The Inverse Interview

How X-Men '97 Brought Back Its Retro Look, 27 Years Later

The dream of the '90s is alive with mutants.

Storm in the new series 'X-Men'97.'
The Inverse Interview

For those who remember, the style of the 1990s X-Men animated series was perhaps even more important than its substance. While the storylines of the classic show still hold up almost three decades later, the reason why the show remained so beloved is clearly for two reasons: the banger of a theme song, and the distinctive animation style; an overall aesthetic that seemed to suggest that what you were watching was ripped from the pages of actual Marvel comics, and brought to life.

But, in the 27 years since X-Men aired its last episode on network TV, there have been a lot of changes in the world of animation, and, several different onscreen versions of the X-Men, too. While it’s easy to say that X-Men ‘97 is simply a continuation of the old show, complete with a very similar animation style, making that magic happen was easier said than done.

Ahead of the launch of the new series on Disney+, Inverse caught up with X-Men ‘97’s supervising producer and head director Jake Castorena, to get the scoop on how the show goes back to the ‘90s, visually and tonally, but spiritually, moves the mutants forward.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

As a director, what was the hardest thing to make this seem like a continuation of the old show?

With the first episode, we had to get it right. We also got to figure out — what are the sandbox parameters? Luckily, [showrunner] Beau De Mayo had put most of that into fruition from the beginning.

So, I had a foundation, we just needed to know what that looked like visually. For me, it came down to that phrase, “fresh but familiar.” It’s got to feel like the show we remember, it's got to hit like the show we remember, but it's also got to be relevant for what's going on now. You look outside the window, and a lot of fellow peers friends, and constituents in animation are raising the bar as far as what the animated medium can do, both in TV and feature, as well as it just being a storytelling medium, not just a medium for children.

Wait, is the show still hand-drawn?

Yes! First and foremost, this is still a 2D hand-drawn show. Even though in this day and age we do take advantage of CG for layout, or overly complicated vehicles or ships. But then you still have to go in and hand draw all of that because if you don’t, it doesn't feel like it looks the way it should. I have to give a shout-out to our overseas vendor, Studio Mir. They carried this across the finish line and worked in tandem with our animation team to genuinely figure out basic questions: What’s too fancy? What’s not? Where can we pull in the old tools of the trade and where do we embellish on what we've learned over 30 years?

The X-Men find time to shoot some hoops in X-Men ‘97.


But the ‘90s were more than just one thing, right? What else goes into recreating the ‘90s feeling?

Yeah, that was a challenge, because we wanted this to still feel like it was a show that came out 30 years ago. For me, it came down to looking at what was happening between ‘96 and ‘98; what was being done in anime, what were cinematic elements at that time, and how did television look. Three camera set-ups looked different in ‘90s TV, and shots were often reused. I wanted to find the common denominators in all of those elements of the time, because you watch certain things from that era, and you automatically know it’s from that era. But, we still had to make it relevant and make sure it still slaps for today. A lot of it was just us sitting in a room on a big couch in front of a big TV for hours figuring that stuff out.

The character designs are incredible, but there is some new stuff in there. Can you speak to that process?

I’ve got to give a shout-out to Amelia Vidal, who’s our lead character designer. Her team has done exceptional work on this show, and I couldn't be more proud and happy with the work that they do as far as honoring what came before. We are always designing in tandem with the animation team, and what you see there is them ushering these characters into a new and quite frankly, digital age where we can see everything.

Each episode ends with a really great cliffhanger. As a director, how do you build tension to make those twists land?

Well, the twists were in Beau De Mayo’s scripts from day one, so shout out to him. So, from the scripts, we know where to embellish, and where to lead. Sometimes we’re going to cut closer and closer every time we cut back to a certain character to allude to the shoe drop at the end. Or sometimes, we cut wide, and we’ll give the illusion of something, and then, we cut close. A lot of it comes down to the intention of what the story is, and who the cameo might be. There’s also, of course, a long-term discussion about each cameo, and those reveals are about carrying the narrative forward. Everything matters!

X-Men ‘97 is streaming on Disney+ on March 20.

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