As with any good world builder or designer, you get the sense when speaking to Dan Norton–who provides designs for the ThunderCats as Art Director–that he’s spent some time thinking critically about what makes the revamped world of Third Earth tick–from its environments to inhabitants and how one affects the other. Earlier this week, Dan spoke with MTV Geek about some of the thinking that went into the latest addition to the show, the updated version of Jackalman. On the heels of our exclusive clip and coverage showing some other surprise characters appearing in the ThunderCats universe, it was our pleasure to pick Mr. Norton’s brain about how he and the rest of the team behind the show constructed a Third Earth more dangerous than the characters that live in it.
MTV Geek: Looking at the new Jackalman, the big question that I’ve come back to here as well as with all of the other character redesigns is how do you decide what to keep from the previous series and what to evolve or change?
Dan Norton: When I was looking at the older designs, there were certain things that Jackalman had—like the arm guards and the shoulder guards, you know [and] he was slightly asymmetrical—him as well as the other three main [villains]—Slythe, Jackalman, Monkian—they all looked a little more prehistoric, a lot less refined than the ThunderCats. So, really I wanted to keep that asymmetry, anything that harkens back to the familiarity of the older characters.
With this version, though, did you see off to the side he’s got more bone plates and animal aspects to the clothing instead of the polished metal or the old armor for the old show. And it has somewhat to do with the environment that they’re in as well and where they kind of live. Really, when I made the new designs of the three characters—Slythe, Jackalman, and Monkian—I wanted them to each represent different aspects [of their environment]. Jackalman is on an African plain, kind of an arid plain. He’s going to be a little leaner [and] he’s definitely going to more of a hunter. He might have some metal working but not much. Whereas Slythe is kind of swampy and might kind of a thick, round character. You know, Monkian, again, will be a balance to the three.
Geek: You mentioned the maintaining some of the animal traits of the characters. Could you elaborate on that? For instance, what kind of animal traits were you looking to bring out in Monkian, or Slythe, or Jackalman?
Norton: When I’m looking at the animal traits, for me as a designer, [is] what plays to the animation—that’s kind of worked out by the director. When I’m looking at this, I want to see the ears move to reflect animal behaviors [like] when a dog might feel threatened. So when a Jackalman might feel threatened, his ears might tuck back when he’d be more snarly. I wanted to kind of play into the claws a little bit more and that’s kind of the reason they have exposed feet. We could do a little bit more with that claw.
I’d say more or less in the behaviors, that’s what I’m hoping to get out of it. We played out the nose, face, and ears—that’s a good starting point for animalistic behavior of these characters.
Geek: Pulling back to kind of a broader view of the series: is there an overall theme you’re looking to evoke in this new version of Third Earth? In previous interviews, I’ve noticed you discussing the attempt to elicit mystery from this new world.
Norton: I think a big factor in a show like ThunderCats is exploration. And I think a lot of sci-fi and fantasy shows really want to get this across. This gives us a chance to really explore different terrains and landscapes. Generally, when I’m thinking—when we’re in the creation process to create new environments—of using] something familiar.
For example, I’ve seen a bunch of different plants that are underwater. Like any fish aquarium, when you go to any pet store, you’ll see all kinds of interesting plants that only exist underwater. And it would be more interesting to take those very same structures of colors and put that on land and then make them oversized. So it’s something different and yet a little familiar.
Sometimes [with] these new environments, we can use storytelling elements to give a purpose to the environment that’s going to exaggerate the story.
Geek: One kind of interesting, persistent element is that there seems to be a lot less civilization outside of Thundera. Now you’ve got more unruly natural elements and roving gangs of creatures. Could you talk a little about what went into this particular element of the world?
Norton: Yeah, I think we really wanted to convey a sense of danger—like leaving the safety of Thundera, as you start to go out, the plants are more deadly, the environment is harsh. When we start making extremely dangerous environments, it’s a challenge unto itself for the ThunderCats just to get from point A to point B. So showing overgrowth, showing really aggressive plant life or more rigid terrain, I think, in the back of your mind you’re going to think it’s an arduous task just to get from one place to another, and it takes a ThunderCat just to make that journey.
Geek: So it sounds like this is kind of a neat way of reinforcing for the show’s viewers how tough your characters are since they have to survive in this world.
Geek: What about points of inspiration in terms of film or TV or anything else for the look of the show and its environments?
Norton: When I’m looking for reference, I pull a lot from nature: national monuments, photography, live photos—I mean really, there’s a lot of nature that’s already impressive. So just going into an entirety of being a fan of all sorts of fantasy shows, cartoons, movies—you know, one of my favorite movies was Conan the Barbarian. There’s just so many different cartoons, more than I could probably name. I was a big fan of Escaflowne, Record of Lodoss War, all of those rich, fantasy cartoons. Even the old school Rankin Bass [movie] The Last Unicorn and Lord of the Rings, you know, just seeing that and feeding on it for so many years and then seeing people pushing the limit in other shows—you just take what inspires you and add your own edge to it.
Geek: Have you tried to tend more towards science fiction or fantasy when coming up with new designs and updating existing ones?
Norton: It’s kind of weird: what’s cool about this show is I can kind of explore both genres. If I want to take a more “tech” approach to the architecture and just throw some overgrowth on it, you kind of get to achieve both things.
But when you’re looking at an array of past civilizations from all over the world, it becomes kind of a melting pot of different architecture styles and I guess you’re using bits and pieces as the building blocks to create a new culture. So you can get the Japanese pagoda mixed with the medieval castle—although I guess that’s been used several times, we still kind of dip into that bag. Along the way there are lots of different cultures and civilizations over time that have all contributed to a modern understanding of fantasy. We see it all the time and you just kind of create your own recipe out of everything.
Geek: So it’s kind of about re-contextualization, I guess?
Norton: Yeah. I guess I’m a big fan of the History Channel, I’m always watching these old school civilization shows. You find some things that work, that are kind of interesting shapes and design motifs—like mixing in a little bit of Art Deco with a little bit of a medieval approach—kind of experimentation, finding what you like.
Like, I guess, culturally, in a Japanese society—from rural Japan—you might think the inflections of the samurai, you can get a bit of loyalty, honor, and duty. So some of that is kind of cross-bred into the designs so that carries over into the people that live [in Thundera].
Geek: Without spoiling anything, is there a particular environment or design that you’re excited for fans to see?
Norton: Next week’s episode—seven is a huge episode. And part of the theory of ThunderCats, as I’ve mentioned before, about taking it one step further than the previous version, and that’s going to kind of give us something brand new and exciting, even for the old school fans. And so without giving it away, you’re going to see characters that definitely we’re familiar with—we’re going to take them one notch further. So what you’re familiar with, [laughs] you’re going to get a dose of something newer.
Gosh, I really want to mention some stuff, but I guess I should hold back just a little. But some of the design elements that I got to do on the show as far as character-wise that haven’t been revealed yet, what’s cool is that some of the stuff is just freestyling and I got to explore a lot of thought. And somehow that characters that stand out have made their way into the story. The most interesting thing to me is being able to put something in it that’s mine—getting my ingredients into the soup and having my ownership of that in this universe. So that’s always exciting.
ThunderCats airs Fridays at 8:30/7:30 PM on Cartoon Network.