Director Haylee Herrick, supervising director/producer Dan Duncan, and supervising producer/art director Shaun O’Neil discuss how their show’s characters cope with the ‘collateral damage’ of their decisions as superheroes, in ‘Invincible’s Season 2 prequel episode, nominated for a Best Special Production Annie Award, now streaming on Prime Video.
According to director Haylee Herrick, “With Atom Eve, it’s not a happy story. It doesn't start well, and it doesn't end well either. There's no in-between.” Nominated for an Annie Award for Best Special Production, the 55-minute Invincible: Atom Eve serves as a prequel episode for Season 2 of Prime Video’s critically acclaimed adult animated series, Invincible. In the special, a young Samantha “Atom Eve” Wilkins discovers her superpowers and must come to terms with her own sinister origins as she discovers a family she never knew she had. And the confident young preteen, as she becomes a teenager, discovers the real consequences that come from having and using those superpowers.
Based on the groundbreaking comic book by Robert Kirkman (Walking Dead), Cory Walker, and Ryan Ottley, Invincible revolves around 18-year-old Mark Grayson, who’s just like every other guy his age - except his father is (or was) the most powerful superhero on the planet. Still reeling from Nolan’s betrayal in Season 1, Mark struggles to rebuild his life as he faces a host of new threats, all while battling his greatest fear - that he might become his father without even knowing it.
The show stars Steven Yeun, with Sandra Oh; Zazie Beetz; Grey DeLisle; Chris Diamantopoulos; Walton Goggins; Gillian Jacobs; Jason Mantzoukas; Ross Marquand; Khary Payton; Zachary Quinto; Andrew Rannells; Kevin Michael Richardson; Seth Rogen; and J.K. Simmons. The executive producers are Kirkman; David Alpert; Catherine Winder; Simon Racioppa; Marge Dean; Seth Rogen; and Evan Goldberg. The co-executive producers are Helen Leigh and Walker.
Dan Duncan serves as the show’s supervising director/producer for Season 2; his colleague at Skybound Animation, Shaun O’Neil serves as the supervising producer and art director. Skybound, a division of Skybound Entertainment, is a 200+ person, in-house animation studio largely focusing on 2D adult animation helmed by Dean. It is best known for the adult animated series Invincible on Prime Television, whose second season has a 100% Certified Fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes. First time director Herrick helmed two of the show’s Season 2 episodes.
Asked what about the show’s compelling, often graphic narrative he thinks resonates most with fans, Duncan shares, “I think for me it's the consequences that Mark faces and the characters face. It's not just superhero wish fulfillment. They go out and fight people, and when you fight people, you get hurt. That's a big part of what separates us from a lot of other superhero shows in general. And then, just being animated, we have the ability to swing bigger than a lot of live-action shows. It's so much harder for them to do what we can do because we can control everything through animation.”
“I first came onto the comics, like in the early 2000s, and the thing that I got really excited about was, superficially, the collateral damage,” O’Neil adds. “The story was about consequences for actions the characters took, how all that played out. The thing that I find most interesting is that all that collateral damage is just a smokescreen for what was, at the start, a very teenage soap opera. I thought that contrast was really interesting. It was the thing that kept me hooked and stayed with it till completion. I got very excited when I heard we were doing an animated series. It feels like a good fit for the content.”
“As far as the design is concerned, it was very exciting to have Cory Walker, one of the creators of the comic books, on board,” he continues. “He was the other hook for me. Just visually, his style has always been a huge inspiration for me, and so to get him to participate and try to bring that look to life is kind of a dream come true.”
Herrick explains how pleased she was with O’Neil’s final designs for Atom Eve after a lengthy development process. “I thank Shaun eternally because there were so many versions of Eve and I'm super happy, especially [the changes] between the preteen and teenage designs,” she says. “Because thanks to Dan’s guidance, we were also able to push Eve so we could establish more of her powers and abilities for the rest of Season 2. I wasn’t involved in Season 1, but she's got much more power now that we were able to establish with this special. And thanks to the design team, we were able to show her abilities.”
The show makes ample use of extremely graphic violence where innocent bystanders meet rather gruesome ends – some of the “collateral damage” O’Neil refers to. But the jarring violence doesn’t feel gratuitous or done merely for effect. And the effects of that damage weigh heavily on everyone involved. Asked about arbitrating how much they push that action, O’Neil notes, “One of the best things about the show is that we get to dig deeper into how decisions impact Mark's immediate circle, like his immediate family and how the people around him have to cope with the decisions that are made, or his decision-making processes. I don't want to overhype it, but definitely the consequences are the best part of the show. The outcomes of these scenarios lead to bigger, better scenarios and that kind of snowball effect is one of the things that makes this show interesting. The writers do a really good job. Robert does a really good job. Simon does a really good job. They take the comic books and make things much larger and better paced. And I don't think the violence has ever been a problem for anyone on this show. If you didn't have that graphic violence, if you didn't have the sad consequences, if you didn't have the, ‘Oh man, I did this wrong and I'm going to pay for it,’ the rest of that stuff wouldn't hit as hard. There's a lot of value in having the juxtaposition of both.”
“Yeah, it's hard to go past that,” Duncan chimes in. “We've handled the violence pretty well. I think Robert and Simon have parsed it out so that it's not something... it doesn't define the show. It's a part of the show, which I think is really big. It's always treated with as much respect as we can give it. We try not to play it for jokes. We just try and find the balance there because it is a tough needle to thread.”
Herrick notes that the character of Atom Eve hadn’t told anyone that she was adopted, and that she has her own little story that we as viewers get to know. “We get to see the awful way she was brought into this world,” she shares. “Because this is my debut episode as a director, Robert, Dan, Sean, they pushed me very hard. And to go back to the violence, when I thought I was pushing hard, I was told to push harder. It had to be really felt. But I also had to know when we pushed a little too much and had to pull back. So, it was an amazing learning curve and experience with the entire team.”
With production of Season 1, like so many other shows, thrown into disarray by the pandemic, production of the second season, Duncan reveals, was “as close as you could possibly get” to starting over fresh. Though the animation on both seasons was co-produced at Skybound, a brand-new in-house studio was built for Season 2. “This is a big show,” O’Neil laughs. “It's more than double what a normal animated series would be. So, it's a massive production. It's definitely a labor of love for everybody. We came in and we picked up where we could because everything from Season 1 was stuff we loved. It's what brought us to the show. But it was a lot of new people, a lot of new stuff.”
Asked what was most challenging and rewarding on the show, Herrick spoke first, sharing, “That's really tough. If anything, the whole thing just taught me that it's not a sprint, it's a marathon, and it's really important to pace yourself. I realized very early on that I needed to stop sprinting. And it was very gratifying to be one of five directors, being able to guide a team and see them take these creative tools and make really amazing stuff. Just letting people spread their wings and do their thing, where I was just there to help guide the vision.”
For Duncan, the hardest thing, “on every show, it never changes,” is always the scope and the schedule. “Our schedule is massive because the show is really long, but the scope is also huge. So, it never feels like you can get on top of either one. But that's just how the business works, I think, across the board.”
“But the fun part for me has always been working with the crew,” he continues. “I got my start in comics, where I worked primarily by myself. So, coming into animation, the big appeal was working with people. Even when we're working remotely, there's still always somebody that you're doing it with. So, when you're struggling, you see what other people are doing and it inspires you to keep going. Working with such really fun people is always the best part.”
O’Neil adds, “I think the hardest part is dealing with the consequences of your actions. Thinking that something is a great idea when you start it, and then seeing how it plays out and being like, ‘I could have done some things differently.’ But I think to counter that, the best parts of it are when you make those decisions, and the outcomes are good. When you commit to solving a problem and you fix it and now it's where you want it to be.”
“Working with Dan, my team on design, the story team, it's a lot of people who are really committed to trying to make this the best thing that we can make it,” he concludes. “And so when it's firing on all cylinders and you see all the pieces moving and stuff is coming through and the approvals are happening and you're building your animatic and you're getting through retakes and you're seeing all this stuff come together, it’s a really great feeling.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.