We Made an Animated Show for Nickelodeon and Netflix to Break Stereotypes

We Made an Animated Show for Nickelodeon and Netflix to Break Stereotypes
Produced by Nickelodeon Animation Studios for Netflix, Glitch Techs is an animated sci-fi comedy series about a unique team of teens that protects citizens from real-life video game creatures, or “glitches.” The underdog series, frozen in production by Nickelodeon before finding a home on Netflix, is gaining traction with fans as both a surprisingly earnest love letter to gaming culture and clever science fiction for the entire family. With 10 new episodes dropping this month, co-creators Dan Milano and Eric Robles look back on the creative trajectory of their series and the influence of their collaborative crew.
Back in 2015, in his office at Nickelodeon Studios, Eric kept a box of ideas under his desk. His first animated show Fanboy and Chum-Chum had finished production and, like many creators, he was expected to come up with other potential properties as part of an overall creative deal. Over time, boxes upon boxes filled up with sketches, doodles, pitches and thumbnail storyboards. Some were based on whims, others on months and months of development, but all inspired by childhood and the kinds of shows he’d grown up with.
Nickelodeon’s head of development at this time was Jenna Boyd, who had suggested that Eric meet with Dan, a TV/feature writer she felt would make for a good creative partner. They connected over mutual interests and began developing a series based on a video game the company was looking to adapt. But as interest in that idea waned, Nickelodeon studio head Russell Hicks urged Eric back toward his box of ideas, where Russell had unearthed a sketch of a boy and a robot fighting video game monsters under the handwritten title “Glitch Techs”…Smash cut to a year later as Glitch Techs was being green-lit to series by Nickelodeon Animation. And we, its creators Dan Milano and Eric Robles, were largely focused on our pie-in-the-sky list of goals for what the series could become. First and foremost, we wanted action – true to the kind that made us race out of bed when we were kids to watch on Saturday mornings with a bowl of sugar cereal. Second, we wanted to mix a grounded character tone with supernatural humor, paying tribute to properties which had helped shape our childhoods like Ghostbusters and Men in Black.

Never during any of those initial talks did we discuss cultural diversity, gender tropes or moral thematics. We were just two more boys in the animation sandbox, playing with our toys and waxing poetically about how cool it would be to bring them to life. Although our backgrounds were fairly different, by the time we met we’d each been in the industry for over a decade. (Dan is from the Northeast with a bachelor of fine arts degree and a background in puppeteering, and Eric, a self-made artist from the Los Angeles area, had originally planned on a career in law enforcement.)

As we developed the idea of Glitch Techs and shared it with others, we grew exponentially more excited as we discovered its creative potential. A show that could play with video game genres offered an intimidating amount of options for both visual styles and conceptual ideas. In these early stages, particularly in the exploratory artwork, the characters were our action figures and the world was one big playset – complete with vehicles and accessories. Truly, it was like the old Kenner Star Wars commercials come to life, with us even making the verbal sound effects to the set-piece images.

The enthusiasm of development spread quickly to members of the development team, including Phil Rynda, who arranged a presentation for Nickelodeon Corporate centered on the idea that the Glitch Techs world was an original IP with the potential to allow kids and gamers to become recruits and invest their imaginations into the show.

Cynical Expectations… and a Roadmap

Meanwhile, the changing world around us had made it clear we could no longer take gender inclusion for granted. As our two lead characters developed into a male/female relationship dynamic, it was obvious that as role models they could be an example and help to normalize a healthy ideal to children, including our own. But even by this point, the heart of the show had yet to surface.

Once the show was green-lit, we decided to bring in some writing consultants, particularly from the gaming culture, to widen our understanding. Through friends, contacts and network connections we were able to amass a group of writer/creators, many with direct ties to the gaming world. Felicia Day and Sandeep Parikh were well known for The Guild and Legend of Neil, Ashly Burch had written for Adventure Time and her own gamer-centric series of web shorts, Hey Ash Whatcha Playin. Mike Mika was a game designer and studio head from Other Ocean Studios and a beloved gaming fan/historian. Gabe Swarr, a devout gamer, had been developing several projects for Nick at the time, including the interactive game Roboburger, before going on to develop the new Animaniacs for WB. Aaron Lemay was Senior Director at Odisi Games and creator of The Gamers Way, Jeff Trammell was a gamer and young winner of Nick’s writing fellowship, Sarah McChesney was a writer/performer developing for HBO, Brad Bell had co-created the web series Husbands, and David Anaxagoras was writer/creator of the Amazon series Gortimer Gibbons: Life on Normal Street.

To break ice with the group, we asked the consultants to list their most cynical expectations of a Nickelodeon series about video game culture, not expecting that their answers would become the clearest roadmap for the missing element of our show – its conscience. They picked apart the way force typically was celebrated more than intelligence. We discussed the “nerd” tropes that continued to paint anyone who expressed passion, emotion or even a hint of obsession as abnormal underdogs – despite such feelings being the norm among so many in the audience. Gamers in particular were often shown as toxic, lazy, intolerant and detached from reality. References to nerd and gamer culture were typically pandering, lacking any real understanding or nuance. Among them, “gamers” and “female gamers” were treated as separate concepts, with the latter being treated as some rare unicorn – despite the actual demographic being closer to 50/50.

As creators, we cannot express the excitement of deconstructing all these elements or the value of having such a diverse group of individuals express what shows and video games had meant to them growing up and what had been sorely missing from their diet of esteem and inclusion. Other kids were now not only sharing the toys in the sandbox, they were giving them a higher purpose. And clearest of all was that these ideas did not require lessons or speeches or spotlights of any kind in our series. All they needed was honest inclusion. They were a factual part of our and our childrens’ everyday world. All we needed to do was write what we all knew and reflect the world we saw, rather than lean back on what seemed typical of children’s TV.

At no point did this feel like homework for us. At no point was this a threat to our creative points of view or considered a compromise of our grand, creative vision. It felt eye-opening and enriching and promised to make the world exciting and relevant in a way we would not have accomplished on our own, especially while being distracted with all the daily challenges that producing entails. It was also just fun to sit with others and deconstruct which of our favorite books, shows, movies and games we truly loved and why. In every case, it was a matter of intimacy, a feeling that those stories spoke to us on a level that felt earnest. Suddenly, we wanted Glitch Techs to be more than fun, we wanted it to ring true, and we wanted it to connect with an audience the way we had felt a connection to the shows we loved. And most importantly, we wanted the consultants who’d given us their time to know we had truly heard them and that their input would be embraced.

Checking Our Guts

Although off to a good start, it was clear the characters should not remain archetypal and that they be defined by more than a single trait (a shortcut often employed in early development). Context and motivation in our stories would be key. Nobody, not even our digital AI glitches, would be cast in the role of a villain. Ideally, audiences would be able to understand all sides of a given conflict, whether they agreed with the character’s motives or not. Supporting characters were treated like main characters, ensuring there were truly no small parts and that even the smallest lines were an opportunity to showcase strong personalities.

While hiring, it was important to look for diverse talents and to make ourselves open to those individual points of view. Once we saw how outside input was elevating our project, we became hungry for more. We might get along with a writer or an artist because they shared inspirations and senses of humor, but that feeling of comfortable fraternity that might have normally made for a hire in the past was now seen as a potential roadblock. It was important that everyone come from different backgrounds and have different perspectives on the material. After all, what does it benefit the creativity of a show to hire multiple people with the same foundational ideas?

Building an original IP amid the hundreds of licensed properties that so many studios were developing during this time was an exciting prospect. Glitch Techs was wholly original, but of course felt familiar enough due to homaging so many genres. It seemed to be the perfect Trojan horse for fresh ideas and so we started to revise our goals concerning gamer culture. We wanted the show to be a love letter to the very best that gaming and fandom had to offer, while also modeling behavior that would work against the potential for toxicity. We wanted to take a well-rounded look at gaming concepts and avoid overt lessons so viewers could draw their own conclusions. We wanted to celebrate the power of being informed, the value of vulnerability and the practice of healthy emotional intelligence.

All of these things required deliberate application and presence of mind to maintain. Inclusivity in our media culture is improving all the time, but for children of the ’80s like us, the truth is that some of the most insidious forms of exclusion come when we get tired and let our brains default to auto-pilot. There are moments where we would catch ourselves – or allow others to point out that we had resorted to things that were typical, reliable and sometimes tainted.

Over the years we’d both found that crews were used to some creators asking genuinely for diversity, but also unconsciously pushing against it when actually faced with creative details they found foreign or unfamiliar. We needed to remind people to not second-guess themselves OR us when designing darker skin tones, or in policing “classic” gags that might come at the expense of characters’ bodies, intelligence or esteem. Those weren’t always obvious to us, so many things made it through various stages before they were rooted out, while others we failed to find may well have made it into the show. Despite that, the willingness to deconstruct and check our guts amid the other challenges of making a show was something that we had to not only become familiar with, but actively appreciate.

Listening to the Team

When writer David Anaxagoras suggested adding a Muslim female to the cast, Nickelodeon suggested we ensure a thoughtful depiction by taking on a consultant. As a result, we met with Sue Obedi of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, who graciously consulted on our scripts and animatics. What would be the point of including characters for children to truly identify with if we allowed ourselves to accidentally misrepresent their truth?

It helped that instead of waiting for a studio to assign us a consultant late in the process, we made it an organic part of our early writing process. This allowed for most changes to be implemented well ahead of time, leading to interesting changes that came with unforeseen benefits, rather than forced changes added begrudgingly to otherwise “perfected” work. That said, sometimes a piece of feedback WOULD come to us late, or at a stage where we were not particularly in the mindset for consulting.

We’ve had to literally force ourselves to stop mid-way through a justification about a gag. It slows down the day. It opens us up to criticism and potential adjustments we don’t want to make or discuss. But because we’ve replaced our notion of “compromise” with “collaboration,” we learned to listen. In many cases, we would discuss details of context and intent. But when there wasn’t time for an entire discussion, we allowed ourselves to just trust. At the end of the day, most of these notes should not require justification.

If we trust and respect our team, if something was important enough for them to bring up, we had to assume it would be important to others. Over time we found that the willingness to adjust these kinds of details only served to elevate them, providing the show with an originality and nuance we can look back on and be so very proud of.

When depicting gamers, it was important to stay true to the mindset. In our pilot, we devised the initial meeting between our co-leads as one in which our male lead, Hector (aka High Five), is shoved by the antagonist and helped up by our female lead, Miko. Looking back, we’d drawn subconsciously on the trope of a bullied individual meeting up with an ally, who shows up conveniently in an almost western-style heroic fashion. But the context of the scene was an online game, and one that writer Ashly Burch took issue with. “What kind of gamer in a PVP match stops to help some rando?” she said. “If anything, she’d think, ‘Sucks to be him,’ and happily move on with one less competitor to worry about.”

This seemingly small suggestion was one that did require a significant re-board at a time when we were absolutely NOT in the mindset to make changes. But by spending the time on the solution instead of the problem, we not only addressed the note, but developed a far better meeting for our characters, now revised as them literally being thrown TOGETHER by the antagonist. This made Five being victimized a problem for Miko as well. He was now in her way, and for her to advance she needed to deal with him. The two characters remain out for themselves, but now as they parted ways we were able to establish them with a common rival – motivating them to team up more organically later in the sequence.

Connecting With the Fans

We screened our animatics in Nickelodeon’s newly-built screening room, placing them on the big screen where everyone could get a cinematic feel for what we were creating. Among our crew and those who would visit, a great deal of the commentary was around the characters and dynamics as being not just fun, but earnest, relatable and often surprising. Though we never lost sight of our child demographic, we were endearing ourselves to people our age and older – kids of the ’80s who ate that same sugar cereal on Saturday mornings but now appreciated the value of having them fortified with vitamins. There’s still plenty in the show that feels familiar, things that can be called out as traditional, things that will qualify as tropes, intended or unintended. But on the whole we found that there was so much more for us to enjoy and felt encouraged that others might feel the same.

When we look at Glitch Techs we see everything we set out to create. A fun tribute to Saturday Morning cartoons that draws on gamer culture in a genuine way and uses the genre as material for relatable stories rather than a gimmick to trigger nostalgia. It is earnest and open-hearted and, though it is in no way perfect, we take great pride in being its co-creators and far more in being true fans of our crew, who helped us make something that surprises and entertains us no matter how many times we watch.

Ultimately, the conscience of the show is what evoked the passion of its talent, who like us became addicted to deconstruction and collaboration. They not only gave us so much of themselves during production but in their continued support long after. Through word of mouth and custom artwork, the team has used the #glitchtechs hashtag to share their pride. They’ve connected with the fans who have validated their work for us all and whose constructive opinions help shape it for the future.

At a time when we are all so desperate to look ahead to a better world, we are deeply thankful to have helped bring about something that lets young faces to not only see themselves on TV, but in a world where they are all united equally as a team. If the Glitch Techs audience continues to grow on Netflix, we hope they and Nickelodeon Animation will allow us to produce more shows utilizing what we’ve learned. Regardless, we will take these lessons to all of our future productions. While it was always our dream to build strong entertainment, Glitch Techs gave us our first taste of what it means to truly help build a strong community.

You can watch Glitch Techs now on Netflix!

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