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Call of the Wild: Mike Luciano and Phil Matarese Talk ‘Animals’

The writers, EPs and stars of HBO’s adult animated series discuss the evolution of the show ahead of its Season 3 premiere on August 3.

Season 3 of ‘Animals’ premieres Friday, August 3. Images courtesy of HBO.

Animals, the darkly hilarious animated series on HBO created by Mike Luciano and Phil Matarese, is gearing up for its Season 3 premiere on Friday, August 3.

Executive produced by Duplass Brothers Television, the series explores the lives of New York’s vermin, including rats, pigeons, cockroaches, and other animals voiced by a who’s who of comedy guest stars such as Jason Alexander, Aziz Ansari, Fred Armisen, Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Hale, Jonah Hill, Nick Kroll, Danny McBride, Ben Schwartz, Adam Scott, Molly Shannon and Wanda Sykes, among many, many others. While Animals definitely stands on its own with smart, incisive writing, and a rocking soundtrack, much of the fun of watching the series is guessing which character is voiced by whom.

The first two episodes of Animals made their world premiere at the Sundance festival in 2015, which led to a two-season pickup from HBO. The series was renewed for a third season in May 2017, just ahead of the Season 2 finale. Starburns Industries, the studio behind Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s stop-motion feature Anomalisa and Adult Swim hit Rick and Morty, provides the animation.

The first season of Animals -- which explored themes like sex, parenthood and midlife crisis -- was sweetly dark, bringing a touching sense of awkward innocence to the existential despair of a New York City overrun with base and degraded humans bent on destruction. In one of the show’s best conventions, humans were rendered unintelligible, voiced only in grunts, while the often cutting and insightful dialog went to the animals.

Season 2 played with that creative restraint, adding live-action sequences and opening up the dialog to the human characters as a horrific plot to sicken the entire population unfolds. Fun stuff, indeed. And yet, the sweetness still somehow remains. A love triangle between brainwashed rats stuck in an animal testing lab reveals empathy and resilience (and maybe the best musical cue ever). Two fleas ponder life. A teen pigeon goes on a wacky spirit quest to learn about courage and responsibility. All of it leading to Season 3, where after the apocalyptic events of Season 2 leave New York City human-less, every dog has his day -- literally.

Luciano and Matarese, the writers, executive producers and stars of the series, voice Mike and Phil, respectively. The duo appears throughout dozens of offbeat segments as a continually rotating cast of animals -- rats, pigeons, cats, etc. -- that nonetheless embody consistent personality traits. Mike tends to be the extrovert to Phil’s introvert. Mike can be helpful and encouraging. Phil sometimes lies. There’s a lot of cursing.

With the post-apocalyptic Season 3 of Animals almost upon us -- promising a bevy of new guest stars, including Awkwafina (Nora Lum), Edie Falco, Lucy Liu, Natasha Lyonne, Demi Moore, Tracy Morgan, John Mulaney, Michael Sheen, and the band Dinosaur Jr. -- AWN recently had a chance to chat with Luciano and Matarese about the show. The multi-hyphenate talents discussed everything from their roots making Animals in their spare time while working at a NYC ad agency to their creative approach to developing storylines for a full season of episodes. Read the Q&A, which has been edited for length and clarity, below:

AWN: Going back, the two of you started out working at a New York advertising company, where you both began making short films on the side for fun. What was that process like?

Phil Matarese: It was definitely a night and weekends kind of thing. But we just loved doing it, and kind of set a goal that we wanted to make one per month. So it was a tiny bit of a strenuous period, but it was also a really cool time for us to figure out what Animals actually was, and for me to figure out better ways to animate and to draw these things. It was a time of many late nights, but, I don’t know, fun. It was like a “fun New York young person” time in my life. That was just four years ago...

Mike Luciano: It’s rare when you have an idea that feels worth sticking to. It would have been one thing if we made one of the shorts, and “oh, well, that was fun, okay,” and moved on. But -- and we talk about this a lot -- even that one-minute short had a little package to it, where it felt like an episode of something bigger. We just kept doing it, and kept believing in it, and I think that carried us through a lot, just having that wherewithal to stay with the idea and keep seeing it out.

AWN: Tell us a little bit about how you brought Animals from concept to series and -- as you go into your third season -- what it’s like to reflect back on that journey?

PM: It was tricky. The initial short had no episodic story whatsoever, and we really wanted to hold on to that DNA of one animal being the main character per episode, but we also knew we wanted to have it be a little bit serialized, and also that we wanted to retain the comedy sketch feel of our short-form content.

Mike Luciano

Once Mike and I moved out here to Los Angeles, our first thing was “Let’s visualize the basic scale, let’s try beating out a few episodes.” What we ended up with for the first two seasons -- which was an A-storyline and then a B and C sketch within it, along with an overarching non-speaking human storyline -- felt like a really cool format that we hadn’t seen before. You can tell right now how hard it is to explain in words, so we definitely knew it was something we wanted to produce and show people that it’s actually a little bit more fluid than it sounds, and it kind of makes sense once you dive into it.

That being said, the show evolves very much each season. This season we have no sketches, and we have even more of a serialized storyline. We also have a different kind of human this season. All the human storylines -- the overarching theme -- are live-action. So it definitely grows and shapes with us, which, I think, is cool and exciting.

AWN: Season 1 followed a corrupt mayor and his administration. Season 2 followed a global health crisis. Is there anything you can tell us about the overarching storyline for season three?

ML: Well, the end of Season 2 ended with all of the humans in New York City being sadly wiped out, but luckily the animals survived. So where we open on Season 3 is three years after that happened. And what we find is a New York City devoid of all human touch, and it’s been taken over by the animals, who no longer have to play second fiddle to humanity running the city. So now we see New York City sectioned off into different boroughs and neighborhoods that each species of animal has created for themselves. So we see Pigeon Heights, where all the pigeons are, and there’s Rat Town, where all the rats stay....

PM: Some of them are figuring it out better than others, and some of them are kind of fucking it up a little bit. Some horses still use horses as horses, and the rats are basically the same as they were.

Phil Matarese

ML: At the beginning of the season, each species is sectioned off from one another, so each episode really revolves around taking a look into each animal section, like what are the dogs up to without their humans, how are they dealing with that? We dive into them and throughout the season, the walls begin to come down and they begin to be able to find a way to communicate across species lines, and come together for the greater good. So this season, more than any of the other ones, really does feel like a nice slate of 10 episodes that are separate parts of one story that grows with each episode. So we’re excited about that.

PM: For the human storylines, the humans are based in New Jersey watching all of the animals in New York City. Two low-ranking government officials that have been assigned animals to watch are portrayed by silver screen’s great Mike Luciano and Phil Matarese. We’re really happy to have those guys on board for this season.

ML: We’re going to give the viewers a treat.

PM: Usually it’s, “Can’t believe we’ve got ‘em!”

ML: Those beautiful mugs look exactly the same.

AWN: All the human characters in Season 1 are unintelligible. Talk about what prompted that creative decision and how that’s played out as the series has evolved.

PM: Well, initially it was just a cleanliness thing -- we didn’t want too many things to be happening in each episode. We knew we wanted it to play out a little bit more on the noir side and those lend themselves to being non-speaking. It was just like this fun thing to do and kind of a cool commentary I, suppose.

PM: But in Season 2 we had the entire live-action episode, which masterfully morphs from an unintelligible animated Dr. Labcoat to a live-action intelligibly speaking Dr. Labcoat, portrayed by Ru Paul. So I guess on our show, if it’s live-action you can understand it.

The way the human storyline is sectioned off in our new season, it’s not really ingrained as much within the episodes. It’s in the beginning bump for each episode. So that, I think, from a structural writing standpoint, is a little cleaner. You aren’t going in and out of episodes. Already in the season we have Phil and Mike encountering other Phil and Mikes, so it gets a little hairy, so I think it made sense to have the humans talking a little bit.

AWN: Let’s talk about the writing. Do you write the entire season at once?

PM: We write what are essentially 15 to 20-page outlines of each episode, structured scene by scene. Over time we’ve sort of figured out what makes for good recording sessions, so really what we’re doing is creating a blueprint for the episode storylines and for each character to function from the story standpoint. And then we write a fair amount of the jokes that are added to it, the bits of dialogue and stuff that we’ve scattered throughout. We know we want to hit and then that really lays the groundwork for when we do our records with the people, which are then improvised off of them and gives a little bit more of a lively, in the moment feel, we think.

This season was exciting, because we actually had more time to write. From Season 1 we pretty much quickly went right into Season 2, so it was a more condensed writing schedule, whereas we just had more time to write Season 3, and I think it made for a better season. We got to really focus on the storylines and really interweave everything in a rich way that’s still really satisfying and equally funny.

AWN: The show is, well, dark, but also has an inherent sweetness to it. How do you strike that balance?

PM: It’s story by story, and I think by now Mike and I really know the tone of the show, we know not to tilt the scales too much one way or the other. It’s really just what tickles our fancy, and I guess that we are a little dark and a little fucked up, but ultimately pretty sweet, too.

AWN: You’ve had some really remarkable talent to work with on the show. How have you gotten people to collaborate, and are there any standout moments you’d like to recount?

PM: It’s always funny, that question of how, because it’s so boring. Generally we write an offer, our agents try to get them, and then they either say yes or no. But, it’s not a lot of time to do it; it’s not, like, waking up at 6:00 a.m. and getting into makeup and driving out to who knows where to shoot it, and it’s super that you can come in your pajamas, many people do. It’s a really fun experience for a lot of people.

I really liked it when we would have big sessions where we would try to do a whole episode with everybody there at once. For Season 1, the “Pigeons” episode, we had Horatio Sanz, Mitch Hurwitz, Mike, myself and Meghan O’Neill all there on one day, and we would just grind people in and out of the booths for various scenes. It was this really cool and kinetic session. Mitch Hurwitz was there, and he would pop in and pitch jokes for scenes that he wasn’t even in. That was lovely, because we banged out the whole episode in one sitting. We had four, maybe six hours of this really fun session -- just going through a bunch of food, telling a bunch of jokes, and doing it start to finish.

We have a huge recording booth here at Starburns, which is one of the reasons why Mike and I ended up at the place. We’ve had up to eight people in there at once.

ML: For me, a lot of the highlights are just remembering times when I was laughing so hard...getting so many people in that we like and admire and have watched for years and years, and just to be in a room with them, directing them, is such a freaking joy. It’s one of the great parts of this job that we’re fortunate enough to have.

But, I would also say, too, that every now and then there’s a nice surprising moment where we’ll have somebody who’s maybe more of a dramatic actor, who will bring a little bit of weight to a part that we’re not expecting.

PM: Jared did.

ML: Jared Harris, he’s coming this season, he is so funny. He’s a British horse detective. He’s British, so he would be a British horse. We’ve also got Tom Noonan as Phil’s rat dad in an episode. We have this whole buildup with Phil as a rat whose dad has left him. Not to give too much away, but later, in an episode down the season, there’s an encounter. It’s just a moment, but Tom Noonan brought a lot of emotion to it. It gave me chills.

PM: Oh, yeah! I totally got chills from Tom Noonan. I’ve been scared of him since Last Action Hero, but in a good way, like, “Oh, I like that.”

AWN: Tell us how your relationship with Duplass Television began. How involved are the Duplass Brothers in the production of the series?

PM: After Mike and I made this little 12-minute pilot, we didn’t really know what we were going to do, pitch it, pitch our show traditionally, pitch it to Netflix, and then our agency was like, “Mark Duplass wants to talk to you guys.”

We Skyped him in our office supply closet, and basically laid out that he could front-end some money and we would make it independently. And he was really great at the beginning stages -- number one, getting all his friends to do voices for it, which was tantamount to the first episode having some locomotion behind it.

AWN: Okay, there’s the how you got your voice talent. That’s not so boring.

PM: Yeah, maybe not. But he also helped us shape it and helped us launch it out. He  got us to screen it at Sundance, which I think gave it a bit more prestige, and just packaging the whole thing.

Early on, for Season 1, we would do read-through reads with him for every episode, which was always fun and always pretty informative for Mike and I, but he’s the type of executive producer where once the ship’s moving he’s very hands off in a nice way. Whenever we need him, whether it’s talking to the network, or even just picking out promo material, he’s really seasoned and he’s got a good multi-faceted mind for show business and for making stuff.

ML: And he’s very hot.

AWN: Pardon?

ML: We’re just saying he’s also very hot. He’s easy on the eye.

AWN: I will not disagree. So, speaking of easy on the eyes, how was your visual style developed?

PM: Our show is a strange beast, because it is very much, in a lot of ways, episodic, so whenever I think I’ve nailed down a style, we throw all that shit out and start over for the next episode. But, luckily, I think as an art director I’ve gotten good at knowing what I want and how to get it out of people and how to help people find the style of the show a bit.

We’ve had a lot of returning people from season to season, so we’ve built up a repertoire of props and different species of characters that we can refer back to. Fortunately, when you’re making an animated show you only build up that library each season, so inherently it gets easier and easier as it goes on.

PM: But the show has evolved, and over Season 2 I watched it grow into less of a down-and-dirty show and more into a “let’s just be a pretty show with the mouth not moving” and stuff. And I think we’ve found a nice place in that.

AWN: The animation is produced at Starburns Industries. How did you come to work with them?

ML: Initially, when we sold first two seasons of the show, we thought we’d do it all in-house, create our own studio, essentially. The idea was to expand the operation in our apartment, where we made the first handful of episodes, but we quickly realized that would cause more headaches than it would solve. Not only would we have to be making our television show, but we’d also have to manage a whole studio operation.

So we began going around to different animation studios, looking to see what would be the best fit. There are so many amazing studios out here, but we just felt a kindship with Starburns. The place feels so creator-driven, with people like Dan Harmon and Dino Stamatopoulos. We love the shows they’ve made over the years -- unique animated series with strong voices -- and we were really into that. There's also Anomolisa, Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson. Honestly, a lot of it was just being able to go into a place where we felt like we could make our own show, and not just be plugged into a bigger thing. Starburns really allowed us the flexibility to hold down our own and grow within it.

It’s also little things, like they have the biggest recording booth that we’ve seen, designed especially for podcasts, where you can fit a bunch of people in, and that’s exactly the way we initially recorded -- it was all in a big room in our apartment. Little things like that just started to add up, and it’s been a great place for us that we’ve been excited and happy to grow within.

PM: They also gave us skateboards.

ML: They did give us skateboards and that was a biiiig deal, let me tell ya.

AWN: Sweet! About how long does each episode take to produce?

ML: We stack them up, so while we’re beginning one episode we’re down the line on another one, but all said and done, around 10 months.

AWN: And around how many artists work on each episode?

PM: Three characters designers, around five background designers, five colorists, two prop designers, something like 12 storyboard artists at one point, and then three props people, compositors, an editor, an assistant dialogue editor, an assistant editor... I lost count at a certain point but it’s 30, 40 people, somewhere around there.

In Season 1 we did all the animation in-house so that was another dozen people, but now we ship a lot of the first pass animation to a company in Canada called Big Jump, and we just have revision animators in-house here. That’s about three people now. We went down from 12.

AWN: When did you start working with Big Jump? Season 2?

PM: That was Season 2, yeah.

AWN: As far as visual design goes, are some animals more difficult to animate than others?

PM: I think so. We had a horses episode this season that was a nightmare. It’s funny, because they’re just big animals. But there’s all the gear, the general mechanics, and their heads -- their heads are so specific when they’re head-on, and then it’s totally different on three-quarters.

It was a real big headache for all of our production coordinators and people like that. There’s also the issue of quadrupeds versus bipeds: with all fours, you have something like six more turns. A dog takes six turns to stand up whereas a rat’s character’s always bipedal. So that’s a little trickier, too.

ML: Also, I remember in Season 2 we had a whole roaches episode, and making the roaches expressive and finding the right balance of what their faces are like without being too cartoony.

PM: Yeah, some things need more hyperbole than others. Like, a horse is beautiful -- I love that thing! But a rat needs to be a little bit cartoony. With the roaches, we just had to make it more cartoony because real roaches are horrifying.

AWN: Before you go, can we talk a little bit about the music?

ML: We have an amazing composer, Julian Watts, who we work with to create a good portion of the music for each episode to give each one a distinct kind of cinematic feel. We play off of a lot of cinematic tropes in each episode, and working with him really helps with that.

That being said, something we’ve done from the beginning is to try to fill the show with music from a lot of the smaller bands that we love, putting everything we listen to throughout each episode.

We know we didn’t want to just have a stock lineup of music for each episode. We wanted to give each episode and each interstitial its own unique feel, and I think that stems from when we were initially making the shorts in New York. We used the music from our friends’ bands and all the bands that we would hang out with and liked back then, and so now getting to have a stage of an HBO show, it’s been really nice to continue that tradition and introduce people to bands that we really love and think are special and get to put them front and center.

AWN: Your use of the Presidents of the United States of America’s “Lump” to back the montage sequence in the Season 2 premiere was, like, the best musical cue ever. It felt so completely organic and spot-on. It was a joy to watch.

ML: Thanks! See, that makes it worth it.

AWN: Anything you want to add before we say goodbye?

PM: Season 3 is a whole new beast, as we like to call it. It feels like the same show, but it also feels like a very different show, so if you haven’t seen it yet, feel free to just hop on in, you ain’t gonna miss much, and if you have seen it, welcome back, friend, you’re going to love it. It’s senior year, party safely.

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.