Creators Kevin and Dan Hageman and director Ben Hibon talk about the conception and production of the first ‘Star Trek’ series geared specifically to kids, premiering today on Paramount+.
Boldly (but accessibly) going where no Star Trek series has gone before, Star Trek: Prodigy is the first of the storied franchise’s multifarious series to be aimed at a younger demographic. Developed by Emmy Award winners Kevin and Dan Hageman (Trollhunters, Ninjago) and directed by Ben Hibon (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, Tales of Runeterra) the all-new CG-animated series, which premieres with a one-hour episode today, October 28, on Paramount+, follows a motley crew of young aliens who commandeer a derelict Starfleet ship – knowing nothing of its origins – and gradually learn about the stellar organization and ideals it represents. The Hageman brothers also serve as co-showrunners; Hibon also co-executive produces and serves as the creative lead of the show.
But how do you introduce a new generation of young viewers to the iconic Star Trek universe? To find out – as well as to explore the production process and seek out new ideas and new perspectives – we talked with Hibon and the Brothers Hageman, in which they revealed all.
AWN: Before getting into the origin story and the details of production, I just wanted to say the first episode was terrific. You guys paced the story so well, and it was so beautifully and richly animated.
Dan Hageman: Thank you. I feel like you're buttering us up, and I'm waiting for the bomb to go off.
AWN: Nope, no bomb. We’re not that kind of publication. So, this is obviously a venerable franchise, with a long and storied history. How did you come up with an approach for this first kids-focused Star Trek story?
Ben Hibon: Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, a lot of Star Trek fans will say, I grew up with the original series as a kid, or I started with the TNG series. But what's the entry point today? There's such a wealth of content – it’s really hard to figure out how to come in. And when you enter these universes, it’s like you need to know the difference between a Vulcan and a Romulan. So we decided that what we needed for an audience that’s interested in this world, but might feel a little intimidated, was a lighter Star Trek, or at least a well-paced Star Trek, to dole out that Gene Roddenberry world. And so we came up with the idea of, what if it's from the perspective of kids in the Delta quadrant, who don't know this world, but are able to learn about it and how it can affect their lives for the better.
Kevin Hageman: And I would add that it might be hard for a six- or eight-year-old boy or girl to identify with fully formed officers who are the best of the best. They've trained and studied for years, and now they're the perfect person in that role. But kids are fallible, they make mistakes. And I think it will be much easier for them to identify with our crew.
AWN: Apart from those kinds of revisions, though, are you pretty much sticking to the Star Trek canon?
KH: Oh, one hundred percent. We don't break canon at all.
DH: But we also don't want to rely on just the goodies of Easter eggs from the old Trek. There will be some of that in there, but we want to pave a new path as well, create new characters, new stories, new species that fit into the greater tapestry of Star Trek.
AWN: What about style? Was the show always going to be CG? Of course, Kevin and Dan, you’re coming from Trollhunters, which is a really richly designed and art directed CG world. Were you trying to emulate that?
DH: This is mostly a Ben question but let me just set him up. We always knew we wanted this to be CGI. We wanted the show to have an epic scale, to feel like an animated movie.
KH: But I don’t think we ever expected what Ben brought. What Ben brought exceeded our expectations.
DH: We told him that we wanted a huge scope. And then Ben came back to us and we were like, “What!?!”
BH: When I first came in and started to engage with the material and understand the character arcs, I could see the scale of the journey, and the vibrancy of the characters and the world. The way it was presented was very cinematic, and the rich CG was a logical technique for us to use. We wanted the show to feel incredibly large and epic in terms of its imagination and its presentation of the world, but also very intimate and very close to the characters, and very impactful emotionally.
The CG allowed us to really use all of the tools of cinema to capture as much of that script and that story as possible. I think we also very consciously wanted it to sit within the live-action entries of the Trek universe and have the same feel. We didn't want to make something that felt askew or like a mirrored experience.
AWN: Tell me a little bit about your design inspirations, for both the characters and world-building. Because there were a lot of worlds, a lot of different setups, even within the confines of the mining environment in the first episode.
BH: Right, we wanted to give it all that richness from the get-go, to really create a corner of that universe that felt very real, which would contrast with where we're going, which is towards the Federation, towards the classic language of Trek. And so we made sure that we were bringing new things for new viewers to embrace, so that we would have a great conversation when these two worlds start to collide.
AWN: Seeing that this is a brand-new series with brand-new characters, did you do most of the design work in 3D, or did you start with 2D concepts and then move them to 3D?
BH: We always start with 2D because the sketch is very easy to amend and to do iterations of. (Hopefully, we'll have a beautiful book, “The Art of Prodigy,” that shows all these designs.) But a lot of the richness comes from that development, figuring out the right aesthetic lines and stylization, especially in relation to the existing Trek lore and mythology. How do we integrate that into what Prodigy is trying to do visually? So it goes both ways. We were trying to establish an aesthetic, but we also borrowed from that classic look, and then we really mixed the two to create something new and different.
AWN: What were the biggest challenges of nailing the story? There’s a lot of episodic narrative in the series, a lot of storytelling.
KH: We had the benefit of having the writers’ room before anything was animated, and that was important in terms of understanding where we're starting and where we're going. One of the challenges, though, is that classic Star Trek episodes are one hour, and these are a half hour. And so we don't have as much time as we would like to step out the science or step out the characters. That's the reason we had a two-part pilot – you can't cram all that into a half hour. It would just feel too ramshackle.
AWN: Was there anything you learned from Trollhunters that served you well on this series?
KH: Here’s what I learned. I remember the executives at DreamWorks [the studio that produced Trollhunters] looking at what we were doing and scratching their heads, saying, “We made this many episodes for this amount of money. We paid this much money for our features, which is way more. And the quality of this television show is fantastic.” So we came away feeling that you can make a cinematic show if you just push people a little – like, let's get a 50-piece orchestra, you know, why not? And so it was really just kind of learning to dream big.
AWN: Last question. What does animation give you as storytellers that you wouldn't be able to do in live-action with CG?
DH: I love that we can work with our actors to get the perfect delivery of a line and really fine-tune the performance of our characters. My favorite moments in Prodigy are these closeups of their faces. And I see them looking around and just thinking… I love that.
BH: For me, it’s the way we can stylize moments through lighting and framing, and the way we deal with a set, and with blocking – we can just enhance individual moments. That's something that animation is really, really great at because it’s an artificial reality. You buy into it by default. And so there's something very powerful about animation because it allows you to really focus on the core of a story, and there's no distraction.
KH: And of course, you have the ability to really dare to dream. Whereas, if you're writing something for live-action and you have them ship come out of a cave, and through a waterfall, and hundreds of miners are cheering them on…
DH: That sounds like a $100 million movie. Or $200 million.
KH: So, you know, you can take big swings and you can tell very, very impactful stories with big moments, and also small moments. I love that moment of going through the waterfall as much as I love the closeup of Rok-Tahk's face – just seeing the minute movements in her face. The animations are beautiful.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.