***This article originally appeared in the 35th Anniversary Issue of Animation Magazine (June/July ’22, No. 321)***
It’s been 38 years since director Joe Dante introduced us to the wonderful, wicked and unforgettable creatures known as Gremlins. We all knew that these colorful monsters, which go wild if they’re fed after midnight, would make great animated characters. In 2023, we can finally enjoy a new animated show about them, one that centers on a naïve 10-year-old Sam Wing (voiced by Izaac Wang) who meets the young Mogwai known as Gizmo.
Just announced at Comic-Con, the show’s stellar voice cast (which includes Ming-Na Wen, B.D. Wong, James Hong, Matthew Rhys, A.J. LoCascio as Gizmo and Izaac Wang as Sam) will be joined in the 10-episode first season by exciting guest stars: Sandra Oh, Randall Park, George Takei, Bowen Yang and Zach Galligan, who starred as Billy in the original Gremlins movies and will be voicing “a cool character” yet to be revealed.
Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai, which is slated to premiere on HBO Max and Cartoon Network’s Sunday ACME Night block in 2023, is written and executive produced by Tze Chun (Gotham, Once Upon a Time). Darryl Frank, Justin Falvey, Sam Register and Brendan Hay also serve as exec producers. We had a chance to chat with the Amblin Television / Warner Bros. Animation show’s talented supervising producer Dan Krall and art director Tara Rueping ahead of the show’s special premiere at Annecy in June.
“I was a child of the ‘80s, and Gremlins and other similar Amblin movies left a big impact on me,” says Krall, an Emmy-winning animation veteran who has worked on a wide range of projects include Samurai Jack, SpongeBob SquarePants, The Powerpuff Girls and Coraline. “I was also a big Chinese mythology and historical drama fan. So, I loved the fact that we could revisit China in a historic period and encounter other mythological creatures. It was a triple grand slam for me!”
Mischief and Mayhem
Rueping, a well-respected veteran of animated games such as The Walking Dead: A New Frontier and Tales from the Borderlands, who was also a design artist on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, joined the project about two and a half years ago. “When a co-worker mentioned the show to me, I got super excited about it because I love all those old ’80s fantasies. So, I actually applied for the art director role through a test,” she tells us. “I think my test showed my enthusiasm, because I got the job.”
According to Krall, the series takes place in the early 1920s. “We did a little bit of math, since our character was 70 in 1984,” he points out. “Moving backwards, we figured out where he would have been. We landed in a time when electricity was just introduced after the industrial revolution. Gremlins love electricity, and we wanted to have neon lights around. We kind of picked this sweet spot and left it a little vague for those reasons.”
Krall and Rueping both also share a love for visual development artwork. “When we see these ‘art of’ books, you have all these beautiful painterly, graphic and stylized images, but when the movie comes out, the CG animation makes everything look very photorealistic,” says Krall. “One of our goals here was to retain those painterly qualities in the show. Both of us are big fans of Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker game. We both mentioned it at the same time! It became kind of a touchstone for us.
“We also realized that the stories that we were going to tell were going to require a lot of subtle lighting,” he adds. “So, we wanted to incorporate a lot of live-action lighting, splits-like camera moves and drifts on dialog.”
The bulk of the animation was handled by Blue Spirit studio (What If…?, Ernest & Celestine) in France and a couple of episodes were produced by 88 Pictures in India.
According to Rueping, the production utilized many of the popular CG animation packages used in the business. “We use Maya, ZBrush and Photoshop, of course,” she notes.
“The overseas studios also have their own proprietary tools that they work with. Since we are a hybrid show, we really wanted to flatten the CG as much as possible and marry it with 2D elements and play with things like depth of field to create the unique look that we were looking for.”
Krall remembers the first time they saw the turntable CG model work together with the lighting and texturing against the painted background they had envisioned. “We had a lot of matte paintings as background as well as CG sets, so the idea to have these CG-animated characters walking around what was sometimes a painting and sometimes a CG set was quite a challenge,” he explains. “We were really excited when they all worked very well together.”
Rueping adds, “We needed to pay close attention to the characters’ forms since we were going with simple shapes. We had to make sure we got those big details right. I remember working with Dan on Gizmo and he was very meticulous about getting his mouth shape right. We had to make sure we got his underbite just right. We weren’t going to redesign the characters like some other shows do. We wanted to take the Gremlin characters that everyone loves and depict them in a simpler style.”
Mixing Laughs with Drama
The creative team was also eager to duplicate the original tones and light touch of the movies. “We have more minutes of content — there are 10 episodes in the first season, so we can tell a bigger, serialized story about things that existed in the Gremlins universe,” says Krall. “We looked for opportunities to tell this intense, emotional, dramatic story where the characters are moving across the country and heavy stuff is happening, but at the same time, we found time for silly, ridiculous things to happen and have Gremlins jokes to break up the harder moments.”
Krall and Rueping both praise the contributions of Tze Chun and Brendan Hay to the project. “They each brought a lot of different skills and experiences to the show,” says Krall. “Tze shared a lot of his own knowledge of Chinese mythology as well as his personal experiences of traveling to places like the Chinese amusement park Tiger Balm Garden (which was created to promote Tiger Balm products). Brendan is also a big fan of the Gremlins movies and was always on point in keeping it silly and true to the original tone of Joe Dante’s film.”
The duo also hopes their show offers the same enjoyment and feeling that the movies provided audiences a few decades ago. “I hope they feel like we expanded on something that they already love,” says Krall. Adds Rueping., “Everyone on the team put so much love, energy and excitement into the project. Many people told me that the show has become a passion project for them. I hope viewers will not only enjoy our take on the Gremlins universe, but also feel the love that we’ve all put on this project.”
Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai will premiere on HBO Max and Cartoon Network in 2023.