See more photos in Shannon Cottrell's slideshow, “ThunderCats Studio Tour.”
ThunderCats art director Dan Norton has a sign in his office that reads, “This is the day you dreamed of when you were 12 years old.”
“I was a ridiculous ThunderCats fan,” he says.
“I mean, you would run home from school, do whatever you had to do to get home, especially to catch the intro,” he continues. “That set the pace for the whole episode.”
Norton liked the “seriousness” of the show. ThunderCats, he says, was not “a throw it in your face superhero show.” He recalls being twelve-years-old and wondering if he could “draw something that cool.”
“This was the moon. There's no way you'll ever get to touch the moon,” he says of ThunderCats. “Weirdly enough, I've been able to gravitate towards this thing. It seemed impossible.”
“Dan only speaks in hyperbole,” ThunderCats producer Michael Jelenic had joked earlier in our conversation. Norton's unabashed enthusiasm for the franchise and his clearly genuine awe over his position on the show in many ways help put the show into context.
One of the big names in 1980s cartoons, ThunderCats is back, set to premiere on Cartoon Network on July 29 at 8 p.m. Its return is the result of people who grew watching the original Rankin/Bass series, who went to work in the animation industry and now have a chance to breathe new life into the characters that made an impact on them decades ago.
There have been numerous attempts to revive the adventures of Lion-O, Cheetara, Panthro and the rest, but nothing had really stuck until the current creative team formed.
“It's been in the works for a while,” says Jelenic. “I think this team came together and it sort of clicked and mostly that's why it's going right now. People have been waiting for this show for 25 years, but it's been in development for two or three years.”
This trio is rounded out by Ethan Spaulding, who joined Norton and Jelenic in January of 2010, right around the time the series was greenlit. Spaulding previously worked on Avatar: The Last Airbender and is a self-professed fan of anime series like Future Boy Conan, Macross and Cowboy Bebop. He helped develop ThunderCats into a grand saga that unfolds in a fashion similar to anime serials and U.S. shows like The Last Airbender.
The anime comparisons go beyond the storyline of the new ThunderCats series as Warner Bros. worked with Japanese animation house Studio 4°C (Memories, Tweeny Witches, Detroit Metal City) on the project. The anime studio has been involved in the series since the storyboarding process, which is atypical for such a joint effort.
“in this case, we wanted the kind of filmmaking sense that they have in Japanese animation, so it made sense to have them take our scripts and storyboard an entire show,” says Spaulding.
Jelenic adds that the relationship between the two studios is different than what commonly happens in animation.
“Usually, everything is done here and they follow our orders directly, they fill in the blanks,” he says. “This is more of a creative partnership.”
Undoubtedly, the new ThunderCats series will tap into a certain sense of nostalgia for those who grew up in the 1980s and may now be watching show with their own children, potential viewers that the team calls “ThunderDads.”
“We wanted those ThunderDads to like the show well enough that they could bring their kids in and watch it together, so it's a family experience,” says Jelenic. “We made sure we stuck to certain characters, parts of the mythology. We break a lot of the old mythology, but more or less when you look at the show it looks like the old show, even though there are some pretty big departures.”
Nostalgia is a strange thing, though, based on memories that have grown hazy with the passage of time.
“I think in a nostalgia sense, a lot of people who remember the show, they remember bits and pieces. They remember characters vaguely,” says Norton. “It's been a long time.”
Norton says that there will be some “Easter egg” elements in the show, but “with a new twist, if they remember it clearly.”
Jelenic points out that, in the original series, there was a psychologist on staff and episodes were tailored to teach lessons to young viewers. Those sorts of issue-centric episodes won't be as obvious in the new series, though Spaulding clarified that they are “keeping those life lessons for Lion-O.” The show also mixes stand-alone episodes with a greater story arc.
“There are sort of rules that [networks] want to be stand alone so that they repeat better, they want things to be self-contained,” says Jelenic. “So it is pretty unusual that an American show is going to take on this sort of huge arc because it requires the audience to be more invested.”
He adds, “I think in that aspect we're taking a chance in the storytelling department that may or may not work.”
Curious ThunderCats fans can check out the first two episodes of the new series, screened as a “minimovie,” this year at San Diego Comic-Con.
The ThunderCats screening, which includes a Q/A session, will take place on Friday, July 22 at 3:30 p.m. in room 6A. The panel will include members of the cast.
The panel will sign autographs at the Warner Bros. booth from 12:45-1:45 p.m. on Friday. You'll also be able to check out new toys based on characters from the series at the Warner Bros. booth.