‘Kipo’ Showrunners on Positively Portraying Gay Characters in Healthy Relationships

     June 20, 2020

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We here at Collider love Netflix’s DreamWorks Animation series Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts. We sang its praises when it debuted this January, were happy to see that Season 2 continued to develop its colorful characters and make progressive strides forward in its story, and even talked about that more in our video review. Now, it’s my pleasure to get a chance to talk to co-creators/showrunners Bill Wolkoff and Rad Sechrist once again to dig into all things Kipo a little more. Some spoilers follow.

This time around, Wolkoff and Sechrist were able to talk about including an openly gay character in their animated series and how exactly that decision came about. The spotlight on healthy relationships of all kinds was further explored in Season 2, which they also comment on in our discussion. Plus, if you had questions about what separates a jaguar from a mega-jaguar, you’re in the right place. So while Netflix has yet to officially order Season 3 of Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, Wolkoff and Sechrist tease what might happen in the next batch of episodes.

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Image via Netflix, DreamWorks Animation

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Read along with the interview below and/or listen to the audio track above:

Now that Season 2 is out in the world, how has the reception been?

Rad Sechrist: It seems like it’s been pretty good. It’s exciting to see … It’s funny because sometimes I’ll see a comment like, “Oh, man, this season is way better than season one.” And I’m like, “Oh, yeah. Wait a minute, what are you trying to say?”

Bill Wolkoff: I mean, yeah. You never, I guess, really know, but from what we’ve … I mean, we’ve had like a collection of reviewers from pretty big outlets that have embraced it very positively. And it seems to have struck a good nerve on Twitter, so it’s been … I’m very happy. I mean, at the very least, people are really engaging with the show, which excites me a lot.

Yeah. Speaking personally, and for my podcast partner as well, Season 1 of Kipo was fantastic. It was one of the most original, colorful, creative, imaginative. I mean, I can keep going on and on and on with superlatives, but definitely one of the freshest original takes that we’d seen in a while. And we were happy to see that Season 2 continued that trend, but also pushed the story forward.

So you were saying folks out there enjoyed season two even more than season one. But from your perspective, what were you maybe able to do in Season 2 with expanding the story since you already introduced the world and the characters in Season 1?

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Image via Netflix

Bill Wolkoff: We were able to really dig into Kipo’s inner life I think in a more profound way. In season one, she just thought she was an ordinary kid, grew up in this nice home with her dad and her city of people. And she thought the whole time, “I’m just going to get back to them and life going to go back to normal.”

But so many things opened up for her. She learned that she herself is far from normal, she’s in fact, extraordinary. And she also … The world of the surface opened up for her and she realized, “Wait a minute, this is a place that I’ve always thought was dangerous my whole life, but there’s also wonder in here, and there’s also so much reason to not return underground, but maybe try to embrace the frightening change that we’ve seen up here.”

So for us, and for me, it was a chance to really dig into that and also challenge that because, as much as she sees the wonder on the surface, it’s really complicated and things get even more messed up. So it was really a chance to push all of that further and also broaden, expand the world more, expand what we know about, like how we got where we are here. We get into Kipo’s inner life some more, in her past some more, and also show more of the surface that we haven’t seen before.

So for all of those reasons. Those are all the things we wanted. We had hoped to get the push in Season 2, and it seems like we did, and people have picked up on all of those elements.

Definitely. Yeah. And we kind of felt too that Season 2, you guys dug into social commentary a little bit more. You took a harder line drawn between the humans and the mutes in this world and their conflicts with each other. And what we loved about it is that Kipo and her group, they kind of represent both worlds. It’s a mixture of humans and mutes either in the same body or kind of working together.

So right now, in these kind of difficult social times, what do you think Kipo has to say for kids out there who are watching, kids who maybe looked different from others around them, or maybe see others around them who look different from them?

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Image via Netflix, DreamWorks Animation

Rad Sechrist: It’s interesting. The climate when we were making it was obviously there were different things happening in the world. There was a lot of rhetoric of building a wall and of this other from foreigners, and that really kind of informed our thinking at the time and just seeing what was going on in the world, which is … It’s obviously changed since then.

Bill Wolkoff: Yeah. I mean, it’s been the last … These have been challenging times. And even back when we started making the show, there was so much fear in anger and resentment boiling under the surface and about to come out in our world. And those are big, scary things that I think for a young kid, when you see that, even if you can’t … even if you’re not old enough to really point to it in a sophisticated way, you can tell like when there’s fear and anger and resentment for a world that’s changing in a way that you don’t necessarily understand.
And the world of Rad’s web comics, when I first came to it, felt like a great way to explore that for a really young audience and use this element of genre as a metaphor for a world that’s changing in a way that can seem scary and in a way that can create fear and anger and resentment in both humans who are afraid and have gone underground and among the mute characters who are just forming societies. And understandably, some have resentment towards humans for the way things used to be. And we could explore that in the backdrop of this both fantastic and absurd premise and play out that theme for kids.

When I was really young, there were fears of nuclear war, and I was really … I’m a child of the ’80s, and that really scared me. And I wished I had had a piece of entertainment about kids overcoming that. And Kipo being this beacon of relentless positivity in the face of forces that would make most people in the world cynical and angry, and seeing how that force of positivity is challenged by the world and also changes the world and playing out that dynamic, I think that’s a very powerful way for kids to process this and also have a fun adventure with giant mega bunnies and a world where animals are big and can talk.

You said it better than I could. One of the things we really love about Kipo is how positive it is. And not just … It’s visually kind of just cheerful and hopeful, but then obviously the messages, the characters just brimming with positivity. And we love that. One of the things that I think has really connected with audience is Benson. So we were wondering … Season 2, you get to explore Benson’s romantic relationships, specifically with Troy, a little bit more. So we were curious as to the kind of behind the scenes conversations about portraying a positive and a positive gay character, but also a healthy relationship in Season 2?

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Image via Netflix, DreamWorks Animation

Rad Sechrist: I mean, one of my favorite things was the episode where we meet Roberto, who’s Troy’s dad, and seeing … like kind of representing a healthy relationship with like a gay kid and his father. And also, we’re 200 years in the future. So it was just nice to be like, “Hey, maybe this is what our future is going to be.” You know?

Bill Wolkoff: All that. Like having really healthy relationship with a young gay kid and his dad, and also playing out that relationship in a way that we haven’t necessarily seen in kids animation, I mean, that also reflects a reality that’s in both my life and in Rad’s life and the people we know and love and the city that we know and love. And it was important for us to get to play that out. I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. We’re lucky that we got to do the show at a time when we were supported by the studio and the network to be able to tell that story.

Definitely. And is that a decision that kind of came from the both of you in your discussions, or was that more of a team focus? I know sometimes people on the creative team may have suggestions or ideas, or even from a Netflix exec. So where did that all kind of come about?

Bill Wolkoff: Netflix was stoked. Go ahead, Rad.

Rad Sechrist: Yeah. I was going to say that when I sold it, I sold it with a gay character, that was like part of the pitch. And it was cool, because the studio is like, “You can have a gay character, but the character just has to say the words, ‘I’m gay.’

And it was interesting, too. Because even at the beginning, they weren’t necessarily comfortable with any kind of romance. They’re like, “I don’t think kids like romance.”
And eventually I think we decided like, “Well, what about like Beauty and the Beast, and Ariel in Little Mermaid? Kids seem to like that.” And they go, “Oh, you’re right.”

Bill Wolkoff: There was a little bit of … It was more threading the needle for how to play a romance in a kid show. But it would have been the same if it was a straight romance. Like that. And there’s a little bit of a balance you have to strike there because it is a show for kids, but romance is very much a part of it.

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Image via Netflix

And I was just going to say, yeah, Benson was gay before I’d even come into the show. And that was one of the reasons why I was excited to get to work on it. And then when we brought our … We were supported by and encouraged by the studio. And then when we brought our staff, they also, I think, responded to this very positively, and it made everybody really excited to work on the show. And we had a lot of voices weighing in on how to play that romance out.

And so, I think the Benson-Troy romance is truly the result of our entire crew, from us, to the writers, to the directors and board teams, all the way on down, taking ownership of these two characters and getting to play out their relationship.

There’s a moment in the … It’s funny, somebody freeze-framed a moment in the Season 2 finale, when you see Benson and Troy walking back from the molten gold coming at them like lava, and they’re sweetly holding hands. And I do not recall ever … That wasn’t in the script. I don’t even know if that was in … I guess maybe it was in the boards, but at some point…

Rad Sechrist: It was in the storyboards.

Bill Wolkoff: And that’s what I mean. So then the board artists, like, “Oh, like how would these two visually react in this moment? Of course they’d be holding hands with each other.”
Which is my point. Everybody in the crew really took ownership of it and brought the relationship to life and in ways that we hadn’t necessarily expected.

Yeah, well, well done across the board. We actually love that inclusion and the way that you guys portrayed it. And we’re looking forward to seeing where that goes in the future. But speaking of the future, in the season two finale, we got to see Kipo not only kind of take charge and achieve her Mega Jaguar form, which was awesome, but there was something beyond that too. Do you guys have a name for that phase two, that second-tier Mega Jaguar form?

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Image via Netflix

Rad Sechrist: What were we calling it in the room? Was it mega, mega jaguar, or was it just jaguar and mega jaguar?

Bill Wolkoff: We were calling it … We had stages. We knew that the audience would think, “Oh, that’s the mega jaguar.” When you see her it after episode six, but we were calling it full jaguar, and then mega doesn’t really come into play until the climax of the finale. So it was partial transformation, then full jaguar and mega jaguar.

Rad Sechrist: The other cool thing too, is we had a board artist Chase Conley, who just came back with that whole inside the head idea, where she’s laying in the water and the smoke, and you’re inside the mind. So it’s like such a cool collaborative effort where sometimes the board artists will bring you ideas you hadn’t even thought of.

See, that moment to me, felt very much like a Naruto with the Nine-Tailed Fox. I love that though. I love that, if it was a nod or not, I just loved the idea of that, internalizing that conflict and trying to figure out what’s going on.

Rad Sechrist: I’m sure it was a Naruto nod from Chase. Chase is a huge anime fan.

Either way, well done. Since you mentioned stages kind of the jaguar transformations I think of things, especially from anime, when you start power leveling up. How do you keep raising the stakes so that Kipo doesn’t just snap her fingers, turn it to mega jaguar, take everybody out? And then since she can now, presumably control how she comes back, thanks to her anchor, how do you keep raising the stakes so that it’s difficult for our group to always come out on top?

Rad Sechrist: I guess you’ll have to wait and see.

Bill Wolkoff: I think if you just look at … even looking at Season 2, she’s only just begun to understand. She’s this a 100-foot tall creature within her, and that’s going to be the very … We see this as the tip of the iceberg. We hope to get to continue her story. But if you just look at that, it’s only the first time she’s done this massive thing, and there’s a lot more to explore.

And we hope to get to challenge Kipo with some real life issues, really grounded issues. And that gets complicated by the fact that when you get angry or disappointed, you don’t just have a … you’re not just a 13 year old girl, you’re a 13 year old girl who could turn 100-feet tall and wipe out a city.

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Image via Netflix

Before I run out of time with you guys, real quick. Last time I mentioned how much I enjoyed Dan Steven’s performance in this, and it honestly surprised me, as Scarlemagne. To me, he goes above and beyond in Season 2, but what can you maybe tease quickly about where we leave off with Scarlemagne at the end of Season 2 and what that might inform for his characters arc in Season 3?

Rad Sechrist: I mean, I’ll talk a little bit about just working with him in Season 2. And so, like, we were really surprised and amazed when he did his own younger version. Like it was incredible. Because a lot of times when we do that, you have to get a child actor, but you can’t actually grow with the same actor, but he managed to bring this kind of youthful sweetness to his voice, where you almost believe that was the kid version of him. And then, I mean, as we … like the title says, brought some sympathy for him.

Bill Wolkoff: But it just wasn’t easy. I mean, it’s not like you’re going to blink and suddenly fix everything.

Rad Sechrist: So we wanted to make it like, that would be a difficult task to try to turn him.

Definitely. Again, I love the character in there. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in season three. So my last question for you guys is what can you tease for our listeners out there about a potential Season 3 coming up?

Bill Wolkoff: We hope to get to continue the story and take it in a new direction that comes from both victory and also disappointment that Kipo experienced at the end of Season 2.

Fair enough. That’s a fantastic answer. So we will leave it there. I just want to say thank you two so much again for your time today and for Kipo the story so far and hopefully more to come. Thanks again.

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