Secret of Mana Redux

Interview with Ross K. Foad #2


Interview with Ross K. Foad #2

February 28, 2021

This was originally published on the Secret of Mana: Redux blog on March 17, 2020.

Emma Bryant (left) as Purim, Ross K. Foad (center) as Randi, and Kelsey Williams (right) as Popoi in the Series of Mana
Emma Bryant (left) as Purim, Ross K. Foad (center) as Randi, and Kelsey Williams (right) as Popoi

There was a lot of heart put into this, and countless hours, and I just really hope that people can see that. Though, above all else, I hope people have fun watching it!

Ross K. Foad

Today, we’re here again with our good friend from London, Ross K. Foad.  Three years ago, we interviewed Mr. Foad as he was launching the Series of Mana, a fan webseries based on Secret of Mana.  Mr. Foad is known for writing, directing, and starring in the smashing web series, No Place Like Holmes, now in its eighth series.  The latest episode involves a sequence of mysterious deaths in a particular room of a hospital, and Sherlock Holmes, who’s found himself in the 21st century lately, must investigate:

Meanwhile, we await a rebooted first series of the Series of Mana.

Mr. Foad has been featured on Resonance FM, a London-based radio station for the arts, in addition to many appearances on BBC Radio, and a host of interviews in various podcasts that you can find on his Youtube channel. He also recently wondered where all the good women have gone in the Daily Mail!  Mr. Foad also made an abridged video version of this interview.

Welcome back to Ross K. Foad!  Leaving your acting life aside, what else have you been up to since we last talked?

Oh no!  Remove acting from the equation and you take away most of my ammo for conversation!

Well, a lot of video editing, as I am sure that we will go into, but writing as well.  I most recently was the screenwriter for a little Alice in Wonderland fan film prequel.  I am excited by that for the thematic connection to Secret of Mana, as the creator did once cite that as an influence upon the world of Mana.

Also, I have played copious amounts of The Collection of Mana and ToeJam and Earl for Nintendo Switch.  Eight year old me would have had his mind blown by the fact that I can play Secret of Mana on the bus.

Let’s talk about No Place Like Holmes for a minute.  Are you satisfied with how the series has evolved as it approaches 10 years in the making?  What’s next?   

I am! Weirdly, I actually feel like I am just getting started.  It is mad that it has been ten years, as while that is what I set out to do, it seems a very lofty goal in hindsight.  NPLH was my first real affray into directing, producing and editing.  I love how the series has evolved in unexpected ways, and while I set key plot points out years in advance, it was often the actor/character relationships that drove my writing and the stories.  For instance, Kelsey Williams, who plays Madeline Chambers, was a one-off villain for a 2010 episode, but wound up as a main cast member as I felt that her relationship with Holmes worked so well.  She spends most of her early years feuding with Holmes and trying to expose his secret, but would gradually soften her stance and became something of a reluctant ally.

In a similar fashion, the most recent series sees a lot more of a partnership between Holmes and PC Andrew Burke, which is entirely different to his partnership with Dr. Watson.  Watson is smart, tough, and tolerates Holmes eccentrics for the most part, but is not afraid to call him out over it.  Burke, however, is best described as a useful idiot.  He is like a puppy that is just happy to be included.  I am having fun with that and looking forward to exploring it further in a later season.

So in 2017, you must have thought that starting a webseries based on Secret of Mana was worth it, as you were quite a prolific Youtuber already.  What are some things you learned while filming No Place Like Holmes that came in handy for the Series of Mana?   What do you think is the biggest difference in your approach to the two series?

I would say that near everything I learnt from making No Place Like Holmes has come in handy for the Series of Mana!  NPLH is where I learnt everything from scratch myself.  Yes, I was an actor and writer prior to it, but not a film maker.  The basis of my directing, editing, producing, casting, and cinematography all come from trial and error through NPLH, and a lot still does!  Around a year ago, I remastered the first six seasons as I wanted them to benefit from the hindsight of experience.  For instance, I added more colour grading, improved the pacing, and, mostly in the earlier ones, I have large chunks now narrated by Holmes.  I would say that my time spent doing this strongly influenced the decision and approach for the soft reboot of SoM season one.  Also, the relationship between Popoi and Randi feels like a love-hate relationship, which Kelsey Williams and I already had down from nearly a decade of doing a similar thing in NPLH.

As for the difference? Where possible, NPLH uses a lot more real locations! By nature of the fantasy world, and lack of budget, SoM relies heavily on green and blue screen technology.

I wanted to talk about your style in general.  You have a unique stamp; we can tell when something is Foadesque.  Now, obviously, it is influenced by environmental factors like budget, equipment and choice of shooting locations, but you seem to have a particular way of filming involving closeups, using backgrounds in a certain way, lighting, etc….do you feel that this is unique to you?  How did you develop this over the years?

Foadesque!  I like that.  I am flattered that you see it that way.  Though, you could just mean uniquely bad!  Yes, having hundreds thousands of pounds per project and having a full crew would be amazing, but I have never let any of that get in the way of making something that I wanted to make.  I had not thought of my style being wholly unique, but there are certain elements now that I think about it.  The switching back and forth between video game footage and real-time, which we use a lot more of in the reboot season, is something that I have not seen anyone use this way before.  Obviously, you would only use such a tactic for a video game fan film, which limits the use somewhat, but I still feel that is a largely untapped resource.  I do get told a lot of the time that working with me is a very different experience, but given that many end up working with me multiple times over a period of years, I am guessing that they do not mean it in a bad way!

Following up on the above, would you describe your style as experimental?  There were many times watching your work where there seemed to be an intentional juxtaposing of different elements.

I often try things, with a rough idea about how it will work out and cut together in post, but not always with a 100% guarantee that it will.  For instance, going back to the combo game/real-time usage, I was mostly going off memory for where people needed to stand or what actions were required to enable a seamless switch, and I am pleasantly surprised how well it has ended up working.

Tell us about Arne Moens, your executive producer.

Arne is a voice actor from Belgium and a Secret of Mana super fan!  When he found out about the project he knew that he had to be involved.  Aside from providing some additional voice over work, such as The Mana Beast and Tropicallo, he helped finance the first season. He is a fantastically generous guy and very talented too.

So getting back to your style and how it was expressed in the Series of Mana, as I watch the first series, there’s so many different things at play.  You’re obviously not trying to create a straight up dramatic adaptation.  In some ways, it’s a cartoon, in other ways, it’s a tribute and a celebration, there’s comedy in there, etc.  

One thing I thought was extremely fun was using the actual Super Nintendo map as a prop.  And also, when the blacksmith gives the axe and demands 1000 GPs, it’s the sort of thing that makes sense in the game that we rarely get to visualize in reality and experience the ridiculousness.  

So with the risk of putting your work in a box, would you say you’re appealing to a particular genre?  Who would you say is the primary audience for your series?

(laughs) I am glad that someone noticed that the SNES game map does get used as our map.  You would also be correct in your observation about it being like a cartoon.  I wanted it to feel like Pokémon, as well as a video game, and principal actors were actually directed to act as if they were in an anime.  I would say that the audience is not only those that grew up playing role- playing games, but anyone with an interest in high whimsical fantasy.  You do not need any prior knowledge of the game to follow it.

You’ve really assembled quite a troupe here.  I’m hearing many different accents from different countries.  You have also commissioned a catchy theme with lyrics.  Did any of the players involved know much about SoM before filming?  Have you worked with all of them before?

Aside from Arne Moens, the other biggest SoM super fan cast member would be Owen Llewyn.  Owen plays Thanatos, and, like me, replays it at least once a year.

The Mana games are not as widely known as the likes of Mario and Zelda, but there are still plenty in the cast that were aware of it or who had played it growing up.

As for the materials to prepare, I found that the beautiful and abundant fan art especially helpful.  If you have never played the game before, just seeing a screenshot of a character from a 16-bit video game is unlikely to mean much to you, but there is a lot more you can ascertain about the world of Mana and the characters with drawings and paintings. I enjoyed collating them as there is something very peaceful and joyful about Secret of Mana art.

I would say that around 75% of the cast are those I have worked with before, or have worked with again since. As the Series of Mana is such a special project to me, I wanted to share it with those that mean a lot to me. If you are a follower of my work, you can expect to see the usual suspects.

The 2018 SoM remaster came out I believe at the end of the first series.  There’s a lot of additional characterization in there.  Do you plan on implementing any of this in series two?

All three seasons were actually written around a year before the remastered version came out, so they did not play into how I envisioned the characters. Pleasingly, when the remaster did come out, I felt that the portrayals were not too far off what we were doing!  I know that some people think Secret of Mana does not have good characterization when measured against Trials of Mana, likely because 40% of the game got cut out due to storage limitations, but I think what is there is more than enough to give you the basis of who the trio are.

However, one thing that it may have influenced is the voice I use for Randi. I hated it, but as I started with it I felt that I had to carry it over. Thankfully, the reboot allowed me to alter that for the most part.  It is no longer as geeky or high, and I feel that this works better.

Among others, there’s a group called the Spectrum of Mana providing the music.  Tell us about them.  Also, I really enjoyed the remixes.  They were very reverent towards the original.  

Spectrum of Mana was a collaboration between many artists across the world coming together to create some beautiful new renditions of the tunes we so love. What is most remarkable is very few strands were even done in the same room. On some tracks you have some flute playing from France mixed with a violinist all the way over in America.  Okay, maybe in this day and age it is nothing unique, but doing it for as many tracks as they did and having it blend together so seamlessly is where the magic is.  Series of Mana also incorporates a fair bit of Trials of Mana remixes too, as there are minor elements and characters from that game present here.

So recently you gave us an update on how things are going, and there’s been some tragedy causing a long delay between the first and second series—Julia Shusterman, who played Purim, had to depart, and I believe Kelsey Williams (who appears to be having the time of her life playing Popoie) came down with an illness.  So you’ve decided to overcome these challenges with a reboot.  For example, you recast Purim, and as we talked about, you reedited the first series, perhaps with new footage.  What do you need to change in the reboot that may not have worked the first time around?  Is all footage of Julia going to be replaced?

The original hurdle was Julia Shusterman leaving the country, which meant that I had to spend a few months searching and recasting her role for series two and three. Once cast, we did manage to get a bit done, but then went on hiatus as Kelsey sadly had to take some time out for an illness. We shot the bits that we could without her, but it was impossible to finish. As time went on, I worried that the gap between one and two meant that all momentum was going to be lost, and nobody was going to remember or care. Add that to having a new Purim, and I felt that its eventual arrival would feel so disjointed.

As such, I began throwing around the idea of a soft reboot, which Emma was totally up for, and began figuring out ways to blend old footage with new, and ways to make it better overall. I cut scenes for pacing, fixed up some misc technical errors, and cast many voice actors to bring more life to the world as monsters and background villagers.  I incorporated more CGI and game footage, reshot scenes in part to put Emma in the place of Julia, or had them redone entirely.  You are also going to see a lot more characters. The original first season had just two Elementals turn up, but now you will see seven in either cameos or speaking roles. Look out for Thanatos, Santa, Vandole and Phanna (Pamela) popping up too!

When might we see the second series?

It is shot, as is the majority of season three.  The rebooted season one is coming within days of this interview’s release, and I am working towards a late 2020 release for season two with any luck.  Hopefully the smash success of the Sonic the Hedgehog movie has put people in the mood for more ’90s video game screen adaptations!

Last question—what’s been the most pleasant surprise as you’ve worked on the Series of Mana?

The kind support and interest from fans like you!  But also the positivity and enthusiasm from cast members who have waited for a very long time to see the fruits of their labour.  It has been a very long road, but this was the better path to take.

As always, you get the final word!

Just that I hope that fans of the game appreciate it for what it is.  As we have discussed, this was done on a peppercorn of a budget with me handling the majority of production bits.  Regardless, I am proud of it.  There was a lot of heart put into this, and countless hours, and I just really hope that people can see that. Though, above all else, I hope people have fun watching it!

Randi and Popoi in town in the Series of Mana
Randi and Popoi take in the town
Eva Trifoni as Luka
Hope he doesn’t have much to do for the next year
Yes, that is Ross K. Foad (left) as Duran, making a cameo from Trials of Mana. Also, Khuzam Kedgeworth as Hawk and Jordan Dye as a monster.

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