In Part 1 of our interview with DOTA: Dragon’s Blood creator and executive producer, Ashley Miller, we discussed writing and producing for an animated series, the game elements he included in the storyline, and casting the voice talent.
For Part 2, we delve into working with Studio Mir, plotting key character arcs, the moments where Ashley’s vision came to life, and that chilling song in the finale.
Studio Mir is known for creating characters that express themselves in exaggerated ways. Was the more subdued approach to animating the characters in DOTA intentional?
That was 100% intentional. I didn’t want slide-whistle moments or extremely exaggerated reactions because I felt it would affect the tone. I asked Studio Mir to do things that I don’t think they were used to doing. It was the same for the actors. I wanted this story to feel grounded and naturalistic. If you’re working with actors who’ve never done voice acting before, you have to help them find the right range because it will feel too big to them. The experienced voice actors sometimes want to go bigger when they start but you have to [pull them back].
How did you strike the balance between Davion being a powerful Dragon Knight, but also being mortal and vulnerable?
One of the top things that we spent a lot of time on in the writers’ room was being very meticulous about where Davion was in an episode. That’s another reason why we didn’t want exaggerated expressions, and for the violence to feel grounded. I didn’t want things to feel easy for any character because all of those things add up. The more physical exertion Davion puts into a fight, the more it feels like he can actually be overwhelmed.
In that fight against the bandits at the end of Episode 2, he’s clearly a badass, but he’s up against 12 people. I’m sorry, but the reality is you’re gonna go down like Peter Weller in Robocop. We tracked where Davion was emotionally from episode to episode.
Also, Mirana became a mirror for Davion. She gave us permission to talk about where he was, and where he wanted to be. He’s fighting this thing that he can’t punch because it’s inside of him. There’s nothing he can do about it. Davion can get to the point where he admits he’s afraid, but it takes him longer to get to the point where he can admit that he’s dying. We let him live in those feelings and be honest about it at every turn.
I’m fascinated by Mirana and hope you can share how you plotted her arc for these first episodes.
Mirana started as a thought experiment the same way that Davion did. Davion has a built-in contradiction. He’s a Dragon Knight who hunts and slays dragons, but then he becomes a dragon. With Mirana, we started out with a princess who has nothing. She has no country. She’s nothing, and that was interesting. I love the idea of pairing Davion and Mirana, these two archetypes who are grappling with specific baggage, and seeing where that took them.
Mirana, at her heart, is the toughest character on the show. She’s been through a lot, and we haven’t even seen some of it. Her self-doubt is real. It’s human. And that was the great value of [pairing her with] Marci. Yes, I love the moment when Marci flips out on everybody in that basement, but the moment I really fell in love with Marci was when she hands the bow to Mirana. We all need someone who says, “I believe in you. Now get off your ass and go do that thing you’re good at.” And Mirana does it.
Her entire arc over the season was getting her to the place where she stopped questioning herself. Mirana in Episode 2 would not have been capable of what she does in Episode 5. How Mirana evolves in Episodes 7 and 8 is very dependent on what happened to her in Episode 5. At the end of the season, everybody levels up. The good news is that Mirana’s the princess again. It’s also the bad news. She stayed alive and accomplished her objective, but now she’s responsible for other people.
Without a doubt, Marci is the breakout character of this series. Were you expecting fans to react to her in such a huge way?
I remember a moment that we were sitting around in the writers’ room talking about her and had this realization that people were going to love her. She went through an interesting evolution because originally I didn’t plan for her to be a badass. We were breaking Episode 2 with Mirana down in that basement, and it was like, “How do we get her out of there without going through a bunch of bullshit.” In one breath, Mirana can’t say she has nothing and she’s nobody, and in the next breath, she just kicks the crap out of 12 guys. Does she smuggle a weapon in? Suddenly, a light went off. Wouldn’t it be great if Marci steps up and kicks the unholy shit out of everybody in the room? Marci is the weapon that Mirana’s been hiding the whole time. We all agreed that Marci was the secret weapon.
In the trailer, it was great to see the moment where Marci punches a dude and blood splatters across her face. But if that hadn’t been in the trailer, Episode 2 would have been even more shocking and amazing. She’s the conscience of this show, like Jiminy Cricket, except super violent.
Selemene reminds me of gods and goddesses from classical mythology, the ones that are cruel and manipulative but hide behind an altruistic facade. What can you share about developing that character?
Selemene was an interesting exercise. From the beginning, I felt that she was going to turn out to be the worst mother in the history of mothers. To get there, the audience had to fully believe that she would put the worship of her and her ego over literally everything else, and then lie to herself and everyone else about it. She is effectively a borderline [personality] who happens to have godlike powers. She gaslights everybody.
We were asked if there was ever a scene planned where we saw Mirana getting kicked out of the Nightsilver Woods by Selemene, and the answer is no. Mirana tells us that she’s got nothing. The shopkeeper says Mirana was exiled. The only person who said Mirana wasn’t exiled is Selemene. And the abuse that Selemene subjects Luna to is awful. At the end of the sixth episode, when Selemene nails Luna for doing exactly what Selemene asked her to do is so twisted.
Characters like Selemene are delicious to write because they’re always keeping a secret, and it’s usually a secret they’re keeping from themselves. There’s a lie they’re telling themselves and everybody else. I’m a big mythology nerd, so my appreciation of the classics went into the design of that character.
Was there a moment in the production process where you really started seeing your vision come together?
I had a number of those moments, even before we got to a finished product. When we hired our composer, Dino Meneghin, I’d worked with him on another project and had to convince people [he was right for the job]. He asked me to send an animatic of something, and I’ll write the music. I sent him the sequence from Episode 3 where Mirana’s in the cave and goes out into the snow. Dino sent me back what’s in the [final cut of] the episode, and it blew my mind. It was so trippy and cinematic and cool.
What I’m most proud of is the balcony scene with Davion and Mirana in Episode 6. That’s a tough dive to execute because you don’t have actors giving you a full facial performance. It has to be in the little touches of the animation and the voice performance, and the editing has to be exactly right. It’s just this quiet, lovely moment between these two characters that is absolutely critical. They are being completely open and vulnerable to each other. There’s not a hint of action in it, but it works. I love that scene.
Fans have been talking about that chilling “Praise the Moon of Mene” song, especially in the closing credits of Episode 8. How did that come together?
That was also an evolution. The kids are singing it in Coedwig after the announcement that the Dark Moon Order is leaving. There’s actually a deleted scene when soldiers try to interrupt the singing, and Luna stops them and says, “Let them sing,” because they’re celebrating.
We were doing a sound spot on the last episode and got to the final moment with the Invoker standing over Selemene asking, “Do you love me?” As we went to the credits, our first thought was, “Would it be cool if there was no music after this?” The next thought was, “What if we hear the song again? What if it’s Genevieve Beardslee singing that song acapella as Filomena?” It would feel like a part of the episode, a comment on everything that had just happened, and on Selemene and the Invoker. Is the Invoker hearing this in his head? In a way, are we answering the question of why Filomena wouldn’t worship her mother? The lyrics were written well before we had that inspiration. As it turned out, Genevieve had a lovely little voice, and we were blessed that it all worked out.