Everett Downing Jr. and Patrick Harpin’s new animated sci-fi series turns familiar tropes on their heads, showing the struggles of a split Black family in a warp-speed space adventure; show debuts February 9 on Netflix.
It’s not surprising to hear that diversity and representation provided the foundation for Everett Downing Jr.’s and Patrick Harpin’s upcoming Netflix animated sci-fi series, My Dad the Bounty Hunter, which premieres Thursday, February 9. It’s also not much of a shock that series production designer Yuhki Demers, known for his work on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, spent many hours staring at charts filled with images of actor Taye Diggs for inspiration.
“Yuhki was tirelessly dedicated to getting it all right,” says Downing. “He's super nerdy when it comes to artwork and likes doing his research. I’m pretty sure he had a crush on Taye Diggs. He kept talking about how beautiful his skin was.”
Harpin chimes in, “I mean, hey, who could blame him?”
While diversity plays a core role in many recently released animated series, what is unique about My Dad the Bounty Hunter is its character inclusion that’s not only skin deep.
Of course, Black character and family representation in science fiction storytelling was a driving factor for Downing Jr. and Harpin when they began putting together the pieces of their CG-animated show back in 2016. But more than simply putting Black characters into a show inspired by some of their favorite sci-fi films (such as The Fifth Element, Star Wars, and numerous John Carpenter films), the two creators saw an opportunity to use this action-adventure medium to illustrate the struggles of a split family.
“It was a mandate for us to subvert expectations,” said Downing. “We wanted to take familiar tropes and turn them on their head. Without getting into spoilers, there are really emotional moments that come later, one where Lisa and her father get into a very big argument, and the director on that episode was definitely pulling from conversations he's had with his kids. Our big thing is truth-in-storytelling, and being able to assess, ‘Hey, does it feel real? Does it feel relatable and true?’ That was a goal from the jump, and you'll see that as you watch the show.”
My Dad the Bounty Hunter follows close-knit siblings Lisa (Priah Ferguson) and Sean (JeCobi Swain), who stow away on their absentee dad’s latest work trip, hoping to finally get some quality time together amidst their parents’ separation. Little do they know their dad Terry (Laz Alonso) has been keeping a secret from them – he’s actually the toughest bounty hunter in the galaxy! Launched into the surprise space adventure of a lifetime, Lisa and Sean discover that their seemingly average dad’s job is anything but boring.
“I learned more about my dad as I got older, where I found out more about the jobs he took and was like, ‘Wait, they had you carry a gun? You never told me that,’” remembers Harpin, previously a story artist on The Emoji Movie. “You have to learn more about your parents as you get older. And what was interesting for us dramatically was that dad being a bounty hunter is kind of a problematic job. Who's he catching? Does that person deserve to be captured? It’s fertile ground for conflict.”
As Sean and Lisa find themselves dodging dangerous aliens, robots, and laser fights galore, family bonding time becomes much more than they bargained for as they try to help their dad in pursuit of his toughest fugitive yet. But with his kids along for the ride, Terry must show up for them when they need it most, and they’d better make it home before mom (Yvonne Orji) finds out. The series is a warp-speed adventure across the constellation of ups, downs, and moments in between that shape family life.
The story began to take form for Downing, previously a director on the Oscar-winning short Hair Love and Netflix’s We the People and a story artist on Vivo, during his own time working long hours away from his family.
“While I was working in the animation industry, I spent so much time working on these movies, doing overtime, that I wasn't really getting a chance to connect with my kids,” he shares. “So, a lot of it came from the idea that if my kids really saw what I did, they might appreciate it, but probably wouldn’t think it’s that cool. So that's when I thought, ‘What could be something really cool that your dad does, that you think is really cool?’”
On top of that, Downing’s and Harpin’s crew of writers had their own experiences they pulled from when development on the script officially began in 2019.
“One of the writers had a dad who actually was a bounty hunter,” says Downing, who pulled one of Lisa’s quotes, “Nobody gets to pick on my brother except me,” directly from his own sister.
Harpin adds, “All the writers’ room and the crew, everybody has very specific backgrounds and upbringings. So that's your early focus testing. Really, you should be working something out on your end if you want it to be a compelling story. I have a good relationship with my parents, but there's definitely stuff in here where it's like, ‘Oh, yeah, we've had that argument.’”
My Dad the Bounty Hunter was also a means for Downing and Harpin to spotlight animators, writers, and others they knew were being underappreciated in the industry, who were ready to do more than the jobs they were being given.
“We tried to bring in everybody we thought was talented and was being underutilized,” says Harpin. “Most of the people we hired, we ended up promoting them into the positions they held on our show. A lot of these people had been ready for a while, it's just no one had put them in the game yet. And we put them in and got a lot of great surprises.”
He continues, “Juston Gordon-Montgomery has got a show coming out on Cartoon Network now, so he will be someone people know soon. But, at the time we hired him, people didn't know him. But this guy’s great. He's a story artist who's also a great writer. There are not a lot of those. You don't actually have to look outside of animation if you want to see diversity. There are actually people in animation who maybe you've just overlooked, who are working in the industry already, and are ready to go. We didn’t need famous animators. We just needed people that knew animation.”
Downing says that the whole team’s investment in representing these characters properly and doing right by them, elevating the look of the show, and offering up their personal stories to the script to make it believable and relatable makes him “exceedingly proud,” and offers a special thank you to Demers, as well as art director Alex Konstad (an art department member on The Mitchell’s vs the Machines) and Andrew Chesworth as character design supervisor (previously an animator on Big Hero 6).
Downing and Harpin hope that My Dad the Bounty Hunter gives some love to underappreciated creators, as well as hope to those that are yet unknown.
“The authenticity and skill behind the screen really come across, and these characters feel more natural and relatable because of it,” says Downing. “It’s incredible to see how much the style has grown since some of the earliest pictures, and we’re excited to see how, hopefully, it will continue to evolve.”