If you’re a fan of Dav Pilkey‘s iconic Captain Underpants comics, the DreamWorks Animation movie that delighted audiences last year, or just really funny and super silly animated series, you’ll want to check out DreamWorks Animation Television’s new Netflix show, The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants. Even if you’re not familiar with the characters, who are introduced fantastically well early on in the series, this show is worth a watch for the fast-paced, slapstick humor and the impressively ambitious array of animation styles on display. To talk about how the show came together, I recently had a chance to sit down with Executive Producer Peter Hastings; our animated conversation follows below.
DreamWorks’ The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants stars Sean Astin as the series’ narrator and Nat Faxon as Captain Underpants/Mr. Krupp, as well as young actors Jay Gragnani and Ramone Hamilton who voice best pals, George Beard and Harold Hutchins. You can watch The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants on Netflix, as part of their Netflix Kids & Family channel, starting this Friday, July 13th.
For folks who aren’t familiar with the comics, what is your one sentence pitch or description for the animated series?
Peter Hastings: The Epic Tales of Captain Underpants carries on telling more stories of George and Harold in the style and tone of Dav Pilkey’s wildly successful books.
In talking about this series, what about Pilkey’s book and comics made this a perfect story and cast of characters for a TV series adaptation?
Hastings: The books have all of the kind of elements of a comic in terms of the sort of best friends who hang out in school and who have adventures and crazy things like that. I mean, stuff you would typically find in a sort of modern cartoon. But the thing that really makes it special is the way that Dav Pilkey tells stories, and the creativity that he brings into it, and the alternate ways of presenting things and the self-referential comedy.
Basically, what he has done with all of these different storytelling devices that he uses is he creates, for me, a party where you can kinda go crazy. So for me, there’s the fundamental story that you’re telling and then there’s all these ways that you get to tell it, so we use alternate types of animation. We make comments about what’s going on. We have tremendous freedom in terms of the storytelling and in terms of what can happen.
It’s kind of this explosion of creativity that is just really fun to do, works really well in animation, and we are doing all these kind of alternate things, as I’d mentioned. Then you have again, just sort of fundamentally, these likable, charming lead characters. So it’s just like a great combo of stuff.
Were you a fan of Pilkey’s work previously or is this your first time exploring it?
Hastings: I was introduced to the books probably, I mean, I think they first came out about 20 years ago, and not too long ago, when he probably had like one or two. He’s done 12 Captain Underpants books. I have a young son, and I think I discovered it kind of through him. I think many parents have had this experience of sitting with their kid and looking at a Captain Underpants book thinking it’s just gonna be obnoxious and shallow, and it turns out to be really charming and fun and clever.
At that time, I was working in animation and I remember asking, I was like, “Who’s doing Captain Underpants?” I think for a long time, all these different studios wanted to do it. So when I heard that DreamWorks had it, I mean, right away I was like, “Oh, that’s so great, finally somebody’s gonna get to do something.”
I did ask Dav Pilkey about it and I said, “Were you holding out ’cause you didn’t wanna, you know, like Calvin and Hobbes never has gone anywhere because Bill Watterson doesn’t wanna do that,” and he said, “No, no, no, no,” he goes, “Just every time somebody would pitch it to me, they didn’t quite get it.” Then finally, you know, after time kinda went by he just felt like it was in the right hands.
So I was pretty familiar with it, and excited to do it. It’s really what brought me into DreamWorks, with the company, this show specifically. Very much had him in mind as I was developing it and ended up pitching it to him as well, and he loved it.
So how closely did you and the creative team work with him? How much of the series sticks to the books vs how much freedom did you have there?
Hastings: He has not been terribly involved. We sort of checked in with him a few times. But I think after we spoke early on, he felt comfortable in just letting me run with it. So that’s been great.
I mean, we’re kind of close enough that it’s like, he could be talking to me all the time. But he’s very much like, “I wanna be surprised by what you come up with,” you know. I said, “If you want, you can watch some episodes,” and he was like, “No, I wanna wait ’cause I wanna watch them all at once,” which he just did recently and just sent me this great email about how much he was enjoying it.
We’re using basically the format of the books but we’re telling original stories. So we’re not telling any of the stories that he’s done in the books. Our stories basically are like more books, really is kind of what we’re doing. And again, there’s a lot of things about how he tells a story and the type of humor and the charm and the tone and the sensibility and all that sort of stuff that’s really, really important to me to deliver on, and which I also really identify with.
I just started that way, when I did the bible, which is the document that says this is what the show is gonna be. I made it as if George and Harold had made the document. Because the show’s very handmade, there’s this idea that everything is just kind of really handmade, and comes from a kid sensibility or something that a kid would actually really like.
So the original documents that I made were really all about capturing that tone. You know, which is sort of clever. It’s sort of intelligently silly. I always say it’s like, what would George and Harold make, or what would George and Harold wanna see? George and Harold would make a cardboard robot, but they would also wanna see some giant, crazy, mecha robot in a show. So both of those things can happen.
How did you find the right pacing for the show, and what was the process like of editing and honing those jokes to make them punch in the right way?
Hastings: I have never really thought of a show that was like, this is for kids and this is for adults. I always kind of go with this approach of like, this is for people. You know, there are things that obviously an adult is gonna get. But for a kid it’s just also just like, funny-sounding words. So it really works, it works both ways.
It’s also something that Dav Pilkey does a lot in the books, too. So he does puns on things that kids aren’t gonna know what those are.
The pacing of this series is really solid. It’s a good pace, it keeps things moving along, and stuff comes out of left field sometimes. So I was just wondering what the creative process was like for that.
Hastings: The editing of the show is a really important part of it. In some ways if I think about almost like a very creative theatrical production, and I’m talking … not movie theater, but like a play where you can use all kinds of devices to tell the story, and people can see the strings. You know, people can see the mirrors and people can know that that character is playacting and all these kind of things. There’s just an openness to the story telling.
Editing is definitely a part of that for us. Again, it’s this invitation to not hold back. So when we do that, we’re just always thinking about like, what’s the next sort of level or the next step that we can take or what could we do on top of that? Definitely one of the styles of editing is there’s a lot of really quick editing and things that become very fast. I would say there are some moments like that that that we have, and that works. At first I’m kind of like, this isn’t quite landing. But then we cut it in a particular way, it takes on a rhythm that becomes entertaining and fun. It’s definitely one of our big tools.
So you know, that’s always something that I encourage. The other part to the quick editing is also we do these extremely long, silly things as well. So what I said to the crew is just look at this, what I would call the accordion, which is like sometimes we’re stretched way out and sometimes we’re squeezed way in. You’ve got to do both to make the music. So it’s just basically a principle of tension and release.
Todd Grimes who’s the supervising producer just completely got that, and he’s just been really running that, the rhythm of that editing which is huge for the show.
I absolutely loved the core animation, the kind of main look for the show, and then how seemingly at random you’ll just have these transitions to sock puppets to claymation to like, stick figures. How much fun and how much freedom and maybe how many headaches came with all those different styles of animation? Can you just talk about kind of the fun of playing with that idea?
Hastings: Fundamentally that comes, again, from this style of storytelling that’s in the books. Now, a lot of times in the books it’s written as just words and/or it’s the equivalent of a narrator who is telling the story and suggesting these sort of different things. We have motion, we have animation, and we need to visualize these things in a different way.
So that just kind of opened the door to representing things in fun and different ways. So one of them, we just kind of came up with a list like, what can we do? Well we’ll do a puppet bit, we’ll do things on paper cut-outs on sticks. Again, like what would George and Harold make? You know, what would they wanna see? Staying in this sensibility of being handmade.
We’ll go through a script and sometimes there’ll be things that are intentionally set, we’ll see paper cut-outs on popsicle sticks acting this out, and then we’ll go through later and go like, what else can we do? Then once we’ve figured those things out, it’s like a whole extra part of production that generally people talk about and then when they get into the business of just making a regular show they go like, “Ah, we’re not gonna get to that,” but we pushed it through.
So we ended up making everything, almost all of it, in-house. Everybody ends up getting involved, and it’s really fun for artists who have to sit at a computer drawing all day to actually go and touch physical things and get to manipulate them. So we end up with room at the studio and we shoot all the stuff ourselves and make it. It’s very fun to do, and we’re just kind of always trying to find different ways of doing stuff.
Again, it’s this fundamental drive of creativity and being creative that’s pushing all of that stuff.
That’s such a cool aspect and it really does make it stand out in a unique way. I also liked the sequences where you get to see the kid’s comic book story within the story, which I believe you also narrate those sequences, is that correct?
Hastings: George and Harold, in the books, there’s at least one comic that they’ve written. So it’s like they drew it and all that kind of stuff. So we knew we wanted to do that in the TV series, but weren’t sure how to do it in terms of like, is it gonna be animated? How will it be?
I had written the first one just as a bunch of long series of paragraphs. We were in a session and we’ll go like, “Well, I’m just gonna scratch this, I’m just gonna read this and then we’ll figure out how we’re gonna do it,” and all that kind of stuff. Then I read it in that silly voice, and then we did some drawings, and we just put the two together. I think the first time we looked at it it was like, “That’s done, that is exactly what we’re doing.”
One of our artists, Jose Garibaldi who actually works for Scholastic doing the color of Dav Pilkey’s books is on our crew, and he sort of came up with the whole drawing style and he draws all of those things. I love those comics in the show, and I think they are really unique and fun, and also a favorite of Dav Pilkey’s as well.
It’s such a cool addition to the show. I want to make sure we have time to talk about the fantastic cast you’ve assembled.
Hastings: So one of the things that’s a little different about our show is we have two kids playing George and Harold as opposed to Kevin Hart or Thomas Middleditch who did the movie. It was just my desire to make it a little more charming in that way, particularly with the 2D animation that we’re doing. So Ramone Hamilton and Jay Gragnani. They just came in through the regular casting process, we listened to lots of kids and they are just great, and I love having them on the show.
Sean Astin is doing the narrator because I just wanted a nice guy to be reading that narration, and he and I worked together on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He loves it, he’s doing a great job. Nat Faxon plays Mr. Krupp and Captain Underpants and he’s bringing just these tremendous comedic acting skills. I mean, I told him, I said, “Nat, this is a very high compliment, even though it won’t sound like it. I was watching the show and I forgot that there was an actor doing Mr. Krupp because it just, you became that guy so much.”
We also have a lot of fun with guest stars. It’s a great opportunity to bring in a lot of interesting and fun people as guest stars on the show, and I’m really happy with the variety and strong performances we get with all the cast.
Is there anything about Captain Underpants that reminds you of previous series you’ve worked on like Kung Fu Panda, Tiny Toons, or Animaniacs? And what sets it apart as its own thing?
Hastings: Captain Underpants is probably most like Animaniacs in terms of the shows I’ve worked on, because in both we created a framework where just about anything can happen. The freedom to explore styles of story telling and make occasional self-referential jokes has always been fun to run with. But I think all the shows I’ve done that have succeeded did it with great lead characters. I use them as a reference point on story, on jokes, on design, on tone – a good lead character will tell you everything about how a show should be.
Are you involved with the reboot of Animaniacs?
Hastings: I’m not currently involved with the Animaniacs reboot but I’ve met with the team there. We always explain that that show was really built from all the individual personalities that worked on it and I think they are taking a similar approach rather than just copying the original.
What makes DreamWorks Animation and Netflix the perfect partners to share Captain Underpants with the world?
Hastings: From the beginning, I have wanted this show to be about creative expression – both from the lead characters and from the crew making the show. The DreamWorks team has encouraged us every step of the way and helped us get all these crazy pieces together. I’m happy to be on Netflix right now as they are kind of an open playing field in terms of what we can do and how we format the show, very intentionally not worrying about all the constrictions of broadcast TV. And I honestly have always felt bad about making kids TV that is surrounded by commercials, and on Netflix – no commercials!