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‘Arcane’: How the Netflix Animated Series Transcended Its Video Game Origin as an Innovator

After sweeping the Annies, "Arcane" is the Emmy frontrunner for its compelling story and illustrative animation style.

Arcane. Ella Purnell as Jinx in Arcane. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2021

“Arcane”

Courtesy of Netflix

Animation

Netflix’s “Arcane,” based on Riot’s popular “League of Legends” battle game, has become the most acclaimed animated series of the season after sweeping the Annie Awards. This bodes well for its Emmy chances, thanks to a compelling story and eye-catching illustrative style from Paris-based animation studio Fortiche.

“Taking this on was intimidating but we had a yearning to do something different,” showrunner Christian Linke told IndieWire. He created the series with fellow Riot vet and executive producer Alex Yee. “We figured out what made the game and characters so popular and then made the series for ourselves.”

The secret of their success was building the dystopian series around the rivalry between badass sisters Jinx (Ella Purnell) and Vi (Hailee Steinfeld), who are part of a war between the affluent city of Piltover and the oppressed underground city of Zaun. “So much of Jinx was her big personality and meta perspective among the players ” Yee told IndieWire “But there was nothing that was visual to lean into. That allowed us to focus on a different kind of story and depiction of the characters. We watched ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘Peaky Blinders’: high drama stories that moved into fantasy and sci-fi. The time was right for us.”

For animation, the creators turned to Fortiche, which had already distinguished itself with Riot game cinematics and music videos, specializing in cool 2D effects. But the demands of the ambitious, nine-episode series required a lot of ramping up while staying true to its organic-looking aesthetic. Yet it was such a good fit that Riot recently became a part owner of the animation studio as they complete Season 2.

While Riot provided a style guide for the world building (Piltover’s bright and mechanical Art Deco vibe versus Zaun’s dark, phosphorescent look), Fortiche created the mix of finely textured 3D characters and digitally hand-painted backgrounds. They continued to push their use of 2D effects during fight sequences and drew on a range of different animation styles for their depiction.

Arcane. (L to R) Joe Zieja as Thieram, Ella Purnell as Jinx in Arcane. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2021

“Arcane”

Courtesy of Netflix

“My key goal was to keep these human effects and make sure the world always made sense for the artists so their work can be meaningful,” animation director Barthelemy Maunoury told IndieWire. “Christian had a clear vision of a balance between reality and hand-crafted.”

Linke said Fortiche was always trying to chase the imperfect: scratches or smears on the lens during an explosion, or catching glimpses of odd-looking action. “Fortiche was a powerhouse with cinematography and things feeling human,” he said. “This stylization allowed for more mature elements to be explored.”

This included conveying Jinx’s manic state of mind with such effects as glitching and film scratches, which were then scanned into the computer. “To us, Jinx was scribbling on the actual film, so the line had to be sharp with a lot of anxiety,” Maunoury said. “It gives a cool visual style for her mental expression.”

Arcane. (L to R) Katie Leung as Caitlyn Kiramman, Hailee Steinfeld as Vi in Arcane. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2021

“Arcane”

Courtesy of Netflix

Netflix has submitted the pivotal sixth episode, “When These Walls Come Tumbling Down” — in which Jinx reaches the point of no return and her violent capacity is unleashed — for Emmy consideration. “The episode has so many powerful moments,” Linke said. “It’s the first time Vi and [crime lord] Silco meet, the first time Vi and Jinx reconnect, and the first time we see Jinx as the powerhouse fighter,” Linke said.

Maunoury perceived Jinx as a traumatized child with insecure body language and something to prove. At the same time, she’s lost all empathy for people. “The sixth episode was stressful for Jinx and a key moment,” he said. “Her reunion doesn’t last long and the sisters get attacked by the Firelights [the rebel Zaunites]. Jinx turns back into a crazy, killing mode, and we have this shot of Vi witnessing that. For me, that was a very moving moment as well.”

Arcane. Ella Purnell as Jinx in Arcane. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2021

“Arcane”

Courtesy of Netflix

The fight at the end of the episode contained more dynamic camera movement than any other. “We studied snowboarding and surfing because the Firelights have this flying board,” the animation director said. “We wanted to whip around the characters, something very 360, fluid, and aerial.”

Expect the exploration of Jinx to continue in Season 2: “She’s the character that made us confident in choosing this set of champions for this show,” Linke said. “You’re walking this tightrope of wanting her irreverent and unafraid, but showing the fragile side of her. The greatest challenge: Can we make her someone who wantonly attacks people and yet root for her throughout the show?”

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