Saturday, September 24, 2011
Massive Jayson Thiessen Q&A From Bronycon
It's animated because this is important!
So a BroNYCon attendee wrote up the vast majority of Jayson's responses to audience questions while he was at the con. On his left you can see Seth in his Trixie getup. And by that I mean a Trixie shirt. That he wore while he was out having fun without us. Jerk.
Writeup is here.
Oh, and Seth says to tell you guys that the balloon ponies from the Comiccon poster are confirmed for season two. He 'overheard it'.
Full text is after the break.
Well, when I say "met" I guess I mean more like "sat with for an aggregate total of probably like two hours and asked him all the questions I've had pent up for the past however many months I've been doing this crazy pony thing".
By which I mean of course that I went to BroNYCon.
Jayson Thiessen and Sethisto were the Guests of Honor at this event at which I'd say a healthy 300 people showed up, many in costume and most bedecked in pony t-shirts and other paraphernalia. (It took place in about 2000 square feet of unventilated studio up above some kind of sock factory in the middle of Chinatown; no, this fandom isn't Comic-Con grade yet, but it's just getting started.) The feature event was a big-screen projector showing of S02E02 introduced by the man himself, followed by a long Q&A session.
But really the main reason I was there was to corner Jayson and find out what makes this show tick, beyond what we haven't already heard from one interview or another. So before the showing, before anyone had really noticed him and his wife (a part-time storyboarder on FiM, aside from her own projects—these creative types seem to tend to marry within the industry), I jacked my way into a chair across his table and treated myself to some interview-disguised-as-casual-conversation.
What follows is an unorganized digest of all the little points that I learned both from sitting with Jayson and from the Q&A session. I'll spoiler everything that's remotely spoilery, but stuff about the feature episode itself I'll put in the episode thread for now.
The big question, for me: Why on earth is this show so good? Whose idea was it to make a show this uncompromising in quality, when expectations for anything with the MLP label were basically nil? The answer, it seems, is the production staff and Studio B. His team is just that good. Hasbro wasn't really trying to create an amazing show with quality several orders of magnitude higher than anything the property had seen in the past; they (i.e. Lisa Licht) wanted to make something, but they didn't know what exactly until Lauren showed up with her Galaxy Girls pitch. At that point things just sort of gelled. And that's down to the specific personalities involved; Lauren and Jayson are both perfectionists, and they instantly clicked on the project, to the point where they would "finish each other's sentences". And Jayson simply refuses to let anything go out the door with his name on it that doesn't meet his standards, which are to make everything—even ponies—the best thing they can possibly be. I get the feeling that the project could easily have gone to some other studio/showrunner, and it could have turned out no better than, say, G3.5. It's just fortune that it ended up in the hands of a team—and though Jayson steadfastly refuses to toot his own horn, you can tell he's a huge part of it—that would drive it to that level of quality simply because it's what they do, and they can't conceive of doing anything else.
My theory that Hasbro was throwing huge amounts of money at this show was unfounded, Jayson was quick to correct me. Apparently they really are doing it on a shoestring. And yet the team never really feels budget pressure, he said. I asked whether there was anything he found he was unable to do because of constraints on money or content (I worked in as many of Nissl's questions as I could, as well as my own); he said budget was never really a problem, but sometimes Hasbro did veto some ideas. (They're primarily involved right at the beginning of the production process, during scriptwriting and planning; beyond that they really stay out of the way.) As often as not, though, they treated these occasions as opportunities to apply some additional creativity and make it even better than it otherwise would have been. And sometimes what Hasbro points out to them is just common sense, things that they should have realized to begin with. One example he gave gets its own bullet point:
"Applebuck Season" was originally about "applebumping", i.e. Applejack would harvest apples by ramming trees with her head. (You can see how the script originally had her consciousness deteriorating already, huh?) But Hasbro said, uh, maybe that's not quite the kind of thing we want to be encouraging kids to do, y'know? So they rejiggered the concept into applebucking, which works as a drop-in replacement to the story—making it about sleep deprivation instead. So applebucking ends up both becoming an iconic Applejack "thing", and the story turns out quite a bit more fun than a lesson about repetitive long-term cranial trauma. :gah:
All the great little "bits" that they keep throwing in—from high-quality animation that they sweat and sweat until it's perfect, to Sondheim-homage musical numbers, to outright references to things only adults will get—are basically the Studio B staff just entertaining themselves rather than anyone in the audience. Jayson said that what makes this show so great is the result of a million little wonderful surprises, occasions where someone assigned to some task just comes back with something that goes way above and beyond the expectation and throws everything into a whole new and awesome light; and all those things sequenced together inevitably ended up making the whole show just that awesome. Hasbro giving them a very loose rein and generally a policy of "why the hell not?" was what brought it all together. Case in point: Discord. Discord was a character straight off Lauren's pen, because apparently she'd been bingeing on Trek:TNG lately at the time that script got written. She decided to play him just like Q, because why the hell not? She'd originally planned to have Discord voiced by a De Lancie soundalike; but then during one of the meetings, someone (Jayson said it might well have been him) just said, "Why don't we just try to get the real guy?" Sure it cost money, but Hasbro said why the hell not? And John was free, and he was game, so there's our Discord. Why the hell not?
So as to who they're performing for, it's not us, it's not 6-year-old kids, it's themselves. They're just doing what they think makes the show as great as they can, to entertain each other as best they know how. In other words, the creative team on this show really is just having that much fun making it. Best thing I could ever have heard.
The creative team Jayson has surrounded himself with, from co-directors to storyboarders to this and that role, is largely people he's worked with in the past and with whom he shares a general creative vision. That pretty much stands to reason. He knows what works, and who works, and the better these people know each other, the better the end product is—especially when it's comedy we're talking about, and the show gets more and more self-referential as everyone just has an absolute blast playing with the characters and how they'd react in certain situations. (Those who have seen the latest episode know this in spades.) This, by the way, is the kind of humor Jayson loves best—not the "let's do an episode in Dr. Seuss style" kind of thing that a show like PPG or Samurai Jack would do, but stuff that's character-driven and consistent within the universe. This, by the way, is something he's new to as a director—visually he draws on his experience from his work on Pucca, but as far as deep characterization this is something he's never really done before, but it's something he's fallen in love with as a style.
Hasbro's toy division is almost completely divorced from the entertainment division, to the point that Jayson hardly ever even thinks about what the toys are doing. The only time he ever has to worry about it is when Hasbro comes to them and says something like "hey guys, can you put this balloon in the show somewhere? No big, just see if you can; you know, be creative or something. Love ya babe, keep it reaaal". So they respond to those kinds of requests, but other than that the toys are barely on their radar.
And vice versa. Apparently on the subject of show-accurate toys, Hasbro is "looking into it". It's some kind of enormous financial undertaking to rework everything now that it's all in production, and apparently they just don't really see the need—I guess it's selling fine as-is.
On Lauren's departure: it was personal reasons. Which is to say she just up and told everyone she was burning out, and she withdrew right at the top of her game. It was a huge surprise to everybody, and nobody saw it coming, but they all respected her decision. The upshot is that there weren't any creative disagreements or corporate politics involved, it was just something she felt she had to do; and she'd mind-melded with Jayson and the rest of the team enough by then that they basically have all the handle on where she wanted to go with it that they need. (I wish I knew why nobody's thought to ask about this subject directly in prior interviews. It's clearly Lauren's story to tell, but it's nothing that sensitive or mysterious.)
Jayson really understands by this point why it is that we dudes all fell in love with the show: that it gave us an excuse to ditch all the poisonous, self-perpetuating cynicism and bile that we'd become used to throwing around at the world and each other, and to just appreciate something sweet and beautiful because it was objectively good enough that we didn't have to feel weird about it if we didn't choose to. He mentioned that there are times when he's reviewing a story and he feels himself start to get choked up over a particularly emotional moment, or to feel himself getting carried away by something as gorgeous as the meteor shower scene (I suggested that, he didn't bring it up himself—I must confess I probably did as much talking as he did; let's all feign surprise), and he says he really understands in those moments what the show means to us, how we must all feel. He gets it.
By that same token, he's adamant about not changing the show to suit "our" tastes; he firmly believes that if the show exactly as it is is what we fell in love with, then by God they're going to keep making that show. (Whenever some fan in the audience would ask some dumb question about "hey are you gonna put some OCs of high-profile fandom contributors in the background?", the rest of the crowd would shout him down or cheer when Jayson said no.)
What would he have done differently? He said the early episodes in S1 were pretty chaotic, since they didn't really know what they were doing; if they'd had those episodes to do right now, now that they've got the whole production all worked out and smooth, they probably would have turned out considerably better, or at least it would have involved a lot less fumbling around and painful learning experiences.
Jayson is very big on animation fundamentals and holding true to history's guiding lights—Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, all the big names. One thing he said (when one of the guys I was sitting with mentioned Flash) was "It's not Flash, you know… it's animation." Meaning the tool is just that, a tool. The stuff that comes out of it can look terrible regardless of the tool, if you don't care about the final product. But Jayson does care; if someone half-asses a couple of frames with a sloppy tween, he'll kick it right back saying I WANT TO SEE ACT-TING! But this is no different from someone doing a really crappy inbetween drawing in a traditional sequence; it's just another tool. (Seriously, Jayson is just such a laid-back, personable guy, and I can only imagine having him for a boss would just be so great.)
One guy getting his con poster signed asked for Jayson to give up some kind of hint for Episode 3. Maybe in riddle form? Jayson hemmed and hawed for a bit, then said Tick-tock, time's running out.
Chocolate rain? Real Internet reference, or crazy coincidence? "You'd have to ask the writers." But he says that he recognized the gag the instant he saw the script, and knew that anyone in the audience paying any attention would immediately make that connection; so he proceeded with the episode as though it were a real reference. ("Let's just say yes." :smirk:)
A few bits from the Q&A session after the episode. There were a lot of real groaner questions, stuff I couldn't believe these guys were squandering this kind of opportunity on, like the WHAR MY LOOONA one that led off or the guy who was all like "Will the flower ponies show up again? Specifically Roseluck? :haw:" (and was all like "Yessss!" when Jayson said sure why not). But there were also some pretty worthwhile tidbits to be gleaned:
Is Equestria the name of the whole planet, or just a country? He's not really sure if they've thought about it in that detail. Equestria "may have a border".
There are more 2-parters coming. He says they're a lot more work, but the results are worth it.
There's a "scary" episode on the way.
Derpy? He says she's definitely going to be around. "In fact, there may even be a specific Derpy 'bit'."
There won't really be any "heavy" stories coming that they can foresee. They're going to be staying away from that kind of thing.
Where do zebras and griffons come from? They really haven't given that any thought, honestly.
Which Scootaloo do you like best: Scootaloo, Scootaloo, or Scootaloo? "Well, I don't really like Scootaloo, so that takes the options down to Scootaloo or Scootaloo." :nngh:
We "may" see more of the ponies' parents.
What was it like working with John de Lancie? Oh it was great, from all you can gather from a Skype conversation (c'mon, the voice acting director's a whole different person/stage of production, and all Jayson would have really had in the way of interaction with him was a preliminary get-to-know interview). But "I sure wouldn't mind getting him back again". With all that implies.
They get their glue from the store, just like everybody else. :rainbert:
"It's always been the plan" to release a soundtrack CD. :awesomedash:
Season 3 greenlighted? "Answering that would get me fired." Read: almost certainly
Do the CMCs get their cutie marks? "I don't know, we haven't really figured that out yet." Read: no
"There is a new villain." (He put on an "oh shit" expression right after this, like he legitimately didn't mean to let that slip out.)
There has been no serious talk about adding humans, sea ponies, or other G1 elements to the show. (Nor does Jayson seem to really have any familiarity with any of the previous gens.)
Favorite pony? Whichever one is on screen at the time in a scene he's working on, obviously. (He loves 'em all and could never decide. See, he does get it.)
Okay, that's about all I can piece together in any kind of coherent manner from my notes (aside from some stuff about today's episode that I'll go post in that thread now). What I will say about watching the episode on a big washed-out underpowered projector playing out of some dude's VLC, with a not-great sound system and 300 pony-festooned guys in folding chairs and the show's director standing on stage holding a microphone and looking distinctly uncomfortable yet with the broadest aw-shucks grin on his face you can ever imagine, is that it's one of the best things to experience I can easily remember. You know what all these guys did when the theme song came on, right? Yup: sang along. How could they not? They belted it the fuck out, all 300 of them, in an unbalanced, unpracticed, slightly psychotic, thoroughly heartfelt man-chorus. I USED TO WONDER WHAT FRIENDSHIP COULD BE. All I could do was stand there doubled over in laughter, because it's one of those situations where all you can do is laugh, because if you don't you'll just burst into tears.
I don't know where this whole pony thing is going, but this can't be the peak of it. 300 attendees is pretty paltry by convention standards, and I don't know what kind of incentives they can offer people to sweeten the pot now that we've had Jayson show up at one; but somehow I get the feeling that this thing is far from done growing. Maybe bronies will be booking the Doubletree a few years down the road. It happened for Star Trek, right?
Hell, I don't know. What I do know is that this was one hell of a way to spend a new-ponies Saturday.