For writer/director Borja Peña Gorostegui and executive producer Amanda Miller, Lost & Crowned marked the culmination of years of hard work, bringing their creative content studio, Psyop, into the Oscars conversation for the first time.
Created in concert with Supercell, the CG animated short is the first to bridge the gap between the company’s internationally beloved video games, Clash of the Clans and Clash Royale. Amassing over 45 million views since its debut on YouTube in September, it explores the chaos that ensues, after a duty-bound Skeleton Guard named Peter and his mischievous brother Larry are put in charge of guarding the Red King’s crown.
A standalone short steering clear of the games’ typical plot mechanics, the film embraces their aesthetics, in laying its visual foundation, before introducing all kinds of never-before-seen elements—the goal being to offer up a fresh experience for diehard Clash fans, while engendering new ones.
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Below, Gorostegui and Miller expound on their history with the Clash universe, and their efforts to match “Pixar quality” with a short that tested their craft.
DEADLINE: Where did your collaboration with Supercell begin? And how did past projects lead you, creatively, to Lost & Crowned?
AMANDA MILLER: We brought their universe to life for the first time in either 2013 or 2014, and we were new to the games at that point. I don’t even remember how old they are now, but it was their first cinematic. So, we crushed out this 60-second story in like two months. It was super intense. We finished it right before Christmas and got it live, and then we started getting these fan reactions—and overnight, the viewership went through the roof. And we’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is a universe people really want to live in and be part of.” So, even back then, we were like, “Okay, we are going to live in this universe and make bigger stories, and bring it into a film universe.”
We’ve been working with those guys for a really long time, developing new characters and fleshing out the world, and making the characters feel, emotionally, like something that people want to spend time with. So, when they were ready to go for a longer-format thing, Borja’s super involved in the world and the worldbuilding, and it was a natural fit. It was so fun to be able to expand it this way.
BORJA PEÑA GOROSTEGUI: We’ve been doing these advertisement commercials for them for so long, eventually developing a really cool relationship with Supercell, and the one thing that always comes up is that the more you do these smaller films, the more you fall in love with it, and the more that, as filmmakers and passionate storytellers, we want to do something bigger. I’ve got to say, this really turned into a huge passion project. Like, it was almost unbelievable that it was going to happen, and then when it started to happen, we were like, “Okay, it’s got to be the best little film we could possibly make”—not just for ourselves, but also for the fans and audiences that haven’t seen it yet.
DEADLINE: How would you describe the vision you had in mind for the short? Were there specific inspirations behind it?
GOROSTEGUI: At the beginning phase of it, we wanted to just do a really great, universal story, something that would resonate—ideally, with a world audience—all on day one, which is why we went with this approach to the story. No dialogue, and all of that stuff.
Then, in terms of the narrative, I pulled a lot of different ideas from my relationship with my sister. We had a very fun lifestyle at the beginning, where we moved around a lot, but we got into a lot of adventures together. But it took us a while before we became like true brother, sister, where we felt like we were always on the same page. I think for me, subconsciously, that came out.
I mean, obviously, when we started writing this thing, Amanda’s a big Goonies fan, and I’m a huge Goonies fan, as well. [I also love] a lot of Spielberg films, especially the ones that have to do with growing up, but growing up in a way that is told through a lot of pretty fantastical adventures. I think there was a lot of passion of wanting to do a story kind of like that, and definitely the world we were going to be playing with, we were already passionate and excited about, since we’d been doing some stuff in it before.
From that, this really great, little story evolved about these two skeleton brothers, and they’re positioned where at the beginning, they don’t quite understand each other. One’s a little too impatient with the other one; the other one doesn’t quite respect the fact that the older brother really loves the position as a guard. Then, their relationships evolves into what would be really, really good friends, and it just happens to take place in one awesome, little night.
DEADLINE: What can you tell us about your visual approach to the film?
GOROSTEGUI: A lot of the [Clash] commercials are purely based around gameplay mechanics. They’re always centered around some war, or some kind of clashing event—and with this, we really wanted to make an actual, emotional film. It’s inspired by the characters of the game, but it’s its own completely unique narrative, and it’s ideally opening the audience to that Clash universe, and what it has to offer, in terms of storytelling and character development.
I think the idea coming in is, “There’s no reason to create completely new characters, but let’s tell a story that has nothing to do with the game at all. Let’s make sure that we can open the door to potentially bigger stories down the line.” And that’s what it became. We borrowed some characters that we really love, like the two skeletons. They’re completely unrelated and come from different games, but in this story, it’s more about the world. We made them brothers because they’re skeletons, so obviously, there’s an easy relation there, and then everything else that unfolds is just a day in the life of two characters in this universe, and how that works. Obviously, what’s important is that this universe is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. It’s got its own rules, its own weird, quirky things. There’s magic, dragons, all kinds of stuff in it, and we used that to our advantage.
If you happen to dive into the game a bit, you’ll know that Clash of Clans has to do with villages, so we wanted to open the story with [a village], something recognizable for the fans that feels very normal. But after that, once they take that flying balloon, everything from there on out is completely new. It does have little Easter eggs, here and there. But the King’s castle, everything that happens in the castle, this giant dragon’s den, all of that stuff has absolutely nothing to do with the game. That’s purely for the narrative, and that was a lot of fun to design.
So, [we were] developing a new world with a very familiar aesthetic, but we had to invent it from the ground up. Even silly things. Like, nobody knew what potatoes in this world would look like. Things like that were really fun, borrowing the aesthetic, but creating a whole bunch of new stuff.
MILLER: It was like we were able to really stretch our craft. Because we have lived in this world for a while, we wanted to use the opportunity to really see how far we could go, to push the look of the animation, and the asset development, and the lighting, and the compositing. And Borja set a really high benchmark. You know, it was like Pixar or bust. We are a small, but mighty studio, so it was a challenge, but I do think that we’ve delivered on that. I’m really proud of how good it looks, and how our crew just brought the heat on every frame.
DEADLINE: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced, in bringing the film to life?
GOROSTEGUI: One, obviously, is the characters don’t talk. That was a big thing because it got us really excited [about] elevating our animation, almost to a level that we hadn’t done quite that nicely. Because Pysop is a huge, awesome animation studio, and we do animation of all kinds of different styles. But when we were trying to do this film, we really wanted it to match the Pixar quality. We wanted it to be a film that could be watched in the theater, had Covid not come around.
We’re all insanely passionate animators and come from 2D animation with no dialogue whatsoever, so when the script eventually boiled down to a film that wasn’t going to have dialogue—and on top of it, was going to be skeletons without skin or facial features—I think that that was a huge challenge. We did some animation tests and figured out that we didn’t want to go the Pixar Coco route, where the skeletons have a lot more malleable deformations. We wanted to be more rigid and let it all happen mostly in the body language, and very subtle facial stuff. Once we got it down with some posing and animation tests, we were like, “Oh man, that’s the characters we wanted.” But that was a big challenge.
Then, the other one is the visual level, really trying to be right there next to Pixar. I think that took a lot of skill from our team and a lot of development on how we were going to treat the lighting and all this stuff.
DEADLINE: What has it been like to see your film resonate so widely?
MILLER: It’s super satisfying, and it’s so fun to see these really lovely, positive comments. There was so much labor and so much love that went into this, and it’s nice to see that people love it as much as we do.
DEADLINE: What’s next for you both? Are there more Clash shorts in the works?
MILLER: In terms of Supercell, they are in the enviable position to be able to make a movie and then wait and see, and then decide what they’re going to do next, over a long period of time. So, we talk to them every day about it, but no decisions are made as of yet.
But in terms of Psyop, we have an animated, adult comedy that’s going to be coming out on Syfy—on TZGZ, which is like their Adult Swim—in February. And we have a number of other projects in development. Psyop, we’re small but mighty, and we don’t have a house look, but we have a lot of tools in the shed. So, we like to really get into all kinds of projects.
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