Pen15’s depiction of the early 2000s is frighteningly, uncomfortably accurate, and even that isn’t saying enough. The breakout Hulu comedy, produced by Lonely Island members Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone, is crafted to a level that viewers describe as giving them “PTSD flashbacks” to middle school. Creators Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine play their 13-year-old selves among a cast of actual middle-schoolers, but they blend in seamlessly. They’re believably awkward, with braces, bowl cuts, and ponytails with two face-framing strands of hair pulled out.
Production designers Grace Alie and Ali Rubinfeld were responsible for making every scene of Pen15 feel like it was set in the Y2K era, and the prop gadgets prove it. “That was actually one of the biggest challenges, finding all that technology,” Rubinfeld says. Discmans, boomboxes, and chunky family computers are among some of the familiar relics seen on-screen. Alie and Rubinfeld found them at thrift shops and vintage electronics stores like Homeboy Electronics Recycling in Los Angeles. But the show also features some novelty items scored on eBay, like the Kawasaki Jet Ski phone Maya uses to call her mom from a party. “We have two of those, because Ali and I both saw it, loved it, and bought it,” Alie says. Background shots are filled with more eBay finds like Tamagotchi keychains, which can be seen hanging from backpacks in the school hallway, and a Polaroid i-Zone (now discontinued, because they produced uselessly tiny 2-inch photos) hidden in a locker.
The designers felt it was important that the technology shown on-screen reflected the period accurately. “We started by doing the research of what computers came out in that year, or three or four years prior,” Alie says. Before production began, Alie happened to find an iMac G3 on the street, and held onto it until she realized the show had to go with PCs. “We had to pick one computer to use, because they didn’t have the budget to make two different animation styles for the AIM episode,” Alie says. If budget wasn’t an issue, though, Alie guesses Anna would have had the Mac. “She’s an only child. Maya’s family, there’s two of them, and Maya’s dad is a traveling musician and her mom is a homemaker, so I feel like they would have been more frugal with their money.”
“AIM” is the standout episode of the season. It opens on an AOL dial-up tone, following Anna and Maya’s first foray into chatrooms, and ends with Maya catfishing and falling in love with her AIM boyfriend FlyMiamiBro22. (Who among us has not pretended to be 26/f/California when we were actually just prepubescent tweens?) A separate graphics script had to be written for the shots showing the AIM chat windows, with screen animations overseen by visual effects supervisor Patrick Longstreth.
The graphics script contained detailed directions on everything from the screen names to the AIM buddy icons. For example, the “Hot People of Franklin County” chatroom contains some gems like “PhuckMaStick330” and “Buttchug69,” and FlyMiamiBro22’s buddy icon is an AIM avatar on a bench press. Other AIM icons include a picture of a spork captioned “Wanna spork?” and an AIM avatar juggling, with the words “Play With My Balls” underneath. “We recreated them pretty closely so that we wouldn’t get in trouble for stealing them, but they were inspired by actual icons that we found,” Longstreth says.
Keeping a consistent UI was a challenge, as Google searches for reference images would turn up various versions of AIM. So the visual effects department had to turn to the Internet Archive to remember what websites looked like at the time, including Ask Jeeves for the scene where Anna asks Jeeves, “am i racist?”
“In some cases, we had to manually rebuild some of the graphics piece by piece, but probably half of it was just built on existing screen captures,” Longstreth says. “Just for fun, I threw in a Netscape Navigator browser on one of the computers, because that was what my dad used, and I thought that was really funny.” The level of detail in each shot is staggering: even the desktop background on Anna’s dad’s computer, an image of dogs playing poker, was intentionally pixelated to look low-res.
Erskine and Konkle also made sure the chat dialogue was true to how kids communicated online, down to the fonts and customizable colors. “They were very particular about the spelling, and the misspellings in particular,” Longstreth says. “They were like, ‘Capitalize this letter, and then don’t capitalize this letter.’ And I was like, ‘What is this thing, capitalizing every other letter? I don’t understand what this means.’”
All 10 episodes of Pen15’s initial season are currently available on Hulu.