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Esteu aquí: Inici Magazine Interview with Rodrigo Blass, showrunner for Netflix’s “Trollhunters”

Interview with Rodrigo Blass, showrunner for Netflix’s “Trollhunters”

This Annecy 2018 we met with our good Animac pal: Granada-born Rodrigo Blaas. He’s the first Spaniard showrunner working inside the animated Hollywood under the umbrella of Netflix, Dreamworks, and Guillermo del Toro. Rodrigo and Guillermo hold the reins of “Trollhunters”, one of the most successful animated series in years, and also the cornerstone of a new TV universe being built as we speak. “Trollhunter” follows the journey of teenager James Lake Jr, who, after finding a magical amulet, becomes the new guardian of the troll kind living secretly beneath our world. In just three seasons and fifty-two episodes, “Trollhunters” follows Campbell’s heroic journey while updating troll mythology with lots of action and comedy, but also preserving the dark touch of Guillermo del Toro.

 

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Animac Magazine: First of all, thank you so much for your time! You’ve mentioned more than once how your time at Pixar felt like your college – the specialized education you never had. We would love to know more about your journey from Spain to Pixar. How did you end up there?

Rodrigo Blaas: The purpose of this journey was to find a way to animate characters. That was hard to do here in the 90s, during my first years working as an animator in Madrid, where I was also involved in advertising, FX… I did a little bit of everything, I was a generalist employee. I wanted to get into fiction and tell stories and, above all, work on character acting. Pixar had always been a beacon in terms of quality, expressive CGI animation. That was the goal: to work with that team of filmmakers. I found the time to work on my animation reel so that, if Pixar crossed my path, I could send it to them.

And before Pixar, BlueSky happened. They were making their first “Ice Age”, and they were looking for European animators from their NY studio. That was my first step overseas and a very good experience: I met a very young and eager team, and I had the chance to animate characters like Sid the sloth. They assigned me a couple shots that everyone liked a lot, and that’s when Pixar saw my work and called me to ask if I would like to work with them. I said YES without a second thought!

It was the time of Andrew Stanton’s “Finding Nemo” or Brad Bird’s “The Incredibles”. And that’s why I say Pixar was my college education because it was a process where the directors were transparent and made you part of their creation. So you could see the decisions everyone made and why they were made, i.e. why this scene has been cut this way. The good thing about these filmmakers was that when they asked you to do a specific task – make a shot like this, animate this character with that specific weight – they explained why it worked. It was an extraordinary experience, they were your allies: they all thought alike, pushing the medium towards a kind of stories that weren’t told until then, wanting to experiment with tent-pole feature films.

Animac Magazine: After your time at Pixar, you decided to go back to Spain to make your own short film “Alma”, which was very successful. And then you had the chance to pitch it to Guillermo del Toro – how was that first meeting that changed everything?

Rodrigo Blaas: I had seen Guillermo a couple times at Pixar, since he used to come to present films, and I told him that I was outlining a short film, that I was thinking how to make it possible production-wise, that I might go back to Spain… And Guillermo looked at me and said: “What are you doing here eating Taco Bell? Go to Spain and have an horchata and make your film there!”

When I was in the middle of planning my short film, it just happened that – it’s all about timing in this industry – my wife was working with a Spanish Team – Keytoon – and they were on a break and able to work with us. We pitched our animatic with that courage the Spanish animator always shows, and we went head-first into it. It was such a rewarding experience because it meant to work again in fiction – what I always wanted – and it left a good taste in my mouth. I just wanted to tell a small story, and it was such a personal project that I was unsure if it would have an impact or not. When I was done with it, I started sending it to festivals, I sent it to Guillermo (who told me that finishing the film was crucial), he saw it, he loved it, and he asked me if I had more ideas, so I visited him to pitch “Alma” as a feature film.

At that time, Guillermo was in conversations with Dreamworks to become one of their producers and potentially direct a feature film. The next day after I met with him, he told me: “Come here, cabrón.” He wanted me to come to Los Angeles to work with him. And, of course, if someone asks you like that, it’s hard to say no. And I’ve been there eight years. We developed a couple of projects together, and “Trollhunters” was the one we could push forward. Its narrative is so fascinating, it’s something unique in the TV medium – all thanks to Netflix since they allow you to adapt stories in a different way compared to the traditional TV standards.

 

 

Animac Magazine: What’s the day-to-day of a showrunner like? How do you manage all your tasks: directing, scriptwriting, voice acting…? We know that you’re really involved in directing the voice talent!

Rodrigo Blaas: Showrunning a TV series like this one is so difficult – there are so many things happening all the time. But, at the same time, it’s very rewarding: you can witness, participate in, and even direct every part of the process. What a showrunner does in an animated series of this kind is similar to a film director’s work: shaping the story and its path with the writers, sitting with the editor to adjust the animatics of each episode, meeting with the voice talent in the recording studio… This last part is one of my favourite experiences, since you can shape and tweak everyone’s performance and imagine how it will work on scene, once animated. The most interesting of all this process is the production’s pace. What you start working on during the first month (for instance, an animatic) you’ll see it done just a month later (properly animated, including lighting and sound effects). It’s almost instant gratification, compared to the feature film world – where processes take much longer.

Animac Magazine: Besides, “Trollhunters” is a TV series with an increasingly complex mythology and a darker tone. How was your relationship with Netflix in terms of pushing the limits of your show?

Rodrigo Blaas: The truth is that Dreamworks and Netflix have been extremely respectful. Since the very beginning, we expressed we wanted an Amblin-esque tone for our series. We wanted a 10-year-old or a young adult – and everyone in between – to sit in front of their screens. And we wanted that 10-year-old to enjoy and immerse in this mythology and tell their parents to sit along and share that world with them. That was our goal. We wanted to play with a darker tone because we believe it’s truly important for parental relationships: kids are witnesses of their parents’ lives, their anxieties, their moments of joy… They grow up with these codes, this ambivalence. And we wanted to mix the dark with a cathartic laugh… right after a jump scare. We wanted to tell stories you can have fun with but, at the same time, their dramatic consequences are real. You travel along with these characters, and they’re going through a transformation during the whole TV series, in front of you, and the public needs to feel it.

Animac Magazine: It’s a transformation – let’s avoid spoilers – that has a lot to do with Guillermo del Toro’s DNA, who has always put the monster in the front row, exploring how we relate to them. Was that journey planned from the very inception of the project, or did you have to adapt?

Rodrigo Blaas: You always need to adapt and adjust little things, but the main themes were already outlined since the very inception, before starting season one. This is one of the main advantages of working with Netflix: they give you all the time and length you need for your show. If you want to use this or that type and number of episodes, just go ahead. With this idea in mind – we have all this time and space to tell this story – we’ve been able to build with Guillermo a mythology rooted in popular literature, fairy tales, Norse mythology, and the troll imagery. We invested many hours researching all these sources, and being able to work with all these narrative codes, watching this mythology grow and experiment with it through character… it’s been the most rewarding side of this journey.

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Animac Magazine: “Trollhunters” is the first volume of a TV universe you’re currently building - “Tales of Arcadia”, where other upcoming animated series will also take place in the same little town. When did you come up with this strategy? Did Netflix offer themselves this opportunity to expand your world?

Rodrigo Blaas: They’ve always been open and receptive to our ideas, and one of Guillermo’s ideas was to make a sci-fi TV show – he always craved that. So, with “Trollhunters” going full throttle and seeing how Arcadia hides magical elements, we realized this could be the common ground for all these stories. And the idea came up naturally. Soon we’ll see a new side of Arcadia in “3 Below”, and later in “Wizards”. Having explored troll mythology, we thought we could find more stories to tell. And if they give you this wonderful chance, why not take it and go head-first into it, am I right?


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