In this modern era of superhero stories in comic books, TV shows, and feature films, to stand out, you have to be flexible, and it helps to be colorful. Those are the major factors at play in the original animated superhero series Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters, a rebranding of the classic and iconic Hasbro toy that has not only launched wholly unique characters but also a mythology that’s all their own. Ahead of the super-stretchy series’ highly anticipated return to Netflix with all new episodes this Friday, September 7th, we had a chance to chat with executive producer Victor Cook (The Spectacular Spider-Man) and his team of directors to look back at Season 1 and tease what’s ahead for the Flex Fighters in Season 2.
The directing team is comprised of industry veterans like Cook himself, along with Kevin Altieri (Batman: The Animated Series), Frank Paur (Gargoyles), Alan Caldwell (Jackie Chan Adventures), and Phil Weinstein (Hellboy Animated: Sword of Storms). The creative team, all of whom have worked on adaptations of some of comic book history’s most famous creations, talked about getting a chance to direct stories for original superheroes in a modern world, along with which of these stories were the most challenging and which they were most proud of. New and returning fans of Stretch Armstrong alike will want to pay close attention to the teasers and images scattered throughout, while anyone with an interest in animation will find a wealth of information here.
Be sure add Season 2 of Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters to your wish-list and tune in on September 7th to see the original title team’s ongoing adventures!
Vic, you’re listed as both an Executive Producer and a Supervising Director on Stretch Armstrong. How do those duties differ and where do they cross over, if at all?
Victor Cook: My Executive Producer duties cover big-picture, overall series guidance. From creative world-building of characters, story and tone, to decisions about casting, music, choosing animation studios, locking picture and delivering final audio mixed episodes. In this role I work with my fellow EPs, the art/production crew, the studio and the network execs.
As a Supervising Director, my job is focused on the film making, the staging, poses, timing and choreography as well as the lighting, mood and design. I also guide how it will all move in animation. I edit and call retakes. In this role I work closely with the Episode Directors, Storyboard Artists, Art Director and designers as well as the animation studios in Korea. The cross-over duties for both my titles are the visuals aspects.
Season 1 of Stretch had to do the heavy lifting of introducing the series’ characters, their story, and their world. What Season 1 achievements are you particularly proud of and how will you build on them in Season 2?
Cook: I am proud of it all! Jake, Nathan and Ricardo’s world got turned upside down, what they believed about certain friends and certain enemies turned out to be untrue and flipped. I am particularly proud of the reveal that Blindstrike was not a bad guy and not even a guy at all, but the girl Jake has a crush on, Riya Dashti. Rook turning out to be Stretch Monster was another season one twist which ended The Flex Fighters run as corporate superheroes. Rook has caused most of Charter City to turn against Stretch, Omni-Mass and Wingspan.
Season Two will see The Flex Fighters deal with their new reality as heroes gone rogue. Stretch, Omni-Mass and Wingspan go underground and team up with Dr. C and Blindstrike and have to adapt to their harsher, darker methods of fighting crime. Riya Dashti/Blindstrike is a badass, strong female character and she is even more important in season two and we will learn what drives her and delve into her back story. In season one, we were introduced to Jake, Ricardo and Nathan, but in season two we go deeper and get to know them better, their inner demons and Jake’s tragic past. Characters we thought we knew in season one, like Rook, Riya and Dr. C are explored in detail in season two, we’ll find out why they are so obsessive about their goals and what set them on their paths. Stretch Monster is still a danger to contend with. New Super-Villains arrive to threaten the city and The Tech Men return with their own insidious agenda as well as more advanced hi-tech, mechanical weapons. The Flex Fighters fight to save a city that doesn’t trust them and the story progresses deeper and darker to a massive threat of sheer evil. Season two is thrill ride of fantastic action scenes and edge of your seat story twists and turns.
You’ve assembled a fantastic group of directors for Season 1 and Season 2. What can you say about the level of experience they brought into Season 1 and how they’ve grown or changed for Season 2?
Cook: I have worked with these amazing Director-artists before on other projects. It was fantastic to have their experience and talent on this show.
In Season 1, Kevin Altieri and Frank Paur Directed four episodes each. Alan Caldwell started the series as a storyboard artist and then moved up to Direct an episode. Phi Weinstein guest directed one episode.
Kevin Altieri was a director on the legendary Batman: The Animated Series as well as many other shows such as The Spectacular Spider-Man and Transformers Rescue Bots. That level of experienced is definitely a benefit for Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters. Kevin directed Episodes 3, 6, 9 and 12 of Stretch and he added a special touch to each of them, looking for ways to flesh out character and add mood. Kevin also ups the visuals for every action sequence, adding to every battle a level of intensity that is also character driven.
Frank Paur, is well known as a Producer of Disney’s Gargoyles, and has directed many animated projects including Avengers Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and The Invincible Iron Man. Frank directed Episodes 4, 7, 10 and 13. Frank’s early experience as a layout artist helped give the environments in his episodes a real dimensional feel and he helped establish the look of Stretch and the team’s hangout, Flex Base One. Frank’s cinematic approach to directing also brought a heightened level of suspense to each of his episodes.
Alan Caldwell has directed on many series such as Jackie Chan Adventures and MTV Spider-Man. Alan started this show as a board artist and storyboarded the Blindstrike vs Stretch fight on the train in Episode 3. That sequence got him promoted to director on Episode 11, which featured a climatic battle with Blindstrike, Stretch Monster and the Flex Fighters. Alan’s cinematic staging, precise character posing and choreography of action scenes are super exciting.
Phil Weinstein is known as a director of one of the Hellboy Animated DVDs as well as other DVD movies and many Disney TV series. Phil guest Directed Episode 5 of Stretch, which was a challenge since it had so many firsts, it introduced The Freak Sisters, the creepy-crawly bots called Stretchipedes and featured The Flex Fighter’s first battle with Stretch Monster. Phil’s experience Directing DVD movies as well as series, helped him do this as a one off for him. Phil researched the show, studied the characters and stepped in and delivered.
The interactive special, Stretch Armstrong and the Flex Fighters: The Breakout, featured sequences directed by Kevin, Frank and Alan. Kevin and Frank handled the villains that appeared in the season one episodes they directed. Alan directed three very cool sequences, Blind Strike and the Flex Fighters vs Stretch Monster, the battle with Kane and Rook Security and the climatic battle vs two villains
In Season 2, Alan directed four episodes, including the season premiere and season finale. Kevin and Frank directed three episodes each.
For everyone, which episode or sequence proved most challenging in Season 1? Which episode or sequence are you most proud of?
Cook: As a Supervising Director, overseeing each episode while juggling my duties as an EP was a constant challenge of not enough hours in the day. However, early in development, the most challenging but fun thing I directed was a 5 minute action short showing Stretch in various chase and fight scenarios. I made it to test out ideas and choreography for how Stretch’s powers would work and it was to be used as reference for the storyboard team. I directed the short to follow Stretch linearly from one sequence to another against a small army of hi-tech militaristic thieves. We liked it so much, we didn’t want it to be just reference for the board artists, so we found a way to insert it into an episode, you will see it in Season 2. Also, trivia FYI: The hi-tech thieves in the short inspired the creation of the Tech Men.
Of the three episodes I personally directed, I am most happy how Episode 8 turned out. An exciting return encounter and battle with Blindstrike vs our heroes. The board artists brought a lot to it. It was almost all visuals and action. An exciting infiltration opening and not one but two intense fight sequences. Even though this had the least dialogue, it had a great emotional story between Jake and his dad, which was very well staged. The city backgrounds looked great which was our usual setting, but this was a rare episode that also had a natural setting on an island with foliage which was beautifully painted. This episode was very well animated and the the character models and the background painting was closest to our intentions.
Kevin Altieri: Episode 6, “The Gangs of Old Town”, because it started with the trial of mob boss, Jack Kinland and court room scenes are difficult to stage and make interesting. Jack is soon transformed into the super-villian Smoke Stack. Smoke Stack is one of my favorite characters, because I like the fact that this gangster stays dapper even after he turns into a rock monster. Plus I love how his powers could switch from rock hard to smoke, it was fun to choreograph the fight scenes and come up with interesting ways for him to use his powers. Staging the multi-gang fight at the end was also challenging because there were so many gang members that specialized in different fighting methods. I had fun keeping track of everyone and making the fight exciting and making sure that it all worked.
I’m most proud of the Blindstrike introduction in Episode 3, ” Ninja and the Ghost.” I feel the train sequence came out well. I am also fond of the cat in Episode 12, “Endgame”. Although leaving the cat alone at the end wasn’t in the script, I added that because it gives the right note of sympathy at the end of that episode.
Phil Weinstein: Trick question , I only worked on Episode 5!
Frank Paur: In every series that you work on, there is always “that one episode.” In the production of “Stretch Armstrong”, for me, that would have been Episode 10, or as I referred to it; that cursed Episode 10, the museum show.
Noted for its many crowd scenes and intricate detail, Episode 10 centered around a school outing to the city’s museum, one of the rooms contained a robot exhibit, featuring many different types of robotic machines, a centered atrium containing among other things a spiral ramp where much of the action would happen. And many types of equipment including a dinosaur and experimental space plane. Also included was another wing of the museum containing the McGuffin of the story.
The issues that this type of story creates are problematic: Keeping track of all the places and Its many characters, keeping an energetic and steady flow of action moving smoothly along, and keeping the audience attentive to the story, with a full understanding of how that story unfolds. It’s all very complicated. It feels at times that only spit, Band-Aids and gum are the only things keeping all the pieces together.
Alan Caldwell: “Secret Ninja Party” had me on creative rollercoaster. We had to come up with sequences that were true to the script, but were also visually unique. Thankfully I was blessed with fantastic board artists that made my job a bit easier. But it was the final animation on that episode that blew me away. Every now and then you get a show that comes incredibly close to what you’d imagined in your head. Episode 11 was that show.