She’s A Problem Solver: Animator Brianne Drouhard Talks DC Nation’s ‘Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld’ [Interview]
Warner Bros. Animation's DC Nation shorts produced some pretty fantastic material and shined a mass media spotlight on a lot of obscure DC Comics characters. But my favorite, hands down -- and that of many viewers -- was the animated reimagining of Dan Mishkin, Gary Cohn and Ernie Colon's Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld. Over the course of seven 75-second shorts produced, directed and designed by artist and animator Brianne Drouhard, Amy Winston was upgraded from an '80s straight-faced sword-and-sworcery concept to a a synthesis of gamer culture and magical girl anime, starring a contemporary young woman pulled into a funny and dangerous video game world where she's a princess of destiny set on a quest to battle skeletons, slay dragons and save the world.
With the series of shorts concluded and available to watch online, we spoke to Drouhard about how she pitched the fan-favorite story, the trials of adapting her illustrating style for animation, and why it was important for Amethyst to have video games in her life. We also got plenty of gorgeous Amethyst art from Drouhard in the process.
ComicsAlliance: I know you previously worked on Batman: The Brave and the Bold, among other projects, so when the DC Nation shorts were announced, how did the pitching process go? Did they come to you and ask you to do something, or did you hear about it and go "Oh, I need to pitch Amethyst!"
Brianne Drouhard: They announced it to all the artists, everyone working in the animation department at Warner Bros. [WB Animation President] Sam Register announced it to everybody and said that they were taking pitches from people already working there first. I think we heard about it before anyone else. They had a list of characters already selected that we could pick from, and I think that was probably smart because it caused people to try more variety, probably.
Honestly, and this might be bad, that's actually where I first saw Amethyst. She was on the list, and there weren't a lot of female characters on there. There were some, though, and that's not the only reason I picked her, but I looked through it and I'd seen her before in the DC Encyclopedia in the early 2000s, and in that entry they had did not describe that comic very well at all. I remember when I glossed over that back in 2005 or whatever, I was like "what is this?"
But yeah, she was on the list, so I tracked down the comics and read them all that week, and was kind of amazed that I wasn't aware of this before. It had everything in it that I already like! I'm really into fantasy stuff, sword fighting, dragons, magic, princesses and unicorns, and this is all in there. I thought "this is something we should try to make," so I threw a pitch together.
BD: When I originally pitched it, she wasn't a gamer. It was just set up as a quest system, where you had an episode where she'd get her quest in the town, the second one where you go to the forest, then you have the cave and the riddle, something you have to figure out to defeat the enemy without fighting them. The last one was just saving the baby. I meant them as stand-alones, because I figured if I was lucky maybe one of them would get picked up. The other thing, too, was that there was another thing I'd pitched for a few years, which was actually Harpy, the comic I'm doing now that a few of my friends in animation knew about. When I went in to pitch Amethyst, I brought in the bible for that and said, "If any of these stories don't work, we can pull something from my old episode idea list from here and just change the characters." Not that they're totally interchangeable, but the fantasy aspect of it is there.
So I pitched that, and I pitched a couple of other characters that were on the list that didn't get picked, and about a month later, [producer] Ben Jones called me and said he had good news and bad news. I was like, "What's the good news?" and he said, "We're going to do Amethyst!" I was like, "Oh that's great! What's the bad news?" and he said, "We need seven of them." I had to come up with three more than what I'd pitched, and that was when I decided to try to make it a full story.
CA: I was actually wondering if part of the challenge was condensing everything down to that ten-minute story you have, but it almost sounds like you had the opposite problem.
BD: Maybe at first, but I think the other problem was that when I originally pitched it, we didn't have Dark Opal in it. When I pitched it I didn't think there was any way we could even go into the mythos from the comics. The other thing, too, is that when we were told we got to do shorts, the amount of time we had to tell the story was different. I don't remember the numbers, but I want to say that at one point, we had almost two minutes per short. They ended up being a minute and fifteen seconds, and for a while there it was less than that. I don't think we knew how long the shorts were, even after we got animation back.
I don't think we ended up cutting any scenes, but we had to shave a lot of frames off. At first, I had to figure out what we were going to show and what we weren't, and they ended up being very condensed. I wish we'd had more time to show things; stuff was definitely too rushed. But I know there were a few things that DC really wanted in there. I know they wanted Dark Opal in there, which, you know, I probably would've had him in there anyway. You get a few notes from people and you have to try to keep everyone happy, but after it was all said and done, we did the best we could do and I was pretty happy with what we ended up with.
CA: It definitely moves really quickly, but I think that works for it. In the first few, there's this sense of Amy just being overwhelmed by how fast things are moving, and then about halfway through, when she's used to it, it's just like "okay, we're doing this now."
BD: That's good! I kind of had it in my head and assumed that there was stuff going on between the shorts that nobody saw. She has a quick learning curve. The other thing, too, and it's hard to remember exactly what was going on then, is that when I first started out, I really wanted to try to give her a character arc of some sort, even though we only had that short amount of time. There were so many things that we could've just had a moment to show their personalities more, and there really isn't any of that in there, or not enough.
I wanted her to start out not relying on her magic. She has a magic sword and everything, but the one thing that was interesting when I read the old comics was that she's a problem solver first. A lot of what she falls back on is what she learned on Earth from her parents and in school. They don't show it all the time, but it's implied that she's a really good student, and that she's somewhat brainy. I think in the old comics that she wanted to be a lawyer -- she actually had goals and dreams before becoming a superhero.
I wanted to have some of that in there. She doesn't solve any major problems, but she doesn't solve all her problems with a sword or a spell. Magic isn't the only thing she goes for, she's going to try to figure out things logically first. It's like, she's never had magic before. Why would she use that for the first time?
CA: Is there a particular moment in the story where you feel like that really came through?
BD: One part, which is maybe a little awkward, is when she's fighting Topaz as a skeleton in the cave. She talks it out. I know the second one, with the pepper, she tries fighting but of course that's not going to work, so she thinks of an alternative method.
CA: You worked on a lot of things as a character designer, stuff that I enjoy like Mystery Incorporated and Teen Titans. Was it fun for you to look back at the old Amethyst comics and figure out how to adapt those existing designs, which are very tied into this '80s fantasy aesthetic, into a modern style?
BD: Actually, yeah. That's something interesting that I kind of discovered about myself as an artist, doing designs on the shorts. I worked as a designer before, but the thing is that I was always working underneath someone else. There's always someone else setting the style of the show. I draw all the time on my own, I know what my stuff looks like when I'm not working in animation, when I'm doodling in my sketchbook or animating by myself. But when you design for a TV show or a feature as a character designer, if you're the lead, you set the style that everyone else has to follow. You need to be able to make the characters something that other people can draw, you need to figure out the mechanics of the character, what they're going to look like from different angles, what their expressions will be.
And if you're doing it 2D and sending it overseas, you add anchor points to the character for when it gets sent over. They have such little time to animate that stuff. They're really good animators over there, and some people kind of poo on that stuff, but it's kind of amazing what they do with what we send them sometimes. So sometimes a character will have an edge or a spot or a piece of hair, and that gives them something they can bounce off from to the next spot.
I had to figure out how to translate how I draw into designs. The first pass -- and I've never actually posted these -- are horrible. I was working as a character designer on Scooy-Doo: Mystery Incorporated at the same time that we were doing the shorts, and I worked in that style before. It was Derek Wyatt, who worked on Teen Titans and was the lead character designer on Transformers Animated and the last Ben 10, and he has a very distinct style. We all work with the same people for a few shows. My first job, I worked under Glen Murakami, and Derek was a character designer, and John Suzuki. The three of us can recognize each other's drawings and know how the others draw. This being the first time I had to design something, I had a really hard time translating how my style looks without being someone else's. The first pass designs looked really shallow and very stiff and flat. I really didn't like it. It actually took me a few months to get the designs right. The poor board artists had to go off of my first pass ones for a while, and they were like "What is this?" "I know, I have to fix it!"
Around Christmas, I found out we got the studio that I requested to animate it, which was David Productions in Japan. That gave me enough confidence to go ahead and try something different with the designs, and I'd thought a lot about what was blocking my brain with the drawings. That was the first time I got to do something in animation, in the TV industry, and have it translate to how I actually draw. We were lucky to have David Productions in Japan animate it, but we drew all the designs and storyboards in the US.
When the Amethyst shorts got picked up, all the storyboard revisionists ended up in my cube. It's so hard to get a show with a super heroine picked up, that the girls really wanted to work on it. If the original comic from the '80s hadn't happened, we wouldn't have had this chance. We really helped each other along to make it work, and really owe them for all their help.
Chrissy Delk boarded #2 and #5, Valerie Fletcher boarded #3, Christy Tseng boarded #4, Jay Baker boarded #6, and Jen Bennett boarded #7. Also a special mention to Thomas Perkins who helped with the lake monster design, Claire Lenth who designed Amy's hair buns and did all the character color, Mari Hosaka who painted all the backgrounds, Valerie Kung and Mary Hoffman who drew props and backgrounds, and Ben Jones, for overseeing all the shorts.
I learned so much and grew as an artist because of these people. All of them have moved on to bigger and better places, and I'm looking forward to the stories they'll be making in the future.
CA: I mentioned earlier that the original Amethyst comics have an aesthetic that's very much of its time, which I like, but the version that you did for animation is a video game-inspired magical girl heroine. That's a really fun way to update it, and I know that's obviously something you're familiar with -- Harpy also follows those sort of RPG rules. Was that something you were comfortable with because you'd already been thinking about it for Harpy?
BD: I think if Harpy didn't exist, I probably wouldn't have gone that way with Amethyst. I grew up in the '80s, I was a kid then, and we got Robotech and all that stuff. Disney Channel used to show the Sanrio movies, like Unico. I really like that. I really like that aesthetic already, so looking at the '80s comic, the art is really gorgeous. It might be dated because of the time, but to me, I can see what I like in this older comics style.
The thing with Harpy is that it has video game tropes, but the characters are never in a game. They know nothing about it. The character's name, Harpy Gee, is just a pun, it'll never come up in the story. But with Amethyst, one of the reasons that I ended up putting the video game part of the story in goes back to trying to figure out what the character's arc is going to be. I wanted her to have something she was into on Earth. I wanted her to be a modern girl.
Her magic power is purple, there are magical stones, she's a princess, so I can't get around making her girly, but there's nothing wrong with being that way either so I went ahead and embraced that. Everything she has is pink and purple, but I wanted her to have a hobby or something creative to do, because the amethyst is supposed to be a creative stone and she's already supposed to be a problem solver. I tried to think of something that would be more gender-neutral that she would be into, that boys and girls both do, that everyone can like and it's not really a negative thing. Growing up, my brother and I used to play a lot of video games together, and a lot of them were RPGs.
I worked at a game company, actually, for a year, and I'd read around that time that a lot of high schools are starting to give coding and programming classes to their students. So it was something that, if a kid was watching the show, wouldn't be that weird to see happening. That was why the video game thing came into the shorts. I thought it would flesh the character out more if she was into something.
CA: What are you working on now, if you can say?
BD: I'm actually at Nickelodeon, storyboarding on a new show right now, but it probably won't be out for a year or so. I'm also doing some early vid dev on Medusa, over at Sony. It's just a part-time thing for that, but it's been really fun. I'm looking forward to that, but that and the comic is what I'm working on now.
It doesn't sound like a lot, but it is. Storyboarding takes a lot of time!
Below is a gallery of Amethyst production artwork and other amazing illustrations, courtesy of Brianne Drouhard and published here with her permission.