***This article originally appeared in the November ’20 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 304)***
If you’ve been paying attention to the adult animation scene, you already know that SYFY channel has made a big jump into the arena by beefing up its late-night animation block, TZGZ. The cabler, which began its foray into animation by airing reruns of fan favorite Futurama in 2019, introduced its first two original shows Magical Girl Friendship Squad and Wild Life in September.
As Jon Cotton, SYFY’s VP of short-form animation and alternative formats, tells us, “Animation allows us to tell so many great sci-fi stories in cool and original ways, so it was really a natural fit for our network. We kicked off our soft launch with Futurama and followed it with a couple of new acquisitions. We are also introducing more shows in the next few months. This late-night block allows us to focus on shorter-format content created by emerging talents as well as some established creative forces.”
Cotton says he and his team are looking for the best comedies from the most unique voices they can find for TZGZ (which is named after the letters in the alphabet that come right after SYFY). “We are proud of the roster of writing, animating and producing talent that we have put together,” he notes. “It’s a cool collection of young talent, many of which are creating their first TV shows, which are really funny and entertaining science fiction projects.”
Sailor Moon Meets Broad City
One of TZGZ’s promising new titles is Magical Girl Friendship Squad, which is created by Kelsey Stephanides, who is also the showrunner. Produced by Brooklyn-based Cartuna studio, the series centers on the adventures of a little red panda named Nut (voiced by Ana Gasteyer) who joins forces with two directionless 20-somethings and gives them magical powers to save the universe. The voice cast includes Quinta Brunson, Anna Akana, Matteo Lane, Christine Baranski, Eric Bauza and Helen Hong.
Stephanides, who worked on Adult Swim’s Ballmastrz: 9009, before her show was picked up by Cartuna, says she was heavily inspired by one of her favorite anime shows, Sailor Moon, as well as Comedy Central’s acclaimed comedy series Broad City. “The origins of the show go back about five years ago, when I was taking a production class and we had to pitch our own show,” she recalls. “My professor at New York University was James Belfer, who is the CEO of Cartuna. He liked my pilot pitch and we ended up making the show Origins, which eventually evolved into the SYFY series.”
The move to SYFY allowed Stephanides to envision the show as a 15-minute format (six episodes are featured in the first season). “We had more production time and a full crew to develop more characters and take the artwork to the next level,” she explains. “We now have a show with about a hundred people working on it, while in the Origins show we had less than 20. We can take more time to punch things up, and deliver more fully realized stories and art style.”
The team at Cartuna uses Adobe Animate to produce the storyboards and animation, while the backgrounds are done in Photoshop, character design is produced via Photoshop and Animate, and compositing is done in After Effects. While the studio is based in Brooklyn, the animation team comes from all different parts of the world and they all work remotely.
“We thought we had a lot of challenges before, but then the pandemic happened, and we had to change the way we worked and adjust to working remotely from our homes,” Stephanides admits. “We faced the same problems as everyone else and had to learn as we went along: The computers weren’t fast enough, or sometimes your Internet blanks out, or your voice suddenly turns into a robot voice during a Zoom call and it screeches into people’s ears! But all the challenges endeared us to each other as we were going through a hard time together.”
Stephanides says she always knew she wanted to work in television, but never considered animation. “I knew that I could draw, and my brother was really into animation,” she says. “Then, it just clicked. I knew the process and I could do it. Animation allows me to work with these amazing artists that I love, and it’s a limitless medium. If you can think of it, you can draw it.”
Celebrating a Human-less Planet
TZGZ’s second new fall show Wild Life is also created by a team that uses animation to tell hilarious and imaginative stories. The new toon, which delves into what happens to a group of zoo animals after our planet is finally rid of humans, is created by Adam Davies, who also exec produces along with Alex Plapinger and Dylan Dawson. The project is co-produced by Valparaiso Pictures and L.A.-based Octopie studio (Magic: The Gathering, Celebrity Animal Encounters).
Davies, who is based in Baltimore, tells us he started thinking about the show about four years ago as he found himself drawing cheetahs (the show’s central characters are a cheetah, a koala bear, a fox and a sloth). “At first, I thought it was going to be a short, but I felt so frustrated because I had so many ideas,” recalls Davies. “After a friend put me in touch with Alex and Dylan, we decided it would be a good idea for a series. We finished the pilot with the help of Octopie in February.”
Since Plapinger and Dawson are based in L.A., the entire writing process was done remotely, and the team worked with animation partners around the world, so the pandemic didn’t change the way the production worked that much. “It’s been fairly appropriate that we’ve been working on a show about the end of humanity during these strange times,“ says Dawson. “The whole experience has been weirdly cathartic! Adam’s style is very unique and you get attached to it very quickly.”
Davies adds, “The heart of the show is the importance of compassion and friendship while the world is burning around you, which is a very interesting topic now. Honestly, the idea came up many years before everything around us went to crap.”
According to Davies, the production uses Photoshop for backgrounds, Adobe Animate for the animation and After Effects for compositing — and Zoom for literally everything else! (At the time of this interview, the production teams were working as fast as they could to deliver the first season’s six 15-minute episodes in the next few weeks.)
Plapinger also mentions that he is very optimistic about the animation boom that is happening all over the world. “My hope is that it also opens new doors for fresh talent that is working in a variety of styles,” he says. “There are so many amazing people who are waiting in the wings, and I hope that new venues like TZGZ provide more opportunities for groundbreaking animation to thrive.”
“I hope the Wild Life audience will take away a new appreciation for the universe and the weird moments we all experience,” says Davies. Adds Plapinger, “We know that humans are going to F this up, but we can be friendly and compassionate towards each other in the meantime: It’s good to know that the planet will be in good hands when we’re all gone!”
Magical Girl Friendship Squad and Wild Life debuted on SYFY’s TZGZ block in September. Catch up with episodes on the channel’s official YouTube channel.
Other TZGZ Toons:
- The Summoner. This original show from Stoopid Buddy Stoodios and writer/actor/cartoonist Charlie Hankin is about an average 20-something and his magical alien roommate who can summon any object to his present location.
- Hell Den. Produced by Shout! Studios and Rafael Entertainment, Hell Den is described as a warped twist on sketch comedy that combines original animation with old live-action and animated clips re-dubbed by members of the Dr. God comedy troupe.
- Dr. Havoc’s Diary. This New Form toon revolves around a mid-level supervillain who’s having a mid-life crisis as he battles secret agents, superheroes and his wife.