Adventurers Vito and Wilhelm, the heroes of ‘The Reward’
For the very first edition of our Schlock Talks – a monthly series of interviews – we catch up with Mikkel Mainz, Kenneth Ladekjær and Bo Juhl from Sun Creature Studio – the Danish alumni of The Animation Workshop and the force behind the lovable, and now viral, animated short – The Reward. The team have decided to expand their fantastical ‘bromance road trip’ into a fully-fledged series, calling on the help of their new fans through a Kickstarter campaign. In line with the roots of the charming short film, they reveal that friendship and wanderlust are essential ingredients to the project, even if the ‘wandering’ is done by means of a twenty-sided die and a certain pencil-and-paper game…
As JRR Tolkien puts it, ‘not all who wander are lost’. Has the (initially perhaps unexpected) success of The Reward made you apprehensive about continuing the series? Do you feel any added pressure now that thousands of fans (The Reward has 770,000 views on Vimeo and counting) will be watching your every move?
It doesn’t scare us that The Reward has become so popular. It actually just emphasised our desire to expand it into a series. Because this means that there are more people like us out there, who don’t necessarily want to be limited in what they can expect on the screen. The series will be about other adventurers. Of course Vito and Wilhelm will be there as well, but their main quest has already come to an end – now they are just wandering the lands like Elminster from Forgotten Realms or level 20+ heroes, inspiring the new generation. The different stories are leading up to a greater story where the different characters will meet, team up, become enemies, and all the rest of it. But an important theme for the story is travel – which distinguishes it from other stories in the genre because, instead of having our heroes go head-to-head against some big evil force, there’s more of a ‘road trip’ feel to it. And all the characters will be affected and changed by the journey. Actually, we picture them as characters in roleplaying games, being driven by ‘real-life’ players who will invariably mix in elements of their own personality into their chosen avatars, no matter how stereotypical they initially may have been. We believe that this will be a key ingredient of the series: creating a believable fantasy world that will suck our audience in but that, because of its human touch, doesn’t take itself too seriously either.
The Reward reminds us of late evenings spent on Dungeons and Dragons, all fiddling with dice and character sheets. Do Vito and Wilhelm actually represent your role playing personas?
We have actually played DnD for a long time now. Mikkel started when he was 12 and introduced it to the rest of the group when we all met at the Animation Workshop. Vito and Wilhelm are more like a cartoony version of the two of us (Mikkel Mainz and Kenneth Ladekjer).
Our initial aim was to have two very contrasting characters… but with time, our team realised that really, these two handsome men were in fact none other than the two of us (and let’s face it, any good friendship is built on a serious bromance!) But the fact is that you put a little bit of yourself in all the characters you create – be they DnD characters, comic book characters, animation characters… and this actually reflects in a Dungeons and Dragons game we’re all playing right now, with Mikkel being the Dungeon Master (he worked with DnD before entering animation).
We have a Bard (Kenneth) who is very sympathetic but a bit rushed when it comes to making decisions. He was turned into a wererat and for a long time, the whole group was trying to get the ‘Good’ gnome back on their side. He was also the one tempting the whole group to enter the fog that would bring them all into Ravenloft – the long-forgotten region of Strath Von Zarovich. We have a Cleric (Bo) who praises Helm, the god of protection… he has so much armour that nobody would ever manage to hit him. But at the same time, he’s not all that intelligent and gets easily confused… plus he drinks a bit too much, considering what he’s supposed to stand for.
All in all, when playing games you are playing fantasy characters, but with the mind set of a modern group of friends. This kind of feeling was what we wanted to achieve with the characters in The Reward. All of the characters are strong, but also a bit naive.
What other influences can you count as inspiration behind the short?
We got inspired a lot by Japanese films such as Mind game, FLCL, Lascars, DnD (of course), Adventure Time and Avatar – The Last Airbender. We started the whole idea of teaming up as directors (Mikkel and Kenneth) when we created the animation jams, which you can now view on our Kickstarter site. It is an exercise we created during 3D periods to keep our 2D animations alive. Then we would pick random encounters and heroes from DnD and each animate against each other, playing a role. For example, a clay golem against a monk lady, a Pokemon battle, a wizard duel, and so on. This exercise helped us to evolve and challenge each other’s skills while having fun with the media.
Then one day, at a café, The Reward was born.
The Reward deals with friendship, as well as a love for adventure. Are you, as a team, as close to each other as your characters are?
We were a team consisting of nine persons. It was a really fun process to make The Reward and we all loved the project. Of course it creates some suspense when you are working with a tight deadline, so at times we had really long discussions about what could be changed or fixed, and so on. We believe that a happy team also makes the best work. We (Mikkel and Kenneth) functioned like the mother and farther of the project – we always agreed and backed each other up, and we’re also good at calming each other down in hectic situations. While working, we played DnD to keep fantasy alive outside of the land of Alethrion. After the short was finished, Kenneth and Mikkel went to Barcelona and Paris to work for Headless and Dandeloo, but when they returned to Denmark they moved together with two other friends, including Bo Juhl, and started the company Sun Creature Studio. We hope to be working together with people from the team again, as well as other new talented people.
We all love tales of strange and exotic places. Have you also had adventures outside your native lands?
We really like to travel and explore the world. You should see other places your whole life, because it’s the greatest source of inspiration, and teaches you a lot about who you are. We like to be challenged and be put into situations where you’re out of your comfort zone, and that force you to think in a new way. Mikkel has been to Thailand, Malaysia, Bali, Texas (in high school), New York, Greece, Italy, Scandinavia, Germany and other places. Kenneth has travelled across America, went to Egypt, Greece, Thailand, and more. Bo Juhl went to Uganda, the Himalayan mountains, Nepal, India and Dubai. We all want to keep on exploring the world, and just by looking at reference for films and environment designs, you learn about more cool places to be discovered some day.
But when you are short on money, you can always find yourself in the realm where the god has twenty sides…
From script and storyboards to animatics and final animation – how long will a single episode of Tales of Alethrion take to make? How long did you work on the original short?
We (Mikkel and Kenneth) created the idea for the original short film before we actually started pre-production. When we started working on it then it took around eight-and-a-half months to produce the whole thing (which was around four months of preproduction and four to five months of production). The first episode will take around nine months because of the fact that we are starting up and have to put in extra hours as we’re a small team. As we progress further into the series, we will be working on more episodes at a time. By then, the scripts will have been cleaned up so much that the production should be possible for multiple episodes (also because of the fact that the story will be overlapping and such). So an average episode will take around three to five months to create, depending on how we spread out the work.
Following your graduation from The Animation Workshop, do you intend to pursue animation on a full-time basis? Is that a viable pursuit in Denmark (or anywhere else, really?). How would you judge the health of the animation industry in the 21st century?
Yes, we will be living off animation. We have a dream of getting big and making great partners around the world who share the same interest. Animation is a good opportunity to create your own stories and be creative and explore how to tell these stories. On a personal level, we also have different dreams. Mikkel is doing a cool graphic novel on the side as a personal project, Kenneth would like to break into live-action features one day and Bo would like to be responsible for getting projects on their feet and develop creative ideas. Denmark has a good animation industry, which is evolving all the time. What we would really like is to break into the international scene. Danish films usually speaks to a Danish audience, and have a hard time reaching the bigger studios outside of Denmark. If we get a good deal in another country, then we would be willing to move there and start up – you never know what’s going to happen. The animation industry itself is finally becoming easier to be a part of.
Of course, it’s not the safest way of making a living, and you can go for months without a paycheque if you don’t have a project. So you have to be dedicated and talented if you want to survive in this industry. Luckily for us, animation is becoming more and more popular, especially among those who grew up with it. So it’s an art form that’s now accepted by a wider audience, and not just children.