For the team behind Angel Studios, an entertainment distributor and crowdfunding enterprise whose mission is to produce “stories that amplify light,” encountering skeptics has become commonplace.
Company President Jordan Harmon observed that some detractors have written off even their global success with marketing “The Chosen,” a Gospel-based series featured this week in the New York Times.
“‘Well, ‘The Chosen’ is about Christ, and clearly people want that,’” he said, channeling their critics. “And then we had ‘Tuttle Twins’ do well, and people were like, ‘It’s because it’s about freedom, and people really want to hear about that.’ Then when ‘The Wingfeather Saga’ happened — people had no explanation for it raising five million dollars because it’s a fantasy series.”
On Friday, the first half-hour episode of “The Wingfeather Saga,” a family-focused fantasy/adventure series, rolls out on YouTube and via Angel Studios’ app. Crowdfunding has enabled DreamWorks alum Chris Wall, the series producer-showrunner, and Andrew Peterson, author of the fantasy fiction saga, to set up an animation studio in Nashville — as dozens work remotely worldwide to bring the story to life.
“We’re fully in production right now, cranking out episodes to finish season one,” Wall told reporters at a recent premiere event. The first six-episode season runs through February, with the four-book quadrilogy already planned as seven seasons in total.
At the red-carpet premiere in Nashville, many of the series talent met for the first time — including voice actors Jodi Benson, star of Disney animated hit “The Little Mermaid,” Kevin McNally from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, Alkaio Thiele as young protagonist “Janner,” and an ensemble of rising child stars.
Benson plays “Nia,” whom she calls “a fierce mama bear,” raising three rambunctious children in a small village seemingly set against a medieval backdrop. “She’s powerful, brave, courageous, and a leader,” said Benson. “But then you add the element of her other hat as a mom, and she is so loyal and loving.”
In the story, Nia lives in a thatched-roof farmhouse with her kids and her father, Podo, who has similarities to a past iconic role of the actor who voices him.
“He’s a man of the sea, like Mr. Gibbs,” said McNally, referring to his “Pirates” character. “But we had a long chat about how we could make him a different man of the sea. And I’m pleased to know that I do have two pirates in me. Maybe a third will come later.”
Not Safe — But Good
Benson compares the series to “The Chronicles of Narnia” and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth novels. “It kind of blends all of those things together, which is really fun,” she said.
Peterson said the novels are a mash-up of “epic, sweeping adventure” with his goofy sense of humor. The author invents a new word on nearly every page as he builds out the fictional world of Aerwiar. For instance, gnawing “thwaps” invade rustic gardens where “totatoes” (not potatoes) grow.
“The story starts out with a little bit of whimsy, but there’s this depth to it that I really wanted to get to,” said Peterson. “There’s a real heart beating at the center of it, (though) it has some cartoonishness.”
That playful approach presented challenges even for Benson, whose IMDB page lists 84 voice acting credits. “To get into the dialect and the language of the world, it was very tricky and hard for me at times,” she said.
Grade schoolers in the premiere audience laughed at the tongue-twisters and fantastical woodland creatures introduced. However, the series’ hulking lizard-like villains, called the Fangs of Dang, could give nightmares to the youngest viewers. By episode three, these creatures have gone from enslaving adults to snatching children in the dead of night.
Producer Wall, a father of six, says he is sympathetic to parents wanting safe stories free from “gratuitous” imagery or plot elements. Yet he and Peterson emphasize that heroism requires peril.
“I’m sorry, but there are dark and terrible things in the world,” said Wall. “We want to be age-appropriate. … But we also don’t want to shy away from the fact that life is perilous.”
‘Geniuses Doing Their Best Work’
Along with animation supervisor Keith Lango, Wall brought on lead animator Ron Smith to head up a team of about 20 artists based in the U.S., Europe, and South America. “It’s been a wild ride so far, and I’m so glad that it’s led to this opportunity,” said Smith at the red-carpet premiere.
His varied career has included creating scenes on “Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs,” “Hotel Transylvania,” and Disney’s “Tangled” — “I was involved in animating Flynn Rider’s death scene,” Smith told me. “Spoiler alert: He actually comes back to life.”
Most recently, he worked on several Blue Sky Studios projects, including “The Peanuts Movie.” As part of purchasing 20th Century Fox in 2019, Disney bought Blue Sky and soon shuttered the relatively small animation studio based in Connecticut.
“So I was out of a job, then I got a call wondering if I was interested in this project that was set to move ahead,” said Smith. “It lined up so well — it was just the right opportunity at the right time.” His expertise and contacts proved vital to the innovative animation style that their small team pioneered.
Their stylistic choice came after surveying the vast world of Aerwiar and its lore. “The story goes off the page — there’s footnotes if you’ve read the books,” said Wall. “The world is bigger than what’s just here. We wanted that same sense visually.”
Perhaps akin to groundbreaking CG techniques in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” their approach called “paint motion” blends hand-painted 2D art with the scope of CG action and environments.
Smith speaks excitedly about the painstaking effort to create that hand-touched aesthetic.
“Pause the show at any point, and every frame is a work of art,” said the lead animator. “It’s not just the artists that have created it. It’s the programmers that have figured out how to do it with math — the procedural textures that give it that shimmer. It’s a bunch of geniuses doing their best work.”
More Stories on the Far Horizon
The team behind “The Wingfeather Saga” has already raised $1.7 million for season two to begin pre-production, and further rounds of Angel crowdfunding are expected in the coming months.
“It’s validating our community-based model,” said Jordan Harmon. “No matter what type of genre, it’s all about telling great stories that amplify light. When you involve the crowd, bring them into the creation process, let them invest and be a part of that, they rally behind the creative vision.”
Still, with seven seasons planned and most family entertainment franchises reliant on merchandising to fund production costs, the series must navigate risks and expectations to forge ahead.
Longtime actress Benson is confident about the series’ future. “We’re left with a big cliffhanger after this first season,” she said. “So I think audiences are going to be clamoring for season two.”
Some families may be intrigued but unsure about the depiction of fictional magic, deadly perils, dragons, and other grotesque creatures that inevitably come with the fantasy genre.
Peterson notes that one of his heroes, G.K. Chesterton, expressed a truth about stories that has been morphed and misquoted over the years. “The idea is that fairy tales don’t teach children that dragons exist,” said Peterson. “Fairy tales teach children that dragons can be beaten.”
By the end of episode one, viewers find supernatural elements are clearly at play in the fictional world.
Voicing the once-seafaring grandfather, McNally said of his character: “He’s well aware of the dark forces that he lives amongst. I think he’s surprised that some of them have been reawakened.”
Watch the full interview with author Andrew Peterson and producer J. Chris Wall: