At New York Comic Con 2018, AnimeSuperhero got to sit down with three key players producing The Dragon Prince on Netflix: from left to right in the photo above, executive producer/director Giancarlo Volpe and co-creators Aaron Ehasz and Justin Richmond. If their names sound familiar, they should: Aaron Ehasz and Giancarlo Volpe are both alumni of Nickelodeon’s Avatar the Last Airbender, and animation fans may also recall Giancarlo Volpe driving Green Lantern: The Animated Series at Warner Bros as well. Meanwhile, Justin Richmond was the director behind the hit video game Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. Now all three are at Wonderstorm studios, producing the epic fantasy animated series The Dragon Prince, whose first nine episodes premiered on Netflix last September.
NOTE: Interview contains some small spoilers for season 1 of The Dragon Prince. Mostly near the end. You can read all the General Amaya stuff without spoiling anything, but it probably won’t make a lot of sense until you see the show. So go watch the show, bask in the awesomeness of General Amaya, and then come back here and read all about her.
JUSTIN RICHMOND: Yeah, it’s crazy. We’re super lucky that we have a fanbase that activated and they’re awesome. It’s so cool to go on Twitter and Tumblr and Instagram and see the outpouring of art and love and cosplay. We really love interacting with the community, which is why we came here. We paid to come here and do this because we think it’s awesome and it’s something that we think is super-important as a show and as a part of the community.
GIANCARLO VOLPE: I feel like for a stretch there, it was, “Hey everyone, we have this show called The Dragon Prince! Hope you like it!” Now we’re at a place where it’s like, “If you liked it, we’re excited to make more,” so I think that’s a more fun place to be.
JUSTIN RICHMOND: Yeah, there was the pins-and-needles month where it was like, “It’s not out, but people know about it!”
AARON EHASZ: She’s definitely been very popular, and a lot of people have expressed happiness about this character. I think we have a general approach that we want the characters in our world to be diverse and reflect a real modern world, and our modern world is diverse and there are people with a lot of differences that don’t get reflected in most storytelling. So part of it is that we think we can do stronger storytelling when we develop a character who is interesting and different in ways that we haven’t seen before. In the case of Aunt Amaya, we literally started from just a point of character. “OK, she’s the boy’s aunt, and their mom’s sister, and she’s this awesome general, and she’s super strong and a great fighter and she kicks down doors, and she’s an amazing strategist…”
GIANCARLO VOLPE: And she uses a shield. I remember that was one of the things that we were sort of proud of.
AARON EHASZ: And we had these things and I think literally one day, it was just like, “If she were deaf, how would that affect her character?” Does that fit into some of these personality traits? Does it enhance some of them? We started to think about, well as a general, maybe that changes the way she walks into battle, and she’s not hearing all these sounds. She’s sort of in the zone. She looks around and takes everything in and makes decisions and is just forward-forward-forward, and we thought, “This fits her character. This is perfect!”
The next step was we needed to talk to friends and friends-of-friends who were deaf or worked in the deaf community and find out more about the challenges that deaf people face, and how they authentically communicate and how they overcome the things they face in their lives. We needed to dig in and learn about that. So we did that, the writers of the episode did that. We talked to people we knew, we talked to organizations. We learned that it would be more authentic for her to always sign, and potentially being someone who was in a position of power, have an interpreter and someone who could translate for her. And so even though that required a lot of additional effort from the animators…
GIANCARLO VOLPE: It did. (Chuckles)
AARON EHASZ: It was worth it to get to an authentic character. So ultimately it came from a place of character and making her the strongest, most awesome character she could be, and it fit right in.
AARON EHASZ: We learned that there’s some range of deafness and hearing impairment and how that affects communication, and we knew we had to make a decision on where Amaya would be on that spectrum.
JUSTIN RICHMOND: There were a couple of things. I didn’t know this, but when we started doing the research that even if they can speak, if they weren’t deaf from birth and they have the ability to speak some English, many deaf people would prefer not to. There is a preference to sign over speaking. So that was something that was real interesting, because we’ve seen some actors who can do both, so we thought, “Maybe that’s how we do it.” But then we started researching.
AARON EHASZ: It seemed like a stronger choice for Amaya to primarily sign.
GIANCARLO VOLPE: I think what I also like too about their dynamic is that Amaya is so tough and in charge, and then Gren is such a cinnamon roll (laughs) as the fans say. And I think this speaks to the voice actor, Adrian (Petriw): when he’s speaking on behalf of Amaya, he sounds very tough and he’s very much reflecting her personality, but then when he’s speaking on behalf of Gren, he’s such a little puppy dog (laughs). I love that he switches like that. I think it just makes them both stronger standing next to each other.
AARON EHASZ: And that’s something we learned as well, that the interpreter role is to be a tool for the person who’s speaking. It’s to be a translator. They’re not being their own character in that moment, they’re helping amplify the communication that the person speaking is making. Adrian did an excellent job switching between being that expression for Amaya, that amplification for her communication, and having a different performance when he was talking as Gren.
JUSTIN RICHMOND: We found these interviews with actual interpreters, and you could see it. You could see them do it, and that was hugely useful, be like, “Oh!” You can SEE them actually turning to, “The person I’m talking for is in this emotional state,” and “I’m talking for myself.” You can see the switch and it was really interesting.
JUSTIN RICHMOND: He’s a terrible actor! (Laughter) And we didn’t know going in. Right up to the last moment, he didn’t know that he was going to be doing that. Originally, we weren’t sure how we were going to have her talk. Then we realized what we were going to do, and we told him, “OK, man, you’re going to be the interpreter and this is how it’s going to work.” And he just DiD it. He just walked into the booth and he just did the thing and he was just amazing.
GIANCARLO VOLPE: I was going to reiterate what I said at the panel yesterday, that we ended up filming signing in the same way that we videoed kung-fu on Avatar, and I realized very quickly it’s kind of the same process. We wanted to have very accurate kung-fu and martial arts in Avatar, and this felt like the same thing. Like, “Let’s get this very precise.” Because the goal was that anyone who could read sign language would watch the show and be able to know what she’s signing.
ANIMESUPERHERO: Sometimes if you speak the language in a foreign film, you’re like, “There’s nuance there that wasn’t quite translated.” Did that ever happen with Amaya when you were doing this? Where somebody signing is going to pick up something more or a little different than somebody who’s just listening to Gren?
GIANCARLO VOLPE: I’m sure there’s a little bit of that. I know when we were filming our interpreter to get the reference, there’s a couple of times she would be stumped, and be like, “How would you say that?” Another thing that was fun was that she would very quickly…I guess when you sign someone’s name, you can either spell out the word, letter-for-letter, or there’s shortcuts. So I think that Harrow was like an “H” but she would tap her head as like a crown, and Viren…I want to say he involved the heart or something. She very quickly came up with these personality approximations for the characters, and so I would like to think that if you understood signing, that’s a little extra Easter egg.
AARON EHASZ: I think we encouraged that subtlety in the performance. We had a great communication with the people who were helping us provide that reference. Ultimately, this character has been a chance for us to learn a lot about deafness and that community, and ASL, and we hope it inspires some interest in a broad audience as well.
GIANCARLO VOLPE: That is correct.
ANIMESUPERHERO: When did you make that decision to go with that particular medium of animation for the show?
GIANCARLO VOLPE: I always wanted to try doing that. I remember we did an early test on Green Lantern where we explored that direction. At the time, Bruce Timm didn’t want to do that because he thought, “If we’re going to go CG, let’s go FULL CG.” That was kind of his take at the time. But I was, “Oh, but I kind of like how that looks.” So I think that sometimes you choose a style depending on which studio you partner with. For example if we worked with Studio Mir, who we did Korra and Voltron with, I wouldn’t necessarily ask them to do it in CG. But when we partnered with Bardel, they had worked on a feature film called The Prophet, that used this same style, and I always was kind of drawn to it. I’ve also seen it done in video games like Fire Emblem and Guilty Gear, and the Naruto games are basically emulating the anime and I was like, “This is pretty good!” It often fools me. It sort of feels like it’s hand drawn. And I was like, “I would like to do a show that way, someday.” And it worked out that like in trying too explore who we would work with to do this, we found Bardel, we knew about their expertise on The Prophet, and so we just kind of jumped in, like, “Let’s do it! Let’s do it for The Dragon Prince.”
JUSTIN RICHMOND: We did a test with them and it came out really cool, and then it was off to the races.
AARON EHASZ: One of the things I love about Giancarlo is that he has a background directing and producing both CG shows and 2-D shows at a very high level, and he’s a huge animation geek and animation lover. So watching him approach this show innovatively and say, “How can we take this pipeline and use these amazing artists who were inspired to do new things?” So some of it is how do we make it look like things we love using a new approach, but some of it is also, “Given the approach we’re taking, what are the amazing things we can bring out?” So the level of detail on costumes…the fact that Gren’s face is covered in freckles. There are so many little things that you can’t do in 2-D that are happening because Giancarlo and the team are finding inspiration and leveraging what they have to do cool things that you couldn’t do before.
JUSTIN RICHMOND: I remember when you were like, “DUDE, DO YOU KNOW WHAT WE CAN DO??!!!???” (Laughter)
GIANCARLO VOLPE: I realized that when I draw, I like detail. It almost sounds obvious, but …not to keep mentioning Bruce Timm, but Bruce Timm’s whole aesthetic is less-is-more. He likes really clean, minimal design. But I kind of like, “And then you see the bolts in the armor” and I’m particularly proud that this show has a lot more detail per character. I think it makes the show super-rich.
JUSTIN RICHMOND: It’s funner to cosplay! (Laughs) A little harder but funner!
ANIMESUPERHERO: Give them a challenge!
JUSTIN RICHMOND: Exactly!
ANIMESUPERHERO: And watch them rise to it, because they will.
GIANCARLO VOLPE: They do! They always blow you away, like, “How did you figure that out already?”
JUSTIN RICHMOND: We deliberately put out cosplay guides, basically. We have turnarounds of all the major characters so hopefully people can see that and go, “Oh, that’s how that’s supposed to work.”
ANIMESUPERHERO: I’m assuming this is consuming your life, that season 2 is now your big thing, so I expect you’re not going to answer, “What’s going to happen next?” But can you talk about something that really excites you about what you’re working on next? This would also apply to the video game, because we didn’t really talk about that but I know that’s been in the works too.
JUSTIN RICHMOND: So I can answer that part about the video game first, and then you guys can think of a better answer for the other part (laughter). We’re making the video game, we have an active development team that are awesome. The partners on the video game side are with a company called MWM, they’re Madison Wells Media, and they are the first investor in our company and believed in the vision which we set out, which was show and game. So they’ve helped us sort of start that team. We have a bunch of people actively working on the game as well, and so we’re going to explore even more of our world. That’s super-exciting because we’re not just limited to whatever minutes we have per season now. We can actually go out and have a bunch of cool stuff that’s going on. So super-exciting to be able to explore the world there. And as far as season 2 goes…
AARON EHASZ: I’m excited about…I think there are a number of story things where we left off. So among other things, Rayla and Ezran and Callum have taken this journey where they’ve gotten over their initial prejudices and mistrust and kind of formed a real bond and a connection, but Rayla knows something really important which the boys don’t know, which is what happened that night? What happened to their dad? So she’s holding something back. That tension is going to be really interesting to explore, how that’s going to affect the dynamic and the trust when or if the princes find out and that she held it back. Obviously the mystery of the mirror is going to be interesting because Viren is still obsessed with it, and he’s going to keep pushing on that until he figures something out. And just from a character perspective, Callum went on this journey where he was like, “I’m a mage!” and he had this thing that gave him power and confidence and all this, and guess what? He had to sacrifice it at the end. So where does that leave this guy? And what will he do to realize his own identity? Those are some of the questions I’m wondering about heading into the next season.
GIANCARLO VOLPE: Yeah…that was perfect. (Laughter) So, yeah. That!
The Dragon Prince season 1 is streaming on Netflix now.