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How animation helped Critical Role bring ‘The Legend of Vox Machina’ to life

Vax, Scanland, Percival, Vex, Grog, Pyke and Keyleth in “The Legend of Vox Machina,” a new animated series based on “Critical Role.”
Amazon Studios

Within the first minute of Critical Role’s new animated series “The Legend of Vox Machina” a boulder smashes an adventurer to a bloody pulp, a spellcaster is sliced into several pieces, eyeballs fly across the screen and a sword-wielding fighter is electrified into a burnt husk.

“We knew that, especially with that first and that second episode, that we had to do a good job telling the world and our audience exactly what this show was going to be,” said Marisha Ray, creative director of Critical Role and the voice of the druid Keyleth in the series.

The series is based on Critical Role’s first streamed Dungeons & Dragons campaign and follows the adventures of Vox Machina, a debaucherous group of mercenaries.

It is the latest adult animated series to arrive on Amazon’s Prime Video streaming service, fitting alongside the equally violent “Invincible,” raunchy “Fairfax” and dark “Undone.”

“The Legend of Vox Machina” debuted its first three episodes on Friday and will continue to dole out three new episodes each week for the next three weeks. A planned second season release date has yet to be announced.

“We’ve seen so much critical and audience success with our animated slate,” said Melissa Wolfe, head of animation and family programming at Prime Video, in an email to CNBC. “‘Vox’ felt like such a natural fit with the animation slate we are building here … animation offers a unique and unexpected way to tell stories and this is really just the beginning for us at Prime Video.”

For Prime Video, “The Legend of Vox Machina” was a safe bet. With relatively low up-front costs, compared to many of Amazon’s other streaming projects, the series has a passionate built-in audience and will add value to its platform.

Already fans and critics have lauded the show. It currently holds a 100% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes from 17 official reviews.

Visualizing Vox Machina

While there have been films and television shows inspired by tabletop roleplaying games in the past, “The Legend of Vox Machina” is the first show to use an entire Dungeons & Dragons campaign as source material.

With more than 400 hours of live-streamed content to choose from, the Critical Role team, alongside Executive Producer Brandon Auman (“Star Wars Resistance,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”), opted to focus on two main plot points for the show’s first season. One shows events that occurred before Critical Role began streaming its tabletop sessions in 2015, while the other centers on the fan-favorite Briarwood Arc, which sees Vox Machina face off against the villainous Sylas and Delilah Briarwood.

“We’ve had our manic midnight oil sessions with chalkboards and red string deconstructing the stories and putting them back together so that not just our current fans but newcomers to Vox Machina will be intrigued and hooked,” said Travis Willingham, CEO of Critical Role and the voice of Grog in the series. “We want them to stick around and see where these crazy adventurers go.”

While the series strips away some of the game mechanics, like dice rolling and turn-based combat, it’s still recognizable within the story. Keen-eyed viewers will notice that there are consequences in and out of combat that mimic what might happen if a player had rolled a “Natural One” or missed a skill check.

“Embracing failure is part of the fun of the story,” said Matt Mercer, Critical Role’s primary dungeon master and the creator of the world of Exandria, in which “The Legend of Vox Machina” is set.

“It’s remarkable once you remove all the mechanics of the show you are left with this really remarkable narrative that was designed by group storytelling with no real plan,” said Taliesin Jaffe, the voice of Percival de Rolo in the series. “And yet there it is and it’s compelling, it’s a rollercoaster. I’m constantly in awe of it.”

Travis Willingham voices Grog in “The Legend of Vox Machina” on Amazon Prime Video.
Amazon Studios

The half-hour episodes are distilled versions of Critical Role’s sessions, which are often filled with running gags, teasing interjections, rules discussions and the occasional bathroom break. Yet, the humor and kinetic energy of the group is not lost in the animation. The characters are still playful and crude, flawed and loveable.

“We wanted it to feel like our story,” said Laura Bailey, who voices Vex’ahlia in the series. “It would be very easy to take this kind of a story and turn it into a dramatic action with none of those comedy beats that I think really make Vox Machina who they are and make Critical Role what it is.”

Through animation, Critical Role fans can see these characters come to life in new ways. For many who play or watch Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, much of the action and interactions are “theater of the mind,” meaning you are visualizing it all in your head.

There are some instances where dioramas and mini figures are used during moments of combat to lay out where all the characters are standing, but for the most part, it’s left up to the imagination.

“It’s one thing to see it in your mind, especially when we are around the table, but to actually see it on a screen with sound and to have that whole experience it’s like nothing else,” Willingham said.

Humble beginnings

The project initially started as a Kickstarter to fund a 22-minute animated special as a “love letter” to the group’s fanbase, known as Critters. In 2019, Critical Role sought $750,000, but by the close of the six-week campaign it had generated more then $11.3 million from 88,000 backers, becoming the most successful film or television project in Kickstarter history.

While the fans paid for a 10-episode series, a deal with Amazon’s Prime Video streaming service meant Critical Role would create 24 episodes spread across two seasons.

Mercer explained that the team initially pitched an animated version of its Dungeons & Dragons campaign to studios, but the concept wasn’t well-understood by those executives.

Mercer said the Kickstarter and the support of the Critical Role community “changed that perspective in the industry and people began to pay attention.”

“Amazon was the one company that came to us and was like, ‘We want to help you make more of this, make it better and let you see your creative vision through as a partnership,'” he said.

The cast of “Critical Role” reprise their roles as Vox Machina in Amazon Prime Video’s “The Legend of Vox Machina.”
Amazon Studios

In recent years, Amazon’s streaming service has gravitated toward content like Critical Role’s “The Legend of Vox Machina” — shows that are based on popular entertainment properties with well-established fan bases, said Michael Pachter, analyst at Wedbush. Already, Amazon has released series based on “The Boys” comics and “Wheel of Time” books. It is also in production on an expansive “Lord of the Rings” show.

“I was following [the Kickstarter campaign] closely and seeing the incredible response in real time,” Amazon’s Wolfe said. “After getting to know the Critical Role team and seeing how their passion and commitment would only strengthen during the development process, it all became a no brainer that we’d want to work with them to make this a Prime Video series.”

In partnering with Prime Video, Critical Role’s animated series will be made available in more than 200 countries. Previously, the company’s streamed content has been restricted to predominantly English-speaking regions.

Willingham said it was a “step-up in exposure” for the brand.

“If this show rolls out like we expect it to and people really like what we’ve made, we hope to be able to bring a lot more stories to them,” said Riegel. “We have a lot of great big ideas.”

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal owns Rotten Tomatoes.

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