Inside the theater at Madison Square Garden during New York Comic Con, hundreds of anime fans have converged in support of their favorite show on the internet: RWBY (pronounced “ruby”), perhaps the most popular, if not the only Japanese-style action anime produced in America. Texas, to be exact. While most traditional TV shows pass their critical high marks and reach syndication by season five, RWBY (“Volume 5” came out on October 14) is only getting started.
The popularity of the beautiful, captivating series about four fashionable teenage girls with superpowers saving their world against monsters represented an unlikely turn for Rooster Teeth. The indie studio’s early success came from Red vs. Blue, a comedy series geared toward twenty-something men that featured Halo avatars being used as foul-mouthed puppets for comedic storylines.
RWBY, which premiered online in 2013, is the brainchild of the late Monty Oum, a digital animator who achieved viral fame in 2007 with his own action-heavy short films in the “machinima” style (the use of games to tell cinematic stories). Rooster Teeth emerged a few years before in 2003 with its defining machinima series Red vs. Blue. They came together in 2010, when the studio enlisted Oum to direct action scenes for Red vs. Blue, then entering its eighth season. Eventually, Oum pitched his own show, RWBY, which is basically if J.K. Rowling created Sailor Moon. It’s a dramatic departure from the sophomoric hijinks of Red vs. Blue, which recently wrapped up its 15th season.
In a manner not unlike how Mad Men reinvented cable network AMC, RWBY brought a wider, diverse audience — namely women, teenagers, kids — to Rooster Teeth, whose content previously appealed only to dude-bros who played Xbox. Now, people of all types pack Rooster Teeth’s “RTX” conventions in cities like London, Sydney, and Austin.
“We kind of stumbled backwards into this large audience that were craving cooler animated storytelling,” producer Gray Haddock tells Inverse the day after the RWBY panel at Madison Square Garden.
“I think there’s a lot of crossover within animation,” says Barbara Dunkelman, who stars as the blonde pugilist Yang in RWBY. “There’s a lot that translates from Red vs. Blue to RWBY. A lot of people have written on both. We make what we want to watch.”
Thanks to the popularity of Red vs. Blue and RWBY, Rooster Teeth has created its own self-sustaining ecosystem. The studio creates and distributes original shows independently, on YouTube and its own subscription platform called FIRST (the exception being Warner Bros. Japan, which distributes the Japanese-language RWBY). Talk shows, cartoons, and even full-length movies round out Rooster Teeth’s catalog in addition to RWBY. “We’re like our own Hulu or Netflix,” says Dunkelman. “You don’t have to watch everything we make.”
During the Comic Con panel at Madison Square Garden, Rooster Teeth producers teased a new set of RWBY action figures from MacFarlane, a tabletop board game, a theatrical release through Fathom Events, and the next installment of BlazBlue, a fighting game series that will include protagonist Ruby Rose as a playable character.
But the success that results in action figures and video game characters didn’t come easy. When RWBY commenced production in 2012, the series had modest resources and a bare-bones animation team. Haddock describes the scene as “fifteen people working impossible hours” in a corner of the building. Production was “linear,” meaning the studio “couldn’t move on to the next [episode]” until the work was final. The cast recorded their lines, dramatic scenes rich with personal stakes, in an office next to a bathroom.
“We had to pause for flushes,” says RWBY star Lindsay Jones, who voices Ruby Rose.
With Red vs. Blue using much of the small studio’s resources, the people working on the fledgling RWBY worked on a shoestring budget, writer Miles Luna remembers. “Volume One happened because 30 people gave their hearts and souls to the show,” he says. “We still put that much into it, but because of the success, we have more people. We have budget to invest in different technologies.”
The trailers for Volume Five of RWBY show Ruby and her friends traveling to Haven, a region visually influenced by Asia, a change from the European aesthetics of the first four seasons. Populated by fully-realized characters, the new locale is possible thanks to new animation technology Rooster Teeth can now afford. By comparison, Volume One looks primitive; movements were stiffer, and background “extras” were plain black silhouettes, a concerted effort to conserve time and budget. (“You used to be able to tell who was going to be important,” Jones says.)
Luna says that the team’s ambitions were high from the start, it just took time and patience to get where they wanted technically. “Because the fans have been awesome, we’ve been able to get [more tools] to push the look of the show closer to what we wanted to in the beginning.”
But the rough edges of early RWBY has its own meaning. “It’s like your high school yearbook,” Haddock muses, “I think of each season as a time capsule to the state of our team at that time. With each year, the way the show looks reminds me of the lessons we learned and how we try to get better.”
But the most difficult and unfortunate challenge that befell the studio had nothing to do with animation fidelity. In February 2015, after the show completed its second season, Oum, the creator of RWBY, died from an allergic reaction following a medical procedure. While family and fans mourned, the team had difficult conversations regarding the future.
“We were fortunate Monty and myself spent time planning out a roadmap for the show,” explains Luna. After Oum’s passing, director Kerry Shawcross took over as showrunner, who along with Luna helped Oum develop the show from the beginning. “It’s unfortunate one of our friends wouldn’t join us along the way. Of course it was a difficult time.” Soon, the studio had to assure fans the show would, in fact, go on, and keep as close as possible to Oum’s vision.
Says Luna, “I think everybody expected the show to change. We were gonna do what we always sought to do, which was tell a cool story and have fun while doing it. But you can only imagine the pressure that came with that.”
Despite the hardship and uncertainty that came with Oum’s death, there is something about RWBY that transcends its limitations. To the fans I spoke to at New York Comic Con, they say it’s the characters.
“The episodes are short, but they get so much action and character development, it sucks you in from the first second,” says Rachel, a 32-year-old Israeli physicist who flew ten hours with her husband, Nadi, for the RWBY panel at New York Comic Con. Both are in cosplay of their favorite characters — she’s Blake, he’s the bumbling Jaune — in outfits they made themselves. And they have every intention on outfitting their daughters, who also love the show. “When it’s over, you can’t wait for the next episode,” she says.
Another cosplayer, Sara, an 18-year-old engineering student from Atlanta, is outfitted as Weiss, an academic rival to Ruby who eventually joins her team. On the convention floor, Sara is surrounded by attendees who ask for pictures. She happily complies, adopting Weiss’s poses from the show.
“I love it because I see four girls in such a big role,” Sara tells Inverse, who adds that she “fell in love with Weiss” as the show unraveled her harrowing backstory. Weiss is a figure that Sara has latched onto on a personally profound level. “She had an abusive family. I relate to a lot of her struggles,” she says, her voice cracking a little. “Her way of dealing is how I coped.”
As RWBY expands, Haddock says that “the focus has to be on the storytelling,” the elements that keep fans like Rachel and Nadi and Sara coming back. “If we’re not focused on the show, fans will sense that and check out.”
But growth is also necessary, and the fruits of RWBY’s labor is starting to pay off. At the end of its Madison Square Garden panel, Rooster Teeth unveiled the trailer for Gen:Lock, a show set to debut in 2018. Whereas RWBY is a fairy tale, Gen:Lock is a “more grounded” science-fiction series in the tradition of mecha anime like Gundam and Tom Clancy novels. “But the look and feel of it will be kind of in the ballpark of RWBY,” Haddock says. “Hopefully, [Gen:Lock] begins to add to this library of cool stuff we envision as our goal.”
For now, Rooster Teeth takes care to improve, step by step. Completing episodes still takes the same amount of time as it did in the beginning, but now there are enough hired hands to finish a season “in parallel,” meaning multiple episodes can be created simultaneously. The cast can now record lines together in a new booth that’s well out of earshot from the office restroom. “It’s just so much easier,” Dunkleman says, a hint of relief in her voice.
The only thing standing in the way is getting people to pronounce RWBY. It’s an odd name, and Rooster Teeth knows it — razor-sharp pitches to marketing firms were necessary early on. But Haddock says that it’s all the more reason to keep it. “As soon as they are told what it is, it’s not a title you’re likely to forget.”
RWBY Volume 5 is airing now on Rooster Teeth First and YouTube.
Update: A previous version of this article attributed Miles Luna as the current showrunner and the World of Remnant as the new setting. Director Kerry Shawcross is the showrunner, who co-writes with Miles Luna, and Haven is the setting of RWBY Volume 5. This version has been corrected.