Arcana came on the scene in 2004, first making incredible comic books, and then branching out into the realm of animation with Pixies and Clockwork Girl. Fandominions was able to take a look at their latest animated feature, Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom (now available), as well as chat a bit with Arcana’s founder and CEO, Sean Patrick O’Reilly.
Venture down the rabbit hole with us as we pick his brain about the industry and his inspirations:
Arcana has been making comic books since 2004. What spurred the leap from comics into Animation? It seems like a bold move with so many large studios already on the scene.
I do feel the world has changed since Arcana first opened in 2004. There were no digital comics, I would suggest the big publishers weren’t as aggressive in the marketplace and Blockbuster was a viable business model. We’ve published over 300 graphic novels on which we own all rights and it’s been part of our business plan since starting. Publishing ‘new books’ and characters has never been easy, but spending our time and money into these new stories gave us so much more opportunity creatively and, finally, business wise. We avoided doing “licensed comics” for this very reason. Opening the animation has allowed us to tell this stories to a much wider audience, a different kind of audience. Since opening the animation studio, we now have 30 full time employees and some have been employed since 2010 when we started production on The Clockwork Girl. For an animation company we’re fairly small, but for a comic book company it’s a lot of employees. Arcana has become a true studio model where we start by publishing the comic, developing and producing the story for animation and we even end up doing the sales. This studio model allows us to release movies on a schedule that works for us and it’s actually very similar to publishing comics. Similar to competing against Marvel and DC in print, there is an industry in animation competing against Disney and Dreamworks in animation.
Last October, you released the animated film Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom (with a sequel, Undersea Kingdom, releasing this Fall). I’ve read a little HP Lovecraft, and that doesn’t seem to be a topic aimed at children. Describe the thought process in choosing that comic series as the basis for this movie and gearing it to a younger audience.
I love The Call of Cthulu and At the Mountains of Madness. They’re great, cosmic horror stories. Bruce Brown pitched me the idea as “HP Lovecraft for kids” back in 2007 and we started to publish the comic almost immediately. With the Howard Lovecraft books and the adaptations, we can introduce our viewers with a new entry point into HP Lovecraft. Similar with Harry Potter, the Howard Lovecraft trilogy quickly evolves from a ‘kid friendly’ first movie to an epic and horrific conclusion. I think people will be pleasantly surprised at Howard Lovecraft & the Undersea Kingdom. Mark Hamill’s character, Dr. Henry Armitage, takes Howard much further into the dark madness that is HP Lovecraft.
The art style of the comics is markedly different than the film. What was the thinking behind that change?
Gary Yuen is our art director and senior modeler. He’s one of the employees that has been with Arcana since 2010 and he’s incredible. He read the graphic novel series and did ‘his version’ of Howard Lovecraft. In animation everything needs to be done fairly linearly, with modeling coming after concepts and before layout (otherwise there’s nothing to animate). During production on Pixies, Gary did 3-5 ‘test models’ to see what project would be next. Aqualung, Kade, The Tin Man from a Steam Engines of Oz and Howard Lovecraft were modeled. I immediately fell in love with Howard and we begin to create more and more assets for a possible movie. Step by step the models were built and by the time our animators finished Pixies, they were able roll right onto Gary’s models for Howard Lovecraft & the Frozen Kingdom. Howard Lovecraft & the Undersea Kingdom, Panda vs Aliens, Steam Engines of Oz and Howard Lovecraft & the Kingdom of Madness are now all in production.
You’ve written both comic scripts and movie scripts. How challenging was the transition from comics to film, regarding the writing?
Writing comic scripts and writing screenplays have more in common than you might think! They’re both visual mediums, they both describe the action, and supply the dialogue. It was a surprisingly easy transition. I have a lot of ideas and honestly the most challenging part of the process for me is the time required. Between running a publishing company, an animation studio, producing/directing four movies right now, pitching other projects and spending time with my amazing wife and four kids, I have a full plate. And a great editor I’ve had is Casey Jones who has been a fantastic part of this process!
What have been the main challenges as a newer animation studio?
Getting the right staff. I’m always on the ‘look out’ for a position that I think will improve us. Recently, as an example, David Jiang came on board as our ‘inhouse’ rigger. We outsourced all rigging on Pixies but now we are able to rig our characters inhouse and it’s made an incredible difference. Promoting Kevin Thorpe (animation lead) and Martin Bastian (CG supervisor) on Howard Lovecraft & the Undersea Kingdom improved our quality and effectiveness, as well as new employees Kaushik Swain (Avengers: Age of Ultron, Terminator Genisys, Jurassic World) and Chris Trinh, our superstar editor, helped to push the bar higher. Getting software licenses has been very expensive, along with the computers, render farm, upgrading our Ethernet, electrical, then we had to upgrade the air conditioning (from all the CPU’s heat), network switches and routers for optimizing rendering speeds, then there’s implementing software like Studio Library, Shave & Haircut and learning about the new Arnold shaders which are fantastic. There’s so much, but staffing and equipment is the short answer.
You’ve worked with great actors like Christopher Plummer, Ron Perlman, and now Mark Hamill. What is the process like in terms of working with voice actors? How do you choose who to hire? Do they audition for you? Do you write certain characters with certain actors in mind?
You always ‘hear stories’ about prima donna actors and I am truly thankful to say that I have never had that experience. It’s always hard to know the ‘impact’ I’ve had on the actors as they are in such demand, but it’s an incredible feeling when Christopher Plummer sends an email just to say he’s thinking of me. I geeked out with Mark Hamill talking about Batman for an hour, Ron Perlman showed me a project he was producing and another great connection was Bill Paxton. I have only been to the Entertainment Weekly party at SDCC once and it was thanks to him. He put me on the guest list and when I got to the front of the line, they wouldn’t let me in. They said unless Bill Paxton himself held my hand and brought me into the party, I wasn’t going in (again, even though I was on the list). I texted Bill and sure enough, he grabs me and says “c’mon Sean”. I usually start casting with a ‘dreamcast’ and to be honest, I’ve only been told ‘no’ by one actor for a single role (I won’t say who). I’ve been very fortunate to get who we’ve gone after and no, they don’t have to audition. I know all of their work so I’ve done our homework in advance.
With Kade being the first comic you published, I would imagine you have a soft spot for the character. Any plans to bring him to life in animation?
So, exclusive premiere here, this is the model that Gary modeled during ‘down time’ in Pixies. Yes, I do want to do a feature film of Kade and I’ve been waiting as I’ve grown as a producer. For now, I want to do an Intrinsic animated feature film (they were in the 13 x 22m Kagagi TV series), and I want to do an ultra realistic Kade animated short (similar to an Assassin’s Creed trailer).
Here is ‘classic Kade’ right from the comic:
Kade is an ageless demon hunter and here’s him in modern day, hiding under a hoodie:
And here he is ‘ready for the hunt’;
Those look great!!
What comics and movies would you say really got under your skin as a child? Is there a scene or series that you can recall impacting you growing up?
Mutant Massacre and there was nothing quite like it for me as it felt so different, gritty and I literally was ‘fearful’ of what could happen. Others include the original Transformers limited series, Secret Wars, The Marvel Universe Handbook and the Brood invasion (during X-Men 230’s) are the books and series that affected me growing up. My favorite story to date is still Kingdom Comes.
What advice do you have for other writers and artists out there looking to do this for themselves?
Learn the formatting. If you want to learn to write comics, find a book on how to write comics. I personally recommend Dennis O’Neil’s book. Get a portfolio together– contract some artists, get finished pages together, and get to a convention. You never know what opportunities you can find out there.
What’s on your heart in terms of where you go from here? If you were offered the chance to produce a project and money was no object, what would that look like?
It would probably be Kade probably. Or a live action version of the Howard Lovecraft series (with a huge budget). And I’m just starting to work on a huge animated feature I’m hoping I can get setup for a 2019 release.
With Howard Lovecraft and the Undersea Kingdom coming out this fall, give us your 30-second elevator pitch?
Howard’s grown up a lot since the last time we saw him, but his enemies have only gotten stronger. This time he’s not the only one in danger. The forces of darkness are after his whole family, now. Howard is going to have to put everything on the line to save himself, his parents, even his house. And he’s going to have to do it alone, once Spot is taken prisoner! The tone is much darker and I think there’s a chance this could be a PG-13 rating.
Any other exciting ideas or announcements you’d like to share?
Gene Simmons’ comic book series Zipper and Dominatrix are in production with all new issues, there’s a huge press release coming out about Stan Lee’s The Unknowns and we will be announcing The Steam Engines of Oz officially in production with an incredible cast, some already recorded.
Check back tomorrow for our review of Howard Lovecraft and the Frozen Kingdom!