Interview with Pete Williams, Creator of Undergrads

Undergrads was an animated show launched in 2001. Although it didn’t get renewed for a second season, owing to MTV closing their animation department, it gained a cult following, especially in Canada where it was picked up as part of TeleToon’s late-night lineups, The Detour and TeleToon After Dark. Now, 17 years later, Williams has gained the rights to make a feature movie to continue to story of Nitz and his friends. Rogues Portal’s Brooke Ali sat down with Williams in Toronto to learn more about the plans for the upcoming project and its Kickstarter.

Brooke Ali: It’s very exciting that you’ve finally secured some kind of agreement with MTV to produce new content for Undergrads. What can you tell me about how that process was? I know it was a long time in the making.

Pete Williams: It really was. It was a super long time. The main reason for that is that nobody that was at MTV at the time we were making Undergrads is still there. Viacom is this huge revolving door. So, there was a lot of digging back into the old paperwork to even find the agreements that were drawn up and determining who owns the rights. We were dealing with Viacom’s lawyers and they were a revolving door, so we’re we being passed from lawyer to lawyer to lawyer. Because this spanned a couple of years for us, the lawyer who was handling this whole thing ended up leaving and passed it along to somebody else and then they had to get acquainted with the whole thing. 

What was really funny is that, because of the game of telephone that got played between all the lawyers, by the time we thought we were getting very close to finally making this deal they said, “Ok great, so, you can use the name Undergrads, and that’s it. No characters, no likenesses, no whatever.” What did they think we were doing this whole time? And we went back to the original conversations, we laid it all very clearly out, but again it just got lost in translation so, at that point, it was like I felt like somebody had a family member held hostage for years and we were just this close to negotiating their return and then they were going to send us just their finger. 

So anyway, a couple years of this went on and then finally we got to the point where it was like “Oh thats what you want to do, make a movie based on this show, with these characters and use their names. Great, pay us a giant sum of money and you can do that.” So, thats what we did.

Ali: Other than trying to get the rights to Undergrads, where has your career taken you these last 17 years?

Williams: So after Undergrads ended MTV Animation also folded up shop, so I’m like, “I need a new job!” I was fortunate enough to get an agent during my time working on Undergrads. He was asking me to start developing movie ideas. So I came up with this scam of pitching movie concepts with animated trailers that I would create. I would basically create a computer generated mock up of what a trailer for my movie idea would be so that executives would think this was already a thing, you know, “you’ve got this all worked out.” It would usually be a 2-minute animated trailer cut very fast paced like a movie trailer, very succinctly telling what the story is, and that worked. That hooked the execs into basically saying, “Great! Let’s get a movie deal and you can write this script.” 

None of my projects ever got made, so I sold a lot of concepts and wrote a lot of scripts and none of them ever got produced. But, I got paid to write, so that was cool. I did that for a few years, but then eventually Hollywood decided they were no longer going to purchase large, tent pole movie ideas that didn’t already have some sort of pre-existing franchise attached. Those were all the ideas I was doing, they were all pretty large, like horror-fantasy, or superhero movie ideas that I had come up with. So that space got very quickly taken over by remakes and reboots and things like that.

Ali: The Rugrats Movie.

Williams: Yah, things like that. So, when that dried up, I decided to go back to animation. I started a small boutique effects animation studio with a former colleague of mine from MTV, and we did that for a number of years, mainly doing Xbox video game trailers, the animation for those trailers. During that time, we also were doing some pretty unique video installations for amusement parks: large video projections and a lot of haunted attractions that they were having us do, like projected ghosts and stuff coming through walls.

And so we got the idea to take those concepts and do stock canned effects that we could sell to consumers that just wanted to decorate, and so a different type of business evolved out of that, and that became my focus for the last 5 to 6 years of making these straight to consumer, we call them digital decorations.

Ali: So what’s that business called?

Williams: It’s called AtmosFX. I’ve always been a huge horror and Hallowe’en fan, so this was initially a passion project that turned into a business. It turns out people want to use this stuff and have animated zombies in their window. Cool. And that’s what I’ve been doing up until this conversation.

Ali: You said during your talk at Animatic T.O. in 2015 that you had “a fully fleshed-out treatment” for the movie. Have you done any more pre-production in the last three years, or are you waiting for the Kickstarter to get funded?

Williams: We’re waiting on the Kickstarter. It’s myself and two of the show’s original writers, Josh Cagan, and Andy Reingold. This all kind of started with the three of us attending a convention in Calgary. Because at that point none of us knew that anybody had seen the show, so when we were asked to do a panel there we thought, “that’s weird” you know? “Five people are going to show up.” We were pretty blown away by the turn out for that, and suddenly the gears started turning, and we were like, “We should try to do something again.”

Originally, it was still the idea of, “let’s try to do a second season” and then we found out that the situation with the rights was just too complicated. MTV owned some of the rights. Decode, which is now DHX Media, they own some of the rights and getting them to both come to the table and say, “yah, we’ll give you the rights” was just never going to happen. So, then we had the idea, let’s just do a feature, DHX doesn’t own the feature rights, MTV does, so we only have to deal with one entity, and that’ll take three years with their lawyers, but we can do that.

So, Josh, Andy, and I, when we finally decided let’s pursue this feature route before we even got the rights, started spitballing ideas of what this movie would be when it would take place, what it would involve. And we kind of knew that this may be our only shot to, kind of, wrap things up so let’s throw it all into this movie. If it has a life beyond the movie, great, but at least we will finally give fans some sense of closure, and ourselves some closure.

Ali: Will the movie pick up where the first season left off?

Williams: Yeah. So, the movie will basically pick up right at the very end of summer break following their freshman year, so, they’re all just about to return to sophomore year. The movie will basically span that first week of returning to school, kind of right before classes start and everybody’s still, you know, getting back together, saying hi to old friends, enjoying not living with their parents anymore. Then there’s this whole wacky adventure that will take place during that week.

Ali: What characters will be returning? I know you do the voices of the main four, are you managing to get in touch with the original voice actors or is there going to be a lot of recasting?

Williams: My hope is that we’re going to be able to find as many of the original people as possible.

Ali: Well, you know Yannick Bisson is still in town, so…

Williams: I know! He’s just too big now! With Murdoch Mysteries, I don’t know…

Ali: He’ll want a bigger role now. (laughing)

Williams: That would be amazing. I mean, we want to try and get pretty much everybody back, anybody that is available and willing to do it. We would love to have as many original cast members as possible. Richie Favalaro, I think he’s a radio personality now. I actually ran into Richie many years ago at a restaurant, I think he was waiting on me, and he said, “Hey Pete!” and I’m like, “My god, it’s the Dougler!” “Is anything happening with Undergrads? Are we going to do another season?” I’m like, “I don’t know man, I wish,” so, I know he’d be interested, or at least he was interested ten years ago or whenever that was.

Ali: That’s funny when I was asking the other Rogues Portal contributors if they had any questions they wanted me to ask, the first question someone asked was, “is the Dougler coming back?”

Williams: Well, I mean, the whole objective is I really want it to feel like, as if the second season was condensed into 90 minutes this would satisfy what everybody’s been looking for.

Ali: Are you going to be staying with the original animation style, as well, to keep that feel?

Williams: It will be. There was a lot of things that really bothered me about the first season.

Ali: Like Nitz’s smile at the end of the last episode.

Williams: Nitz’s smile, yah. I was definitely still learning. I was very, very green, very, very new, I’d never, obviously, show run before. So, a lot of things didn’t happen the way I originally envisioned. I have thoughts about, visually, how things would be different. Obviously, the design of the characters will still be the same, will still be 2D traditional animation, but there’ll be a different look to environments and that sort of thing. There’s also a lot of action sequences in this treatment that we’ve written, so there may be some computer generated background stuff, just so that we can have some fun fly through camera moves and things like that.

Ali: You met your wife when she was a production coordinator on Undergrads.

Williams: Yes

Ali: Is she also going to be working on this project with you, or is she already out of that game and onto different things?

Williams: I know she would love to do it, but she’s pretty locked into what she’s doing. She actually works on Paw Patrol and just started that. She was on Thomas the Tank Engine, now she’s on Paw Patrol.

Ali: Yah, that’s a pretty big commitment.

Williams: Yah, we’ll see if we can work in a character based on her.

Ali: Obviously, you already have a cult following from people who, like myself, have watched it when we were actually in university. Then, other people who discovered it in the last 17 years. How do you think the movie will play to the current crop of university students who maybe didn’t grow up with it and now they’re not living in a world of chat rooms and dial-up, they’re living in a world of smartphones and social media and #metoo. You know, how is that early 2000s environment, do you think is going to play for an audience that has a very different university experience than what you and I had?

Williams: That’s a great question and one that we asked ourselves since the idea of doing this movie came about, is ’When does this take place?’ In my mind, when we created Undergrads originally, it wasn’t like, “this is set in the year 2001.” It was just, this is when we’re making it, so this is what everything looks like. But the idea of it was always supposed to be that the show is going to appeal to, and relate to, an audience that is in college now, and hopefully relates to anybody who has been in college. There are some universal themes that we explored and that we want to explore in the movie that, hopefully, still exist in college now. I have no idea. I haven’t been there in 20 years!

So for the guys, the summer break that they just experienced will have seen a plethora of advancements in technology and pop culture, so essentially they’re going to be caught up to where we are now. Everything looked like 2001 when they left freshman year. Now, everything is up to date when they return for sophomore year.

Ali: I think a lot of what made it so resonating was that it was the only show, let alone animated show, at the time that was actually contemporary in terms of the technology and the culture. They communicated in chat rooms, and there was a lot of that going on. So, it’s interesting to see how there’s still that, just now its a very different “that”

Williams: Yah, and that’s the thing, we hope that it doesn’t piss off fans that are like, “I wanted to have the nostalgia of going back and watching somebody on their transparent iMac.”

Ali: “You ruined my childhood!”

Williams: Yah, we’re fully prepared for that, but, again, our hope is that it’s going to appeal to a contemporary college audience as well as have enough stuff that’s going to appease fans that grew up with the show.

Ali: Tell me about the Kickstarter campaign.

Williams: We’re not aiming for the entire budget. We’re looking to raise a portion of the budget. Basically, it’s going to be the pre-production costs. It will also serve to help, if we can reach our goal, to convey to potential investors, “Look! There’s still a fan base for this. There’s an outpouring of support from the fans that are still sticking around and want to see what happens next. So give us your money!” Our producer is fairly confident that she can get the rest of the budget through outside sources, but it will be contingent on us reaching our goal for this Kickstarter campaign. So, we wanted to make it something that we thought was attainable but also would help us get this thing going.

Ali: What are some of the rewards that contributors can get?

Williams: We’ve cooked up quite a few different ones. At the lower levels, you can get a reproduction of Rocco’s fake ID, a digital download of the movie once it is released, there’s a lot of signed production artwork, Nitz’s hat, a signed Risk board, t-shirts for State U, Techerson Tech, and Alpha Alpha. At the higher levels, you can get your name in the credits. You can have a background character designed in your likeness. At an even higher level, you can have a character designed in your likeness with your name that you voice in the movie.

Ali: Your career in animation has taken a rather cart-before-the-horse style of decision making; you made the original pencil test for Undergrads in 3 days, you set up pitch meetings before you actually had anything to pitch. Is that something that you would recommend to people trying to get into the industry or do you wish you’d done things differently?

Williams: There are a lot of things I wish I’d done differently in my career. It worked out for me great in those early years just by dumb luck. Eventually, I wish I had learned to find more of a happy medium. Because I do think it’s good to force yourself to put yourself out there and force yourself to actually say, “I’m going to produce something and have it done by this date, even if I haven’t mapped everything else out yet.” 

I found in my later years, now I spend too much time just mapping everything out, and I never get to that next step. You waste so much time planning and then eventually it has to become real and that’s when it gets really scary. So if you can make it get real and scary as soon as possible that’s better. Because then you might actually do something.

The other thing I’ve realized, because now I’ve gone to the other end of the spectrum from putting the cart before the horse, to over planning and not getting anything done, is that all the successful writers and show creators that I know, they just pitch dozens of projects every year. I’m like, “How did you spend all that time developing all these characters?” well, they didn’t spend all that time, they spit a lot of stuff out there and eventually one of those things sticks, but if you only stick that one thing out if nobody wants it, it’s like, well that was a waste of time.

Ali: What are your plans for the future after the Undergrads movie, or have you thought that far ahead?

Williams: I am looking at the Undergrads movie if it happens, if everybody donates, that it will be my push to get back into the world of TV and animation. A lot of TV concepts that have been sitting in a drawer as I noodle on them and mull them over and not take that next step with. Hopefully, this will be the kick in the butt to get back in the game and pitch some new material.

Ali: It would be great to see more Pete Williams joints.

Williams: Thanks, it would be great. The video that we shot for the campaign, I think fans are really going to get a kick out of it. There’s some familiar faces that pop up.

Ali: That’s awesome, I can’t wait to see it. What date is it launching?

Williams: Monday, September 24th. Then we’ll have two months to get funded. It’s back to school time now, so we’re hoping people will be like, “Hey, let’s fund a movie about going back to school!”


You can support bringing back Undergrads right now on their Kickstarter. The campaign ends on Thursday, November 8 2018 6:47 PM EST. 

Brooke grew up in Nova Scotia on a steady diet of scifi, fantasy, anime, and video games. She now works as a genealogist and lives in Toronto with her husband and twin nerds-in-training. When she's not reading and writing about geek culture, she's knitting, spinning, and writing about social history.

Brooke Ali

Brooke grew up in Nova Scotia on a steady diet of scifi, fantasy, anime, and video games. She now works as a genealogist and lives in Toronto with her husband and twin nerds-in-training. When she's not reading and writing about geek culture, she's knitting, spinning, and writing about social history.

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