The Critical Role team turn their love of Dungeons & Dragons into an adult animated series
BARDS WILL SURELY be singing the praises of The Legend Of Vox Machina for years to come. The tale goes that Critical Role – a group of friends who met as voiceover actors – began livestreaming their Dungeons & Dragons games. Soon enough, they launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce a 22-minute animated episode based on their characters’ exploits.
In less than an hour, Critical Role surpassed their goal of $750,000 – ultimately raising $11.3 million in 45 days. The sum broke the record for the most-funded video or film project in Kickstarter history. Amazon consequently took notice of the property’s popularity and greenlit Vox Machina for two seasons. And here we are.
“Every step along the way, we’ve tried to make the series its own thing,” executive producer and Critical Role member Travis Willingham tells Red Alert. “It’s not just a 100% faithful retelling of the livestream campaign. We’ve had to lose parts. Cut out the boring bits, highlight the exciting bits. But we’ve also been able to explore things that we weren’t able to before, like the villains and getting into their backstories and their relationship with each other. We’ve also been using the medium of animation to dictate what we tell and how we tell it. Events that only existed in our imaginations, or on the pages of fan art drawings, we now get to imagine as fully-animated sequences, be they fantasy sequences or epic visceral battles.”
The series follows a band of boozing, brawling misfits.
The roster includes the gnome cleric Pike, goliath barbarian Grog, half-elf ranger Vex, half-elf rogue Vax, human gunslinger Percy, half-elf druid Keyleth and gnome bard Scanlan. Broke, with little prospect of work, the unlikely heroes accept a perilous mission to save the realm of Exandria from sinister forces… a task they might not live to regret. The first two episodes serve as an entry point into the Vox Machina world. The second
We’ve been able to explore things that we weren’t able to before, like the villains
arc pits the gang against the Briarwoods, a married vampire couple that slaughtered Percy’s family when he was a child. “That was the first personal backstory we really explored in our livestream show,” Critical Role co-founder and executive producer Sam Riegel says. “It was [colleague] Matt Mercer showing us that the tiny little insignificant backstories
that we had made for our characters, that we never thought would jump up in any kind of way, would play out in front of us. We feel it’s vital that those elements of growth are shown in each one of the characters. The beautiful part about that is you’re able to learn so much about the characters and how they relate to one another, and also what they discover about themselves as they help Percy in his revenge.”
Vox Machina is billed as an “adult animated series”, and with good reason. There’s plenty of bloodshed, foul language and some gratuitous nudity. Those more mature elements were an important part of Critical Role’s vision of the property. “It’s because we are dirty, dirty people,” Riegel says with a laugh. “The original story that we told in the campaign and livestream show, at its heart, is a group of friends sitting around the table and hanging out. Sometimes we have a beverage with us, but even without we curse a lot.
“These characters are into a lot of violence,” he continues. “In a fantasy RPG scenario, it’s wall-to-wall action and monster killing and slashing. We knew if we wanted to capture the spirit of the show we were going to have to show blood and death. And we were going to have them swear and burp and fart.”
When it came to the animation, Critical Role originally considered employing a more 3D style, but decided that would be too clean for the Vox Machina setting. Riegel explains that their tastes were heavily influenced by cartoons of the ’80s and ’90s, as well as anime, so they leaned into that instead. “We took the look of those shows, that hand-drawn, 2D, action-adventure look and tried to update it a little bit, so that the characters can still be expressive and show real emotion.”
“As fate would have it, I was taking a flight to NYCC in 2018,” Willingham continues. “I ended up sitting across from the legendary Phil Bourassa, who’s done so much work with DC properties like Young Justice and Justice League. I said, ‘Hey man, what are you working on these days? We’re developing this animated series. Would you mind taking a shot at these characters? If nothing else, just for me?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, man, tell me more about it’. The first thing he sent us blew our hair back!
“It was exactly what we were thinking,” he concludes. “The character sizes were right. The expressions were there. It was chiseled facial features. The women looked strong. It was just on point. He told me he was an anime fan. He was a kid of the ’80s himself. It was a match made in heaven.” BC
The Legend Of Vox Machina premieres on Prime Video on 28 January.
THE LAST EXORCISM director Daniel Stamm is taking another crack at the subject in The Devil’s Light. The supernatural horror follows Sister Ann (Jacqueline Byers), a 25-year-old nun convinced that evicting malevolent spirits from people is her calling. That’s an uphill battle, however, considering that the Catholic Church historically only allows male priests to perform such rituals. As Sister Ann slowly proves herself, she comes face to face with a demonic presence that harkens back to her traumatic past… an evil that might finally claim her soul as its own.
“I found myself drawn to the subplot that this woman is going up against the patriarchy that wants to keep her in place,” Stamm tells Red Alert. “But Ann has these powers, or the connection, or something about her, that the church doesn’t know how to tap into. On the one hand, they want to tap into it and use her in the fight against the Devil. On the other hand, their doctrine forbids it.
“Then I really liked the idea of an exorcism academy,” he continues. “I always feel like an audience can identify with anything that happens in a school environment, like in Harry Potter. The school world is something everybody can connect with, because everybody went to school. You add a murder and the whodunit and suddenly it’s this world coming to life, and you want to spend time in it for an hour and a half. There’s an echo of that in this exorcism academy.”
THE DEVIL YOU KNOW
Exorcists are encouraged not to engage or interact with the Devil. That’s not an option for Sister Ann, though, as her current assignment is extremely personal. As a young girl, she lost her mother to this demon. Indeed, at one point in the film, Ann states that she joined this programme for vengeance.
“The Devil’s Light is basically a story about child abuse, but the victim needs to hang on for the love of her mother so much that she needs for the mother to be possessed,” Stamm says. “Nothing worse could happen to Ann than to find out her mother wasn’t possessed, that she was just abusive. That would destroy the character.
“That’s what is so amazing,” he adds. “The emotional suffering is so big from this childhood trauma that you’d rather accept the existence of the Devil and demons, and the demon being after you, than an abusive mother.”
There’s arguably a particular moment where Sister Ann realises that she’s in way over her head. It begins with Ann and the priests descending down a long and winding staircase to visit a possessed little child, locked away in a chamber. Father Quinn (Colin Salmon) even says, “Let’s walk into the mouth of Hell, shall we?” He couldn’t be more on the nose considering that all Hell soon breaks loose.
“What was interesting with that scene is that usually the protagonist is alone and fragile and vulnerable, and walk into this environment that they don’t know,” explains Stamm. “In this case, it was the opposite. Ann walks into there with 25 other priests, between protective glass, in a very controlled environment, where this girl was really the fragile and vulnerable one. You
then have to crank up the atmosphere as much as possible, so you can pay off: ‘Oh my God. Now everything we thought were protective layers are peeled away and the girl is in control.’ You have that power shift.”
Horror fans know what to expect when it comes to possessed characters. Bodily contortions, foreign tongues, scaling walls and head-spinning are standard fare. Stamm strived to reinterpret those terrifying tropes by thinking about what lay behind such physicality.
“We tried to find a different meaning in our mythology,” Stamm notes. “Okay, the two pilots are now fighting for the steering wheel of this body. So if there’s a contortion and you really analysed this, you could tell who was in control. Is this movement in the arm the demon, or is it the victim trying to regain control?”
Sister Ann’s brush with evil may not be her last. The ending certainly lends itself to a sequel – which is exactly what Stamm intended from the start.
Nothing worse could happen to Ann than to find out her mother wasn’t possessed after all
“It would feel fake to go, ‘Here we have this woman who’s participated in the eternal struggle for the summer of her life and now she’s walking away and she’s victorious, and it’s over,’” he concludes. “No, one of the things about the eternal struggle is it never ends. Once you know the Devil, the Devil knows you. You have signed on to be a soldier in a war you can never escape.” BC
The Devil’s Light is in cinemas from 25 February.