‘Animals.’ Creators Mike Luciano and Phil Matarese on Making a D.I.Y. Cartoon for HBO

A how-to guide for anyone interested in punk rock TV

Two rats (voiced by Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano) in Animals.
Rats voiced by Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano in Animals.

The first thing you need to know about Animals., HBO’s coolest show you’ve probably never heard of, is that it’s not for everyone. Combining low-budget animation with a host of A-list voices (including Jessica Chastain, A$AP Rocky, Robert Morse, Aziz Ansari, Nick Kroll, John Lovitz, Kurt Vile and the Wayne Brothers, among many, many others) in an episodic, improvised anthology series about different New York creatures (among them rats, cats, dogs and caterpillars); Animals. was never going to appeal to a mainstream crowd not yet inoculated by cult cartoons like Bojack Horseman and Rick & Morty. Though Animals.–which premiered on HBO at 11:30 P.M. on February 5th (a Friday)–may appear in a time-slot that could be read as fatal to a burgeoning series, its late night time-slot is actually more apropos for what Animals. is; filling perhaps one of the final annals of “dead zone” programming not yet gentrified by Adult Swim.

Because Animals. is late-night television. Animals. is D.I.Y. as fuckAnimals. is punk rock. And the story behind how the show got made in the first place is more Vinyl than a hundred of Bobby Cannavale’s cocaine snot-wads. And the story of how Animals. got on television in the first place is a triumphant middle finger to the traditional way of doing things.

Mike Luciano and Phil Matarese were working in a New York advertising firm when they came up with the idea for Animals. Legend has it that the two were distracted by a pigeon on the ledge of their building, and began riffing on a story about it. Soon, it was a web-series, voiced by both guys and animated by Luciano. They submitted their work to the New York Television Festival in 2013, where it caught the eye of indie darling and Animals.‘ executive producer Mark Duplass. Duplass–who, along with his brother Jay helped found the Mumblecore movement in film, leading to a resurgence of low-budget, non-studio produced independent movies–paid for the two men to pick up and move to Los Angeles and provided them his Rolodex of celebrity friends to voice the series. Trading a definitive timeline and money upfront (not to mention a guarantee that any network or distribution platform would be interested) for complete creative control over their own series, Luciano and Matarese produced the first two episodes and screened them with the Duplasses at Sundance in January 2015, where it was promptly picked up by HBO for a two-season deal. (HBO is also the home of the Duplass-produced program Togetherness.)

We talked to Mssrs. Luciano and Matarese about how their weird little cartoon experiment ended up on the most prestige of prestige networks, its critical reception thus far and chasing the dream.

ObserverYou guys had full-time jobs working in New York when you were making the web videos for Animals. When and how did you decide whether or not this was something you wanted to go all in on?

Mike Luciano: We literally took a Skype call with Mark in our closet when we were working at this ad agency. It was just the seed of his idea of doing a season independently…you know, he couldn’t guarantee that we’d wind up anywhere, really. But he could guarantee that we would make ten episodes of this show with all these great people who he’s connected with, and we’d have total creative show.

And for us, we had made it–just Phil and myself–literally us two. So it felt like the most tangible way to continue was to have this creative umbrella of Mark and Jay allowing us to figure out the show in a kind of low-stakes way. There wasn’t this pressure: we were allowed to discover the show for ourselves and determine the workflow that worked best. So when that pitch came, it was almost a no-brainer.

ObserverTo make your own television show that’s not beholden to a network? To use the model of independent filmmaking to apply to an animated show? Yeah, that does sound like a no-brainer.

Phil MatareseAnd we didn’t have to wait either. Mike and I, we want a shitload of work. We want to be battling a big mountain of stuff to do. And that just felt like the quickest thing, even though it was driving across the country and moving. We stayed on our friends’ couch and blow-up bed for two months.

ObserverHave you guys had any other experience in television?

MatareseThis is [both our] first thing really. It’s really a timestamp of who we are right now, whether it’s the music or the jokes or anything else. We always say “The more you create your thing on your own, the less say anyone else can have in it.” We know our show is difficult to pitch: it’s a sketch show, the mouths don’t move, and it’s low-fi…but it’s also really dirty. We knew we had to make it and show it to people in order for them to realize, “Oh, this is a thing.”

“If you want your thing to be your thing, make it your thing.” – Phil Matarese

The more you put into your thing, the more you create this statue of it, and the less they can chop away at it. When it’s just a script or something like that, they can interpret it differently, and try to affect it to be what they want it to be. And sometimes that’s good, but for the most part: If you want your thing to be your thing, make it your thing.

ObserverHow did HBO get involved and what has been their reaction so far?

LucianoThey love it, and they’ve really been behind it, which has been so great. They’re just psyched about it, and psyched to have the season continue with people finding it.

MatareseThey came onboard after Sundance, which was our big debut to all these networks and stuff. That was two completed episodes; we had some V.O. in the can, some storyboards, ten scripts, a show bible and Mark and Jay and us in the room talking to them. So we gave them the season: we said “This is what it’s going to be. You can take it or you can leave it.” And thank God, they took it.

ObserverSo how about pick-up for other seasons?

LucianoWell, they bought us for two seasons. So we’re writing it right now. It’s exciting, it’s really fun to start off in a new season and a new storyline. A new ten episode human storyline to connect it all.

MatareseIt’s kind of scary now, because we had like 50 people working on the show, but now it’s just Mike and I. We’re sort of realizing…we can do whatever we want. It’s fucking weird being in this part of the creative process again. It feels good though.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lN5hzUo5ccY]

Observer: When I was watching Animals., my first thought was how much it reminded me of that Rick and Morty episode “Rixty Minutes” with the inter-dimensional commercials. Just that idea that improvised dialogue in an animated series can short-circuit a viewer’s brain. “Are they making this all up? How do they animate around it?”

Phil Matarese: Well our show is improvised. Mike and I write 12-15 page outlines of the episodes; just the beats we want to hit. A few lines here or there. But for the most part, we bring everyone who is in a scene together…we’re all recording in the same room.

Observer: That itself is unusual, right? Isn’t most animation recorded with people alone in booths?

Matarese: It is! It’s kind of a foreign thing. People we have on the show who do a lot of animation, after we wrap, they’ll say “That was so much fucking fun and I don’t know why we don’t always do it this way.” Because you’ve got the best improvisers in there, and you want them to do what they do best.

Observer: Talk a little bit about the reception of the series.

Mike Luciano: We’ve always known that it’s this strange show that would fit into a pocket of whatever home would have us. We knew that it would not be what people would think of an animated show, which is why we always liked it and gravitated towards it. Because it felt different. That’s what’s been a draw for us, so what’s really fun is to see, people who like it? They really, really like it.

“It’s old people! We can say it! Fucking old people don’t like our show because they’re dumb.”

Matarese: And with something like this, you don’t want to wind up in the middle too much. Pass/fail!

Luciano: So say, that Variety article, that person didn’t get it. It wasn’t for them, at least in the five episodes that they saw. But then you see something like Flash Films, which calls it the most interesting and unique show on television. There’s a hunger for this, and it’s not just the main, stiff critics at one place…

Matarese: It’s old people! We can say it! Fucking old people don’t like our show because they’re dumb. They didn’t have cell phones in high school like I did. They’re jealous because they didn’t have iPods.

Observer: You had a cell phone in high school?

Matarese: Yeah, well…junior and senior year.

Luciano: It’s just been really fun to see people writing about it on social media. Every time it’s written about it on Twitter or Facebook, it’s people finding it and going like “Oh my god, you have to watch Animals. Animals. is my favorite new show.”

Matarese: It’s really gut-driven. The people who like, it’s really an interior thing that’s really hard to quantify. But they love it, and they want to tell people about it. Which is great, because we’re kind of a secret show. We’re the show you haven’t seen yet, on at 11:30 on a Friday.

Observer: Well that’s also what I was wondering: has HBO ever put a scripted–or semi-scripted–show not on a Sunday night? It’s interesting.

Matarese: It’s been interesting for us too. But you know, we know who we are: we know we’re a weird niche thing and hopefully people are watching it while pre-gaming before going out.

Observer: Or watching on HBOGo, like the rest of the world.

Matarese: Well yeah, and that’s the big thing too. Our show comes out a day earlier; it premieres technically on Thursdays on HBOGo. We’re just like a weird show! Every aspect of our show is fucking weird and take a bit of explanation. Like, I just found out there is an Animals. Subreddit!

Observer: And you guys have a Spotify playlist?

Luciano: We do! It’s all the music for the show.

Matarese: It doesn’t have everything, which bothers me.

Observer: Doing a semi-improvised script, how does that affect the animation side of things?

Matarese: Well Mike edits all the audio down from improvised sessions. So we could have a sketch that’s going to end up being three minutes on TV, but we have maybe an hour of improvised stuff. That’s Mike’s main steez, editing it down. That’s our priority, first and foremost: getting a radio play down that’s 22 or 28 minutes long. It’s just an audio version of the episode, and it doesn’t change after that, because if you start adding stuff or messing with things too much, then the storyboards and the blocking get fucked up.

So we just lock that down right off the bat. We have to. We have everybody in the sessions themselves and we can’t bring them back. It has this sort of impulsiveness to it: “One and done.” We do full, A-story episodes in one chunk. For episode six we had Lauren Lapkus, Horatio Sanz, Mitch Hurwitz, me, Mike and Meghan O’Neill in the studio for four hours…we can’t get those people back! So we have to run and gun it.

And it feels good! It feels fucking good to do that. You just bang it out, and it has that energy; that breathing life to it in the episodes.

“I would love for that to be a takeaway for a lot of people…just the idea that you don’t have to ask permission to make stuff.”

ObserverHow quick is the turnaround time between recording and animating?

Matarese: It’s hard to tell because this big staggered thing. We’re working on the audio for episode 7 while we’re on full color of episode 2. It was like nine months to do eight episodes.

Observer: Which is still really fast for animation.

Matarese: It is! Because we kept it predominantly in-house here at Starburns Studio. We’re zooming around; I’m sitting down with the animators, sitting down and going over every shot. Mike’s doing audio and sitting with our editor guy. You just spin a lot of plates.

Summer for Mike and I is absolute hell. I’m excited for it, but I’m also nervous for it. Knowing what it was…it’s daunting. We always call it “the mountain of work.” You just have to keep pushing yourself through it, and eventually you know it’s going to get done. No matter what, we have to make ten episodes.

Observer: I feel like this is such an inspiration for anyone who wants to work in television.

Matarese: I would love for that to be a takeaway for a lot of people. Outside of the show itself, and enjoying it as a piece of media, just the idea that you don’t have to ask permission to make stuff. You can just live in an apartment with your friends and work on something nights and weekends and create something. I would love for that to be the message, or part of what comes out of this, that people take that away from it.

I remember when I was in college, seeing Community and Dan Harmon, that sort of behind-the-scenes thing for the first time ever; realizing that a show-runner exists and hearing him talk frankly about dealing with networks. It was inspiring. It makes you realize that a lot of these things existed that you had no idea about. I had no idea about TV writing until, I dunno…I was a full grown-up.

We always had this romantic idea that Mike and I would always wear masks and kind of be behind-the-scenes. We weren’t gonna do podcasts or anything like that! But you know, it fucking feels good to tell people about it. Hopefully, get them hyped about not just our show, but their stuff; their lives. ‘Animals.’ Creators Mike Luciano and Phil Matarese on Making a D.I.Y. Cartoon for HBO