***This article was written for the Sept./Oct. ’22 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 323)***
AMC Networks dives beautifully in the animation pool this month with its stellar new series Pantheon, a sophisticated sci-fi drama based on a collection of short stories by Hugo Award-winning author Ken Liu. The slow-burning show opens quietly enough with a look at the life of a bullied teen (voiced by Katie Chang) who receives mysterious help from her deceased father (Daniel Dae Kim), whose consciousness has been uploaded to the Cloud. It soon opens up to reveal a global conspiracy involving “Uploaded Intelligence” which may trigger a new kind of world war.
The engrossing and highly addictive show was written, created and executive produced by Craig Silverstein (TURN: Washington’s Spies, Nikita) with animation produced by Titmouse under the direction of Juno Lee (The Venture Bros., Star Trek: Lower Decks). Chris Prynoski, Shannon Prynoski, Antonio Canobbio, Ben Kalina and Lee are exec producers. (DR Movie in S. Korea and Incessant Rain in Nepal were the show’s overseas production studios.)
In addition to Chang and Kim, the impressive voice cast includes Paul Dano, Rosemarie DeWitt, Aaron Eckhart, Taylor Schilling, Ron Livingston, Chris Diamantopoulos, Raza Jaffrey and the late William Hurt (in one of his final performances).
“It all actually started with the desire to do hour-long adult animation, something that we just don’t have enough of here in the U.S. Then, it was about finding the right material to suit that. Animation led the way,” says Silverstein. “We discovered these short stories by Ken Liu that AMC had optioned, probably originally intended for a live-action adaptation, but I saw the opportunity to take this grounded world and escalate it to this global thriller and surreal, virtual world.”
The pilot script for the show was delivered in the spring of 2018. In 2019, the team spent nine months producing a proof-of-concept animated short which got the greenlight at AMC, and then production began in 2020, while finishing the scripts for season one. Silverstein said Titmouse became their number one choice to do the animation right after their first meeting.
“The first thing I thought was, this is too good to be true,” says Lee. “In animation, it’s really hard to find adult-oriented animation — something that’s not just about vulgar humor or violent for the sake of being violent. Of course, everything has its place, but when I read the scripts, I thought: This is a dream come true. Even as we were making the pilot, I didn’t want to get my hopes up. And then COVID happened and I thought, man, this is not going to happen, it will probably get pushed. But here we are. We did it. The whole virtual production aspect of it kind of tied in with the theme of the project as well.”
Lee says when Silverstein first came to Titmouse, he already had a good idea of what he wanted the show to look like. “Let’s be honest — for a show like this, for the subject matter, the tone, a lot of our references come from Japan. The visuals inspired some of the writing and the reason. When Craig mentioned the work of Makoto Shinkai (Your Name., Weathering With You), I was very impressed, but then I was like, ‘Hey, those are feature films, and we’re on a TV timeline!’ But it was clear that we dig the same things aesthetically. Being in sync like that helps a lot.”
Lee, who is a big fan of powerful films such as Grave of the Fireflies, Evangelion and Mind Game, adds, “To be honest, animation is a melting pot. We have a Japanese vibe, but there is also a French animation vibe, on top of what the individual artists brought to the show.”
Silverstein, who mentions Studio Ghibli movies and the work of Satoshi Kon as some of his animation inspirations (as well as Sunbow’s early 1980s G.I. Joe series when he was a kid) says, “If you want to make an animated adult thriller, you revisit the classics. You watch Hitchcock and Perfect Blue. All these things talk to each other. We wanted to continue that conversation and use Hollywood-style storytelling, subtle performances and have longer scenes.”
“As you know, one of the rules of TV animation is don’t stay on a character too long,” explains Lee. “But we have an hour-long dramatic show, so we would let shots breathe and stay on things longer. In other shows, you have to cut quickly to the action. It’s fun, but it was also a challenge for us. This is also reflected in the show’s cinematic sound design and the casting of the voices.”
Since this was Silverstein’s first animated venture, says he was quite taken by how organized the production was. “It’s the most well-organized project I have ever seen,” he notes. “We owe a lot of it to our amazing line producer Charlie Sweitzer, but it was simply amazing to watch. Another thing was how incredibly iterative it was. There are so many bites of the apple and so much polishing. It was interesting to see how the animation and fine-tuning process continue even past the sound design. To see that final level of polish in coloring and composition and finished animation shots come together in the end was my favorite part of the process.”
Lee says working with Silverstein was a great experience because he is very clear about his vision and what he wants. “If he doesn’t know something, he says so. He has this habit of pausing, because he’s thinking about the answer, which is great. Craig is a big animation nerd, too. I’m constantly shocked by all of his amazing anime references and his advanced knowledge.”
Both Silverstein and Lee hope that the show will open the door to more quality animated shows for adults. “I hope audiences find Pantheon entertaining and thought provoking and that they get excited about the story,” says Silverstein. “Beyond that, the real dream is that it creates an appetite for more animated shows like Pantheon.”
Adds Lee, “I hope we are allowed to make more shows in the same vein. Animation is another medium for telling stories, and it’s not just for kids. When people ask, ‘Why is this animated? It feels like a live-action show!’, the answer is, ‘Well, why doesn’t it have to be animated?’”
Pantheon premieres Thursday, September 1 on AMC+ with new episodes airing weekly. Season 2 is already in production.