Alex Yee is the co-creator of the Annie winning and Emmy-nominated animated feature Arcane. Thanks to the passion he feels for the show and the video game it is based on League of Legends it is clear this has been a labor of love for him. That love contributes to the show being such a success with fans of the game and newcomers. Here, an interview with Awards Daily, he talks about all of that plus the crafting of the characters, which he feels is really part of being with them for so long and letting in fan input that he is still more than happy to continue receiving.
Awards Daily: You worked on League of Legends for years before creating Arcane. Was animation something you were always interested in, or did it just come about through work on the game?
Alex Yee: I have always been a fan of anime and broadly animation, Pixar was always inspiring. I guess thinking about working on Arcane specifically, there was this time in the beginning where we were thinking about how to make a show that fits the range of people who played the game. Because the game was ten years old at the time, I wanted to appeal to people who were coming in fresh and people like me who had played the game for such a long time who may have even moved on but wanted to see the realization of characters that I have loved for such a long time. I really felt that the anime that I was exposed to in college was trusting you with more complex stories, more mature characters, and deeper themes that felt like a big focus for the show. Shows like Cowboy Bebop were so music-inspired, and we knew that was something that was kinda a super power of the company and people were really interested in, and with Fortiche coming from making music videos that was where we felt like we found our niche. But in terms of me thinking about working in animation, it was a surprise, but I have really fallen in love with it.
Awards Daily: As someone who hasn’t played the game, how much of the characters’ personalities are from the game, and did them being in the game help, or was it easier to write the characters who were brand new for the show?
Alex Yee: Basically the way the game plays is really like a basketball five vs five team sport, the point is just to destroy each other’s bases. It is fantasy-themed but when you are playing you are just focused on destroying your opponent or making strategic moves. So there is not a lot of space for narrative or themes. But when we would build the characters we needed to figure out the weapons and the costuming and make them fit against the rest of the cast. And the way that helped internally we would have this network of who these characters were, how they fit into the world. So there were all these stories where we wanted to have the right format to be able to express more about them, so when we were working on the show we came in with a wealth of information and material. But I would say the difference between the game and the show is that everything is so embellished and big, the armor is big, the lines are big, and so finding the subtleties and the nuance and the things that make the regular people as opposed to superheroes, that was what we took a lot of time with. Especially with characters like Jinx–she is so over the top that figuring out the right mix of that subtle, quiet version of her took a lot of finding. She is such a beloved character we really were crossing our fingers that we hit something that players felt was right.
Awards Daily: Continuing on that theme, the relationships between the characters on the show is what moves everything forward. Silco and Jinx was one of my personal favorites, and also Vi and Jinx, and then later Caitlyn and Jinx. It sounds like there wasn’t as much of that in the game, so how did you go about crafting it?
Alex Yee: This was definitely something that took a little bit of learning on our parts, because in the games the type of relationships that would form are closest allies and most hated enemies. Vi and Caitlyn in the game are partners, an odd couple cop duo. And Jinx when she was released had this completely enigmatic background; all you knew was that she had it in for Vi. What was good about having that as a setup for going into the show was that there were so many questions that the players wanted to have answered. It was a lot of fun piecing together how we wanted to form those relationships. But with the greater cast of Jayce and Viktor and Heimerdinger and tying them together into one tight thread it took a lot of finding. But for me it was really a joy and it felt like the right kind of challenge. How do we tell a story where it feels like those paths start interweaving and crossing? Silco is not a champion in the game and so he was one of the bigger bets that we had. The world felt small if everyone you see is a champion so we wanted to have a guy who is really powerful but if he was in a fight on the street he would lose. His power is in the way he influences others and the relationship he has with them. A lot of the relationship with Jinx developed organically as we got a chance to work with the voice actor and go through episodes and customize the way that they talked to each other and interacted. I think a lot of it was found in the animation, the behavior, the mannerisms, the movements with each other.
Awards Daily: This is more of a fan question. One of my favorite scenes was when Vi has Sevika pinned asking, where is Silco holding Powder, and the genuine confusion on Sevika’s face saying she is not a captive, she works for him. Then, literally as she is stabbing Vi, saying she is practically his daughter. Anything you can tell me about creating that scene ?
Alex Yee-So much of that was really loaded because we are finally getting Vi back into the story. We had this deliberate decision in episode four to hide her so you would be asking the question, Where is Vi? What is up with her? So episode five was her reemergence into Zaun and discovering everything. That scene was for a really long time the culmination of finally realizing what has become this world of hers. We wanted it to just hit as hard as it could for Vi, especially since we were crafting the story without knowing where we were going to end. It just felt so unthinkable that the same guy that Vi has spent years and years punching the wall just imagining, if I could just get one more shot at this guy, and hoping my sister is alive and I can find her, just dreaming of that reunion. And to have that gut punch or, as it became, the gut stab of realizing somehow she is on his side and replaces Vander, who Vi loves more than anyone. and has had to basically be knocked unconscious immediately after grappling with losing him. That scene for us felt like this is the moment where everything lands for her.
Beyond that, I enjoyed so many parts of that episode. After that fight is the first moment of trust between Vi and Caitlyn. Like okay, I tried to run away, but you still came and helped. I am still going to pick you up and we are talking frankly to each other. It felt like, okay now, we are running and the story is moving. In terms of the fight, there are more memories about how the fight developed because that was the first time with Fortiche that we crafted a fight with dialogue that was like a fight amongst real fighters. We had the kids fight before; I suppose we had Vander fight, but that felt so much like the hero stop at the end of episode three. This was the raw all-out, both of them giving them everything they had. Vi realizing the power of shimmer and what it has become. Watching Fortiche and all the choices that they made, the different camera angles–that was a point of discovery for us in what we could give them, and what they could give back to us, and how they could level up a fight emotionally.
Awards Daily: You talked about writing the show and not knowing exactly where it was going to end up. What was your process for writing?
Alex Yee-We broadly knew where we were headed with the show. The thing is, we worked on it for, like, six years from start to where we wound up. A big portion of that was also figuring out how to build an animation pipeline, none of which had done any TV stuff. I don’t even know if Fortiche had done anything with speaking characters; it was all just music videos before that. So much was figuring that out. But we spent a lot of time coming up with a lot of different potential ideas of how the story would unfold. We were at a certain point where we think we broadly have a good idea of the story but we do not think we are there yet. So we started bringing in other people to be guides for us and brought in some writers for a writing room. We were pulling in a lot from the story beats that we had pulled before and figuring out how to slot them together. But even going all the way out to episode nine, we were still making on the fly pivots that don’t change the story in a big sense, but it really would change the nature of a scene and exactly where the turns would be. I mean, when we were there, it was figuring out what the back half of our season was going to look like when the tires hit the pavement. Because in so many ways episodes 1-3 and then 4-9 really were separate shows. 1-3 was the prologue for the back half.
Awards Daily: How did you guys decide on episode six, “When These Walls Come Tumbling Down,” as your Emmy submission episode?
Alex Yee-It is funny, that one surprised me too. We had a couple different things that we were submitting for, so I didn’t know it was the one we picked. There are a lot of things that we loved about episode six. It is hard for me to pick my favorites, unsurprisingly they are the finalists of each of the act beats. 3, 6,and 9 are very hard hitting, but in 6 there is something in Vi seeing Jinx again, and the emotions that play out in that moment with that musical beat that we have of “When These Walls Come Tumbling Down” that leads into it. The editing in the way multiple scenes are being laid over each other, it is just a very strong episode. We tended to bounce around between episode 9 and 6 for the episodes that we like to different outlets to evaluate them.
Awards Daily: So, you are a first time animator and writer, and you basically swept the Annie Awards, and you have two Emmy nominations. What is your secret?
Alex Yee (laughing)-I wish I knew, you know. It’s really hard to say because I do not know the industry well enough to tell you what we are doing differently. This was a show that really meant a lot to us. We were writing it for ourselves in a lot of ways. I think one of the things is especially when I look at video game adaptations as a fan, because of course I grew up with all this. What you could feel so many times was that this was an adult who doesn’t play the game trying to figure out what is going to appeal to me as a kid who plays the game that they do not understand. One of the reasons we are starting to see more successful and authentic video game adaptations is that we kids have grown up and for us there is not this younger audience that we need to translate to. We are talking about the characters and the things that we love. I think another feather in our cap for having worked on the game, not only was I there for the inception of the characters and how players received them, but I also saw how players embraced and reformed the characters themselves.
One of the things that I discovered working on League is that you do not 100% own the characters once you release them, you share them with the audience. The way the audience interprets them becomes a lot of their identity. Like the way the relationship between Vi and Caitlyn in my mind really was more something the fans craved and built more of. When we were making the show I thought, this is what they are and how we should build them. So I don’t know. I think we just tried to be as true as we could to the show that we wanted and not write down to an audience. Other than that, the animation quality of Fortichie and the artistic style across every discipline are absolutely brilliant. I also feel we really had something to prove and a real mission with the show, and I think for a lot of people they wanted to be part of something with that kind of ambition. And when they saw people giving it all in that way no one wants to be the lagging leg. Everyone was, like, we have to step it up. It is just so nice to be in one of those environments with a lot of creatives just jamming together.
Awards Daily: Anything you want to leave our readers with?
Alex Yee-I am incredibly thankful to everyone for the response and the outpouring of love that we have had for the show. And of course so much of what inspires us is the fan art. So many times in the writers room we would pull up images that players had made saying, This! This is the feeling that we want. So to me, when I think about what went into making the show so much of it is the players and the audience who embraced it and I appreciate it so much. Please keep giving it to us. Even the things you do not like–I like hearing all of it. And thank you for being someone who can help bring that message back and forth.