It all comes down to the visuals. As a director of Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment’s direct-to-video adaptations, Sam Liu needs to find ways to take a series of static comic book images and turn them into continuous moments of animated excitement. Needless to say, this was a particular challege when it came to the film based on the Eisner Award-winning limited series “All Star Superman.”
In stores now, “All Star Superman” adapts the 12 issue maxiseries of the same name by writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely and serves at the tenth installment in Warner Bros. long line of original and adapted animated films. The comic and film both give a unique take on the Man of Steel, one that pays homage to his Silver Age days but with much more modern sensibilities. However, although the comic plays out in mostly one-shot style stories tied together by an overarching plotline, the film takes a much more linear route with the story, directly focusing on Superman’s impending death caused by the machinations of his archenemy Lex Luthor.
CBR News spoke with Liu about the feature film, with the director opening up on what made him the most nervous while working on this particular adaptation, what scene he wishes he could have included and why he’s a sucker for the sappy moments.
CBR News: Sam, coming onto this project — a film based on a much loved, Eisner Award-winning series — did you experience any particular nervousness or pressure?
Sam Liu: Yeah, actually, on another level as well. As far as the DC Direct to Videos, “All Star Superman” is a little more adult than what we are used to doing. I felt like the story was a very psychological and personal story which didn’t have what I refer to as the safety of fight scenes to break up the dialogue because it’s so dramatic and the nature of the comic books is almost episodic in a way. So, one of the definite nervous feelings that I had, and one of the challenges for me, was hooking the viewer and getting them emotionally invested and continuing that emotional journey forward. If the viewer wasn’t emotionally invested, I felt the film was going to be a failure. Thankfully, Dwayne [McDuffie, the movie’s writer] was great at picking and segueing one story [from the comic] into the next.
As a director of animation, how does this process work for you? How does it differ from directing something that’s live action?
I basically really look at storyboards. I feel like my number one job is probably translating the story visually into storyboards. Bruce is very, very design heavy. Working with Bruce, on one end of it, he is very picky and specific, so I have not as much say about things like that. But once it gets into the storyboard section, he lets me do my thing on it. He comes back in later, after I’ve built it and makes his corrections and notes. He’s looking at it with a fresh eye and seeing if something is working or if the story is playing the way it needs to play.
I’ve never worked in live action before, but I feel like with live action you can have five shots from five cameras and you can pick how you want to edit it. Obviously, in animation, there’re no cameras. So, basically, you have your shot and no have extra shot that you can put in later, like a wide shot or an over the shoulder. So, we’re almost like directors of photography, in a way.
How does the voice work come into play with something like this? Do you do the voice recording before storyboarding or after so you can get an idea of how the actors do the scene?
We go off of the voice tracks, and thankfully with this one we have great actors. I remember at the beginning we were a little nervous, because it was so dialogue heavy, that we were concerned the fans were going to expect a lot more fighting or might be bored. But after we had done the initial records of everybody, Andrea, Bruce and I were like, “Wow, this thing is really shaping up.” The acting was so strong that we thought people were really going to be engaged just because it was so intriguing as a story.
Looking at the story, was there anything from the comics that was cut from the film that you wished you were able to get in?
I really miss the scene where the girl is [attempting to commit] suicide. But as a function of what that scene is, if you just threw it in as moment, it just doesn’t work. It needs to serve a bigger thought. I was hoping that, if the movie was actually [running] short, I could put in a couple scenes that could encapsulate that greater thought. It would be about what Superman is doing to set up the world so that it can safeguard itself when he’s gone. He’d be doing things like providing food to third world nations, so that’s him affecting the world on a bigger scale. Then you’d see a medium scale, which would the scene of him going to the hospital and having robots helping children and working on curing cancer. Then it would go to the smaller and more personal thing, which would be the girl who is suicidal. It was showing him saving the world on a big scale, a medium scale and also a very personal scale. I wish we could have gotten than in there, but as it is, there just wasn’t enough time.
As a director, you’re obviously really involved with the movie’s visuals. With that in mind, was there a scene that you just absolutely loved how it all turned out?
I have to say, it’s probably the end. I’m a sucker for the sappy moments, and that’s why I was very, very thankful I got to work on this project, because I feel like there’s a lot of those moments. There’s at least three or four, but the biggest one for me was the end where [Superman] is basically saying his goodbye to Lois and his physical form is falling apart and he has to fly into the sun. I feel a little choked up when I see it. The board artist, Chris Berkeley, he did the initial pass on it and did such a great job. I felt like he just nailed everything and wrapped it up so well. The goodbye moment between Superman and Lois and how he puts his cape on her and flies up in this very sacrificial but heroic way. Despite what he wants, it’s about his duty. And when he’s flying up, you get the outshot of the important people in life — Jimmy comes up and Perry comes in and all three of them look up as he’s basically leaving the planet for the last time. It just hit all the right emotional moments.
Looking at Superman, and this interpretation of Superman specifically, what do you think is the character’s appeal for fans, and for you as well?
I’m really curious how fans are going to react. The fans of Superman and the people that know the history of Superman, I think and I hope that they’re going to love it. But I’m curious about the fans who aren’t as familiar with Superman. I grew up with the Christopher Reeve movies and I really loved the stories. How do you make someone that powerful vulnerable and likable and you still feel safe around him? And Christopher Reeve, he really set the definitive Clark and Superman alter ego dynamic. I think in this story, it explores that even more. All the moments that Grant Morrison wrote, he’s bumbling purposefully, whether to save someone’s life or to get somebody out of harm’s way. Everything was very smart and purposeful and I just love that dynamic. It makes perfect sense why he does what he does with Clark.
What’s it like directing an adaptation versus directing something that’s more of an original story?
It really depends on the source material. Some of the other adaptations, there may not be a deeper point to the story beyond the hero and villain and some sort of big, grand world domination scheme. They duke it out at the end and the good guys win and the bad guys lose. There’s not always much deeper thought than that. It’s a fun thing in the beginning, but after a while it gets to where you’re just trying to work in the shots they have in the comic. It’s not as creative.
In general, I would say the original stuff is a lot more creative because you’re going off what you think it should be. But then you get something like “All Star Superman,” which is so epic and deep and layered with subtext and metaphor. There is a lot of growth in each character and scenes you need to track. So, in this case, I loved working on it because it had a lot of thought. In general I would say I like the more original stuff, just because it’s something you can put your stamp on, but “All Star Superman” is the exception.
To close out, let’s take a look forward. While you can’t talk about what projects are next — though we already know of “Green Lantern: Emerald Knights” and “Batman: Year One” — is there any adaptation you would love to work on?
I think I’ve mentioned this before — I would love to do “Sandman.” Part of the reason I loved that they greenlit “All Star Superman” was because I felt it was a little more adult. I feel like the whole direct to video venture, this supports it because it’s trying to push the medium a little bit. I think in American, in general when people talk about cartoons, it’s still like it’s for kids and this and that. I really wanted to be part of the whole direct to video stuff because I feel like they’re trying to hit the older audience demographic. With “All Star Superman,” it’s going even more a little adult because it’s so cerebral. So, I always feel like these are small steps toward hopefully something bigger and might be able to test the market to see if it can sustain itself with an older audience and as a medium will evolve. Having said that, I don’t know how many people outside of the fans would want to watch a Neil Gaiman “Sandman” story. But that’s my personal dream.