Legendary Artistry: How ‘Arcane’ Became a Popular and Critical Hit of the Moment

***This article originally appeared in the March ’22 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 318)***

Animated shows based on video games have come a long way since the early days of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. The success of Riot Games’ Arcane on Netflix (which became a runaway hit and earned nine Annie nominations) has certainly opened a new chapter in the history of gaming-inspired animated content .

Based on the multiplayer online battle arena game League of Legends, launched in 2009, Arcane is Riot Games’ first animated series, produced in partnership with Paris-based Fortiche Productions. The nine-episode series debuted last November with a rare 100 percent approval rating on aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, and earned an immediate second season order.

Hailee Steinfeld voices Vi and Mia Sinclair Jenness plays "Powder," who grows up to be a more notorious character in Arcane.
Hailee Steinfeld voices Vi and Mia Sinclair Jenness plays “Powder,” who grows up to be a more notorious character in Arcane.

The series’ complex setting is divided between the utopian Piltover and the oppressed Zaun, and tells the tale of two sisters whose loyalty to each other is tested on the way to becoming iconic champions. It stars Hailee Steinfeld and Ella Purnell as the sisters Vi and Jinx; Kevin Alejandro as Jayce and Katie Leung as Caitlyn.

Riot veterans Christian Linke and Alex Yee created and wrote the story, with Linke serving as showrunner and executive producer and Yee as co-executive producer. Both have extensive experience in video games, but Arcane — for which they were nominated for an Annie for outstanding writing in an animated TV or broadcast episode — is the first animation project for each.

Alex Yee
Alex Yee

High-Fidelity World

Inspiration for Arcane came from a desire to delve into the storytelling potential of League of Legends in ways that the game could not. “It’s just a game where you don’t really get a chance to actually experience the story for any of the characters,” Yee says. “We always felt this responsibility to deliver a higher-fidelity version of the world for those players.”

Arcane’s first season has nine episodes, each running about 40 minutes — requiring six hours of story. The game’s depth, however, prompted the producers to both pack each episode with story and to find ways to get into the story the characters fans most wanted to see.

Yee says they ended up focusing on Vi and Jinx because the story of how the sisters became enemies had not been told. “There was this mystery that we came to the table with,” he says. “Then we built around there, starting in that same region, looking at the other characters who are available.”

“We knew that there was going to be an expectation that every game character that we involved needs to have a satisfying arc and storyline — even if they’re side characters,” says Linke. “We worked very, very hard to give all of them a true progression — not just utilize them as tools in a story. I think it was very important to us.”


Heading up Arcane’s animation direction at Fortiche is Barthélémy Maunoury — nominated for the Annie along with Fortiche co-founders Pascal Charrue and Arnaud Delord for outstanding direction in a TV or broadcast episode — who was skeptical about the project until Linke pitched the project. “I was just blown away by his vision, his ambition — and that changed the whole thing for me,” Maunoury says.

Linke’s clear vision helped define how the show ended up being made. “His idea was to find the right balance between realistic animation and cartoon animation,” says Maunoury. “Since we’re dealing with semi-realistic characters, we wanted to convey weight. And also, it’s a drama, so it’s important for the characters to feel real.”

Ella Purnell voices the trigger happy Jinx in Arcane.
Ella Purnell voices the trigger happy Jinx in Arcane.

Eschewing motion-capture as a solution, they researched live-action films to define the characters and develop a style of animation that matched the vision, Maunoury says. “Having said that, we don’t hesitate to sometimes bend our rules,” he says. ”Sometimes we go for something a little bit more extreme, a little bit more animated or a bit more stylized. And sometimes we go for something a bit more real.”

Maunoury says animators were each given a lot of freedom to bring their own ideas to each shot or sequence. Since there were about 80 or 90 animators working on the team, their preferences on creating or using reference varied quite a bit. Sequences were typically brainstormed into storyboards and animatics, and assigned to teams of five to seven animators, working under a lead animator, he says.


Animators had access to a reference room with cameras and props, and could shoot as much or as little reference as they needed. Shots went to layout and approved blocking shots were then turned into final animation, with team members set a quota of producing 0.8 seconds of animation per day, Maunoury says.

Since League of Legends is a battle game, the series required plenty of fight sequences that had to fulfill fans’ expectations. That was an area where Maunoury says they were able to play more with the medium, and develop fighting styles for each character. For example, Jinx is a fast and sharp fighter, so the animators took some cues from anime, using smears and multiple arms to make it snappy and fun. Vi, meanwhile, is more of a boxer, and her fight sequences were animated in a more realistic way, Maunoury says.

Kevin Alejandro voiced Jayce and Katie Leung plays Caitlyn in Arcane.
Kevin Alejandro voiced Jayce and Katie Leung plays Caitlyn in Arcane.

Fortiche also mixed 2D and 3D animation to give Arcane a detailed and textured look. Maunoury says the characters are all animated using 3D models and rigs, with 2D animation used to add texture and effects like smoke, water, fire, dust, etc. The backgrounds are painted in 2D, he says, and he cites the efforts of the show’s compositing team for bringing it all together seamlessly.

“When you’re working in games, your job is more to support the experience of the player, and make sure that everything creatively that happens with the world and the characters is built in service of the connection between the game and that player,” Yee points out.

Adjusting to animation pipelines and solving production problems also required the crew to find its own solutions wherever possible, Linke says. “It was a very elaborate process, because we really always had to find our own answer,” he says. “It just didn’t really work out-of-the-box for production on Arcane.”

A person with a beardDescription automatically generated with medium confidence
Christian Linke (Photo by Jerod Harris / Getty Images for Riot Games)

Linke says Fortiche was a clear choice for an animation partner, citing their previous collaborations, the look of the studio’s work, and the attention its work shows to aspects like camera work. “Their choices for camera were always a bit more daring,” Linke says. The result ran counter to the traditional animation approach of prioritizing clarity, but opened things up to other possibilities. “Can we do more here? Can we have a certain choice, especially for the camera, where it says more about the characters, or it adds a certain dynamic feeling to it, or has a certain kind of creative statement? That was always very, very important to (Fortiche), and was something that I think a good amount of people that we had in L.A. had to get used to, but also started to fall in love with over time.”

And there’s no more proof that the animation field has taken to that approach than the nine Annie noms and other accolades the show has received. For Linke and Yee, it couldn’t be a better introduction to the animation world. “It feels like the chill side of Hollywood,” Yee says. ”It’s a really fun community to be engaged with.”

The first season of Arcane is currently streaming on Netflix. Season two is currently in production.



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