Making Kin of the Stained Blade
Making a trip to the grocery store is an interesting challenge in 2020, never mind trying to craft a 10 minute anime-inspired cinematic. Let me share a bit of what was going on behind the scenes and how I set out to define the creative vision for this ambitious short.
It starts of course with goals, and we had our fair share. At the top of the list was delivering a deep and authentic Yasuo story for the millions of players around the world who love him (or love to hate him, both are equally passionate). His brother Yone was also planned to return from his magical grave during a large campaign set for the summer called Spirit Blossom. We quickly realized the defining moments of both brothers started and ended together, and Kin got billed as the campaign's marquee asset. Like all decent creative starts, we had our goals and constraints.
pages from my original brief
Breaking the Script
From there Scott (Roukema, central producer), Marianne (Krawczyk, central narrative lead) and I started to break the script down into beats, arcs, and put together some passes at story outlines that felt like they could satisfy all those goals and still push our characters forward. Dana Shaw soon came on board to start building out the story structure. We were shooting for a full 15 minutes as we started out in October of 2019, with a looming January green light milestone to hit before Mr. Riot would officially sign the check.
By the time we hit February, Paper Plane (our 3d partner in Beijing) had been sent home for over a month due to early COVID-19 closures and we had slashed our final animatic down to just over 9 minutes to account for our decrease in scope. Those were some dark days. We lost some beautiful moments that added depth to our characters and world. The "Episode One" feeling of our piece was gone and I had to redirect our expectations into making an "XL Promo" instead, knowing players would ask for more (that's not a bad thing, but man we were really hoping to deliver on that promise that this go around).
marking up early drafts of our script
Ultimately we settled on a flat arc for Yasuo (it would be counter to our goals to fundamentally change him), planned a show stopping entrance for Yone, and devised the character of the Monk to serve as both a physical manifestation of what Yasuo is dealing with emotionally, as well as a big chunk of monster meat that the brothers could carve up. I wanted to make sure we didn't over index on the emotional victory for Yasi, and paid fan service to traditionalists who just want to see the good guys fight.
Unfortunately we weren't able to deliver some of the early drafts where Yasuo was beaten up in a bar fight, tossed out a window, stole a kid's festival mask, and other little gems. It was important that we respect the samurai archetype for our audiences in the East. But there were some great moments in there. I tried to approach the story by building on common human emotions, while also being aware that shared experiences can vary pretty widely depending on where you're watching our film.
working with Dustin Wicke to block out our intro
In the last few years I've gotten pretty used to directing teams across oceans. In the case of Kin our selected partner Haoliners Animation, and their 3D partner Paper Plane, were located in Shanghai and Beijing and somehow managed to be hours behind us but a full day ahead. I won't lie it took me way too long to wrap my head around that.
As creative director, I take pride in how we visualized our characters and world. Over the years Riot has launched many different executions, in many different genres and styles, and yet after 10 years they still feel unique. And in this case, that was the name of the game. Every direction was to make sure we were delivering an authentic experience. From the cup Yasuo takes, to the roots that grow behind him in the streets of Weh'le, right down to the shade of purple we used to represent our demon. They all had a story behind them and in their own way help to add depth to Ionia and show how spirituality, magic, and violence have transformed this landscape.
directing early visual development into story and environment
Mixing Up Art Styles
Our story required the audience to jump pretty often between the past and the present. Both are crucial to understanding where Yasuo and Yone have been and setting up where we might take them but it's a lot to cover in under 10 minutes. As our story continued to compress I wanted to make sure anyone could stop the film, at any point, and know exactly where they were on the timeline.
Our animation partner, Haoliners, also has a portfolio full of 2D anime work and Li Haoling (who would be directed the production from their offices in Shanghai) was excited to build on Paper Plane's 3d capabilities. It was a risk to move away from what anime traditionalists would expect us to deliver, but I knew if we used our cycles to raise the quality bar of our 3d work the impact could be massive. I decided to treat our flashbacks visually more or less the way I think of them in the real world: suggestions of moments. Vivid colors and sounds, but with details that seem to fade. It's one of the conventions that traditional anime does well, so it was also a chance to both honor and break those expectations.
So far it seems like we achieved that goal. When audiences are snapped back into "reality" the change in art styles isn't a distraction or a disappointment, it's a logical and story-driven choice.
making small adjustments to bring Yasuo more in line with his iconic look
Yes, Brian Plays Them All (music)
Early on I established rules for our musical exploration and, like most initial directions, they changed pretty quickly. I wanted to hit Ionia's eastern roots with traditional melodies but surprise people with a more modern/irreverent infusion that could represent Yasuo being out of place in his own land. When we started to solidify our story, that just didn't feel right. This was a more intimate story. Dressing it up with hip hop or ironic jazz flute felt wrong. Eventually we found Brian D'Oliveira, the man of 10,000 instruments.
Working with Brian and Joe Schlamme from Riot Music Group, while collaborating with our Shanghai team to develop an original song based on Brian's score, we spent about a month fine tuning towards the end of production. For my part, I wanted to ensure we had a complete sound that hit at the right moments and gave us some variety over the 10 minute run time. Visuals set the stage and sound carried the emotion.
Production, Haoliners, and Paper Plane
Of course this entire production was riddled with challenges from the start. As the creative director on the piece I was asked to support the launch of a champion who was not yet fully developed. Our creative partners were somewhat unproven (but seemed hungry and had demonstrated strong production polish and animation chops on a previous campaign). Our initial timeline of 9 months to develop a 15 minute story was already daunting, and with global shutdowns happening and the world just starting to understand COVID-19, we lost weeks of production time after completing the full storyboard pass.
Luckily, we secured rock star voice talent and both Liam O'Brien and Noshirt Dalal instantly elevated the film. We had to settle for Zoom calls instead of working together in the booth, and while I coached them through our script the only regret I felt was that we had been forced to cut so much dialogue. I also played a metric shit ton of RDR2 so hearing the voice of Charles talk back to me was a giant geek highlight.
exploring Yone's arrival
The key to getting this across the line was not only resilience, but an insane effort put in by both our partner team in Shanghai as well as Haoliners Animation and Paper Plane. I took the approach of highly prioritizing my own creative feedback and direction. If it wasn't critical, it was optional. That was the only way we'd get out of animation with enough time left on the calendar to safely hit our quality targets overall.
That meant sacrificing story beats. Cutting characters. Removing entire sequences. It meant late changes to our time locked version that required Brian to re-record regularly. We even asked Haoliners to animate to our scratch recordings because we couldn't lock down James Sie (monk) until just a few weeks before launch.
For the last month, I focused my efforts entirely on creative restraint. I pushed on points where I thought the visuals or sound weren't communicating our story clearly enough, but forgave smaller notes. As I worked with Hexany (Los Angeles) on the final mix, it was a huge relief to finally see the full story come to life. It wasn't until final picture that we saw all of our shots animated, comped and finalized, some for the first time. Wheeeeeeeee!
process breakdowns for Haoliners Animation and Paper Plane (3D)
It's amazing how much creative pain instantly goes away when the work is finally in front of people. It wasn't until launch day that I could look at Kin objectively. The initial reaction has been great. People eye the monk suspiciously, yell at Yasuo for being a twerp, and laugh joyously as the camera sweeps in to reveal Yone (which is "anime as f---!"). Most of all they can just sit back and enjoy themselves for 10 minutes.
And this year, at this moment, that means more than anything.
To a killer team with an unwavering commitment to the story and experience through the hardest of times.
Scott Roukema Producer
Ashley Samour Producer
Marianne Krawczyk Narrative Lead
Dana Shaw Script Development
Dustin Wicke Story Artist
Joe Schlamme Riot Music Group
David Lyerly Riot Voices
Sean Balas Sound & Mix
Li Haoling Animation Director
Wenbin Fan Producer (Shanghai)
Sophie Xiao Producer (Shanghai)
Sarah Zhu Production Coordinator (Shanghai)
Brian D'Oliveira Original Score