Seis Manos Q&A: Brad Graeber (SEIS MANOS Showrunner, Co-Creator and Executive Producer) and Alvaro Rodriguez (SEIS MANOS Writer and Co-Creator)
John Schwarz: Brad, can you discuss the formative years of Powerhouse?
Brad Graeber: Powerhouse Animation was founded on April Fool’s Day 2001. The other two founders and I all worked at a “dot com” company in Austin that was doing online animation for kids. Unfortunately, it went the way of all the rest of the “dot coms” but we loved Austin and didn’t want to move. Unfortunately, it was also around the time folks stopped making 2D animated feature films – which based on my partner’s experience working on films for folks like Don Bluth was what we were hoping to do. We did service work on a couple 2D films and a series then traditional animation work began to dry up. The first 3 years were brutal but we were able to find a niche in Flash and video games…
Brad, Powerhouse seems to have hit at a great time of an exponential growth in adult animation action series which appears to fit in with PH’s wheelhouse. Was that by design or by accident?
A little bit of both. By working in games we were doing more action work than most animation studios in the states. Doing cinemas for games with superheroes and fantasy heroes is a different mindset than comedic or kids work, so we were training for the future and creating a unique creative culture without really knowing it. But the current generation of animators is very influenced by anime and want to work on adult animation with action, so we have worked hard to find and grow that talent and keep ourselves at the forefront of this modern movement.
John Schwarz Where are both of you originally from and how did you get involved in the animation industry?
Alvaro Rodriguez: I grew up in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. As an undergraduate at the University of Texas in Austin, I really got the first taste of anime in movies like Akira and Vampire Hunter D and Robot Carnival and stuff that like that would play at the art theater on campus, the Dobie. But SEIS MANOS is my first foray into the animated space (apart from a spec script I wrote for an animated feature that went nowhere).
Brad: I was born in Austin – I have lived other places but always come back here. When I was in the 3rd grade we did the standard “what do you want to be when you grow up project” and even back then I said “animator.” My parents wanted me to have a backup plan so I got a degree in English with a literature focus (figured that would help in storytelling) and then I went to grad school at Texas A&M’s Vizlab. That program at the time was highly technical with a programming and math focus, so I got hired as a programming consultant at a dot com where I met the other two founders of Powerhouse. While there I did more animating and drawing than programming, thankfully.
This year alone it was announced that Powerhouse is working on all sorts of projects for Netflix including Seis Manos, Gods & Heroes, and now Masters of the Universe. You’ve already been putting out the more than solid Castlevania. Can you describe the last two years for Powerhouse and what has it been like to work with Netflix as both a studio and distributor?
Brad: The last two years have been whirlwind but we have been prepping for this for 18 years. Frederator bringing us on for CASTLEVANIA was a watershed event. The director of CASTELVANIA, Sam Deats, heard they were working on the project and asked me if we could find a way to work on it. We flew out to LA and pitched Kevin Kolde and Adi Shankar some designs and our demo, including a trailer we were using to shop SEIS MANOS around. Warren Ellis is an amazing writer and I think he and the Deats brothers and our crew have an amazing synergy. We always thought there was a place for this kind of storytelling and animation – it was wonderful to see fans embrace it.
I love working with Netflix. What they are doing in animation is not just ground breaking, it is a sea change. For many years, we pitched adult animated concepts because it was what we naturally did. We would always be told that doing a complex adult original IP in animation would never happen. I have been lectured about how we should have shifted focus because American “animation would always revolve around toys or kids properties or rehashing older IP.” We were told that we should focus on limited animation because traditional 2D animation was too expensive, especially action animation. We kept pushing against this and lucky for us Netflix changed the industry. In my opinion Netflix has been the key figure in this change with projects like CASTLEVANIA, Canon Busters, Love Death and Robots, and SEIS MANOS – not to mention and all the work they do with anime.
Alvaro: The experience of working with Netflix has been great. Along with VIZ, I think Netflix quickly saw the potential of the show, saw what it could be and the audience to whom it could appeal. I was also really struck by their advice as we began the process: Be as specific as possible in your storytelling. In other words, don’t try to find something that would appeal to everyone, but be truthful to your vision, which would in turn reach a larger audience.
How is Seis Manos different versus other projects PH has worked on?
Brad: SEIS MANOS is Powerhouse’s first original series which makes it unique. That being said, all projects at Powerhouse are really different from one another. I think this might come from our 18 year background as a work-for-hire service studio before we really broke into series production. Most of our directors and artists are familiar with working on projects that vary radically in style from job to job. I think that has given us a culture where we approach every project with a clean slate and open mind. I personally don’t want us to have a cookie cutter brand – I want to be known for quality but not everything being the same. I would like to approach each project with fresh eyes and create something new and unique based on what services the story and audience.
How did the idea of doing an animated series based in Mexico come about?
Alvaro: I think for me, any other animated ideas I’d ever had based in Mexico were more of the kids’ show variety. Growing up on the border, I’d often see American cartoons dubbed in Spanish on Mexican TV, like the Pink Panther or Atomic Ant. SEIS MANOS feels lightyears away from that, and the possibility of telling a dramatic story in this exciting world through animation was of instant appeal to me.
Brad: I was born in 1975, and the murders in Matamoros in 1989 fueled the urban legends of my adolescence. SEIS MANOS started with kung fu heroes set against an Adolfo Constanzo type character that mixed cult and curandero practices with criminality. Then a bunch of historical things just fell into place in a timeline Alvaro and I were building – there was a large Chinese immigration that would fit the timeline, the DEA came into being and started meddling in Central America affairs.
How did the voice cast come together?
Brad: Meredith Layne was our Casting Director, she worked with Frederator on CASTLEVANIA. Meredith is an outstanding casting director and voice director and always thinks outside of the box and presents unique options. SEIS MANOS was tricky to cast because we knew we wanted to be authentic and we also wanted to have some cast that did both the Spanish and English language versions. I like to cast “blind” and initially go through all the takes and tryouts Meredith sends without names and concentrate on the quality and tone of their voices with the character designs. We lucked out with this cast. It is strange to do press events with them for me – there is a cognitive dissonance because we have lived with the characters for a couple years now on a daily basis and to me it is like hearing Jesus’ voice come out of Johnny’s head, not vice versa. It is a trip. Angelica is the nicest person in the world and we all had dinner at her place one night – my son was playing with her kids – but if I turn away and hear her talk I expect to turn back around and see Officer Garcia.
Alvaro: Meredith was fantastic to work with and found most of our cast. I also called a few people I knew that were voice actors, like Roger Craig Smith who was the voice of Batman in Batman Ninja and my friend Luisa Leschin who I’d worked with as a writer on From Dusk Till Dawn. I also asked actor Raul Castillo if he would do a voice and was so happy when he said he would. Raul and I are from the same part of South Texas so it was great to be able to work on something together.
Alvaro, you’ve openly praised director Willis Bulliner for the job he has done on this show. Can you elaborate what he’s brought to the table and why he was so important for Seis Manos’ production?
Willis has an incredible sense of the dynamism of the show. I think he’s amazing at directing the action and seeing the totality of the scene. As a writer, I tend to be a little more minimal in my description, particularly of parts of the action, and it always feels like the best possible version of a thing I had in mind when I see how Willis has processed that and made it something new.
The popular term used to describe Seis Manos is “anime-style”. How has anime influenced Seis Manos as well as other works at Powerhouse?
Brad: The greatest way anime has influenced us is the idea that shows do not need to be made only for specific demographics and you can tell broad and unique stories for all ages with animation. Anime has explored horror, martial arts fight choreography and adult themes for a long time while animated series in the US generally have not until recently.
Texas seems to be a hot bed for animation. Between PH, Rooster Teeth, Funimation, and other studios, there seems to be no shortage of studios, how did this happen and what do you attribute the medium’s success where you are based?
Brad: Austin has always been a creative town. A little blue dot in the middle of a red state that is full of music loving hippies. Though Austin is growing and things are changing, it was a somewhat affordable city and it has always had a thriving art community. Austin is a cinephile city and a lot of great independent film comes out of Austin with folks like Linklater, Rodriguez, Malick, and Mike Judge. More recently there was a boom in video game production studios that also supported artists and animators.
What are some of your favorite animated series that you watch now that you DON’T make and what are some of your favorite series from an early age?
Alvaro: I think the things I remember most fondly of animated series I saw as a kid are things like Thundarr The Barbarian and the Dungeons And Dragons series and things like that. Superfriends. Working on SEIS MANOS has actually turned me on to all kinds of stuff I missed the first go-round like Cowboy Bebop but also new things like The Promised Neverland, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood and even JOJO’S BIZARRE ADVENTURE.
Brad: Growing up I was a big fan of Battle of the Planets and we fought over who got to be Mark or Jason at recess. I think Venture Bros is genius. ONE-PUNCH MAN is amazing. I watch Avatar, Korra, Stephen Universe, and Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series all regularly over and over again. I love Chuck Jones’ Warner Bros shorts…my animation taste is pretty eclectic.
On the non-animated side I also grew up watching the Shaw Bros. films on “Kung Fu Theater” and those inspired a lot of moments in SEIS MANOS.
Are there plans for additional ways in which the Seis Manos franchise can be expanded? I.e. additional episodes, comics, etc?
Alvaro: I’m really excited about the possibilities of this world and these stories and characters. I was recently on a panel called “Enter The Latina Superhero” at Long Beach Comic Con and I met this amazing cosplayer, Ivy Doom Kitty. The possibilities of fans getting inspired by these characters and cosplaying them really excites me and even encourages me to think of the characters in new ways. I think there could easily be more seasons and more stories to tell from SEIS MANOS.
Brad: We have talked about some games. I would love to see some comics. We have scripts for a Season 2 and plans for more seasons after that- hopefully people will enjoy the series and we will get to keep telling stories with these characters.
Seis Manos Streams on Netflix on October 3rd.
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