With 'gen:LOCK,' Rooster Teeth Wanted to Prove It Wasn't a "One-Hit Wonder"
Producing a hit show that people care about has many obvious perks, but one drawback for Rooster Teeth Animation, creators of the hit anime RWBY from its studios in Austin, Texas, was a fear that success was a one-time thing. With gen:LOCK, its latest and most elaborate production, Rooster Teeth wanted to find out for sure if lightning could strike twice.
If gen:LOCK’s first season, which airs its finale episode on March 9, is any indication, the answer is a whole-hearted yes, but according to Rooster Teeth’s Head of Animation, Gray G. Haddock, getting to this point was anything but easy.
“We appreciated this amazing audience we admittedly stumbled backward into,” Haddock says. “We had no idea RWBY would be the juggernaut, the flagship brand for the company. But we wanted to demonstrate that we were not a one-hit wonder.”
Since 2013, Rooster Teeth has dealt with the ups and downs of having a hit show. RWBY (pronounced “ruby”), co-created by the late animator Monty Oum, is an ongoing saga about four teenaged girls who save the world from savage monsters. It is one of the most popular anime franchises in the world, complete with video games, action figures, manga, and merch at mall retailer Forever 21.
But a few years into RWBY, Rooster Teeth wondered if it was capable of doing something different. The studio already had other animated shows — Camp Camp and Nomad of Nowhere premiered after RWBY, and its viral web-series series Red vs. Blue is beginning its 17th season — but the staff wondered if they could pull off a new show equal to the scope of RWBY.
“The mantra of Rooster Teeth is, let’s make something we wanna see,” Haddock says. “They” — meaning Rooster Teeth’s founders Matt Hullum, Burnie Burns, Gus Sorola, and others — “don’t want us to just repeat what we had before. If all we did was make RWBY clones, that would make our trajectory plateau quickly. We want everyone to know we’re capable of doing shows beyond what we’ve demonstrated over the last couple of years.”
Set fifty years in the future amidst a global war, gen:LOCK follows an elite team of specialists who pilot “mechas,” highly-advanced humanoid robots the size of skyscrapers, in an effort to not only end the war but save the world. The show premiered on Rooster Teeth’s exclusive streaming platform, FIRST.
In a move that shows the 17-year-old’s studio’s maturity, gen:LOCK is Rooster Teeth’s first production starring major outside talent. Besides Michael B. Jordan, star of Black Panther and a lifelong anime fan — his favorite is Gundam Wing, another classic anime mecha series — gen:LOCK stars Dakota Fanning (The Alienist), David Tennant (Doctor Who), Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones), Asia Kate Dillon (Billions), Golshifteh Farahani (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales), and Kōichi Yamadera (Cowboy Bebop).
Sitting in his office besieged by RWBY action figures and posters, Haddock reflects on the origins of gen:LOCK. It was the fall of 2015, during the third season of RWBY, when Rooster Teeth Animation began to wonder what’s next.
“We had begun asking ourselves what shows can we bring online in parallel to RWBY,” Haddock recalls. “The company was beginning to learn just the potential of what doing more animated projects can do for the company. They were really starting to invest in us, and RWBY.”
Evidence of the higher-ups’ faith in Rooster Teeth Animation can be found in RWBY itself; after Volume 1, every subsequent season demonstrates obvious improved technical sophistication. But there was hope that another show entirely could really prove Rooster Teeth’s chops in the animation market.
A “pitch fest” was held internally at Rooster Teeth, where anyone and everyone could submit ideas to become the next show. Some pitches were identified as “not right now” — ideas with plenty of potential that Rooster Teeth will do “some day, but not the thing to pivot” from RWBY.
Haddock, who conjured up gen:LOCK and pitched it in competition with his own employees, sticks out in his own work space. With dirty blonde hair seasoned with shades of gray, and a deep voice that served him well in his previous career as a voice actor, it’s almost easier to imagine Haddock shooting pool at a sports bar than see him talk anime and comic books.
But it was Haddock’s obsessions with X-Men, Star Trek, and Japanese pop culture that the “old school otaku” tapped into to make gen:LOCK a reality.
“gen:LOCK represented an opportunity for me to do a next-gen tribute to the ideas of Gen Roddenberry that he did in Star Trek,” says Haddock.
“The series was hailed for subjects the episodes dealt with as well as, just call it ‘casual diversity,’ seeing different ethnicities and genders in different positions of authority.”
Star Trek also had the first interracial kiss in TV history, he mentions. “I just wanted to make sure there were more stories happening like that in the world. There’s not enough stories like that in mass media.”
As Haddock breaks down the show’s colorful characters before me, a wonderfully diverse set of individuals with their own unique abilities, talents, backgrounds, and attitudes, I casually mention X-Men, another hallmark of diversity in genre fiction. Seated in his chair, Haddock gets excited.
“It is, absolutely!” he says. “X-Men is one of the major inspirations of the show. I grew up on Uncanny X-Men. I don’t bust that out a lot because I don’t want people to get too concerned. The show is anime inspired, but there’s cherry picking from things I adore from western comic books.”
X-Men and Star Trek may not run in the same fandom circles as anime, but Haddock found similarities in what enthusiasts seek to what Roddenberry, Chris Claremont, Stan Lee, and Jack Kirby dreamed up of decades ago.
“They like cool action, and diverse, strong ensembles in their storytelling,” says Haddock. “I try to tell stories that reflects the natural diversity I see everywhere. To hold a mirror to that is becoming distasteful in aspects of western culture, and I’m not happy about that. gen:LOCK has to be a fun show to watch, if you go too soap boxy you risk not being able to connect with an audience. But I want to tell stories through example. That’s what gen:LOCK allows me to do.”
gen:LOCK may have the makings of a classic, but will the show actually be Rooster Teeth’s second golden ticket? It has a fandom already getting to work on cosplay, sure. But time will actually tell if the world will embrace gen:LOCK as it did RWBY.
In the meantime, gen:LOCK is the studio’s new toy, but RWBY isn’t going anywhere. “We might be making a lot of gen:LOCK noise, but that’s because you do that with a new baby,” Haddock says. “RWBY is the flagship of the company. We are still going to give it all the care and attention it needs. We would not be the department we are today if it wasn’t for RWBY.”
Episodes of gen:LOCK and RWBY are available on Rooster Teeth’s FIRST.