BoJack Horseman has its share of verbal jokes and barbs, but it’s also chock-full of visual references and sight gags — and nowhere was that more apparent than in season 3’s “Fish Out of Water.” The Netflix animated comedy went underwater for a largely silent episode that saw the production team proving it could tell a story as emotional as it was hilarious as they documented BoJack’s quiet struggle to both reunite a baby seahorse with his parent… and apologize to the director he’d gotten fired. We spoke to supervising director Mike Hollingsworth for a behind-the-scenes look at how the critically acclaimed episode came together.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your first reaction when you heard that this was happening?
MIKE HOLLINGSWORTH: It’s kind of like, “Be careful what you wish for,” because [show creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg] was like, “All right, you’ve asked for it, we’re going underwater and it’s going to be a silent episode.” And that was initially a very daunting challenge to create a 25-minute episode with very little to no dialogue. But myself and my storyboarders Aaron Long and James Bowman, who were the main storyboarders on that episode, we’re all just so heavily versed in the language of [animators] Tex Avery and Chuck Jones, and it was one of those situations where we ended up with too much material. We just had so much fun getting really cartoony. We always viewed this episode like “BoJack in Toontown,” like in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, which is kind of funny because he’s a cartoon but he went to a cartoon-ier place with different rules, just like when Eddy Valiant headed through Toontown. I know when Raphael started out, his initial direction was a Lost in Translation thing, but then the storyboarders and I took that and mixed it with Roger Rabbit.
How was animating this episode different compared to the other episodes you guys worked on?
It was different in every way. First of all, it didn’t fit into a slot in the schedule. It spread out over the whole season. We put a lot of love into it, and thankfully it worked out. Otherwise, we would have looked like real knuckleheads! But it was very different definitely all through the process, because when you’re on a script-driven show, usually you “tell.” But we were in a position where we had to show, not tell. We had to express all of BoJack’s emotions and physically see the gears turning in his head rather than him going, “I’m confused, I don’t know what to do next, should I turn left or right?” You had to see [it].
The rest of our shows are boarded like The Simpsons where there’s a script and we board to the script. But this episode was boarded more like an episode of SpongeBob or Adventure Time, where the script lacked all that dialogue, so it was big blocks of descriptions of scenarios and these storyboarders and I acted out the whole episode and saw where we felt certain things weren’t moving quick enough. We just really wanted to get to that baby [seahorse] as soon as possible. There was a lot of beats up top where BoJack was just exploring the world, which is all great, but you’ve got to get to that baby ASAP, as he is the real heart of the thing.
What about the design of the world? It doesn’t look like the show viewers are used to.
We had so much fun with all of these fish. [Producer and animator] Lisa Hanawalt brings so much to the process. In our storyboards, we just had somewhat vague fish, and then Lisa Hanawalt and I just filled in this world with so many beautiful, awful characters. I put in internet celebrity blob fish. I was really excited about putting him in there. We figured out what kind of characters would be in there just by what kind of visual gag they lent themselves to. I love this moment where there’s a celebrity octopus and he signs all kinds of autographs at once by just raising his leg and squirting ink on all of the headshots. We just figured out how to populate it by the gags that were coming to us as we were boarding it. As for the beautiful imagery, we have a terrific background department who figured out that whole underwater jumping around sequence that was so fun. It was hard restraining ourselves. We just wanted to make the whole episode bouncing around underwater because it was just so visually stunning. We could have probably done about 10 more minutes of that.
How much is in the script in terms of what creature everyone is? How do you know which characters are going to be an animal or a human?
Well, the main characters are cast generally if they’re going to be this animal or that. But then there’s the rest of the world and the environment that they’re living in generally that the directors and storyboarders come up with the basic detail-oriented animal gags. I do have to say, I am the supervising director and I have a particular ability. Michael Jordan can slam-dunk, Joe Montana could throw touchdowns, and I consider myself the king of animal gags. Through my appreciation of the Muppets and Tex Avery, all I do is just think in animal gags constantly. I will take credit for the octopus squirting ink. I supervise the whole process of the show, but I just fill the show with as many animal gags as I can. Like in season 2 when they were in a ’50s diner and one of the waiters was “Marlin Brando” and he was going “Stella!” That was a joke that I came up with and voiced. The first and last times our names will be mentioned in the same sentence.
Aside from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Lost in Translation, were there any other film or TV influences for the episode? Because it felt like there was some Chaplin and some Buster Keaton in there.
There’s so many classic cartoon moments in that episode, including when the baby ingests some sugar and starts bouncing around wildly. That’s lifted straight from Daffy Duck’s first cartoon, “Porky’s Duck Hunt.” At the end of the cartoon, he starts bouncing around wildly and going, “Woo-hoo!” All of the animators are really influenced by Looney Tunes.
We wanted to have a little set piece that was an homage to Chaplin, one that was an homage to Keaton, but Raphael wanted to get away from directly referencing the silence aspect. He just wanted it to be what it was and for us not to directly point out what we were doing. Because when we were in that factory and it was falling apart, we were like, “BoKack could be hanging off the hands of some clocks like Harold Lloyd, or running around in the gears like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Time.” He was like, “That may be a little too on the nose.”
How did you approach balancing the cartoony-ness of the episode with the emotion that was also required?
It was really in the writing. The baby was so damn cute with those big beautiful eyes and that cute little nose and that little penis so it was really easy to love. We’ve been living with BoJack for three seasons now and he’s a complex character. We had a lot of fun directing that episode but this character that Raphael has created, he easily does live in this world. This episode is a great example of it. But that thing that you’re talking about, the combination of humor and the dramatic depression aspect of the show, that’s pretty much in every episode. It’s a real kind of departure for American animation. You never saw Mickey Mouse talking about how sad his upbringing was. You know he was probably one of 12, 15 kids and he probably didn’t get that much attention from his parents. And he still hasn’t married Minnie after all these years? He can’t be too happy about that!
How involved is Raphael in the animation process?
We’re so blessed to have a creator who brings such vision to everything. He’s very involved in every step of the process. If you’re a fan of BoJack and Raphael Bob-Wakesberg, you should read the text of every article that appears on screen because he writes all the text on websites and articles and cereal boxes. Some jokes are so funny but appear for a real split second. He just loves getting his hands into everything and we’re very lucky for it.
Now that you have the designs and we’ve seen this world, might we return to the underwater world? Or was this a one-off for now?
Oh my god. It was a lot of work. How about this: Maybe let’s go into the sky? We have birds too! That is not happening, but I’m pitching it to you. Let’s go into the sky. It could just be BoJack falling for 25 minutes.