Micky Neilson, Doug Gregory discuss The Burdens of Shaohao

Anne Stickney
A. Stickney|08.22.13

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Micky Neilson, Doug Gregory discuss The Burdens of Shaohao
Micky Neilson, Doug Gregory discuss The Burdens of Shaohao
The Burdens of Shaohao, a six-part series released earlier this month, was met with resounding praise across the board from players and devoted lore fans alike. The sweeping tale of the last Emperor of Pandaria was unlike anything we'd ever seen before from Blizzard -- a stunning, gorgeous piece of animated, narrative storytelling featuring artwork by Laurel Austin. While we've seen narrative tales in the form of cinematic-style storytelling, this is the first time we've seen anything of this nature.

We sat down with Lead Story Developer Micky Neilson and the director of Shaohao, Doug Gregory to discuss the piece and how exactly it all came to be. While we were originally supposed to have lead editor Lucas Merino on board as well, he was unable to attend the interview as he and his wife received a special gift shortly after the release of Shaohao -- a healthy baby boy! Despite Lucas' absence, we had a delightful time discussing the film, its development, and the possibility of future projects in the unique style of Shaohao.

How did the idea for Shaohao come about?

Micky: Let's see, if memory serves ... before Mists of Pandaria, we sat in a room -- me, Metzen, Doug, Dave Kosak, and a few other people, and we started talking about ways that we could kind of service the story for Mists of Pandaria. Dave Kosak had done this very interesting presentation where he actually -- he wore a Chinese robe and he had a straw hat and he was standing there with a staff and everything, and he gave this presentation to team two. And it was basically the story of Shaohao, and he did it for Liu Lang and all this kind of stuff. We have a video of it, it's very entertaining actually. (laughs)

So he did this video, and we all responded to the story and we wanted to figure out, how can we tell this story, you know, outside of the game. We tossed around all kinds of ideas, did we want to do comic books, did we want to do a novel, and then someone -- I don't know who came up with the idea actually -- but somebody said why don't we do a video, and do like this very very simple animation, and everybody really warmed to that idea. So we started moving forward from there.

Dave went and he knocked out the script for the prelude, and he knocked that out pretty quick and everybody liked it and we sat down and started trying to figure out okay, how could we actually make something like this happen. And I'll let Doug kind of jump in and talk about prelude and I'll jump back after he's done talking a little bit about that, and talk about how the process went after the prelude and the different parts.

How much would we have to pay to get a copy of that video of Dave?

(laughs)I thought you might ask that actually! I don't know, we'll have to see about that actually. (laughs)I think people would really get a kick out of that video, I know we did!

Doug: Actually as a matter of fact at that same meeting, I was actually pitching the idea -- we should just take Dave's narration, or his show and tell, and just animate that. Because he was so animated, he's just so -- he just brings so much inflection and tone and rhythm and fun to the way he expressed the story to team two. I was just like, I can't believe that's just going to live on a shelf somewhere over here and nobody outside of the company is going to see it. So I think that's part of where this all started. As far as making sure that story got out, I don't if they'll ever release it, but I think it would be a ton of fun for folks to see it, I mean because he does, he brings so much joy to the stories that he builds here.

I think the first part (the prelude) was pretty much proof of concept really -- it wasn't a live assignment so much as "what can we do," because it's not something the publishing team has ever tried to do. So the first one really was an experiment that went well enough that we, you know, we got Chris on board after we'd finished up that first one -- or not even finished, I should say we got about halfway through, we got a rough cut of it together, and it was enough for him to see the potential in it and go "Okay, let's get some other folks involved in this and see where we can take this."

But yeah, originally it was just a single storyboard artist, a fellow named Rob Haines. He basically broke it down, all the first episode, into one long scroll. So actually what you're watching when you watch the prelude, is one long scroll that's been broken up into the actual story. Hopefully at some point we'll post those so people can see it. But it was a concept we thought we'd use for all six parts, all six episodes -- but it just wound up being, I guess too limiting once we got into the meat of the story to just keep it that way.

Micky: So the script was done for prelude, and then at that point as Doug was going through and they were creating the art and going through that whole process, Dave became absolutely swamped with the actual game, and doing the design for Mists of Pandaria. He just kind of disappeared for quite a while. He eventually got to the point where he could come back and do the rest of the script and he built out the rest of the burdens and those parts, and Doug and I sat down and looked at that script and we realized that there was just too much. There was a lot.

It was all really good stuff, it was great stuff, but it was a big, big script and it was going to be too much for us to be able to do in the time that we had and the budget that we had, and with the limited animation that we wanted to use. So I went from there and I started going in and making tweaks to the script and condensing, and we just started going through the creative iterative process at that point, and doing draft after draft after draft of the script to get it to the point where everybody was comfortable with moving forward.

How long did it take to complete the project, from conception to final product?

Doug: From the original pitch conception, it was about a year. The first one, keep in mind, was basically our test case, and it was being done on a lot of people's borrowed time. So Laurel, the artist on it, she was working on it, bits and pieces, between her regular assignments -- the same thing for Micky, the same thing for me. That first one took about six months before we finally got it to a point that it was signed off on. And then we had the opportunity to re-do it again actually, during the last six months of the process oddly enough. But yeah, so the first one took about six months, and then the last five took about five or six months.

This isn't the first animated work we've seen from Blizzard -- the Diablo 3 film, Wrath, was really well received. That one was done by an outside animation studio. Was Shaohao done completely in-house?

Doug: This was all in-house, yes.

Micky: Except for the storyboard artist and the after effects.

Doug: Right, the motion graphics detailer and Rob Haines, the storyboard artist, were both the only freelancers on the project, the rest was all in house. This was a joint venture between creative development, video and post-production, who usually take care of a lot of the DVD extra content that you see on the deluxe edition box sets and stuff like that. They're a phenomenal team over there. And then the sound department came in there as we started wrapping up the actual episodes and giving us better sound design, and 5.1 surround sound and all the wonderful things that we have in the finals.

This was a narrated tale, told by Lorewalker Cho -- why go with a narrated story?

Micky: I think that would mostly be Dave because he wrote the script that way, I think as he was writing the script -- I'm kind of speaking for Dave here -- but I would imagine that he was just hearing Lorewalker Cho's voice in his head as he was writing that out.

Doug: I've got two words for you -- Jim Cummings!

Micky: (laughs) Exactly.

Shaohao doesn't feel as much like an animated feature as it does animated storyboards -- was that a stylistic choice for the project?

Doug: It was a stylistic necessity of the project. And that limitation actually made it wonderful, because it gives you the -- you just have these brackets at the very beginning -- we're not the cinematics department. We can't operate on that level, nor should we. We're operating this great place where our, the strength of our department is storytelling. And then also illustration, this is where Glenn Rane and Laurel Austin and John Polidora create these amazing images. So we had these two things, the chocolate and peanut butter of the department, and this was an opportunity to put both of them together. And I can't even say we knew what project we were making at the beginning of all of this, because we did talk about "Is it a storybook that just has some moving parts in it, is this an app, is it a this or is it a that?" And I think the fun part was "Let's just see what we can do, and then we'll let this thing kind of dictate what it is to us."

So the very first part, like you saw, it was scrolls that were broken up into kind of a story, but by the time we got to the first actual episode I guess, the one where we introduced the Monkey King and the Jade Serpent and all that, we realized that the necessity of the story had become two characters talking to each other. And we had learned so much just doing the first part over that six months on and off again working situation that we just grew so quickly in the last five parts in terms of what we were able to do and feel like we had a good handle on.

We were also seeing what was possible from Lucas and Mattias and those folks over in post-production, with what we could do with the motion graphics and go "Oh okay! We can get away with that without it looking like" -- it's like that very fine line, where if you animate too much, it looks like a really bad animation, but if you don't -- you can just play that line and really figure that out, when you have a team like that working with you.

What were some of the inspirations for the art style?

Doug: Well yeah, the scroll -- she (artist Lauren Austin) and I share the same office actually, I sit in with all the illustrators, the illustrative team here. She's at the far end of the office, and she is incredibly fast at doing her job. So she had finished up one of her very first pieces for the illustration team, and in between assignments, she just started playing around drawing a panda, and she had had this brand new brush that kind of looked like a sumi-e brush, that she was just kind of playing with and drawing a panda face. And I was like, "Hey! We're actually doing this thing over in publishing where it's like an animated storybook sort of a thing. What would you think about working on something like this?" So it just, it was really natural really, the way it came about, it was too natural, actually (laughs). It almost seemed planned. But this brush was perfect, and we wanted originally to do the whole story in scroll form. We wanted to make this look like maybe the pandaren had sat down and drawn this out as a long scroll, so that was certainly part of the inspiration.

Is the process of creating it the same as traditional 2D animation? What are the differences?

Doug: She did everything in Photoshop, and she had to build her layers in a very specific way, so that it would be easier for the motion graphics artists to come in and know what to turn on and turn off in order to get the performance out of the characters. And I think it was probably a learning process for her from beginning to end. Because this isn't a traditional animation, we didn't really have many in between frames to kind of really sell an action. So you really had to hit your key frames. So myself and the storyboard artist, I mean we both did storyboards for her, and lots of times I would come in back after first pass was done and go "Oh no, we actually need to push this performance a bit more, because we're only going to be on screen for a certain number of seconds."

It's not like an illustration, where you really get to tear it apart visually in one sitting and really absorb it. This is going to be up and then it's going to be gone, so we have to make sure that that performance carries through. So I liken it more to a theater play, where you still have to be able to see that movement or that action or that silhouette from the back row and understand what the performance is.

So this wasn't the cinematics team working on this -- how much of a background did you all have in animation and creating stuff like this?

Micky: For me, you know, comic books, short stories, novellas, that's pretty much it. Although I did -- I have written some screenplays, and those were just kind of my own thing that I was doing outside of Blizzard for a while. So I definitely had some of that experience with screenwriting -- Dave, I'm not sure if he had screenwriting experience or not, and then Doug I think can speak for the others.

Doug: Yeah, I think we knew just enough to get us in trouble. (laughs) I think that's kind of what it comes down to because I come from a background of being a freelance artist, and I did work on on animation as a character designer for the SciFi network and stuff. But no, I mean I come from comic books so I do know storytelling, and I think it was just a complete belief that we could do it, you know. Sometimes just believing you can do it (laughs) and not knowing better is exactly why you can succeed. And then once again, building on what we learned in the first episode that we did with the prelude, we kind of learned "Oh, okay, we can actually get away with doing more and it won't actually break us." And then have Laurel be able to execute on all that art as quickly as she did so that we could iterate when we needed to or try new things, that was certainly key as well.

Why split it up into so many parts, rather than releasing it all at once?

Micky: Well early on, we were talking about releasing the parts -- it was actually going to be closer to a week between each part. And doing it that way allowed us to kind of break it up into smaller chunks that were more manageable for us. I think it would've been an entirely different beast if we would've tried to tackle it as just one long piece of animation. So we broke it up. We did the prelude, like Doug mentioned, as kind of a proof of concept -- so we had to do that one first and get everybody to sign off on it. And then we sat down and said okay, well let's look at the story and let's look at doing each of these parts as its own little episode -- looking at the script, can we make that work, what would our ending be, figuring out okay, when would we release these and how far apart we'd release these.

We ended up being able to release them pretty much 24 hours apart, which I think was really nice. I don't know that we've done anything like that before. Even with our short stories and things like that, it's always tough to get it to come out very consistently within a short time frame like that. That was something that I was definitely very happy about. Of course, the other side of that coin is that all has to be done. So even though they're coming out a day apart, all of those parts had been complete for a little while -- they were all in various stages, but obviously the scripting for everything, that's gotta be done way earlier. What people are seeing, they're seeing it kind of all at once, but it's like Doug said, a year's worth of work that you're seeing within six days.

Some players have been wondering why there seems to be a difference in the stories being told -- The Burdens of Shaohao doesn't mention the masks of the Monkey King. Was that a deliberate choice? Why the difference in lore?

Micky: Yeah, it was a deliberate choice. It was actually something that, to speak to the masks specifically, that was something that was including early on, and we tried to make it work. Remember I was talking about the long script that we got, where Dave went through and there was just a bunch of stuff in there, and we sat down with it, and Doug and I tried to figure out "Okay, how can we make all this work?" The more we went through it, the more drafts of the script that we did, we realized that we wanted the Monkey King to be more than just this device to create masks.

We wanted him to be more of a character, and actually have his own arc. When you go through and you watch it, you can see that the Monkey King becomes a separate character with his own arc and everything else and he serves as a contrast to Shaohao from where how Shaohao starts to where he ends. The Monkey King is almost the exact opposite of that, so you see him and the journey that he goes through. To me, it ended up being a more compelling story using the Monkey King in that way than if we would've just used him for the masks.

And there were also technical issues. As we sat down, looking at the storyboards, and Doug can talk about that -- just trying to figure out visually how it was going to work. And it seemed like well this should really, it should be coming from Shaohao. He's the one defeating the burdens, the burdens are coming from him. One of the things that Laurel did brilliantly was showing each of the burdens as really a reflection of Shaohao himself. I think that came across more beautifully in the artwork and in the various versions of the sha than it would've if it was just a mask and the mask is pulling out the negative aspect from Shaohao. It was a choice that we made and I think it worked out really well.

From a lore standpoint of course, you can always look at the Burdens of Shaohao as a myth, as a legend, and there are different tellings of a legend, there are different versions of a myth, of a legend that get passed down. From the lore perspective, we look at it as the version with the masks is a different version of the Shaohao legend.

It's like playing a ten-thousand year game of Telephone.

Doug: That's exactly right. I was going to add to what Micky said, one of the things that we were talking about early on is how does this thing live within in the world. And it is, it is that game of Telephone, and as a matter of fact that's exactly what I'd said earlier in talking to Chris about some of this, is -- all lore, all fables or canticles are kind of based or come out of that idea that ten thousand years later, how truthful is this story anymore. Or has it been built around getting across a certain agenda to the students that are going to be hearing this, or fellow pandaren at this point.

So I think stripping away things like the masks and stuff, I think it helped because it kind of took you back to the emotional place that this was supposed to all be coming from -- this was all supposed to be reflections of Shaohao's doubt and despair and that nature. Very early on, and I actually don't remember -- it must have been the part one when he faces doubt. In the boarding of that when I was originally talking to the board artist, I said "It just feels so weird for him to be fighting this thing that's outside of him, that's just called doubt." And so that's when he actually came to me about the idea of him kind of pushing against himself at one point. That wasn't even in the original version of it. Lots of times, you don't know to ask these questions until you're trying to visualize it, and that actually developed in the boarding, that he would start fighting himself in all of these episodes.

You guys seem to be branching out a lot with alternative methods of presenting lore and story this year -- Shaohao, Project Blackstone, children's books -- is this all just experimentation at this point?

Micky: Yeah, I'd say it's both of those things -- it's really kind of exercising you know, for us. It's figuring out what can we do that's not being done, and how can we do things differently. But there's also the experimentation aspect of it, figuring out what is the community response to the different things that we're doing, what works, what doesn't, what do people really really respond to. That gives us a gauge to go by for the future so that we can do more of the things that are working really well and maybe not do as much of the things that aren't working, but also to continue experimenting and just, that's the beauty of having a creative development department. You've got a bunch of brilliant creative people all in one place, they just sit there and they daydream, you know, they just come up with pie in the sky kind of stuff that's crazy. Like Doug was saying, you don't even know whether it's something that you're going to be able to accomplish or not until you just jump in. It all just starts off as an idea, and then you go from there. Sometimes those ideas turn into amazing, incredible, very successful projects like with Shaohao.

Response to Shaohao has been really positive -- are we going to see more tales of Pandaria, or tales from the rest of Azeroth in the future?

Micky: It's certainly -- there has been an amazing reception, and it's actually been so well received. It's something where we look and normally, you'll put up something and you'll get a fair amount of people who just say "Eh, I don't like it" or "Eh, this is not great," or you know, whatever -- you get a lot of that negativity. And with Shaohao, there really hasn't been very much negativity at all. I think there's been a few critiques here and there, but overwhelmingly positive. Which is a great thing. It's something that we're definitely sitting down and we're taking a look at for the future. You know, how can we tell more of these kinds of stories, what are the right stories to tell, how do they relate to upcoming game content, things like that, going through the necessary approvals to make that happen. So it's something that we're keeping an eye on and we're looking forward to hopefully doing more of these.

Doug, is that something you'd want to do again?

Doug: Oh my god, absolutely. And if I can have Jim Cummings just do everything I do from now on (laughs) -- as a few of the responses said online, I just want him to narrate my life, or answering machine message, everything! He was just, he was absolutely magical with a lot of this. And I would love to see that character continue on -- I think the Lorewalker Cho character is just fantastic. But yes, absolutely, I would love to continue doing any number of lore specials I guess, with this sort of format.

Thank you so much to the both of you for chatting with us -- I don't think I'm the only one that would love to see more projects like this in the future!

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