What happens when you mix preschool toys with A Game of Thrones and lewd humor? In Crossing Swords, Patrick is a kindhearted peasant who grabs a sweet job as a squire at the royal castle. Things are not as regal as they seem, though. The monarchs are dirty in a multitude of ways, from underhanded dealings to graphic orgies (including full frontal peg people). Created by John Harvatine IV and Tom Root of Robot Chicken fame, the adult animated stop-motion Hulu series debuted last month in all its crude glory. It also features a star-studded voice cast that includes Nicholas Hoult, Luke Evans, Alanna Ubach, Adam Pally, Tara Strong, Tony Hale, Seth Green, and Breckin Meyer, with notable guest stars Yvette Nicole Brown, Jameela Jamil, Alfred Molina, and more.
Harvatine and Root chatted with The Beat about the show and what inspired them to make preschool toys do raunchy things.
Deanna Destito: How has the reception been so far?
Tom Root: I think it’s been really good. We’ve had a lot of great reaction from viewers. I’ve sort of been judging it on the amount of fan art that we’ve been seeing. Harv’s been posting a lot of fan art on his Instagram stories, and it seems really enthusiastic. Robot Chicken doesn’t get a ton of fan art mostly because we don’t have a lot of recurring characters. So it’s really fun to see people embracing a cast of crazy characters on Crossing Swords.
John Harvatine IV: I think it’s really interesting going from 0 to 60. Two weeks ago, you know, there is nothing, there were no fans. But then it’s cool to see that stuff pop up. And one thing I really love is our show has peg people. So there’s this round head, little peg bodies and there’s no arms or legs. What I really love seeing in the fan art is when they have arms and legs and they’re different looking. It’s really fun to see those characters realized from someone else’s perspective that can actually do more than ours can.
Destito: So what was the inspiration behind this?
Root: Well, we really picked the look of the show before we talked about the story or the characters or anything like that. We knew we wanted to make a show that looked like preschool toys from our childhood and even a little older than us. Those peg people, there’s something that is so charming about them because they’re all more or less the same shade. And they’re only differentiated by their paint job on them and they are so limited in what they can and can’t do. And we thought it would be very funny to take such a limited puppet and shoot it in a very cinematic way. So that was the jumping-off point. We wanted to have a child’s toy that was made of wood and looked like it was really handmade and looked like it was really simple. But then tell really adult stories and shot like a lot of time and care was taken with it. That’s where the show came from.
Harvatine: We really wanted to have characters that looked different. And what’s really fun about peg people is that they’re so simple and it’s something that’s so recognizable to people. It’s just a round face on a little peg body. Taking a design that’s really simple and then creating characters that when you animate them you can actually feel and see their emotions, it’s a real fun challenge. And then, like we were saying, not having the arms and legs and having the props float and having them communicate with those props and doing things with that, it’s a really fun way to tell the story. And, you know, it’s really fun to see the juxtaposition of really, really cute characters and having them say and do really naughty things.
Destito: There are some Robot Chicken names attached to this. How did they get involved?
Root: Well, the way the show was born was Robot Chicken season 6 was going to be produced by this new studio called Stoopid Buddy Stoodio, where Matt Senreich and Seth Green from Stoopid Monkey were uniting with Buddy System, which is Eric Towner and John Harvatine IV. The four of them were now Stoopid Buddy Stoodio. And I’m an [executive producer] on Robot Chicken and one of the head writers. So Harv and I decided we wanted to make this peg person show. And so naturally all of the Robot Chicken names that you’ll see in the opening credits including Matt, Seth, Towner, Harvatine, and me—all five of those names you’ll see in Robot Chicken and in Crossing Swords. And it’s just a function of location, really. We’re all under one roof making stuff. And that’s sort of why the studio felt like such a good idea to begin with, that we’d have that creative overlap and be able to produce projects.
Destito: Some of the voice actors, too?
Harvatine: With the voice acting we knew we wanted to have Seth and Breckin [Meyer] so when we were thinking about the cast, we were looking at the Robot Chicken cast and we also were heavily looking at Seth and finding a fun role for him. We just wanted to force him in there.
Root: Half the cast is people we’ve worked with before on Robot Chicken and half is brand new casting. And that’s sort of on purpose. We knew people we definitely wanted on the show from the Robot days and then half we just needed to let the process take its course and see who turned up.
Destito: Did you approach certain actors or did you just have an open audition?
Root: We definitely went out wide with our casting with the main roles and we just started to see who popped up with auditions. We got to listen to an awful lot of people really quickly. And it was funny how everyone could seem okay, and then one person’s take would just immediately click. We found that with Adam Pally with Broth. It’s funny, you can get a million surfer dude voices or stoner dude voices, but then Adam Pally’s take on Broth just sounded immediately like the character we wanted. The same with Alanna UBach with her Queen Tulip. We got an awful lot of queen characters who sounded like queens. Very stuffy regal queens, but it wasn’t until she gave us her take that we were like oh clearly it’s gotta be her.
Destito: Some of the actors are unrecognizable. Like Nicholas Hoult. I did not recognize his voice at all. I kept looking up who was playing who because they really are unrecognizable. How did that come about? Did you let the actors play with different ideas or did you have a heavy hand in their interpretation?
Harvatine: It was kind of a mixture, you know, like with Nick. We knew we wanted to have an American accent in there. And I think the fun thing with him is when we talked with him, we didn’t really give him a heads up. So he didn’t have any time to prepare to get rid of his English accent and Americanize it. What we got was this kind of—not awkward—but like a performance that felt a little—not shy, but just kind of—what’s the word, Mr. Root?
Root: Vulnerable maybe?
Harvatine: Yeah. There you go. And so we love that. It really felt like the character. So that was kind of an accident, but it really worked well…what we got out of this was really unique sounding and definitely not his normal voice.
Root: He said his girlfriend can’t identify that voice. She can’t tell that it’s him.
Destito: So how long does it take for each episode to get produced from beginning to end?
Harvatine: About a year all in. For the first part of the year, it is the writing and the designs and stuff like that. And once we hit the animation, the stages—Root’s the mathematician here—but we have about 30 stages and about 20 animators. They’ll do about 10 seconds a day. So if they were just doing one episode, it would probably take them, like 6 days-ish?
Root: Twenty animators doing 10 seconds a day, that’s like three animated minutes per day. So, yeah, five or six days of animation turns into one episode. That’s optimal. It never works out that way because the problem is animators, if you leave them alone, they can do 10 seconds a day. But then if they finish a shot, you gotta take them off the stage. You gotta put a new stage up. You gotta light that stage, etc., etc. So there’s always something that’s slowing down the process. But we have figured out that we can make 10 episodes in about a year. So if we ever get a bigger episode order we’re in a lot of trouble.
Destito: Is there talk for Season 2?
Root: They just announced Season 2. So that is now public knowledge. They’ve been talking to us behind scenes for a while, but they wanted to wait to announce it after Season 1 aired. Ten scripts have been written for Season 2 and production is underway.
Destito: Has the pandemic affected your production schedule?
Harvatine: I think we’re still on schedule to hit our deadline, which should be in a year from now. We did have to move things around a little bit. But the good thing is the stages we were at, we were able to do everything from home so all the scripts were able to be finished at home. We’re currently working on designs and storyboards. Those are all at home. And then we’re starting to get into the animatics, which again we’re doing remote as well. So far, everything we were able to do remote. But pretty soon, we’re going to need to get back on the stage and start doing the physical animation. We’re hoping things can kind of get figured out on the sooner side so we can physically start making the animation because we can’t do that remote. But we’ve done as much as we can away and it’s been working out.
Destito: So how many animators work on one scene? Do you need a whole group of people for the whole thing or can you have a skeleton crew?
Harvatine: Yeah, that’s what we’re looking at. The good thing is the answer is yes we can have a skeleton crew. The animators work in stages by themselves in curtained-off 10 x 10 stages, but there is a team around them that helps do everything. There’s a team of puppet people and set people and set dressers, and there’s camera crew and directors. So what we will have to do is just spread everyone out. The most important person is the animator. We’ll give them support. An example is the set people will go in first and then they’ll leave and then the puppet people go in, drop off the puppet and leave, and then the animator will come in. So instead of everyone kind of working together, we’ll just do it in smaller doses. And then for the production team and directors, a lot of that can be done more remote or at least not in the same space, like in a different building or not near the animators. We can call in and we can video conference the directing and stuff like that just to keep as many people away from the animators as possible, which I think we can do pretty safely.
Destito: So why did you think Hulu was a good platform for this or was it just kind of the luck of the draw?
Root: Well, we always envisioned it as being really R-rated for language and violence. And we wanted nudity in there and part of what we found so funny about the look of the show was imagining doing Game of Thrones only with very cute preschool toys. And there’s only so many platforms you can do that on. We knew if we ended up on broadcast TV on Fox Sunday night, it was really gonna be a far different show. What would that show even look like? And so, we were really happy when Hulu responded so well to the pitch and we had partnered with Sony at that point and Stoopid Buddy. So we went in and described the show to Hulu and gave them our pitch and showed them our animation test. And they really fell in love with it, and they kind of haven’t ever fallen out of love with it.
Destito: Who is your favorite character?
Harvatine: I’ll say Bungles, who wasn’t in the show a whole lot of Season 1, and he sadly didn’t have a good outcome in Season 1 or at least a living one. But I’m hoping in Season 2 he’ll make more of an appearance. Root, what do you think?
Root: Bungles may come back as a ghost. Bungles is the court jester for those readers who haven’t seen the show yet, and he meets an untimely end. But I think it’s really fun to write for Princess Blossom because she’s so aggressive and you can drop her into any scene and she makes the scene all about herself. And she’s sort of endlessly entertaining. And as a writer, she’s very easy to write because she’s so self-centered and she’s so mean and you get to write a lot of mean dialogue, which writers always love to do.
Destito: Do you see any character getting a spinoff?
Harvatine: Blossom maybe?
Root: Maybe Bungles? The siblings are all interesting. There’s a lot of love for Blarney.
Harvatine: Coral, there’s a lot that can be explored outside the kingdom.
Root: Oh, yes. We have this whole backstory for her and we only scratched the surface with her. I think life on her pirate ship would be a very interesting show.
Crossing Swords is currently streaming on Hulu.