Rooster Teeth’s Animated Series gen:LOCK Brings an All-Star Cast to Dark Horizons
Michael B. Jordan, Maisie Williams, and David Tennant voice the Austin studio's team of misfits
A noble child of House Stark. A Time Lord. The onetime king of Wakanda. That's the kind of casting that would make any Hollywood studio blush. In fact, it's the talent roster behind the microphones for gen:LOCK, the new 3-D animated series from Austin's Rooster Teeth studio.
Debuting this weekend, gen:LOCK is the next major project from the same team that produced American anime smash RWBY. But it's taking the established Rooster Teeth brand in a more mature, hard-hitting, and morally complicated direction. RT Head of Animation Gray G. Haddock (who also wrote and directed gen:LOCK) described the series as being "born simultaneously of Rooster Teeth's ambition to demonstrate that we weren't a one-hit wonder with RWBY, and to go for something that was familiar enough to the wheelhouse that we've played in so far [but] different enough to let the crew feel like they were spreading their wings."
Set in a high-tech future, gen:LOCK follows the adventures of a team of misfits who can transfer their minds into giant robots – a process designed by erratic scientist Dr. Rufus Weller (Doctor Who star David Tennant). The squad includes Scottish hacker Cammie MacCloud (voiced by Game of Thrones' Maisie Williams), Ukrainian warrior Valentina Romanyszyn (Orange Is the New Black's Asia Kate Dillon), and combat pilot Julian Chase (Black Panther and Creed star Michael B. Jordan).
But there's a lot more at stake than just big robots smashing each other. There are the complications of Julian's relationship with Miranda Worth (Dakota Fanning, a voice acting veteran from Coraline and the Disney dub of Japanese classic My Neighbor Totoro), a pilot in his old fighter unit; add to that the big question of what exactly the risks are of mentally fusing with machines – and whether Weller is hiding something from his not-so-willing volunteers. Haddock sees those questions as the real heart of gen:LOCK: "When you are trying to lead a good life in a world where half of everyone is arrayed against you due to what you believe, or how you were born, then what kind of qualities would you need to develop in order to endure, if not still have enough strength to keep making a positive change?"
Development on the show began in September 2016. Haddock's animation team was wrapping RWBY season 4, and had a bona fide success on their hands, so the hunt was on for the next big 3-D animated show. What followed was months of pitches from around the company to the executive creative team. Some were promising, Haddock said, "[but] needed to go back and bake a little more," and even he had pitched "a couple of ideas, one of which turned into one of those 'not right now' projects."
By mid-2017, the clock was ticking, and Haddock said he asked himself: "What am I really craving that I hadn't seen in Japanese anime for a while, and American sci-fi wasn't exactly doing?" He'd grown up on a steady diet of cyberpunk anime like Ghost in the Shell, and mecha anime like Mobile Suit Gundam and Neon Genesis Evangelion, but there was a shortage of that kind of metaphysically questioning speculative fiction. At the same time, he wanted to make good on the company's growing commitment to representation in storytelling – also informed by his love of the diverse future depicted in Star Trek. "So I took all my favorite ingredients and designs for gen:LOCK, and the company went for it."
Getting Jordan as his lead actor wasn't always the plan – or maybe it was, and Haddock didn't consciously realize it. However, it clarified when Art Director Michael Pedro drew the first concept for Chase. "It was a digital painting that photo-bashed Jordan's likeness onto a future flight suit and had him walking in front of a future jet fighter." Haddock had kept mentioning the actor during conversations, "and we instantly knew we had found the direction we wanted to go in with Chase."
This became part of the discussion about how much of a jump in scale and ambition gen:LOCK was going to be. The studio had guest stars before (including Austin adoptee Elijah Wood as A.I. Sigma in season 10 of their Halo-inspired breakout success Red vs. Blue) but has traditionally used in-house voice talent for its shows. Haddock himself has appeared on RT titles RWBY and X-Ray and Vav, so while the show was in early development, he would voice a temp track for all the characters – even Cammie. "For anyone who wanted to hear a fortysomething do a female, teenage Scottish brogue, boy, you're in for a treat with the behind-the-scenes material."
In December 2017, it was time to cast, so with that visual of Jordan as Chase in mind, Haddock decided to reach out. "No one told me not to ask," he said. After all, Jordan's jump to mainstream fame as Killmonger in Black Panther was two months away, and Haddock was really a fan of the actor's work in Fruitvale Station, and his time in Austin as East Dillon High Lions QB Vince Howard in Friday Night Lights. "So we got our first wave of creative material, and sent this little message in a bottle out into the Hollywood ocean, never expecting to hear back." A month passed, and Jordan's management contacted them: He had read the material "and his answer was not a no. So we freaked out a little bit."
The next step was to send him more proof-of-concept material, as well as the first footage of Chase – animated to some of Jordan's dialogue from Creed, "so that Michael would have the opportunity to understand the impact of hearing his voice emanating from these visuals, and what that might do for a story." Then in late February 2018, just as Black Panther was reigning over cinemas, he got a call from the producers: "The quote was, 'Michael B. Jordan wants to be our Julian Chase.' And then I'm expected to somehow finish writing the next episode that night."
The RT team was already in discussion with the other talents, but with Jordan on board all the pieces fell into place for what Haddock called "this dream ensemble." However, that meant a big change for Haddock. Most RT recording sessions involved grabbing talent from their desks around the office. For gen:LOCK, they had to work around these A-listers' schedules. Sometimes that meant Haddock directing their performances remotely, and sometimes that meant hopping on a flight and working face to face.
That's what led to the most surreal moment of the process. The first time he met Jordan in person was the first day of recording, so he flew to Los Angeles, drove to the studio, and set up – as is normal – in the control booth. "The engineer asks me, 'What are you doing here?'" His chair and station had been set up in the recording booth, right next to Jordan's microphone. "Michael arrives, we met, we got the business talk out of the way, and it turns out he's just as friendly and open as you'd hope he would be in real life. We talked about the characters and the world, and we talked about ideas for a bit, and we just got into it. ... Being six feet away from him while we got to hear Julian Chase deliver lines for the very first time was something I'll appreciate for the rest of my life."
gen:LOCK episodes 1 and 2 debut on RoosterTeeth.com on Sat., Jan. 26, with new episodes every Saturday for Rooster Teeth First subscribers, culminating in the season finale on March 9.