On February 5, the first episode of HBO’s new animated series Animals will premiere. Set in the grayish, busy streets of New York City, each episode zooms in on the existential tribulations of a different species living in a generally unlivable city — rats, pigeons, cats, dogs, bedbugs, and many others. By attributing human-like struggles to the stepped-on animals of New York and propelling these plot lines forward with awkward, improvised banter, Animals may make you think twice about the creatures you would normally ignore or express disgust toward.
For Animals creators Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano, two former advertising creatives, preparing for the premiere has been a whirlwind. Although they’ve been working on Animals for several years — they first began production in a supply closet at their old advertising jobs — the show marks both of their first official efforts in show business. With the Duplass brothers backing the series and a second season already picked up by HBO in what could be the network’s largest acquisition deal, Matarese and Luciano’s Animals is impressively substantial for a first project.
I got on the phone with Matarese and Luciano to discuss their introductory impressions of show business, the animation style of Animals, and the show’s soundtrack, among other topics.
This is relatively new for you guys, right?
Phil Matarese: I mean, it feels old because we’ve been doing it since 2011, 2012, something like that, as a web series. So Mike and I have been in this world, and using the logo for years now, but, yeah, this is definitely new for us. This is our first project and we’re both very hands-on with it. It was the first thing we’ve done together. We knew each other for a month before starting this. It’s been snowballing into something really bizarre.
It’s a pretty big deal for a first project.
PM: Yeah, it’s been nuts, man. We’re writing Season 2 now and it feels good. We’re really positive about this little universe we created. We’re really excited about making 10 more in this weird little world we made.
I wanted to talk about the animation style. What was your influence there?
PM: Everything stems from the short from when Mike and I were just making it all ourselves — It stemmed out of my inability to animate. I never learned how to do it properly and I didn’t go to school for drawing or anything like that, so that’s why the characters look the way they do. That’s why it has this sort of almost stop-motion, non-tweened, aspect to it. That’s why the characters look a little rough and sometimes their fill colors are spilling out because they were all done on one specific program. And the mouths don’t move because I didn’t know how to make them move. I did character animation for the first two episodes, but for the rest of it, we brought people on who could imitate my style. I think we would have finished in 2025 if I did all of it.
Do the Phil and Mike recurring characters ever reflect some dynamic between you two?
Mike Luciano: A little bit. I think mostly in the rat and pigeon characters. But early on when we were doing the short, part of the fun of what we realized could be part of the hook of the show is having a show where we asked ourselves, “Could a show exist where the two main characters stayed the same each time, but each new episode they’re different species and have slightly different character dynamics?” So it’s been really fun to be able to be Phil and Mike in each episode, but each time the circumstances change, and in one we’re cats that are brothers that love each other. In “Rats,” we’re college-aged versions of ourselves, or I’m the married guy and Phil’s the weird uncle friend.
I’m really impressed by the voiceovers. Even though the animations aren’t exact, the voiceovers perfectly convey all the emotion.
PM: I’m a stickler for eyes. The amount of blinks and the certain arches of eyebrows can really convey a lot. On our show they’re just little black dots, but it’s a matter of manipulating those in certain ways. You can really tell a lot through that.
Yeah, there are little things like that that I love. Also how characters will talk over each other, just small things like that.
ML: That’s our bread and butter.
PM: We love that. We record with everybody. If it’s a four-person team, then it’s four people in the room looking at each other and talking at the same time. So that’s a lot of fun to keep that sort of stuff in there. There’s nothing funnier than animating a rat coughing into its hand.
Another thing I’ve noticed that I really like is so far people are disgusting and the animals are … not so much.
ML: There it is. You got it.
PM: We didn’t want people to talk, you know? Because then that would have got confusing and weird. It just seemed really nice to have them be told in almost a completely visual way. Not spending too much time on them because it’s not about them. It’s about the animals.
It started with the pigeons?
PM: We did a web series and we did pigeons, then we did a rats one, then we did roaches, then we did a horses one, and then we made this 12-minute pigeons quarter-hour thing that we put in the New York Television Festival. So I guess I’ve always identified the Adam and Eve of Animals as the rats for some reason, but I guess pigeons are. …
ML: They’re both.
What’s it been like working with the different voiceover actors that you’ve brought in?
ML: They’ve been awesome. The cool part for us about being a Duplass project from the beginning is everybody who came in was down for the experience of something a little different. From the beginning, we were initially making it in a small place. I mean, to be frank, we were making it in this apartment and we had these amazing people who were coming in to do it — you know, Aziz Ansari and Molly Shannon, people who were far beyond recording in an apartment bedroom, but they couldn’t have been cooler, couldn’t have been nicer. Then it’s all improvised, too. I think why the actors like it a lot is there’s complete freedom. We do it based off of a bare outline.
It must be so encouraging to have big actors dedicating their true art and selves to making it how you want it to be.
PM: Aziz Ansari sold out Madison Square Garden and then came to our apartment three days later. So it’s just like, it’s great. It’s incredible.
I love a lot of the music you’ve been using. What’s the story behind that?
PM: Mike and I pick all the music that you hear on the show. We’re heavily involved in every process of the show, and that was particularly something that we really liked. We knew we wanted to use bands that we knew personally. We have all these great friends of ours who are in bands in Brooklyn, and stuff like that. Honestly, that’s like the sound of New York to us. We’re both music dudes who both play music and we always knew it was going to be a big part of our show. Having people help out without having to get kick-ass music supervisors who clear all this stuff is awesome.
What’s the theme song?
PM: That’s the Men. Truly one of the my favorite bands. It’s from two albums ago when they were still really, really loud. It’s called “Animal.”
Has your background in advertising come in handy at all during this process?
ML: If anything, the experience of Phil and I coming from a professional environment like that, like a smaller business environment, I think we learned a lot on how to manage something like that. When we moved out here and had our first batch of animators helping us do it, I think we had a leg up on knowing how to run the machine of a small business.
PM: That’s a good point. Where we were working there was a dozen people. It was kind of scrappy, and I think Mike and I really honed our work ethic. That’s something we extrapolated from them that was really worth it.
Obviously, you’re working on the second season, but are there other projects in mind? Is animation a big concentration for you guys?
PM: I think right now we’re really wrapped up in the machine that is Animals. It’s not like Mike and I are really students of the world of animation, so we don’t really feel necessarily beholden to it. But that being said, I think we’ve both found that we love it. It’s such a cool world to really express yourself in a lot of different ways, so time will tell. We’ll see whatever happens next. It could be anything!
Photos via HBO