“Destiny is a book you write yourself.”
This is a major theme in The Dragon Prince, the fantasy-adventure series streaming on Netflix. In real life, the theme happened to apply to the show’s creators, Aaron Ehasz and Justin Richmond. They met while working at Riot Games, makers of the multiplayer League of Legends. Ehasz had been lead writer and director for Avatar: The Last Airbender at Nickelodeon. Richmond had been Game Director at Naughty Dog with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception to his credit.
Then they decided to forge their own destiny. Upon leaving Riot Games, they seized a chance to develop their own properties and form their own studio: Wonderstorm.
Justin Richmond explains: “The three co-founders—Aaron, myself, and then our other co-founder Justin Santistevan—left Riot Games all within a few months of each other and were sort of like, “What’s up next?” And we had this idea for a show and a game company, because we’re making video games, as well. We pretty quickly settled on this (The Dragon Prince) being the first project. So, a bunch of things all happened at the same time.
Aaron Ehasz adds, “Wonderstorm’s first financial and strategic backer is a company called MWM (Madison Wells Media). They’re led by Clint Kisker and Gigi Pritzker, who believed in our vision to build franchises that would have great storytelling, but also gameplay experiences. We’re building a triple-A game along with this.
“And then, the first customer, the first distribution partner, was Netflix, who said, ‘Yeah, we want this show. We love it. We want it on our service.’ So, those are kind of our first two partners that helped us start getting our dream off the ground.”
For the animation, Wonderstorm contracted with Bardel Entertainment, Inc., located in Vancouver, Canada.
“The writing and some of the producing is done here at Wonderstorm, and we’re in L.A.,” Richmond says. “And then, there’s a whole group of animators and artists also at Bardel, working on the nitty-gritty, day-to-day stuff in production.”
“We call it a co-production, officially,” Ehasz says. “And we always talk about it internally as a creative partnership. They have said, “Hey, we have all this vision and creative power that we wanna bring to bear,” and we’ve said, “Awesome. Let’s make sure we communicate all the time and that we’re sharing that.” And so, they’ve been fantastic creative partners in building this show.”
One of the amazing things about the production is that the characters are relatively “on model,” their movements suggest real-life acting, and that hand-to-hand combat is dynamically choreographed. Here, Ehasz and Richmond give credit to animation directors Carlyle Wilson and Meruan Salim and their teams.
“Carlyle and Meru are amazing animation leads, and they’re very passionate about these characters,” Ehasz says. “They’re very passionate as storytellers. They ask us tons of questions as creators and writers so they can understand the intent and motivation of the characters at different times. The work they’re doing with their teams is subtle and also just so communicative, and we’re really lucky to have them.”
Chris Browne, CG Supervisor on The Dragon Prince, describing how Bardel creates and builds the environments:
“A lot of the backgrounds and some of the [elements] are actually hand-painted paintings, so they straight-up are two-dimensional,” Richmond adds. “Most of the stuff that moves—not all of it—is actually 3D models. But Bardel did a movie a few years ago [The Prophet] where they used a cel-shading technique that we loved, and then they took that to a whole new level on The Dragon Prince. We’re really proud of the result.
“So, yeah, while they are 3D models, we are designing them so that they will look as close to 2D as possible. And we’re using animation techniques to help that along, as well. Some of [the actual rendering pipeline] was developed internally, and some of it was licensed from a company in Japan,” Richmond says.
“We’re using a lot of 3D and CG processes with cel-shading, but with a lot of artists working together with the engineers and more technical people to make sure there’s a very artful execution of that process,” Ehasz says.
“I think that we loved them initially because we knew they were trying to push the boundaries to make cel-shading feel hand-done and artful. And we know there’s still room to innovate and make it look even better in the future, but we’re really proud of the work they’ve done.”
Polygon Pictures of Tokyo employs a similar cel-shading technique for Star Wars: Resistance, allowing a full frame rate for the smooth movement of its characters. For Dragon Prince, Wonderstorm and Bardel have chosen to lower their frame rate—but not for economic reasons.
“It’s a stylistic choice,” Richmond says. “I think we’re getting much better at it in Season Two than we were even in Season One. It is animated in a way that is probably to mimic what it feels like to animate in 2D. And, so, there’s a bunch of deliberate choices we made with Bardel to get that process to look as good as possible. With Season One, Carlyle and Meru did a pretty good job, and then, in Season Two, I think they really went all-in and doubled down, and it just looks better. It looks super hot. I’m super happy with it, and I’m so proud to work with those guys.”
Remarkably, while the nuanced character movements suggests the use of motion capture, Richmond reveals, “There is no MoCap. It’s all hand-keyed. It’s all animation teams, and artists, and tech guys. So, it’s all hand-keyed up in Vancouver at Bardel. We do the recording first, then we do boards, then we do animatics, then we do animation. So, we do a lot of the stuff the same way you would do it in 2D.”
According to Ehasz, “The storyboard artists and the directors are creating storyboards and deciding where the cameras are gonna go, and how the characters are gonna move within the shot. They’re setting the animators up for success, so that, once the animator’s doing the layout of the scene, and they’re positioning the models where they need to be, and moving them through the scene, and trying to animate them naturally, then they can even add to that.
“When our choreography turns out beautifully, it’s because a lot of artists co-visioned and executed together.”
Since The Dragon Prince’s premiere on September 14, 2018, a fan base has developed for its characters, manifesting on social media venues. Does their response determine the fate of the characters?
“We love our community and we love the fans, and we listen to them,” Ehasz says. “We always have to strike a balance between telling the story that is natural and hearing the fans and what they want. So, you never want to over-err on the side of fan service. That said, when we learn that, ‘Oh, they love this character,’ or ‘They’re interested in this part of the world,’ we go to our meeting, and we’re like, ‘Yeah, we do, too. We should totally explore that more and get in deeper.’ So, I don’t think we’re overly swayed by it, but we do listen, and that informs our discussions and what we’re interested in, as well.”
Regarding the show’s future, pending a go-ahead from Netflix, “We know things many seasons from now that we have not even gotten anywhere near yet,” Richmond says. “We’ve planned way in the future in a crazy way.”
“It’s not to say that we know every detail, and that we have solved for everything that happens in the story,” Ehasz says, “but we have some sense of kind of the broad strokes going out for several seasons into the future.
“As people come into this story and love it, we want them to know we have a lot more of it. And, as long as they’re telling Netflix they love it, we’ll be making more of it,” he says.
Ehasz also points out, “As we write the episodes, and as we go into real production, we discover things that we hadn’t thought of. We fill in the gaps and the details. And we’re even open to big pivots and changes, if we get to a point and we realize, ‘Oh, wait a minute. This actually makes more sense.’
“And, actually, Season Two has a great example of that. When we get to the end of that season, Ezran makes a choice that we did not plan for him to make. But, once we got to the end of the season, Ezran had all the information that he needed to have, based on what we knew about this character and how he was growing up.
“Ezran had to make a very hard choice that was not what we had planned for him, but it was the truest thing that character would do. We let him lead us in a different direction than we were initially trying to take it.
“And we were like, ‘Oh, gosh, well, that’s perfect. It’s taking him on a collision course with certain other things that are going on, and it feels very right.’ But we didn’t know that until we got to that moment with Ezran, and then we followed his lead,” Ehasz says.
In other words, Dragon Prince really is a character-driven show.
“Yes. 100%,” Justin Richmond states.
As for the future of Wonderstorm, the company does have other projects in the works.
Aaron Ehasz says, “Dragon Prince is a lot of our focus, but we have other projects internally. We’re working with creators who we admire and like to help them bring their projects to life at Wonderstorm. We’re only just beginning.”
Click here for Part One of this interview. On February 12th, 2019, the first season of The Dragon Prince won two Kidscreen Awards in the category of Tweens/Teens: Best Animated Series and Best in Class. Season Two began streaming on Netflix on February 15th, 2019.
from Animation Scoop http://www.animationscoop.com/interview-aaron-ehasz-and-justin-richmond-choose-their-destiny-on-the-dragon-prince/