Netflix’s ‘Castlevania’ showrunner Adi Shankar on nerddom and season two

It’s easy to draw a line from producer Adi Shankar’s scrappy Bootleg Universe — his slew of short indie films about the Punisher, Power Rangers and other pop culture heroes uploaded on YouTube — to his recent work as showrunner of Netflix’s recently released animated Castlevania series. His approach taps into what made beloved characters resonate with fans and gives those old favorites a mature, modern spin.

We caught Shankar on his way to Japan for a press tour promoting Castlevania to ask why he jumped at the chance to adapt the well-loved franchise. The first four-episode season dropped weeks ago, beginning a gothic horror saga of three adventurers fighting against Dracula’s army of demons. The series was planned around a script written a decade ago by comics icon Warren Ellis for Frederator Studios (of Adventure Time fame), but Shankar was brought on late in 2015 to make an animated version, which eventually landed on Netflix.

Fans loved the series, Shankar said, and apparently so did Netflix, which ordered a second season of Castlevania and doubled the episodes, though no release date has been announced. On top of returning to the show, Shankar will add another adaptation to his oeuvre, as he was announced showrunner of an Assassin’s Creed anime. While he can’t comment on that series, he had plenty to tell Engadget about bringing his adaptation experience to bear on a beloved video game franchise.

What about Castlevania appealed to you?

I’m a fan of Castlevania. I played most of the games — Symphony of the Night being really the game that brought me back into the franchise from the PlayStation 1 era. But I am genuinely and authentically a fan of it. That’s ultimately what brought me in. Being able to make it was a dream come true.

Your team chose to adopt a prequel, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, instead of the original game. Why?

The story of Castlevania is the story of this family known as the Belmonts. As the various generations of the family struggle with their own challenges, not only fighting monsters but dealing with the issues of the time, it made sense to start early in that family’s history.

What was the process to change it into your vision of the series?

The real issue in adapting Castlevania was the way in which we were gonna do it. We used 2D hand-drawn animation. This is effectively a dead art form. That’s something I was adamant about right from the get-go. It wasn’t so much the story we were gonna tell as much as how we were going to tell it, because we knew we were going to tell an early Belmont story from one of the earlier games. We were designing it for television, but, for instance, we didn’t want to do a ‘Monster of the Week’-style narrative structure. We also wanted each frame of it to look beautiful and use that 2D hand-drawn look.

The first season was only four episodes. Were you planning on more seasons?

I wouldn’t say we were planning on having a second or third season so much as that there was an overarching story we were hoping to tell. And there’s always been a plan for that story in place.

Was it more difficult to adapt a video game rather than characters from other mediums, like comics or television shows?

I wouldn’t say anything was more difficult. It was just that what we had to focus on was different: fleshing out emotions associated with these characters so that the audience connected with them on an emotional level.

Was that different because you were adapting video game characters?

Partially. When you’re developing a character for a video game, effectively — and I’m not saying one art form is more difficult than the other and they both have their own challenges — but when you’re developing for a video game, there are different parameters in place than if one were to develop a character for film or TV. In one version, you are the character in the game; in the narrative version, you are observing the character and have to relate to the character in a different way.

Is it constraining to adapt from source material that came out — in Castlevania III‘s case — almost 30 years ago?

There’s nothing about the games that feels constraining. There’s nothing we’re trying to work around. We’re embracing all the elements of the game and adding an emotional arc to them.

Is the process going to be any different for your next project — adapting Assassin’s Creed into an anime-style series?

Well, I can’t really talk about Assassin’s Creed other than to say that I’m a fan; I’ve played every game. I love the mythology, and I love the universe.

But as for Castlevania, season two will be expansive. Not only is it greenlit, Netflix doubled our episode order due to the fan response. Which has been amazing! I mean, we made a show targeted for the fans of the game, and now it has crossed over into the mainstream. It was an amazing thing to have had happen.

Does this feel like a fan-made project?

One-hundred percent. Although this is an official project, it feels in line with the mentality of the Bootleg Universe. It wasn’t trying to get an audience beyond the core fanbase. The fact that it did is wonderful. But we were, are and will continue to be loyal to our core demographic.

How’s the response been?

The fan response, the critical response, has been overwhelming; it’s been humbling. It makes all of us want to work even harder and deliver an even better season two. Season one has teed up season two perfectly.

The reaction was so overwhelmingly positive that I was a little taken aback. I didn’t expect that. I didn’t necessarily expect the show to cross over the way it did, demographically, and into the mainstream.

The audience that grew up loving these games are now the core audience that marketers are going after. And on top of that, we have a whole generation under us — I’m 32 — that are all gamers. There’s no such thing as gamer versus non-gamer. Every single one of us is a gamer on some level, even if it’s just playing iPhone games.

Would you say those marketers appealing to our retro childhoods means nostalgia is a cottage niche inside the gaming industry?

I wouldn’t say it’s nostalgia at all. I would say it’s a language and an art form that has developed across the decades and has supplanted film as the preeminent art form of this millennium that we are living in right now. The innovations that are happening in storytelling are happening in VR, AR and gaming.

Are you interested in VR and AR, possibly in your future adaptations?

Hell, yeah.

Are you waiting for the tech to get better, or are any VR/AR projects on your horizon?

On the horizon. My schedule’s just packed at the moment, but it’s on the horizon.

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Why didn’t Google make Chromebooks a priority this holiday season?

Black Friday and Cyber Monday have come and gone, and the holiday shopping season is in full swing. As such, Google, Microsoft and Apple have all revealed their latest and greatest to get shoppers opening their wallets. Microsoft has the Surface Studio and refreshed Surface Book, not to mention the Xbox holiday lineup, while Apple goes into holiday battle with the new MacBook Pro and the iPhone 7.

Google is trying something different this year. The company has a full ecosystem of products made in-house for the first time: the Pixel smartphone, Google Home assistant and Daydream VR headset. All three products are important to Google’s strategy, but it feels to me like something’s missing: the humble Chromebook. Google’s more traditional computing platform has gone neglected this fall, and it’s especially surprising in light of a few big developments this year.

The first was a report from IDC claiming that Chromebooks outsold Macs in the first quarter of the year. Yes, that’s just one isolated data point, but it shows that there’s a market for Chromebooks, and that market is growing. The second development was Google’s announcement that Android apps would come to Chromebooks this year. That would solve two of the platform’s big weaknesses: the lack of traditional applications and the Chromebook’s limited offline capabilities.

But the rollout of Google Play on Chromebooks has been stilted at best. Only three models have full support as of today, more than six months after Google first announced the feature. There are a few more that can run Android apps if you use the developer version of Chrome OS, but ultimately this isn’t a selling point Google can use to drive interest in the platform. Indeed, the company doesn’t mention the feature at all on its Chromebook website or in its online store. Based on my experiences using Android on Chromebooks, that’s because the experience isn’t quite yet ready for prime time. There’s no sense in launching a half-baked feature, but I had assumed it would be ready to go by the end of this year.

It’s hard to see this as anything but a missed opportunity. Android is the most popular mobile OS by a wide margin, and being able to use the same apps on both your mobile phone and Chromebook would bring a nice layer of integration to the two platforms. But this non-launch means that consumers aren’t aware of this potentially important feature and developers have zero incentive to consider Chromebooks when building apps.

Google is dropping the ball from a hardware perspective as well. The Chromebook Pixel 2 was discontinued at the end of August with no replacement in site. Sure, that computer was never a practical buy, but similar to what the Nexus program did for phones, it provided manufacturers and developers inspiration when building their own Chromebooks. Other manufacturers have picked up the slack to some extent, but I’m surprised Google appears to have given up making its own Chrome OS hardware.

The hardware gulf shows up in Google’s online store too. Right now, you can only buy three different Chromebooks — all from Acer, two with 11-inch screens and large boat anchor with a 14-inch screen. It seems extremely strange that you cannot visit Google’s store and buy a Chromebook with the ever-popular 13-inch screen size.

One possible explanation for the apparent de-prioritization of Chromebooks at Google could be that the company is fully merging Chrome OS with Android, as various rumors have suggested over the years. The most recent rumor claims a merged Android / Chrome OS will power the next Pixel laptop planned to arrive sometime next year. That would certainly explain the silence, and an announcement of that magnitude would likely wait for the next I/O event in late spring. But that’s still another six months from now, not that the timeframe really matters if Google is moving on from Chrome OS.

It’s too soon to know what Google’s plan is, but a Google spokesperson confirmed that the company “remains committed to Chrome OS and Chromebooks.” The spokesperson also said that Google is seeing great momentum for the platform, particularly in the education market. And given that nearly all Chromebooks are made by OEM partners, there’s logic to keeping this fall’s big launch event focused on the “Made by Google” products. But if the company isn’t giving up on Chromebooks, that makes the lack of new hardware this fall all the more strange.

That’s particularly true given that Google has been closing the gap with Apple, a company whose laptop situation is a bit out of whack right now. A Chromebook is clearly a different class of device than a MacBook Pro, but that’s beside the point. If Google isn’t giving customers good devices to buy and making big advances like Android apps a priority, Chromebooks will continue to have a hard time shaking the old “it’s only a browser” stigma.

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