Asaph “Ace” Fipke bills himself as the Supreme Commander of Nerd Corps, the Vancouver-based animation studio, and the whimsy in job title carries over into their TV shows. A child actor whose father was in show business as well, Fipke began college at the University of BC, but dropped out in favor of the Vancouver Film School. Originally planning to be a writer and director for feature films, Fipke was hired as a producer for Mainframe Entertainment, beginning work on Transformers: Beast Wars. In 2000, he and Chuck Johnson founded Nerd Corps, naming the studio after its staff, who happily wired up the studio’s computers for networked video games after hours. The studio has grown by orders of magnitude since then, launching numerous successful television franchises including Storm Hawks, Hot Wheels: Battle Force 5, Rated A for Awesome, Monster High, and the new pre-schooler property Kate and Mim-Mim.
One of their latest properties is Slugterra, which sends young Eli Shane into a strange subterranean world where he enforces the law with a band of four friends and a bandolier of slugs that serve as living ammunition. After the initial 39 episode run, Nerd Corps embarked on a trilogy of Slugterra movies, the second of which received a limited theatrical release on August 2, 2014. Ace Fipke took some time to chat with us over the phone just after the theatrical release of Slugterra: Return of the Elementals about Slugterra’s new direction, and what it means for Nerd Corps.
This interview contains some spoilers for the Slugterra TV series and the Slugterra: Ghoul from Beyond movie.
TOONZONE NEWS: One thing I’ve always been curious about was where you got the idea for Slugterra from. I had read something about a challenge from a toy company? Is that right?
ASAPH FIPKE: A challenge from a toy company, no, no. It definitely came from our experience in doing boys’ action shows, or at least my experience specifically. Part of the idea was that toy companies always said, “If there’s guns involved, then there’s absolutely no way we can do it,” which is absolutely an excellent way to look at things and I agree 100%. But when we were looking at it, and I wanted to do this underground type show, it dawned on me, “What if the gun was more of a launch pad?” so to speak. And what if the ammo was a friend of yours? So that’s where the whole idea came from. My career has been with producing a lot of boys’ action shows, and toy companies are notorious for wanting things that equal the play patterns. I think the whole fantasy of being a slug slinger in this fantasical world, where you battle good vs. evil using these little creatures that you train which are shot out of these projectile-type blasters…it probably came out of that challenge.
TOONZONE NEWS: One other really big influence I detect on it is Westerns, and I’m old enough to remember watching The Lone Ranger and Gunsmoke, where they were shows kids watched with a lot of gunplay going on. Was that another influence as well?
ASAPH FIPKE: I’ve always loved Westerns myself, and yeah, I would have been old enough to have grown up in the 70’s with Westerns around me. But I guess the greatest Western that ever was for kids of that era was Star Wars, so the idea that you can kind of do something of a Western and sort of incorporate it into a futuristic world is definitely an influence in something like Slugterra.
ASAPH FIPKE: Yeah, that’s the important thing. Not only are they OK with it, they like it. In fact, the slug’s purpose is to be launched out and reach velocity, because from there their inner power is released, so they love it.
TOONZONE NEWS: You’ve moved from the weekly half-hour TV show format to these new movies, the second of which was released on August 2nd. What was the driver behind making that shift?
ASAPH FIPKE: I think after the 39 episodes, the idea of making some events that push our main characters deeper into the lore and into the underground world of Slugterra just seemed to fit best with a longer format. We created a lot of new characters and a storyline that ran through the 39 episodes, and we wanted to explore that deeper in a way that a half hour can’t quite do. That along with our DVD partner, who had suggested that we go down this route and create some interesting “stunting” around the DVD release to air it theatrically for in limited theaters around North America.
TOONZONE NEWS: So are there plans to go back to TV?
ASAPH FIPKE: Oh, yeah. We’re about to greenlight another season. We’ll have 3 movies and then we’ll greenlight a new season of Slugterra.
TOONZONE NEWS: And I’m assuming that the movies are going to set up the next season of the show?
ASAPH FIPKE: Well, kind of…it’ll sort of wrap up some of the new characters and the new stories that have come in, but we’re going to go to new places, and that will require another season to explore those things. So that’s the plan.
TOONZONE NEWS: You certainly came up with a cool villain for the first movie. I thought that was one of the bigger surprises, this intelligent and really manipulative slug. How long ago did you come up with that? Were you able to set that up at all in the TV show?
ASAPH FIPKE: Well, no. We kind of saw what looked like the demise of Blakk at the end of the 39, and the thing that was interesting to me was the rise of the Ghouls, and then Eli and the Shane Gang saving Slugterra. What is the new trek that can come through? I thought it was interesting that I could put a more diabolical character in the form of a slug, so that elevates the intelligence of the slugs to a new level. And it helps us explore that part of it. So the idea that we could have one as formative of a villain, a little slug as Dr. Blakk, and with his ability to sort of take over the minds of slug slingers just seemed like a really fun, unusual idea. So the writers jumped onto that, and you can definitely see the goon doc through the first couple of movies.
TOONZONE NEWS: What would you say has changed in the way you approach making the movies vs. the TV shows?
ASAPH FIPKE: Well, we still produced it at the studio here. We wanted consistency in the look, but I think it’s definitely the approach to the storytelling overall. In the beginning, the objective was to take our time and go deeper into the hero’s journey and have more of a three-act structure that doesn’t always lend itself to a 22-ish minute episode. I think that was the main adjustment we had to make: to be able to put it into that format, and to sustain that. One of the great things is you have room in scenes to go a little deeper into the characters. More room for humor, more room for action. All in all, I think it’s just a more thrilling experience for kids to have a big, epic adventure that’s going on. So that’s the main diffrence, just the storytelling ability. Loosen up the constraints and you can tell a lot more interesting story.
TOONZONE NEWS: I read an interview you did about a year ago, and you mentioned in the early days of Nerd Corps, where you had deliberately chosen to enter kids TV over the feature film space. What would you say has changed to make that feature film space more attractive to you?
ASAPH FIPKE: We’re in a whole new age of delivery. I think that we kind of have a hybrid here, which was an easy step for us. We are using our television pipeline to create a longer-form format of a television series. It’s not the traditional business of feature films, because with that, there comes a great deal of expectation and a totally different way in which one puts the financing and the business together. For us, we use digital, DVD, and television broadcast platforms to sort of combine our efforts with what would be a traditional television thing, and just make a longer form specifically for television. It just happens to work with the partner we have, Screen Vision. I think in this case, this is a television property first that has the opportunity to go in select theaters as a special, and as an elongated feature film. This is just a natural extension of what we’re already doing, which feels perfect. I guess what I was talking about was to start a property as a feature film from the start is a totally different type of thing. We have a television franchise that makes obvious sense for us as a good way to go about entering feature films.
TOONZONE NEWS: Is that a space you’re going to be moving into further?
ASAPH FIPKE: Again, I would look at it and say that as far as it goes for Nerd Corps, we concentrate on building worlds. Kids worlds — sometimes in the industry they’re called brands — but with that, what we concentrate on is finding the best platform to deploy that world and that entertainment. Whether it be interactive, television, or a feature film, we’re always going to concentrate on where is the best place to do that. Thus far, it’s always been TV for us, but I’m very open to it if there’s the right property in the future, to jump into feature films if it makes sense as a launch point. I don’t have immediate plans in the very very short term, but as entertainment brand builders, we always keep our options open.
TOONZONE NEWS: Nerd Corps has certainly grown a lot from the days when it was 10 guys in an apartment. The number I saw recently…was it 300 or 600?
ASAPH FIPKE: In between. We’re 410, I think, at this point.
TOONZONE NEWS: I know you’ve got multiple pipelines and working on multiple properties at the same time now. What would you say is the biggest difference in running an animation studio of 10 vs. the 410 that you have right now?
ASAPH FIPKE: Um…I sure would like to say I know everybody’s name (laughs). One of the biggest differences is trying to focus everybody on not just their project, but on the overall goals of the company. We really have to up our communications team, and we’re really working on upping our culture to make sure that people are getting the information to know what the company overall is doing. These are always the sort of growing pains that happen when you grow to this size. But the interesting thing about it from a quality standpoint is that I think recently, we’ve probably been putting out the best quality stuff that we’ve ever done. So the great thing about scale is just the level of artistry within the studio. We have just some incredibly skilled people, and they’re able to really rise out of a bigger infrastructure. You find that real talent across the board, and it lifts everyone. Everyone lifts each other up that way. So it’s been quite amazing to watch. Like I said, some of our best stuff is coming out in the past little while.
Toonzone would like to thank Asaph Fipke for taking the time to speak with us, and Click Communications for making the arrangements. Slugterra: Return of the Elementals will be released on DVD on September 16, 2014. Visit Nerd Corps’ official website for more information about the company and their properties. Slugterra airs on Disney XD in the United States; stay tuned to Toonzone News for more information on the upcoming third Slugterra movie.