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Steering the Batwheels: Designing DC's First Show for Preschoolers

Steering the Batwheels: Designing DC's First Show for...

By Kelly Knox Monday, October 17th, 2022

This week, DC’s most popular superhero will take on his scariest challenge yet—navigating the world of preschool animation!

Batwheels are rolling out to save the day! The new animated series on HBO Max and Cartoon Network packs a lot of preschool precociousness into its hilarious, action-filled episodes that the entire family can enjoy watching together.

Recently, Co-Executive Producer Michael G. Stern and Supervising Producer Simon J. Smith chatted with us about designing the brightly lit Gotham of Batwheels, working with Ethan Hawke and the exquisite pun you might have missed. Read on to get the inside info on this truly unique new Bat-Family series.

With the “Batwheels” chorus in the theme song and Batgirl’s Bat-cycle, it feels like Batman ’66 might be one of the influences on the series. Is that the case?

Michael G. Stern: I think you can safely say we were absolutely influenced by the ’66 show, just the fun of it and the color. It seemed like a really good place for us to steer some of the show toward. I wouldn’t say that’s the entire influence, but it’s definitely there.

Simon J. Smith: Yes, for sure.

You mentioned the color. Your Gotham City looks pretty unique with a pink and blue color palette and neon lights. What were the thoughts behind this design for the city?

SJS: This is for four-year-olds upwards, so we can’t have too much black and darkness because it becomes too intense. When we started designing Gotham, we wanted it to be multi-level, so it’s car friendly. In terms of lighting, we knew it was going to be all at night, which is a big challenge.

We tried to think about, where is a safe place for families to be at night, where they can enjoy themselves? We immediately thought, theme park! We started mapping out areas with different colors, like underneath the railway tracks, there are some greens and purples and blues, and complementary colors. As much as possible, there are no blacks anywhere in the frame and there’s always color in the shadows, just like you’re in a theme park. So that’s how we came up with such a colorful Gotham.

Is there a specific reason why there won’t be a lot of daytime scenes?

MGS: It was a conscious decision. Most preschool shows are bright sunshine and puffy clouds and rainbows, and we wanted to be true to Batman. Sam Register, the head of Warner Bros. Animation said, “We want to create this amazing preschool show that four-year-olds will love, but we also want to respect Batman. We want it to be Batman.” And we know Batman operates at night.

We started thinking, that’s a wonderful thing for young kids because they have to go to bed, so they don’t get to explore at night. They don’t get to have adventures at nighttime. So, this can be a wonderful, colorful world. It turns out when you unleash amazing artists like Simon here on it, it becomes that.

Emotional literacy and Batman aren’t a typical pairing. Why is this an important focus for Batwheels?

MGS: The idea for a social-emotional curriculum for the show was there from the start. We’re not the kind of preschool show that’s going to have a hard curriculum, like the alphabet or numbers.

What we have to offer is the fantastic action that Simon and his team are going to give you, but then also the characters. And what comes out of the characters is the ability for a kid to learn about the world and experience what it means to be a teammate, and what it means to help the larger world. Gotham’s a great metaphor for the entire world for our characters. I think that all sprang up naturally because you just want to tell stories about these characters.

With a long history of Batman comics to draw from, why did you choose Cassandra Cain and Duke Thomas for Batgirl and Robin?

MGS: We wanted to have a diverse cast. The people from DC really helped us with this—they helped us find the right characters to use. We didn’t want to just create something out of nowhere. As with the rest of the show, we feel like it’s tied to the DC Universe.

All of the cast sound like they’re having a blast, especially Ethan Hawke as Batman. What was it like casting him and bringing him in to play the Dark Knight?

SJS: He was fantastic. Our casting group at WB has been amazing at finding us the perfect cast. We really feel like we have a dream cast. Ethan showed interest, and he came in and absolutely killed it. He had this fantastic approach. The writing from Michael and his team has been brilliant—we never make fun of Batman, we never parody him. It’s the same core Batman you’ll find in any other DC universe.

Ethan brought to it this fantastic exhausted dad energy as he’s looking after Robin and Batgirl. It was brilliant with this fantastic grumble. He was really into it, and he really respected the writing. He pointed it out, saying he really loved the scripts and really loved what we were doing with the show. He was all in.

And he smiles!

SJS: There were two words that really stuck out in the design, which were legitimacy and validity. We wanted to have a legitimate, valid Batman, a valid Gotham, a valid Batmobile. Everything that goes with that. But at the same time, we wanted to have as much fun as possible.

So that’s what we do with Batman. We skirt the line as close as we can get so he doesn’t become not instrumental in what the tone of the show is. We found out early on when Michael and I were doing the story reels that Batman is this permeation of cool over the whole show. It’s really important to have as much as possible, but maintain the legitimacy of Batman.

Another member of the cast who sounds like he’s always having fun is SungWon Cho as the Badcomputer. What do you think is the right balance in being a super-villain without being too scary for preschoolers?

MGS: SungWon is amazing. That voice is unmistakable and incredible. Right away we just told him to lean in. Go over the top and then go over the top of that! Chew the scenery and then chew a little more.

The way you can keep them from being scary came on Simon’s side with the design. We came up with this great concept of a big, evil, powerful villain living in this broken-down scoreboard. He tries to give his big evil speeches and gets interrupted by this scoreboard all the time. While we didn’t want to poke too much fun at Batman, we poke lots of fun at the villains.

SJS: Yeah, that became a staple of the villains, the comedy. You can have as much fun with them as possible because they’re the guys who are making the mistakes and making fools of themselves. SungWon was amazing. He really was all in with his character. Having the scoreboard interrupt him all the time is really funny.

Also, A+ pun on “Badcomputer.”

SJS: We’re also fond of Parkham’s Scrapyard, where their headquarters is.

Amazing.
 

Batwheels premieres today on the Cartoonito preschool block on Cartoon Network and tomorrow on the Cartoonito hub on HBO Max. Be sure to tune in for even more fun and puns!

Kelly Knox writes about all-ages comics and animation for DCComics.com and her writing can also be seen on IGN, Nerdist and more. Follow her on Twitter at @kelly_knox to talk superheroes, comics and pop culture.