Interview: RWBY's Kerry Shawcross and Lindsay Jonesby Rai Kelly,
The American animated series RWBY is in a strange middle ground when it comes to being considered an anime. It is a western show that is produced in Texas by Rooster Teeth, but has the art and atmosphere of a Japanese anime. Because of this, it has actually become quite popular in Japan, with its own Japanese dub release. The debate about whether RWBY is actually an anime is still ongoing in the community, but passionate fans of the series do not care about its “anime” status. This became obvious at the RWBY panel at Madison Square Garden at New York Comic Con on October 6. The fans were just as fervent as anime fans when it came to this show. The moment the panel started, the entire theater broke out with screams and applause, especially when the different staff members came on stage.
Present at the panel were Gray Haddock (head of animation at Rooster Teeth), Miles Luna (the voice of Jaune and the head writer on the show), Kerry Shawcross (current director of RWBY), Lindsay Jones (the voice of Ruby Rose), Kara Eberle (the voice of Weiss Schnee), Arryn Zech (the voice of Blake Belladona), and Barbara Dunkelman (the voice of Yang XIao Long). The crew started out by introducing themselves and making some announcements, such as how RWBY Volume 5 will have a theatrical screening on October 12 in the United States.
Speaking of which, the new trailer for Volume 5 (which premieres online on October 14) just launched on YouTube today. You can preview it below.
The synopsis of Volume 5 is as follows:
“Ruby, Weiss, Blake, and Yang are each entangled in journeys of their own, but they all share one destination: Haven Academy. Whether it's the promise of ancient relics, mystical maidens, or simply more power, it's clear that the stage for the next great battle for Remnant has been chosen. The question is, with so many players in this game, who's going to come out on top?”
After the initial introductions and announcements, the panel played a preview clip from the upcoming season. It started out with Ruby, Crow, and some other characters walking through a cave. At first the animation looked about the same as Season 4, but when they leave the cave, they enter a beautiful city with mountains and waterfalls, which can be seen in the trailer above. It was clear at that moment how much effort the creators and animators put into this new season. The crowd could not have been more excited.
After this first video, they showed a character short for the ever-popular (and badass) character Yang. The short includes Yang and her sister Ruby sparring for practice. However, Ruby accidentally gets knocked out and a Grimm suddenly appears. Yang has to fight the Grimm by herself… and it's incredible. The animation was fantastic. In the end, Yang destroyed the Grimm with her ferocious punches. It was good to see Yang so strong and confident after a certain mishap in Season 3.
After more discussion among with the staff, they called up some people from the audience to ask some Q&A. Anime-wise, Kerry Shawcross mentioned that he likes to listen to J-pop, and the soundtracks of Kill la Kill and Fate/stay night when he is writing. Also, when asked what his favorite super hero is, he enthusiastically replied, “Deku!” The entire theater shook with the audience's screams of agreement.
The next day after the panel, I was able to have a one-on-one interview with Kerry Shawcross and Lindsay Jones. I was curious about their interpretation of RWBY being an anime, as well as some of their other anime influences.
I know from your social media and the panel yesterday that both of you are fans of anime. What are your favorite anime personally?
Kerry: Growing up, like a lot of people in my age range, I watched Toonami, and Adult Swim when it first started showing anime. This was the big thing that got me into it. So, the original Fullmental Alchemist series was probably my first “anime.” I was watched Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z, but at the time, they were marketed a little more like cartoons versus anime, but Fullmetal was the first thing where I was like, “I am watching an anime right now!” In terms of favorites overall, my top three would be Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Samurai Champloo, and Gurren Lagann.
Lindsay: Fushigi Yugi, which is the first anime and manga that I was introduced to, besides Sailor Moon, Pokémon, etc. Yu-Gi-Oh! was my fifth grade go-to. But Toonami was the first time I was heavily introduced to anime, but I didn't understand what it was. I just said, “Oh wow, this looks different and I like it.” It was a cartoon, but it had adult elements in it.
Kerry: It's so weird because I watched the shows for so long without understanding the concept of anime since I was so young. When I think back about Dragon Ball Z or Pokémon, it takes me a second to think, “Oh, that's anime” because I grew up thinking, “Oh cool, more cartoons.” Now I have more context.
Lindsay: I have nephews that are 11, 6, and 2 years-old and they are watching Yōkai Watch. To them, it's the same thing. They think it's a cartoon and I go “No, no, no, it's an anime.” For their generation, that's like their Pokémon. I also try to push anime on them like Yū Yū Hakusho.
In terms of RWBY, are there any personal anime influences that go into the writing or the voice acting?
Lindsay: I have had respect for voice actors for a long time and since I am an anime fan, I thought it would be awesome to work with Funimation. I actually grew up ten minutes away from Funimation, but I had no idea how to break into that industry. I thought it would never happen. An influence for me would be other voice actors. Laura Bailey is a big one for me. She started doing voice acting when she was in high school. She did Lust for Fullmental Alchemist when she, like, 19.
Kerry: For the writing, when we were first starting out, Monty is the one that introduced me to Gurren Lagann. That was one of his favorite shows, for sure. The spirit of that show went into it in terms of structure and we were also looking at things like Fairy Tail. We also tried to look at influences outside of anime like Harry Potter and Avatar: The Last Airbender. That was a big thing for us as well. Outside of that, as we go on, we'll try any new show. We see if there is some element you can learn from it and apply that to the next season.
For Monty Oum, I know he was a big Final Fantasy fan and made Dead Fantasy. Did any of that go into RWBY?
Lindsay: You can see it. The animation for a lot of fights is inspired by video games. He worked in the video game industry.
Kerry: And he worked on Afro Samurai video game.
Lindsay: He was inspired by other video games that he loved like Final Fantasy. You can see that in a lot of the fighting, especially in Volume 1. He treats it almost like a dance. There is a lot of choreography and it also tells about the characters themselves. How they chose to fight everyone speaks to their personality.
Kerry: One of the first things Monty and I bonded over was Final Fantasy. A lot of people's favorite is Final Fantasy 7, but both of ours has always been Final Fantasy 8. Like Squall's swordplay. There is definitely a lot of Final Fantasy elements in there. When we were first designing all of the characters, one of the ways we tried to help balance teams and understand the characters… we gave them what their class or their job would be. For example, Ruby was the heavy, Yang was the brawler, Weiss was the white mage, and Blake was more like the rogue. We tried to figure out what their Final Fantasy character would be. It helped contextualize things for us and helped us figure out their choices and how they would react.
Linsday: It's a little twisted, though. Like, Ruby is the heavy, but her semblance is speed, which isn't common in a video game.
Kerry: Yeah, she is this tiny little girl, but she has this giant scythe. That's why it is like 7 feet tall and she is like is like 5 feet or something like that.
Where do you stand on RWBY being an anime?
Lindsay: Monty said it best. For us, RWBY is now its own entity. Very clearly, we are heavily influenced by anime, so it would be impossible for us not to have some kind of influence involved, but we're kind of doing something that no one has done before. Yes, there are American companies that have done something that looks similar and has been dubbed in Japanese, but it has never really been done.
Kerry: Personally, I don't care if there are people out there who want to classify it as an anime… We have actually had the honor to speak with some Japanese creators of anime, both over there or through some of our contacts, and to them it doesn't really matter. It's animation to them. If people out there want to use the word “anime” to classify only Japanese animation, that's fine. It doesn't offend us in any way. We are going to continue to do things that are very anime-like because that is a genre we all like a lot. “Eh” is kind of the answer. People can feel how they want to feel. But we are definitely skewing more toward the anime side. As long as they don't call it “Americanime” I can be happy. I hate that term.
Lindsay: I have a funny anecdote. Miles and Patrick Rodriguez, who does the concept art for our animation department, they were recently in a con in Germany called Conicchi. Barabara, me, and Michael went there the year before and there were Japanese guests there who were heavily involved in shows like Yu-Gi-Oh! and etc. One of the reps showed them RWBY and in Japanese, 5 guys went back and forth about whether or not it was an anime.
Were the concept art and character designs all anime influenced?
Kerry: Yeah, absolutely. Once again, we try to draw from anything. Monty was very into cosplay. One of the things that influenced him in general was having pockets. Having a place to put your cellphone. Because he would cosplay before and they would do costumes and be like, “Ugh, I can't have my phone now.” So in RWBY, we added belts and utility pouches and a place to hide a scythe. We try to take inspiration from everywhere, but we come at it through an anime approach.
So it was intentional?
Kerry: Definitely. One day, Monty came into the office and he walked up to me and said, “We should make an anime.” And I was like, “Cool! That sounds awesome!”
Lindsay: He said it to me too, and I was like, “How?”
Kerry: We set out to make something in this style.
When it was dubbed in Japanese, did it change the community's mind about RWBY being an anime?
Lindsay: I don't know if changed any opinions, but honestly that was used as an arsenal for people who had been very passionate and supportive of us. They would say, “This is the notoriety that they needed.”
Kerry: I feel like it has been happening in waves. The second it was announced that it was being dubbed in Japanese by a Japanese company, there were probably some people who were like, “Sure, I will call it an anime now.” And then it started getting theatrical releases over there and people were like, “Oh yeah, okay.” And now just recently, it is just wrapping up either this week or next week. The dub is actually airing on TV in Japan. So RWBY is now officially part of an anime season in Japan. I think that was another layer of “Oh, now we will call it an anime.” So I think we have been whittling away at some of the people, but I think there are some people out there who are never gonna call it an anime and that's fine.
Lindsay: I think for us, it was a moment of validation to have Japanese audiences who are familiar with these incredible anime series that have a legacy… for them to accept us and say “Yes, we want you over here in our native language.”
Kerry: That means a lot more to me than if people call us an anime.
Were you surprised Japan's reception of the series?
Kerry: Incredibly. We expected them to laugh at us.
Lindsay: We thought they would go, “That's cute.”
Kerry: Yeah, exactly. Not only Warner Brothers Japan, who has been super nice. Every change we get to see them is really nice. We will hear stories of them speaking with other creators over there and one of the anecdotes they told us was that there are lot of creators in Japan that kind of feel like the anime industry is turning into a churn. They put out like 30 to 40 shows a season. It's crazy. And I feel like a lot of them think that things are starting to feel like a machine. One of the most honoring things that we have been told is that they see what we are doing and it's rough around the edges and we're definitely learning as we go, but they see that we care. They can tell by watching RWBY that we care about the property and that we had fun working on it, which we did, and they said that they really admired that. It made them think about how they felt when they first started.
Lindsay: The best way I have heard it described is that people say it has a very indie feel to it, which, unfortunately, seems to have a negative connotation. People say it is underfunded. But indie animation really isn't a thing. Technically, we are still an independent company, so that does classify…
Kerry: We are in this weird middle ground. We are not professionals necessarily. We're not blockbusters, but we are also not a small channel trying to make it, so it a weird middle territory. People expect a lot out of us, but thankfully we have a little bit of wiggle room because we are still learning as we go.
Lindsay: People say that it is one of the endearing qualities about the show.
Kerry: Yeah, I heard that about the first couple of volumes. Particularly, people said the voice acting is very unique.
Lindsay: I ask someone about the voice acting because I am very self-conscious. They said it has a very indie feel. Sure, we are not going to compete with people like Mark Hamill who has been doing this for years and years, but we are still giving great performances and we are still speaking to the characters and the journey they are going on. People think it is something they connect closer with.
Kerry: For many of you, that was your first prominent voice acting role. I think it added a layer of genuineness to it. I feel like people who do a lot of voice acting fall into “Okay, I am playing the bad guy now or the good guy now. Or okay, I am doing the rogue hero now.” But Lindsay, you were able to bring your own uniqueness to it.
I found the dialogue in RWBY to be natural-sounding.
Lindsay: Glad to hear that.
Kerry: We are not stuck to mouth flaps or syllable counts or anything like that. We get in the booth and if Lindsay has a funny adlib, we can put it in the show. We are not gonna say, “That was great! But it was one syllable too many, so we can't use it.”
Lindsay: There is something to be said there. I have spoken with a lot of voice actors that have worked with anime specifically, like Vick. He said that he is so happy to be in a show where he doesn't need to worry about matching mouth flaps. He said, “Wow, you have the luxury to do your performance and do whatever you want with it. They'll animate to it.”
Kerry: We have been fortunate and have been able to work with more and more veteran voice actors and actresses. To us, we are like, “You are so great. Thank you for doing a couple lines for us.” And they are like, “No, it was really fun! I got to act.” That is something that isn't in there every day and they say it is really fun to work with us.
Have either of you watched the Japanese version?
Lindsay: Yes. Not all of it, but I have seen clips. To hear their read is great and as anime fans, these are A-list voice actors in Japan who have a huge repertoire behind them. To hear them play characters that we created is the most surreal experience.
Kerry: I have seen pretty much all of it. We approved the dialogue. They ask us questions like, “What did you mean by that?” They are not just doing a one-to-one translation. They are trying to get the meaning behind it. They take it very seriously.
Lindsay, was it weird seeing your character is someone else's voice?
Lindsay: Yes! Weird but exciting. As a fan of the show and anime, I was fangirling the whole time. We actually had one really cool experience where we had the Japanese voice actors record videos for us. They talked about their creative process and how interesting it was to receive our dialogue. The actress for Ruby was saying that it was difficult for her because Ruby is so high-pitched and high energy.
Kerry: And you speak so quickly as part of Ruby's character, so it is hard for them. They are not used to dubbing over there. She said it was very hard to watch you sometimes.
Lindsay, if you could do the voice for any dub or anime, what would you choose? Even if it is dubbed already.
Lindsay: I would love to do 90's anime. Bubblegum Crisis was big for me. Any Gundam series would be fantastic. For current running stuff, I know it sounds cliché, but my favorite anime is still Attack on Titan. I love all of the animation. It is so impressive. Something like that would be awesome.
Kerry: What's that Jaden Smith anime?
Lindsay: Ugh, that's a whole other interview. But, not even anime. We would like to do more work with Frederator. I would love to work on some Bee & Puppy Cat.
What is your favorite part about working on RWBY?
Lindsay: The connection we have with our fanbase and with each other is really something unique. We have this almost familial connection. We talk about the characters we brought to life and we hear fans talking about it and they are so passionate about their journeys. We really feel like we are talking to people who are related to us. RWBY isn't just this idea. It is so much a part of my life and now a part of other people's lives as well.
Kerry: I completely agree with all of that. That and over the years we have assembled a team and crew of people to work on the show. My favorite part is just going to the office every day and getting to work with a bunch of people who love the show and love animation and just want to keep making the show better in every scene, every shot. Everyone always wants to do their best.
Thanks to New York Comic-Con and the RWBY team for thier time.
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