If no one's making the stories you want to see, then make them yourself. It's a DIY philosophy that has catapulted Rooster Teeth, the Austin-based production house, into a powerhouse with gamer-centric web series such as Red vs. Blue and new-age nerd classics, including its hit animated series RWBY. Rooster Teeth's Head of Animation, Gray Haddock, is helming the studio's latest original offering, the animated sci-fi series gen:LOCK. And despite its futuristic concept, gen:LOCK reflects the real world far better than the majority of its competitors.
The series, perhaps one of the most anticipated under-the-radar shows of 2019, follows a group of diverse young pilots who control enormous mechas in a dystopian future. Their leader, Michael B. Jordan's Julian Chase, is the kind of person built to shoulder a resistance — intelligent, kind, confident, and wildly capable. Haddock describes him as an all-American hero, one who leads his crew of equally heroic pilots and scientists through world-saving adventures against a chaotic enemy.
From the beginning, Haddock and his team knew they wanted their lead character to be a black man. When they first pitched gen:LOCK in 2015, they still weren't seeing much diversity in pop culture, especially in genre. Having grown up on Star Trek, X-Men, and "a variety of other IP that presented diversity so casually," Haddock says, he felt a responsibility to create a series that did the same.
Despite the leaps and bounds taken in recent years in more accurately portraying the real world on screen, the majority of roles still go to white men. The animation side has been praised on occasion for leaning into more diversity both onscreen and behind the scenes (see: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), but it's far from perfect.
Haddock wanted to created a series that both reflected the world around him and leaned into the genres he loves most. The idea for gen:LOCK came from Haddock's love of classic sci-fi: Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica. But it's also steeped in anime, an influence that becomes clear when the mechas appear onscreen.
"I wanted to watch a story that was decently grounded in science but was still fun to watch, and no one in the West was really doing anything like that," Haddock told SYFY WIRE. There was Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim, which premiered in theaters two years before Haddock really solidified gen:LOCK in 2015, but that was it. Haddock wanted more, the kind of long-form storytelling, realism, and emotional stakes that are most commonly achievable through television.
Little did he know how well his plan would fall into place.
As a fun experiment and kind of pipe dream, Haddock mentally cast Jordan as Julian. In the team's very first brainstorming session, one of Haddock's coworkers pointed out that Jordan's name had come up multiple times throughout the meeting. Given Jordan's very public love of anime, it wasn't as far a stretch to think of casting Jordan as it might be another A-list celebrity.
"The worst he could say is 'no,'" Haddock remembers someone saying to him when they sent a pitch to Jordan's team. Along with a few scripts, Haddock and his team sent over a clip of Julian, animated using dialogue from Jordan's leading role in Creed (2015).
Haddock didn't expect it to work. A couple weeks later, he was playing hooky and half-working on a new script when Jordan's management team responded to the material Rooster Teeth had sent their way. Jordan loved it and they were looking for more information.
"And then I was somehow expected to hang up the phone and get back to writing," Haddock says, laughing.
Soon after news of Jordan's signing on to gen:LOCK broke, Haddock and his team started hearing back from other big-name talents. In the past, Rooster Teeth's projects have all been voiced by in-house talent; gen:LOCK is the company's first union series after it started working with the Screen Actors Guild, and that plus Jordan's casting resulted in a number of other big stars getting back to them.
As a result, gen:LOCK boasts an all-star voice cast, including Jordan, Dakota Fanning (Coraline), Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones), and David Tennant (Doctor Who). Joining them are a host of other talented actors and voice artists, including Haddock, Kôichi Yamadera (Ghost in the Shell), Monica Rial (My Hero Academia), Asia Kate Dillon (Orange Is the New Black), and Golshifteh Farahani (Paterson).
"We want to be a part of that story. We want people to know that Rooster Teeth is very much behind diversity and representation in storytelling and it's something we've been working on with each iteration of every show over the years," Haddock says. "gen:LOCK… it provided a fresh opportunity from day one with an ensemble that reflects the world around us."
What results is a series that does just that. Though it takes place in a dark future, gen:LOCK is ultimately hopeful, reaching toward the kind of inclusive future sci-fi has always promised and from which other creators could take a few lessons.
gen:LOCK premieres on Rooster Teeth's FIRST on January 26.