***This article originally appeared in the November ’22 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 324)***
Victor and Valentino has been almost a 20-year labor of love. It all started when I was studying at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore in 2002. I created the story and characters inside of the Unreal Engine as a video game, which ended up being my senior thesis. Back then, the story had three brothers: Victor, Valentino and Vicente. The third brother, Vicente, was supposed to be their leader even though he was the youngest, because he already had a slight mustache. It would have played like a 3D Lost Vikings.
After I graduated in 2005, there was a long stretch of odd jobs I took before I ended up in animation. I worked at a scale model shop building miniature models for architecture firms (which ended up helping my perspective drawing a lot!) Then I worked at a bakery designing their menus, interiors and marketing materials. I continued taking any job I could get until my childhood best friend told me to come to Los Angeles, take some CG classes and join him doing special effects for movies. I took his offer and stayed with him for a while, but I quickly found myself running out of cash. The only work I could find was cleaning Mexican restaurants and doing catering for Warner Bros. events.
When I finally saved up enough to take the classes, one of my teachers said, “Your drawings are way better than what you can do in this 3D CG class, why don’t you check out the place down the street called ‘Titmouse’ and tell them I sent you.” I did just that. Thankfully, I was hired as an intern at the age of 31, which made me self-conscious — but it just goes to show age doesn’t matter if the drive is strong enough. Titmouse was an amazing place to work and still is. I have many great memories of working on many different shows there.
A Dream Realized
Chris and Shannon Prynoski cultivate and encourage a very creative atmosphere with like-minded artists at Titmouse. I was there long enough to hear that different animation companies were coming around to take “pitch ideas” for new shows. I figured I’d dust off the old Victor and Valentino idea from college, give it a new coat of paint and show it off. I first showed it to Nickelodeon and they were very interested in it. I also pitched it to Cartoon Network, who were also interested in it. I decided to go with the latter and we quickly went into creating a short which served as the pilot. Since the pilot did well, they put me in a development “pod” which was eight weeks of planning what would be the entire show out, so that when the show starts, it’s a smoother take off.
As I was new to show-running, they paired me with a very talented and experienced artist named Casey Alexander, who I worked with extremely well. Together with him and some writers, we plotted out what we wanted the story to be, what we wanted the show to look like and what we wanted to say. Thankfully, Cartoon Network liked what they saw enough to greenlight two seasons from the start, which translated into 80 episodes of 11 minutes each. Looking back, that was a lot compared to the animation episode orders happening now.
Throughout the development process, the original idea I had for Victor and Valentino had to change a bit. When I first presented the idea, I wanted to create something a bit more serialized that people could really sink their teeth into, but CN had a different idea. We were confined to making self-contained episodic stories, and since I wanted to tell mythologically epic stories, I started to weave in secondary story threads, add hidden characters and secret plot points, but in a very surreptitious way. Yes, it ended up being a comedy, but if you pay attention, its theme is that there is more beyond our experience — that search for meaning that we all feel.
Around the midpoint of our second season, we were surprisingly allowed and actually encouraged to tell more serialized stories with overarching plots with episodes that connected together as “specials” which they called “event-izing”. I assumed it was because of the direction TV and animation was going more towards serialization overall. I was so happy when I heard this! We were finally able to do the original thing we set out to do. Better late than never! But since we had already written most of Season Two, we started the actual serialization on the very last four episodes of Season Two with a story called “Through the Nine Realms of Mictlan,” which was a mini movie about the Aztec underworld.
Season Three of Victor and Valentino still had some self-contained episodes, but most of it was serialized. We wrote it considering we would get another season, so it all ended in a giant cliffhanger. If we were to have gotten a Season Four, the story itself would have expanded to the cosmic scale of the last episode of Gurren Lagann, “The Lights in the Sky are Stars”. My writers, Casey and I were excited to dig into Season Four because it’s when Victor, Valentino and the whole town would have woken up to their god-hood.
Essentially, everyone in Monte Macabre are the actual gods of the Aztec pantheon, except they forgot who they were because of a curse put on the town. We would’ve seen Vic and Val comedically struggle to harness their grandfather Tlaloc’s special powers of lighting and rain. We would’ve seen Victor and Valentino’s parents show up and we’d learn where they were all this time. We would’ve also seen the entire town of gods rise up (including Huitzilopochtli) against Coyolxauqui and her Tzitzimimes in a cosmic scale war between light and dark with the earth hanging in the balance. It’s so clear in my head that I hope one day I can finish the story in whatever format presents itself.
Something else we’re extremely proud of is getting the honor to work with Peter Chung on the show. It was surreal to work with him because I idolized him so much I used to put tracing paper on TV when Liquid Television came on MTV, and I would pause and trace his animations. He served as our animation supervisor, but we were taken aback when he asked if he could write and direct his own episode (“Oneric Vic”).
Of course, we jumped at the opportunity and gave him complete carte blanche to do whatever he wanted with the show. He ended up literally doing everything. He wrote it, designed every single background, every single character, every layout, drew and directed the entire storyboard, created and timed out the whole animatic and personally worked with overseas studio Sunmin Image Pictures (SMIP) and owner Young-Hwan Sang, who did an incredible job animating it. I think it turned out to be the best episode of the series.
We learned a lot working with Peter Chung, because his standards are so high. One of the important lessons Casey and I learned from him was, “Don’t make it easy on the audience, don’t spell everything out … make the audience work to understand so that they feel some type of accomplishment when they figure things out.”
When I knew Season Three was going to be the end, I started to develop a spin-off based on the character Charlene from my show. It was going to be a sort of “halfway house for ghosts,” where Charlene and her friends would go ghost hunting and befriend the ghosts to come live with her at her Haunted House. It was going to be called The Lonely Haunts Club. Sadly, it did not move forward, but I wasn’t surprised. The state of animation is shaky right now, but I’m confident it will bounce back. Probably in a different shape and form, but its spirit will live on.
As I write this piece, it has only been three weeks now since my show ended airing on Cartoon Network: I’m both extremely grateful, but also sad I couldn’t finish the project. As I’m preparing my next set of ideas to present, I am now creating them in a way where if I only get one season, it would still be enough to create an interesting story with a satisfying ending.
Diego Molano is the creator and executive producer of the Annie Award and Imagen-nominated series Victor and Valentino, which ran on Cartoon Network for three seasons (March 2019- August 2022). (In August, the show was one of 40 titles abruptly removed from HBO Max due to Warner Bros.’ merger with Discovery.)
Victor and Valentino is available for digital purchase on several platforms, including YouTube, Prime Video and iTunes.