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September 22
2020

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

The Blood, Sweat and Vampires of Anime CASTLEVANIA

By TREVOR HOGG

Even though Lenore (Jessica Brown Findlay) is small in stature compared to Council of Sister member Striga (Ivana Miličević) she holds her own as a cunning strategist. (All images courtesy of Project 51 Productions and Netflix.)

Furthering the mythology of Dracula is the gothic fantasy video game franchise Castlevania launched in 1986 by Konami that introduces a clan of vampire hunters known as the Belmonts. A creative partnership forged between Frederator Studios, comic book icon Warren Ellis, Project 51 Productions, Shankar Animation, Powerhouse Animation Studios, MUA Film and Netflix produced an anime inspired adaptation that debuted in July 2017 and has been renewed for a fourth season. Initially, producer Kevin Kolde and his company Project 51 Productions had contracted Ellis to write a script for a film version in 2007, but things did not move forward until Adi Shankar got involved in 2015.

“When we started talking about Castlevania again back in 2015, we were thinking about crowdfunding a movie from the original script,” notes Kolde. “Around the same time, we were having discussions with Netflix about another project. They were just starting to roll out the early Netflix Originals, so we shifted gears and pitched Castlevania to them as a series. The four episodes of the first season of Castlevania are pretty much the original movie script with some surgical edits and additions that Warren did to adjust for the series format. The second season was originally supposed to be four episodes as well.

Carmilla (Jaime Murray) plans to fill in the power vacuum created by the death of Dracula and harvest humans as a food supply.

“When the third script came in,” Kolde admits, “I started to panic when I realized how much story was left to cover in the last episode. The character count had also more than doubled over Season 1 and it really felt like we were rushing through the story. I emailed Warren and asked him to stop writing. In hindsight, I probably should have given him some context as to why I was asking him to stop. But we got on a call, talked  about it, and decided to go to Netflix and ask them to increase the episode count to eight. Fortunately, they agreed, and with the additional episodes we had the space we needed to expand the story and find a comfortable rhythm and pace for the series.”

In regards to how his relationship has evolved with Ellis over the course of the three seasons, Kolde remarks, “Warren is a great partner and producer. He’s the creator of the series, but understands that animation is a collaborative process and encourages and respects the contributions of everyone from the actors to the artists and animators, to the sound designers and the composer.”

Saint Germaine (Bill Nighy) enters the Infinity Corridor, which is a passageway to different dimensions.

Castlevania was always going to be 2D hand-drawn animation. “Originally,” Kolde says, “we tried to find a Japanese studio to work with, but they were all booked or busy or wanted to try to convince us to use CGI animation. One day I got an unsolicited email from Brad Graeber at Powerhouse Animation wanting to pitch his studio for Castlevania. Brad name-dropped someone I knew, so I ended up responding and we set up a time to meet in our Burbank office. Brad showed up for the meeting with a large entourage of people that he had flown out from their studio in Austin, Texas. Powerhouse really hadn’t done series work before, but did their homework on the history of the Castlevania project and came armed with an awesome pitch and deck that they had put together specifically for the project. We never looked at another studio after that meeting. Tiger Animation [formerly MUA Film] in Seoul, Korea is our overseas animation partner.”

Anime and the artwork of Ayami Kojima for Castlevania: Symphony of the Night were influential in deciding upon the animation style. “The early character design passes for the series were somewhat bland,” recalls Kolde. “Evaluating those designs and looking for a recognizable visual entry point for fans to the series, we realized that for most Castlevania fans, when they thought about the look of the game series, they probably thought about the stunning art that Ayami Kojima had created for the series over the years. Beautiful gothic women and maybe even more beautiful gothic men. We focused in on Kojima’s work and pushed the designs in that direction. All of our characters had to be beautiful. It took some iterations to get there, and somewhere I have a long email chain discussing the amount of eyelashes a character should have, but in the end I think our director and Production Designer Sam Deats really captured the essence of her work and did it in a way that that we could actually animate.”

A captured demon by occult monks is seen as the means to opening the Infinity Corridor and bringing Dracula back to life.

Given the nature of the source material, there is an extensive amount of onscreen blood and severed limbs. “The show was always intended for adults.” states Kolde. “We had a brief discussion in Season 1 around the dead kid we see in the street during the night creature attack on Targoviste, but we decided it was important to show the results of Dracula’s revenge. We wanted to show the other side of a character that the audience had likely been sympathetic to up until that point.”

Castlevania is my first series production!” declares Sam Deats, Creative Director at  Powerhouse Animation Studios. “For the first 10 years of my career at Powerhouse, I worked on short-form animation productions for video games, advertisements and various other types of projects. It wasn’t a huge creative shift, but the production style had to change drastically to create thousands of cuts and hundreds of minutes of content. This meant developing a whole new approach for pre-production and animation production, learning how to collaborate with outsource studios, and restructuring our whole post-production pipeline for the bulk work. It was quite the challenge.”

Storyboards and animatics are layout-like in their designs. “The character posing and acting are matched closely by the key animators, so we have to be thorough,” Deats explains. “For action sequences, if we plan on outsourcing the action, we provide roughly keyed poses and breakdowns. But we have a team of in-house animators and freelancers that we frequently work with, and in those cases, we’ll keep the boards rougher to allow for greater creative freedom.

“We also record all of the dialogue first so that the storyboard artists have the recordings to listen to as they draw – crafting the posing, acting, expressions and actions to match the vocal performances.”

—Kevin Kolde, Producer

Adetokumboh M’Cormack voices Isaac, a Forge Master seeking revenge for the death of his master Dracula by creating his own army of demonic creatures.

One of the creative joys for the Castlevania production team is designing the various demonic creatures.

Saint Germain (Bill Nighy), Sypha Belnades (Alejandra Reynoso) and Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage) discover that the town leader of Lindenfeld known as The Judge (Jason Isaacs) has a dark secret.

“We’ve increased our capacity for in-house action animation several times over, so you can expect significantly more awesome action animation. We’ve made several improvements to how we approach character layouts and keys during dialogue  sequences, so the quality and polish during dialogue sequences is stronger. In general, I think Season 4 will be the best the show has ever looked.”

—Sam Deats, Creative Director, Powerhouse Animation Studios

The town of Lindenfeld burns despite the valiant efforts of Sypha Belnades (Alejandra Reynoso) and Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage).

Concept art by Tucker Roche of the 9th Ring of Hell.

A color background study of the city of Braila.

“Within the walls of Powerhouse, we work with Toon Boom Storyboard Pro and Toon Boom Harmony for storyboards and animation, and After Effects for the compositing and lighting and special effects work,” states Deats. “The techniques are all basically traditional 2D animation techniques, just drawn directly on a computer. Our partners at Tiger Animation actually work on paper still, then scan and clean up their work in RETAS! PRO.”

A unique production process has been developed. “We create a pre-production package with thorough storyboards and animatics as you might see in other U.S, productions,” Deats adds, “but then assess the episode and decide how to divide the work between ourselves and our partners at Tiger Animation. We tend to take a large portion of the action animation to either animate in-house, or work with freelancers who specialize in action animation, and often hold on to important acting cuts. We have our own internal team of model-checkers to ensure everything looks the best it can. And we have what I think is the best After Effects compositing team in the U.S., who light the characters and add atmosphere and effects beautifully, putting love and care into every single shot of the show.”

A balance needs to be maintained to produce magic that is grounded as well as fantastical. “The key to this is how fragile the characters actually are physically,” notes Deats. “The characters aren’t ridiculously durable, even most of the vampires are relatively soft, so there’s always the threat of death from anything thrown at them, and the magic has to match that vulnerability.”

The same approach is taken with the world-building, according to Deats. “We wanted the show to feel like it’s set in the real world, but also add scale and a little sense of fantasy, even in existing towns. While we draw inspiration from the architecture of a region, we’ll blow up the size of a city far beyond what it might’ve been during the time period. Braila is a good example; we wanted it to feel like a much more densely populated space than was accurate to the period, but it doesn’t feel outlandish like you’ve walked into a JRPG town all of a sudden.”

Some digital augmentation is needed. “Our compositing is done in After Effects, where we’ve developed a number of proprietary scripts for applying special lighting effects efficiently across a large number of shots,” Deats continues. “This allows us to add form and depth to the characters, which helps to root them with the painted backgrounds and lighting effects happening around them. Camerawork is limited in the 2D animation medium, but we’ve tried to expand our capabilities some each season by incorporating 3D environments, which allow us to do more during action sequences.”

“Meredith Layne has done an incredible job as our casting and voice director,” remarks Kolde. “I’m amazed at the cast that we have had the privilege to work with. For the initial series casting we used open auditions to find the main cast and to find the ‘sound’ of the show. Post Season 1, we’ve mostly done targeted casting, going after specific actors for specific roles. All the credit to the actors for bringing the characters to life. They define them through their performance and oftentimes Warren will change or rewrite dialogue based on the nuances that the actor has brought to the role. We also record all of the dialogue first so that the storyboard artists have the recordings to listen to as they draw – crafting the posing, acting, expressions and actions to match the vocal performances.

“Within the walls of Powerhouse, we work with Toon Boom Storyboard Pro and Toon Boom Harmony for storyboards and animation, and After Effects for the compositing and lighting and special effects work. The techniques are all basically traditional 2D animation techniques, just drawn directly on a computer. Our partners at Tiger Animation actually work on paper still, then scan and clean up their work in RETAS! PRO.”

—Sam Deats, Creative Director, Powerhouse Animation Studios

Concept art of the Lust Stones that are found in Hell.

Concept art created when exploring the possible looks for Hell.

“We didn’t have a lot to work with in choosing to adapt Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse,” notes Kolde. “It was a game from 1989 for the NES with 8-bit graphics and a story that could probably fit on a page. But what story was there was compelling enough to build from, and the multitude of Castlevania games that came before it and after it had established a rich lore for us to work with. In developing the series, we looked at the mythology from the games and focused on the themes, characters and stories. We looked at tone, mood, atmosphere and music.The series is informed and inspired by those elements and built on a foundation of great characters that Warren has created or skillfully brought to life.

“On the visual side,” Kolde remarks, “the team at Powerhouse led by Sam and Adam Deats are constantly mining everything Castlevania. From using the color schemes from the original game sprites for the characters’ clothing in the series, to mining the game series bestiary for creatures to use, to using the save point from Symphony of The Night as the device that Dracula uses to control his moving castle. Sam and Adam are always finding ways to utilize elements from the games throughout the series. Never in an intrusive manner, but always organically and in service of the story. If you’ve played the games, you’ll notice and if you haven’t you won’t. You don’t need to have played the games in order to enjoy the show.”

A visually striking moment occurs in Episode 309 when devil forgemaster Isaac (Adetokumboh M’Cormack) encounters a flying hive of townspeople being mind-controlled by a magician. “Legion was super difficult,”says Deats. “We first had to come up with a plan of attack, which at first was to experiment with 3D crowd simulators. Considering we’ve never done 3D animated characters it was pretty new territory for us. But we found a way to make it look good at a distance, and strategically picked our shot angles to reduce how often we would need to animate it by hand. Any shot where Legion gets fairly close to the camera is drawn by hand, and those shots are by far the most difficult and expensive in the show.”

Sypha Delnades (Alejandra Reynoso), a Speaker with an ability to magically wield the natural elements, has a fan in Deats. “Sypha ice skating is like my favorite thing. I’m weak and Sypha will definitely protect me. so I’ll have to go into battle hiding behind her. Despite Trevor being the avid drinker, he’ll probably get drunk and pick a fight, so I’d have to go with Alucard since he probably has lots of interesting stories and he could use a friend. Dracula’s castle would, of course, be my pick [to visit], as you could live there for years and still not see everything there is to see — to the battle with Sypha, to the pub with Godbrand [or maybe Saint Germain], and I’d like to visit somewhere other than my house!”

Gnarly trees are found throughout Hell.

A dramatic moment is when the Magician gathers enslaved townspeople into a giant ball to attack Isaac (Adetokumboh M’Cormack).

Will Dracula’s son, Adrian Alucard Tepes (James Callis), be reunited with Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage) and Sypha Belnades in Season 4, and if so, will they will be friends or foes? Kolde laughs, “The title of the last episode of Season 3 is ‘Abandon All Hope.’ Just kidding. But no spoilers.”

Deats declines to reveal as to whether Dracula and the Speakers will reappear in Season 4, along with alternative dimensions courtesy of the Infinite Corridor, but states, “We’ve increased our capacity for in-house action animation several times over, so you can expect significantly more awesome action animation. We’ve made several improvements to how we approach character layouts and keys during dialogue  sequences, so the quality and polish during dialogue sequences is stronger. In general, I think Season 4 will be the best the show has ever looked.”

The Inhabitants of Castlevania

“Some of the creatures take inspiration from existing creatures from the game. which we then adapt to the show style and apply our own spin on,” explains Sam Deats, Creative Director at Powerhouse Animation Studios. “Others are completely original — we tend to start with what their ability set should be, based on the story, then take inspiration from nature and often folklore which is something of a tradition in the Castlevania games.”

Deats also provides some insight into the creative and technical challenges encountered with designing the principal cast. “Trevor was probably the most difficult design of the main trio to land on a look for. His first few designs were a little younger looking and cleaner, but it wasn’t till I caked on a level of grit and grime that he started to take shape. Sypha’s design was one I landed pretty close on from the start, and she’s so versatile with her magic she’s a blast to storyboard action for. I suppose the main challenge with her is trying not to make her too overpowered.

“Alucard is one of the hardest characters for the animators to draw, which will surprise no one,” says Deats. “I’ve had to do a lot of corrections for him over the years! His design and fighting style take a lot of inspiration from the games, which has always been fun. Dracula’s design had to be equal parts terrifying and endearing, someone who makes you fear for your life while also making you fall in love. The crux of the story relies on the audience feeling for a man who wants to wipe out humanity.”

Katie Silvia, who took as the Character Design Supervisor for Season 3, explains what was involved with producing some of the new additions to the cast. “For Lenore, the biggest challenge was she was essentially my art test, and I was going to school at the time and didn’t know one thing about character design, so in a panic I bought some books on the subject with next day delivery, drew a lot on Post-its, and then in the end I  just followed my heart and threw a lot of shapes and things I love to draw in one design.

“For a more production-related answer,” Silvia explains, “I really wanted to capture the pretty, warm, big, droopy doe eyes Ayami Kojima draws on some of her girls. For Morana, I wanted her to look really out of time but also regal. Vampires wear more modern fashion than humans in Castlevania [Alucard invented the V-neck], so there’s more room to play with clothing periods. Morana’s the oldest, probably thousands of years old. Her shawl is a kaunake-type thing that she’s either kept for thousands of years or adapted from something else as a reminder of older times, while her outfit top is more Elizabethan. Morana has modern makeup because she’s an icon, and one of the biggest challenges was trying to do that eye makeup myself at 2 a.m. to test my abilities.

“For Saint Germain, the big deal was trying to figure out how to adapt a pre-existing character for a show where he has a different function in the story,” describes Silvia. “I put him more solidly in the Tudor time period, like he’s a few years more advanced than the rest of the folks clothing-wise but not as much as the vampires. I gave him a Shakespearean doublet because I thought he was an actor playing a part and because they’re hot. His cane actually is the same rough design as the sword he carries in the concept art. The really hard thing for him was that he was described as wearing really fine clothes that were broken down and worn with age, but that’s hard to do with flat colors because [to me] it implies a textural element. Saint Germain has the greenish coat because that’s kind of the color a fine, rich, black coat gets when it’s been in the sun too long. Saint Germain keeps his shirt untucked because he really is tired and isn’t looking to really impress these Lindenfeld folks as much as if he were younger.”

Rough concept designs for the character of Lenore.

The character of Saint Germaine is loosely based on a real historical figure.

 

“Dracula’s design had to be equal parts terrifying and endearing, someone who makes you fear for your life while also making you fall in love. The crux of the story relies on the audience feeling for a man who wants to wipe out humanity.”

—Sam Deats, Creative Director, Powerhouse Animation Studios

 


Exploring the appropriate color pallet for the demonic creature known as Gaibon.

Various colors are considered and decided upon for the demonic creature known as Slogra.

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