Avi Melman and Michael Reaves Talk "Guardians of Luna"
A new show is on the way from Avi Melman (Cybergraphix Animation) and Michael Reaves (Batman: The Animated Series, Gargoyles). It’s called Guardians of Luna, and Toon Zone sat down with Melman and Reaves for an exclusive first peek at this show, which, Reaves says, is “pushing the envelope the same way that Gargoyles and Batman did.”
Toon Zone: Thank you for talking to us today about your new show, Guardians of Luna.
Avi Melman: My pleasure.
‘Freedom in storytelling’
TZ: Could you maybe start by telling us a little about the plot of the series?
AM: Well, the series revolves around the descendants of an ancient race of shapeshifters, who must protect an ancient power source from a ruthless mogul. That’s pretty much our basic premise, though beneath the surface it’s quite deep and engaging.
TZ: Can you tell us a little bit about how you each became involved in this production?
AM: The idea for the show is mine, but I brought Michael in at a very early stage to help with the development. That was several months ago, and now we’re in full swing.
TZ: Michael, some of the art and backstory that I’ve seen reminds me inescapably of some of your past work. Is there anything you are particularly reminded of working on this show?
Michael Reaves: All I can say is that it’s good to be on a show that is pushing the envelope the same way that Gargoyles and Batman did. They were both shows that let me stretch creatively in new and different ways. This is also a show that lets me stretch in new and different ways. And I’m excited about that, because I’ve done a lot of animation.
I tell people that if they grew up in the ’80s and early ’90s, I probably had more to do with raising them than their parents did. After a while the shows all blur together. It’s much more interesting to work on a show where you can reach, both story-wise and direction-wise. I’m excited about the show, and I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t really have to do anything I’m not excited about.
TZ: What specific freedom do you feel like you have?
MR: Freedom in storytelling. I think it’s more of a character-oriented show than a lot of others. It’s not all about the fighting and the shooting and the yelling. It’s about the interaction within the group. It’s much more fun to get into the characters, because anyone can do a fight scene. Don’t get me wrong, a couple of big robots slugging the crap out of each other has its place, and we’re all the better for it, but if you don’t care about the characters then you just end up with scrap metal.
TZ: Looking at the guardians’ characters I can certainly see what you mean. I mean, your main character is not a warrior or part of an ancient line of martial artists, but a botanist.
AM: Yeah, he’s a botanist, Another one of the main characters—Maria—teaches sign language to deaf children. And Alan—our ‘tank’ character—used to be in a street gang, until something tragic made him turn his life around. Now he runs a gym to keep kids off the streets. So these characters have positive aspects. We do get into martial arts, though, because the weapons they eventually receive are sort of martial arts in origin.
MR: And the teenager in the group, Jake, as a character, has sort of a connection to that martial arts pop culture because he’s a kid who grew up watching cartoons. There are some fun references to that sort of stuff in there.
AM: Look out for a Dragon Ball Z joke in the first episode.
TZ: Oh boy.
TZ: It sounds as though there is a very involved mythos you’ve built for the show. Did you draw especially on any one world mythology to create that background?
AM: Guardians of Luna takes the classic definition of what a werewolf is and what it does, like the classic story of getting bitten by a werewolf and becoming a werewolf yourself-
MR: It elaborates on it.
AM: It elaborates on it and it also diverges from it. It becomes its own mythology and we have our own unique take on it.
MR: I don’t think it really partakes of any particular mythology. In fact, when we first meet the Guardians, in the script it says that they have aspects of all sorts of mythological people and religions. It doesn’t have a huge influence from any particular one.
Breaking away from the standard medium shot
TZ: Obviously there are a lot of werewolf shows in particular and gothic shows in general out there. Were there any shows or films you looked at in particular in developing Guardians?
AM: We actually avoided watching similar shows while making this one, just because you may see an idea and have a certain image implanted in your head. That can stifle your creativity. One show that we do admire very much, though, is Naruto. They’re not doing straight-on medium shots when characters are standing around talking. The camera direction is brilliant and inventive, and that really ticks it up a notch.
MR: It’s very cinematic.
AM: It’s extremely cinematic. It draws you in. The rapid cutting really helps to keep your interest even though there’s not a lot of animation going on.
TZ: So that’s something you’ve tried to go for in Guardians a little bit?
AM: Well, the concept. We don’t try to lift off of Naruto, as I was saying, but we use it as a reference point to show our directors that, yes, we can push the envelope. They’ve done it in Japan, we can do it here. This is an anime-style show. There’s nothing wrong with breaking away from the standard medium shot. The medium shot, when you have a lot of dialogue, I think plagues a lot of shows and makes them tedious to watch.
TZ: No kidding.
East meets West
TZ: Now the show isn’t all about werewolves, we also have another race of shapeshifters involved as well. What was it like designing the dragons?
AM: That’s an interesting story. We have two dragon characters: a brother and sister from a quiet village in northern Japan. They have a very traditional Japanese formality about them, in how they treat each other and how they treat others. Also their beliefs as far as honor and dignity and family versus sense of duty. They each wind up on opposite sides of the coin, and even though neither wants to fight the other they are forced to do so. But the intricacies of these characters are something I’d prefer not to spoil at this time. You’ll have to watch the show. How’s that for a shameless plug?
Realism in casting
TZ: You’ve mentioned some of the voice talent on the show, and you obviously have some pretty heavy voice talent lined up for the two main roles: Rino Romano, who’s the new voice of Batman, and Phil LaMarr, who’s played a whole list of things that fans would know. So tell us a little about what led you to cast them and some of the other VAs for the show.
AM: Casting. It was interesting because this is a realistic show, so we’re not looking for character voices per se. We’re looking for natural sounding voices. So for example when we cast Maria, the casting agents always ask, “Do you want actual Hispanic actresses, or do you want us to just get people who can do the accent?” I said, “Both,” just because I didn’t want to be limited in the range, but in the end we did cast Yeni Alvarez, who is from Cuba, as Maria. She has a natural-sounding quality. And Adam Wylie just has that youthful voice. I tell you, we had a lot of people audition for Jake, but in my mind, I think Adam just clicked.
Phil LaMarr I’d worked with before, he plays Timmy in The Infinite Darcy [one of Cybergraphix's other projects] and obviously he’s the Green Lantern in Justice League and great with the serious roles. He was a natural choice. We didn’t get the Green Lantern voice out of Phil LaMarr, though. He gave us a different quality of voice for Alan, which reminded me a bit of Black Vulcan from Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law. But he’s great and Rino Romano’s great, and so’s Charles Dennis, who plays our main villain, Constantine. It was interesting, because the character of Constantine looks clichéd from the very get-go. You look at his design and think, “Oh, it’s that kind of villain,” and so pretty much every audition I got sounded similar, locked onto that cliché, but Charles had a little something extra, and that’s why we went and cast him.
Oh and just to be fair, kudos to Ginny McSwain, my favorite voice director of all time. Ginny’s great. She actually directed Rino for the new Batman series. She knows exactly what you want, and she gets the actors to deliver.
TZ: The show is truly an international effort, with work being done in the US, Japan, and India. How did the division of labor work out on that front?
AM: Well, we have Osamu Tsuruyama and Sho Murase doing character designs. Osamu is an industry veteran both here and in Japan. Also, he used to run a studio in Japan, who we’re using now for layouts and key animation. It’s great to be able to work with Osamu and his team. In India, Animation Bridge and Padmalaya Telefilms round off production.
TZ: In a perfect world, where and when would both of you like to see the show air?
AM: Across the world. All around the world, werewolves, or in India they’ll have to translocate it to whatever they have over there.
AM: Werecows, right.
MR: We’re not kidding.
AM: No, we’re not. We’re totally religious-friendly.
‘Shows don’t fail, people quit too soon’
TZ: I’d be interested to hear how you, Avi, got your company started and how you found yourself in the animation business.
MR: I will say one thing. I give this guy props for persistence. He’s really making all this happen. He’s kept at this.
AM: I’ve learned from the illustrious Dick Block, who’s a veteran of the industry and one of my mentors, that shows don’t fail. People quit too soon. Always the truth, because even when I started, I was looking to do an action-adventure series and the market was all about preschool. Now, in the last year and half to two years the market has realized, “How much preschool do we have?” And I see executives crying because they’ve acquired 13,000 hours of preschool for their catalogs and now they can’t sell it. So it’s a trend. It’s very cyclical. It has a boom, and then it falls flat, and then it comes back again and falls flat again and comes back. It’s unfortunate.
MR: It is. It’s also natural selection. It thins the herd.
AM: It does. Cybergraphix started up in ’99 and we were originally developing series. We’ve since taken on a service capacity as a production house, but I have a background that doesn’t lend itself to animation very well. I have a degree in biology.
TZ: Hence the botanist, then?
AM: No, actually the botanist has nothing to do with that. I have a degree in biology and then I studied Japanese and then I was ‘seduced’ by the glamour of the industry.
MR: Hah! You just couldn’t resist.
AM: Right, I couldn’t resist. So I turned my attention after I got my degree to scriptwriting and television business practice. Syndication and sales. It’s strange for me, wearing both a creative hat and a business one simultaneously. But I developed it into a co-production with our first series in 2002 and we’ve been building and gathering strength ever since.
MR: He has this plan for world domination.
AM: That’s right. I should get Phil LaMarr to do an answering machine message about that.
MR: As for me, when I came to Los Angeles, it wasn’t necessarily in my head that I would become an animation writer. But y’know, I’d wanted to be a writer and very few of us get the chance to do exactly what we want to do. And animation’s a good gig. I’ve been able to do it well, I guess, because I’ve kept doing it, and it’s given me the time to do other things like novels and other forms of writing as well. It certainly makes a good wage and lets me support my family, so I have no complaints. I think it’s a great way to make a living. And the hours are good. I mean that’s really what it’s all about—being your own boss. Sleeping late.
AM: Well, being in animation in general, I mean no one comes in here before noon except for us.
The Infinite Darcy: Quantum Leap For Kids?
TZ: I’d like to talk about a few of your other projects. As we mentioned earlier, there was The Infinite Darcy, which you created and are producing. It sounded like a very interesting premise to me, kind of a Quantum Leap for kids, maybe.
AM: Yes, since Darcy basically jumps into alternate reality versions of herself. But we’re pretty twisted about it. We certainly don’t shrug the fact that whatever reality she jumps in is pretty much ripe for parody.
AM: We’ve got a lot of pop culture parodies, we’ve got wacky humor everywhere. There’s one reality where she’s a spy, there’s one reality where the world is populated by giant anime robots. I mean, normal laws of physics do not apply in whatever reality she goes to. That’s what makes it even more fun.
TZ: That sounds like fun.
AM: Yeah, it definitely is. Actually, we screened an early version of that at MIP Jr. last October and out of 750 shows it made number 23 on the list. So we were pretty proud of that one. We’re taking the final version in this year.
Myth House: ‘A modern spin on world mythology’
TZ: You brought some other projects to NATPE that we haven’t heard much about.
AM: Yeah, we brought a whole bunch. Most are still in negotiations. We can talk about Myth House, though. Myth House is another Michael Reaves-involved project. It’s basically a modern spin on world mythology. It’s not done as a show where you retell myths through animation. Myth House is done a lot more like a show about friends from different backgrounds and nationalities trying to get along, only they’re also mythological creatures. Basically it’s about these kids who go to this school where they learn more about world mythology from some of the greatest mythological figures of all time. Again, great cast on that one. It’s currently in production.
MR: Jim Cummings.
AM: Jim Cummings. Richard Horvitz, I love Richard Horvitz. Calls you up on the phone, [nasal voice] “Hi, this is Richard Horvitz!” Oh my god, what’s with my phone? So he’s great. And it’s funny because he’s a 30-something male VA I can cast as a fifteen year old in his own voice. The show has a great story because these kids come to the school with different levels of knowledge about both their own mythological backgrounds and other mythologies. It blends well with the international mix of cultural backgrounds these characters have. We don’t focus on Greek or Roman mythology so much as world mythology. So you’re getting a dose of stuff that you wouldn’t normally get: Chinese, Russian, Japanese, Celtic, and we’ve even got some Arabic. And it’s fun, especially having Jim Cummings as the teacher. Jim Cummings plays Coyote the Trickster. He’s the mythology teacher and quite a handful.
TZ: Well the coyote as a mythological figure is quite a character as well, so yeah.
AM: True, but Jim brings this just great lackadaisical kind of quality. His motivation for Coyote is basically, he’s got a bottle of booze in his drawer and he’s trying not to show it to anybody. Though you won’t see that in the actual show. It’s a motivation BS&P probably won’t like us actually playing out on screen.
My Little Pony as ‘dream gig’
TZ: Michael, I was reading your website and found a place where you described animation writing at its worst as the “Pull-your-own-head-off, grab-a-rifle-and-climb-a-tower sort of nightmares that are infinitely nested like Chinese puzzle boxes — you keep praying it’s over but it never is.”
MR: That pretty much sums it up. At times.
TZ: I thought that was a very interesting way of putting it.
AM: I did not see that! I have to go see that now.
MR: Everything you ever wanted to know about me is at www.michaelreaves.com.
AM: There it is. Wow. That’s just like me saying, “We’ll shoot that horse when we jump over it.” Only more eloquent.
MR: Yeah, well, what can I tell ya. There’ve been some dark times, but there’ve also been some good times.
AM: Those dark times wouldn’t involve My Little Pony, would they?
MR: Actually, I’ve got to tell you, My Little Pony was almost a dream gig. It really was. They paid well, the schedule was so easy there were times we forgot we were doing a show almost, and they never asked for rewrites.
MR: I mean hardly ever. So I have no problem with My Little Pony at all, there were shows I had a lot worse problems with. But we won’t go into those.
AM: Uh oh.
MR: Well, there’s no particular point in resurrecting the past. It’s like any other job, you have stuff you do that is fun and good and other times things where you have to just take one for the team. I think elsewhere on that website I describe television at times as kinda like my day job. And there are times when that’s true, but there are other times when the show is fun, and I still can feel enthusiastic about it after however long it’s been.
TZ: Well let me talk about a few of the good and fun ones then. A few episodes of your writing of Batman: The Animated Series just came out on DVD. Has the sustained fan devotion to this series surprised you in any way?
MR: In some ways yes, in some ways no. I think at the time we were doing the show we had in mind that we wanted it to be classic and we were excited about it because we could tell from the character designs, backgrounds, and the type of stories that we were being asked to do that it was going to be something different. That it has been sustained this long and has been this popular, I’m a little bit surprised, but it’s very gratifying. I had a lot to do with that show. In the first 85 episodes of that show, I story-edited over a third of them. And so I’m very proud of them. I’m very proud of the show as a whole. I think we all did a good job on them. Yeah, I’m glad they’re coming out on DVD, and I wish I had a piece of it.
TZ: Well I’m very glad you brought out the show. That was a defining TV show of my childhood, so thank you very much for that.
MR: You’re very welcome. I feel so old when people tell me that.
AM: How old are you, Ben?
TZ: I am twenty.
AM: Curse you. Curse you. I’m sitting here thinking, “OK, you know I also feel it was defining…” Well wait, I was what? It didn’t define my childhood much I guess, since I was in college when it aired.
MR: OK, I don’t want to hear it. I’d rip the phone out of the wall if I could get up these days without my walker.
AM: But no. I was what, how old?
MR: The memory’s going too now, I see. Oh well. OK, so you’re twenty and we’re not.
MR: OK, so other shows?
AM: Moving on, yes.
TZ: OK. Mystery of the Batwoman came out.
TZ: I really loved that, it was like coming back to visit old friends again.
MR: It was a lot of fun, yeah, going back to Gotham City for our little vacation. It was a lot of fun to put on the mask again for a little while.
AM: Like R & R, it had sort of that leisurely pace.
MR: Yeah. It was a lot of fun to write. Some people were sort of taken aback because it wasn’t a dark and grim and rip-your-own-heart-out kind of story, but one of the first things we decided when we were talking about the show was that Bruce ought to get the girl. I mean the poor bastard has been through so much, so we decided it should have something of a lighter touch.
TZ: Yes, that turned out well.
MR: Thank you.
‘Big cans of whoop-ass’
TZ: Do you have any final message for fans waiting for Guardians of Luna?
AM: It’ll be worth it. It’s everything you haven’t heard and more.
MR: Right, it’s everything you want in an anime experience. And more.
AM: Werewolves, robots.
MR: What more could you want?
TZ: I think that about sums it up.
AM: Dragons. All sorts of stuff. East meets west meets a lot of whoop-ass.
MR: Oh yes, big cans of whoop-ass.
AM: On Guardians I do have to say that it’s a wonderful collaboration. It’s really a thrill to be working with Michael on this project as well and Osamu and Sho, and the rest of our team. It’s going to be a head-turner. It’s going to be something that will evoke memories of the golden action adventure age of television animation, of the nineties. Though our aim is to push it to an even higher level.
MR: I think it’s the silver age.
AM: The silver?
MR: Well, the bronze-ish.
MR: It’ll be fun. There are good people working on this show. It’s going to be good.
AM: We’re really going for a high energy level with this show. While not every sequence is a fight sequence, those moments that aren’t are enlightening and really draw the viewer into the world and story. The main characters are thrown into this tapestry of the whole mythos, this ancient race, and as they learn they grow and you just start to realize how cool it all is. It’s great to work on and will certainly be even more fun to watch.
TZ: Thank you so much for talking to us. I’m looking forward to the show, and I appreciate you taking the time.
AM: Not a problem.
Discuss this interview and Luna here on Toon Zone’s General Animation Forum.