Marvel Comics have been out to “astonish” their fanbase throughout 2009 with the publisher’s first full forays into the emerging medium of motion comics. Aside from Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s “Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D.” making an apparent sales splash on iTunes, word hit last week that the animated webisodes presenting the “Gifted” arc of Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s “Astonishing X-Men” would receive a gigantic outdoor premier this Wednesday, October 28th, in Manhattan’s Union Square.
CBR first took a peek behind the scenes of the “Astonishing” motion comic with an interview with Cassaday about what it took to make his original pages move, and today we’re pleased to present a chat with iconic artist Neal Adams, whose Continuity Studios oversaw the creation of the final product fans can download this week. Adams explained how his team came to land the high-profile gig, how he personally had to adapt his drawing to bring Cassaday’s pages to life and how NYC fans can meet up with him before the premier.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of the X-Men story itself, I know you’ve worked on big projects like the Nasonex CGI bee commercials. What are some of the animation projects that you’ve worked on that fans may recognize without knowing it’s you? Does Continuity have an animation specialty, or is it pretty much whatever the client needs?
Continuity is a preproduction facility, and we also do finished production. The Nasonex bee commercials were a big moment in Continuity’s life. What we are now focused on is Internet animation for two rather big clients. Unfortunately, I can’t talk about them, because the spots haven’t hit the Internet yet, just like I wasn’t able to talk about the X-Men until now. So I’m very happy to talk about the X-Men now and talk about the other ones “tomorrow.” The commercial work has less freedom than the comic book work, of course; but that’s a result of the medium we’re working in.
When Marvel approached you about working on this project, what was your first reaction? Had you seen any of the other motion comics and animated trailers they’d released in the past?
Marvel did not approach Continuity to work on this project. We approached Marvel, and in fact, most people in the comic book industry have no real idea what we at Continuity actually do, even though we have told everybody in comic books in detail. I think it’s just that, only when something is needed do people pay attention. So it came as a big, happy surprise for Marvel when they discovered there was someone “in the family” who actually does this work, and may I humbly say that we do it better than anyone. As far as seeing other motion comic projects, of course we’ve seen them, but once you look at the level of animation we’ve put into the X-Men, you will quickly see why we didn’t pay too much attention to what everyone else is doing. If that sounds like ego, chalk it up to pride in the work my studio does every single day.
As far as the story goes, as someone who had such a strong hand in establishing the look and feel of the earlier X-Men stories, what was your take on the “Astonishing X-Men” series that Joss and John put together? Did the characters still feel of a piece with what you and Roy did in your original run, or do you feel the franchise has mutated (no pun intended) into something different in the intervening years?
Of course the franchise has mutated. Isn’t that to be expected? And how could anyone be disappointed in what Joss and John did with this graphic novel and the following graphic novels. I’m not someone who complains in any way about how things move forward, unless somebody actually does a really crappy job. And of course, this is not the case here.
Walk me through the process once the task came down of taking the original art John had produced and turning into a motion comic. Did John provide digital files of some of his own work to play with, or did you work on scans from the finished comics?
The work comes in several stages. First the original art is broken down and cut out on the computer. Then, extensions have to be drawn to the background and to the figures. Fortunately, we have a wonderful art studio for that, and this guy Neal, who we keep in the back room, chained to the desk. Then I had to block out the animation for each scene, and decide on which of several techniques would be used to create the animation. When I passed that on to other people, I continued to do the design of the moving mouths, which is the most precise, time-consuming work, barring full animation. The mouths had to be remade from John’s original drawings, into the various positions, then each mouth had to be synced precisely and aesthetically to the dialogue track. The next step is camera moves and animation, all very time consuming. And then we added some proprietary techniques, which will probably take other people several years to figure out. So, you can see it’s a team effort. One breakdown in any part of the flow can hold us back from moving forward, but we seem to be getting better and better at it.
We work directly from the comics, because, as you know, John is very busy on other projects for Marvel. None of this was an easy path. If you look at the comic book, you will notice there are many vertical panels, how do you turn them into horizontal panels? Not easy.
While you’re still obviously overseeing the work on the whole project that your staff undertakes, did working from such detailed finished art allow you to do more specific drawing work than you may do on more traditional or 3D animated projects?
The biggest difficulty is that a very good artist did the comic book. So I, myself, had to step in and do the extensions and additions. And then we had to figure out how to take the Neal Adams out and put the John Cassaday back in. Sometimes we did this by taking work from other panels and putting it in different positions. If we review the work and see, “That looks like Neal did it,” we will go to the graphic novel and pull portions of drawings from other panels, like muscles and such, so that the whole thing looks like John Cassaday did it. There are some areas where a smart fan will probably spot a few lines, but all in all, I think we did admirably. There are certain things that one cannot avoid. For example: if a character is talking, then he has to have moving mouths, but the original drawing has a given expression that doesn’t suit talking. We have to adapt other areas for it. It’s sort of like putting a puzzle together and hoping that you don’t have missing pieces.
John is a very busy comic book artist, as I am. So our job is to basically read his mind, and hope that when he sees it, he feels that we read his mind correctly. Of course, the work is shown to John along the way, and changes are made whenever necessary.
Of course, the other end of collaborating comes from working with the voice director and the cast of the project. How did the audio elements help pull the entire project together?
We have a close relationship with the audio director, and we made a list of suggestions for each of the animation sequences, and he tried his best to satisfy as many of those requests he could satisfy. Naturally, it’s a Marvel project, and even more naturally, it’s a John Cassaday project, so John had great input in the sound.
Many people have been talking lately about how hard it is to define what a motion comic is…this nebulous kind of storytelling that’s not quite comics and not quite animation. Do you feel the final “Astonishing X-Men” product you’ve worked on falls closer to one medium or the other, or do motion comics have a future as a medium all their own?
I can answer this definitively. Motion comics are a medium all their own. It is certainly not animation, in which a large number of artists do tens, and even hundreds of thousands of drawings. The animation, or “the reality” is created in a computer, and the work of the original artist is the work. Nor is it a comic book. You can’t turn the pages. You can’t read the dialogue. The dialogue is spoken to you by actors. And you can’t change the flow of the story. If you miss something, you have to watch it over.
The incredibly wonderful thing about this, is there is no conflict with the graphic novel or “comic book” because, by definition, the comic book is enjoyed a totally different way, as you can see by my above definition. I can tell you that I have had the graphic novel in the room with people who are watching the animation, and to a person, they always grab a graphic novel to check it against the animation to see if something is there that they missed, and they almost always say that it adds to the enjoyment of the graphic novel. As a very practical example, my daughter Kris is not a comic book reader. She didn’t “read” this story even though we were assigned this story. She worked on the technical aspect, until she watched the video, and the video drove her to read the graphic novel. I am not saying that my daughter, by definition, is the cross section of America or the world, but I can tell you that I’ve seen the animation make the graphic novel more appealing to people. And I am quite sure that this will translate to sales.
I can tell you this in addition, and not to belabor the point, but I find myself examining nuances of the story in the graphic novel because of the video. This is a new medium. It has never existed before. But a motion comic should not be confused with a non-motion comic.
Any plans to attend the big screen debut of the first installment Marvel is planning for Union Square later this month?
I will be 100% there at the screen debut. I will be judging the costume contest and signing at Forbidden Planet. And I will be grinning from ear to ear.
I have had many happy experiences in the comic book business, as you might imagine. This may actually be the greatest.
The “Astonishing X-Men: Gifted” motion comic goes on sale this week on iTunes.
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