Indie Animation Reigns

The team behind the acclaimed sci-fi animated show Scavengers Reign detail their long, strange trip to the screen.

Lais Borges/Inverse; Titmouse, Inc; Green Street Pictures
The Indie Issue

April 2022 was a bad time to be in the animation business for HBO Max. The streamer’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, had been quietly purging its cartoon catalog and canceling many of its animated titles for weeks, and the team at independent animation studio Green Street Pictures, which had essentially formed to make the HBO Max original Scavengers Reign, was freaking out.

“We’d been hearing all these rumblings about Warner Discovery, and we had been getting texts from agents who were in the know about ‘Oh, they’re just going to scrap. Max is going to go away. All the originals are going to go away. Everything’s getting canceled,’” Sean Buckelew, the co-founder of Green Street Pictures and co-executive producer and writer on Scavengers Reign, tells Inverse. “It was a very tumultuous time.”

The team tuned into a shareholders meeting on YouTube to see if they could learn anything about their situation. All they saw were pie charts and graphs and “terminology that we didn’t understand,” Buckelew says.

“There was a month where we were sending stuff into a void. There was no one to answer to.”

“We got to the point where they said ‘We’re going to be making cuts,’ and they gave all the categories of the departments they were going to be cutting,” he recalls. “I remember the last one they said was Kids and Animation. We were like, ‘Is it kids, comma, and animation, or kids and animation?’ We were arguing about what that was.”

From the top, they heard radio silence. Their old boss was fired. They weren’t even sure if they had a new boss. So it was left to the team, which included Scavengers Reign co-creator Joseph Bennett, executive producer and Green Street co-founder James Merrill, and Titmouse co-founder Chris Prynoski, to figure out what to do from there.

“We were like, ‘Who do we talk to?’” Prynoski says. “There was a month where we were sending stuff into a void. There was no one to answer to.”

Released in 2023, Scavengers Reign told the story of a group of survivors of a cargo ship crash on a strange alien planet.


Eventually, things started settling down again, and their emails started getting answered. The team was relieved to find that its old executive at Adult Swim had landed a new job as an executive at Max and became their main point of contact. The instruction he gave them? “Just keep on going.”

Created by Bennett and Charles Huettner, Scavengers Reign is a 12-episode sci-fi series that follows the survivors of the Demeter 227, an interstellar cargo ship that crashes on an alien planet filled with organisms as beautiful and wondrous as they are dangerous. When it debuted on Max in late 2023, it was met with universal acclaim, with critics calling it “​​lush, magnificent, hypnotic… and truly otherworldly.” However, its unlikely success doesn’t hold a candle to its even more unlikely beginnings. That story reveals how a scrappy, independent team managed to make one of the best sci-fi shows of 2023, and it all starts back in 2016…

Finding the “Goldilocks Window”

It’s a bit of a miracle that Scavengers Reign got made in the first place. Bennett and Huettner were originally asked by Adult Swim to make a short for its Toonami block, based on their work in comedy animation. But what they and their small team turned in — a breathtaking eight-minute sci-fi odyssey on a bizarre alien planet inspired by the surreal art of Moebius — was totally different than anything they’d done before.

“I think, in their mind, it was a pretty small-potatoes project, which, in hindsight, I’m very grateful of,” Bennett says. “There was not really a lot of oversight or anything, and we had the liberty to just mess around and try something new and do something different.”

Adult Swim was initially confused by the final result but couldn’t deny the impact of the 2016 short’s haunting visuals and original story; Adult Swim then asked Bennett and Huettner to turn it into a full-length pilot. So the duo gathered a handful of independent animators and teamed up with Titmouse (the indie animation studio behind The Venture Bros.) to make the pilot. But while that didn’t end up going anywhere at Adult Swim, HBO Max would come calling a few years later to pick it up.

“The short worked really well as a proof of concept and a North Star.”

It was the kind of happy turn of events that was starting to become a rarity at the time and is basically unthinkable now: for an original, high-concept idea by a relatively unknown group of animators to get picked up to series, without a major name or filmmaker attached. But Bennett just credits what he calls their “Goldilocks window” as being the reason they managed to get made at all. “It was a very right place, right time, kind of a moment,” Bennett says.

If Bennett and Huettner were to attempt to make Scavengers Reign today, Bennett doubts they’d be able to. “The short worked really well as a proof of concept and a North Star,” Bennett says. “But we didn’t do it with the intention of pitching it as a show. I think it had to be that way. A lot of the time, it’s a real struggle because network execs will read a script and the tone and the cadence of what you’re trying to get is not really conveyed in the script.”

The Scavengers Reign creators ponder whether the show could be made today: “I doubt it. I don't think so.”


That Goldilocks window always seemed on the verge of closing. Not only did the team have to weather the merging of Warner Media and Discovery, but they had to weather the Covid-19 pandemic. Most of the production of the Scavengers Reign pilot, and part of the series, took place in lockdown, with Bennett, Huettner, Buckelew, Merrill, and Titmouse’s crew of animators from all over the world working remotely to make a show that, for a while there, didn’t seem like it would have a home. Along the way, that ragtag group became Green Street Pictures.

“We had been working in this milieu of artists, a lot of independent animators that were all working online, and we all knew each other, and there was just an overall feeling of wanting to do things a little differently with TV production,” Bennett says.

Buckelew adds, “[We had] that founding belief of ‘We can actually do this on a bigger scale and people won’t blanch at the way that it bucks certain industry practices.’”

The Grass is Greener on the Indie Side

“When the first reviews hit, it was this really intense moment,” Sean Buckelew says, of the positive reception to Scavengers Reign.


When Green Street Pictures was midway through production of Scavengers Reign, its team had already had its fair share of experience within the traditional animated TV pipeline. Bennett had worked at Titmouse for a few years, while Merrill had been an executive producer at Bob’s Burgers producer Bento Box Entertainment. With Green Street, they weren’t looking to change the game necessarily but bring the indie mentality to a larger scale. All of them wore “lots of hats,” Merrill says, from animating, to compositing, to writing, to producing, so “we can really touch every part of the process.”

That’s what sets Green Street apart from other, maybe more established, animation studios.

“We can be involved at every level,” Merrill adds. “Which you can’t elsewhere, because it’s somebody else at various levels and it’s more built out.”

That “indie on a big scale” strategy sort of came about by accident. It was a result of working on Scavengers Reign as a collection of independent animators and artists, alongside Titmouse, that resulted in everyone getting to be involved at every step.

“I think there’s some of that in Scavengers, of joy mixed with desperation and living in a prison.”

“Going into working on the Scavengers show, there was a bit of naivete that I think was beneficial in a lot of ways,” Bennett says. “Especially with a lot of the artists that we worked with that had never taken on those roles. Just a feeling of everybody had something to prove but also you didn’t have anything to compare it against.”

That way of working fed into the show itself. The early days of Green Street were marked by a kind of lawlessness that Buckelew looks back on with both fondness and anxiety. He remembers the group being constantly “stuck” and confused but also brimming with ideas.

“I just remember all of us eating fried-chicken sandwiches sitting on the floor during an election or whatever, and it was like, ‘Oh, this is going to be a key memory later,’” Buckelew says. “But at the time, it feels desperate and sad. I think there’s some of that in Scavengers, of joy mixed with desperation and living in a prison.”

That desperation carried them through the dark days of mergers, lockdown, and fears that too many people would compare Scavengers Reign to Alex Garland’s Annihilation, which hit theaters while they were working on the pilot. But when Scavengers Reign quietly premiered on Max in 2023, it was met with universal acclaim from critics and curious viewers who stumbled upon this strange, striking, sci-fi show.

“It was just the validating feeling of an audience picking up what you’re putting down, a reviewer’s clocking into things that you really hoped would be there,” Buckelew says. “It was emotional.”

A New Era for Indie Animation — Maybe

The Scavengers Reign team are optimistic that the industry is open to new, original indie animation.


The team are reluctant to say it outright, but the fact that Scavengers Reign made it to the screen, let alone received the praise that it did, makes it feel like they’re part of an industrywide shift for adult animation.

“I feel like there’s definitely a wave happening, you can feel it now with a lot of the shows coming out now, that there is a want for a more hands-on, tactile feel with these kinds of shows,” Bennett says. “I think that we’ve just been so used to seeing more automated and clean, that Disney or Pixar look. Nothing against any of those shows, but I think that when you’re just inundated with that constantly, all of a sudden you’re seeing something that’s a little bit more hand-drawn feeling can be satisfying.”

“I have a feeling that networks are taking more chances and projects like Scavengers, Blue Eye Samurai.”

Buckelew has a more diplomatic view of things: “Things shift around. I think buyers who are interested in more unique material shift around based on new eras at companies, and I think that a shift has happened recently, but I think it’s probably going to be the same as ever.”

Netflix’s Blue Eye Samurai is an example of stellar adult animation that the Scavengers Reign team cites as proof things are changing for indie animation.


Still, it’s hard to deny that 2023 was a banner year for fresh, original animation. The team had endless praise for Blue Eye Samurai, a visually dazzling adult action animated series on Netflix. Scavengers Reign producer, Titmouse, gets steady work developing original animated shows like AMC’s Pantheon alongside work on popular series like Star Trek: Lower Decks and The Boys: Diabolical. Green Street is picking its next projects carefully, but for now, they’re optimistic about the future of indie animation.

“I have a feeling that networks are taking more chances and projects like Scavengers, Blue Eye Samurai,” Bennett says. “I think the hope is that it is opening more doors for this kind of thing. Especially in TV animation. It feels like the industry’s…”

“Warming to it,” Merrill completes.

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