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In the 17 years since its debut, the classic sci-fi web series Red vs. Blue has been in a state of near-constant evolution. Its animation and storytelling style has grown more sophisticated, its narrative ambitions larger, and the studio behind it — Austin-based Rooster Teeth — has grown into a powerhouse with a reach well beyond the scope of what began as a goofy series of shorts about some Halo characters. In some ways, the constant growth and change behind Red vs. Blue is as much a part of its success as its continued adherence to the comedic sci-fi tone that informed the earliest episodes. If you're willing to play within that recognizably fun sandbox, you can branch the series out into a lot of different directions, which is what writer and director Torrian Crawford had in mind when he pitched Red vs. Blue: Zero, the next phase of one of the internet's favorite shows. The new series premieres on Nov. 9.
"Initially, I was inspired by some of the previous seasons that took a more action focus or included more action elements, I think around Season 8, 9, and 10, when they involved a class of characters called the Freelancers [The Project Freelancer Saga], which was when they included the legendary animation director Monty Oum," Crawford told SYFY WIRE. "I was really inspired by that sequence of events that happened within the RvB lore. So, I really just wanted to build upon that. When I went and pitched to [RvB writer, director, producer, and actor] Matt Hullum internally, we kind of called it 'RvB meets Fast & Furious,' which is just a really interesting way to say, 'Hey, we want to do RvB, but we want to make it this action-adventure, this action-heist kind of style, kind of mix it up a bit from the normal well-written comedy roots that the show was so ingrained as.'"
While the comedy roots of Red vs. Blue are well-represented in Zero, the series in its final form is also a fast-paced, slick representation of Crawford's desire — in his first time out as a Rooster Teeth showrunner after six years with the company working on shows like Death Battle! and gen: LOCK — to infuse more action movie fun into the franchise. While it still looks and feels like Red vs. Blue, Zero borrows a lot of its swagger and action philosophy from Crawford's favorite action movies, and takes the form of a classic "team gets together to pull a job" story, as a band of warriors with various skills and often clashing personalities must team-up to fight the title villain, Zero, who's in the midst of a ruthless search for an "Ultimate Power."
"I really wanted to explore action styles from movies that I watch, like The Raid, where it’s these crazy high-choreographed, high-action fights, but in a tight corridor, and you fight a wave of guys. Or other movies, like Flash Point with Donnie Yen and Ip Man, and then these bigger action-adventures that are just really super fun," Crawford said. "I think when you think about a movie series like Fast & Furious, it’s one of the things where you cannot help but to accept what happens in them because you know it’s ridiculous. You know it’s tropey; you know it’s cheesy. That’s kind of really how I designed this season of RvB. And honestly, I think RvB is the perfect vessel for it, because it could be anything, in my opinion. They have done so much with the show. They had some of those earlier action bits. The show itself is ingrained in comedy, but they do explore deeper characterization throughout the series. So, when it comes to this season, I kind of intentionally built a tropey season for the specific goal of just being fun, something you can just watch. It’s just meant to be fun. It’s not really meant to be overthought. This season is very aware of how cheesy it is."
Though it gleefully plays with action movie tropes, Red vs. Blue: Zero also has to create a compelling new cast of characters that help carry that action-adventure philosophy forward. That meant building an ensemble cast to form the backbone of the show, the team known as "Shatter Squad," and picking the right person to step into the lead role of Agent One, a mysterious fighter with something to prove. For that, Crawford turned to Fiona Nova, a first-time voice actor who's best known for her work as herself on Rooster Teeth's gaming channel Achievement Hunter.
"Torrian was specific in what he wanted, in terms of who would be the voice for his lead character, Agent One," Nova says. "This is my first time doing any kind of V.O., so it was a little nerve-racking having such a strong position and thinking, 'Will I be able to do his character justice?' He had a lot of faith in me and believed in me, and he was very helpful throughout. I mean, everyone on the team has been helpful throughout and giving me a lot of tips and tricks, and I think by the end of it I really found Agent One’s voice. I can see the progression from the first episode to the last one, how much I got her voice. So, yeah, it’s been very exciting, for sure."
In crafting the character of Agent One, and the clear arc she demonstrates over the course of Zero, Crawford wanted more than an actor who would deliver the lines. In addition to prioritizing casting a Black woman in the role, he also wanted a creative partner, someone who would inform the character as she came to life. He seems to have found that in Nova, and because they were both stepping into new roles with their work on the series, a kinship formed.
"The fact that Fiona has never done this before is actually something that was pretty great because I did have an idea of who Agent One is, but it’s kind of a thing where I really wanted to create the character and build her in conjunction with Fiona," he says. "I think if you really look at it from a production standpoint, it’s actually both our first times, me directing a voice actor and Fiona doing voice acting. It’s both our first times, and I actually really wanted that journey and that specific knowledge to actually help us go into developing the character because she is a new character. So, I wanted us both, plus the other writers that I have and the other people that work on the team, to really feel out that character and have her blossom into her own person, kind of how we’re finding ourselves and finding our footing in our first-time positions in the show to begin with."
Building a dream-team voice cast — which also includes the talents of Noël Wiggins, Jennifer Tidwell, Jeb Aguilar-Kendrick, André Ouellette, and others — was a priority for the ensemble dynamic of Shatter Squad in Red vs. Blue: Zero, but the sense of collaborative kinship also extended well beyond the cast and into the animation team. In a quest to produce dynamic, inventive fight scenes that also managed to inform character and story, Crawford sought out the best animators he could find, and did his best to make the series as much about their vision as his own.
"So, basically, me and the storyboard artists talk about my ideas, and my directing style is more so, 'I want to know what you’re thinking creatively. I want to know how you feel. I want to talk to you about these things. I want to geek out about action,' and stuff like that. They take that energy and ideas that I have, and they run with it and make storyboards. And then storyboards get to the animators, and it’s kind of that same process with the animators. We picked out some top-tier action animators — Matt Drury, Joe Vick, Peter Dang, and Charles Johnson — and they’re awesome. And pretty much, it’s kind of like, 'Hey, here are the boards. This is the inspiration. I have an idea, a style I want to achieve. You take all this information, and you run with it.' A lot of the action you see I have animated myself, but the stuff that I didn’t animate is because these animators went and they really gave it their all and they poured their heart into it, and they’re very passionate, and it came out awesome. That’s kind of how I approach action. We come up with rules, a style, and then the animators kind of just go. I’m not too picky or [into] giving reviews, and I’m not too over their shoulder about it, because I want their creativity. I want them to believe in themselves and I want them to express themselves."
That spirit of collective creativity runs throughout Red vs. Blue: Zero, a show that, in the preview of episodes SYFY WIRE was able to see ahead of the premiere, is as much about the bond between teammates as it is about high-flying action and the perils of throwing up in your helmet. It's a blend of everything Red vs. Blue has been before and a few things it hasn't been. Crawford and Nova made Rooster Teeth history with the series as the first Black showrunner and Black lead actor, respectively, in nearly two decades of Red vs. Blue, and for them, that inclusiveness carried over into the whole series, not just in terms of the people who made it, but in terms of its ability to reach a different audience.
"I think I would say the one big thing that makes me happy about this season is how diverse the cast is, as well as behind the scenes. These are stories made by a lot of different types of people, and I think that it has evolved into something really amazing," Nova says. "I’m really excited for the story to be told, especially since so many amazing people have worked on it. I haven’t watched a lot of Red vs. Blue in the past, but I see this as a perfect entryway for people just like me, who have seen this show, who are interested, who have seen this legacy pass on, and they get maybe intimidated seeing there are 17 seasons. And they see this opportunity to be like, 'Oh, we can start fresh. I’m going to start right here.' I think that’s the really cool part of it, and I think it’s a great evolution and is definitely the next step to what is to come with Red vs. Blue."
Red vs. Blue: Zero premieres Nov. 9 on Rooster Teeth for Rooster Teeth FIRST subscribers. New episodes will arrive weekly, and every episode will be free to watch on Rooster Teeth a week after its FIRST premiere.