Jerry Holkins and Director Van Alan Talks About Bringing a Comic to Live Action TV

The folks at Penny Arcade don’t know how to stop working. With five conventions a year, myriad comic strips, a charity, web series and so on, I would dread to think of their work schedule. Their latest project is a live action pilot episode adapting Automata, a noir thriller that combines science fiction with a 1920’s aesthetic. While it isn’t exactly gaming related, I wanted a chance to talk to the creators. So it was with that I hunted down and captured Jerry Holkins, better know as Tycho, for an interview. As the show’s director, Van, attempted to free him, we had the following conversation:

[Hardcore Gamer] So, you’ve put together a live action show based on the comic series Automata. When do you plan on launching it?

[Van Alan] We’re figuring that out right now. It’s out to Kickstarter backers who kind of got first dibs on it. Right now, we’re trying to figure out what to do with the public release. I was down in LA two weeks ago trying to find distribution partners for it. We could put it out ourselves, but we feel that there’s a grander opportunity with it.

[Jerry Holkins] That panel’s tonight (September 1) right?

[Van] We’re screening it tonight. We got some cool people involved in it, like Jen Taylor, who is the voice of (Halo’s) Cortana.

[Jerry] Filmed locally…

[Van] Right. Filmed locally. We got a grant from the state of Washington. Doug Jones is in it too, and he’s on CBS’ Star Trek: Discovery this fall.

What was the drive behind the idea to do this?

[Jerry] A lot of times, we have different projects that are going on. Occasionally, we used to do this once a year and I would like to get back into it, we would put out three one page pitches to the audience. The one that they pick, we’ll flesh out into a six or eight page storyline. So, a bunch of things that people really like at Penny Arcade came from that. So, like The Lookouts, The New Kid, and Automata were all originally these one page pitches. Every now and then, it’s always worth approaching one of those and saying, “it was cool to do as a pitch, an interesting way to get that idea out there.” Sort of what we’re trying to do right now is figure out if there is another medium. Not a comic medium, obviously we can do that and execute that in house. But, is it a better idea, depending on the property, to find somebody who loves it just as much as we do and see what they can do in their form. Obviously, there’s special effects, costumes, a lot of money that goes into that. We actually approached the Kickstarter community about funding that project after we identified that Van was sufficiently enthusiastic about the project.

My theory is that you decided that there wasn’t enough for you to do.

[Jerry] No, that’s definitely not it! I’ve got a couple of things going on. Believe it!

What’s your favorite memory during the creation of this?

[Van] I think the first time we had a chance to see the models.

[Jerry] The proof of concept?

[Van] Yes, the proof of concept, and also just the 3D renders. If you have an idea, especially one that is manifested in 2D, transitioning something from 2D to 3D is a lot more challenging than you’d think. Making sure that it reads correctly in an environment is not something that I would do myself. You want to find somebody to do that.

(To Jerry) Well, you did do those games though…

[Jerry] That was very, very, very challenging, right? A perfect example: Gabe’s hair is not possible. Obviously, you can do things in games that aren’t possible, but his hair…. There’s actually a point when Gabe is walking, there’s a specific rotation of that model where he flips. Where the actual model of the hair cannot do this. Trying to navigate those things, trying to make a 3D thing that still feels like (Penny Arcade artist) Mike’s 2D thing is a monstrous challenge. When I saw that they could do it and it read correctly, that’s when I knew that the project was possible. Up until that point, I wasn’t sure.

[Van] That’s the thing, too. I’ve been working with Penny Arcade on Penny Arcade: The Series. This is like 2010, and it’s always in the back of my mind.

[Jerry] Whenever we need the video to look “right.”

[Van] Yeah. That’s where I come in. Automata was always a favorite of mine with Penny Arcade’s comics.What they’ve created is this amazing world. All of the other fans are constantly wanting more of it. I remember talking to them, saying that we can really do this. You know, but showing to somebody, proving that we can do this, that was the way to get the ball rolling. (Jerry) didn’t know it was possible.

[Jerry] Before that, it would have been like “I don’t know. Is there going to be any amount of money that could actually do this?”

[Van] Really, it was a test for us, too. We shot a minute long proof of concept scene. In that one scene, we were able to do ten visual effect shots. So, we decided to do a fifty minute television pilot with 350 visual effects. We had a really good team. We had some people from New Zealand that worked on Avatar, and then a guy who was a visual effects supervisor for Doctor Strange and Black Panther.

[Jerry] For titling and stuff, right?

[Van] No, for visual effects. He’s local. His name’s Todd Perry and he’s been a life saver. He really liked the concept, too.

(To Jerry) It sounds like you’re still learning stuff about the creation, too. 

[Jerry] Yeah. For me, (I was involved) in terms of the script or just trying to make sure that it feels right with these novel turns of the language. Van disappeared for a long time. He’s had this sign on his office…

[Van] I need to change it out.

[Jerry] He’s had this sign on his office that says “No, Automata is not done yet.” It’s been there for years. (To Van) You need to change the sign.

[Van] I do have one that says “It is finished.”

[Jerry] Like I said (filming a TV show) is not my expertise. That’s why we needed to secure expertise to make it possible at all.

[Van] I just want to be an extended arm of (Penny Arcade).

(To Jerry) It must be weird to find yourself at the top of this… empire, basically.

(Jerry) It’s very strange, I will agree. For us, because we’ve never really come to terms with it, I feel like we have to constantly earn it every time we do something. I think that’s part of what maintains the feel of the work. It’s a pretty classic nerd thing. If I could fully conceive of all of it, it would (blow my mind). I try to look at what I’m doing at that exact moment and try to do that as well as I can before moving to the next thing. There’s never a scenario where I see the whole thing. I have really intelligent people that work alongside me that do track the totality of the events, but that’s not my job.

(To Van) During the creation of the show, was there something that stands out as your most proud accomplishment?

[Van] I feel like the visual effects are something I’m really proud of. A lot of people, when they watch it, don’t realize they’re seeing CG. They think it’s an actual, practical mask.

[Jerry] That’s what I mean. That’s the actual victory condition.

[Van] I think it’s been really cool. We did Kickstart it, and had a Kickstarter screening. Just being able to interact with the fans was cool. I just want to do right by them. It was intergral with me having Mike and Jerry along every step of the way. We even went in, for some of the robot designs…

[Jerry] We needed new designs. We actually needed new chassis.

[Van]Right. For me, it was about taking the spirit of Automata and putting it on the film medium. For me, it was about translating it well and keeping everything that is Automata in the film world. Just being able to hear from the Kickstarter backers how excited they are about it, and they feel that we did right by them, is awesome.

There must have been this enormous pressure…

[Van] The way I like to think of myself, if I’m going to do something, I’m just going to go all the way. I worked countless hours, putting tons of time in post production. I wanted to do a good job. I want them to see it and feel like it was worth the investment. A lot of people have been like “Sign me up for the next one.”

[Jerry] I have heard this.

[Van] People have been telling me that they are ready to go with whatever we need.

From a timeline perspective, how long was pre-production, filming, and all that?

[Van] So, production was actually over the course of fourteen days. That’s a pretty standard shooting time. Visual effects did take awhile, just because we really wanted to hone them in. We shot back in January, 2016. It was probably about a year and a half that we wrapped up post, just because of all of the visual effects and everything. So, really, it was done by March. We premiered it at a festival called SeriesFest. They’re establishing themselves as the Sundance of television, because now there’s this whole independent television movement.

[Jerry] Exactly. Again, of independent episodic work, which is this specific little fissure in there.

[Van] Right. It’s new, a brave new world that everyone’s exploring and doesn’t know the language.

[Jerry] Like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon. They’ve all sort of carved out this specific niche of video that’s independent, but not film.

[Van] We’re kind of living in the golden age of television right now. I think people see more television than they do film at this point of time in terms of all of the amazing television that’s out there.

[Jerry] It doesn’t mean the same thing. Television doesn’t mean what it did in terms of the firewall between television and film. (Industry people before) would state that they would only work in one medium. Then you have something like Game of Thrones, which is functionally speaking from a quality bar, are films.

[Van] It’s interesting. It does feel like there’s this new territory that’s uncharted. We’re exploring that space along with a lot of other people through these grassroots movements. There’s this show called High Maintenance. It’s about a weed dealer in New York. It started off as a webseries, but it got picked up and turned into a full blown show. This is the model, and I’ve seen examples of this laid out, and this is what we can do with Automata. Start off as a smaller thing, a proof of concept pilot.

You’re hoping to grow this. 

[Jerry] Absolutely. It’s already proven that it has an audience. I think that there are neat ideas in it that are timely and worthy of investigation.

[Van] We got picked up by Now This Entertainment, they did a piece on Automata. On Facebook, it got over a million views and ten thousand shares, which is beyond the Penny Arcade core audience. I think that there’s a hunger for this kind of elevated genre of content.

How much of this is created to appease existing fans and how much is to bring in the uninitiated?

[Van] It’s a tricky line. For me, I wanted it to feel true, like Automata. I’ve been asked “what is Automata? What is the core of it?” To me, it’s the setting. It’s Sam and Carl and their relationship. I think all of those things, along with the design of the robots, make it.

[Jerry] Yeah. Those are all thematic concerns. I never once, when we were writing it, wrote it with the idea that any piece of the content would be for insiders or for outsiders. There are parts of the information, that when we rendered it for the comics themselves for Penny Arcade, that simply weren’t told. This is actually more explicit with some of the backstory of the setting. I think that might serve to on ramp people. There’s just some aspects in the comics that we just haven’t gotten to. With the show, we’ve had fifty minutes of real time. We had more space, more opportunity, to flesh it out. It’s wild. I like the type of time control that we have in comics. That’s very exciting. I have a lot of power and can make it with one other person. We can do a lot and it doesn’t cost anything. With film, Vans doing 24 frames a second.

[Van] Oh, yeah. With the visual effects shots, we timed out everything. That’s money.

That covers my questions about the show. Is there anything that you want to add?

[Van] I was hoping that we would have public release plans to announce now, but it sounds like we’re holding things because there are things percolating with real distribution.

[Jerry] We don’t want to do a solo release, because if we did, it affects the rest of the conversations that we would have. As long as we do right by the backers, which I think we did, we can hold onto for a second while we try to figure out what’s next for it. (Proper distribution) is about getting as many people as possible the chance to see it. I think that one of these distributors is going to have a much louder voice than we do outside out community. It’s the tactics. We can release it ourselves and do just fine, but if there is something else that we can do, we’ve got to try.