Updated: Sep 2, 2022
By Elizabeth Gracen:
I'm very excited to share the work of my friend and Editor-in-Chief for Flapper Press, Derek May! I met Derek many years ago when the HIGHLANDER franchise was in full swing and our conventions were full of people who loved the series as much as the actors, writers, and producers loved making the show. Back in the day, I had learned the Flying Rainbow Fan martial art for an episode of Highlander: The Raven ("A Matter of Time") from the wonderful Helen Wu in Toronto, Canada. I decided that with what little I knew of the fan form, I could share it with attendees at various conventions. I'm not sure when Derek actually stepped into the class, but I do remember immediately feeling intimidated and somewhat relieved that he was there, as he had a background in Tai Chi and fan forms from his years in the martial arts. When he offered to help me and Roberta Brown teach the class, I didn't hesitate to take him up on his offer.
To make a long story short, Derek and I became friends, and he eventually asked me if I would be interested in voicing "Amanda" for Season 2 of his stop-motion animated series, Veritas. Once I saw Season 1 of the series, I jumped on board to help—I never say no to stepping back into Amanda's Immortal shoes!
Little did Derek know that I would soon be roping him in to make use of his editorial skills to help me get Flapper Press off the ground. We've made it through a couple successful years now with the online magazine, all while Derek continued working through the incredibly complicated process of creating his HIGHLANDER-inspired Veritas!
Now at the halfway point in the release of Season 2, I reached out to Derek to tell me all about the series, his process, and why he likes HIGHLANDER so damned much!
Meet Derek May and VERITAS!
EG: Derek, we’ve known each other for quite some time from the HIGHLANDER world and from the FlapperPress.com world, but your talents in the arena of stop-motion animation are still a mystery to me. I don’t know how the hell you do it, and I’m mystified that you (anyone) has the patience and attention to detail to pull it off with such success! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and how and why you ventured into this medium?
DM: Thank you! To be honest, stop-motion animation was never a medium I ever thought I’d work in; I sort of threw myself into it out of availability. I love film and television in general; it’s been my passion for as long as I can remember and my lifelong dream to work in that field in some capacity. For a long time, I thought that would be as an actor. But over time, writing felt like a better fit.
I ended up with a degree in both Media and Philosophy because I always saw the two as going hand-in-hand. I want to tell stories that have meaning and hopefully have a positive effect. I spent over a decade honing my screenwriting craft, writing big epic stories, small personal stories, and everything in between. I got a lot of positive reaction, won or placed highly in contests, even meetings with Disney. But I never got that one big break I needed. It left me sort of heartbroken and disenchanted, and I stepped away from it all for a time.
On the other side, I’m a big geek: I love toys and collectables. One day I discovered that Sideshow was releasing a series of 1/6 scale (12 inch) figures based on HIGHLANDER. They were simple by today’s standards, but I thought the detail and articulation was incredible, and I was just happy to have collectables from my favorite franchise. But those figures were a door into a totally new world for me.
Til then, I just bought whatever was officially produced; but I discovered that fans and collectors were making their OWN figures. You could either “kitbash,” which is taking existing elements from various figures and combining them to create your own, or you could hire amazing artists to create a fully customized figure. Suddenly, I could have any character, and any version of that character, that I wanted. So I started crafting any HIGHLANDER figure I had the resources to make, which at first were various historical versions of Duncan, Connor, and Kurgan (the characters Sideshow had produced). Then I branched out to Methos, Fitzcairn, Darius, Jin Ke, etc. Eventually, I even created a diorama to scale of Joe’s Bar for them to all hang out in.
When I finally started thinking about writing again, I knew that writing what I thought others would be interested in wasn’t getting me anywhere; I needed to write something that would reignite my passion, make it fun again. I’d seen lots of fan films, and that seemed cool. But I’d done enough live-action shorts to know it would be tough on several levels. A friend of mine, Daniel Shaw (who plays Methos, among other characters in Veritas) had experimented with stop-motion using his TRANSFORMERS figures. It was a sort of light-bulb moment: I had a variety of figures, I had a complete bar set, and I knew the HIGHLANDER world well enough to be able to write those characters. The only thing left was to figure out how stop-motion worked! There’s been a LOT of trial and error. I’m still very much a novice.
EG: I know that the subject matter for Veritas pays homage to the world of HIGHLANDER—both the films and the television series. Why did you decide to work on a narrative that includes this myth and these characters? Why do you like HIGHLANDER in the first place?
DM: I loved the first Highlander movie when I caught it on VHS in the late 80s, but I really didn’t become a super-fan until the series in the early 90s. I still remember seeing the premiere, seeing Lambert pass the torch to this new guy in a bad ponytail. My appreciation for the film kept me tuning in those early days when the show was still finding its footing. But after the episode “Mountain Men,” you could feel the shift. And then they were filming in Paris! And the show just kept getting better and better. I was hooked.
Once David Abramowitz (who has become a writing hero of mine) took over as showrunner, the “Talmudic discussions” he and the other talented writers brought out in each episode showed me that an action show about people cutting each other’s heads off could also deliver beautiful, heart-breaking stories about love, loss, honor, friendship, anything really. The sky was the limit! It opened my eyes, at an age where I was trying to discover where I was going, that it was possible to explore these philosophical nuances in an entertaining and engaging way. I learned so much about not just filmmaking, but about everything! It completely changed how I looked at history and other cultures. Until then, school taught you history in isolation: Europeans did this at this time. Then in another semester you might learn that some other culture did this at that time. But what Highlander: The Series did by taking you back and forth over a personal lifespan over seasons was show that while this was happening, so was this. By Duncan fighting at Culloden, then a few years later being in Japan with the samurai, then a few years later in France during the revolution, you can see—visually, aesthetically, in concrete terms—how history unfolded concurrently across cultures. It just made me appreciate history and other cultures so much more. It was all so alive!
When you add to that the action, the martial arts, the swordplay, it was literally like someone had crafted a show specifically geared to every one of my interests.
So when I decided to do a project just for me, and I had the resources to tell a HIGHLANDER story, it just seemed a no-brainer. I could literally explore any topic, any time period, any idea I chose.
EG: You’ve just launched the second season of Veritas, but it makes sense to talk about the first season first! Give us the Season 1 synopsis and the background of how you created the storyline and why.
DM: Once I had the idea to tell a HIGHLANDER story, I knew it needed to be a story worth telling. The only point in doing it would be to venture into unexplored territory. The biggest thing any HIGHLANDER fan struggles with is reconciling the various inconsistencies and continuity issues across the franchise. The series did a wonderful job overall being consistent within itself, but once you try to fit in the films and other aspects, it becomes quite muddied; which makes sense given the first movie was literally about there being only one Immortal left standing. So I combed the franchise to find existing elements that might allow for a story that could address the biggest sore spots.
I crafted a story following the events of Highlander: Endgame, a divisive film in part because of how it treated hero Connor Macleod (reduced him to a depressive who forced Duncan to kill him). In Veritas, Duncan shows up at the bar the evening before Joe’s retirement from the Watchers. He’s still shaken up about what happened with Connor. But then Methos arrives to tell Duncan that, sorry to spring this on you, Connor is actually alive! And from there several uncomfortable truths are revealed. Methos is the perfect wily, hard-to-trust character you can totally buy pulling off a series of cons in part to help his friends but in greater part to serve his own interests.
As Methos bares his secrets, we learn information that helps plug certain franchise holes: there have been many Gatherings over the millennia, with the Kurgan’s defeat being merely during one of them; Methos, in fact, sent the Kurgan to New York after Connor as a way to divert the Kurgan’s attention away from himself (the punk)!
But most importantly, we learn that Methos assisted in helping a weakened Connor, fresh out of the Sanctuary, deceive Duncan by using the Power of Illusion that Connor received through Kane at the end of Highlander 3. But faking a fight is one thing, faking a Quickening is another! This was only possible because, ta da, Duncan also has the Power of Illusion within him, having taken it from Garrick in the episode “Shadows.”
That’s a lot of deep-dive mythology, and why such as story really had to cater mostly to fans. There was just too much minutia and history to try and introduce it all to the average viewer in 5 short episodes. So I made the decision to write it as a sort of vignette rather than as a proper episode of the series that might allow for a longer introduction into this world.
That being said, it can’t just be all details and fan-service. As Abramowitz and others have taught me, it’s really all about how these circumstances affect the characters. And so I tried very hard to make sure the emotional toll was the main focus. And from the feedback I got from people who aren’t strictly HIGHLANDER fans, that seems to have come across, and that’s really my proudest achievement for Season 1. Because if you care about the journey of these characters, you might never feel overwhelmed by the mythology and just enjoy the ride, connecting emotionally to the drama. And if you can do that, then hopefully you stop seeing these as plastic, expressionless figures, and invest in them, and perhaps forgive some of the technical flaws of that early production.
EG: Before we talk about Season 2 of Veritas, let’s talk about the mechanics of stop motion animation. I’m a mosaic artist and enjoy film editing—both of which feel like some form of puzzle making, but it pales in comparison to the “bit by bit” process of making a stop-frame animation project. Can you share the mechanics of bringing something like Veritas into fruition? What is the hardest part? What is your favorite part of the process? The most dreaded part of the process?
DM: I knew that the general principles behind the process haven’t changed in decades: you take a photo, slightly move the figure(s), take another; put it together and you have motion! That’s all that’s happening when you record typical movies at 24 frames per second. The main difference is that in live-action, each frame is recorded continuously and your subjects move on their own; in stop motion, you move the subjects and record each frame independently. As such, I end up framing, blocking, and editing every shot just as I would if it were a live-action theatrical film, because honestly I don’t know of any other way to do it.
The biggest changes from Seasons 1 to 2 have not been about process but access to better resources. In Season 1, I shot in a bedroom lit by garage lights against green poster board with a tiny webcam that came with a beginner stop-motion animation kit. Unfortunately, it auto-focused, which meant that every time I moved my pale hand in front of the camera to move a figure, the focus and light levels would change, giving me different colors across frames. Which made using green screen (which was constantly shifting colors) a nightmare.
This time around, I have a Canon Rebel T6 that shoots beautiful HD images (in widescreen!) and gives me manual control. I have proper studio lights, professional green screen backdrops, updated editing programs, and most importantly, Dragonframe software—the premiere stop-motion capture system that allows me to see the exact motion of the animation in real time. Reshoots because of some technical issue have been cutdown to almost nothing.
The actual animation, taking the shots, is not too bad. I’ve learned how many frames I need for certain movements (I’ve found 3-4 works best for natural smoothness), though making characters walk is still my greatest challenge. There is a physical toll in standing over the figures, bending (sometimes contorting) to get at them or between them and the camera. Mostly though, it’s a mental exercise, keeping it straight in your head exactly what you need and how to get it. That’s really where the process comes in.
Ninety percent of the work is done before I ever turn on the camera. The scripts are written long ago, all the voices recorded and already edited together into a video storyboard (animatic) of the entire series that tells me exactly what the final product should look like in terms of composition, blocking, pacing, etc. Before I shoot the first frame, I consult my animatic and listen to the lines a couple of times while I review against the script. Then I’ll physically act it out. I’ll start with what I know are the limitations of the figures I’m working with. Some are stiff, some loose. Some have more “personality,” some don’t. I speak the lines and/or perform the action as the figure/character would. I work out the beats of the shot, when does the figure look up, down, tilt, straighten, sit, make a fist, whatever. . . . If it’s a short bit, I’ll just keep that in my head as I animate. If it’s longer or more complex, I’ll write notes in the script what action needs to occur for each line or even word.
In this way it’s the same thing you do when you first write, except physical. As a writer, you have to “be” every character. You know the characters, how they feel and how they should react at any point. You are each character as you write them. An actor will then bring the emotional reality to life by going beyond the page, adding facial expressions, body movement, tears, looks, etc. What I have to do as an animator is imprint an actor’s performance onto the figure. And since I can’t change the figure’s expression, I need to find other ways to get the emotions across, and that is probably the biggest challenge—but also the most gratifying part when it works.
EG: Tell us about Season 2 of VERITAS. What’s it about? Why did you choose the storyline and characters?
DM: Season 1 was such an experiment. I wasn’t sure how it would come out, and then what the response would be. I just hoped that if I did my job as a storyteller properly, then the fans would ignore my technical shortcomings and respond to the journey; and fortunately, that’s exactly what happened.
Season 1 didn’t break the internet, but the reaction was overwhelmingly positive enough that I felt I could do more with it. But like before, if I was going to do it, I needed a compelling angle on it, and it needed to be bigger, better, and even more engaging. I needed to up my "Game" at every level.
In brainstorming follow-ups, I wanted to get away from Duncan a bit, as he’s had plenty of ground covered. In fact, HIGHLANDER can be a bit male-centric, so I thought focusing on a female character might shake things up. I’d always loved Amanda, in no small part because of what you brought to the role; but I thought even the Raven didn’t mine as much of the character as I thought was there. She keeps getting lumped in as a femme fatale or trouble-causing thief, but I always saw her as a survivor who was afraid to care too much about others while being very protective of those she loved. She’s lived 1200 years, and I think some of her attitude and nonchalance developed as a defense mechanism, and I wanted to see what was beyond that.
I thought it would be interesting to tell a story where her protectiveness of Duncan put her at odds with Connor, and I wanted to see consequences for what he had done to Duncan. Plus, we’d never seen those characters together onscreen. So as their history of conflict unfolds, we start stripping away their facades until we get the raw, vulnerable individuals who have more in common than either wanted to admit. It also allows for a commentary about how sometimes learning about another person’s perspective can help heal old wounds and divisions between enemies. That last point has only become more thematic in the six years I’ve been working on it.
That’s why when I approached you about voicing Amanda, I was nervous but also confident that this wouldn’t be seen as some half-ass amateur production or simplistic treatment of the character. I wanted it to be something worthy of your time and talents and bring some growth to Amanda. And I suspect that’s why Anthony De Longis was attracted as well and chose to revive Otavio Consone (from fan-favorite series episode "Duende"), because the same goes for that character, which was a fun challenge since that one is considered a straight-up villain. It was a lot of fun keeping him bad while giving him nuance, relatability, and even some sympathy.
EG: What do you hope to accomplish with Season 2 of Veritas? If you are comfortable sharing, please tell us about your wildest dreams and what you hope to accomplish with this art form?
DM: In a perfect world, this would be the project that opens that door to Hollywood I’ve been knocking on for years. The point of Season 1 was to prove I could take a project from inception to completed production, while also proving I could write good stories and realize complex characters. It was a vehicle to prove myself as a writer and hopefully lead to other opportunities, which in many ways it did.
Season 1 renewed my confidence as a storyteller, which gave me the guts to approach you and Anthony about doing this season. I gave out DVD copies to the cast and creators of HIGHLANDER at the LA convention, but I don’t think anyone ever watched it. But the one person who did was producer Ken Gord, who pulled me aside at the con and seemed so supportive and excited for more. That really helped a lot and made me think I might have something in me.
So as far as wildest dreams, my hope is that a producer, agent, director, actor—anyone in the industry really—will be impressed with my storytelling abilities and give the chance to prove I can do more. It doesn’t have to be something huge; I’m not as interested in money and fame as I am about moving forward in the career I’ve always wanted. I’m interested in telling stories that affect people, change attitudes and perspectives, much as HIGHLANDER did for me. Then I’ll feel I’m doing what I was always supposed to.
EG: What’s next for Derek May? Do you have another project in mind? In a perfect world, where do you see yourself five years from now with your artistic output?
DM: There’s nothing concrete on my plate for the moment, which is honestly a really nice change of pace. I started work on Veritas in 2013. While there was a lot of off and on over that period, that’s a LONG time to this point. My immediate plan is to take a short break, see how people respond to Season 2, and work on a few projects other that I’ve put off due to Veritas.
After that, if the demand is there, I do have more ideas for stories in the Veritas range, but I also have some original ideas I want to develop. It may or may not involve stop-motion; my passion is for telling impactful stories in a filmic way, whatever medium that ends up taking.
So in 5 years, I’d hope that I’d be writing or helping make some creative project that allows me to quit my awful day job and do the work I love. I’m open to whatever form that takes, be it film, television, print, whatever.
EG: Tell us where to find your work, your socials, and all the good stuff!
And be sure to check those sites to catch up on the first two episodes of Season 2 of Highlander: Veritas. We've got two more to go, and you don't want to miss a moment!
And of course, you will hopefully see more content from me here on Flapper Press (now that I have more time in my schedule!).
Derek May, of San Antonio, TX, is Editor-in-Chief and occasional writer for Flapper Press. He has written nearly 50 movie reviews for movieweb.com and completed 13 original feature film and television screenplays, many of which have been winners or finalists in such prestigious competitions as the Walt Disney and Nicholl Fellowships, the Austin Film Festival, and the Creative World Awards. He served as a judge for 10 years for the Austin Film Festival and Texas Film Institute screenplay competitions. His latest project has been the highly acclaimed stop-motion animation fan series Highlander: Veritas, which will release its second season in July 2022.