If Matt Hullum, CEO of Austin-based entertainment network Rooster Teeth, and Gray G. Haddock, the head of the company’s animation studio, spend much time battling insecurity about their place in the wider media landscape, they don’t show it. The company has built itself into a media juggernaut, with an audience of more than 45 million viewers; licensing deals that have placed characters from its hit anime series, RWBY, on backpacks and T-shirts at Walmart and Hot Topic; and 65,000 die-hard fans who travel to Austin every year for its annual RTX convention. But approaching a Hollywood superstar for the lead voice role in its forthcoming series did make them a little nervous.
Michael B. Jordan—the former Friday Night Lights star who co-starred in this winter’s Black Panther—was always on Haddock’s mind when he created the character. And so even though casting a superstar as the lead was new ground for Rooster Teeth, they decided to take the chance and court Jordan. Monday, the company announced that Jordan will be the voice of Julian Chase, lead protagonist of the forthcoming anime series Gen:Lock.
“The idea of Michael influenced Chase’s concept design long before we ever thought we might have a chance to reach out,” Haddock says. “How crazy is this life, when the very first person on your ‘this will never happen in a million years’ dream casting list actually takes the time to respond to you, let alone say they’re interested?”
To woo Jordan, Haddock and his team put together a package on the character that included animating a work-in-progress model to audio from Jordan’s performance in 2015’s Creed, then “threw this message in a bottle out into the ocean that is Hollywood.” And they waited, going through development directors, agents, point agents, attorneys, producers—a whole list of job titles that a Texas studio with a loose, scrappy, DIY reputation like Rooster Teeth rarely has to deal with when moving forward on projects. They sent over more material and then got the news that Gen:Lock had scored a mainstream Hollywood star. “I will never forget the phone call where I heard the words ‘Michael wants to be Julian Chase,’ ” Haddock says. “Now I’m about to go meet Michael, and we’ll work together to find the character and record him for the first time. I can’t even believe I just said that last sentence.”
It’s a big deal for Rooster Teeth, but then, the Austin-based animation studio is a big deal these days—and it’s not the only one. Animation is a booming industry in Texas. Drive five miles from I-35 to Mopac in North Austin and you’ll pass the workplaces of more than two hundred full-time animators at three different studios, all doing work for and with the biggest names in entertainment. The film industry in Texas ebbs and flows, often depending on the legislative support for the Texas Film Commission and its incentives program—but animation, which is growing on the production side, and which tends to have more stable and predictable work patterns due to set location and longer-term projects, is all growth right now.
“Five or six years ago, we would have had a problem with just getting in the door and being respected enough to have the conversation in the first place,” Hullum says. “But our business audience and capabilities have matured. They say to Hollywood that we’re not a fly-by-night operation just because we’re in Austin, Texas. We’re not going anywhere, and we’re looking to do bigger and more ambitious stuff.”
As studios like Rooster Teeth win large-scale projects, a workforce of animators has expanded to support the region’s growing industry. “There are a lot of people here who want to tell cool stories, and they don’t care if it’s live-action or animation,” Haddock says. “There’s a pool of talent—editors, VFX artists, compositors, concept artists—and we share a backyard with a video game development industry, and there’s a lot of skill sets that overlap in both industries.” Rooster Teeth employs one hundred people in its animation studio, and it’s not the only game in town. “There’s a scene that’s beginning to develop, so there’s a good chance that some company in Austin somewhere is looking for someone with animation skills for a job at any given time,” Haddock says.
One growing Austin studio is Powerhouse Animation, which is located a few miles away from Rooster Teeth. Founded in 2001, after the dot-com bust left founders Brad Graeber and Bruce Tinnin out of work, Powerhouse is a longtime player in the industry. The studio quickly landed a high-profile gig, working on the Adam Sandler animated comedy Eight Crazy Nights, and expected a future of working on 2-D animated Hollywood features. After the Pixar boom quickly replaced traditional 2-D animation in favor of CGI, they pivoted to educational products, commercials, video game trailers, and more viable small-scale projects. But when associate director Sam Deats saw in a tweet that producer Adi Shankar planned to adapt the video game Castlevania for Netflix, Powerhouse decided to pursue the project, taking an unusual approach for a studio of its size, which is based outside of animation hubs in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Toronto.
“We called and said we’d really like to pitch for this, like we were an ad agency,” Graeber recalls. “ ‘Here’s why Powerhouse should be the studio that animates Castlevania.’ I didn’t think it was going to happen.” Internally, to keep word of the studio’s involvement with the project from leaking, Powerhouse referred to Castlevania as “Halley’s Comet.”
But it worked, and now the comets come crashing by Powerhouse more often. In early May, Netflix announced a second project with the studio—Seis Manos, a kung fu series set in 1970s Mexico, based on an original idea by Graeber and screenwriter Álvaro Rodríguez (who also wrote the script for Macheté, directed by his cousin Robert). When they pitched Castlevania to Netflix, in late 2015, Powerhouse employed about 45 people; when Seis Manos was announced, the staff had nearly doubled. With other project announcements expected over the summer, Graeber thinks that they could add another 40 or more jobs by the end of 2018.
Like Rooster Teeth, Powerhouse is recruiting talent from around the state, around the country, and—increasingly—around the world. Projects like Seis Manos, Castlevania, and Gen:Lock are high-level work, and there aren’t a lot of animation studios in North America producing material with the advanced visual dynamics of Japanese anime, which is known for complex action choreography and detail-oriented character and background design. (Canadian studios with more subsidies often don’t work in the style, which Graeber credits as part of why Powerhouse was able to land Castlevania.) That gives both studios an edge in recruiting the sort of artists who don’t just want to work but who want to flex creative muscles.
In recent years, Texas has begun to establish an identity for its own kind of animation. American anime, like what Powerhouse and Rooster Teeth produce, may be the city’s bread and butter, but the rotoscope technique popularized by Richard Linklater in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly (in which animators draw over live footage) has roots in Texas. In 2016 Austin-based studio Minnow Mountain created the rotoscope animation for the Academy Award–shortlisted documentary Tower, based on “96 Minutes,” by Pamela Colloff.
The success of Tower led to renewed interest in rotoscope—and a big boon for Minnow Mountain. The studio’s two leads, Craig Staggs and Steph Swope, spent the year following Tower‘s release building their business. It paid off this spring: Minnow Mountain landed a contract to do all of the character work for Amazon’s inaugural animated series, Undone, by Bojack Horseman creators Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Kate Purdy. Production on Undone began in mid-May, and the studio quickly scaled up its operation. A year ago, the studio was a two-person operation running out of a spare room. After the Undone contract was signed, the duo moved into an office and hired two dozen animators to help get the project off the ground.
Swope and Staggs attribute the growth here to the burgeoning scene in the state–and to the fact that there’s more demand for animation at the moment, not just in Texas. That creates the sort of environment where they can scale up for the long-term. Undone gives the team a full year of work, plus the possibility of future seasons. “Because it’s a series, we have a strong potential for a second season, which means a whole other year,” Staggs says. “We’re very, very interested in running a full staff, full-time, and this is the kind of work you need to do that. Feature films are great, and they’re very sexy, but you get fired whether it’s a good movie or not. When you’re done, you’re done.”
Studio leads are hopeful about the possibility of providing steady, ongoing animation work, but several voiced concern about beating bids from elsewhere, considering the limited resources of the Texas Film Commission. The Texas Moving Image Incentive Program, which is funded at the legislative level, is often a drawn-out political issue here, while other states like Georgia, Louisiana, and New Mexico offer significantly more in financial incentives to productions that take place in the state. Both Rooster Teeth and Powerhouse cite good relationships with the commission, but they struggle with the uncertain politics: On a level playing field, they’re confident that Texas talent can compete with any other state or country, but production is heavily subsidized by the competition’s governments, like in Canada and Georgia. There are certain kinds of projects that Powerhouse doesn’t even submit bids for, because it knows it can’t compete. “It can be the difference between a project coming in or a project not coming in,” Graeber says. “Because of Castlevania, if there were more funds available, we could build upon what it allowed us to do. Because of Castlevania, we get a lot of requests for other series, and each time it happens, we have to call our friends at the governor’s office—’Here’s three new series we could bring on. We could employ another 100, 150 people. Are there funds available?’ If the answer is no, we have to go back and tell people that it’s this percentage more for your budget. That can be the difference between them green-lighting and not green-lighting a project.”
Powerhouse’s head of accounts, Rachel Citron, says that each series they are offered would create between twenty and thirty full-time positions at Powerhouse. The company works to avoid layoffs, which are common in production jobs, and tries to build a long-term culture. “We’re trying to carve out a space where we’re not doing that model as much as possible,” she says. “We’re trying to bring in new projects so we can keep everyone on.” In California, the culture is nomadic; with dozens of productions happening at a time, bouncing from job to job is common. In Texas, though, Citron and Graeber see potential for animation being a solidly middle-class, full-time, long-term job with a single company.
When Powerhouse submitted Castlevania to the film commission, it was after the 2015 legislative session; by the time the series made it to Netflix, the 2017 session had already reached sine die. A movie’s production cycle is usually measured in days—for the kind of independent production that most often happens in Texas, a ten- or twelve-day shoot isn’t uncommon. Animation, though, takes a while. That’s something that Hullum says actually helps insulate Texas-based studios from some of the ever-shifting political winds. A live-action studio might shoot a project over two weeks only to find that the next time it needs funding, the incentives program has been slashed. Since they work on longer-term projects, animation studios can still support their projects with funding from the previous legislative session, when the state was more generous.
“Animation takes so long, one animation production cycle might be longer than the cycle of the state legislature,” he laughs. “But if the legislature got behind it, it would grow at an even faster clip than it does now. Every network and SVoD [Subscription Video on Demand] is trying to source animation. There are new animation studios coming up in L.A., in Canada, all over the place—and Texas is an even better place for it. We just have to stay competitive.”
Texas has established a creative identity for high-level work, and the lower cost of living than L.A. or Toronto makes it an appealing place to live for top animators. With a growing number of studios looking to make full-time hires, Texas animation has advantages over Los Angeles and Canada that go beyond queso and barbecue. “It’s easier to start up a business here, and there’s less of the machinations you have to go through in terms of dealing with agents and managers and entertainment bureaucracy that you have to dig through in a lot of different places in the world,” Hullum says. “Here it’s like, ‘Hey, we’re gonna make a cool show. We’re gonna pay a great rate. We’re gonna give everybody health care and 401(k)s. Let’s get going.’ ”