Interview: Unified Pictures and Vampire Hunter D

by Zac Bertschy,

Vampire Hunter D: Resurrection was announced this past Tuesday ahead of its official unveiling at Anime Expo on Thursday, July 2nd. The show is a collaboration between the US-based Unified Pictures, the Japan-based Digital Frontier (responsible for CG animated films like Resident Evil: Damnation and CG assist work in Summer Wars and Wolf Children) the original author of the series, Hideyuki Kikuchi, and Yoshiaki Kawajiri, the director of Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust. We sat down with Unified Pictures’ Kurt Rauer and Scott McLean – as well as a creative talent well-known to anime fans, Taliesin Jaffe, to discuss exactly what it is they're going for with this new Vampire Hunter D series.

Zac Bertschy: So for starters: how did this projected get started? How did you decide "we're going to do an animated TV series for Vampire Hunter D?"

Kurt Rauer: That's a two-part question.

Scott McLean: Yeah, a two part question. I'll field the first one. It started with me. I got an email that said, "Hey, can we chat?" Got a phone call from Japan saying, "would you meet with some friends of mine?" [These were] some people we have business relations over there, and I said "sure." And that's literally all I had, "would you meet with some friends?" Came home one night, got on Skype, and I had some people tell me "we've acquired a bunch of IPs to existing and yet-to-be-published properties, and we'd like to find a way to expand into the US domestic market. Because, currently, what is done with a lot of Japanese entertainment does not penetrate well into the broader American market and we're looking for a US-based production company that we could partner with to do that." And so that brought this whole discussion about over the last several months of, well, "how do we form a true partnership so that it would truly serve the function… how do we take a wonderful IP and make it something that has broad appeal, both to the US domestic audience and the international market?" So that's a bit about how this started in really short form.

Kurt: And there were a few things that Digital Frontier had in their catalogue that they were interested in finding some way to exploit. So we had seen a number of different ideas, a number of different existing properties, and when VHD came up we both looked at each other and said, "Is it true that they have it? What rights do they have?" and "This is probably something that goes really well between East and West." So we got back to them and said, "can we have a conversation about Vampire Hunter D specifically?" That was really our first roundtable Skype with the guys at Digital Frontier. We found them to be really open and interested in new ideas. At the end of that conversation, we sort of went away and had a think about the best way to exploit this and the best way to present it to a US audience. So we came up with a short-form list of ideas to take back to them. A week later, [we] got back on the phone and presented the idea of using VHD as a springboard for animated feature television. And when I say that, it means to me, at least, high quality, one-hour dramatic series with a season-long arc. So the easiest thing is to say, think of it as an animated version of a Game of Thrones. We presented that to them and asked: does one hour feature animation work in Japan? And their answer was "no, but our audience does not has an issue at all with breaking up episodes." So you say great. So the novel way to approach the US market is to do it in this fashion, and I think we can get some traction. And so they said, "look, we believe that's where the best possible result could be is to have a US-led broadcast, so let's go with that idea." Which was encouraging and slightly surprising that they were willing to work together in such a complementary fashion, so that launched us on the way, actually, in my mind, was that conversation of them being open enough to say, "what we have in Japan could work in the US and your ideas on how to exploit it seem to be complementary with our own."

Zac: That's weird that they said hour-long animated programming doesn't work in Japan. In so far as I can tell it's never been attempted. There's one production that tried it and it was kind of a success, so I'm surprised they said, "No, it doesn't work here."

Kurt: I'll bet that's why. I bet it is the untried, and it could've been lost a little in translation that what they really meant was: it hasn't been proven in Japan.  However, look, if we could figure out… our goal, just to cut to the chase, is to do ten to twelve episode seasons, so think a ten-hour season with a season-long arc and then a show-based arc as well.

Zac: So Vampire Hunter D as a property has a history of being more popular in the West than it is in Japan. It's always performed here a little bit better than it has over there. The books sell here pretty well, the movies, you know, Bloodlust was produced for an American audience, it was produced in English. Did you look at that and think, "okay, this is a property with crossover potential, this is an obvious fit?" Is it more like you had the idea for the hour-long animated drama and Vampire Hunter D fit into that mold, or the idea for an hour-long animated show for adults came out of the opportunity to work with something Vampire Hunter D?

Kurt: It was the latter of the two.

Scott: Definitely. For me, I remember… for Kurt and I, when we started talking about this, when we realized this was one of the properties that we could start a project with them on... We both really liked the 1985 film. It was kind of an eye opener of "hey, this stuff exists" when we were younger. For me, when reading the novel for the first book, which was made into the first movie, you can see what they changed to make it fit in a one-and-a-half-hour feature format. As I compare the two and you look at what's being done with feature television right now, and seeing what other book properties have been adapted to both film and television, I think we can say that you can really use a lot more of the material in the book in the premium television format. With today's cable market you don't have to censor a lot, so you can put in the hard-hitting stuff that you really want to tackle as a part of your story, so you don't have to lose that coming out of the novels. You don't have to winnow it down to fit a really constrained time frame that tells your story, like you do with a film. And with the breadth of the novel series, we could explore a lot more in that series format. So I think that the series format really lends itself well to the kind of story we're wanting to tell, that we have with this property.

Zac: Right. And so, is the idea to basically just adapt the novels?

Kurt: No. The idea is to take the universe and to draw out of the universe, arcs. We have the ability to adapt novels and there may be storylines in there that are supportive of that, but I think that we go into it with a much more open mind. I think that what led us to believe that feature TV is the right way to go is the fact that the universe is so well described. George Martin's universe is fairly well put together. You could take and make feature TV out of Dungeons and Dragons or Dragonlance universe, you can do the same thing in the Star Wars universe, because it's so well thought out. Outlander is another version of that, where it's very well described. Because of the scope of the novels and the detail in the novels, that's what led us to believe it is an evergreen version. If we were to do a dramatic one-hour and it isn't purely going to be trying to adapt a novel. I think that they've had a difficult time--I think Bloodlust was successful, but somewhat compromised, because they were trying to fit so much into a two-hour time frame.

Zac: Yeah, you're right, and I'm actually relieved to hear you say that. To me that's a big "oh, great," because frankly those novels, people read them and everything, but what you're talking about, that's much more exciting. It's "we're going to take this universe and these characters and we're going to create compelling television out of that," instead of slavishly adapting these novels that have been around for a long time. I think that's refreshing and I think fans will actually respond to that.

Zac: So, Taliesin, you gotta tell us your experience with the franchise, you're an old school anime fan. Were you always into Vampire Hunter D? I can't imagine you weren't.

Taliesin Jaffe: I had never heard of Vampire Hunter D until about ten minutes ago.

All: <laughs>

Taliesin: I came up with Streamline Pictures kids and I was a goth kid, so I was a Vampire Hunter D fan from back in the original release. I even have, somewhere in my house I've gotta find it, a beautiful Amano sketch that he made for me of Vampire Hunter D back when he did his first gallery showing in Los Angeles--god only knows how long ago--during the 1001 Nights show. It was so long ago.

Kurt: Tim, one of our partners, did animation for Blur in 1001 Nights.

Taliesin: And it was so beautiful, it such a striking piece.

Kurt: Is it Resonate or Blur? I think it was Blur he did some animation for.

Taliesin: Just some amazing color in that show. I was actually part of a team that originally thought of doing something similar to this with Bloodlust way back in the day. I was part of the team trying to entice Universal Pictures into putting money into the production, which met the fate that a lot of these ideas back in the 1990s and early 2000s met. So I'm not only a fan of Vampire Hunter D, I've been a fan of the idea that this is yet another iconic anime property that deserves to become an international icon. And I'm so excited, it was at Anime LA, I believe...

Scott: Yeah.

Taliesin: Where Scott approached me and was like, "hey, we'd love to take a meeting," and they brought me in saying, "do you know Vampire Hunter D?" And I was like, "well, there goes the next year of my life; funny you should say that, because I've done this before…" And that was so exciting and I'm a huge fan.

Kurt: Well, I think all of us… for me, and Scott I think has a similar story… Well, more specifically, for me it was the first time back in the early 80s that I realized that animation happened in other places on planet Earth. It wasn't just Disney/Warner's thing. It was sort of eye opening, being in early high school and seeing this. We were turned on to it very early and then started seeking it out. So, the first theatrical run of Akira that happened in Northern California, we went to go see because of what we had seen with the original D. When we saw it come back across our desks here, [we] said, "that's the right thing to do, it's the right timing, we believe we're working with the right group of people, we have the ability to do this, and it's going to be a blast to make it happen." So it is one of those things that, through a series of happenstantial experiences, led us all into the same place. And it's been pretty consistent with Unified Pictures as a whole. We just meet wonderful, wonderful people and it's usually right at the optimum time.

Zac: Obviously you're in maybe pre-pre-pre-production, wherever you're at, before this thing really takes off. Are you in the design stage right now? Are you looking at concept art? Is that what's happening right now?

Kurt: We're getting to talk about visual development and look and feel. Part of our challenge, I believe, is going to be finding the right note between East and Western-style animation. So, how much can we take from a Japanese style and how much is acceptable to a broader US audience? Our goal isn't to make this for the niche audience. We know that will be successful in that degree, but it will be very difficult to break out. So how can we still maintain the pure essence of the original art and design, yet adapt it enough so that it's palatable for a casual US viewer? And when I say "casual," it would be somebody that has a familiarity with Japanese-style animation, but may not be a lover of, or may not be a hardened fan. That's the group where we believe there are many, many viewers; somebody that's interested in a good story, well told, that has the idea that animation can be dramatic, it doesn't just have to be for kids and it doesn't just have to be humorous. That's where I think we live and die. So because of that we have to put as much effort into creating a visual language that executes that statement. It will be very evolutionary. This will be very telling, a cooperative production, both East and West. So, I think for a fan it will be riveting to see whether or not it's successful or just turns into a train wreck.

All: <laugh>

Kurt: Because it could be, all the nightmare scenarios of a co-production can exist here when you have somebody with a particular taste or flavor on one side of the production and somebody with the opposite taste or flavor… so to that end, we're trying to hurdle that now by putting enough reference back and forth--everything from selective images from Bloodlust, to backgrounds from Bambi with the old-school multiplane and natural media look and feel--to say, "here's some interesting things that were done with Bloodlust, some things that were done by Digital Frontier on other productions. Where do we have our strength and where do we have a weakness?

Zac: If I'm parsing you correctly here, it sounds like maybe you feel like a casual audience, is going to look at something… they know what anime is, you don't want this to look like anime so much because maybe a more casual audience looks at that and says, "Oh that's anime, I'm not into that," and they just shut off?

Kurt: I think you've hit the problem that anime has in general in the United States is that people are able to put that limited animation into a box. They say, "it's fun every once in a while but that's not for me full time."

Zac: Right.

Kurt: It's taking that person and not allowing that person to make that decision that rashly. If we can do that quickly, and I think a picture does that, right? A visual does that. It engages somebody. If we can do that quickly, then I think we'll be successful.

Zac: Do you have any analogues? Do you have any things you can compare it to in terms of what you're sort of going for with the look?

Kurt: Nothing that, if it were read back, would make a lot of sense. What we'll do over the next month is we're going to try to get a folder of images that have different components that are either more or less successful. Digital Frontier is doing the same. With that, we'll be able to get, I think, to a place where we have consensus. What we're not going to be doing is subsurface scattered, true 3D, make it look like Beowulf or Mars Needs Moms or some version of that. That's not ever going to be this show.

Zac: Yeah that makes sense. I think one of the biggest challenges is: when you say Vampire Hunter D, the audience that is familiar with it thinks of the Amano designs. Which, to this day, have always been adapted as… it's an old-looking guy, which has always been weird to me because in the books D is described as this amazingly handsome man, but in the anime he's kind of an old guy in a floppy hat and I feel like maybe the audience you're looking for isn't going to go, "oh, sexy!" and start watching it. That seems like a huge challenge, because those Amano designs are iconic, but in a sense you kind of have to get away from them, right?

Kurt: It's interesting, because I think a Western viewer may have a harder time finding an animated character attractive.

Zac: I don't know about that. <laughs>

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