In November '06, I spoke to Avi Melman, the CEO of CyberGraphix and the producer of werewolf/action animated series Guardians of Luna. At the time, Guardians of Luna looked like one of the bright spots of the horizon for genre fans who follow animated projects. Since then, Guardians of Luna has evolved, and remained a series that looks like it is worth anticipating. Avi Melman has agreed share an update.
Scott Green: Could you please start by introducing your role in the development of Guardians of Luna? Also, who are the other creators planning and writing this animated production? Avi Melman: I am the Creator and Executive Producer of Guardians of Luna. Michael Reaves (Batman: The Animated Series, Gargoyles) co-developed the series, and is our story editor. He and I are at present the writing team on the project. SG: We last spoke about Guardians of Luna in November, 2006. Can you give the AICN readers an overview of Guardians of Luna's premise as it now stands? How has the series evolved since the last time we spoke? AM: The overall core premise of the series has remained largely unchanged: A group of unlikely heroes with the ability to change into powerful creatures are charged with protecting an ancestral power source from a ruthless mogul. Beneath the surface, there have been several changes, most of which I can only touch upon here. We've amped up the humor component, but at the same time made the action and tension just a bit darker than it was before. At most right now, I can say not to expect everyone in the show, either good nor evil, to be exactly what they seem to be on the surface. SG: In our previous discussion, an aspect of the series that you stressed was that, especially in terms of their outlook, the characters were normal people. For example, the protagonist was employed as a botanist, and that professional perspective shaped the series. Presumably, the story would be shaped differently if the character was younger, without a solidified direction to their life. With an adolescent lead, you generally have a hero's journey, where someone who thought that they were a normal person discovers that they are special. Then, they grow into that role. How did the re-positioning of the principal character carry through to Guardian of Luna's story structure? How did you ensure that Guardians of Luna remained distinctive, and not just another teenage hero quest? AM: In making Carson a younger character, we had to compare the younger and older versions to see what we would keep and what we had to change. Of course, Carson's very first encounter with his ancestors and the discovery of his abilities drops him into the 'hero's journey' scenario, and that has remained the same with both versions. Other aspects of Carson's character have definitely been adjusted for the age change. For example, the older Carson is a full-fledged botanist, while the younger Carson is, when we first meet him, trying to focus on writing a school paper on the subject. He still has the 'brains over claws' mentality, but with him being younger, he can be just a bit edgier, and offer us more breathing room when he makes mistakes growing into his role as leader. He's not going to be outright nebbish, but he might need to do a bit more growing up, rather than be ready for the part right out of the gate.
SG: What did this change mean for the series' tone? Comedy seems to often go hand and hand with younger heroes. What role will comedic elements take in Guardians of Luna? AM: We had a lot to weigh in changing the ages of the cast. There's been a recent demand to see more comedy mixed with the action, and we needed to take into consideration that we wanted the characters to be relatable across a broader demographic. We wanted the age spectrum for viewership to be wider as well. When we changed the art style, we actually made the show look more sophisticated, and so it was a natural balance to drop the age of the characters. But there will be a lot of humor tossed about within the group of heroes as they learn to work together (or not) as a team. Jake, now by far the youngest character at 12, is a big fan of a specific TV show, and tosses about a lot of fanboy attitude as he tries to relate 'real life' (if we could break the fourth wall, I'm sure we'd load the show up with jokes about how viewers are watching a show about a kid who watches shows) to all the television shows he adores. Of course, this simply doesn't resonate with some characters, so there'll be a nice split in the group between those reluctant to work together, and those who think its great to kick butt! (and that would, for the most part, be Jake) SG: Looking at Michael Reaves' previous works, there were series where comedy was integrated into the main storytelling, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or The Real Ghost Busters. Alternatively, there were series where it was more compartmentalized, like Batman or Gargoyles. The distinction seemed to be in whether the narrative was finding humor in any situation or creating specific situations in which humor would be appropriate. Do you plan on going either of these routes in Guardians of Luna, or do you plan on handling it in a different manner? AM: I'd like to think of Guardians of Luna as its own beast (no pun intended!) in terms of how comedy is handled. I see a lot of the Batman style of storytelling involved, but at the same time, the humor is going to bleed through, often in spite of the situation. We're looking at sarcasm, humorous asides, more situational than slapstick. The story at its heart is dark and serious, so having the humor pervade the action-driven night-time scenarios will take a little finesse, to make sure it doesn't pull the viewer out of the action. But with Michael at the helm, I think its going to be a perfect mix. SG: Looking at animated programming on North American TV through the lens of localized anime, there seems to be an industry pressure to over pack the density of jokes. In the most extreme examples, almost every statement in the dialog leads to a punch line. Have you had to guard against the tendency to over extend the humor or make dialog intrusively punchy? AM:The nice thing about working on a story with so much character depth and so many facets is that the characters and situations themselves often police the humor. Most of the characters take the situations far more seriously than Jake, for example, and so, most of the time Jake's silly comments will be reigned in. However, there will be some situations which scream for humor, and those are the right areas to cut loose without worrying about diminishing the drama. We're big on action, so if a scene commands a certain level of seriousness or severity, we're going to see that shine through. SG: Some writers of North American animated series have commented that network content directives have indicated a reluctance to put faith in complex animated series. Guardians of Luna looks like it depends on a thorough internal mythology. Have you felt pressure to simplify Guardians of Luna? Or, have you had to balance the mythology with efforts to make the series' instantly comprehendible? AM: One of the nice things about going the anime route is that most anime series have deep complexities and plenty of backstory, and it has opened a lot of doors in terms of giving shows more story levels. We can explain more of the world and not be reigned in. Of course, it could be perceived as an American series because of the writing, in which case we will still receive a higher level of network scrutiny...but we hope that all-in-all its going to be just the right amount of depth. SG: The team working on Guardians of Luna, especially Michael Reaves, have had a history of producing shows whose appeal crosses over to older audiences. With a younger hero, and presumably more of a coming-of-age focus to Guardians of Luna, what elements in the series' new direction will capture the attention of older viewers? AM: Even though the characters are slightly younger, and their roles a bit more about maturing, there's still a sophisticated style of writing involved which we hope older viewers will appreciate. We're sticking more or less with our original world design, so a lot of classic concepts, as well as some new ones, will be presented, and we are doing it in a way that will keep viewers guessing what happens next. Along with the story, the anime style elevates the show far beyond the original design work. SG: What changes were made to the look and visual tone of the series to adapt the animation to Guardians of Luna's new direction? AM: As of right now, the biggest change is the move to the more detailed anime designs. In doing so, it has encouraged us to change our overall color palettes and rethink the 'mood' carried by the visual elements. Most of the show still takes place at night, so our colors are still a bit muted, but we've added much more action during the day. Its a chance to view the characters in their everyday lives, and play up some of the day-to-day challenges they face. We haven't really decided if we're going to utilize much of the Japanese 'visual humor' (the whole big-head 'super deformed' look)...because I think that, with a style this detailed, it may backfire. There are definitely moments in the story that could benefit from those sorts of reaction shots, though. SG: Was this a bidirectional process? Did any of the changes to the aesthetic drive or inspire changes to the plot? For example, in the previous interview you mentioned that the series was set in a future-industrial city with a very specific look. The series doesn't quite look like it is going for that effect now. AM: Actually, it was partially time constraint with the new promo production which caused the change in the set design. However, that in and of itself makes it exactly what you said above: A bidirectional process. The anime style was a departure from the original style, and we did use the opportunity to step back and view the series as anime, instead of as a US production. In that respect, the treatments we've written were affected quite a bit by the new style. One example I can provide is the one you mentioned; while we still intend the city to be industrial-futuristic, it is bound more to realistic architecture than before. More than likely the result will be something like New York or Tokyo driven by an archaic dynamo of gears, belts and pistons. SG: Were any of these changes driven by access to animation technologies? For example, the inclusion of modeled 3d cg objects? AM: Because we are still primarily working with 2D characters, technology has not really been a factor in plot changes. We do anticipate the inclusion of 3D objects in the series, such as vehicles, robots, and other mechanical props, but these elements would be the same even in a 2D scenario. SG: Were there any specific series or trends that influenced the new look and animation style of Guardians of Luna? Conversely, what do you find to be especially distinctive in the series' visual elements? AM: It was very difficult to figure out the style for Guardians of Luna. Several years ago, you could say 'This show is anime style!' and there would be a simplified conglomeration of true anime elements which would qualify the statement. The diversification of the style through the promotion of the artist has given us an amazing wealth of individual styles within anime that, even though it has always been there, is now distinct in the minds of viewers and fans. For example, do I call the art style similar to that of 'Black Lagoon' or 'Death Note'? They are two distinct styles within the realistic vein of anime design. We had originally thought something skewing younger, like a Naruto-esque style would work best, but in the end, we went a bit more dark and realistic. I would definitely say the art style was influenced by 'Black Lagoon', which makes sense, since our character designer was the animation director for that series. SG: Now that you've been working with the anime look, what do you find to be its strengths versus other models and styles? AM: I really love the level of detail in anime character design. What continues to be simplified for the American style of animation is contradicted by the Japanese level of complexity. In our case, the team has put an insane amount of detail into the characters' eyes, to the point where you can see the pigmentation in close-up shots, and watch it move as the pupil dilates and contracts. I should probably state for the record that I have no intention of putting down other styles of animation, as I was born and raised on classic American animation, and I love it as well. If it weren't for American animation, I wouldn't be where I am today. But I applaud the Japanese animators and artists for how much detail they can squeeze into a drawing. Especially on such tight production schedules. SG: What is the process for coordinating Guardians of Luna's production between the North American and Japanese staffs? Are translated scripts being directly sent to the Japanese animators? Where is the series being storyboarded? AM: We're still hammering out the kinks, but scripts written in North America are being shipped to Japan for translation. After that, a Japanese writer alters some of the script-work to make it conform better to the anime aesthetic, moreso for the animation director than for any change in story. And at this point, in order to keep the series looking authentic, all of the pre-production work, including storyboards, will be handled by our Tokyo-based staff. SG: Will Guardians of Luna's dialog be recorded before the animation, as is typically done in North American productions, or afterward, as is typically done in Japanese productions? AM: Typically we would record prior to the animation, as you noted. However, if we did that in an anime production scenario, extra mouth positions would have to be created, driving up sheet count, and therefore production time and budget. In keeping with the anime production method, we intend to record our dialogue after animation is completed. The only drawback is that it may appear like an anime dub, but we've got a great cast on board to handle the acting. SG: Were there any changes to the voice cast as a result of tuning Guardian of Luna? Are there any unique challenges in the voice work as a result of these changes or, more generally, due to Guardians of Luna's unique production approach? AM: The voice cast is primarily the same at this time, and most of them have extensive experience in ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement), so dubbing is not an issue for them. We will also be dubbing in Japanese at the same time, as we are anticipating release in Japan. SG: Is it correct to assume that Guardians of Luna was primarily envisioned as a television series? If so, have there been any discussions of releasing the series or a pilot direct to DVD or through a non-traditional distribution channel, such as digitally? AM: Guardians of Luna was originally a television series, and we are still aiming for that. However, in looking for fast methods of release, we are planning to compile the first four episodes into a series pilot, which would be aired as a TV special, and probably released to DVD. We have our sights on other avenues as well, such as digital delivery, but there is still a lot of research going into that option, and we might leave it up to a distributor to handle that route. SG: There were plans to release a manga version of Guardians of Luna with DrMaster? Are those still proceeding along with the development of the animated series? If so, are there any updates? AM: The manga is still planned. It has been a long search to find the right manga artist, and again, we are going to Japan for that. We are working on a series 'prequel' chapter, which we plan to premiere online with a promo for the anime. Their development has been slow due to some production snags, but we are hopeful to launch the website in early 08. The manga should begin production after that, with volumes expected to release in the latter half of the year. SG: Do you have plans to expand Guardians of Luna's web presence? There was a brief production blog on Live Journal that mentioned launching a site. Are there plans for reviving the blog and starting up the site? AM: As mentioned above, the site is still planned, and we hope to provide a good deal of goodies there to make it worthwhile, and drum up a lot of fan interest. The blog has seen a good deal of activity recently, as we released a first screenshot there last week. SG: Like most projects in the entertainment industry, this one has taken years to realize. What inspires you to stay with Guardians of Luna? AM: All of the great people who are contributing their talents to Guardians of Luna really inspire me to stay with it. Its a great property with a lot of potential, and I know that fans will be pleased with the end results as much as we will be. I also want to say right now that all the fans who have supported the series during development and are eagerly awaiting its release are a real driving force for us. Ultimately, all of us are inspired to stay with it because of them...we want to make fans happy! SG: Do you have any other closing thoughts or Cybergraphix Animation projects you'd like to mention? AM: We're looking forward to a really great 2008, not only with Guardians of Luna, but with some of our other shows as well. Primarily, however, we're pushing to have a plethora of great news for the show. Just to give you all a teaser, we are hammering out details with a video game developer to produce Guardians of Luna games for the Nintendo DS and Wii platforms. Exciting stuff!