Netflix’s animated series The Dragon Prince, co-created by Avatar: The Last Airbender head writer Aaron Ehasz and Uncharted series game developer and director Justin Richmond, just dropped its second season, and it’s a powerful step forward for the fantasy series. I recently spoke at length to Ehasz and Richmond about the stylistic changes and narrative leaps forward the show took in season 2.
In part one of this interview, Ehasz and Richmond discussed some of the major story beats from season 2, including how they balanced their villains to make them so appealing, what effects dark magic has on its users, and why season 2 has so many long, wordless sequences as part of the storytelling process. In part two, they discuss the show’s animation choices, including how it’s changed from season 1 in response to viewer feedback, how the animators use camera rules to create more realistic action, and why every episode ends with Easter eggs.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
Aaron Ehasz: When we first envisioned the show, we talked with Bardel Entertainment, which had done a film called The Prophet. They were trying to innovate toward using a CG pipeline and using cel shading, but using techniques to help it feel more hand-done to have artists much more involved in applying a personal touch, so you don’t get the computer or machine-like feeling, the Uncanny Valley you sometimes get from cel-shaded animation.
On The Dragon Prince, we wanted to push that even more to leverage the strengths of a CG and 3D pipeline. We wanted details on the character designs, in the costumes and sets, that you really can’t get in traditional 2D animation. The animators working with these 3D models, they’re artists, right? They’re great at what they do. They’re artful in how they move characters about. So a lot of it was about achieving a style that would feel artful and hand-animated.
Along that journey, one of the decisions was that if you animate on ones using computer animation, it sometimes feels so smooth that it’s floaty, and it’s starting to lose weight and impact. You start to perceive things as being moved perfectly through space by computers. So we animated to key frames and removed frames to give the movements weight and impact and punch and edge. We felt it was successful and beautiful and layered. But there was a significant subset of viewers who found the frame rate…
Justin Richmond: Off-putting.
AE: That feedback was consistent among a subset of fans. So we adjusted for the second season. We still wanted the same stylistic approach. We didn’t want to animate on ones, because we wanted it to feel as hands-on as possible. A lot more of the shots are on twos, but some effects may be on ones for extra fluidity. We adjusted, and we’re still trying to find the sweet spot, but we think it feels better. Hopefully, the fans feel the same way.
Given how you loved the original look, do you feel like you’re losing anything by changing the animation?
JR: We’re happy with it. We’re not losing anything. Every time you get to do more of something you already know how to do, you can do it better. So there’s a bunch of stuff beyond the number of frames and animation choices that we were able to improve, just because we now know so much more about how the show is actually rendered, how the renderer works, where it falls apart with the things that are tricky. We’re really happy with season 2, and hopefully if we get another season, we’ll be even better at that.
What’s tricky in your process? What are the hardest things to pull off with your system?
JR: When you shoot CG cel-shaded, there are a bunch of choices you can make about how shadows show up, and how they move. And some of the things have very different end results. We chose a look we think replicates 2D very well, but it requires a bunch of heavy lifting on the rendering pipeline that straight CG shadows do not. There was a learning curve there. The show looks great, but it was very tricky to get there. There were a lot of steps involved. While that’s still true, now we know what those steps are, so it’s easier to go through them. And it’s easier to set up shots in a way that allows us to get to those results faster. We have a whole paint department that goes into shots after they’re done and cleans them up. When you can do shots that don’t have to be cleaned up, it means you’re getting better results faster. So that’s one thing.
The other thing is line weight. All of the ink lines are a whole separate piece of technology that’s very complicated. In the first season, we were learning the limitations of how that worked. The guys at Bardel could go into much deeper detail about that, but basically, we’re moving faster, which saves us more time at the end to polish things, instead of fixing things.
The dragon attack sequence feels visually different from a lot of the other character movement. Was it handled any differently behind the scenes?
JR: There are a couple of things. I’m not an animation expert. I did go to animation school, but I’m not an animation expert! I know that a lot of those sequences, they set up the cameras and sequences very differently, so they’d feel much more visceral. The directors are paying a lot more attention to how things are moving through the frame quickly, getting the feeling of what it would be like to be on the ground with a dragon flying around. How to get that sense of surprise, how to still make it funny. They spend a lot of time choreographing that stuff. I remember when we set up that particular set of shots, we didn’t have a setting yet. The series director had a diagram and was like, “Well, it’s going to fly like this, so here’s how the city needs to be built so it makes sense.”
In that sequence, they basically came to us. We’d written something like, “A dragon attacks the town.” [Laughs] We didn’t have a lot of description because we really trusted the directors. They very deliberately said, “Okay, if we were in this town, how would we shoot this with real cameras?” Our series director and episode directors believe as much as possible in not doing a lot of crazy virtual camera stuff because it breaks the feeling of this being a real world. There’s a very specific set of rules around our cameras that are designed to make it feel real. They’re very careful about that. That said, when you have a dragon attacking, you can do some crazier stuff and get away with it. So they get to play a little. There’s more fun to be had with some of the sequences to make sure they feel epic and awesome.
At one point, there was a whole additional piece of that sequence that ended up getting cut for time. There were some crazy loops, like the way the ballista was enchanted, and a bunch of other stuff they played with on the storyboards. We were like, “We’re starting to lose some of the drama of the sequence.” I think the directors really love to spend time on making it feel real, like, “What would it be to be in a town that’s literally getting fired on by a dragon?” Nothing but respect for the guys at Bardel. They love this show as much as we do, and they want it to feel like we want it to feel. So I think they put a lot of extra love into those sequences. You know, it’s fun when you’ve been shooting Callum doing a speech for a couple of days, and then you get to go “Dragon attack! This is awesome!” It’s a little more freeing.
The hand-to-hand fight choreography is also really complicated. It’s reminiscent of how Avatar: The Last Airbender’s fight sequences were choreographed in terms of martial arts. Are they similarly using physical models to set up the choreography here?
JR: The directors use video reference, where they’ll be like, “Well, this is the pose, and I’m standing like this, you’re going to come at me,” and then they figure out the physical spacing. But honestly, it’s mostly that the storyboard directors go through a lot of passes to say, “Okay, does this feel like Rayla and Soren are fighting? Does it feel like they’re in this space together? And then on the bigger stuff, it becomes a lot more complicated. “Okay, we have all these actors, and there’s all this space, we need to make sure it works. So often they send us overheads and mockups, and we say, “Okay that seems about right,” and then the directors just go in and make it awesome. There’s a whole art to that, like an arcane thing these guys really got a handle on this season.
The little still images from the closing credits have gotten a lot of fan attention. Some of them have sparked elaborate theories, and some are just little jokey illustrations of ideas from the episode. Who decides what those are going to be? What’s the philosophy behind them?
AE: We do, and the writing team does. Look, part of it is that those credits have a list of names of people who work so hard on the show. They do amazing visionary work on Dragon Prince. And Netflix lets you skip those credits so easily. We wanted to give people a reason to enjoy the credits. We also wanted for it not to be taken for granted that every credits sequence is the same, just “Oh, it’s the credits again.” There are Easter eggs and cute or funny moments, but there are also clues and foreshadowing or scenes happening in a different part of the world during the same episode, where you’re like, “Oh, that’s what’s happening? That means in four episodes, this character will catch up with that character.” With the whole show, we want people to pay attention, and for people who care about details to be rewarded. It’s the same thing with the credits.
Are we going to get to see more of that pouty 19-year-old prince who won’t eat his broccoli?
JR: You know, hopefully. Do we need more of him?
AE: Yes, we will.
JR: He gave it away. Yes, we’ll see him again.
AE and JR: Yes!