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Spencer Wan On Hades 2, The Owl House, And Success Of Studio Grackle

Studio Grackle was an accident. Spencer Wan’s independent, queer-owned animation studio has produced work for Hades, The Legend of Vox Machina, and Hyper Light Breaker. However, it all started because of an obnoxious legal loophole. The now amended California law stated that individuals could not take on freelance assignments, only established companies, and thus a shell of what would evolve into Studio Grackle was born. What began as a part-time side project is now Wan’s full-time commitment, so we sat down to talk about the studio’s history, the reveal of Hades 2, and his past successes.

“I was panicking about how to make this one better than the first,” Wan tells me of the Hades 2 reveal trailer that debuted at The Game Awards. “The first one I didn’t really think about at all, I thumbnailed the entire storyboard on a train in like 10 minutes. This one I was agonising over for a week, and [Supergiant] were like ‘Where are the storyboards?!’ and then I ended up turning in something that was actually pretty close to the final look in terms of tone and design, it was just really just a matter of interpreting that into actual animation. It was funny, because I thought the style would be easy to draw, but it ended up confusing a lot of people.”

Making a big splash with its surprise announcement, Hades 2 will feature Princess Melinoe, younger sister of former protagonist Zagreus, as she battles through the underworld to save her imprisoned father from Cronos. The trailer follows a practice battle between our heroine and her master, culminating in an iconic hair flick that I’ll circle back around to later. When it came to the animation itself, Studio Grackle’s small team worked on it from September up until the reveal last month, with Wan pulling himself away from effects work on the actual game to get the ball rolling. Wan tells me the reveal was the biggest spotlight his work has ever received, and moments after the reveal him and his producer rushed to promote it and credit the team on social media from their phones.

“The trailer is mostly two silhouettes dancing around in the dark, so I thought it would be fine, there’s only two colours,” Wan explains. “Anytime you try to do something a little bit different in animation, everyone gets confused, because it’s the standard stuff everyone knows how to do, even if it’s detailed or complicated. But this stripped down silhouette thing tended to be a bit confusing for the animators, so they’d be like, ‘Wait, the lighting is on which side? You want how many highlights? And they’re supposed to go where?’ and I thought I’d created a disaster.” Fortunately, the team’s passion is more than clear in the final result.

“I worked with a lot of talented animators who really brought their A-game for this one,” Wan admits. “There are some projects where enthusiasm peters out as you go along. You start out excited, and then as it goes on you’re like, ‘Oh my god I can’t this thing is the worst, and I’m dying, and I’m sad’ but this one, for some reason, that didn’t happen. We started out slow, but as we approached the deadline people started to get more excited, more pumped, and were turning in better work than they ever did before. It was cool, and hadn’t happened here yet… I think we all started to realise what we were making at the same time.”

Studio Grackle has garnered a reputation for extravagant style defined by larger than life characters boasting graceful movement, and Hades 2 is no different. The original achieved untold success, and much of that aesthetic has been carried over into the second game’s surprise reveal. Wan said he is no longer trying to mimic Supergiant’s look as a client, but felt more like a member of the team contributing to what Hades 2 was set to become.

“I’ve known these guys for two years now, so we’re pretty close at this point,” Wan says of Supergiant. “It was less a matter of how collaborative should this thing be and more just talking to each other everyday and reviewing things everyday. Supergiant is really, really good about letting you do what needs to get done. A lot of clients will try and strong arm you into a specific look or character pose which can be pretty stifling from a creative perspective. With this, they sent me the script and said, ‘Go, do it – show us what you can do.’”

Wan took Greg Kasavin’s script and interpreted the scene into a grandiose reflection of the game that awaits us on the horizon, and the goal was to present a natural progression that didn’t take away from Grackle’s previous work as much as elevate it. “Greg was really into the idea of how these characters could move and interact, since they can’t really do that so much in the video game because of the limitations of it being a video game. It’s funny, that hair brushing wasn't there at first. I originally added the scene because it was supposed to be an exact mirror of Zagreus’ scene from the first trailer, but for some reason I backed off doing it. Then Greg was like, ‘Why don’t you just put that back in there?’ and I said, 'You're right, I should.'”

The hairbrushing scene, and Zagreus’ physique and body language in the original Hades trailer is sexually charged and flirtatious in ways a lot of fans gravitated towards, largely because everyone in the game is hot, sexy, and someone we’d want to date. Discourse online came to the conclusion that because Wan is a proud gay man, he must have deliberately projected such ideals onto his work. Turns out it was a coincidence, although his audience conjuring up representation from nowhere isn’t exactly a bad thing.

“Until that trailer, I felt like nobody in the industry had ever even talked about my sexuality,” Wan says. “I don’t mind the point, I thought it was kind of funny and appreciate the sentiment behind it, but for me, this has always just been a technical endeavor. I like depicting Mel’s more subtle sexiness with the hair the same way I liked depicting Zagreus’ more over the top version. It’s animation, it’s art, it’s me liking the difference between these characters. It had nothing to do with me being a gay man, but if that representation in the animated field means something to people, I’m not upset about it.”

It occurred to Wan during our chat that Grackle is potentially one of only two queer-owned animation studios in the world, so I imagine it’s natural for enthusiasts or other creatives in the field to attach this level of worth to its existence. He feels that his race and sexuality have never been an obstacle in his career, but that part of himself is something Wan retroactively champions.

“For a lot of queer people out there, they look at an industry like animation, and they assume it’s dominated by white men, there’s no way I’d ever be able to do this since I’m just a queer kid with a tablet in Idaho,” Wan says. “My sexuality never came into the equation when pursuing my career, I just wanted to do it very badly, and no one was getting in the way of that. People got in the way in other ways, but it’s funny that after all these years people are now like, ‘Wait, Spencer is Asian and gay?’ Yeah, I’ve been both those things my entire life.”

It’s also pretty hard to detach yourself from queerness when working on a show like The Owl House. Dana Terrace’s tale of magical escapades and fruity discovery has stolen the hearts of thousands, with Wan playing a big role in the first season. He’s also responsible for Luz and Amity’s iconic Grom dance, which was one of the first sparks of the shipping flames that would soon ignite across the fandom. A few years ago though, much of the crew wasn’t aware how much of an impact it was going to have.

“A lot of the biggest changes happened before I got there,” Wan remembers. “There were some secret files I stumbled across way back where I’d seen Dana’s original artwork and it looked much more like her personal drawings. It was a totally different looking show, and would have been very hard to pull off in animation, but I really liked it, and I really liked the work that had been done before I got there as well. While I was on the show, I constantly tried to push people back in that direction.

“For better or worse, I was like, ‘No, we can make it darker. No, we can have a hard magic system. I didn’t have a lot of say in any one of these processes, I was there for animation. But Dana and I have known each other for a long time, so whenever I needed to speak to her, I’d just waltz into her office and people would be like, ‘There goes Spencer, brazenly talking to the boss again!’”

Like any fandom, there continues to be speculation about what The Owl House could have done with more time, and if Dana was given the freedom to pursue her original ideas without compromise. That speculation has increased tenfold since the show’s cancellation.

“I do think the show ended up being very close to the original pilot, though a lot of this stuff appeared in the show just in different ways.” Wan was only credited for the episodes where his animation appears, but was known for hopping around doing all manner of tasks while also helping Dana with sequences that she “wanted to look more like anime.”

“At the time, I once again hadn’t realised we were doing something groundbreaking for queer people,” Wan tells me. “It didn’t occur to me that the entire team was actually so queer. I was the only gay man on the team, but there were tons of queer women, trans people, bisexual people, we ran the whole spectrum. For us, of course it should be like this, we didn’t think twice about it. Dana wasn’t going to let the show be anything but that. There was a lot of pushback at the beginning, but she just kept hammering, and eventually they gave in.”

Wan’s work has spanned Into The Spiderverse, Castlevania, and more, but his future lies with Studio Grackle, even if right now much remains unclear.

“I didn’t consider that I was starting a queer-owned studio in a vacuum, and it’s cool that we’re still going after two years and continuing to take on bigger and better projects. It feels good, and I hope it’ll feel good to other people who need that sort of boost… I don’t want to grow to a point where we are seen as a massive soulless corporation, but maybe [we could] become a place where we can take on full-time staff and take care of people in the way I’ve always wanted to with a studio, and I think we’re getting close.”

You can check out Studio Grackle’s work here, and Hades 2 when it launches in Early Access later in 2023.

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