and just so many changes at the network that things just got weird for a minute. Basically, they proposed that we do a 22-minute special instead of a third season, which was actually kind of perfect because we thought that this could set up a third season or additional specials. It picks up right where season two ends. It’s exciting because we were always thinking ahead that the show would evolve into something bigger beyond a sports series and that it’d explore other anime tropes.
Daniel Kurland: So the whole shift towards a Space Battleship Yamato and mecha mentality instead of the sports angle was always the plan and not some type of mandate or effort to appeal to a broader audience?
Christy Karacas: It was always the plan because when the show started I was very aware that “The Game” could only remain interesting for a finite span of time. One of the hard things about writing the show is that it’s only 11 minutes, but there’s this whole team to cater towards, but then you also have the competitors who are also destined to have their own drama. There was never enough time to actually get into the story. When I started Ballmastrz there was a very aware effort for it to not move as fast as Superjail! In the end, it would feel like there was never enough time to do everything. This 22-minute special felt good. It still felt quick, but there was the time for a richer story as a result.
Daniel Kurland: I love that you guys worked with the anime studio, Studio 4°C this time around to lean even harder into the anime aesthetic. How did that decision come about rather than collaborating again with Titmouse?
Christy Karacas: I would have wanted to work with a Japanese studio from the start of Ballmastrz, if possible, but I just didn’t know how to do it. Again, there was this big pause between season two and the special where we didn’t know if we’d get to make anything at all. I had this friend with contacts in Japan and it was really just a case of reaching out to see if they’d be interested. Studio 4°C don’t really do series. They do a lot of specials and shorts. I’ve been a fan of them since I was in my twenties through stuff like Mind Game, Tekkonkinkreet. They are one of my favorite studios. I never thought it would work out, or that Adult Swim would be on board. There was a lot of luck involved because a lot of those anime studios are very backed up and busy. In this case, they happened to have an opening, and it just worked out.
Takashi Nakamura, the animation director, was the animation director for Akira! He worked on Nausicaä and all sorts of things that got me into anime in the first place when I was in high school. It’s insane! They were super cool because it was also all done during COVID, done over Zoom, but it was still so cool and fun. The series has a whole new look this time. It looks totally different. The whole thing is a big–I’m a huge fan of Gundam, Macross, and I wanted it to have a real ’80s vibe, but once we got deeper into the project we thought it should go more retro. We kind of wanted to make it cuter, too. I get bored really quick so I thought why don’t we do such a different style rather than that grunge-y, scratchy look of the original. I love the new look.
Daniel Kurland: Did you have a hand in those new character designs or did you just let them run loose with them?
Christy Karacas: I did roughs of everything and I’d send those over and then they’d come back with the designs. It’d be cool because they wouldn’t be exactly the same as what I sent over. It became really collaborative and fun.
Daniel Kurland: Let’s talk about that opening theme song by Morgan Phalen How did you decide on that type of anime opening theme? Did you want a theme of this nature back for the original Ballmastrz, like you did with Superjail!?
Christy Karacas: Two things, that theme has Morgan Phalen singing and then Joe Wong did the music and arranged everything. Joe Wong did the music for Superjail! too. We always wanted an anime opening for Ballmastrz, but our scripts were always too long. We wanted Ballmastrz to be 22 minutes, but they kept keeping us at 11. We wanted a slower pace that was more akin to anime. In the end, it became more akin to a “Christy Show,” but it wasn’t supposed to be so hectic. We didn’t even put a title sequence in it because we didn’t want to take any extra time away from the storytelling. This time we decided that since we’re changing styles it was the time to celebrate with a theme song like it’s this new show.
For that opening theme we were inspired by the Daicon IV opening animation–Daicon was this anime con during the ’80s and all of these fans made this crazy animation and so many of these people ending up basically forming Gainax. Daicon IV uses this ELO song, “Twilight.” It’s the most intricate animation ever and our song is like a tribute to that and we wanted the theme to sound a little bit like ELO.
The thing is, we did try to get the rights to the actual “Twilight” fan because we felt that as an homage the hardcore anime fans would get the reference. What’s funny though is that we put together a “soundalike” composition and I thought it would take so long to make the thing actually sound good. They made it work so easily that it blew my mind. They had it done–I’m pretty sure–in a matter of days! They’re just so talented. I’m also so impressed that people on the clip’s YouTube comments have totally caught the “Daicon IV” reference. They get it!
Daniel Kurland: It’s the same thing like when you did the homage of the torture dance from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. That’s as obscure as “Daicon IV” and people still immediately jump on it.
Christy Karacas: Again, I was like “nobody is going to get this,” and then people are like, “JoJo!” We love to throw in these Easter Eggs because we love this stuff. It’s fun. We’re aware that our audience is very smart and we want to treat them like they’re smart when it comes to our references.
Daniel Kurland: You were saying there’s the possibility that Rubicon will start a trend of periodic Ballmastrz specials?
Christy Karacas: Absolutely. That’s what we’re hoping. Basically, Rubicon sets up what the show would be–and if this doesn’t happen then whatever…Originally, it was going to be called Ballmastrz: Odyssey and if we do it again I’d love to do two more and make it a trilogy, or just do another season. The plan is to make Ballmastrz: Odyssey next, but we’ll see how the ratings are and if the network is into it. I hope so! I’d like to know when we’re ending it so we can make it appropriately epic. I mean, Rubicon ends kind of open-ended, but it’s a setup for another special or two.
I’d much rather do more seasons than a few specials, not that it wouldn’t still be so much fun to do a few more specials. I just want to know when it’s the end, so that I can act accordingly. This happened with Superjail!—Superjail! was never cancelled, but we never got to end it. It just ends, open-ended, and that bums me out because I’d like to give it a proper ending. With Ballmastrz, it could end as it is now, but I’d rather make it go out on a more interesting, epic note. Again, the original name for the special was Ballmastrz: Odyssey because they’re on this big odyssey. During development it became clear that a true odyssey takes a full season, not just 22 minutes.
Another thing, I love Macross, Gundam, and all of that retro stuff. What I really want to get more into are those monstrous designs towards the end of the special. They’re supposed to be a lot more Cthulu-like in nature. I love Devilman, which is full of crazy character designs. The Satar that show up at the end of Rubicon are the strongest thing in our universe. The idea here is supposed to be that the Satar are these omnipotent Gods who have never felt threatened before. What I want to do–just like how the show moved from sports to space–I want to start with space and then move it into horror. We can go to new dimensions and even though it’s still mecha, maybe they’re fighting demon-y robots. I think it could get really weird, cool, and consistently different. And look, I want it to be dumb and funny too, but I’d love to make it really serious. I think it’d be really cool!
Daniel Kurland: You need to be able to do that! It’d be like the Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin trilogy of movies, if nothing else.
Christy Karacas: I’m a huge Gundam fan. Absolutely. It’s not anime, but there’s also MegaBeast Investigator Juspion, which was a huge influence on Ballmastrz. It’s a big tokusatsu show where these metal men battle kaiju. We wanted to figure out how to translate that live-action tone and energy into animation. It’s hard with a pilot because you need to cram so much in and inevitably don’t have enough time. Originally, every action, item, and transformation had a fancy name that was plastered on the screen to the point that it was overkill. Titanius’ weapon was supposed to have a name like Dread Psych Star Saber, but because we were doing it with Studio 4°C there were these translation issues that made it not worth it. It was too much, but the idea was there in the original storyboards. The ship is even highlighted as the Psycho Joker. When I watch those live-action shows they instantly become cooler whenever a name gets put up for these things. It makes them larger than life. I do regret, on some level, not pushing harder for that and if we make more that will definitely be incorporated into it. I already know how I want to start the next special. We’re really excited about all of this!
Daniel Kurland: Do you see any future Ballmastrz installments incorporating new characters that lean into different anime archetypes that weren’t previously being fulfilled?
Christy Karacas: One of the original problems with the show is that the original sitcom does not have a million characters. With us, we had one whole team with a handful of characters, but then there are also so many supporting characters and tertiary figures from other teams that I want to return to! I want to get to know every side character that’s in the show a little better! This one idea that we didn’t use, but I hope that we will, would have involved Crayzar’s sister. The whole thing would have looked at this relationship between Crayzar, Titanius, and their sister, which gets horrible over time, and pushes her to become this kind of wild space viking. I really wanted her to be in this special, but there just wasn’t enough time! Ideally, in more specials or a full-season there will be all kinds of odd characters coming in and out, like this sister and all sorts of other cosmic characters.
Daniel Kurland: Adult Swim has been doing more of these one-off specials. Do you have any interest in a similar project with Superjail! to just wrap things up in a single special? Have you thought about that at all?
Christy Karacas: I’ve always wanted to revisit it, but it would depend on the network’s interest. I’ve had some ideas for some spin-offs and specials for that, none of which I’ve really pitched, but I have thought about it.
Daniel Kurland: Some bigger animated anthology series like Star Wars: Visions and The Boys: Diabolical have done anime episodes and embraced that aesthetic for Western properties. Has it been exciting to watch that shift happen and what’s on the horizon?
Christy Karacas: It is exciting and I love a lot of those things, but I’m actually annoyed because they haven’t asked me to do any of them and I’ve loved anime for so long! But no, I think all of that stuff is amazing and so much fun.
Daniel Kurland: Lastly Christy, as someone who’s just a fan of anime and the artistry of animation, what’s gotten you the most excited lately? What have you seen?
Christy Karacas: I’ll tell you, it’s strangely not animated stuff for me. I like to watch live-action stuff–you’ve really got to check out Juspion and you’ll see how much of it is in Ballmastrz: Rubicon! That show–and there are a lot of episodes–has so much to offer. In Juspion, the main villain is named Satan Gorth, but that’s why the names in Ballmastrz are things like “Satar.” It gave me this cool idea to just play around with names that are words that almost sound right, but aren’t. A lot of Juspion has worked its way into the show and more people need to know about it! There’s something that’s just so fun and different about it.
Ballmastrz: Rubicon and Ballmastrz: 9009 are both available to stream on Adult Swim and HBO Max