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Light at the End of the Apocalypse: Pen Ward & Duncan Trussell Preach ‘The Midnight Gospel’

The Midnight Gospel
The Midnight Gospel

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Light at the End of the Apocalypse: Pen Ward & Duncan Trussell Preach ‘The Midnight Gospel’

If you like your apocalyptic fare flavored with sharp insights, beautiful imagery and psychedelic animation, then you should get comfortable and get ready to binge the complete first season of The Midnight Gospel at one go. The fantastic new show, created by Adventure Time wizard Pendleton Ward and actor/comedian Duncan Trussell, premieres on Netflix on April 20, and is unlike anything else we might see this year.

Trussell, who started hosting his popular Duncan Trussell Family Hour podcast in 2012, says the genesis of the show goes back to the day he received a random email from Ward. “I couldn’t believe it,” says the comedian. “We were still in the early days of podcasting then, and I thought it was so amazing that he actually listened to my show. I was hoping I wasn’t being pranked or trolled by a monster!”

The Midnight Gospel

The Midnight Gospel

Before long, Trussell and Ward became friends, and when Adventure Time wrapped its run on Cartoon Network, Ward approached the comedian to collaborate on a new animated show. “I wanted to make something … meaningful, ha-ha!,” says Ward. “But I was struggling to come up with a concept for a show that could showcase the things that I think are meaningful. I wanted something overly honest that dealt with kindness and compassion, something that felt beautiful to me.”

Ward says he was listening to Trussell’s podcast and realized that the host was doing all the things that he wished he was doing. “He interviews meditation teachers and Zen gurus, comedians and philosophers … and in those conversations he’s an open book,” he notes. “He talks about his insecurities and flaws and he’s sweet and uplifting as he listens with intention to his guests … and he’s a comedian!”

Duncan Trussell and Pendleton Ward

Duncan Trussell and Pendleton Ward

Zen and the Art of Animation

Ward says Trussell has the ability to make two-hour conversations about meditation funny! “He makes listening to this stuff so enjoyable, so I asked him if I could make an animated show around his podcast interviews,” says the animation creator. “I drew a rough animatic of how I imagined it, where he was interviewing Dr. Drew and they were both fighting zombies in an apocalyptic reality while they talked about curbing opioid addiction with weed. Duncan was into it and then we went about developing it more together and pitching it.”

The show they came up with follows the adventures of a Clancy, slacker “spacecaster” who lives in another dimension called ‘The Chromatic Ribbon,’ where simulation farmers use powerful bio-computers to simulate universes to harvest technology. Meanwhile, all the planets within the simulator are going through their own unique apocalypses, and the beings living in these other worlds are the guests Clancy interviews for his spacecast, which is called The Midnight Gospel! Got it?

Trussell says Ward realized that if you take podcast dialog and put it against some intense Indiana Jones-type action, it creates an innately comedic situation. “I guess even during apocalyptic situations, people aren’t going to be always talking about the apocalypse and not about interpersonal relations. So, even though our hero goes through all these different scenarios, the conversation grounds it while allowing it to exist in these beautiful, ethereal and psychedelic worlds.”

According to Trussell, Ward came up with a proof of concept animatic for the show about two years ago, which eventually evolved into the pilot for the series. “At that point, we had both heard so many things about Netflix and the fact that they give a lot of creative freedom to the artists and creatives, so we took our pitch and showed it to Mike Moon [head of adult animation] at Netflix and told them that we wanted to work with them.”

Trussell says he and Ward were also very excited about working with Chris and Shannon

Prynoski and their L.A.-based animation studio, Titmouse. “I had been to one of their Smash Parties [where employees were invited to smash things they brought from home] and thought they were so cool,” he recalls. They have these great Bigfoot sculptures at the studio, it’s just a wonderful madhouse of an animation studio, and I fell in love with it!”

After getting the greenlight, Ward and Trussell put together a writers’ summit of sorts for two weeks, where they invited comedians like Johnny Pemberton, Brendon Walsh, Weird Al Yankovic and Emo Philips were joined by occult scholar Jason Louv and white witch Maja D’Aoust. “Those were the two most fun weeks ever,” recalls Trussell. “ The main idea was to come up with all these various ways that the world could end, since the show is all about a malfunctioning multiverse simulator, so we needed eight or more different apocalypses.”

The Midnight Gospel

The Midnight Gospel

Ward’s New Playground

For Ward, The Midnight Gospel was a chance to explore the brave, new world of making animation for grown-ups. “For the first half of the year, I felt kind of scared to make an adult cartoon — drawing blood and wieners and stuff,” he confesses with a laugh. “I was so used to making kids’ cartoons. I don’t know … I was like ‘this feels wrong!’ But then I got over it! My intention was to mix cartoony ultra-violence with conversations on compassion. I wanted to make something that calloused people could bite into and maybe get something out of it. That’s what Duncan’s podcast did for me. It has an edge that grounds me so I don’t cringe up into a ball listening to pure sweetness. It’s like putting honey on potato chips or dipping French fries in my frosty!”

Trussell says he was astounded by the contributions of all the board artists and animators who worked on the show. “Because of the nature of our show, our animators didn’t have to adhere to such a strict style, as we wanted this dreamlike, psychedelic fluidity. Our animators and visual artists all contributed to the writing. Overall, so many people contributed to each episode … I was a complete neophyte and so lucky to work with Pendleton and to be able to witness all of it from the beginning to the final episode of the season.”

The Midnight Gospel

The Midnight Gospel

“Working at Titmouse was truly, really cool,” adds Ward. “About 190 people worked on the show, and being near the animation was so wonderful for me. Our supervising director Mike Mayfield was all about letting animators interpret the scenes and acting as they wanted. I wanted it to be animated on threes and fours ‘cause I’m a nerd for limited animation. Mike asked the animators to stay loosely close to the designs, but to put their own style onto the drawings. I think all of that made it a fun show to animate since there was a lot of room for everyone to put their stink on it. The animation is killer, and I was blown away every time I watched a new cut with new animation in. Seeing how Titmouse worked and how Mike directed really made me want to make more shows where animators could have control.”

The two-time Emmy winner (and six-time nominee) adds, “The show really came together so good. I am so happy: I honestly feel like I can die happy because the last episode is just so good. I stood up and screamed, ‘Yeeeeeeaaaaaa!!!’ when I watched the first pass of the last animatic.

For Trussell, getting to work with Ward has also been a life-changing experience. “Creatively, it’s one of the best things that has ever happened to me. I have so many ways to describe him, but I don’t want to embarrass him, because he never likes to toot his own horn. But I really felt like someone who was living in a village in this fantasy world, and then one day, this forest wizard came out and said, ‘You come with me!’ and took me under his wing. He really downloaded so many things that he had learned during the years working on Adventure Time. He is such an empowering figure: He taught me to trust my own instincts and dive into the unknown, to even sing songs for the show! The amount of freedom he gives people who work with him is amazing. He also has this incredibly beautiful and powerful ability to trim the fact, which you can say is a simplicity genius.”

The Midnight Gospel

The Midnight Gospel

Trussell, who counts classic movies such as Watership Down, Charlotte’s Web and The Secret of N.I.M.H and MTV’s Liquid Television and Aeon Flux among his all-time animation favorites, says looking back he allows himself to pat himself on the back, because it’s really a pat on the back of the hundreds of people who worked on the show. “I am proud of becoming one of the little synapses in the collective brain that formed The Midnight Gospel. We all became this creative goo, merged together and resulted in this amoeba of creativity. I am just proud to be part of that goo!”

Ward says he’s especially fond of the last episode of the season. “Dang, I’ve watched it at least 50 times. I get something new from it every time I listen that changes my life. I got a lot out of working on this show … It really made my life better. For everyone else, I hope we made something that pulls people out of their heads so they can just be blobs for a bit. That’s my favorite kind of show to watch — Somethin’ that makes me smile and doesn’t push me around too much, so I can relaaaax into a blob!”

“’Gospel’ means good news, and I was hoping that we convey the message that even through the most catastrophic situations, when everything is falling part, there is opportunity to grow as a person,” concludes Trussell. “You can meet whatever particular end of the world you are going through with an open heart. That there’s this tiny little beam of light shining through the darkness of living through an apocalypse.”

The View from the Titmouse Nest

We also caught up with Antonio Canobbio, Chief Creative Officer for Titmouse, and Mike L. Mayfield, Supervising Director of the show, to get their take on The Midnight Gospel:

Animag: What would you say was inspiring and different about the series?

Antonio Canobbio: The way Pen, Duncan, Mike and Jesse [Moynihan, art director] work is so collaborative. They debated, trusted and respected each other’s vision. “Trust” was the key component in Pen and Duncan’s execution of the show that inspired me the most.

Mike Mayfield: We really started off with something of an “anything goes” philosophy — or at least, “try anything.” When I started, Pen and Duncan had a million ideas and concepts for worlds to explore. They were so gracious and willing to give over a lot of control to the artists when it came to shaping the stories and the journey of Clancy. I’ve never had the joy of working with so few limits before, with so many brilliant people who put their heads together to wrangle all these ideas into something that made sense!

What was it like to work with Penn and Duncan on this wild, surreal, apocalyptic show?

AC: I gained more working with those two than I have in the 25 years I’ve been in this business. They care so deeply about the subject, way more than the beautiful product we made, that they infused an unprecedented depth of knowledge into the architecture of the show. Their beneficial influence still resonates in a lot of the decisions I make today.

MM: Pen and Duncan brought so much enthusiasm to what was really unchartered territory in animation. To see how excited they were to share their ideas, as well as seeing them light up when anyone else brought something beautiful or hilarious to them, really infected everyone with that same giddiness to make this universe (or multiverse!) special and something unlike any of us had even seen before.

The Midnight Gospel

The Midnight Gospel

What was the biggest challenge of working on this series?

AC: On a technical level, it was marrying the podcast to the apocalyptic narrative. It took a ton of effort to make the two work together.

On a philosophical level, “letting go.” Breaking the boundaries of a model sheet and all the conventions that come with it. This was the hardest for me and most unfamiliar. Letting designers, animators, and compositors run wild and give something extra to every shot they touched. The result is unreal!

MM: Constraints are often really helpful in creative work … So although Penn, Duncan, Jesse, Antonio, Mike Roush (animation director), Joey Adams (storyboard supervisor) or I often had to shoot an idea down that wasn’t working, knowing when a weird direction actually would turn into something magical was really tricky. We’d try something nine different ways before one little change would make it go from clunky to incredible. So finding those boundaries, far beyond what any of us were used to in animation, was both the biggest challenge and the most exciting thing about the show.

The Midnight Gospel premieres on Netflix on April 20 (Yup, that’s 4/20!) Watch it here.

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