Future Forward

When it comes to science fiction animation today, relatability is just as important as dreaming up new frontiers.

The future is here. 

OK, it’s also out there where it’s always been. Way out there in uncharted galaxies where colonies and alien life forms are waiting to be discovered as quickly and imaginatively as animation writers and artists are able to dream them into reality. 

“While animation in the west is changing, it still has this reputation of being a kid-centric medium”—Juno Lee

When it comes to animation in the science fiction genre, the menu is limitless. With the explosion of streaming services, the ever-burgeoning influence of anime, and the proliferation of animation for adult audiences, creators of animated TV series are finding innovative ways to develop new characters, build new worlds, and tell new stories—all in ways that resonate with audiences in 2023. 

That last part is essential. The mark of any great sci-fi is its ability to tap into something recognizable or something that could be here soon. It’s not just about manifesting the most terrifying alien or the most gadget-stuffed robot. Often, the shows are mashups, using a mix of science fiction and more traditional genres to create a sense of the familiar and new at the same time. No matter how ingenious the situation, viewers can connect with elements like relatable characters, social commentary, and the universality of humor. 

Can You Relate?
My Dad the Bounty Hunter 

These days, the heroes of science fiction aren’t always the progeny of legends or royalty fated to complete some timeless intergalactic quest. They can be an ordinary Joe who happens to stumble into an other-worldly situation. In dreaming up the idea for My Dad the Bounty Hunter, Co-creators Patrick Harpin and Everett Downing bonded over their shared love of what they call “blue collar sci-fi.” 

“For me, it’s the guys from John Carpenter’s films. It’s not some high-level scientist. It’s a regular dude who lives on the margins,” says Harpin. “I’m from Maine, and Stephen King is the greatest of all time at putting regular people in extraordinary situations.” 

In My Dad the Bounty Hunter, dad Terry and mom Tess are separated. Siblings Sean and Lisa are set to spend the weekend at their dad’s place when he is unexpectedly called away to work. The kids stow away in his truck only to learn that the man they thought was an uncool truck driver is actually the baddest bounty hunter in the galaxy. His secret revealed, Terry has no choice but to take his kids on his mission—and hopefully get them home again safely before their mom gets worried. 

Among the objectives of the show, say Harpin and Downing, was to create a family-friendly comedy in which the dad isn’t an idiot. They also wanted a world where the circumstance of the family being Black is never remarked upon, even though this aspect is groundbreaking—TV’s first sci-fi animated series focused on a Black family in space. 

To envision the world, they enlisted Art Director Alex Konstad and Production Designer Yuhki Demers as part of their creative “rebel alliance.” “That was one of the smartest things we ever did,” Harpin says. “Yuhki was coming off Spider-Verse, which was so playful with color.’” 

The outer space of My Dad the Bounty Hunter is indeed colorful, shifting its hues almost in tune with the vibe of the spaceship like a mood ring. Harpin references the colorful ‘80s images of poster artist Drew Struzan, a style that suits the series’ inventive alien creatures. Often, these are anthropomorphized animals like a tough, battle-scarred character inspired by the manatee. 

No matter how offbeat things get, “our belief is that the family story is at the heart of this,” says Downing. “We really want to make a relatable family story and have this crazy wild sci-fi wrapper around it where you can enjoy yourself, but the family was our north star that keeps the storytelling grounded.” 

Pioneering the Multiverse
Rick and Morty 

When you’ve already got one of the biggest TV shows in animation, what frontiers are left to conquer? Plenty, say the creatives of Rick and Morty. At work on the seventh and eighth seasons, they are bringing the dementedly brilliant scientist Rick and his grandson/sidekick Morty into their second decade of creating intergalactic mayhem. 

“Everyone is breaking their back to make the most beautiful new cityscape and galaxies and aliens that we’ve never seen before. It’s really amazing how you can let your imagination run wild on this show…” —Scott Marder

“There is some really messed-up stuff that nobody has seen yet—some wild stuff coming, but there always is,” says Executive Producer Scott Marder

“Our writers’ room is an example of the fact that people have their passions that they bring to the show, and anything is fair game,” says Executive Producer and Writer James Siciliano. “We have people who love anime and people who love horror. Our show doesn’t just do sci-fi.” 

It also doesn’t do traditional storylines, as Siciliano knows firsthand. He was a fan of the show when he joined the series as a Writer’s Assistant on the third season. He quickly found out how the “your TV is broken” manifesto of Co-creator and Executive Producer Dan Harmon comes into the play. These are situations that are so offbeat and bizarre that when you’re watching, you start to think your TV must be broken. 

Case in point: in the episode “Rattlestar Ricklactica,” written by Siciliano, the discovery of space snakes and an evolved snake planet spirals off into a future-altering depiction of a snake historical timeline, à la The Terminator. Siciliano wrote close to two minutes of snakes hissing wordlessly at each other as serpent history unfolds.

Siciliano was sure there was no way that was going to make it on the air, but “not only did we nurture it, we made it even longer than it was in the first draft,” he says. It was his first solo episode he wrote for Rick and Morty, and it taught him “that if you’re passionate about something, even if it’s the craziest idea, you can get it on the show.” 

The steady spike in the series’ popularity (its sixth season debuted in 112 countries and 38 languages) has caused each new episode of Rick and Morty to become increasingly cinematic, while also making the team even more determined not to repeat things they have already done. 

“Every episode is like a unique movie, so we’re having these massive production meetings to scale up,” says Marder. “Everyone is breaking their back to make the most beautiful new cityscape and galaxies and aliens that we’ve never seen before. It’s really amazing how you can let your imagination run wild on this show in terms of the art.” 

Rick and Morty has also made creative use of a sci-fi trope—the multiverse that enables multiple versions of characters to live different lives (or be killed off) in different dimensions. It’s hardly a new concept. Comics of the mid-20th century popularized the idea. But in the last 10 years it has become a hallmark of mainstream storylines throughout animation, from Marvel’s Spider-Verse to DC’s Flashpoint Paradox. 

“It’s so cool how this show planted a flag there,” says Marder. “Ten years ago, when we started, people didn’t understand the difference between that and time travel. [It’s] crystal clear now, which feels like a success of this show in a lot of ways.” 

Slow and Cerebral

While animation in the west is changing, it still has this reputation of being a kid-centric medium, says Juno Lee, Executive Producer and Supervising Director at Titmouse. “So if you say ‘adult animation,’ what does that mean?” He notes primetime comedies often have super-violent or hyper-sexual storylines. “But if you said, ‘Let’s make something heady [like] long-format sci-fi,’ nobody would pick that up,” he says. 

Or so he thought until he was presented with Pantheon. The series is based on the short fiction of fantasy and science fiction author Ken Liu about a high school girl, her deceased father, and a corporate conspiracy to upload human consciousness. From concept to presentation, everything about the series felt different to Lee. 

First there is the longer format: episodes up to 45 minutes long allow the story to unfold gradually, giving characters room to think and talk thoughtfully. It’s very different from the show he was on before PantheonStar Trek: Lower Decks. “It was a prime-time comedy that was 1,000 miles per hour,” he says. “Boom, boom, boom. If there was any sort of dead air, we couldn’t have that. We had to tighten all that up.” 

While slow and steady might be a lot to ask of audiences used to TikTok clips, Lee says, “I think you can enjoy both.” 

Unfortunately, at the time of press, the opportunity for viewers to fully experience the story was cut short when AMC+ cancelled Pantheon after one season and pulled it from its streaming service as part of a tax write-down measure—a negative trend across animation genres these days as studios cut costs. Pantheon was the first adult animated show to premiere on the service, and Titmouse says: “We were blown away by the fans and critics’ positive response. We remain hopeful that the second season will find a home so we can continue to imagine and expand upon the limitless digital worlds presented in the series.” 

Cause and Effect
Scavengers Reign 

A human crew is stranded on a distant planet and must create a sustainable life where they can survive until their return home. Judging by some of the landscapes and lifeforms these humans encounter in the teaser for Scavengers Reign, this directive will be easier said than done. 

With the show due to premiere later in 2023, Scavengers Reign Co-creators and Executive Producers Joe Bennett and Charles Huettner have limited plot details they’re able to share about the series. The foundation of the show is the organisms that live on the planet and their symbiotic relationships. “[It’s about] the process by which these things kind of live and thrive and how the characters are dealing with that,” says Bennett. “That’s more the focus than the ships and the technology. I was really into the idea of a Rube Goldberg process, like a sort of cause and effect, and to just see where it leads.” 

This is in keeping with the sci-fi animation trend that emphasizes humanity over high-tech. The show also reflects the growing acceptance of once-marginalized styles. With their flat colors and deceptively simple graphic style, the visuals draw comparisons to the work of Japanese artists Hayao Miyazaki and Katsuhiro Otomo. The co-creators acknowledge their nod to anime, as well as French animation, and say that the post-apocalyptic manga series Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (later a 1984 film) was another huge influence. 

That said, the series’ feels original, managing a look that can be dark and hopeful at the same time. There is a lot of attention given to the textures of elements such as trees or metal walls, which Bennet says are then used to “build the logic of the ecosystem.” 

Back to the Future

When last we checked in on the crew of the Planet Express intergalactic delivery company, main characters Fry and Leela agreed to let Professor Farnsworth repair a button that causes time to jump backward. The button, when activated, will restore the frozen universe of Futurama. Over two million households watched that final episode in September of 2013. A full decade later, with that button pushed, Matt Groening’s game-changing sci-fi series will return on Hulu. 

Creatives on this revival are cagey with details to prevent spoilers, but they note that Futurama’s future will most likely look both bright and retro. Back in 1999 when the series premiered, they referenced the look of the 1930s and ‘40s and consulted reams of magazines and art and architecture books in search of inspiration. Classic films like Metropolis and Invention for Destruction generated visual ideas, along with the comic sensibilities of Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, and Buster Keaton. 

“It’s sort of the futuristic charm of the series that we’ve jumped thousands of years into the future, but there’s still this quirky stuff that we can relate to…” —Crystal Chesney-Thompson

“Matt Groening had all of these New York architecture books and books with cool water towers,” recalls Director Crystal Chesney-Thompson, who worked on the original series and is working on the reboot. This contributed to a library to refer to for inspiration for the original retro-futuristic look. 

Back at the dawn of the new millennium, the technology available to Fry, Leela, and the crew would seem positively quaint today: items like video screens that pop out of devices that resemble fax machines. But guess what? Those same devices will be back. 

“We’ll still use that model,” says Chesney-Thompson. “It’s sort of the futuristic charm of the series that we’ve jumped thousands of years into the future, but there’s still this quirky stuff that we can relate to and go, ‘I remember those kinds of phones with the cords.’” 

Animation techniques have also evolved since the dawn of Futurama. The blending of hand-drawn animation with CG images for elements such as the Planet Express ship was a creative mountain to scale when the show was in its infancy. Pre-digital crowd shots were laborious. Chesney-Thompson recalls the days of drawing a row of people, duplicating the process, and shrinking everything down to fit on a single page. Crew members collected the unused paper crowd shots and taped them together into a ball which was tossed around the cubicles. The ball, which is stashed somewhere in Chesney-Thompson’s garage, eventually grew to about the size of a basketball. 

Fan favorites will make a comeback when Futurama reboots. (Futurama ™ and © 20th Television.)

If you are picking up on the irony of primitive animation techniques being used to create a show that is all about the future, you’re not alone. At the same time, given its satiric bent, that doesn’t much matter. A show that can wring humor out of robosexual marriage—the controversial union of robots and humans—as it did in the “Proposition Infinity” episode, can get away with not having the most cutting-edge alien. 

“At its core, we draw comedy from social and political commentary,” says Chesney-Thompson. “So you can take anything that is funny, whether it’s back in 1999 or today, and then tell it on this sci-fi stage.”