Speaking to two different audiences
Every adaptation of a video game for the big or small screen is faced with this conundrum: how do you please the gamer audience as much as those who have never touched a games console? "We wanted a project that would leave its mark on the animation world, through its quality and its plot, while being seen by as many people as possible, fans and novices alike", recalls Pascal Charrue, co-founder of the Paris-based studio Fortiche Productions, which Riot Games entrusted with the adaptation of its League of Legends game. Broadcast on Netflix, the Arcane series was named best animated programme at the Creative Arts Emmys 2022. "One of my first questions to Christian Linke, one of the show runners of Arcane [with Alex Yee, ed.], was, "What will our target be?" For him, it was the fans of the game. So we had to adjust certain sliders - colours, shapes, proportions and character depictions- to allow newcomers to gently enter the game's very fantasy universe. A talented team of in-house artists at Riot Games bridged the gap between our intentions and the game's 'lore'. Riot Games helped us to place a few 'easter eggs' to satisfy the fans. And, we at Fortiche looked for the best way to highlight the genesis of the characters for the experts and an exciting story for the uninitiated."
This view is shared by Anthony Roux, who is responsible for adapting Ankama's games in-house. "The most complicated part is always the story, the narrative. You have to find a way in for people who don't know your world. Staying true, of course, to what you originally created, but also reaching out a little more to the general public. For example, when I brought Dofus to the big screen, I made sure that I created new characters that people who weren't familiar with the game could relate to. The main characters have to discover the universe - or at least the rules of the universe - at the same time as the new audience. And then, to please the fans - even if I'm not in favour of 'fan service' - you have to add a few links with the game, little winks and nods."
Every adaptation project faces obstacles, forcing its studio to evolve. For Fortiche Production, the contract with Riot Games was an opportunity to develop on an industrial scale. Pascal Charrue: "We had to move from a small-scale 'pipeline' of a few dozen generalists, to a more industrial 'pipeline', suitable for a series like Arcane and bringing together several hundred artists. We also had to grow the studio from 40 to 250 people in a very short space of time... In fact, today we have 400 employees. In the first season of Arcane, around 560 people took part in the project, all departments combined. Some were based in Paris and the rest in our satellite studios in Montpellier and Las Palmas, Spain. He sums up a successful video game adaptation as "being demanding, taking a step back and, above all, wanting to do something original. That's essential.
For Ankama, each new project is a test, as Anthony Roux explains: "What's complicated in my case is that I've created the games, the series and the films. My biggest challenge is never to disappoint the community that is so loyal to us. A bad adaptation can make you look incapable in their eyes. For Ankama, the stakes are high," he explains. "We use media like animation and comics to promote our games. If we've had games for so long, it's because we've made four seasons of Wakfu, films... We've kept the universe alive and nurtured the brand."
Is 'adapting' a balancing act?
"The strength of an adaptation lies in remaining faithful to the universe and then transposing it into a film or series" says Anthony Roux. "This sometimes means streamlining or transforming it, but never betraying it. Then you have to choose the right format and structure. It's not the same to tell a story in several 26-minute episodes as it is to make a 1.5-hour film. You have to be aware of that. For Pascal Charrue, "it all depends on the video game to be adapted! If the game is already very cinematic or very accessible, the adaptation will seem easier. Perhaps you need to betray the public's expectations and hopes a little in order to surprise them and add something new to the universe. But above all, respect the model, draw inspiration from it and develop the final product."
In its adaptation work, Fortiche Production worked in close contact with Riot Games. "It's a long-standing relationship, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. At the time, we produced the trailer for the release of their character Jinx [League of Legends]. That trailer has over 250 million official views, which has cemented this relationship of trust. We participated in the adaptation without ever betraying the intentions of the show runners. It's an ongoing partnership. We didn't feel that we were simply service providers on this project. We were able to inject a bit of our DNA without betraying the identity of the game or the IP. It was a purely artistic project where we had the opportunity to show our style to a wider audience."
The graphic style
With Arcane, Fortiche developed a graphic style that broke with industry standards. A choice that has paid off, putting the series on the global animation map. "The graphic style existed long before the series" explains Pascal Charrue. "It was precisely this style that attracted Christian Linke, Arcane's showrunner. We had made a sequence-shot clip that caught the attention of the Riot teams. I think the visual style is intrinsically linked to the story we're telling. For example, in Arcane, the architecture of the two towns, Piltover and Zaun, reflects this search for coherence between the narrative and what you see on screen. The former is clean, modern and inspired by Art Deco, while the latter is more artisanal and inspired by Gothic and Art Nouveau. Both have their charm, but they don't tell the same story. And neither do their inhabitants!”
Anthony Roux imagined things differently, having developed the video games Dofus and Wakfu beforehand. "In fact, there was a lot of soul-searching when we were creating the games, because we were technically limited. So we needed something fairly simple in terms of design. We naturally turned to Japanimation, which allowed us to create very pretty things with fewer lines. We looked at how the Japanese were simplifying their work, and we quickly realised that it was the best choice for us. It was logical to continue with this graphic style when the question of films and series came up. After that, there are still graphic differences between our comics, games, films and series. But what binds them all together is colour. Bright, bold colours. People don't necessarily realise it, but on a subconscious level they know they're dealing with Ankama."
"If the major international groups have confidence in France, it's because of the pool of talent in the industry, whether or not they have graduated from the many French graphic design schools. We are also major consumers of video games and animation. So there is both a mature and expanding market," stresses Pascal Charrue. Anthony Roux notes the presence of "a lot of talent in France with a real artistic flair. I think it's this aspect that appeals to the Americans". He adds, like his colleague, that France has "many schools. We should add that this firepower that we enjoy, this creativity, particularly in animation, also exists because we are particularly well supported by the CNC. Without it, there would be no animation companies in France. It is thanks to the CNC that we are now the third largest animation producer in the world."
Projects in the pipeline
What does the future hold for Ankama and Fortiche Production? Anthony Roux has already finished season 4 of Wakfu, which will soon be broadcast on France Télévisions, and will mark the end of an era. "The Waven game was released this summer and follows on from Dofus and Wakfu. We're already working on the animated series that will recount the adventures of the children of the Wakfu heroes. On the other hand, we'll certainly be doing some crowdfunding to give fans a choice between the sequel to the Dofus film or a new series. At Fortiche, "other projects are in development, but they're not necessarily adaptations" explains Pascal Charrue. Our aim is more to establish our graphic style permanently in various associate productions and to create our own intellectual properties.