While Sergio Mata’u Rapu and Myc Daz are the creative forces behind the popular Twin Cities PBS (TPT) digital series “That Got Weird,” its stars are more anonymous by design. Inspired in part by a pandemic-era meme, Sergio and Myc combine digital puppetry with a documentary approach to create shorts that tell true stories of racism with a pitch-perfect amount of humor. Listen to the episode or read the transcript.

A different take on conversations about racism

A documentary filmmaker from Rapa Nui (also known as Easter Island), Sergio Rapu has called Minnesota home for the past 11 years. As a digital series producer for TPT, he caught on to interest around producing a series on racism for the wider audience of social media. However, instead of following existing content approaches that are more serious and subject-sensitive, Sergio wanted to produce something that could inspire bigger conversations about seeing ideas, systems and preconceptions as racist rather than pointing at individuals.

It’s this approach that provides a more hopeful vision because, as Sergio says in the podcast, people can change and shift. “We can all do better ... it’s really just about learning and connecting with other people. You are never one thing or another, it’s OK to make mistakes, and what you do is then apologize and move forward.” By telling stories of racism that have been felt, processed and, to some degree, laughed about later, “That Got Weird” opens the door to discussions about what actions can be seen as racist, how they impact all of us and what positive change can look like.

“Lawyer Cat” and the funny freedom of being unknown

When on camera, vulnerable and open to criticism, having people tell their personal stories of racism can be difficult. Sergio found a solution in an unusual place – the pandemic-era “Lawyer Cat” viral video. In the famous YouTube video from Texas’ 394th Judicial District Court, attorney Rod Ponton is unable to turn off a cat filter during a Zoom call, leading to the famous line: “No, I’m really a human being. I’m not really a cat.”

As Sergio recounts, the video is hilarious but also telling in that you never see Ponton’s face. As a viewer, you have no idea who he is or what he looks like. When you hide identity, you can bring humor to what can be a serious situation. Running with the idea and applying it to the new digital series, Sergio brought on illustrator Myc Daz to create character designs and co-animate the shorts using Character Animator, a digital puppetry program. This way, the interviewees can feel comfortable about being open and honest about their personal experiences while remaining anonymous.

From story to short

When it comes to choosing subjects for the series, Sergio doesn’t need to look far to find friends and friends of friends who have personal stories about racism and microaggression. As part of the process, interviewees pick their pseudonym and answer questions about how they want their on-screen avatar to appear. Their persona can be different from real life – older or younger, different hair style or skin color – it’s all up to the subject.

After the subject tells their story through an interview with Sergio, the audio is sent to Myc without a picture of the interviewee. Instead, Myc only receives the directions on how the subject would like to appear. Then, self-described “character design nerd” Myc creates a sketch of the subject for approval, moving ahead to the animation stage where Sergio, Daz and others finish the short.
The result is a series that is getting great responses from both BIPOC and non-BIPOC audiences and is already being used as a resource for companies and groups to help others realize when their interactions may have been racist. Through storytelling, “That Got Weird” is encouraging people to think “how can I be better?” and to find creative and constructive ways to work towards that goal.

Find out more about the creation, process and future of “That Got Weird” by listening to the episode. You can also watch “That Got Weird” on the Twin Cities PBS website (https://www.tpt.org/that-got-weird/), follow Sergio Rapu (@smrapu) on Instagram and find Myc Daz (@MycDazzle) at mycdazzle.com and on social media.