Critical Role Animated Series: After Kickstarter, Work Begins "Right Away"
On March 4, the tight-knit group of voice actors behind popular gaming group Critical Role rolled the dice on their own animated series. They ended up making Kickstarter history.
That day, only an hour after launching a crowdfunding campaign for The Legend of Vox Machina, an animated special based on their cult hit Dungeons & Dragons adventure that streams every Thursday evening on Twitch, the group raised $1 million from fans, far surpassing their initial goal of $750,000.
Hitting that goal would have covered the cost of a single 22-minute special. But on April 19, the campaign closed with a record $11.3 million, the highest ever raised for a film and television project on Kickstarter. A 10-episode series is now in production.
Critical Role CEO Travis Willingham, who also plays the goliath barbarian “Grog” in their D&D adventure, tells Inverse the team was “just shoulders in the air” in shock when the Kickstarter took off.
“In our house we use the phrase ‘What the…’ and you can fill in that third word however you want to flavor it,” he says. “That first day as we watched it climb, we were going ‘What the…’ That’s been the past thirty some-odd days.”
A little over a week before the end of the 45-day campaign, three key members and staff of Critical Role — Willingham, creator Matthew Mercer, and creative director Marisha Ray — spoke to Inverse about The Legend of Vox Machina and what their next steps are on the road to the series premiere, currently scheduled to release in the fall of 2020.
With the campaign over, Willingham says “the first thing” will be to address all 88,887 backers who gave money to see the noble Vox Machina heroes in animation.
“We want to make sure we take the necessary steps to get everybody all the Critical Role swag we promised,” Willingham says.
“We’ve already started to have some preliminary creative meetings, just to introduce ourselves to staff that will be working on the show,” Willingham says. “We get started on this thing right away.”
By the summer, the team will be “breaking the story,” an industry term for figuring out the nuts and bolts of a show’s plot. Unlike other animated shows, the existing Dungeons & Dragons adventure that first attracted fans to Critical Role exists as adaptable source material, similar to the way comic books fuel new blockbuster movies and TV.
In fact, a comic book based on the campaign and published by Dark Horse in September 2017 gave the creators confidence in an animated series. Says Willingham: “That was the first inclination that there was something outside the livestream.”
Still, the producers sought the talents of Jennifer Muro, a leading animation writer known for Star Wars: Forces of Destiny to turn the Critical Role tabletop sessions into a compelling series narrative. The show will begin with a “prequel” episode, written by Muro, that covers the events that took place before the group began streaming. As Willinghlam notes, “[It] is more of an adaptive process for the Briarwood arcs after the first episode.”
And then, there’s recording. Willingham says that may happen in “late August and early September.”
“It’s an immediate thing where we just get this thing running,” he says. “Animation takes long enough as it is and we want to get cracking on it.”
In addition to Willingham, Mercer, and Ray, Critical Role also features the talents of Taliesin Jaffe, BAFTA winner Ashley Johnson, Sam Riegel, Liam O’Brien, and Laura Bailey, as fantasy warriors who win and/or fail big time in adventures written by Mercer. The group started in 2013 as a private game for O’Brien’s birthday. They began playing for an online audience in 2015 when Felicia Day, founder of Geek & Sundry, gave them a time slot to livestream.
With $11 million invested from fans, the group feels daunted by stakes they never anticipated.
“Overwhelming is the most apt descriptor,” says Mercer, their lead storyteller. (In D&D speak, Mercer is their “Dungeon Master,” or “DM.”) “We’ve been blown away by all of it and we’re just trying to do our best and fulfill the promise and faith everyone’s given to us.”
The project, which seems like a perfect fit for a group of charismatic professional voice actors for video games, anime, and television, was envisioned to be “a love letter” for Critical Role’s legion of followers whom they’ve fostered since launching in 2015.
Prior to the Kickstarter, the team originally pitched The Legend of Vox Machina to established studios, only to learn that even in a Stranger Things world, a cartoon based on a game of D&D streamed on the internet was hard for executives to comprehend.
“It’s a lot of layers you have to wrap your head around,” says Marisha Ray, who also plays the half-elf druid “Keyleth.” “D&D is just one of those layers. And a lot of people have different perceptions towards Twitch. It’s optics are unique. That’s one thing they have to get around.”
And so, the group turned to their fans to see their ambitions realized. “We put this up as a love letter to the community that’s been with us, and for ourselves to see if we can realize these stories in animation,” Mercer says.
“The amount of attention it’s received from people outside our community has changed [our] perspective of how vast the reach is. It’s raised the stakes, only in the sense that we have to produce a lot more and we want to make sure we do it right. I wouldn’t say it’s changed how we operate.”
Adds Ray, “It’s kind of hard to put into words.”