• EQD Interviews - MLP Season 6 Supervising Director Big Jim Miller!

    With Jayson Thiessen swapping over to the movie, his second in command, Big Jim Miller, has taken the mantle on further pony supervising directing duties! What better time than now to bombard him with a bunch of questions?

    This is probably one of the most substantive interviews we have ever gotten here on EQD with some absolutely incredible responses. If season 6 is anywhere near as entertaining as some of these, I'll be beyond happy.

    Now go check it out below the break!

    (Warning: Some Season 6 Spoilers.)

    Question: Now that Jayson has moved to the movie and you are the new supervising director of Friendship is Magic, what kind of duties have you suddenly found yourself piled with that you weren’t involved with previously?

    Big Jim: To be fair, my duties haven’t changed a whole lot. When Jayson and I were directing, it was pretty much a 51/49 % split. We each directed 13 episodes while teaming up for the two parters. What it really meant was that Jayson had the final say on anything to do with the series if we ever disagreed (which we rarely did, thank goodness. I felt like we were a pretty good team.), and was the point person when dealing with Hasbro. Now that he’s moved over to the feature film (which is looking KILLER BTW), I’m in that proverbial cat-bird seat, working with Denny Lu (former MLP animation director) and Tim Stuby (former MLP layout supervisor) in the co-director positions. We brought on Tim partway through S6 to help manage the volume of work while we were doubled up on both S5 & S6 so we could keep the break between the two as short as it is.

    So I’m still involved with all the stages of the production; giving notes on scripts, being present at voice and song records, discussing how we envision the songs with Daniel, overseeing the design of the show with the art director, guiding the board artists and reviewing and revising the finished boards, reviewing and giving notes on layouts and animation, cutting the show in the edits, reviewing and giving notes on the sound effects and score and the final mix. It’s a ton of work and I (and the other directors) are with the episodes for a really long time.

    I suppose the main difference is now I oversee not only the episodes I’m doing, but all of them in the entire season.While I was always welcome to pipe in with suggestions to Jayson on his episodes, he had the final say. Now that power is MINE TO COMMAND! Mwa - HAHAHAHA!

    We know now that Starlight Glimmer will make a major appearance in the Season 6 premiere. Does the addition of another seemingly "main" character to the show impact production much? For example, the addition of Discord meant that there are now one or two Discord episodes per season, so how does the addition of a new important character impact the balance of the show overall? Or, is that handled mostly by the story editor and writers?

    Big Jim: When we’re working with a semi-recurring character like say, a Discord, it’s not really any bigger of an impact on production than a one off character created for any individual episode. They still need to be designed, built and animated in all the same ways. If anything, it’s better for us to have a recurring character in that with each appearance, we can build up a library of reuse animation, expressions and poses that make the lives of the layout artists and animators just a teeny bit easier.
    That’s the practical, production answer. In terms of the storytelling, it means we need to make sure we try to be consistent with their characterization and personality for each subsequent appearance. While some of that definitely falls to the writers, there is a fair amount of managing and building off what’s written on our end. Also, since some writers come and go, and aren’t always aware of every appearance of a given character and what’s been done with them (it’s over 100 episodes. It’s a LOT to watch coming in fresh!), it falls to me and my crew to make sure we maintain a degree of consistency.

    Question: How long is the gap of time between an episode’s completion, and it airing on TV? Has this changed at all between the seasons?

    Big Jim: Each episode takes roughly a year (+/-) from the initial premise to completion, and all 26 are staggered in such a way that we’re working on them all at various stages of production. When we deliver a final episode, it’s usually about 6 - 8 weeks before it airs on Discovery Family. So this means that even when a season starts airing, we’re still working on later episodes (as is the case currently).

    As far as I recall, it’s been fairly consistent over the years, but the last few episodes of S5 only had about 4 weeks between completion and airing (not due to any lateness on our part, but just because DF wanted to air them right away).

    Question: Are you involved in the recruitment process for new writers on the show? If so, what kind of experience do you usually look for?

    Big Jim:  All the writer recruitment is done by Hasbro Studios and the season’s Story Editor in LA. I’m not involved in that process, but I do have to opportunity to give notes on scripts as they come in.

    Question: Alicorns have always been a somewhat testy subject among the fandom, but we seem to accept them once we get to know them. Are these usually added by request of Hasbro? Or does the production team see the potential new layer to the show with one and run with it? Has there ever been any consideration for a male alicorn?

    Big Jim:  It’s easy to forget that this show primarily exists in order to help market a toy line. So every season, there’s usually a few things that Hasbro Brand asks us to include (previous examples are the helicopter in ‘Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3, and the upcoming swan boat). There’s an instinct to get caught up in an ‘Aww, man! Really?’ kind of attitude, but over the years, it’s become somewhat of a fun challenge for us to find ways to incorporate these requests in to the series that makes sense in terms of the storytelling. And to be fair, Hasbro Brand has been incredibly gracious and patient with how we do that (think back to how long that helicopter was actually on screen).

    So, this new alicorn is no different. I seem to recall that this actually came more from a storytelling opportunity rather than exclusively from Hasbro Brand, but they were excited about the possibility of a new alicorn. As with all of these new character/idea introductions will be what we do with them beyond their initial appearance. Can we continue with these ideas and make them relevant? Make the audience care about this new character? Does this change offer us additional opportunities to tell fun and interesting stories moving forward (which, after 5 seasons can prove to be more difficult than you’d think)? Time (and fan reaction) will tell if it was a good idea.

    As for male alicorns, I don’t recall there ever being a discussion that Cadance and Shining Armor’s child would be a boy. Not for any particular reason, mind you. And while I don’t personally think there’s any reason we couldn’t have a male alicorn, there’s no current plans that I’m aware of that would have us seeing one any time soon. Five of them is more than enough, regardless of their gender!

    Question: Are there any older characters that you really want to bring back, but can’t find a place for?

    Big Jim: This series, much like the Simpsons, has such an amazing depth of cool background characters that I feel we could really focus on any of them and tell a great story. It’s a testament to the amazing creativity and thought Lauren initially brought to the world when she developed the show. But, the show will always be primarily about our M6 (at least, as far as I understand it. ;)
    That said, I’ve always wanted to do a ‘Legion of Doom’ type story with all our baddies. None of the main girls at all. I think it would be fun to see all of these villains interact with each other. Would they be able to get along to actually accomplish anything? Who would step up to take a leadership role? And would the others be ok with that? Plus, I love bad guys!
    Outside of that, I’m always hoping we can find opportunities to bring old characters back. Iron Will. What’s that guy up to? Whatever happened to Lightning Dust? Did Silver Shill stay on the straight and narrow path after his experience with AJ? I don’t want to say definitively, since as long as the series continues, the opportunities to revisit these characters will always exist.

    Question: Who is your favorite character to focus episodes on?

    Big Jim: As I’ve said publicly before, my favorite pony is AJ. I know there’s a joke in the fandom that she’s a background character (she’s NOT, you jerks!), but to me, she’s a great grounding force for the fantasy elements in the show. She’s dryly comical, and sassy, which I love.

    BUT! My favorite character to deal with is Discord. There’s so much he brings to the table in terms of being able to break out of the usual things we’ve come to expect on the show. Plus, I always get to put him in crazy costumes, much to the chagrin of our design team. It worked for Bugs Bunny, so why not the Lord of Chaos? But, I think it’s great that he’s only an occasional guest star. His appearances are fun, but overuse could change the tone of the show, as well as provide the M6 an easy way to solve every problem they’d face. There’s something special about him only showing up once or twice a season.

    Question: What’s the most meaningful episode you’ve worked on (to you)?

    Big Jim: This is a tough question. There’s a lot of episodes with great messages that I think are meaningful. And there are some that I realize are much more important when they go out into the world and I see the reaction they get from fans. To have worked on something that has a big impact on a viewer’s personal life is incredibly humbling.

    But, if I DID have to pick one (and I do, cause the question said so), I’d have to choose ‘Do Princesses Dream of Magic Sheep?’ From S5. Partially because it was based on an idea that Jayson and I came up with, and that was an exciting opportunity, and partially because of the message. Learning to forgive yourself for your past misdeeds, or even who you currently are is really difficult. It’s something I’ve struggled with over the years, and continue to do.

    I’m big. I’m overweight, bald & average looking and I’ve had issues with my confidence and self-esteem over the years. It’s been tough to learn to accept who I am, focus on the things I do have going for me, and let go of the ones I don’t. These ‘faults’ are what define me as ME. One of the things I love about this show is that the characters aren’t perfect. They have flaws, too. And having someone we perceive as being great and powerful deal with their own inadequacies was an important one for me. If Luna can forgive herself, maybe there’s hope for the rest of us.

    Question: Who on the show staff doesn’t get enough love from the fandom? It can be a department or a person.

    Big Jim: Oh, man! So MANY folks! All the people whose names zip by in the credits at the end of the episode! There’s a lot of ‘boots on the ground’ people who work crazy hard on each and every episode that fans have no clue who they are or what they do. Some are on twitter. Some can’t be bothered. But they ALL care a crap ton about making the show as good as they can at their stage of the process.

    But one group that doesn’t get talked about EVER is our production staff and producer. They don’t get any of the adulation because they don’t do anything obviously creative like voicing a character or animating a scene. They’re the ones who arrange our schedules, draft budgets, and book recording sessions. They make sure the show ACTUALLY gets DONE. Without them, the show would likely never make it to air, as all us artists are temperamental babies who are never happy with anything, and we can’t schedule anything to save our lives. So, if you ever meet Devon or any of the other production staff, give them a big hug, a high five and buy them copious amounts of drinks. They deserve it.

    Are there any particularly memorable instances where they saved the artistic staff from development hell, or if there have been any episodes that have come down to the wire in terms of creation/polish/pushing deadlines?

    Big Jim: MLP is such a well organized and run production at this point that, as far as I’m aware at any rate, we have never been late or pushed deadlines. For every episode, there is a date that the tape has to go to Discovery Family in order for them to go through the process on their end so it can make it to air on time. We’ve never blown that delivery date (again, as far as I’ve been told). Our production staff has everything worked down to a science, and there’s not a lot of room for error.

    Question: The army of fans, adult and otherwise, has been interacting with you guys for years now at conventions and over various websites. What did you first think when you heard about us? How do you see the brony fandom as a whole 5 years later?

    Big Jim: To be fair, when I first heard about it, I thought it was pretty weird. But when I stopped to think about it, it made sense. I’m a long time nerd, so I’m familiar with Trekkers and rabid comic fanboys. I guess the thing that set it apart was the predominantly adult male fans for a show aimed at young girls. That part was kind of unprecedented.

    Over the years, and through the great opportunities I’ve had to be invited to cons and meet these folks face to face, I’ve had a lot of amazing conversations with individuals and asked them ’WHY???’ And their answers are always well thought out, and incredibly moving and personal. I’m especially impressed by the number of military personnel who’ve become fans of the show. Seeing how this ‘silly’ cartoon show I work on has touched and changed lives on such a broad scale is incredibly rewarding.

    It’s easy for me to get down on my work on a day to day scale. It’s a job like any other and there are things that are good, and things that are a huge pain in the butt. But meeting these folks, and hearing these stories reminds me how uniquely lucky I am to have played even a small part in changing their lives for the better.

    Question: The pony fandom tends to expand the show far beyond its original boundaries via original content. We have custom races, locations, and more. Has there ever been anything you’ve randomly stumbled on that you like?

    Big Jim: As a lot of fans know, for legal reasons, those of us who work on the show can’t read fanfiction. But I, like a lot of other staff, often poke around on the fan sites to see what you guys are up to (YES, WE’RE WATCHING!). I’m always impressed with the level of creativity and talent that’s in our fandom. The sheer volume of stuff alone! And yes, there’s LOTS of cool stuff out there. I’m going to ask that you cut it out, because it’s starting to make me worried you’re all going to take my job.

    Question: Have there ever been any standout pony fandom moments you felt really good about? Any aspects of it you dislike?

    Big Jim: It’s always heartwarming to me when I hear about the great charity work that cons or meetup groups are doing for their communities. Or how the fanbase will rally around one of their own in need. To me, they’re taking the message of the series and applying it to their own lives and paying it forward. Having the show be an ACTIVE force for good in the world makes all the other BS I have to deal with worth it.

    But I do have to say, I’m always disappointed when I hear about fans of the show being cruel or dismissive or rude to one another. This show is about FRIENDSHIP and INCLUSION. What ever happened to the whole ‘I’m gonna love and tolerate the f*ck out of you!’ attitude that started this all? Granted, it’s only a small chunk of folks, but it bums me out when I see people forgetting the messages of the show.

    Question:  If you had known there would be an adult fanbase watching the show, do you think the team would have changed anything from the onset? Or keep it how it is?

    Big Jim: Hmmm. Good question. I’d like to think we wouldn’t have changed anything. It wasn’t really intended for that audience to start, and I think part of its success is that we haven’t altered that original intent. If we had, it wouldn’t have been the show that attracted the fandom that it did, right? TIMEY WIMEY!!!

    Question: Why do you think the show has been so successful? What, in your eyes, drew so many people in?

    Big Jim: I’ve thought about this a lot over the years, and I don’t think I’ve ever entirely managed to pin down a single reason. It could be the awesome designs, or the nuanced characters and great messages about friendship with their lessons (either new to the viewer or good reminders for us oldsters). But to me, the one thing I think helps to set it apart is its commitment to the sincerity of the emotion. We may all be cynical bastards in our everyday lives (I’m speaking primarily of myself here), but there’s no place for that cynicism in this show. We love to add in jokes and fun stuff, but we never undercut a sincere emotional moment with a joke, a snide eye roll or smirk to the camera. We want the audience to feel what our characters are feeling in that moment. And I think that helps to set it apart from some of the other cartoons out there.

    Question: If Hasbro suddenly told you that the mane 6 were taking the background for season 7, and a group of background or side ponies/griffons/changelings/bat ponies would be the leaders for 26 episodes, which characters would you choose?

    Big Jim: Y’know, I think I’m going to skip this one. Not because there’s anything wrong with the question per se, but because I don’t really like talking about what COULD happen on the show. As long as the show is successful it’ll continue, and an idea like this could realistically come up. I think it could be a touchy subject for Hasbro for me to comment on too much stuff beyond this season, even if it is just speculative. Sorry, guys.

    Question: If you could invite any guest to appear on the show, who would you choose and what would their character be like?

    Big Jim: There’s lots of cool folks I’d like to have on the show, but I prefer when we have folks on who are already a fan of the show itself. That’s what made having Lena Hall on such a rewarding experience for all of us.

    That being said, I’ve had the opportunity to work with someone in S6 that I’m very excited about. NO SPOILERS!

    Question: So far, most locations visited in Equestria tend to be western based parodies. Are there any other cultures, like far eastern or african you’d like to borrow from for an episode or two?

    Big Jim: Sure! Actually, while not exactly a location, the idea of Luna’s Tantabus came from the Japanese idea of the Baku, which are spiritual dream eaters. There’s so much left to explore in Equestria and the lands beyond (????), that I think we should start mining other mythologies, too.

    Question: Have there ever been any cut scenes you wish would have made the final revision of an episode?

    Big Jim: Not really. People seem to have this idea that when we’re cutting down an episode to get it to time we’re removing whole chunks of story, but that’s really not the case. The scripts are written to try and fit within our 22 minute running time. Sure, sometimes they run a bit long, but the kind of stuff we end up cutting is usually extra bits of dialogue and action, or condensing an idea down to be a little more succinct. But especially after 6 whole seasons, we have a pretty good idea of how long an episode is going to be when we read that script the first time.

    There have been some instances where we cut a sequence or two before it ever went to the board artists to be drawn out. For example, in ep. 509 (the 100th) Mitch wrote a funny sequence with Coco Pommel making a dress for Golden Harvest. It was definitely funny, and a cool call back to S1, but there was so much other stuff going on in that episode that we had to take it out.

    Question: We see a lot of crossovers with other major movies, shows, and books sprinkled throughout episodes, which tends to explode online. Are there any you would love to add ponies to in the future? Or even an entire episode crossing over similar to other shows with IP’s like Star Wars?

    Big Jim: I always love putting in little pop culture nods in the episodes (and I especially love it when you guys don’t notice them), and that will definitely continue throughout S6. But I’m personally not super keen on the idea of a whole IP crossover. To me, I feel like it dilutes both properties unless it’s done SUPER well. And you always have to come up with some crazy convoluted way these two universes are meeting (The Star Trek/X-Men comic anyone?).

    That said, if Hasbro ever wanted to do that, I would assuredly give it the best shot I could.
    A challenge is a challenge, right?

    Question: What (or who) caused the completely obliterated “ashlands timeline” (as the fandom puts it) from The Cutie Re-Mark?

    Big Jim: Where’s the fun in nailing that down? How many headcanons and fan fics would be destroyed if I said definitively? I’m leaving that up to you guys to decide. There’s gotta be SOME mystery to keep you asking questions!

    Question: Will Season 6 be the Season of Trixie?

    Big Jim: ***Shakes Magic 8 Ball *** ‘Ask again later’.