In 2004, Robert Rodi and Esad Ribic’s four issue “Loki” miniseries showed a different side of Marvel Comics’ Thor/Loki dynamic, focusing on the villain’s side of the story. Filled with the trickster god’s perspective on Asgard, his half brother and how it all related to his future career as a grade-A supervillain, the book acts as source material for the motion comic “Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers.” Split into four episodes, the weekly motion comic kicked off on March 28 on iTunes, Playstation Network and Xbox Live for $2.99 in high definition or $1.99 in standard.
The brainchild of Marvel Knights Animation Senior Vice President, Development & Planning, Print, Animation and Digital Media Ruwan Jayatilleke and Magnetic Dreams Animation Studio President Mike Halsey, “Blood Brothers” zeroes in on Loki as he gains power over Asgard and realizes it might not be all he ever wanted. CBR News spoke with Jayatilleke and Halsey about the process of turning a comic book into an animated movie, focusing on Loki instead of Thor and what this story says about two of the stars of the “Thor” motion picture, scheduled to premiere on May 6.
CBR News: Typically, Marvel’s projects, be they comics, animation, etc., have focused on the good guy in the storytelling equation. Was there ever any worry that the Loki-centric story might scare some viewers off?
Ruwan Jayatilleke: To be perfectly honest — I didn’t. Maybe other folks are still gnawing at their nails. I have felt so strongly about this project for so long, the animation, sound, and music teams have been so inspiring, that it’s been impossible for me to feel anything but thrilled. I’m sure I will be punched karmically in the stomach for being confident — or cocky. So it goes.
The story is well written and the art is phenomenal from the source materials aka the comic books, so we were already ahead of the game. Magnetic Dreams Studio is an expert at storytelling, James Snyder is super-powered as an audio producer and Amotz Plessner rules music like Thor wields Mjolnir. It’s a stacked deck!
More people root for bad guys than we realize, especially when they’re empathetic and still wicked. People can see themselves in the villains as much as they see themselves in the do-gooders. At least, that’s what I think, or I need to make new friends.
Whether people like to admit or not, not all bad guys are necessarily “nefarious,” especially when they have their own agendas and beliefs and they can’t see right from wrong because to them there is no right or wrong — there’s just existence and survival. It makes Loki intriguing and more complex, creating a chance for the viewer to vest in his POV, even if Thor is glorified as a hero.
What do you think this story says about Loki and Thor as characters?
Jayatilleke: It says a lot — too much for my meandering words and the blunt force trauma of my thoughts. But I’ll take my best shot at this: I do think that it speaks to the relationship being about diametric opposites, like light versus dark and the colors in-between which shade this entire story, from Thor’s subjugation to Loki’s date with destiny. It demonstrates that everything truly is not as it seems, whether it be the audience’s perception of who we thought Loki was in the context of Thor and Asgard or even Loki’s perception of himself and whether the trickster’s last trick is one to fool himself and fate. Finally, on a more obvious level, once Loki takes power — something he has fought an eternity for — he learns, as many of us have through life experience, that what one wants is not what one needs.
How does the story in “Blood Brothers” reflect the relationship between the two characters?
Jayatilleke: In terms of Loki, it demonstrates that he is as much defined by his actions and his fate as he is by Thor, as repulsive as that is to his being. In terms of Thor, it reveals that while his character is always noble and ultimately the hero, his actions and associations with others are a different matter. This story also raises many questions about Odin that are answered below the surface — and begs a meaty follow-up from Rodi and Ribic.
As in any familial scenario, the relationship can be complex and heated. And it can be simple and cold — and all the patterns and temperatures between the extremes. Loki and Thor have their ups and downs, camaraderie in battle and seeds of sedition and persecution every other moment.
Loki, I do believe loves his brother like he was his own blood. However, he blames everyone else in Asgard for setting them against one another. As paranoid and schizophrenic as Loki seems, his hatred for Thor only lingers for a little time once he takes over Asgard. His true venom is for all the layers of Asgardians between Loki and Thor, like Sif, Balder, Friga, Odin, etc. As for Thor, I don’t think he sees the small and large slights to Loki. He is quite blind to them, but he cares for his brother in spite of Loki’s indiscretions and acts of evil.
Why do the two characters work so well in this story? Because both the story and its flashbacks reveal that everything is not as cut and dry as a normal superhero story, which is important. As a viewer, one is forced to make choices as the story and events unfold and have a stake in the outcome. Regardless of which side you’re on pro- or anti-Loki, the two brothers have provoked a narrative between the audience and the story. I love it! “Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers” eclipses the typical paradigm and sets a new stage for Loki and Thor to play out their drama.
Are there certain aspects of Esad Ribic’s style that lend themselves well to this kind of animation?
Jayatilleke: Beautifully painted art, inspired storytelling, a love of character, narrative, and composition — it’s all there on the page. It makes our job that much easier in terms of choosing what to focus on. It also makes it that much more difficult because we have such a high standard to maintain. It’s not easy, but fortunately Magnetic Dreams is super-talented. I want to say for the record, Esad Ribic’s art is incredible, and it’s really been a high point for me to work on a project that had such a deep and rich visual storytelling depth. Esad is the real deal and always will be.
Have you heard from either Ribic or Rodi about the finished product?
Jayatilleke: Yes, Robert and Esad are both gung-ho about the end product. Their support and words of encouragement has kept spirits high and momentum unfettered. Robert was enthusiastic when I first met him and showed him parts of episode one and two.
Esad has been hyped about our progress in animating his art. I know this because he did not reach through his computer screen in Croatia and punch me in the face after watching episode one, months ago. I took that as the ultimate compliment. My jaw thanks him.
Tell us a little bit about the process of taking an existing comic and turning it into animated episodes. Do you literally start from the panels as though they were storyboards and build from there?
Mike Halsey: Yes — we begin by editing the voiceover and cutting the comic panels with it to create a rough animatic. This very quickly gives you a feel for the flow of the story and also points out problem areas where the language of comics doesn’t translate well to the language of animation. We break down those difficult areas and begin finding solutions. That may be reordering panels or sequences, adding new content and shots or just working with the music and sound effects team to create the correct mood or audibly imply an action that happens off-screen.
When dealing with a static medium like comics, is it difficult translating that into the more fluid motion that we see on screen?
Halsey: It can be difficult. In standard animation, you would typically simplify the look so that it can be drawn quickly and then draw the poses you need a frame at a time. Since we want to maintain all the original detail of the comic art, we have to use tools to warp and manipulate it into motion. There is just not a lot of precedent for that, and no one has the years of experience in doing it that you would find with more standard techniques. We find some of the panels, just because of the way the character is posed, lend themselves to movement, while some are nearly impossible to manipulate in this way. We are finding new techniques as we go, programming a few of our own tools and mostly just learning and getting better as we go forward. On the other hand, we have improved at shading 3D to cut with the original art which frees us up to do full animation in carefully selected areas. We believe that this is an area we can continue to improve dramatically.
Were there any particularly tricky or difficult scenes to animate for “Blood Brothers?”
Halsey: There are things that are always difficult, such as dealing with a very narrow set of panels that have to be turned into high definition widescreen animation. It can be a bit intimidating when you realize you are going to have to paint in a large section of art to live beside one of Esad Ribic’s masterpieces. Timing issues come up frequently, with a panel of someone in mid-action, but they have a 25 second dialogue or they need to move across the room between frames. These work fine in a comic because time is flexible and the reader is actively involved in determining its passage. In animation, we have to lock it down, and that can change the effect, the mood or even the meaning of a sequence. Those are instances where we have to dig deep into the animation toolkit or the film toolkit and find a way to get across the creators’ intent. The dialogue between Balder and Loki in episode two was one of our more difficult sequences. It carries such weight when you read the comic but was dull when translated directly into animation. It’s one of the areas where we dramatically broke away from the original visuals, and after two or three false starts and innumerable discussions, came up with a sequence that is one of my favorites.
How long does a project like this take, from choosing the book to adapt to working on the animation to having a finished product?
Jayatilleke: [It takes] six to seven months for over 70 minutes of content or more. It would not be possible without the teams and talents that I am working with, a little bit of luck and maybe some light influence from me.
Magnetic Dreams Studio is hands-down awesome, from animation to directing to delivery of final product; James and Edge Studio cast and record projects with efficiency and ease. And Amotz Plessner of Underground Music makes the scoring sorcery happen. As I always say, the end product is far more valuable than its separate parts — and that’s due to the dedication and sacrifice of all of these phenomenal people.
“Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers” is serializing now on iTunes, PlayStation Network and Xbox Live.