Mutant League (1994-96) was one of the most action-packed animated series of the mid-1990s. Based on a couple of sports-themed video games for the Sega Genesis, the cartoon greatly expanded upon the simple stories of the video games and often injected real-world themes into all the violence and mayhem. Rhonda Smiley worked on Mutant League as a story editor and co-producer, and she discusses her work on one of the most unique animated shows of the ’90s in this October 2022 interview with Brett Homenick.
Brett Homenick: Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
Rhonda Smiley: I was born in Montreal, Canada, and lived there with my mother until I was twelve. Then I moved to Hollywood, CA, to live with my father and my sister and brother, who were already living with him. Other than returning to Montreal to go to university, I’ve lived in L.A.
BH: During that time [when you were younger], what were your hobbies and interests?
RS: Growing up, I was very much interested in theater and dance, particularly jazz dance. I belonged to a couple of dance troupes and did a few performances, but, soon after starting college, I dove into filmmaking and left dance behind.
BH: Were you into animation at the time?
RS: Other than enjoying watching cartoons, I wasn’t really into animation yet.
BH: Where did you go to college?
RS: I studied film production at Concordia University in Montreal. It was on a fluke that I went into the film program. I actually wanted to major in dance, but couldn’t get there in time to audition. I registered for some film studies classes with the intention of auditioning for dance the following semester, but, once I got into film, dance took a backseat.
BH: How did you enter the entertainment business?
RS: When I was going to school in Montreal, I would return to L.A. and work for the summers. Because I knew at this point I wanted to get into the industry, I looked for temp work at the studios — NBC, Sunset Gower, etc. — just to get some experience. When I graduated college, I answered an ad in The Hollywood Reporter for an administrative assistant to Zoran Perisic.
I didn’t know it at the time, but he’s the man who made Superman [as played by Christopher Reeve in the 1978 movie] fly. He even won an Oscar for it. So I worked with him for a couple of years and, because I was focused on becoming a writer, he gave me the opportunity to do some writing for him.
That was possibly my first entry into professional writing, but, honestly, I’m not sure because I’ve written on a few super-low-budget shows, which may have overlapped my work with Zoran.
BH: This may seem like an obvious question, but I couldn’t find any info about it in my research. So, for the record, what is your relationship to Rob Smiley?
RS: Rob Smiley was my husband at the time. His last name is actually Brousseau. He was also in the film program at Concordia University. Some people in L.A. had a bit of a hard time pronouncing and spelling his last name, so, because we were married, he just started using mine for the sake of ease.
BH: What led you to found the production company Hyper Image?
RS: Starting Hyper Image was mostly Rob’s idea. We were both working for Franklin/Waterman, the production company making Mutant League, and Rob pitched doing CG interstitials for the show — at a good price, of course. He was very much into technology, and 3D animation in particular, and, with the Mutant League gig, it seemed a good time to start the company. After Mutant League, we branched out and provided services for other productions.
BH: I seem to recall that Hyper Image was sometimes credited as Hyper North in Mutant League. Was the company ever called that, or was that a figment of my imagination?
RS: There was a Hyper North, which was located in Montreal. Because Rob and I are Canadian, we were able to have a Canadian company for Canadian-content productions. We’ve spent our fair share of time in Montreal and Toronto, as well as L.A. When the Canadian end of the business slowed down, we decided to shutter Hyper North. Hyper Image continued for many years after, but we’ve since all moved on to other things.
BH: What led to your involvement with Mutant League?
RS: I have a bit of a hard time remembering exactly how I got involved. Most work in the industry is through connections, so I think Rob might’ve previously worked with one of the producers on Mutant League. In season one, I wrote a script for sure, maybe more. I honestly can’t remember. But I was working on the show in an administrative capacity and also doing some CG, so I was in the Franklin/Waterman offices on a daily basis. Developing a rapport with the producers eventually led to me story-editing and co-producing the second season.
BH: Do you remember your initial thoughts on the project?
RS: I do, and I loved it. I thought it was so fun. I love action-comedy, but I especially enjoy shows that can have a purpose, a lesson, and not be didactic or hit you over the head with the message. The story, the plot — that’s what’s front and center — yet beneath it there’s a moral, so to speak, or some poignancy. Even with mutants.
BH: As a writer, what was your process for writing an episode?
RS: My process for writing on Mutant League is probably like my process on all shows. I take the time to delve deep into the world and its characters. As a writer, you get a bible — or pitch deck or treatment — to go over, which basically spells out the world and characters.
Usually, an episode idea starts as just that, an idea. A premise. A girl joins a boys’ football team. Simple as that. Then I expand from there, taking into consideration the characters, the conflicts that will arise, and, ultimately, the message I want to come across. The good thing about writing for television is that you have to do pitches and outlines, and you really get to flesh out the story before you go to script.
Because I was the story editor on Mutant League, I was the one who gave notes to the writers, but I still got notes from the executive producers every step of the way.
BH: How did you work with Rob Smiley during production?
RS: Working with Rob was great for me because Mutant League was my first foray into animation production, and Rob was already well versed. He knew a lot more about budget and scheduling and post-production than I did at the time, so he was a good resource in terms of what could be done in a script and what was far too ambitious. I learned a lot about the entire process, and it was reassuring to have someone who could answer any questions I had.
BH: What could you tell us about the process of story-editing, especially as it relates to Mutant League?
RS: Story-editing varies with each person who does it, but basically a story editor is the liaison between the producers and the writers, and it’s their job to make sure the world created for the show remains cohesive and consistent with what has been established in terms of stories, characters, dialogue, etc.
Many story editors will pass along their notes along with producers’ notes and let the writers figure out how to make it all work together. I do it a little differently. I go over the producers’ notes first to make sure there are no conflicts with my notes, and, if there are, I’ll hash it [out] with the producers before handing off a compilation of notes that hopefully don’t have any conflicts.
The story editor might interview and hire writers, or they might be told who to use by the producers/executives.
Story editors are often the first to receive pitches/ideas for episodes from writers and determine whether that pitch should be passed along to the producers to be considered or whether the pitch isn’t right — maybe it doesn’t fit with the world, or maybe someone else pitched something too similar, etc.
Once a pitch is approved by producers, the writer goes to outline, and again the story editor is the first to receive the outline. Some story editors will pass along the outline as is; others might do a slight polish to make sure it fits well within the world. And so it goes through every phase/draft. Usually, most shows have two drafts of an outline and three drafts of a script. Once the writer is done with their drafts, the story editor will often do a final pass just to make sure it sounds like the show.
BH: Do you remember editing certain things out of any scripts, especially because they might have been too violent or controversial?
RS: I honestly do not remember editing anything out of the scripts because of violence, but I do remember having many conversations to keep things in, like when Razor Kidd’s tail gets cut off. Again, our point of view was that mutants were not humans. They did not have the same physical consequences that humans do. They had the ability to regrow body parts, for instance. So that gave us more freedom.
BH: Did you work with Bruce Shelley, a veteran of numerous cartoon shows?
RS: I have not personally worked with Bruce Shelley, though Hyper Image did do the post-production and visual effects for Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century, on which Shelley wrote. And Rob Smiley, credited with his real name, Robert Brousseau, was a director on that show, as well.
BH: Currently, on [Mutant League’s] Wikipedia page, several well-known actors are credited with voice work, including Brad Garrett, Dorian Harewood, Jim Cummings, and Rob Paulsen. I don’t ever recall their names in the show’s credits. Does their involvement sound right to you?
RS: No, none of those actors were on the show. I’m not sure why they would be credited as such in Wikipedia, other than people guessing. As you know, many of the voices were imitating famous people, so I can imagine fans speculating who were doing those voices.
BH: What do you remember about working with the actual voice cast?
RS: Working with the cast was great. We had talented actors, many of whom did several voices in the show. Going to recordings was always a fun day. We would often have the cast in the booth at the same time, rather than doing each actor/line individually.
BH: While the voice actors were credited on the show, the characters they played were not. No information about that seems to exist online. Could you fill in some of the blanks for us?
RS: Unfortunately, I don’t even remember the names of most of the cast, many of whom used pseudonyms in the credits.
Of course, Jeff Nimoy was Razor Kidd. He is credited on IMDb. He also voiced several secondary characters, but I don’t remember which ones.
In season two, Rob [Smiley] Brousseau stepped in to do the voice of Zalgor Prigg when the actor who was hired decided not to continue. Rob also did the voice of Jukka and Bob Babble.
BH: How unusual is it to have the voice cast record their dialogue at the same time?
RS: I don’t think it’s the preferred way to record because it’s better to get clean dialogue for each character without worrying about another character’s dialogue overlapping. With budget constraints, however, we didn’t have time to schedule each actor individually to get their lines separately.
The plus side to recording this way is that the actors have each other to play off of, to react to, to know how the line was read. When you record actors separately, their take on the line might not fit with the read of the line preceding or following. The voice director has to really know the intent of each line and also track whether actors put a different spin on it so that the dialog plays properly.
BH: You mentioned that the voice cast did impressions of famous people, and I certainly recall that. In particular, one of the voice actors seemed to channel Forrest Gump on more than one occasion. Were these improvisations, or were these things written into the script?
RS: The writers’ bible for the show included famous inspirations for each character, but that was more about personality and attitude than voice per se. For instance, Woody Harrelson in White Men Can’t Jump was [the] inspiration for Razor Kidd, Holly Hunter in Broadcast News for Sherry Steele, Lennie in Of Mice and Men for Mo and Spewter. That kind of thing. But I believe most of the voice impressions were developed during the record[ing] sessions. Both Rob and Jeff were great at coming up with voices on the spot, and they probably account for most of the impressions.
BH: Did you ever lend your voice to the show?
RS: Only in the writing.
BH: Do you have any standout memories of some of those recording sessions?
RS: There’s no particular memories that stand out. Only that it was a pretty great way to spend a work day.
BH: The evil commissioner Zalgor Prigg is an interesting character who doesn’t appear in the original Mutant League video games. I’ve often wondered if his name was inspired by then-U.S. Vice President Al Gore, especially considering the show later featured a couple of characters named Tippy and Al Guts. Any memory of where the character came from?
RS: I don’t recall hearing about the origin of Zalgor, but I wasn’t the story editor on the first season, so I wasn’t involved in the development of the show. I like your theory, though.
BH: What are some of your standout memories from the show?
RS: For me, when I think back now, what I recall most are the recording sessions. I loved writing, and I’m sure at the time I had wonderful experiences in the actual scriptwriting and writer collaborations, but the recording sessions were like a bunch of kids having fun. The actors seemed to be enjoying their experience, and there was a freedom to play around, and everyone was pretty funny.
BH: Do you remember how long you worked on it?
RS: I don’t recall how long I worked on the show exactly. Aside from writing freelance on season one and also working in an administrative capacity, and perhaps in post-production as well, I would say I was probably on the show for a couple of years.
BH: Would you happen to know the origin of the word “scrod,” which was the show’s ubiquitous curse word?
RS: I believe this came from Kevin O’Donnell, who was also a writer and producer on the show. Scrod, as you know, is a fish, but it’s also just a funny word to say. I think Kevin would say it around the office as a joke, and it just fit the show.
BH: There were a number of serious themes explored on the show. For example, the story of Slick Toxin, who was a young high school athlete who didn’t want to go to college but instead start playing for the Mutant League right away. There was also the episode with Slim, an anti-mutant protester who became one and learned what it was like to be on the other side of prejudice. Even Madman, a bad guy who was usually portrayed in a fairly one-dimensional way, had a serious episode about his relationship with his son.
RS: Yes, I can’t speak for season one in terms of what the story editor preferred, but, for me, given the opportunity, I aim to tackle important themes while hopefully entertaining the viewer. My goal is to have it be entertaining first and also have it resonate long after because of the story; otherwise, it’s forgettable.
BH: Mutant League was probably one of the most violent cartoon shows of its time. Was there ever a backlash against it from parents or other groups?
RS: Although I can’t specifically remember any instances, I imagine there was backlash from parents or groups. Our point of view came from the characters being mutants, not having the same consequences that we, as human beings, have in terms of physical injuries. We made a point of trying to stress that aspect, yet, because mutants are also sentient beings, we could have the emotional elements that people relate to. But it did take a lot of discussions with the higher-ups.
BH: As great as the show was, there were usually a number of flaws in the animation. What were the sources of these mistakes?
RS: Omigosh, were there ever flaws. Mutant League was an extremely low-budget cartoon. There are many factors to deal with when the budget is so low. You’re not likely to get the highest-end animation studio, for instance, and you’re going to be limited on how many retakes you can request for animation mistakes and even how many cels you get per second, etc.
But low budgets impact every aspect of the production. Schedules are shorter, which in turn affects everything from pre-production to post-production, including design/models, scripts, recording sessions, sound mixing, etc. You have to accept a lot, try to cut around what you can, and hope the story comes across.
BH: How involved was executive producer Steve Waterman?
RS: Steve Waterman was very involved. I’ve worked on several Franklin/Waterman shows, and Steve was always involved in the creative end, from the script through post-production. He gave notes at every stage.
BH: What was the most difficult part of working on Mutant League?
RS: The budget was definitely the most difficult part of working on Mutant League. As a creative, you have a vision in your head, and, when your budget is lacking, you know you have to cut corners, or make do, and it’s a bit disappointing to not be able to create that thing that you envision. At the same time, it’s pretty awesome to be a part of a show you enjoy.
BH: What was your favorite part about it?
RS: Aside from the recording sessions, which were pure fun, my favorite part of working on Mutant League was probably collaborating with the freelance writers to make sure the stories were coming together in a cohesive way for the world. Working as a story editor or head writer or showrunner gives you the opportunity to be fully immersed in a show, and I really enjoyed bringing the freelance work together.
BH: Did you have a favorite character to write for?
RS: That’s like asking me who my favorite child is. (laughs) That said, I probably enjoyed the more comedic characters like Razor Kidd over the more serious ones like Bones Justice. Though evil is always fun to write for.
BH: Who was your favorite villain on Mutant League?
RS: I’d have to say the manipulative, self-serving Zalgor Prigg.
BH: Is there a favorite line or scene that you remember writing?
RS: Ha. I barely remember the story lines. Even though I wrote an episode in season one, I was story editor on season two only, and that was pretty much how my career was early on. I went from one show to another fairly quickly, diving into a whole other world and not thinking much about the previous one. I went from a season of Mutant League to a season of High Tide to a season of Tarzan to a season of Born Free to a season of Ninja Turtles. All that to say, not much stuck with me from show to show.
BH: Is there a reason the show finally came to an end?
RS: I’m not sure why the show ended, but generally in children’s television the toy line dictates a lot. If I were to guess, it might be because the toy line didn’t sell as well as they had hoped. But it could have ended for other reasons. Maybe licensing reasons. Maybe ratings. Ultimately, it boils down to whether it was worth the cost of production.
BH: Looking back on it now, how do you remember Mutant League and your work on it?
RS: I will always remember Mutant League fondly because it was my first story-editing gig. And because, after all this time, I can barely remember how frustrating it might’ve been to make a low-budget cartoon.