The Ultimate Teen Machine

Cartoon Network’s new action series Generator Rex combines sci fi gizmos, fantastical monsters and kick-butt battles.

For the last couple of years, “boys action” has been the echoing mantra in TV animation. A glut of projects have rushed in to the genre, replete with derivative gimmicks and outdated slang. But a few have stood out, and now Cartoon Network’s latest is getting set to not only push the envelope, but leave it in the dust completely.

Generator Rex, the new series from the Man of Action creative team of Ben 10 fame, takes place on Earth after a catastrophe leaves the planet littered with “nanites”‘tiny nanotech machines that can invade humans and turn them into mechanized monsters. Rex (voiced by Daryl Sabara), a teen with a mysterious past, is recruited by a secret agency that fights the nanite-riddle menaces due to his rare power: Rex can control the nanites in his body, shaping them into awesome weapons and vehicles, and even deactivate the ones infesting others. As he tries to balance his superheroic duties with being a regular kid, he must also struggle with amnesia of his life before his transformation.

“We’re definitely forging new ground,” says story supervisor and boys action veteran Rob Hoegee (Teen Titans, Legion of Super Heroes), “It’s some animation the likes of which we’ve never seen. That was the idea going in; we promised a really cinematic show, and we certainly delivered it.”

According to Hoegee and supervising producer John Fang (The Batman, Ben 10), the main focus was to push the quality of both the animation and the script as high as possible. “Cartoon Network has been really supportive of us in getting this project to look the way it looks, but the key is to find the right team,” says Fang. “We want to push it forward’visually and story-wise’and a lot of that is testament to the production team. They all wanted to take that extra step.”

Fang’s goal is to make each of the series’ planned 20 episodes feel like a 22-minute blockbuster movie, rich in both design detail and enticing action. The producer came on board the Generator Rex crew in late 2008, joining Man of Action’s Joe Casey, Joe Kelly, Duncan Rouleau and Steve Seagle. “When I first came on, I was pretty much by myself and I tried to create a look for the show, tone visually what the show would look like, and once we got this look we have an attitude for the characters and an attitude for styling,” Fang explains. “I try to be involved in as much as possible in the day-to-day just to make sure everything is going along the same path.”

Viewers will immediately notice that this look sets Rex apart from much animation programming on the air right now. The show’s helmers drew inspiration from both comic books and Japanese animated epics, melding these styles to create an intensely detailed anime-esque world filled with characters with distinct Western flair. “We’re all huge fans of anime in terms of the way they can execute animation and their attention to detail,” Fang notes, though he emphasizes this is no copycat act, “We wanted a really cinematic experience, especially in terms of backgrounds, just to give it a really rich look. But we want to filter it through our lens. The way they execute, we want to achieve, but not imitate.”

Hoegee, who cites Gatchaman and Space Battleship Yamamoto as childhood favorites, also drew inspiration from the Japanese aesthetic. “I loved that it was not your everyday cartoon and it was literally epic storytelling,” he shares. “To be able to have that grand universe, complex storylines, deep characters, plot twists, drama… plus really cool battles! Generator Rex is nothing like those series, but you can still find ways to bring that inspiration into a new world.”

Generating Rex

While the crew shows no shortage of enthusiasm and an ambitious attitude, trying to get everything just so can highlight production challenges. Fang laughs as he recalls the nervous tension in the studio over one of the key elements of the show: Rex’s ability to transform his nanites into body-augmenting machines and weapons. “The funny thing was, the way Rex can generate those machines and gears off his body is such an integral part of the show, and we were all worried…’What is this going to look like!? If it work this way, or that way, what would it look like?’ Ultimately, the way we planned it out and once overseas had a chance to do it and send it back, we were like ‘Wow. That’s awesome!’” Though the work-and-wait nature of the process lead to a few chewed cuticles, Fang raves about their Korean partners, Sun Min Animation. “They’ve done an amazing job. It all comes together and it’s great, but it’s such a big project that every position that gets a hold of it–well, they’re taking a big exhale afterwards!”

From Hoegee’s perspective, the main story challenge was to craft an introduction to a world and characters with a complex back story in a way that was streamlined and easy to understand. “Being able to explain something that’s very complicated in a couple of lines has been a challenge,” he notes, but cheerfully adds, “But on the other hand, this kid builds machines with his body–and that’s cool! So even if you only take that away, you’ll enjoy the show.”

And what about the pressure of taking Man of Action’s concept and translating it for the small screen? “They’ve been great,” says Hoegee, “It’s always daunting to hand over your baby, as it were, to another creative team, but they’ve been very gracious in that transition from the creators to the people who make it happen.” He notes that the whole MoA crew remains involved in the entire process, writing episodes and watching over their “baby.”

Part of creating the next evolution of boys action was to build a more believable world, even in the midst of fantastical sci fi circumstances. “We really wanted [the show] to have its own personality. We don’t want it to feel like something that’s already out there,” explains Fang, “I didn’t want it to be too much of a cartoon version of action adventure, I wanted it to be action adventure. So everything we did was to accomplish this.”

Hoegee adds that part of the realism comes from their approach to Rex’s character. “It’s always a great challenge to write a teen character and make him feel like a real teenager, not just a cool kid with a skateboard,” he snickers, “We’ve seen that so many times … we wanted Rex to feel like a real kid, but one with extraordinary abilities.”

Adding levity to this more intense cartoon world is Rex’s sidekick, Bobo, a sass-talking monkey voiced by John DiMaggio. “Bobo is so unpredictable, you never know what he’s going to say–whatever we’re allowed to get away with, we can get away with it with Bobo,” Hoegee smirks. “[He]‘s a very funny character,” Fang agrees,”It’s part of the whole experience, Rex is fighting monsters but at the same time he has a talking monkey he’s joking with while he’s pounding on the monsters!” However, both say that Rex’s enthusiasm and plain ol’ kick butt abilities make him their favorite character–and Fang’s own sons agree. “When Rex is building his machines, my four year old goes nuts, He loves it!” he laughs, “He wants to see more every time I come home.”

Moment of Truth

Now that Generator Rex is set to air and the first episodes have been finalized, some of the tension has evaporated–but not all. “First we were surprised, some of us were expecting to be screaming from the rooftops,” Hoegee muses, “But we’re all such perfectionists, we were like ‘Oh, that could have been better, I could’ve put more detail, I could have had a better joke,’ So I hope we have that opportunity to keep improving!”

As far as moments of triumph, Fang says he’s very excited about the first episode and its cinematic feel. He also cites an can’t-miss slow mo fight scene in episode two. And, well… “I hate to say this, it might sound kind of weird, but there’s an awesome volleyball sequence in episode three!” He adds that even for episodes without major battles, the team strives to create interesting locales and characters.

“I would be very surprised if this isn’t a big hit,” Hoegee says candidly, “When people pick their jaws up off the floor, they’ll find a show with a lot of heart, and a lot of twists they’ll want to stick with… There’s definitely going to be a lot of surprises along the way.”

With an engaging group of characters (hello, talking monkey), ante-upping animation and an involving, action-packed storyline, audiences should be inclined to agree with Hoegee. And what advice would Fang, who lists Peter Chung, Genndy Tartakovsky and Glen Murakami among his toon idols, give to the next generation of animation envelope-pushers? “Just keep at it! You never stop learning, even at the stage I’m in, you’re working with different people all the time and everyone is so talented that you can absorb so much stuff. So, if you want to get in this field, keep drawing, keep imagining … keep that thirst.”

Generator Rex premieres on Cartoon Network April 23, 2010 at 8:30 p.m.