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X-Men '97 Director Talks Creative Freedom, Maintaining OG Series Vibe

X-Men '97 director Jake Castorena discusses streaming's creative freedom and the importance of maintaining the vibe of the original series.

To say that X-Men '97 is a resounding success would be an understatement. Not only did it capture the magic of the original 1990s X-Men: The Animated Series on Fox Saturday mornings, but it also expanded it every which way from bringing back the bulk of the surviving cast to reprise their roles, giving far more substance to fan favorites like Storm (Alison Sealy-Smith), Magneto (Matthew Waterson), and Rogue (Lenore Zann), but also grew up edgier with its original Saturday morning counterpart's audience. With bold decisions like killing Gambit (A.J. LoCascio), not leaning on Cal Dodd's Wolverine to take front and center in the ensemble, supercharged cameos from Marvel's animated series past, and embracing darker tones, X-Men '97 exceeded beyond expectations every which way, despite the controversial decision to part ways with creator Beau DeMayo. Director Jake Castorena spoke with Discussing Film about balancing the appeal to the older audiences while drawing in newer ones, the creative freedom streaming allows compared to the censorship standards of Saturday mornings.

X-Men '97 Supercharges Legacy of Animated Series Every Way [Review]
(L-R): Morph (voiced by JP Karliak), Storm (voiced by Alison Sealy-Smith), Gambit (voiced by AJ LoCascio), Cyclops (voiced by Ray Chase), Rogue (voiced by Lenore Zann), Wolverine (voiced by Cal Dodd), Bishop (voiced by Isaac Robinson-Smith), Beast (voiced by George Buza) in Marvel Animation's X-MEN '97. Photo courtesy of Marvel Animation. © 2024 MARVEL.

How the Team Behind X-Men '97 Created a New Juggernaut of Marvel Animation

When it came to the goals of X-Men '97, "Luckily, that mandate and mission statement was there from day one with Beau DeMayo's series bible. In tandem, our show is a revival, a spiritual successor — we're not a reboot. Thus, if we are a revival and a spiritual successor, certain things are ingrained in the original show's DNA that if we remove, change, or alter in any shape or form, it quickly doesn't become excellent anymore. Much of that was figured out in the writer's room and script phase," Castorena said.

"At the end of the day, we're all fans. It sounds counterintuitive, yet the reality is you don't make stuff for the rest of the world. You don't do that because that's too many contingencies and too many "what-ifs." It leads to you getting nothing done; you end up making nothing out of fear. However, we also aim to make it a little more intimate. What story do I want to see that we're trying to tell? As a born artist, what's the scene I need to see next? You act on instinct. On a broader scale, that's every teammate, every step of the way. We need to live in the DNA that's been ingrained in the idea of the show. But at the same time, when we make stuff for ourselves that we're happy with, the audience is happy with it too!"

X-Men '97
(L-R): Wolverine (voiced by Cal Dodd), Morph (voiced by JP Karliak), Bishop (voiced by Isaac Robinson-Smith), Cyclops (voiced by Ray Chase), Val Cooper (voiced by Catherine Disher), Gambit (voiced by AJ LoCascio), Rogue (voiced by Lenore Zann), and Storm (voiced by Alison Sealy-Smith) in Marvel Animation's X-MEN '97. Photo courtesy of Marvel Animation. © 2024 MARVEL.

Castorena broke down the emotional impact of "Remember It." "If we're not convinced the scene is working, the audience won't be convinced either. We all got very sad over Episode 5. Our episodic director Emi Yonemura and myself, personally, got really sad working on that damn thing. We reboarded and retold the Gambit send-off, not the actual death, but the goodbye of Rogue holding Remy dead in her arms," he said. "We did the approach of that send-off three separate times in three different ways because it's about story over everything. What supports the narrative? What pushes it forward? And, more importantly, checking if we are giving things justice. Are we putting respect on the name of the characters and the IP, the allegories that they represent and stand for? A lot comes into play, but we try to make it very intimate and ask, 'What do we want to see?'"

X-Men '97: Beau DeMayo Assigns Fans Additional Finale Homework
Magneto (voiced by Matthew Waterson) in Marvel Animation's X-MEN '97. Photo courtesy of Marvel Animation. © 2024 MARVEL.

As far as allowing more violent content and saltier language, "It absolutely affects how we set up technically for animation as a whole, knowing that we don't have that sort of broadcast standard. We take that into consideration because we have to ship a certain amount of time. For example, Episode 10 was roughly 40 minutes; we worked with 20-something minutes of actual footage at first and then sent it out overseas. They animated it, gave it back to us, and then we worked in tandem with the vendor. Once we get that back, that makes for room to elongate scenes, add or adjust banter, or create quiet moments to let characters and pacing breathe. Having those parameters and freedom is great, knowing if we need to make more time or shorten the time for a moment to work. Like you said, we can show violence and not have to shy away from it as well," Castorena said.

"But with that said, and what I appreciate about our crew and what we did, we have to give ourselves false parameters in every aspect. We would love to put all these bells and whistles on the show's style, but that's a little too advanced for what the original series probably would have had. So we ask, 'Can we do this in a way they would have had to tackle it back then?' For example, we have a way that we're working on water right now. One of our vendors gave us an effects pass, and it was like, 'Oh, that's too clean. To do a painted card and then a two-frame cycle, that's just too advanced.' Then, we tried a low-tech approach, and it was like, 'Wow, this really works.' These kinds of false parameters only helped us to better achieve the feeling of the original show."

You can check out the entire interview for more on Castorena, including how the series' animation style contrasts with the original and inspires future stories. Season one is available to stream on Disney+.

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Tom ChangAbout Tom Chang

I'm a follower of pop culture from gaming, comics, sci-fi, fantasy, film, and TV for over 30 years. I grew up reading magazines like Starlog, Mad, and Fangoria. As a writer for over 10 years, Star Wars was the first sci-fi franchise I fell in love with. I'm a nerd-of-all-trades.
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