How Animation Brought Critical Role’s “Legend of Vox Machina” to Life

Vax, Scanland, Percival, Vex, Grog, Pyke and Keyleth in “The Legend of Vox Machina”, a new animated series based on “Critical Role”.

Amazon Studios

In the first minute of Critical Role’s new animated series “The Legend of Vox Machina,” a boulder reduces an adventurer to bloody mush, a spellcaster is cut into several pieces, eyeballs streak across the screen, and a weaponized fighter of a sword is electrified into a burnt husk.

“We knew that, especially with this first and second episode, we had to do a good job of telling the world and our audience exactly what this show was going to be,” said Marisha Ray, Creative Director of Critical Role and the voice. of the druid Keyleth in the series.

The series is based on Critical Role’s first streaming Dungeons & Dragons campaign and follows the adventures of Vox Machina, a group of debauched mercenaries.

It’s the latest adult animated series to arrive on Amazon’s Prime Video streaming service, alongside the equally violent ‘Invincible’, the raunchy ‘Fairfax’ and the dark ‘Undone’.

“The Legend of Vox Machina” launched its first three episodes on Friday and will continue to air three new episodes every week for the next three weeks. An expected release date for the second season has yet to be announced.

“We’ve seen so much critical and audience success with our animated slate,” Melissa Wolfe, head of animation and family programming at Prime Video, said in an email to CNBC. “”Vox” felt like a natural addition to the animation slate we’re building here…animation offers a unique and unexpected way to tell stories and that’s really just the beginning for us at Prime Video.”

For Prime Video, “The Legend of Vox Machina” was a safe bet. With relatively low upfront costs, compared to many of Amazon’s other streaming projects, the series has a passionate built-in audience and will add value to its platform.

Fans and critics alike have already praised the show. It currently holds a 100% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes from 17 official reviews.

View Vox Machina

While there have been movies and TV shows inspired by tabletop RPGs in the past, “The Legend of Vox Machina” is the first show to use a full Dungeons & Dragons campaign as its source material.

With over 400 hours of live-streamed content to choose from, the Critical Role team, alongside executive producer Brandon Auman (“Star Wars Resistance,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”), chose to focus on two things. main plot points of the show. first season. One shows the events that transpired before Critical Role began streaming its tabletop sessions in 2015, while the other focuses on the fan-favorite Briarwood Arc, which sees Vox Machina take on the villainous Sylas and Delilah Briarwood.

“We had our manic midnight oil sessions with blackboards and red string deconstructing the stories and piecing them together so that not only our current fans but also newcomers to Vox Machina would be intrigued and hooked,” said Travis Willingham, CEO of Critical Role. and the voice of Grog in the series. “We want them to stay and see where these crazy adventurers are going.”

While the series does away with some of the gameplay mechanics, like dice rolling and turn-based combat, he’s still recognizable in the story. Attentive viewers will notice that there are in- and out-of-combat consequences that mimic what could happen if a player threw a “Natural One” or failed a skill check.

“Embracing failure is part of the fun of the story,” said Matt Mercer, Critical Role’s lead dungeon master and creator of the world of Exandria, in which “The Legend of Vox Machina” takes place.

“It’s remarkable once you strip out all the mechanics of the show, you end up with this really remarkable narrative that was crafted by group storytelling with no real plan,” said Taliesin Jaffe, the voice of Percival de Rolo. in the series. “And yet, this is it and it’s compelling, it’s a roller coaster. I’m constantly in awe of it.”

Travis Willingham voices Grog in “The Legend of Vox Machina” on Amazon Prime Video.

Amazon Studios

The half-hour episodes are distilled versions of Critical Role sessions, which are often filled with running gags, teasing interjections, rules talk, and occasional bathroom breaks. Still, the band’s humor and kinetic energy don’t get lost in the animation. The characters are always playful and gross, flawed and lovable.

“We wanted it to feel like our story,” said Laura Bailey, who voices Vex’ahlia on the show. “It would be very easy to take that kind of story and turn it into dramatic action without any of those comedic beats that I think really make Vox Machina what it is and make Critical Role what it is. is.”

Through animation, Critical Role fans can see these characters come to life in new ways. For many who play or watch the Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, much of the action and interaction is a “theatre of the mind”, meaning you visualize it all in your head.

There are instances where dioramas and minifigures are used during combat moments to indicate where all the characters are standing, but for the most part that’s left to the imagination.

“It’s one thing to see it in your mind, especially when we’re around the table, but to actually see it on a screen with sound and go through this whole experience is unlike anything else,” Willingham said.

Humble beginnings

The project first started as a Kickstarter to fund a 22-minute animated special as a “love letter” to the band’s fanbase, known as the Critters. In 2019, Critical Role was seeking $750,000, but by the end of the six-week campaign had raised over $11.3 million from 88,000 backers, becoming the most successful film or television project ever. of Kickstarter history.

While fans paid for a 10-episode series, a deal with Amazon’s Prime Video streaming service meant Critical Role would premiere 24 episodes spread over two seasons.

Mercer explained that the team originally pitched an animated version of their Dungeons & Dragons campaign to studios, but the concept was not well understood by those executives.

Mercer said the Kickstarter and support from the Critical Role community “changed that perspective in the industry and people started paying attention to it.”

“Amazon is the only company that came to us and said, ‘We want to help you do more, make it better, and enable you to realize your creative vision as a partnership,'” he said. .

The “Critical Role” actors reprise their roles as Vox Machina in Amazon Prime Video’s “The Legend of Vox Machina.”

Amazon Studios

In recent years, Amazon’s streaming service has shifted to content such as Critical Role’s “The Legend of Vox Machina,” shows based on popular entertainment properties with established fanbases, said Michael Pachter, analyst at Wedbush. Already, Amazon has released series based on “The Boys” comics and “Wheel of Time” books. It is also in production in an extensive program “The Lord of the Rings”.

“I followed [the Kickstarter campaign] up close and seeing the incredible real-time response,” said Amazon’s Wolfe. “After getting to know the Critical Role team and seeing how their passion and commitment would only grow stronger during the development process, it all became clear that we would want to work with them to make it a Prime Video series.”

In partnership with Prime Video, Critical Role’s animated series will be available in over 200 countries. Previously, the company’s streaming content was limited to predominantly English-speaking regions.

Willingham said it was “increased exposure” for the brand.

“If this show goes the way we expect it to and people really like what we’ve done, hopefully we can bring them a lot more stories,” Riegel said. “We have a lot of big big ideas.”

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal owns Rotten Tomatoes.